Monday, June 8, 2009

The view through the glass windshield

So, from feedback on my blog, and also just from my own personal observation, I have realized that I am not really conveying how my experiences are making me feel, but rather solely what I am experiencing. One of the reasons for this is because I am trying to find the fine line between expressing how I am feeling about certain cultural practices/ people that I am meeting, and offending anyone.

Here a post that I have had spinning through my head since my arrival in Fada, but haven’t put in writing because I wasn’t sure it was appropriate for my blog. It is a long one, but a worthwhile read, so get settled :)

This post is dedicated with respect and admiration to my coach and coworker Christian.

The view from behind the glass windshield of a Toyota 4x4 is a much different one than I thought I would be experiencing in the 2nd poorest country this world knows. Since my arrival here in Fada N’gourma, I have experienced a standard of life much higher than the one I had hoped to be exposed to. My coworker and mentor at Helvetas, Christian, is a rather well-off Congolese who takes pleasure in luxuries in life. I respect his desire to enjoy the pleasures that money can bring to life, but the problem is that I came to Burkina to experience poverty. I came to integrate myself into the culture, and feel a strange barrier when I am constantly driven around in Helvetas’ Toyota 4x4 by our chauffeur, and was living in my office with air conditioning, flush toilets, 3 security guards and a maid. At first I
couldn’t understand Christian’s wealthy behavior. I was offended when he made our chauffeur sit at a different table when we ate, that he ordered his security guards around without a please or thank you in his vocabulary, and that he constantly spoke of his desire to own a hummer.

This is our infamous Toyota 4x4

I talked to my EWB coach and she said that she had experienced similar behavior with other NGOs here in Burkina. She said that development work in Burkina is different than in Canada, and that development workers here do not always share the dedicated passion that I feel EWB possesses. She said that a lot of development workers here are very well off and are often involved in development work in order to gain status in society.

Christian’s behavior really pushed me to my limit when we went to pick up a bike that he had bought at the market. It started pouring down rain about 5 minutes before we got to the market. Since rainstorms here don’t usually last too long, I thought we might wait it out, or come back another time. Christian on the other hand, decided to drive into the walking-only market in his truck and get the bike kiosk owner to put the bike in the back of the truck so he wouldn’t have to get out. I was appalled at this and was embarrassed to be sitting in the truck witnessing this. I felt like his lifestyle and behavior would keep me from integrating into the culture and felt like I needed to break free of this restraint and metaphorically break through the glass windshield.

At this point I was so heated that I decided to start expressing my feelings to Christian about his behavior. I was worried about offending him, but knowing that he is a very open man I thought I should give it a shot. The first thing I brought up was the hummer and the truck. I expressed my dislike for hummers because of their “get out the way I’m driving here” look that could only host a driver wanting to be recognized and wanting power on the road. To my surprise, he immediately agreed. He said that he had been joking before about the hummer and was testing me out to see my reaction to certain comments of his. I also told him that I would like to walk and bike more frequently so that I could get to know the community better, and not feel like I was separated from the locals because of the luxury of the truck. Again to my surprise, he completely understood, and said that he would much rather bike or walk himself.

This is my bike... my new mode of transportation :)

Christian had initially been shocked that I wanted to move out of the comforts of my office, as like I said, he enjoys a well kept and clean lifestyle. I moved out of the office last Thursday into a family and I think this was the best solution to break the barrier that I felt had built up between me and my cultural immersion in Fada. I move around either on my bike or on the back of Oumou’s motorcycle which gives me more freedom, and makes me not feel like I am rich and superior in the truck. I am also learning much more about the language and the culture because of living with such a big family.

I was glad to get this first cultural barrier out of the way, but was still battling with his cultural practices of treating his “inferiors” with little to no respect. An example of what I perceived to be his “need for superiority” became apparent when I invited the security guards of our office to come watch the Champions League final with us at the TV5 restaurant. I had asked Christian if one of them could come and hesitantly he agreed. I invited the other security guard who wouldn’t be working, and come game day, they both presented themselves at the office. Come time to leave Christian told me that we could not take them in the truck with us, and that they would have to walk the 15 minutes to get to the restaurant by themselves. I felt terrible because I felt like I was having to retract my invitation to the guards who I was simply trying to befriend. I expressed this to Christian, and again, reluctantly he agreed to drive them there. I later apologized for having invited them and he said it wasn’t a problem this one time. He just wanted to make sure that the guards respected the hierarchy so that they would still listen to his orders and obey him without them depreciating his seniority. He felt they would stop listening to him if he put them at the same level as him.

