West Africa

Meeting the Zoromes

Meeting the Zoromes

You wouldn’t think that meeting the family of a friend would be a big deal – a lifetime experience.  But that’s because you haven’t met the Zoromes.

I met Abdoulaye Zorome 3½ years ago when my daughter Liza dragged him to our home in Webster Groves, Missouri.  Abdoulaye was a 24-year-old Fulbright scholarship student at Webster University and he was from Burkina Faso.  Where? Does its former name, Upper Volta, offer you any better recognition?  Me neither.  I came to find that Burkina Faso was a very poor land-locked country in what used to be called French West Africa.  The United Nations has a “poverty index”, its Human Development Report.  In the 2009 listing, Burkina Faso ranked 177 of 182 in terms of world poverty – it gives true meaning to the term “Third World”.

Through hard work, perseverance, determination and a strong set of values Abdoulaye won a much-coveted United States government Fulbright scholarship to attend college in the US.  The first airplane Abdoulaye was ever on traveled from Ouagadougou to Paris and then, after a several hour layover, on to San Francisco.  During the flights, wonderment of the speed of the plane, the altitude, the food and the possibilities of crashing kept him awake for the 18 hours of flying time.  The escalator at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris was a totally new concept to conceive.

The Fulbright program had Abdoulaye spend five months studying English at the University of Santa Cruz in California and then sent him to Webster University in St. Louis.  Even though he had already achieved an undergraduate degree in his home country, two years of that work were accepted as transfer credit toward a degree here.

Having worked with a number of international students over the years, in our first meeting I was interested to hear what Abdoulaye wanted to do when he finished his education in the US.  In my experience, many/most students – particularly those from Third World countries – primarily wanted to find a way to stay in the US when they got their degree to escape the significant travails of poverty at home.  Abdoulaye, however, had only one very rapid response to my question:  “I want to go home and help my people”, he said.  How refreshing.

After six months of friendship, during which I kept giving him books by economist Jeff Sachs (“The End of Poverty”), Micro-lending founder and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunis (“Banker to the Poor”), Wangari Maathai (“Unbowed” and “The Challenge for Africa”) and Greg Mortenson (“Three Cups of Tea”), Abdoulaye, a little worn out from all the reading, moved into my home.

At Webster U. Abdoulaye completed his BA in education (with a 3.8 GPA) and received an invitation to stay for a masters degree in International Relations with a university fellowship and a 20 hour a week assistantship.  Along the way WU awarded Abdoulaye its Global Citizen Award for his outstanding contribution to campus international cultural awareness.  His affable smile, warm personality and humble, outgoing demeanor made Abdoulaye a much-loved member of the Webster University community.

To make a long story short, over a three-year period I heard a great deal from Abdoulaye about his rather unusual family.  When Abdoulaye finished his masters degree (with a 3.9 GPA) and returned to Burkina Faso last month I knew I wanted to meet his family.  27 hours after leaving my front door in Webster Groves I got off the Air France flight in Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso, after stops/transfers in New York, Paris and Niamey, Niger. Air France at JFK airport nearly did not let me on the plane because they said Burkina Faso was changing their visa policy and I needed to already have a visa, despite the fact that the country website said I could obtain the visa at the airport on arrival.  Air France finally agreed to let me on the plane, but said it was my responsibility if they would not let me into the country.  Damn!  I might spend 27 hours of travel time and then find out they wouldn’t let me into the country? After a sleepless flight worrying about the prospects for an all too quick turnaround, I met Abdoulaye and his cousin, Miriam, a cop, at the airport and I had no trouble getting the visa. (Whew!)  The government official said it would take two days to process the visa and I could come get it then – but 45 minutes later Miriam handed me my passport, visa enclosed.   It sure helps to know a cop in a foreign land.

Anyway… all was well.  I had traveled to many developing countries before, but it was still a surprise to land at the capital city of a country of 16 million people and a city of nearly 1.5 million and see only three airplanes at the entire airport.  One was an ancient Boeing 707 with no markings, one said “Ethiopia” on its side and I couldn’t decipher the Arabic marking on the third.  That’s it.  Three planes!

Abdoulaye, of course, was the perfect host.  We had dinner at the home of another cousin who lived a half-hour from the airport and it was off to bed at 10 pm.  The next morning we “toured” Ouagadougou as we picked up plane tickets for a later part of my visit (flights from Bamako, Mali to Dakar, Senegal and Dakar to Accra, Ghana), got ripped off at the Mali embassy, paying $150 for a visa (we later found out it was $30 per year, but the schmuck at the embassy lied that I could only get a 5 year visa, despite the fact that we would be in Mali only 3 days), and seeing the University of Ouagadougou where Abdoulaye had spent four years prior to coming to the US.  The city itself seemed to be a collection of neighborhoods, one poorer than the next.  I also saw Abdoulaye’s very nice new 300 square foot apartment (less than 10% of the space he lived in at our home in Webster Groves) that was “rather high priced” at $65/month.  (One of his sisters, about to start college, had a room for $15/month.)

