Monday, April 17, 2006

To Burkina and Back -- Or, I Went to a Church Service and Six Weddings Broke Out

I’ve just been told that whistling at night is taboo – it brings out the evil spirits. Unfortunately I have the song “Don’t worry, be happy” stuck in my head. I think the spirits will be swirling about my head tonight. But I’ll be happy about it.

Yesterday, Easter Sunday, I went to one of the Catholic churches in Tamale for mass. It turned into a mass wedding, which was surprising. The general structure of the service was roughly what I know from Canada, and the prayers were almost identical. One difference was that the hymns were sung with the accompaniment of a bongo drum, which made them a lot livelier – it was pretty cool to hear these songs start out quite solemnly, until the beat of the bongo drum broke in and the choir kicked up the energy level. And at one point in the mass, six couples went up in front of a crowd of roughly 700 people and exchanged vows and rings. Initially I thought they were just taking part in some kind of pre-wedding ceremony, but I was wrong. They were getting hitched, and in one fell swoop, the number of weddings I’ve attended jumped by 150%.

Last week I travelled to Burkina Faso, the country to the north of Ghana, for an Engineers Without Borders retreat. It was a successful retreat, and it was great to see many of the people from my training, although it was strange to see them in this context, and see how they’ve adopted African garb and hairstyles – we’re a far cry from the streets of Toronto now.

Although lower on the human development index than Ghana, Burkina has the feeling of a country in motion, one that’s worked itself further out of poverty than Ghana – at least, this is in the two major cities I visited (the capital, Ouagadougou, and Bobo-Dioulasso). The streets were incredibly clean – they have garbage cans dispersed throughout the cities (unlike Ghana), the buildings well kept and large, and the people friendly and often dressed quite well. However, this drives home to me the sometimes subtle face of poverty – that the truly needy are the ones least likely to be visible, and that some of the indicators of poverty can’t be easily seen with the naked eye. For example, Burkina’s adult literacy rate is only 28%, and in 2000-2001 only 10% of secondary-age students attended school – not things we could see in a 5 day visit. And we didn’t even visit a rural community, while a huge percentage of Burkina’s population lives outside of urban centres – 92% of the Burkina workforce is engaged in agriculture. I have to constantly remind myself that, although the people I interact with on a day to day basis may not have obvious signs of poverty, their true story below the surface may be an incredibly sad one – with children unable to attend school due to a lack of money for school fees, with relatives suffering from treatable diseases while they lack access to the proper medicines, with illiteracy slamming the door to opportunity shut on them.

But I don’t like to end on negativity, so I’ll just mention that today I went to an Easter “picnic” at a park in an army barracks. There were thousands of people out, playing music, dancing, eating and drinking, and generally showing a pretty incredible indomitable spirit, and demonstrating the universal human desire to have fun and celebrate. I’m sure those six newly married couples are pretty happy right now.

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