Burkina Faso: Meningitis, Mask Dances and a Special Horse Festival

Burkina Faso is the diamond stud near the middle of Africa’s meningitis belt, stretching from Senegal to Ethiopia, containing a population of roughly 14 million people. The region’s dusty winds and relatively cool nights from December to June decreases peoples’ immunity to respiratory problems. This, along with the area’s high population density adds up to make bacterial meningitis “hyperendemic” to this area. And it’s Burkina Faso which often makes up the vast majority of meningitis cases and deaths.  

From Moco in Burkina Faso.

….there has been a meningitis epidemic in the region of Orodara, where I live. About 250 deaths country-wide so far, so the ministry of health set up a huge vaccination campaign and I spent the past week assisting with vaccinations in Tin and the smaller villages nearby which our health clinic serves. After over 2000 vaccinations and almost that many screaming kids (they dont like shots), we’re all done. Though it kept me really busy, it was nice to feel useful and hopefully there wont be many more meningitis cases in my area at least.

Also in the name of trying to get something done, Garrett decided as a teacher he would begin a HIV/AIDS statistics project for his students. They had to regard the prevalence rate of the disease in both Burkina Faso and throughout sub-Saharan Africa for men, women and children. Students also had to diagram their statistics and figure out why women are more affected by the disease then men; why some people can get it easily; and, why HIV/AIDS is more common in urban areas. At some point, the project then took on a life of its own.

I also supplemented it with a sex ed lesson, go me. There was laughing here and there, some of it intended, some of it not. The tough question was: why are women more likely to get infected if they use medicines to dry their vaginas for sex? I couldn’t figure out a way to explain it so the class didn’t crack up. The guy then asked me what a vagina is…grrrr.

Speaking of school: “Technically, primary-level education is free in Burkina Faso,” writes Joel Turner in Burkina by Joel. From there on, the issue of school fees gets complicated and a little confusing. Before long, you may understand why the number of children attending primary school still hovers around 30 percent.  Joel explains.

There are, however, annual dues which are collected by each school’s Parent’s Association (APE). The annual fee comes to approximately $3 per student per school year. $1 per student goes to the APE, which is responsible for the maintenance of the school and teacher housing, among other things. $2 per student goes to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) which provides breakfast and lunch for all students in Pobé-Mengao (even in Burkina Faso, $2 for a year’s worth of breakfast and lunch is quite a deal). For various reasons, a significant number of parents fail to pay the school fees. Many grasp, obstinately, to the misunderstanding that primary education is gratuitous, as per the Government’s advertisements. Some hold to the suspicion that the APE and the teachers are pocketing the money. Others simply claim that the amount is too much. They cannot afford to pay. While $3 is pocket change in the United States, it must be said that for an average Burkinabé household with five children enrolled in primary school, $3 times five children can become a significant amount. But it is not an unrealistic amount. What lacks is both a vested interest on the part of parents in their children’s education and an effective accountable system of enforcement on the part of teachers and the APE. Between parents and the school there exists a crippling lack of communication and trust. What threatens to frustrate me more than the lack of concern on the part of parents is the defeatist’s approach the teachers and the APE takes to the problem. When I ask “What can we do to get the parents to pay?” the general response is, “It’s not easy” or “Parents, they just don’t understand.” Sometimes the absurdity is so immense, I know not whether to laugh or explode in a fit of anger.

It was a regular Wednesday evening for Becca Faso, who was out buying bread when she stumbled upon a group of people in her village.

There were many huddled in a huge circle obviously watching whatever was going on in the middle of the circle and also many others selling typical Burkina snacks and chatting etc. I asked one of my students what was going on and they told me. Masks! Burkina, indeed West Africa, has a long traditional history of mask festivals so I was excited to finally get to see some for myself. However, my students quickly warned me, “Madame, they will hit you!”

“Did you say hit??”

Yep, they said hit. Part of the dance of these particular entourage of masks was to hit the crowd gathered around with sticks. Okay, no. They dont hit hard. It’s more of a playful whack. The Mask dancers are dressed in what essentially looks like a series of mop heads made of big fat hemp. The Mask itself is wooden (i’m told, made from baobob wood) and painted. As far as i could tell it wasn’t a representation of anything, just a mask etc.

There are bongo drummers who do a flirtatious musical dance with the masks. The drummer advances and beckons a mask forward. Then, the interactive dance begins: the masked dancer stomps in tune with the elaborate drum music. Jumping and kicking and whirling and whacking the crowd. It was pretty cool. Then that masked dancer sits down and another is beckoned forth. I was pressed in with the pungent sweaty crowd and anytime a mask moved in close the crowd would jump away trying to avoid being smacked with a stick. I’m white and therefore obviously not from Tougouri so they wouldn’t hit me . . . not that I think it would have hurt.