At 2 pm we boarded a bus for the 5-hour (220 mile) ride to Bobo-Dioulasso, the “second city” of Burkina Faso with a population of 450,000.  A 45-minute delay with a broken air-conditioner slowed us down but, hey, this is West Africa – what do you expect?

Abdoulaye had wanted me to stay at the family home, but I said I’d really prefer a hotel where I could rest and have some peace and quiet between activities over the three days I would be in Bobo-Dioulasso.  So we stopped for 10 minutes at the hotel to check in and wash up before going to meet the family.  At 8:30 pm we pulled up to the Zorome “compound” and there to greet Abdoulaye and me were his father, four mothers (a Muslim family), 17 of his 22 siblings, five uncles and countless (literally) aunts, nieces, nephews and cousins – 60 or so family members in all.

I shook hands and hugged everyone before being ushered through a courtyard to the family meeting room.  Here everyone assembled (20 or so outside the window, looking in) to meet and pay respects to Abdoulaye’s “American father”.  It could not have been a warmer, friendlier greeting.  All of the conversation was in Jula and More, local languages, so I was clueless as to what was being said until Abdoulaye did the translation.  None of the other 60+ people knew any English at all.   I was a little reluctant to call myself Abdoulaye’s “American father” for fear of offending the original, prolific man.  I needn’t have worried.  With rich ceremony the great man addressed the assembled multitude.

“I want to warmly, warmly welcome Mr. Glenn, who has watched over, taken into his home and helped Abdoulaye in every way during his time in America.  I and my whole family are eternally grateful for all that you have done to support Abdoulaye in his education and his life.  You have come a very long way from your home and I want you to know that this is now – and always will be – your African home.  Welcome to the family.”   There was much applause.  One of Abdoulaye’s uncles was an imam who offered a Muslim prayer prior to a feast fit for the occasion.  Mr. Zorome presented me with a gift of traditional African clothing – and a goat, representing friendship and purity.  I told Abdoulaye to tell his father we would have to check with Air France about getting the goat back to St. Louis.

P1010473 The rest of the evening was taken up with much fanfare, eating and celebration.  I had long wondered how a man dealt with having four wives, especially with all living under one roof.  Mr. Zorome gave me a tour of the house starting with his room, then in descending order of closeness to his room, the rooms of his first, second, third and fourth wives.   All the wives shared in the cooking, child rearing and household duties and seemed to get along more like sisters than women in some sort of hierarchical order.  It is amazing how different cultures can be just that – different – when you are not judgmental about them.  While I of course only saw a brief moment in time, Abdoulaye tells me there is great love and harmony in the house and all the kids, cousins, nieces and nephews get along extremely well.  And there is something to be said, evidently, for having a strong, patriarch – there certainly is no question about who settles disputes!

For 45 years Mr. Zorome had driven a bus, owned a bus, then managed a number of busses.  Many people from Burkina Faso went to the Ivory Coast as migrant workers during planting and harvest times so having a bus was a good business.   Mr. Zorome also had a farm, which he and the family worked when migrant traffic was slow.  The second day of my visit we went to the family farm where two widowed aunts of Abdoulaye lived with numerous children and grandchildren.  The word ‘poverty’ takes on new meaning when seen in this context.  For many of these kids I was the first white man they had ever seen.  They reveled in seeing their pictures in the digital camera viewer and seemed not to have any awareness of the extreme poverty in which they lived.  It was what it was, and it was all they had ever known.


With such poor soil and no visible means of support beyond subsistence farming, I asked Abdoulaye how this branch of the family survived.  He said that besides a small amount of charity from other family members, he was not sure.  If you ever wanted to put a face on poverty, you could visit the Zorome family farm 30 kilometers outside of Bobo-Dioulasso.

It was also interesting that Mr. Zorome had bought the farm some 25 years ago, but there was no legal title to the land.  No paperwork had been signed or registered.  “Everybody knew” that Mr. Zorome owned the land, and that was that.  Try this in Webster Groves, Missouri!  Also, as an aside, I had asked Abdoulaye if he wanted me to bring 7-8 pair of old reading glasses I had laying around at home.  He had said no, not really.  When I asked if older adults in the family all had good eyesight he said, “No.  But they can not read.”  Wow.  What an eye-opener (sorry for the pun.)

Returning from the farm, Mr. Zorome said he had invited “a few friends” over to meet me.  I stopped at the hotel and, as a surprise, put on my new African clothing for the meeting.   This was very favorably received as a sign of respect and I came into the family meeting room to find 18 of the town elders, all dressed in traditional African garb and all there to thank me profusely for taking care of one of their own.  It was clear that a child of one was a child of all in this culture – and they all wanted to personally thank me for what to them was my “large act of love and kindness” toward Abdoulaye.  One of the elders was a teacher who spoke a little English.  He told me I would be welcome at any/all of their homes and that they appreciated my coming “all the way from America” to visit.  A more friendly, thankful, genuine group you will not find anywhere.  In stark contrast to some western stereotypes about Muslim culture, here was a sincere, personal, personable reception with positive intentions that could not be mistaken. P1010591 The rest of my journey to Mali, Senegal and Ghana was very interesting, but anti-climatic after meeting what can only be described as one of the most interesting, loving and unique families in my life experience – the Zoromes of Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso. Glenn Detrick — 2/10

