common ground

Burkina Faso

Program 0217 April 23, 2002

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(This text has been professionally transcribed, however, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.)

John Scicchitano: We feel that there’s an opportunity here, an open door to stop it before it comes to the point where a whole generation is wiped out.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, fighting AIDS in West Africa. And raising the literacy rate in Burkina Faso.

DANIEL COMPAORE: It is indeed a small church but I don’t think there are more than 10 people who know how to read and write.

KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.

MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. The AIDS epidemic is spreading across the African continent. Infection rates have surpassed 30 percent in some African countries.

PORTER: And West African nations like Burkina Faso are now bracing themselves against the spread of the HIV virus. Common Ground’s Chris Lehman reports from this small country just north of Ghana.

CHRIS LEHMAN: In the Burkina Faso capital of Ouagadougou, Mayor Simon Compaore is trying to kill two birds with one stone.

[sound of vehicle traffic]

LEHMAN: The hot dusty city of 1.2 million needs a good cleaning; many of its streets are unpaved and strewn with rubbish. At the same time, illegal prostitution flourishes. So Compaore has offered prostitutes an alternative line of work—sweeping the streets. The proposal has been met with stiff resistance.

SIMON COMPAORE: It’s too hot. It’s hard work. They think that to give themselves to the men is easy, easy work for them. And the, the people, they’re shouting; they say, “No! You are, you are crazy! You are crazy!” You are very young. You don’t know. You don’t understand the world.

LEHMAN: But Compaore understands all too well. He’s seen the devastating impact of AIDS on his city and is determined to slow its spread. But he faces an uphill battle. A United Nations report says 10 percent of Burkina Faso’s adult population is infected with the HIV virus, putting it second only to Ivory Coast as the West African nation most affected by AIDS. But while the rate is high not everyone feels the country should be written off just yet. John Scicchitano is with the Baltimore-based organization World Relief. He says the group’s strategy toward fighting AIDS in Burkina Faso is based on lessons learned elsewhere. It reflects what he calls “a positive approach to the AIDS epidemic,” focusing on progress instead of setbacks.

John Scicchitano: We feel that there’s an opportunity here, an open door to stop it before it comes to the point where a whole generation is wiped out.

LEHMAN: World Relief primarily works with existing organizations in the country such as churches, radio stations, and governmental bodies. Working with both religious and secular programs can be tricky, since a wide variety of AIDS prevention strategies exist.

Scicchitano: Here in Burkina, and I believe across the continent, most structures which are engaging in the AIDS activities talk about the “ABC” of prevention—A being abstinence, B is for be faithful, and C is for condoms. In fact, it seems that a lot of the emphasis has been put on the C, and World Relief feels that the A and B are very important and valuable ways of fighting AIDS. And churches and other religious groups are very well positioned to talk about A and B, abstinence and being faithful. They have moral authority in their communities. People come to services because they want to come and because they, they believe in what’s being taught there. If we can, in fact, empower churches and give them ideas and materials to better promote A and B, then we feel we can effectively help fight AIDS in the communities across Burkina Faso.

LEHMAN: And Scicchitano says churches are sometimes more effective at reaching the population than the government. There’s a church in nearly every community and they can constantly reinforce what has already been taught. But he says that research has shown that education in and of itself is not enough.

Scicchitano: What we need is to change behavior. Some people can be educated and be knowledgeable about AIDS, but not be motivated to change their behavior. So what we talk about these days is behavior change communication. And of course, the church is, is very well equipped for behavior change communication because, in fact, Christianity is really about changing your behavior—about, about leaving behind the old and putting on the new.

LEHMAN: But Scicchitano says it’s more than simply behavioral tendencies that have led to the rise of AIDS in Burkina Faso. A shortage of basic medical care can allow the HIV virus to spread more rapidly.

Scicchitano: That is, when the, someone has any kind of sexually transmitted disease there isn’t enough medical coverage that these people can adequately treat those diseases, so their chance of contracting AIDS/HIV is much higher because of that.

LEHMAN: On the other hand, the relative lack of industry and resources in Burkina Faso may be slowing the spread of AIDS, at least temporarily.

Scicchitano: In comparison to some of the south African countries where, for example, there was lots of mining. And mining, of course, brings in a lot of migrant workers. There aren’t many resources here in Burkina Faso to bring people in. There are, there is a lack of resources, which takes people out of the country. So, it’s perhaps that that has delayed the, the quick growth like has happened in South African countries. But in fact, when those people come back down the road we can see a more gradual and steady growth with time if we don’t take action to, to stop AIDS now.