Alas, here’s Becca Faso’s take away message.

I always like it when I see traditionally “African” displays of culture. After several centuries of colonial rule so much of the traditional culture has become replaced by “francophone” culture. French bread, tea, language, education system, lots of things are distinctly “french” though always with an African twist to it. But it’s things like the Masks and To which make my African experience, African. En tout cas, it was pretty cool.

Mac wisdom, in his blog Ex Africa learned a different kind of lesson in an all-too-familiar dance:

On a chilly January day in Djibo, I stepped outside of Hotel Massa to go and check out Salif’s taxi-brousse for my trip back to site. First thing I see is the cute little African kids with their back packs. They are toting their lunch pails to school as well, being in Djibo most are well dressed. I step onto the cool earth, my flip flops smacking the ground. I round the corner next to the gas station and check out the early goings in the marche. Then, I see the ultimate contrast: the destitute. The well-off versus the have-nots, the well-dressed versus the tattered-sporting, way oversize just-to-cover-myself-up kids trying to stay warm, the hopefully well fed versus the body-aching hunger that I hope I will never know. The truly hungry kids are following the women who precariously yet expertly balance a tray with gateaux or a large bowl with freshly-made rice inside. I myself received 7 packages that weekend, the kids and others gawking at me as I make my way to the taxi-brousse gare.

“I’m not big on camels,” writes Charlie from Blooming Desert. “They worry me, with their sheer size and legendary ability to scalp a man or at least spit at him.”

Nevertheless, I do admire them – from a distance. You see them often in Burkina, loping alongside the road to Djibo, a turban-swathed rider perched on top. Sometimes you come across them grazing out in the bush, doing their best to demolish prickly trees while pitifully hobbled. Or my personal favourite – pulling cart loads of people through the town, formidable as double-decker buses next to the usual donkey carts. I always give them a wide berth.

I was surprised, then, to find myself not in the least bit intimidated by the lofty giraffes of Niger. These elegant creatures are the last left in the wild in West Africa. Their snake-like necks, sloping backs and legs like sculpted bar stools give the animal an alien-like demeanour, which is enhanced by the pair of funny stumps between its ears. Maybe it’s their huge almond eyes and long, feminine lashes (apparently used to protect their eyes from prickles) that make them seem friendly. Anyway – I was very pleased to come within just a few metres of them recently on a trip to Niamey.

Stephen Davies from Voice in the Desert traveled to a horse festival in the village of Barani, a place he describes as without “roads, electricity, running water, secondary school or clinic.”

However, for one weekend, Barani was the focus of the entire country. “Horses in Burkina Faso have always been symbols of royalty, nobility and wealth, and today’s shenanigans are sure to bring out the kings in droves,” he writes. “For all its reputation as a ceremonial and sporting occasion, Feshiba is fundamentally a power-fest.”  

Here is why:

In Burkina Faso, horse-riding is more than a leisure pastime – it is the tradition, love and lore of an entire nation. It is no coincidence that the country’s coat of arms depicts a horse, that the coveted first prize of Ouagadougou’s pan-African film festival is the ‘Etalon d’Or’ (Golden Stallion), that the nickname of the national football team is ‘Les Etalons’ or that the most common surname here is Ouedraogo (which means stallion in the predominant more language). In countries populated by dozens of different ethnic groups, national identity is often an elusive quarry, but here in Burkina Faso one thing is sure: that quarry has a mane, a tail and four hooves.

It’s a brilliant post, and a summary won’t do it justice.

Finally, it was unfortunate circumstances that Burkina Mom had to have her passport photos taken on the one day that bone-dry Ouagadougou became balmy and humid in preparation for the mango rains, the one small shower, as locals say, that allows the millions of mangoes drooping from trees around Burkina Faso to draw to finish up the ripening process.  

Well, we waited all day for the Mango Rain, but all we got was the Mango Spit. Mango Spit contains little actual water and much dirt. It does not give you any desire to go out and frolic in it, even if you haven’t seen precipitation since October. So, the day was a bit of a disappointment, weather wise.

It was midnight when the real Mango Rain came. It poured down for about an hour and cleaned things up nicely. When I woke up this morning, everything was cool and freshly rinsed.

So, that’s done. The dry season will really set in now. Things will heat up dramatically and there won’t be another drop of rain until June. I miss weather. All we have here is climate.