I kept noticing similar occurrences like this where he would order a server or a maid around with no please or thank you, and again, treat them like an inferior. After keeping this inside of me for a couple of weeks, I finally decided to express this today. When we stopped by my house to pick up some hibiscus juice that I had made for him only the caretaker of the house was at home. When we were leaving, he called out to her and said “You have to come shut the gate immediately!!”.

As we were driving away, Christian could tell that something was bothering me. After 2 weeks of being together at almost every moment of the day, he had gotten to know me very well, and knew that I couldn’t hide my emotions or displeasure. He asked me what was wrong and I said, that I had noticed that there was a cultural difference between Burkinabés and Canadians in terms of politeness towards people in the service industry. It wasn’t just him that did it. Most Burkinabé’s, including my host mom say “you have to do this” instead of “please do this for me” and it really bothered me. At first he was very defensive and said that he usually said please and thank you but had forgotten this one time. Seeing as we have developed a very open relationship of feedback though, I replied that from my experience, he rarely used the words please and thank you when interacting with people that he felt were of less value than he. All of a sudden he thanked me. He recognized this behavior in himself. He explained that in the Congo where he is from, everyone is very polite and respectful, but that since he had moved to Burkina, he had lost these qualities that he so admired. I spoke of a friend of his, Yahovi who is very polite and treats everyone in the same equal manner. Christian said that he needed to be more like Yahovi, and that he really appreciated my feedback. He said that in development work he is dealing with a lot of people that are worse off than he is, but that is no reason to treat them like inferiors. He said “that is why you are here… to help me be a better person, and do my work better, and I am very grateful”.

So I went from being frustrated with Christian’s behavior on a daily basis, and often feeling embarrassed or offended by his actions, to developing a very strong friendship with him based on both of our openness and respect for feedback. He said “I am a man who can easily accept criticism, and that is why we work so well together.”

From this experience I have learned many things. I have learned to express my feelings because otherwise, trapped inside of me they will drive me mad. I have learned to express these feelings in an appropriate manner so as not to offend anyone. I have learned to find unique solutions to my problems such as buying a bike to decrease my feeling of wealth. I have learned to not judge people solely on their behavior, because like Christian says, he is not one who tries to put himself up on a pedestal, but I may have perceived this at the beginning because of some of his actions. I have also learned to not make assumptions about people. I partially assumed that Christian had it relatively easy in life and came from a rich family who was able to send him to university here in Burkina. It turns out that he built himself up entirely by himself after losing both his parents at the age of 4. He has had an extremely challenging life and has made countless sacrifices along the way. This makes his indulgences in life much more justifiable and I have gained an enormous amount of respect from him.

Hope you guys enjoyed this special update and I would love to hear some feedback on the way that I dealt with the situation. There is lots of learning to be had here, and I am just scratching at the surface.

The follow up to my update on my family will be coming soon, and more pictures :)


  1. Annelies, I couldn't have handled it better myself....what is better than open, honest, direct, respectful communication....where you can take responsibility for why things are bothering you, and at the same time challeng the other person to take a look at their own behaviours. Great post, and brilliant metaphor of looking through the glass windshield....I was feeling it as I was reading along......

  2. Wow, good for you. I can imagine you might have worried that Christian would not understand, that he would react in a defensive way and that this would alienate him from you. In my experience most men are not good at handling criticism or even being questioned about their behavior! But it sounds as if he's more than willing to learn from you, and that's brilliant.

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  4. Annelies, awesome blogging! I really am enjoying reading updates on your adventure. I have one criticism... could you break the paragraphs up a bit? I find it easier to digest when there isn't a huge block of text in front of me and I get lost sometimes.

    :) My thoughts are with you.

  5. Hey Annelies,
    I think its amazing that you gained the courage to express your feelings. I know its really hard when you're in amongst a different culture and you do not want to discourage others, but I find discussing what's making you feel uncomfortable is the best way to approach the situation. I also love it that you chose to bike/walk around instead of driving in a truck. As for saying please and thank you, i find the west coast says this a lot more than the east coast (comparing my experiences of Vancouver to New York), I guess we are just very polite ehre.
    Keep up the amazing work!

  6. I'm a little late to the party, but this was a really interesting post. Do you feel this impoliteness that you've noticed by Burkinabés is just semantics, or a more intentional expression of authority? Have you seen it personally affect Dorothy?