Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Can you spell Ouagadougou?

Nearly two weeks since last touching a personal computer and after a week without electricity for our cell phone, we find ourselves sitting in the large capital city “Ouaga” in the to-be-known country, Burkina Faso. Over two weeks ago we left Accra, Ghana and headed north to visit Friends of African Village Libraries (FAVL) a not-for-profit organization founded by Santa Clara University professors Michael Kevane and Leslie Gray. After more than a week spent in the village of Sumbrungu cataloging books, frying hash browns for friends, playing team-building games, waiting for something to happen, walking around the village and chatting it up with the local elders over a fresh crop of groundnuts (peanuts), we taxied north yet again to cross the border into Burkina Faso. After the initial shock of crossing into Burkina and figuratively hitting a wall in Francophone Africa, we slowly recovered enough to speak basic French phrases such as “toilette?” and to begin to absorb the vast differences between former English and French Africa colonies. With time it became clear that not only our tea and sweet breads from Ghana would be replaced by homemade alcohol and crispy French bread but that, in important matters, the English tradition of passive governance in Ghana is rivaled by Burkina’s inheritance of the French “Functionaire.” (An example of the importance of titles in which a government employee views their job as simply fulfilling a function, no more and no less). However these subtle differences are easily lost in the larger and perhaps more striking realization that Burkina Faso is undeniably, statistically and in our personal experience among the five poorest countries of the world. In upcoming posts and conversations we will try to be more specific about our observations of Burkina, but for now I want to introduce two dilemmas for you to help us discuss:

Dilemma 1: Can I knowingly contribute to “tourist pollution” and still go to tourist heaven?

Walking in the breathtaking landscape in the remote Nepali village of Lamatar we proudly returned warm smiles of welcome with our newly learned greeting “Namaste.” Upon which, and without fail, the local children would gladly respond to our traditional gesture, with not-so-traditional demand in English “Chocolate, Please!”
Fast forward thousands of miles to Paga Northern Ghana and as we stand frozen with cash in hand to pay a taxi driver for a trip to the Burkina border he looks at us longingly, wondering why we would cheat him out of the “bag fee” you know his explains: “pay for luggage.”
I do not know about “luggage fee” and I DO know about “Chocolate, please” (and I would really like some but it Africa chocolate bars cost more than a baby goat, I’m serious) I also realize that at some point, an well-intentioned traveler handed out a box of Hershey’s bars at the base of the Himalayas. That same tourist, on their next vacation on elephant safari in Ghana, decided to tip the taxi driver for handling their luggage. Not because it is custom, but because why not pay extra when it is not too much money for us? What is the difference between paying $4 for a $2 taxi ride especially when it is benefiting someone who really needs it? ($2 is about the daily wage for an agriculture worker in Northern Ghana).
In other words: as a representative of the financially wealthy West do I have the right to set the expectation that future tourists will also tip and come bearing gifts (tourist pollution)? Also from the perspective of local entrepreneurs, are they justified in expecting Westerners to pay a premium for the same, sweaty taxi ride?

Dilemma 2: When do I need to hold my Western, educated, socially liberal , ethnically European, modern American male tongue?

During a stay in a country village in El Salvador Austin complemented his host family on the size of their only prized chicken. “Me gusta!.” Several hours later he sat and starred wide-eyed at the freshly prepared lunch plate of pollo. “Te gusta?” his host mother asked intently. Adding to the stickiness of eating the only meat a family can afford all month, what if Austin, hypothetically, had been strictly vegetarian for moral reasons? Do you say something? Or just grin it and bear it as my Dad would say. Lets take this a step further by bringing in only real examples from our current travels: What if the host whose food you are about to enjoy has been obviously and consistently verbally abusing the underage (by our standards), female cook? What if that same female has not been given an education in local village school because her role as a woman is seen in that specific tradition and culture as solely a caregiver to her family. Can you, do you say anything? What if the host who is serving you chicken she cannot afford is wearing a Catholic rosary and she has prepared the meal with the help of the younger underage women who happens to be her husband‘s second wife. She has carried two of his children and lives in a mud house directly next to the younger wife who has given birth to one of his children. Do you feel comfortable asking her how, as a Christian, she views polygamy and marriage? What if, upon clearing your empty chicken plate to the water bucket to help the women wash, you are teased by the men in the family for doing women’s work. Do you stop washing to avoid disrespect for their tradition, or do you insist on helping and push the issue upon your male friends asking them why it is that only women are asked to clean? What if the women insist it is their tradition to clean?

Real life. Real stuff. What do we do?



Krystal Maria Wu said...

there is such a fine line between being culturally sensitive and standing up for what you believe to be morally right... (remind me to tell you about the indian graduate student i have class with.) remember annie thomas' article about female circumcision? i think you probably have to go with what your gut tells you, and by how willing you are risk feeling uncomfortable around, and perhaps even being rude to, your hosts. also, the language barrier is a significant component- if you can explain WHY you are doing or not doing certain things, this is, of course, better than simply going along with your course of action anyway. you have to ask yourself: do you really care if they say you are doing "women's work"? maybe it will show them that men can do the same work and it can be okay. just some of my thoughts...

LuAnn Wu said...

Hi Sam and Austin,

Nice posting and very thoughtful questions.

Dilemma #1 - I didn't even think tourists went to heaven. But, if they do ;-) I hope they are generous to the local people wherever they are because it is such a privilege to travel at all outside your own area. Most of us in the US can afford to be more giving in most areas, including me, and I'm not just talking about money.

Dilema #2 - I think it was wonderful that you (or Austin) still went with an instinct to serve. regardless of the unsaid rules and customs helping someone who is serving others just makes common if not moral sense. As for the host wearing the crucifix who was abusive - I really believe that you can't change people(unless they want to change) and God is the ultimate judge of bad character and abuse.

Hope you are both holding up okay emotionally - it sounds like it has been an amazing trip so far, but is difficult at times.

God bless you!

Eleanore Mickus said...

Hi Men,
You are living a lifetime of book reading about different cultures!

Dilemma 1: Unless you felt that the taxi driver was taking advantage of you, he is being, as you said, enteprenurial, in getting what he can for his service. FYI, I just paid $30.00 round trip for my luggage when taking an airline trip.

Dilemma 2: I had to think about this while I worked in the garden and cleaned the table after our lunch. Sharing kitchen duties is a new phenomenon in America. Ask any man or woman over 60 years old who did the work before Women's Lib (and many still do).
You both followed your instinct as polite guests but I guess "when in Rome" could apply here. your hostess is probably envious of American women!
Regarding the polygamy and abuse, I agree with Lu Ann Wu that you can't change people unless they want to change or we would not have the polygamous communities that are found here in America too.

Keep on keeping on, and stay away from nasty bats!