Notes from Burkina Faso: the lesson of true joy

Photo: Playing football by Self Help Africa (February 2013).
Photo: Patrick O’Grady playing football, by Self Help Africa (February 2013).

By Patrick O’Grady

Burkina Faso in West Africa was the destination for students and teachers who travelled on Self Help Africa’s annual schools’ study visit in the spring of 2013.

Patrick O’Grady recalls his account of the week-long trip visiting youth groups, school-going counterparts, historical sites and a range of rural communities working in development projects with Self Help Africa.

Based on a series of diary reflections, this essay was entered into an English class competition in St. Mary’s Academy CBS, Carlow during the 2013/14 term as part of the Leaving Certificate.


My mind was wandering as I tapped a piano scale with my hand. It was a dull, bleak Wednesday night with a history test looming the next day.

I love history but that night I felt detached and distanced from the dates, statistics and details that refused to allow themselves to be remembered.

I heard my dad call to say that Burkina Faso’s semi-final against Ghana was on television. The little-known-of West African country had gone thirteen years without so much as one win until this African Cup of Nations. With a spirited performance they caused another surprise.

At the ungodly hour of four in the morning we arrived in Dublin Airport from Carlow, Clonakilty, Lucan, Tullamore and Bray. Seven secondary school students, three teachers and a leader from Self Help Africa. We were bleary-eyed strangers to each other. I was wedged between Mark and Cianna on the plane and we chuckled, giggled and finally guffawed all the way to Belgium; probably much to the annoyance of the stern faced businessmen in expensive suits. Cianna scribbled a few things down, telling me that she had a ‘Quotes Book’, to record our memorable phrases.

In a café in Brussels we began playing the card game snap. One by one, Maeve, Jodie and Niamh were eliminated, leaving myself and Evie twitching and squealing in the heat of battle. I eventually emerged as victor.

I then glanced over my beginner’s French notes: Je suis fatigué. Je suis malade. Je parle non Francais. Phrases that might be necessary in a country with 14% of people literate and 50% food insecure, one of the lowest UN Human Development Index rankings with Al Qaeda rebels in the north of the country.

BF_SHAThe wheels slammed the runway, the plane rumbling before shuddering to a stop. Dizzily I stood up, already uneasy and nauseas after watching Blood Diamond during the flight. We filed out slowly. Months of the driving rain and biting cold of Irish winter left me squinting in the blinding light of the equatorial sun and faint from the heavy, oppressive heat.

Looking around, I know now why the landing had been so violent; the runway was lumpy and patchy.

In the airport, the pungency of our insect repellent wafted in the stuffy air. For what felt like ages we were filling in form after form, giving fingerprints, having our faces scanned and filling in even more identical forms. Ours was the only plane parked outside.

Stepping out of the airport we sat into a minibus. The driver started the engine without asking us to put on our seatbelts. It should be noted that he turned out to be a paragon of responsibility in a city of motor anarchy. In the capital city Ouagadougou the roads aren’t marked. In fact most of them aren’t asphalt, merely dirt tracks with a permanent haze of dust floating up from them. Traffic lights are non-existent.

Scraps of metal, barely discernible as motorbikes, screech past like tormented animals. When the rusted vans or pick-up trucks are full, passengers sit on the roofs or hang from the sides as if James Bond stuntmen.

Most of the city is packed with shanty-towns sprawling into each other. Broken and decayed, it resembled the strewn mess of a giant destructive child.

But was it ever in good condition to begin with?

We arrive at our accommodation. ‘Palm Beach Hotel’ read the letters overhead. It conjures images of luxury along the Miami coast, despite the location being a city in a sub-Saharan landlocked state. The only justification for the name choice is found in two palm trees drooping on either side of the door.

Picking our way through the city that night was hazardous; the massive potholes in the path weren’t lit by the weak street lights. At one stage the city went pitch black for twenty minutes before power was restored. But there was a palpable aura of anticipation as green and red flags with a gold star in the middle hung from buildings and bicycles while many people wore the colourful jerseys.

As we were leaving the hotel the following morning, a picture at the reception desk caught my eye: the smiling man appeared peaceful and benevolent. I recognised him as the President, Blaise Compaoré, the man linked to the assassination of the previous leader and accused of rigging elections for over a decade.

We popped over to the Self Help Africa office where wary guards stood watch.

Mark and I headed across the road to an open space. Some young men and teenagers were playing football. Initially hesitant, we joined in. Neither of us could speak any French but we could understand the meaning behind pointing and calling.