West African Journey

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness”, Mark Twain

Few Americans have heard of Burkina Faso, a very poor country in the interior of former French West Africa.  Over 60 ethnic groups live in Burkina Faso and 80% of its people are farmers, though its soils are mediocre and there is a tendency for drought. 60% of export earnings come from the cotton crop.  It has a population of 16 million and a median age of 16.7.  Yes, that’s right, 16.7; fourth lowest of the 189 countries in The Economist database (behind Niger, Uganda and Congo-Kinshasa).  Very high birth rate, little education, and lots of little kids running around without what we in the west would call “much of a future”. 

What took me to Burkina Faso, and then to more of West Africa, was one of those kids who looked like he would not have much of a future, being one of 23 children from parents who could not read or write.  That kid, however, managed to finish high school (the first in his family to do so), go to college in Ouagadougou, the capital city, and through dint of hard work and determination was awarded an American government Fulbright scholarship to study in the United States.   Abdoulaye Zorome came to Webster University in St. Louis and lived at my home for the last three of the four years he was in the US to complete his undergraduate and masters degrees.  He became my “African son”.  When he returned to his home country I went to meet his family and then on to the rest of the journey chronicled here.

Bobo-Dioulasso After a memorable meeting with the Zorome family (see, separately, “Meeting the Zoromes”) I spent three days in their hometown of Bobo-Dioulasso – Burkina Faso’s second city with a population of 450,000 – before moving onward.   A number of things struck my very western mind and eyes about Bobo and its populace as Abdoulaye and I spent many hours wandering around this town of mostly unpaved streets, little construction and not much to indicate that progress was being made to improve the lives of its people.

First were the women.  A huge number seemed to have babies strapped to their backs and many also walked along with additional, taller kids who were invariably carrying more, even younger, kids. That’s how you get to an average age in the country of 16.7, I suppose.  Also, many women (but no men) carried something on their head – bowls/buckets of mangos, carrots, strawberries, water and a mélange of things which might make up 10% of the total products you’d find in a Wal-Mart store here.  The women were always colorfully dressed and it was never clear to me if they were walking to someplace or were plying the streets in kind of a mobile marketplace, stopping to sell things wherever there might be a potential customer.  I think most walked all day long, though many staked out corners or had tiny booths along the streets or in the central marketplace. P1010583 The streets in Abdoulaye’s neighborhood were mostly sand or dirt, and ruts.  When I commented to Abdoulaye that I couldn’t see any street signs or house numbers, he replied that there were neither.  I asked how they knew where to deliver the Papa Johns pizza, and he laughed.  Then, more seriously, I asked how they delivered the mail.  “We don’t have mail delivery.  A few, but not many, have a Post Office box.  Most of the older people can’t read. Growing up, I read many letters for many relatives because they could not read or there was nobody in their families who could read.  You find many ‘C/O (care of)’ on letters because it is understood that only a few people could read a letter themselves.”  The lack of letters is not because of the growing prevalence of emails, as here.  The national literacy rate is 28% — and the literate are mostly the younger generation now in school.  Talk about things we take for granted in the US!

The homes in the neighborhoods were of varying size, always of mud brick walls with entry into a courtyard.  A kitchen and various numbers of rooms invariably surrounded an open, communal area.  There was no heating or air-conditioning, though most in Bobo-Dioulasso had electricity, unlike many in the more destitute rural villages.   Some had water in the home; many did not. The Zoromes had a water pipe running into their home, but it was locked for lack of payment of the water bill.  Abdoulaye was very frustrated with this “because it has always been like this.  Most in the family are responsible about their water usage, but not everyone.  There is always a difficulty with a large family, getting everyone on the same page for something important like use of water.  It is not only a scarce resource, but expensive.”   So the Zorome kids went around the corner multiple times a day with large bowls and buckets to get water from the neighborhood well to meet all of the cooking, cleaning, drinking and sanitary needs of 20+ family members living in one house.  Fostering responsibility within his family was very important to Abdoulaye – hopefully his efforts will have an effect going forward.  Who would have thought about trying to teach responsibility through water usage?  Abdoulaye. P1010565

In our long walk around Bobo-Dioulasso we passed by Abdoulaye’s high school and stopped to say hello.  Even though it was Saturday, classes were in session.  When the French teacher saw Abdoulaye, he asked him to speak to the class of seniors about his education.  Abdoulaye gave a passionate pep talk about sticking with it, working hard, setting goals and never giving up.  He was particularly emphatic with the girls who, in Burkina Faso, had long suffered from a sense that their place was in the home, raising children, not in school.  He clearly provided a role model that was unique to these students.  Abdoulaye then showed me the outdoor blackboards where each day, because of his neat handwriting, he had put up many a proverb or important thought by famous authors.

