Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A nice weekend!


Today is Eid-el-Fitr, the celebration for the end of Ramadan, so the streets are calm (only accosted by one street vendor) and the office is almost empty. Although there is still no work (we resigned ourselves to the fact there wouldn’t be until we leave to Dori, which is scheduled for Thursday the 2nd) I did want to be there for some ‘internet-ing’, as I couldn’t make it yesterday. I was not feeling so well, although I was not actually sick- just no energy whatsoever, so I just lay in bed for the entire day. It’s a lot better today, and I will go to the UN doctor tomorrow for a quick check-up.

We had a great weekend, and I was impatient to write about it! On Friday afternoon we decided to take an alternate route to the supermarket and ended up in little streets where people actually live, rather than the big roads with ministries we had so far only been on. It was something I had been waiting for. Walking amongst people going about their daily business, being greeted by some (but not followed by persistent vendors), I felt I was finally amongst the people of this city. We bought some fruits and vegetables in those streets, which was refreshing- not only did we come back loaded with fresh oranges, lemons, apples, tomatoes and onions, but there was no haggling or trying to rip us off. The lady was happy to sell, we were happy to buy (it was very cheap, e.g. 75 Euro-cents for six oranges, 3 Euros for everything altogether).

We didn’t do very much on Saturday and Sunday, but that was the good thing. With the two other interns we lay around in the living room for the better part of both days. We were reading- books, newspapers, documents for work-, napping, and discussing. With an American, a Senegalese, a German and a Belgium the conversations are definitely interesting, especially as Cherno, the Senegalese, likes to enthusiastically elaborate on all of his views, be it politics, religion, lifestyle…or, very often, women! ;) We also passed by a nice bakery, and went out for dinner on Saturday evening to celebrate our week-anniversary in Burkina! –where we had African Guinness  which is sweeter and less creamy than the ‘normal’ one, but still recognizable as Guinness.

I was really happy with the relaxed, serene atmosphere, both of the city and at ‘home’ with the other three- it was a good time to think and appreciate being here. Although I wouldn’t say I feel ‘at home’ yet, I definitely don’t feel like I am in a strange place- in just a week Ouaga feels quite familiar, and like a place I would not mind living in for a while, especially after having been in the smaller, more populated streets. (Although Ouaga and Burkina Faso in general still feel quite empty- despite some places to visit, it is an extremely poor country, and life is simple. But to a large extent, I don't really feel that matters for a few months or even years, it is just a different way of living- for illustration's sake of the less comfortable parts though: so far Kathrin and I share a little room, her on a mattress on the floor, there is no hot water, the toilet only flushes a few times a day, we are covered in bug bites, etc. We did finally realise our air conditioning does work though, which is nice to cool the room down before going to sleep.) Despite not having any real WFP work yet, I am also happy to be here in this particular internship context- I am sure once we are in Dori the work will pick up, and it truly feels like the right place and right work at the right time- with the right buddy too :)

Otherwise as last news, we talked with Hien this morning, responsible for logistics, who gave us an overview of logistics and of his general views on the WFP, which were fun and gave some new insights (less official), and hopefully tomorrow we will talk to Paola, who is in charge of vulnerability assessment and mapping (determining where and who needs how much help) and other things.

We should be leaving to Dori on Thursday the 2nd of October, so just two more days to enjoy Ouaga and wonder what awaits us up North!

Friday, September 26, 2008

The seventh day

Hi everyone,

Yesterday we had both lunch and dinner at home for the first time. We had been going to the restaurant for lunch, and having some snack in the evening (the portions served at the restaurant are massive so that combined with the heat it doesn’t leave you that hungry in the evening), but we went to the supermarket the day before so we could cook. It was nice to be able to just relax at home, and in the evening it was fun to be cooking in the kitchen with the other two interns, and then have dinner altogether.

Seth is American and is also interning at the WFP, as part of his Masters, and Tcherno is from Senegal and is doing research for his PhD at the ‘Institut de Recherche pour le Developpement’. Their exchanges are pretty funny, including some discussions on the differences between American and African girlfriends :p Tcherno was also proud to show us the ‘boubou’ (dress for a man, kind of like a djellabah in the Middle East) he had made especially for the end of Ramadan celebration, Eid-el-Fitr.