[sound of a sporting event being broadcast over radio or TV]

LEHMAN: Far from the busy streets of the capital city is the village of Kotoura. Several hundred people there gather around a grainy black and white TV to watch the Burkina Faso national soccer team take on South Africa. The television is one of a handful in Kotoura, a 3,000-strong settlement just miles from the border with Mali. The TV runs on a generator, as the village isn’t wired for electricity or phone service. Most of the people here are farmers, growing corn, millet, and cotton. The village is large enough to support a school, a church, and a mosque, as well as a small clinic and pharmacy. Several women in Kotoura have formed a group called “Let’s Be United.” Their main concern of late has been finding money to fix a broken down grain mill. Tible Traore, the group’s leader, has also been teaching the women about a new menace, called AIDS. It isn’t an easy task.

[Lehman interviews Tible Traore]

LEHMAN: Are some people uncomfortable hearing about and talking about AIDS?

TIBLE TRAORE: [via a translator] [laughing] They are embarrassed to talk about it often.

LEHMAN: How do you work around that embarrassment?

TIBLE TRAORE: [via a translator] We have meetings to counsel them.

[sound of something being tamped down]

LEHMAN: But the women of Kotoura have their hands full with the tasks of everyday life—washing clothes and pounding grain into flour. The main dish in a typical meal is called “toz.” The pasty mush is usually served with okra sauce and dried fish.

[sound of something being tamped down]

LEHMAN: Thirty-three-year-old Moussa Traore is well spoken educated man. He has been appointed by the village elders to work with outside organization. Ask him what the village’s biggest problem is and the politically minded Moussa tells of a heated rivalry with the neighboring village. Each wanted to serve as the region’s seat of government. Kotoura lost out, meaning villagers have to travel the dusty rutted road to Kangala to get ID cards and marriage licenses. But Moussa is also keeping an eye out for ways to keep AIDS from overrunning the village he calls home.

MOUSSA TRAORE: [via a translator] It’s only just lately that we’ve begun collecting and disseminating information about AIDS. For example, in our little shops here in town we were selling condoms. And there’s people that have come to the village to, to show how to use condoms.

LEHMAN: But despite those efforts Moussa says AIDS has already arrived in Kotoura.

MOUSSA TRAORE: [via a translator] We could say, yes, that there is AIDS in this village. The problem is that people don’t want to admit they have AIDS. Everybody around sees that they have the symptoms of AIDS and they know they have AIDS. But the person himself or, you know, the family will say he’s died from another illness. They won’t admit it’s AIDS.

[local music plays in the background]

LEHMAN: Monday is market day in Kotoura, and this Monday is special. The occasion is a visit by an AIDS prevention organization from Ouagadougou. It’s called “C’est Ma Vie,” which means “It’s My Life.” The group is waging an all-out informational campaign in Burkina Faso, buying billboard space and distributing literature nationwide. But the heart of the campaign is an army of volunteers who traverse the remote regions of the country, sometimes by foot. Omaru Traore, arrived in Kotoura on a moped and within minutes he’s addressing a crowd of hundreds of villagers gathered around an enormous mango tree.

[Omaru Traore speaks to the crowd]

LEHMAN: He’s speaking in Jula, a regional trade language understood by many in the crowd. But Moussa is alongside, translating the animated address into Sichete, the local dialect, so that everyone can understand.

[the sounds of people gathered into a crowd, talking, and laughing]

LEHMAN: The crowd laughs when Omaru opens a condom and unrolls it for all to see. “Don’t worry about the written instructions,” he says, acknowledging the fact that most of those gathered are unable to read. “Just be careful to use it properly and be sure to use a new one each time.” The message is driven home when Omaru’s sister sits on a chair in the middle of the circle. She sings an exhortation to the people of Kotoura to be mindful of the danger of AIDS.

[Omaru’s sister sings to the crowd]

LEHMAN: But the event is as much a celebration as it is a warning, and soon the party begins.

[the sounds of music and a crowd in a party atmosphere]

LEHMAN: Kotoura is known for its balaphones. And the young men who play the hand-made gourd instruments seize every opportunity to showcase their talent. Omaru stresses abstinence and monogamy but his demonstration with the condom was a nod to the reality of the situation in Burkina Faso—a reality that exists nearly wherever you go in the country.

OMARU TRAORE: [via a translator] I don’t see any difference between the existence of AIDS in the village and in the large cities. Because it’s the very people of the village that are going to the city, men that are finding pretty women and having relations with them and bringing AIDS back to the village.

LEHMAN: A striking aspect of the day’s AIDS prevention rally was the presence of the village elders. The half dozen men observed the proceedings from their seats of honor, even going so far as to sign a pledge to reduce or eliminate their risky sexual behavior. Omaru says their presence was no accident.

OMARU TRAORE: [via a translator] I feel it’s very important that the elders of the village come. Because they, once they can understand what AIDS is and they have the wisdom to understand it they can convey that same message to the youth of the village and to their children.

