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OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — It turns out that in this small, landlocked West African country, the United Nations has a full plate of programs going and that former UN staffers can’t pull themselves away from here, immersed in projects they started themselves.
My own investment in the country started with Solidarité Goëlo-Burkina, a nonprofit group that gives small cash grants to 45 girls to stay in secondary school. The charity requires that I visit about once a year from my home in the Goëlo region of Brittany, France, where my wife, Kathryn, and I settled after our retirement from the UN in 2005. Last year, I created my own nonprofit group, the Burkina Women’s Education Fund, to support these same girls at university.
Indeed, when I was temporarily in charge of the UN information service for the peacekeeping mission in former Yugoslavia, the head of UN television was Roy Head, who was formerly with the BBC. We stayed in touch over the last 17 years and he recently contacted me about an experiment in Burkina Faso for which he received financing. He wanted to prove that marrying a health program with good communications would make it perform better than operating alone. Head had worked with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine for more than two years to develop a mathematical model to measure the effectiveness of communications.
It so happened that I would be in Ouagadougou, the capital, this month, and he invited me to visit his staff.
A Degree but No Job
But first I met with some of our students in Ouagadougou, including Haoua, whose father is a Muslim peasant with three wives and 21 children. He feeds his family by farming outside the capital. The children have all been educated. Haoua just finished a four-year degree in agricultural engineering and was thinking about doing a master’s with a thesis on bioengineered food. But that would be very expensive (about $1,000), so instead she is looking for work. She borrowed from the government to finance her education and now owes about $1,200, which she must pay back once she gets a job. The problems of youth everywhere.
Then I stopped in to see Matthew Lavoie, who is part French-Canadian and part American and perfectly bilingual, and who was designated to carry out Head’s experiment. He divided Burkina Faso into seven intervention zones and seven control zones and chose community (that is, nonprofit) radio stations to broadcast public-health programming because they attract private funding. Some stations in remote areas were better equipped than the BBC’s, like in Koupela, which was financed by the Vatican.
The problem was the Vatican didn’t train anyone how to use the marvelous equipment.
So as part of the experiment, Lavoie began training the radio staff in things like accounting and technical maintenance. They also wanted help in upgrading their programming. But his eventual goal was to produce one-minute radio spots to highlight a particular public health issue and to prove that they work.
To produce the spots, he recruited widely, saying that he was looking for creative talent, not university degrees. He interviewed and tested people in group situations, and chose 13 to produce the scripts in six local languages. They were teachers, students, a psychologist and a night watchman.
He hired Mouna Ndiaye, a TV star in a series that Lavoie described as a Burkina Faso “NYPD Blue” to train the staff. Ndiaye also makes documentaries on serious subjects like “Caring for the Mentally Ill in Burkina Faso.” She started the staff every morning with group physical exercise, Chinese-style.
While at the station, the radio producer played two one-minute spots in the production stage, one countering a popular myth that colostrum, the initial secretion from breast milk, should not be given to babies. (In fact, it is rich in nourishment and has great preventive properties against disease.) Another broadcast was to encourage mothers to breast-feed for six months. Many women don’t believe this and give their baby things like tea or coffee in its place.
Mixed News From the UN
Later, I met with others at UN headquarters in Ouaga, as the capital is called, starting with the senior economist of the UN Development Program, Isayaka Sabo, who is from Niger.
Sabo confirmed that gold mining had replaced cotton production as the chief foreign-exchange earner for the country. But he also said that the Netherlands, for domestic budget reasons apparently, was closing its embassy in Burkina Faso; with Germany, the two countries were the chief bilateral aid donors to Burkina Faso, so that could spell trouble.
Next on the itinerary was Dr. Etienne Traore of the World Health Organization. One of the first girls that our nonprofit group helped was Juliette, who contracted typhoid in her first semester at university. We suspected unwashed vegetables in the cafeteria. But could she be vaccinated now, as a young adult who had already had the disease?
“Sure,” said Dr. Traore, the vaccine is readily available.
“How much does it cost?” I asked him.
“Let me call my wife,” he said, she’s a pharmacist.
Answer: “About $15.”
I decided right then to have all the girls inoculated — to protect them and our investment.
I carried on to the UN Information Center, recalling being in Ouagadougou with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, around the late 1990s, and coming to the building to prepare my news feeds for him.
The current director of the center, Emile Kabore, told me that he was concerned about the departure of the Netherlands from Burkina Faso. The remaining big supporters of women’s education, he said, were Denmark in the lead, Sweden, Norway and, of course, the European Union, all useful addresses.
But within the UN system, there was a new umbrella unit above all UN women’s programs and funds, UN Women, and the donors had organized a Fund for Gender Equality. The local coordinator was Edith Ouedraogo of the UN Population Fund. I would have to see her for my nonprofit group.
Burkina’s bicycle chicken
The director of communications for Unicef is Modeste Yameogo. But he has a second job as a traditional chief, le chef d’Issouka. Kabore said that he was inviting me to his home for dinner.
Yameogo lives in a large modern house on an unpaved road with his wife and two children, Joël, 19, and Cindy, 12. The house was full of Christmas decorations. The chair, elevated on blocks of wood, seemed to be a throne. Yameogo pointed to a photograph of himself and two other traditional leaders, including the paramount chief of the Mossi. “He’s our Ban Ki-moon,” he said.
We ate couscous and bicycle chicken, which is free-range style. That is how all chickens are raised here.