Burkina Faso Basics: Eight (Fairly) Simple Rules
By Beth Jacob
Summary: Moving to Burkina Faso -- or another West African country? Beth Jacob's "rules" can help you plan your move and settle in more easily.
Chances are, if you are reading this, you are already planning your move to Burkina Faso. And let's face it- maybe this small, little-known African nation wasn't your first choice, especially in light of its recent political tensions, economic problems and civil unrest.
But there you are, upper arm sore and slightly swollen from your latest round of preparatory vaccinations (Yellow fever this time? That one really hurts!) sitting there, reading this article. Maybe you stumbled across this while online ordering cases of orange and diapers to send over in your generous shipping allowance. Or maybe you are a missionary, PCV, aid worker, etc. looking for hints on how to manage here on a shoestring budget.
Whatever your particular situation, you can benefit from this list of Burkina Faso Basics, based on my eight (nearly nine!) years of experience as an expat living in Ouagadougou.
1. Don't go on a panicked shopping spree.
You do need to be prepared, but you are moving to West Africa, not to the first human colony on Mars. Many expats make the mistake of spending far too much money and effort bringing over items that are easily available (and often far cheaper!) here. Maybe if you have a huge budget, it's worth it to you to have familiar name-brands at your fingertips. But with little effort, you can save a lot of money by buying locally. You'll be surprised by what you can find here. For example, almost every medication is available in the many pharmacies in the bigger cities of Burkina Faso. No prescriptions are needed (even for things like valium and codeine!) and most of it is very, very inexpensive compared to prices in the USA. Some things, on the other hand, are hard to get here or non existent. So, if you really 'need' cake mixes, pancake syrup or other 'special' items, you will have to bring those along with you. The best thing to do is to contact someone in the country (through your Embassy here, or even by surfing the internet) and find out what is available in Burkina Faso. It will save you from bringing a year's supply of toothpaste, for example, only to find out upon arrival that Close-Up, Crest and other name brands are available here and quite cheap.
2. Learn the Lingo.
That means French. And I recommend that you speak it, at least a bit, before you arrive in Burkina. That means at least a few months of night classes or home study for those unfamiliar with French. I know that many expats arrive here planning to learn French on the fly. From what I have seen, this doesn't work out as well as one might hope. When you show up here only speaking English, the temptation is to crawl into the cozy 'Expat Cocoon'. You will tend to seek out other English speakers out of necessity at first, but then your social life will, quite naturally, get embedded into the network. And it will seem so much more fun and easy to mainly stay in the English-speaking expat world and not make any real progress on your French, except for what's needed in order to shop at the supermarket. Your communication with the local people will be minimal.
Also- can't forget that French is only the 'official' language of Burkina. Lots of people here don't speak it at all! As the Mossi are the dominant group in the country, it is quite a good idea to learn at least the rudiments of their language, called 'Moore'. Knowing the basic polite greetings and responses is a must, in my opinion, and you'll have to learn that here. So, it's better if you aren't starting from zero in both French and Moore.
3. Dress the Part.
If you want to not fit in, impose your own cultural values and attract local con-artists to be your good pals, go ahead and wear your shorts, mini-dresses, and tight jeans. If you want to respect the local cultural traditions and make friends with real Burkinabe people, keep your legs covered. This goes for both men and women. The Burkinabe are, in general, very polite and tolerant, so you can dress however you please and no one will say a word. But that kindly old grandfather over there really IS more shocked to see a woman's thighs in public than he would be to see her bare breasts. Really.
Especially if you are out visiting in villages (or living in one) follow this guideline. People will like you more for having respect for their ways. I promise.
4. Learn to love the wait.
Do you like to read? If not, I suggest you learn to, as it's the best way to pass the many, many hours you will spend waiting for things to happen. However you decide to deal with it, just know that nothing happens very fast here, whether you are waiting to talk to an agent down at the phone company or trying to eat in a restaurant.
5. Take good advice when you have asked for it.
I've just told you to leave the toothpaste at home and learn French. Are you going to listen to me? I hope so- I only have your best interests in mind. But you'd be surprised by the amount of people that will ask for advice about coming here and then COMPLETELY ignore it all. I recently had a woman BEG me for advice about an upcoming visit to Burkina, but when I advised her not to wear shorts, she responded that she 'likes' them and would be wearing her usual USA wardrobe. It's more comfortable. Which is sure a good reason to offend lots of people. Good thinking there.
Anyway, if somebody in the know give you advice, at least think it over logically, ok?
6. Have excellent health insurance.
Even if you skimp other parts of your budget, get the best you can afford. It's worth it.
7. Be a 'Patron'
Patron is French for 'boss', and if you can afford it, you need to be one. It's not just wealthy people that have household help. It is considered a social duty to create jobs. This means that even a very modest Burkinabe family living in Ouagadougou probably has a girl from the home village living with them, going to school (hopefully) and doing much of the housework. As an expat, you will be expected to hire at least a minimum of help at home. If you are really on a tight budget, you might just pay someone to do your laundry once a week. But you can't escape the system entirely. If you try to do all household chores yourself, the locals well see you as an unkind, unsociable person that doesn't want to help needy people looking for work. I've seen it happen.
8. Get involved.
Burkina Faso is one of the poorest nations in the world. If your job does not directly help the local populations, you might want to think about donating time and or/money to a worthy cause here. Do some research, join up and you will find it very rewarding. There are orphanages, hospitals and many other institutions that sincerely need your help. The expats that I know in Burkina that are the happiest are the ones who are committed to helping to improve the lives of people in Burkina Faso.
About the Author
Beth Jacob has been an expat for over eight years in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso with her French husband and their four children. Though her background is in archaeology, she's spent the last seven of those years creating a recycled paper project for needy women called Papiers du Sahel. Originally from Lincoln, Nebraska, Beth has also lived the expat life in Geneva, Switzerland and in the French Alps.
Click here to visit Beth's blog.
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First Published: Mar 29, 2008