An unexpected encounter with GMA led to an eye-opening journey to Burkina Faso.
My adventure to Burkina Faso started on the pavement outside a humble residence on Svanemøllevej in early October 2011. I had recently been introduced to Global Medical Aid and its president, Hans-Frederik Dydensborg, through a colleague of mine. We had only spoken on the phone a few times and Hans-Frederik had shared his deep frustration about the language barriers felt when communicating with the embassy’s “deuxième conseiller”. He was preparing for his first visit to Burkina Faso and needed to attend a few meetings at the embassy for that purpose. Almost a native French speaker, I accompanied him one afternoon and served as a communication facilitator between the two parties. Seeing how well we communicated together during the meeting – in French, Danish and English – he offered me to accompany him on his trip. Without hesitation, I said yes on the spot. What 24 year-old wouldn’t have jumped on an opportunity like this?!
Expectations and first experience
Having never travelled in Africa before, I had no idea what we were headed towards. Little had been communicated to us about the planned activities. Landing at Ouagadougou International Airport, we were even more eager to see what was ahead of us.
Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in Africa and the world, is a land-locked country of 16 million inhabitants with a GDP per capita of 536 $ (2010 numbers), a life expectancy of barely 54 years and a adult literacy of 29% . These numbers might not be telling to everyone, but as a business school student, specialising in international development studies, these gave me an indication and a preliminary expectation of what was ahead. Poverty was definitely palpable and visible everywhere we went. Relative to our Western standards, the people of Burkina Faso do not have or own much, if anything at all, but are avid businessmen and –women, very eager to sell mobile phone cards, fruits, clothing etc.
African timing and colourful clothing
It turned out that our contact persons at the Ministry had prepared a packed programme for our entire stay, including visits to national, regional and local hospitals and clinics. There we came in contact with dozens of hospital staff and experienced them joyful and friendly, professional and very engaged in their work. Even in the smallest and most rural clinics, nurses keep very careful track of all births, all vaccinations given, the number of malaria cases treated, etc.
To do so, they made extensive use of graphs and visual aids, clever and useful for all given the high rate of illiteracy in the country. This great conscientiousness was something that I was very impressed with!
Of course, we got our share of the well-known ‘African timing’. For instance, we were supposed to be picked up at 7 am, but our guides did not arrive until 9 am, and did not explain or excuse their lateness. We got used to it after a few times, and simply included it in our daily planning. Almost from the start, I became mesmerised by the colourful attire both women and men wore, and impatiently waited each morning to see our guides’ outfits of the day, one more lively and full of character than the other, partly making that wait worthwhile!
An unforgettable experience
One of the most memorable moments happened on our third day in Burkina Faso. After visiting a regional hospital in the eastern part of the country, approximately 100 km from the capital, a visit to a local clinic was on the programme. As we drove in the rural village, a colourful-clothed bunch of locals were awaiting us and welcomed us to their community, both with firm handshakes from the village’s elders and with traditional dancing and singing by the women. The children and young adults scrutinized us, and observed all our moves and gestures. Almost felt like we were animals in a zoo, a very strange sensation. As we were leaving the village, a little one caught our attention, peacefully sitting on a large overturned bowl eating from a smaller bowl. When attempting to capture his lunch moment on camera, we disturbed his serenity and he started crying at full lung power, clearly expressing his fear of the unfamiliar, our very fair skin.
This seven-day trip has, without doubt, changed something in me, but I cannot pinpoint what exactly yet. One thing is for sure, though: Africa, I’ll be back. Sooner than later, you have my word!
In comparison, Denmark, with its 5,5 million inhabitants, has GDP per capita hundred times larger (55 891 $, in 2010 numbers) and a life expectancy of 79 years (World Bank Data, 2011).