I could tell that Abdoulaye’s nostalgia was with mixed feelings:  pride that he had come from here and achieved two college degrees in the US, but a strong sense of apprehension for these students few, if any, of whom would have such an opportunity. P1010586

As an aside, two years ago I was co-teaching a class in “Positive Psychology” to twenty-six juniors and seniors at Washington University in St. Louis.  I invited Abdoulaye to one of the class sessions and asked him how much the tuition was at the University of Ouagadougou.  He said when he was there it was $35 a year, but many couldn’t afford it.  The day before this class session, Washington University had announced its tuition increase for the coming year, to about $37,000.  The income at this tuition rate for the 26 students in the Washington U class would have supported 27,500 students for a year of college in Burkina Faso.  Does that tell you something of the difference between the First and the Third World?

One thing that was very noticeable to me in Bobo-Dioulasso was a siren that went off at 6:30 am and multiple times during the day.  It was a Muslim call to prayer.  55% of Burkinabe people are Muslim, 25% Christian and the rest various local (or no) religions.  So 45% of the people were not real happy to be awoken at 6:30 each morning by a waling siren, but tolerance seemed to be the rule.  Tolerance for the Muslim practice of polygamy, however, seemed to be waning.  While families with three or four mothers/wives was not uncommon among the older generation, it was much less (or not) accepted by those in their 20s and 30s, for their generation going forward.  This cultural evolution would eventually – one would hope – affect the birthrate in a positive way.   Abdoulaye said, “One wife, three kids.  That’s what I’m going to do.”

We took trips from Bobo-Dioulasso to Koro (15 km away) and Banfora (85 km).  Koro was an isolated village 500 feet up a narrow rocky trail to a very dry, brown hilltop. The guide said 4,500 people lived there, but this was difficult to imagine.  All of the water (and food and everything else) was brought to homes in 10-12 gallon bowls on the heads of the town’s girls.

“Houses” were very rudimentary mud brick and seemed to have no furniture at all.  The village was in three distinct sections for two farmer groups and a separate area for the blacksmiths.  There was a common meeting place for events and “dispute resolution”.  You couldn’t help but think how much life would improve for this small community if they just had water and electricity at the top of their hill.  Imagining how these people live on a day-to-day basis is really difficult for someone (like myself) who is used to cable TV, a comfortable couch and, yes, a flush toilet. The Lonely Planet guidebook called Banfora the “most picturesque town in Burkina”, though it said “there is not much to do.”  In contrast to the rest of Burkina Faso that I had seen – all very brown, dusty and stark – Banfora was much greener and prettier. There were two very nice waterfalls and some rock formations (The Domes de Fabedougou) that gave a little opportunity to hike and see large stretches of sugarcane fields that had just been burned for harvesting.  It was a very nice and interesting, if very hot, sightseeing day and it brought home the fact that “picturesque” is a very relative term.

On the drive back to Bobo-Dioulasso we pulled over to the side of the road to buy some mangos, which were in season.  As we approached the pull-off, I mentioned to Abdoulaye that I did not see a shop.  Not to worry, he said.  Two seconds after the car pulled over there were (literally) 15 women besieging the car with bowls and bags of mangos, and many other things to sell.  When it was quickly determined that we wanted mangos, half of the women backed away; the rest pushed forward in hopes that they would be the chosen one for the purchase. P1010550 Throughout West Africa it struck me that while Africans are often characterized by the western, developed world as lazy and therefore deserving of their destitution, the majority of the people I saw were anything but lazy.   In the shops, at the sides of the roads, in the marketplaces they were trying their damn well best to scrape out an existence.  They worked long, hard hours – they just didn’t get much to show for it.  When mangos were in season, everyone sold them, so the price was very low.   We got about 5 pounds of mangos for $2.  Yes, there were a lot of people “sitting around”, but this was due largely to lack of opportunity and lack of education.  I suspect there are as many people in Michigan and Alabama looking for a handout rather than a job, but most people – here and everywhere – would rather have a means of making a living.

As we returned to Bobo-Dioulasso there were several additional things that caught my attention about life in this community.  We went into two banks, one local and one “international”.  The people in the local bank were helpful, courteous and friendly.  In the international bank, they were snooty and aloof to Abdoulaye, more open to me, the white guy.  I’m not sure what this says, but the lack of respect paid to Abdoulaye pissed me off.  Another sidelight, there were many foosball games outdoors on the dusty sides of streets.  They were all over the place.  They looked ancient and beat up, but functional.  There were inevitably many kids playing and at one of the games Abdoulaye stopped to ask if he could play.  To the kid’s amazement, in five seconds Abdoulaye shot one from the back row, the length of the board and into the goal.  They all stared at him as if to say, “how did you do that?”  He laughed and said he had spent many, many hours at such a board while growing up. It was part of a skill set he could not find a place for on his resume. P1010576

Onward to Mali We departed Bobo-Dioulasso on a 6:30 am bus for Bamako, the capital of Mali.  Both Mr. and Mrs. Zorome came to the bus terminal at 6 am to see us off.  I had been hesitant to do a 10-hour bus trip but Abdoulaye said, “Hey, its part of the African experience!  Besides, it’s an air-conditioned bus and it only makes two stops – at the border between Burkina Faso and Mali and at one town in Mali.”  OK, I thought.  Seasoned traveler that I am, I can do this.  No restroom on the bus, but my college-days, eight-beer bladder should stand me in good stead this day.