Unfortunately, we still don’t have any work at the office. We did have our security briefing today (in the main UN building in Ouaga, which is bigger and more formal than the WFP offices), and yesterday we had a talk with Brigitte, the lady in charge of regional food procurement (i.e. buying), so that was something to do, but we are definitely looking forward to real work. The talk with Brigitte was very interesting though. When it was conceived (1960s), the WFP basically just used food surpluses donated by developed countries, and distributed them in developing countries; now however, developed countries still donate some ‘in kind’ (i.e. food) but mainly in cash, which is used to buy food within developing countries too. There are some quality criteria of course, and once those are satisfied the WFP will buy where the price is the lowest. They buy cereals and beans in Burkina Faso for example, and salt in Senegal. This not only lowers transport costs if it is then distributed in the region, but it also contributes to supporting the local economy. The process is a careful one though- if the country has had a bad year for crops for instance, and there is thus less food available, they might not buy there that year, because their added demand would raise the price, making it harder for the local population to afford the food.

We’re going to have similar talks with the heads of logistics and of ‘vulnerability assessment mapping’ (VAM, who assess and map out which regions are vulnerable in terms of access to food and to what extent, so that it can then be decided where WFP should intervene). It’s very nice to get a better and more concrete understanding of all the operations that go on in order to carry out the different programmes I talked about in a previous post.

That’s about it for now, not much else going on. It’s odd to read the news, like the crisis in the United States (or the Belgian government actually), because it all feels so far away. The days here are relaxed (even for the people who actually do have work to do), and life is simple. Lizards crawl on the walls- both outside and inside- the rooster wakes everyone up at 4:30 am (!), a smiling boy sells us a daily baguette (for which there is luckily no haggling, food is more straightforward), Muslim men line up on the sidewalk to pray, women and children carry fruits or cakes on their heads, babies are wrapped on the back of their mothers, scooters, bicycles, and cars of all ages huff and puff and zoom on the roads, wealthy women, in their high heels, shiny dresses and polished jewellery, leave a trail of perfume behind them, the internet is slow and I have yet to see a tv. It is different, sometimes surprising, sometimes a little ‘scary’ (for lack of a softer word), but Kathrin and I are taking it all in quite relaxed (and careful, for the worrying ones).

You can read her blog too by the way- www.burkinablog-kathrin.blogspot.com. I’ll also put the other interns’ links on the ‘links’ part- we are six to take part in this TNT/WFP/AIESEC Global Experience Programme, there is another pair in Madagascar, and another in Zambia… maybe I should have started by explaining that! Next time a few words on how cool the programme is then, some shameless marketing ;).

Thursday, September 25, 2008

African dances

One of the biggest challenges here is undoubtedly shopping, or rather not shopping! Although we are only five minutes away from the office, the way is bordered with little souvenir/jewellery/crafts shops whose owners enthusiastically (to say the least) encourage us to step in their 2 square meter kingdom of 'bon prix' (good prices), even if just 'pour le plaisir des yeux' (for the pleasure of the eyes). The walls are lined to the ceiling with masks, necklaces, statues, batik paintings, camel-leather boxes, and more and more and more.

The moment we look at an object for more than five seconds, or the moment we step in the shop's direction- unless we were able to say 'no thank you' and walk away, which is so far difficult- the dance begins. I might assure that I am not planning to buy anything and just want to look- as he himself suggested- but this is worthless. I am inside, so there is a chance I will buy something. The owner will pick an object and praise its quality, highlight the camel bone or elephant hair or detail in the craft. If I seem interested, he asks me what I would offer for it, he assures me I will get a good price, he suggests what a wonder gift it will make for a friend.

When I really don't want to buy anything, some take it philosophically, 'y'a pas de probleme', and encourage me to come back, but a few are more aggressive; they tell me I should support them in their business, that they have nothing, that they had to wait three days after I promised to visit their shop. It is definitely uncomfortable, and even though I know it is part of the dance, I always feel a little guilty walking away, but also a bit angry or annoyed- of course I cannot buy something in every shop every day.

I did buy a pair of masks though, and a nice necklace. I paid too much for both, I knew it then and it was confirmed by others, but not only is it difficult to estimate real value, I also feel awkward suggesting a price three times less than what was offered- even when I am certain it is the correct price, or rather that it will end in an acceptable price after further bargaining. I still do bargain and get a much lower price, but obviously I need to toughen up. Kathrin seems to be better than me so far at refusing politely or bargaining down, I guess after some time we will both dance a little better.

There are other dances-

the street vendor who approaches you with bracelets or books or postcards and keeps walking with you. As an opening line, or maybe after he understood I really won't buy anything he assures me ‘nono I don’t want to talk business with you, I just want to communicate, to share ideas. This is Africa, welcome, this is the land of honest people (that’s what Burkina Faso means), here communication is free and we like to talk’.

Or the greeting game-'bonjour, ca va?', 'oui oui, ca va, et toi?', 'oui, bonne journee'- with a friendly group resting under the shade of a tree, sometimes accompanied by name introductions and handshakes which end with a sort of click of fingers that I still can’t figure out.