LEHMAN: And getting them to convey and reconvey that message is a key part of the solution, says Omaru. Because there’s no good way for organizations such as “C’est Ma Vie,” to gauge the effectiveness of their prevention programs.

OMARU TRAORE: [via a translator] The real problem is that we cannot monitor their behavior as far as changing in this type of behavior, or whether or not they’re adhering to their promise. However, that’s why we call the program, “It’s My Life.” Because they have to own that. They have to have personal responsibility for their behavior.

LEHMAN: Omaru says he is not a religious person but he does respect the work of churches in the area of AIDS, of prevention, even though the churches’ methods sometimes reflect a different philosophical approach to fighting AIDS. Abdias Coulibaly shares that mutual respect. Coulibaly is President of the Evangelical Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso. He says he tells his churches that different organizations must not fight each other over their methods even if the secular approach places a heavy emphasis on condoms. The word condom is translated here as preservative.

ABDIAS COULIBALY: [via a translator] One thing that they have been encouraged to do, well, is to teach that the best way to keep yourself from AIDS is abstinence before marriage and faithfulness during marriage. But not to say that the preservative is bad. We are not to say that at all. If those, those people want to go and fight AIDS by saying “Wear a preservative,” they can continue doing that. They do that on their side. And we say what we want to say. So we’re gonna teach what the Bible says concerning behavior that will also fight AIDS. And we’ll also speak about what the world does and show the difference.

LEHMAN: Coulibaly says that speaking out about AIDS no matter what the method is a bold thing to do in Burkina Faso. Many people would rather not hear about it.

COULIBALY: [via a translator] Issues of sex is a taboo matter to talk about here in Burkina. So if somebody says he has AIDS, the immediate conclusion is that this person is, is sleeping around, is having, committing adultery. And people would rather hide their illness. In addition, the test to see whether you’re positive or negative, it’s not so easy to go and get tested, especially if you’re in the provinces, i.e., in the rural areas.

LEHMAN: Even in some provincial capitals AIDS tests are not available. Coulibaly says the goal of the Mennonite church in Burkina Faso is to make sure its members get tested. Another part of the church’s task is to help those who are already sick. He says that part is especially important.

COULIBALY: [via a translator] Normally when you get AIDS in the village, people are afraid. And the people get tired taking care of the sick person. Because taking care of somebody with AIDS is, is long and difficult. So if somebody helps you get well and then you get sick again, helps you again and you get sick again, then they get tired of it. And so they just stop helping.

LEHMAN: He says the possible reason for this abandonment is that when someone gets AIDS it’s an economic disaster for the entire family.

COULIBALY: [via a translator] You have to pay for all kinds of drugs. It’s just too, too expensive for the families here. And even regular drugs for dealing with certain sicknesses, it just gets too much. Even if they are able to reduce the price ten times, it’s still a lot of families would not be able to pay that.

LEHMAN: And the cost of drugs isn’t the only financial hardship that families of AIDS victims face. When the sick person can no longer work it can mean a significant loss of income for the family. And in cases where more than one family member has AIDS, the result can be catastrophic. People working to slow the spread of AIDS in Burkina Faso hope that scenario happens as little as possible, but in the country rated as one of the least developed in the world by the United Nations, fighting AIDS may prove to be a monumental challenge. For Common Ground, I’m Chris Lehman is Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

MCHUGH: Improving education in Burkina Faso, next on Common Ground.

ATIMAH TRAORE: [via a translator] Through research and studies they have learned that a country that has less than 40 percent literacy rate can’t get out of underdevelopment.

PORTER: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details, or visit our Web site at Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

MCHUGH: The former French colony of Burkina Faso has enjoyed a relatively long period of political stability. But like many African nations Burkina Faso has a very low literacy rate.

PORTER: And the country of 12 million remains one of the poorest in the world. From the Burkina Faso capital of Ouagadougou, Common Ground’s Chris Lehman reports on efforts to raise literacy rates.

LEHMAN: The Sunday afternoon literacy class as the Apostolic Mission Church starts with a song.

[the class sings in the local language]

LEHMAN: About a dozen members of the small congregation have shown up in response to an invitation during the morning service. Pastor Daniel Compaore says literacy classes are an essential part of his church’s mission.

DANIEL COMPAORE: It is indeed a small church but I don’t think there are more than 10 people who know how to read and write. So in order to have mature Christians it is one of the responsibility of the leaders of the church to teach people how to read.

LEHMAN: But Compaore is quick to acknowledge that the benefits of literacy extend beyond the spiritual world. Being able to read can provide an economic boost as well as improve a person’s overall health.

COMPAORE: You are sick, for instance, and you are sent to the hospital. You have a prescription. The doctor tells you when to take the medicine, how to take it, how much to take it—and everything is written, but you can’t read it. You come home, you forget what has been told to you and you’re in trouble. So if they know how to do that, then it makes a great new venture for life, for them in their lives.