There was good news and bad news about the day.  The good news was that I got a true picture of the African experience.  The bad news was… well… it was a son-of-a-bitch!  After the fact (but not for many days), Abdoulaye and I were able to look back at this part of our journey with amusement as our “Day from Hell”.  It’s amazing how hindsight can turn something from ludicrous to laughable, if only you have a sense of humor and/or openness to the sublime. Here are some of the particulars:

  1. Air conditioning?  No, not close.  “Air cooled”, meaning you opened the damn windows and let the 104-degree air “cool” the bus occupants.  And this provided the added opportunity to partake of the rusty brown road dirt and mosquitoes along the way.
  2. Two stops?  No, try 25 stops; from five minutes for a number of road tolls to 30 minutes for police “security checks” and four separate stops at the border – two on the Burkina Faso side, first to check passports or papers and then back on the bus and off the bus a mile later for customs.  Then two stops on the Mali side of the border for the same reasons.  Each of the four stops, of course, provided different local people an opportunity to sell us food, phone cards, water, etc.  The Burkinabe border guard looked Abdoulaye up and down very carefully, walked around him and then said, “So, they are even giving passports to Zoromesthese days?”  Abdoulaye laughed and explained that there were many friendly ethnic rivalries and this guy was from another ethnic group.  Robust diversity can be a positive thing, anywhere.On the Mali entry form they asked for the license plate number of the bus and the bus drivers name.  They had taken Abdoulaye, as a local, to some other line so I floundered trying to figure out the bus driver’s name.  A kindly person asked the driver his name and told it to me, but I had no idea what he said so I wrote down, “California”.  This was accepted with no comment.  They charged Abdoulaye $2 for a “passport stamp”, which he said was a blatant rip-off that went right into the pocket of the guy in uniform.  And here we were also told that had I not been forced by the person in the Mali embassy in Ouagadougou to get a five-year visa for $150, I could have gotten a one-year visa here for $30.  Since we were staying all of three days in Mali, that would certainly have been sufficient!
  3. Ten Hours?  No, just over 13 hours, which seemed “close enough” to most others on the bus.  All 45 seats were taken when we left the terminal in the morning and a few got off along the way.  But we still had about 55 when we arrived.  Seems that anyone who got on in route just paid the bus driver directly.
  4. But the utterly worst part of the Day from Hell was the large TV screen at the front of the bus.  The driver played one Chinese Rambo/kungfoo movie with dubbed-in French, and Chinese subtitles, in an endless loop – eight times.  Loud.  Very loud.  At many stops Abdoulaye asked the driver to turn it down, or off.  He always smiled and said “OK”, then turned it back on as we started up again.  I was only saved by my ipod and Bose headset (the only ones on the bus!)  Without these I think I would actually have gotten off the bus and tried to hitchhike, or shot myself.
  5. So with dirt and sweat on our faces and mosquito bites on our arms, out of water, tired and angry we arrived at the Bamako bus terminal three hours late and in the dark.  Oh, yeah, Abdoulaye had not made a hotel reservation because he “had a friend here” – but his phone card did not work and we were never able to reach the friend.   We couldn’t call a hotel, either, so we picked one out from our “Lonely Planet West Africa” book and had a cab driver just take us there.  You guessed it; it was full.  The cab driver was a schmuck and said he had only contracted to take us here so he wanted more money to drive us down the road to check out another place.  We got our bags out of the trunk and walked.  A hundred yards down the road we got a place, at twice the price because all they had was two single rooms.  What a fitting ending to the Day from Hell!

Bamako, Mali A city of 1.8 million people on the Niger River, Bamako is the capital of Mali and one of the fastest growing cities in Africa.  It’s not clear why, other than a sky-high birth rate.  Mali ranks just behind Burkina Faso near the bottom of the UN “Poverty Index” and city life in Bamako is much like Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso.  We spent several hours wandering around the hundreds and hundreds of vendor stalls in the teeming streets and marketplaces until the 100+ degree temperature got to us.  It was pure joy watching Abdoulaye bargain for a dress for his American girlfriend – always a laugh and a smile and a “what do you think, I was born yesterday?  I’m African, man; don’t try to rip me off!  I’m buying it myself, not for my white-guy friend.”  (I was a serious liability to Abdoulaye when it came to bargaining).  He went back and forth, always smiling and shaking hands. Finally he said, “No, sorry, that’s just too much.”  We left and five minutes later the shop owner caught up with us on the street, dress in hand saying, “OK, OK” with the price now 30% of the original asking price.   We got a few other woodcarvings and I could see what a skilled negotiator Abdoulaye was.  His smile and attitude was always infectious.  People invariably asked, “Where you from, friend?”  After guessing Nigeria, Togo, Niger, Benin, Ivory Coast, etc., Abdoulaye responded, “I’m from Africa, man.”  They never guessed Burkina Faso.  Along the way we saw one handicapped guy on the street selling necklaces and bracelets and I told Abdoulaye not to bargain, just to give him what he asked.  While it was against his nature, he understood and paid the man the very little he wanted.  Sometimes it’s just difficult to bargain.

