A Nation of Joiners


The other day, while sitting in front of the Ouaga 2000 mosque, currently under construction (and, it should come as no surprise to my friends, an Ingress portal), I struck up a conversation with a young man who was working on the project. He actually came to tell me that I shouldn’t hang around an active construction site, and I filled him in on what I was doing, but our conversation proceeded to other topics. He is a member of the committee who is building the mosque, an enormous beautiful structure that will provide needed worship space for thousands of folks in this new neighborhood where the government has been trying to relocate offices and embassies for the last ten years or so. Oumaru Kanazoé, a construction tycoon with projects all over the region, was financing the construction – a common sort of philanthropy for wealthy Muslims – but when the patriarch died, the family found it difficult to continue the financing. The building has been sitting, half-finished, for the last two or three years.

Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso: Ouaga 2000 Grand Mosque - a vast new temple to serve the Ouaga 2000 quarter - photo by M.Torres
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso: Ouaga 2000 Grand Mosque – a vast new temple to serve the Ouaga 2000 quarter – photo by M.Torres

But a couple of weeks ago, as I pedaled through the bushes surrounding the site, I noticed that somebody had dumped a number of loads of sand and gravel. The next time I passed by and did a bit of Ingressing, there were people working on the east facade and a crane was lifting rebar up for the minaret. And last week, there was Ibrahim wondering what I was doing. Turns out that the family has come through with a bit of financing, but for the most part it is community initiative that has re-started the construction project. Ibrahim is a member of the community group. They raised money, from the family of the original donor but also from thousands of other people in the area, they organized volunteer workers, and they are not going to let this community asset sit half-finished. Most of the materials and equipment has already been bought, so the outlay is minimal and volunteer labor can do much of what is needed to finish the job.

It turns out that Ibrahim belongs to a lot of different organizations. He is a perfect example of the very important role of “civil society organizations” in Burkinabè life. Almost 200 years ago, the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States. He wrote a book that every American should read, Democracy in America, in which he made the observation that America is a nation of joiners. Americans are members of all kinds of things, starting with their churches – unusual for Tocqueville, coming as he did from a country with an established Church that every citizen was a member of, like it or not – but also including fire brigades, libraries, school boards (this was before public education), secret benevolant societies like the Masons or the Odd Fellows, and so forth and so on. Everybody seemed to be a part of at least two or three such groups and spent several nights a week working on their projects. An enormous amount of the work that the king or the government or the established church might be expected to do in Europe was the business of these voluntary associations in America. So I agreed to come down and visit one of Ibrahim’s other projects, a group of women in his neighborhood that he works with on community and economic development issues.

Friday morning, I took off rather late in the morning and made my way down to Ouaga 2000. I should mention that this is about 10 km from my house, and a tough ride when the temperature is pushing 40. Upon arrival at the mosque, I met up with Ibrahim, and off we went into the neighborhood. We finally fetched up in front of the shop of one of his fellow workers, illustrated with this sign.

Art Wayne 640

Like I said, everybody is a revolutionary here, even the people in the mosque association… By this point, I was pretty much beat by the heat – I actually nearly fainted and had to be revived with a bottle of cold water – and so we adjourned to a nearby coffee shop that had air conditioning (and prices to match). The representatives of the women’s association presented their projects, asking me to see if I could get them some contacts with USAID.

What they are doing is actually pretty normal community development fare: first, using their own resources – mostly the labor of the women who are members of the association – they are going to clean up the neighborhood primary health care center. Along with this, they are going to do public health education on the virtues of bed nets to protect against malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases. Malaria incidence has declined rapidly in west Africa thanks to widespread adoption of bed nets – anopheles gambiae, the mosquito that transmits malaria around here, is nocturnal and tends to rest in hidden corners of your room after feeding, so an insecticide-treated bed net will fix its little situation right up. The one on my bed routinely has a couple of mosquito corpses lying on top of it every morning. Nyah-ha-ha-ha!

Having completed these two projects, the association plans to propose to donors that they finance a small soap manufacturing enterprise so that the women of the community can earn some money. I wondered how anybody could make money making soap here when soap powder packets imported from China (I guess) cost 25 CFA (about US$ 0.04). But they exuded confidence. Another thing that Tocqueville noted about Americans was the spirit of boosterism and can-doism.

Another interesting thing about the association is its diversity. In Guinea, I worked with a number of organizations like this, through Peace Corps volunteers in communities around the country. Quite commonly, the associations were ethnically and religiously homogenous. In fact, where we had volunteers in the Forest Region, where there was a lot of ethnic and religious diversity, they often found themselves working with a number of associations because the Peuhl (Fulani) Muslim cattlemen would have one association, the Malinké (also Muslims) would have another, the forest people (generally Christians or Animists) would have yet a third, and so on. Ibrahim’s association had five members on its board, three Muslims and two Christians (one each Protestant and Catholic, apparently), three Mossi, one Peuhl and one from another ethnic group (Ibrahim – didn’t catch the group) and so forth. You’d think there was some sort of affirmative action at work but it didn’t seem like it. These were just the people in the neighborhood who were interested in working on these issues.

One kind of diversity that does need some work is gender diversity. On the list of names of officers of the group, there were three men and two women. However, the two who met with me, Ibrahim and Fabrice (respectively the president and the secretary-general) were both men. I did recommend to them that when they go to pitch their project to a donor, they should make sure that their women officers go to the meeting and speak as much as possible. Given the strong presumption of male predominance in the public sphere here, it is perhaps surprising that the association would even have two female officers. You can’t tell people how to organize their affairs but I tried to give them the idea that they would have more credibility if they can show that women are part of organizing women’s activities.

After adjourning with Ibrahim and Fabrice, I went over to the embassy, but by the time I got there they had closed up the library and gone home. So I rode back home in 42-degree heat. Actually, I rode about halfway home, then parked my bike and sat in an air-conditioned drinking establishment for two hours until the temperature got back down into the 30s before continuing. And when I got home there was no water or electricity. I’m definitely getting tired of the dry season.

This morning, I had a visitor

Findley 2 640

This guy hangs around the neighborhood and has come to greet me on several occasions. I call him Findley, which was the name of a number of dogs in my son Phillip’s Minecraft universes. He looks a whole lot like the graphics of those dogs, even to the overly-large head. He actually has a name, I’m told, Touba, to which he answers, though since he’s heard it from me several times now, he also answers to Findley. He rooted through my garbage pile, submitted to being petted, frolicked around with the little boys playing on the swing in the courtyard, and graciously took his leave after half an hour or so. Burkinabè seem to like dogs, though there was a big stray-dog roundup a few months ago, the victims of which were apparently sold as meat to ethnic groups that partake, so maybe their attitude towards dogs isn’t quite what you’d expect in the US. But anyway, Findley/Touba was not eaten and appears to be well taken care of and have lots of friends in the neighborhood.


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