Where is Burkina Faso (BF)? That was the first question that I asked myself after winning the “City in a Garden”(CIAG) photography contest 2012 organized by National Parks. Clarins Pte Ltd has generously sponsored my winning trip to Burkina Faso, West Africa. Clarins has been involved in sustainable programmes in countries like Mongolia, Vietnam, Madagascar etc and including BF since 2003. BF is one of the poorest countries in the world and is dependent on international aid.
With the required visas, vaccinations, anti-malaria tablets and camera gear, I was ready to go! I was accompanied by the lovely Brenda Loke, Marketing Communications & PR Manager, Clarins Pte Ltd., Singapore and the charismatic and affable Christian Courtin- Clarins (Chairman & Owner of Clarins Groupe) From the plane, I was welcomed by vast brown vistas of open plains and desert-like terrain of this land-locked country in west Africa. It is also the land of African Baobad tree (Adansonia digitata) The drive from the airport in the capital city of Ouagadougou to the International Hotel was reminiscent of a town in Malaysia in the 60’s – sundry shops lining the dusty roads, motorcyclists and cyclists crisscrossing our van. I was told that male Burkinabes usually live up to 50 and females, 52. By their statistics, I no longer exist!
Burkina Faso is in west Africa and is landlocked by Mali, Niger, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Fifteen million people are spread over a vast 274,000 sq kilometers (compared to 710 sq km in Singapore). It gained independence from France in 1960 and the official language is French. It is hot and dry in November to February and rains during June to October.
The next day we journeyed further to Koudougou and we stayed in Hotel Pouspa (our base camp) which is like a jewel amidst the derelict town. BF is not a tourist attraction, and arrivals mostly have interests in mining of diamonds and gold. We ventured further into the remote villages of Poun (25km from Koudougou) and Mogueya (70km away). Our 4 wheel drives stirred up so much dust storms that our white attires take on a hue of red towards the end of the day. Both these villages had populations of about 3,000 each. The sweltering heat of 40 degrees C with little shade from the scorching sun makes work in the fields energy- sapping; even photography was very tiring.
From the beginning, I expected this trip not to be an easy one, and the focus would be to document the lives of the Burkinabes. What I experienced, nevertheless, was beyond photography. I was humbled. It was beyond my imagination and understanding of the Burkinabe’s daily struggle with something as basic as water. And they do not have any resources – only their bare hands. In this land-locked country in West Africa, the ability to harness available water is the key to survival. Rain comes during the first 4 months of the rainy season and after that, water will be scarce. And they have to deal with the extreme heat! The Burkinabes can only plan one crop a year and for the rest of the dry season, they will have nothing to do and little to eat.
Clarins started a programme to help address the problem. They provided the funding and worked with Jardins du Monde (Garden of the World) headed by Jean-Pierre Nicolas (PhD in ethno-pharmacology) on a number of sustainable projects to enhance water access, the planting of crops and improvements in medical and maternity care.
Large stones were lined up to block the flow of rain water so that they can trickle slowly to the natural underground wells below instead of spreading thin over vast areas. Jean-Pierre’s team coordinated the digging and repair of wells, damming of streams and the cultivation of 2 more crops in a year so that the villagers can be self- sufficient.
With a thriving agricultural activity, the villagers need not drift to the cities to compete for jobs. Jean-Pierre and his team created gardens to teach the villagers how to identify the indigenous plants and how best to use them. Some of the plants are used in herbal remedies and the rest are planted for food. They planted crops like pearl millet (main staple), rice, cassava, papayas, guava, lady’s fingers, tomatoes, potato and some medicinal plants. Their yellow/ orange chilli can match the ferociousness of our tiny chilli-padi.
Pearl millet is also made into a form of beer and is a popular beverage. With water and plants available throughout the year, the villagers were able to have 3 meals a day and all the children looked well-nourished. They stay in small clay-walled quarters and were surrounded by chicken, goats, donkeys and in some areas – pigs too. The successful implementation of these programmes at these 2 villages is then duplicated in the neighboring villages. This trip allows me to see first-hand how such programmes can make a big difference in the villagers’ lives. They do not ask for money; they only ask for help to improve their lives. The hard–working Burkinabes deserve the fruits of their labour.
The children rarely see visitors to the villages; Brenda and myself must be the first Asians they have come in contact with. They were eager to hold our hands and waved back with such broad smiles that they broke our hearts to bid farewell. There was a large-scale celebration at Mogueya (about 5,000 people attended (including those from distant villages) in honour of Monsieur Christian for bringing meaning to their lives. Now, the villagers are self-sufficient and they sell the excess crops (eg Shea butter use in skincare). We were also shown the whole manual process of removing the fat from the nut of the African Shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa also known as Shea Butter). Shea butter Is used by the villagers for cooking but much is exported for use in the skincare industry.
It was touching that one of the villagers from Mogueya transported a goat on his motorcycle all the way to Koudougou as a gift from the villagers to Monsieur Christian. He was visibly moved. We were totally taken by surprise that the staff from Jardins du Monde carved our names on ‘melon bowls’ and presented to us.
I was given this rare opportunity to be a part of their world; they seem much happier in their simple environment than most of us do in our affluent society. I am thankful for the chance to witness the Clarins’ philosophy of sustainable development and to travel with multi-millionaire extra-ordinaire, Christian Courtin- Clarins, to understand his vision for a better world. His care and concern for the underprivileged was obvious during the visit and he impressed upon me that there is more to be done beyond these villages.