One of the differences between the “big city” and rural villages in Mali was the prevalence of motor scooters.   Villagers walked or rode bikes; city dwellers had or knew someone who had a motor scooter.  I guess that’s some level of progress – until you are trying to cross a street.


The international museum in Bamako was touted as being excellent so we planned to spend the second afternoon in its air-conditioned buildings.  Even though Abdoulaye read me all the signs that were in French, 45 minutes after entering we had seen the entire museum.  Very interesting historically, but not quite the Smithsonian.  The grounds were under repair/development and perhaps in a year or so it would meet the description in the travel guidebook.

Now with time on our hands we went to the “second most interesting” tourist spot mentioned in the guidebook, the Museum of Bamako.  The person behind the counter selling entry tickets told us it was only one room and if we had just come from the national museum, it really was not worth our time.  What great marketing/sales for the city museum!  So we had lunch, spent an hour at an Internet café and went back to the hotel for a rest.

We moved hotels after the first night and I guess this hotel was meant to be another part of my “true African experience”.  It was rated as “mid-range” in Lonely Planet and was $30 a night.  It did have mosquito nets, but the electricity went out at night so the air-conditioning did not work, nor did the lights.   My battery powered travel alarm clock/thermometer said 88 degrees in the room.  It’s the only time in a hotel I’ve ever had to brush my teeth with both bottled water and my headlamp.  In the evening Abdoulaye went off to see some friends and I sat in the courtyard of the hotel reading and writing with about 25 flies and mosquitoes keeping me company.  Dinner was a box of crackers, three beers and two scoops of chocolate ice cream – not all that different from what I might have had at home!

Two full days in Bamako was plenty – very interesting, but plenty.  We had a 9:30 pm flight scheduled to Dakar, Senegal (anything but a bus, please!) so we got a cab at 6:15 pm.  Abdoulaye bargained the cab driver down to six bucks for the ride to the airport, but it took 45 minutes to get there and even he was embarrassed about the cheapness, so he gave the driver an extra three bucks.  It would have been $100 in the US.  The Air Mali flight was relatively on time (“very unusual” said one of the business travelers on the plane), except for a half-hour “security delay” as the president of Mali was landing as we were about to take off. We arrived at Dakar airport around 11 pm for the next leg of our West African Journey.

Dakar, Senegal At Dakar immigration Abdoulaye got in one line for West Africans and I got in another line for “others”.  They asked for my vaccination record to verify that I had a yellow fever inoculation.  I had the record; those who didn’t were taken off to a room and given a shot, for $12. Except Abdoulaye.  He did not have his inoculation record, but he refused to get a shot in what he viewed as unsanitary conditions.  He argued vociferously enough and was holding up the line so the government official finally said, “OK, just pay the $12 and move on.”   That really pissed Abdoulaye off as another example of local corruption, so he refused to pay.  They didn’t know what to do with him when he told a supervisor that the government employee had tried to extort money from him.  Clearly very few people challenged authority like this so they really weren’t sure what to do with him.  It was either off to jail, or let him go.  Fortunately for us, it seemed like less hassle for them to just let Abdoulaye go, so they did. The last official before exiting said, “Welcome to Senegal!”

The hotel cab driver had a sign with my name on it and this made getting through the throng after baggage claim much easier.  He drove 10 miles an hour so he could give us his pitch on why we should hire him for our three-day stay in Dakar.  Now after midnight, this was irritating.  We finally got to the hotel and it is amazing how a little perspective from the past few days helped us appreciate small things like air-conditioning and lights that worked in the room.

Dakar was a much more advanced city than anything in Burkina Faso or Mali.  There were many high-rise office and apartment buildings, a great deal of active construction and generally a much higher level of (comparative) “prosperity”.  The western most city on mainland Africa, Dakar had cooler temperatures, ocean trade winds and a sense of a future for its 1.1 million people.

After having visa issues getting into both Burkina Faso and Mali (no visa was required of Americans going into Senegal), we thought it best to check at the Ghana embassy in Dakar to make sure that the Lonely Planet book was correct about Americans being able to get a visa at the Accra airport on arrival into Ghana, which we would do three days hence.  Not! No, they said, I should have gotten a visa before I left the US.  But, very helpfully, the embassy woman said she could expedite a Ghanaian visa here if I submitted my passport, four photos, confirmation of where we would be staying in Accra, proof of confirmed onward (out of Ghana) transportation, and $30.  Without it, she said, they wouldn’t let me on the plane leaving Dakar.  Lesson learned:  Don’t ever trust the up-to-dateness of a travel publication (I should have known this.)  So the first half-day in Dakar was spent trying to figure out how to get out of Dakar.