We crossed through utter wilderness. The landscape was bare, with few trees or rocks standing out from the beige dirt. Every so often we would pass through a small town, with run down shops and dingy shacks. On the outskirts rubbish sank into the ground while torn plastic sacks fluttered in the breeze.

After a couple of hours, eight of us had to squash into the hold of a pick-up truck. It had a novel appeal as it lurched violently towards a tiny remote settlement. Here in the wilderness we were removed from the rest of the world, from the type of civilisation we knew.

As we walked across a steep, sandy ridge we were told that it was the local river. The locals proudly showed us the community farm where vegetables and cereals were flourishing. They explained the community effort alongside Self Help Africa and how they could now provide for themselves sustainably and independently.

Photo: Meeting the Market Garden Committee in Dassui, Burkina Faso by Self Help Africa (February 2014).
Photo: Meeting the Market Garden Committee in Dassui, Burkina Faso by Self Help Africa (February 2014).

The representatives of a microfinance centre gifted us with several treasures. Small leather satchels held pieces of jewellery. I put on a distinctive green and yellow beaded necklace.

Like the other students I was given an ordinary sun hat. The chieftain hats of the teachers and leader resembled traffic cones.

At the end of a visit to a co-operative honey processing plant, the workers apologised that they didn’t have enough small tubs for everyone so we were going to have to share larger tubs. I felt guilty thinking that their stock was running low but for us to refuse this offer would have been extremely impolite.

We visited a rural school. As we entered the dilapidated classroom, the students stood to attention like an army regiment. They sung the national anthem among other songs. From us, a few tunes on the tin whistle were followed by the ‘Rattlin’ Bog’ and then the ‘Cup Song’ of YouTube fame.

We showed scrapbooks that we had made about our lives. Ireland shocked the Burkinabé with its green fields and “palaces” everywhere. The kids were gleeful as we handed out handmade tri-colour bracelets made by a TY year group in Clonakilty. We kicked a football about. Before leaving the chieftain took a few minutes to bless us.

Back in Ouga, we popped into a youth club.

We were introduced to traditional and moreover non-traditional dancing to a steady drum beat and stereo. It was such a festive occasion.

One night we stopped in a place called Kampala. Our rooms had showers but no water. After the meal we watched Les Etalons play in the final. The miracle came to an end and there was a sullen atmosphere. The following morning we headed back to Ouga. In the evening car horns began to blare.

Some motorcyclists drove on their bikes standing up without hands on the handlebars; others leaned back to send sparks flying into the air.

The deep drum beats reverberated around the city and were joined by the swarming vuvuzelas.

As darkness fell, the swelling crowd become frightfully claustrophobic with tens of thousands of people squeezing the streets. The sound of singing and chanting became deafening and it was soon added to by a rickety lorry loaded with amps blasting music. Just behind the lorry was the team bus. A passionate frenzy en masse ensued. The raw emotion proved an electrifying spectacle.

The next day we were marooned with most workers enjoying the impromptu national holiday announced by the president. Days later I was still baffled. How could a football kicked around a pitch cause people to become so delirious? I put the question to Georges, a Self Help Africa worker and armchair soccer expert.

“When our people see the team winning it unites us, it makes us think anything is possible”, he chuckled.

On the last night I joined in carrying bottles of water and clothes down to the street. Mark handed another shirt to Mr Goodprice, a friendly merchandise seller who we had gotten to know. He spotted the first on another man and asked why Mr Goodprice had given it away. A broad grin spread across his face, “Why keep the two shirts when I can only wear one!”

The second year Geography class passed the 20,000 Central African Francs note and the chimes around the room. Mark asked “Lads would ye like to see a video of Paddy dancing at the youth club?” …a few minutes later I was still blushing as we answered questions.

“What moment stood out the most?”

I rolled the beads of the necklace together.

Remembering much of it is unsettling. A hungry disabled street child clasps my hand. A Malian refugee tells me about the family he left behind. The grief in peoples’ eyes. But there’s also the generosity and friendliness of many wonderful people. The crowd on the night of the homecoming. The quotes book full from cover to cover.

“Hmm, so many amazing things happened, it’s hard to pick out just one and say that it stands out from the others. I just think the experience as a whole was incredible…Any other questions?”

“What was the biggest thing you learned?”

The lesson we learned together, of what true joy really means. True joy is not a reaction to fortunate circumstances: it’s taking control and having the strength to smile, to be happy in adversity. It’s meaningful. It’s the change you undertake. It’s with people who matter.

Patrick O’Grady is a Leaving Certificate student at St Mary’s Academy, CBS, Carlow.


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