On September 3, it was my one year anniversary of living in Zurich, the end of many exams for my friends, a few birthday celebrations, and my chance to give hugs to my friends before I left on the 6th. It was a big day 🙂
I like it when things can be boiled down to numbers, must be my engineer resurfacing. So it is day 7! It took 1 day to get here. 2 hours to get a handful of (harmless) mosquito bites. 3 nights to get used to the heat. 4 mornings until I woke up knowing where I am… though I’m still not sure of what I’m doing here, and I wonder about that 5 or 6 times a day.
On Sunday, I flew from Zurich to Paris to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. I could watch on the screen on the seatback in front of me the plane’s view looking down as we soared over Europe. I paid special attention as we crossed the Mediterranean and I saw, for the first time ever, the land of Africa. Hope that doesn’t sound too dramatic, but it was momentous as I had never seen or crossed Africa before, so why not be sure of exactly when it happened.
Hitting the tarmac made it all become tangible. Walking out of the plane I took my first breathes of fresh air, as I remember doing so many times in humid places where the air holds so much more scent. The stark difference between it and the artificial airplane air is always sketched in my memory of that place. Ouaga smells of wood burning and heat- like it had been hot all day, and wasn’t going to let go too quickly.
The first morning on the streets, driving to work, was wonderful. The clouds were low (end of the rainy season) but the brightness of the day reflected the vibrant green fields (which had been evacuated of all the shanty houses for the future development of a retail space, a mall, of all things), the dark black of the people, and the colour of Africa- the red brown used for most buildings coming from the clay and dirt of the area. From a distance, I imagine it appears that the city flows vertically from the Earth seamlessly up into the sky.
Many of these buildings appear abandoned, or under a permanent state of (de)construction. No matter. It is hard to describe, and may be contradictory as I move deeper into the markets project, but the people seem to occupy space as they see fit, which often gives the impression of disorder and is rather distasteful at first to the immaculate western eye.
So the markets project. I am working here on a rural market rehabilitation project with a Swiss engineering firm (where I am working for 4.5 months as an intern). We have a small office here, a Swiss project manager, and about 7 local engineers and architects to run this and another rural community centres project.
My work is the usual intern contribution- general support with those magical excel formulas and reading large documents written by other consultants. We are at a stage where drawings of the market are being produced, so I’ll be involved on some reviews there as well.
The villages are on major routes but are generally minimally developed- limited potable water from a central standpipe, minimal sanitation if any, no electricity, and the markets are organized but with no supporting infrastructure. The idea is that by providing a floor and a roof, in combination with some other projects to improve roads and strengthen agricultural production, that economic development will ensue. Or at least that is what we are trying to prove. Some interesting hypothesis are flying around to say the least.
So far my life outside of work has not involved too much, possibly for the best as I am still getting used to all the sights (if still only on the drive to work) and handling the people- the heart of this place, which definitely has two sides. No doubt about it, my skin colour equates to money, and my gender lends to being pursued more often then I’d like. Burkina has a safe reputation but the people are still dramatically poor, even in the city, and will move beyond a civil level of enquiry to get some money. On the other hand, there is a shy warmth that I see from people who I work with and at the hotel. They are genuinely concerned about everyone, and we are all treated with the utmost respect and formality. Amongst each other, laughter and stories of family are ubiquitous. As time passes, I hope to experience more of the latter, and build up a pretty stern walk to deal with the former.
Advice is welcome, and I’m interested in other people’s experiences in more difficult travel cricumstances… (The tales I have already heard of South East Asia and Africa are often my inspriation 🙂 )
The internet is pretty poor, so I won’t be able to upload any pictures until later. But google it, and you can get some impressions. I’ll try to write often to keep the updates coming…