Over the next several days we roamed the streets of Dakar, saw a beautiful sunset from a lighthouse along the coast, went to the Island of Goree to see where slaves had been sent to the western hemisphere in the 17th and 18th centuries (on a much smaller scale than from Cape Coast, Ghana), visited the very poor fishing village of Yoff and got a sense of the local culture.  The Dutch owner of our small hotel, with a Senegalese wife, complained that the president had built a $26 million dollar statue to “The African Renaissance”, but the country was still number 166 of 182 on the UN Human Development (Poverty) index.  Priorities, as in most African countries, were definitely up for discussion.  The poverty in Senegal was real and the only ameliorating factor for the western visitor was having fresh in mind comparisons with the even more difficult living conditions in Burkina Faso and Mali.  They did, however, have a very impressive statue here!


Getting around Africa is not like getting around the US or Europe.   The bus transportation I’ve already mentioned, but air travel is difficult in a different way.  The one-way airfare for the thousand-mile flight from Dakar to Accra, Ghana, was $550 for each of us, and that seemed to be a “good deal”.  There was only one non-stop flight a week, it was on Virgin Nigeria airlines and it left at 4:00 am.  (Just for grins, Abdoulaye had looked into going to the World Cup soccer matches in June, but it would cost over $2,000 and he would have to go from Ouagadougou to Paris, six hours north, to catch a flight south to Johannesburg.)

So we left our hotel in Dakar at 1:30 am to catch our 4 am flight.  Our cab got behind a very slow truck and the driver kept looking to pass.  Fortunately, he didn’t.  Half way to the airport we saw a totally smashed cab, all beat to hell with the motor pushed all the way to the back seat, broken glass and twisted metal everywhere.  Whoever had been in that cab was dead, with 100% certainty.  And, of course, it could randomly have been us.

It’s hard to believe that the Dakar airport would be a zoo at 2 am, but it was.  There were hundreds of people in front of us in the Security line; it took over an hour to get through and we were lucky at that.  Very disorganized and chaotic, but more of the African experience.

Accra, Ghana Crossing a time zone, we arrived at 7:30 am to a much more organized immigration process in Ghana.  We had our bags and were out of the airport in half an hour.  After being in three former French colonies, I thought I’d finally be able to talk with people here, a former British protectorate.  Wrong again.  While English is the “official” language, there are 47 ethnic languages in Ghana and the English spoken was so heavily accented that I thought I could be in Jamaica.  We didn’t have any Ghanaian money and the banks were closed on Saturday so we changed American dollars on the street, not sure if we were getting ripped off.  The currency exchange worked out OK, but it was hotter than hell and muggy.  The Lonely Planet guidebook said, “No one likes Accra” and when asked for highlights of what to see, locals seemed baffled for a response.  You’d think that a city of 3 million, the capital of a country of 24 million, might have something to see?  No.  We saw people going into a large soccer stadium near our hotel so we wandered in, surprised that there was no admission charge.  It took about two minutes to recognize that we were in a Christian revival meeting and the topic was “Marriage and Christ”.  Not my cup of tea (to put it mildly) so we exited quickly.  We spent the remainder of the day recouping in our air-conditioned room and talking with various Canadian, Dutch and Danish people – all of whom worked with various charitable organizations – in the hotel lobby and bar.

The next morning we hired a cab for the day and went 2 ½ hours down the shoreline to Cape Coast, the famous former slave trading area of Ghana visited by President Obama and his family.  We spent an hour at Kakum National Park doing the celebrated, very narrow, six-section rope bridge jungle canopy walk before going to Cape Castle to see and hear the history of the place where 2 million slaves were sent to their horrific western hemisphere destiny.   Very moving, very sad, very sobering, very maddening, very depressing.  We had a good guide who brought the tragic story to life and no one left there without wondering how so many people in so many countries could have perpetrated so much sorrow on so many innocent people for so many years.  The “Door of No Return” was really just that.

Reflections Two weeks in West Africa really wasa trip – physically, mentally and emotionally.  Being able to do this expedition with Abdoulaye as my guide and friend made it ever so much more meaningful.  Meeting Abdoulaye’s family, seeing his home and traveling in his culture were at the same time eye opening and instructive. If ever there were an example of the value of learning through experiences, this trip was it.  So what are my major reflections from this journey?

  1. I will forever be a different, better person for having Abdoulaye as my “African Son”.  I have learned more from him than he has from me.  And I really appreciate it.
  2. When you approach different cultures with an open mind, you can learn a great deal.  You can be more tolerant of differences and you can’t help but empathize and want to help those who have had so much less opportunity and so much more hardship.
  3. We have poverty in the US.  They have abject poverty in Africa.  There is a difference.  Those of us who have need to do a better job of helping those who have not.
  4. Tales and sights of corruption are ubiquitous in Africa.  Corruption takes a heavy, heavy toll on the psyche of the people and on the standard of living of the vast majority at the bottom of the economic ladder.  Our American system of government may be flawed (!), but in comparison with other parts of the world, it works pretty well.
  5. Senegal and Ghana are “developing” countries; at least they are building and they have a base from which to improve.  Burkina Faso and Mali are “Third World”; there really isn’t much economic development going on, at least that is visible.  They need a different, more basic kind of help.
  6. From my experience on this trip, I don’t buy the “lazy African” stereotype.  At least not any more than the “lazy American” stereotype.   I saw a lot of people working very hard, but not being rewarded/compensated for a fraction of their effort.  Most Africans are motivated and they want to work; they need less government corruption, better education and various sorts of economic opportunities.  I’m even more enthused now to support the self-help, micro-lending efforts going on across the developing world.
  7. Education – and particularly girls education – is critically important.  I thought this before this journey; what I saw certainly solidifies my thinking.  And birth control is an important subset of the overall educational need.   Bringing down the birthrate will have a positive multiplier effect (no pun intended) for all involved.
  8. And lastly, some advice:  Open your mind and your heart to people different than yourself.  You can help someone along the way, and you’ll be the better for it.