You learn to dance in Burkina!

What does the WFP do in Burkina?


Since there is not much actual work yet we’ve spent the last few days reading many documents about the activities of the World Food Programme in Burkina Faso. It was a bit dry at first with the official country programme, but it got more interesting once I got the basics, and once I started with things like field mission reports, which are much more concrete and which also give an idea of what kind of field missions I might be involved in.

I don't want to be too academic, but I do want to tell you a bit about what exactly the WFP does here in Burkina Faso. I will try to be as concise as possible :)

Basically, the WFP and the Burkinabe government work on the basis of a 5-year plan, the current one being 2006-2010. The plan has three focuses: 1- supporting basic education (through school feeding for children and literacy classes for adults), 2- supporting vulnerable groups (which are pregnant and breast-feeding women, malnourished children, and HIV/Aids and tuberculosis victims), and 3- supporting rural development. In all of those focuses, and as with all WFP activities, food is used as a means to support development- it's not just about feeding people (unless it's an emergency operation like after an earthquake or a famine).

Kathrin and I will probably start by working with school feeding, which is basically giving kids breakfast and lunch at school. This way they are more motivated to actually come to school, and they can concentrate better because they are not as hungry. The older girls, who parents are sometimes more reluctant to send to school, also get 10 kg of cereal to take home every month if they attend class regularly.

For adults the principle is similar, the WFP delivers food to local centers that provide literacy classes, and this is an additional incentive for men and women to attend the classes regularly (and they can bring their babies along too, who will also get some food).
It works the same way for the support of rural development; groups of farmers are encouraged to make costly investments that will make their farming more efficient, like irrigation systems, or to make investments that will take some time (more than a year) to yield actual results. So while they are making these investments and building these infrastructures, they are supported with food.

The support to 'vulnerable people' is pretty self-explanatory, they get some food to help them out while they are vulnerable, and at the same time they get some advice. For example pregnant women will get some appropriate food so their baby can be healthy, as well as advice on how to take care of the baby, or people with HIV/Aids get some food (because otherwise the medicine does not work as well and has heavier side-effects) and advice on how to live with their illness.

So... those are the main activities in a (coco)nutshell! The organisation of all of these activities is, as you can imagine, quite an affair. There are departments for all the logistics, for the finances, for the purchasing of foods, for assessing which regions and which people need (the most) help, etc., and then once the programmes are up and running we must of course follow-up on whether they are carried through properly and whether they are reaching their goals. Kathrin and I will be talking to the different people in charge of those things to get a better idea of how it all happens (which is a good thing, it's actually interesting in person :)!)

Don't stop reading my blog after this boring post, I promise there will also be entertaining stories!!

Monday, September 22, 2008

First impressions


Well.. where do I start??! After three great days of training and fun in Rome (at WFP headquarters, with the other interns), I arrived safely in Ouagadougou, referred to as 'Ouaga', on Saturday evening with Kathrin, my buddy for the next six months. We're getting along very well, which is nice of course, I'm quite sure she'd tell you the same thing :) We've started keeping a sort of video-diary which I'm hoping to upload somewhere at some point.. but it's fun to film ourselves and share how we feel with the camera. So far it's mainly us two giggling like a pair of twelve-year-olds.

Everything has been going well so far. We only knew that we would be picked up by a WFP driver so we were quite curious to see where we would stay (!), and when we would go to Dori, and of course what kind of work we would be doing and what the country would be like. We will be staying in Ouaga until October 2nd, as the head of the Dori office is on a mission until then. We're staying in a 'residence' shared with two other interns, who are very friendly. It's pretty basic- bed in bedroom, shelf, fans for the heat, little kitchen, bathroon and shower- but it's clean and safe and close by the office and in the centre of the city, so that's good. For the work, although we know we'll mainly be working with school feeding (the Dori office takes care of 500 schools, I'll explain more another time), still not very much more information. We did meet everyone at the office, can't remember most names, and are quite happy to have (very very) slow internet, some air conditioning, and friendly colleagues.

As for the country.. it really is another world. I knew that it would be, but there's nothing like being there for real of course. It's only been a day so this is only first impressions. Ouaga gives a bit of an unfinished impression, and there doesn't seem to be very much to do, but I like that it is quite green with trees, warm with reddish earth, and although many persistant people accost us in the street to sell things, everyone has been nice and friendly. We've had two meals and both have been great, this is of course a big plus in my books! As expected, it's very hot, there are mosquitoes, and the general pace of things is slow. But we're still both happy to be here, looking forward to the work and further discovering!

I'll leave it at that for now. Bye!