Abdoulaye’s niece, Maimouna

The Future of Africa

Thank you for your interest.  May Peace Be With You. — Glenn Detrick 3/10

Abdoulaye and Celine’s Wedding

Abdoulaye and Celine’s Wedding

May 8, 2014

 Abdoulaye Zorome, my “African Son”, was getting to be an “old man” – at 31 – and I was very glad that he found the girl of his dreams, Celine Salma.  A beautiful young woman (26), Celine is volunteering with the Red Cross in Burkina Faso and considering further studies in the health care field.  The new couple has a home in Ouagadougou that Abdoulaye built in the past year and moved into on New Years Eve.  It does not yet have electricity but hopefully solar panels will be part of the near term future at the Zorome household.  One picture hangs in the house, on the wall in the living room – it is one I took of Abdoulaye and his parents when I visited in 2010:

  Abdoulaye with Father and Mother  

Burkina Faso is a country of challenging geography and topography – it is just south of the Sahara Desert in what was once part of French West Africa.  Older people might (?) remember it by its colonial name:  Upper Volta.   It is a land-locked country with no natural resources and limited economic development.  The U.N. ranks it 183 of 187 on its “Poverty Index”.  Its fertility rate (number of kids per woman) is very high and its literacy rate is very low (33%).  That Abdoulaye, one of 23 kids, made it from here to the U.S. as a Fulbright Scholar, achieving two U.S. degrees, is truly a testament to his strong work ethic, character, perseverance and personality.

I arrived into Ouagadougou at 5 pm the day before Abdoulaye and Celine’s wedding.   One of the most meaningful parts of my journey occurred in the first two minutes after exiting the airport as I was met with an intense smile, handshake and prolonged hug by Abdoulaye’s father.  The 84-year-old patriarch of the Zorome family could not read or write, or speak English, but he conveyed to me, through Abdoulaye, how happy and honored he was that I would come all the way from the U.S. for the wedding.  He told me that he felt tremendously respected because I followed up on a pledge I had given him four years earlier to return to Burkina Faso if/when Abdoulaye got married.

And here I was.

Everyone who knows Abdoulaye knows of his radiant, ebullient, mile-wide, ever present, irrepressible and effervescent smile.  The man cannot stop smiling; that’s just who he is.  I do not know of a more positive person on the planet than Abdoulaye.


Pharrell Williams song, “HAPPY!” had to have been written about and for Abdoulaye. He’s such a joy to be around; THE SMILE is both infectious and contagious; it makes your day just being around him.  As Tony Soprano would have said, “Bada Bing!”

And so on this, his wedding day (May 8, 2014), Abdoulaye brought his immaculate smile and ever present cheerfulness to Celine, his beautiful betrothed, to begin a new life together.  The ceremonies and receptions (two of each) were festive and buoyant.  The mayor presided over a function with much laughter before a group of 200 crammed into a room meant for 120.  It seemed that everyone wanted to share in the joyousness of the day; everyone wanted to be a part of the goodwill, good feeling and good cheer of Abdoulaye and Celine’s happiness.

  Celine Celine and Abdoulaye

  The operable word for an African wedding is “colorful”, with all of the women dressing in traditional garb that makes Impressionist art look drab.


African Wedding Attire

African Wedding Attire

African Wedding Attire


African Wedding Attire

300 people listened to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” and a host of local music as the bride and groom greeted and hugged all of the very positive well-wishers. There was dancing, cake cutting, and the sense that this was going to be a union that would make a positive contribution to and difference in the world in the years ahead.

I asked Abdoulaye how he had picked Celine as THE ONE for him.  They had dated for 18 months and he said that what attracted him was her caring, hard working, and positive attitude (funny, that sounds like Abdoulaye).  He didn’t specifically mention her beauty — he didn’t have to; that was self-evident.  While quieter than Abdoulaye, Celine seems to possess those human qualities that will make her the perfect life-partner for Abdoulaye:  a focus on family, a love of life, a low-key perspective, a willingness to listen.   And she has a very good start on adopting the trademark “Abdoulaye Smile”.  What an inspiring addition to the world is this wonderful newly married couple.  Our hearts and our good cheer go out to them.

And a few more pictures to try to capture the people involved and the essence of the day:

Abdoulaye and GlennAbdoulaye and Celine

Wedding PartyWedding Party


May Peace Be With You.    Glenn