[A teacher leads the class in a reading lesson]

LEHMAN: The official language of Burkina Faso is French. But these lessons are in the More language.

[A teacher leads the class in a reading lesson]

COMPAORE: In Burkina Faso we have over 60 languages. And More language is one of the most spoken language of the country. About five million people in Burkina Faso speak More, use More as first language, or maybe a second language.

LEHMAN: The students at the Apostolic Mission Church are mostly in their late teens and early 20’s. It’s a good bet that most of them have had little or no formal education. Fewer than half of Burkina Faso’s children attend school. Adama Traore is Director of Elementary Education and Adult Literacy for the southwestern province of Kenedougou. He says many of the villages in his province lack a school and only a handful provide secondary education. Traore says the number one reason why a village does not have a school is money.

ATIMAH TRAORE: [via a translator] I’ve never made the calculation as to how much it cost to, to manage a school, to run a school in a year. The government pays only the salaries of the staff and all the support administrative staff here in the provincial capital and so on. And the, the students and their families have to pay for their own supplies, their book, and so on. And the village has, if the village wants a school they are, they must take charge of building the school themselves or finding the financing themselves to build the school.

LEHMAN: But with some 90 percent of the nation’s workforce involved in the agricultural sector why would rural villages take on the immense task of raising money to build a school? Atimah Traore

ATIMAH TRAORE: [via a translator] People come to realize now today that having a minimal education is important for even the farmers and that’s why they call it education de base [a French phrase] “basic education.”

LEHMAN: The Burkina Faso government is in the midst of a 10-year plan to raise literacy rates dramatically. The goal is a 70 percent literacy rate by 2009. Currently the rate is about 40 percent according to the government, but the United Nations estimates the rate to be more like 24 percent. Both sources, however, indicate the literacy rate has been steadily climbing over the past 15 years. Traore says the government sees raising literacy rates as crucial to the future of a nation rated as one of the least developed in the world by the UN.

ATIMAH TRAORE: [via a translator] Through research and studies they have learned that a country that has less than 40 percent literacy rate can’t get out of underdevelopment. They, they can’t move ahead.

LEHMAN: Traore says raising the literacy rate will take more than increasing the number of kids in school. The government has established a series of nonformal basic education centers for adults and openly welcomes the help of nongovernmental organizations that teach reading and writing skills. One such organization is the National Bible Translation and Literacy Association, commonly known by its French acronym, ANTBA. While ANTBA’s chief objective is Bible translation, it also promotes literacy as what it calls “a necessary part of the development of a whole person.” Zanga Traore, no relation to Adama, is ANTBA’s Literacy Coordinator for western Burkina Faso. He says even people who have attended school sometimes do not know how to write in their own language.

ZANGA TRAORE: [via a translator] And often the way we express ourselves in our own language cannot be expressed in French and there’s many things that are best expressed in one’s own language.

LEHMAN: ANTBA currently conducts literacy training in four languages: Jula, More, Buamu, and Sinufu. What makes the task even more difficult is the fact that some languages include certain dialects spoken in as few as five to ten villages. Traore says ANTBA uses basic primers to teach people to read and write.

ZANGA TRAORE: [via a translator] After that we develop little booklets of fables and history, stories. Traditionally people used to sit around the fire at night and tell stories about the history of the village or some other kind of legend. But now we can put it in a book and, and give this history. And also at times we translate certain books into the local languages.

LEHMAN: [interviewing Zanga Traore] If the stories and the legends that are passed down in the villages have existed for so many years, why is it important to now put them in written form?

ZANGA TRAORE: [via a translator] We have to say that those who know very well these stories are dying, are getting old and dying. And Africa is developing at such a speed that we are in danger of losing this history with the death of our elders. There are stories that were told from generation to generation that were still being told 20 years ago but are not being told any more today. And so if it is written, then the people will keep their stories.

LEHMAN: One reason why many of these stories are in danger of being lost is that young people are increasingly moving to the cities to seek work. Zanga Traore says this is a result of wider changes in society.

ZANGA TRAORE: [via a translator] In the olden days you could exchange products, bartering between each other. But nowadays you have to earn money in order to get the goods you need. And so they come to the city to find work to have money. Or somebody like me who goes to school, and graduates, the job that I am most likely to find will be in a city, not in the village.

LEHMAN: But even with some villagers moving away to find work or to attend school, Traore says finding people eager to learn to read and write in their own language is generally not a problem.

ZANGA TRAORE: [via a translator] Most of the people here are proud of their language. So if one starts working in their language they’re very happy. And also one understands better in one’s own language, than a second language that you learn. The language is a medium for culture. And if you lose your language then you lose your culture.

[A teacher leads the class in a reading lesson]

LEHMAN: Back in Ouagadougou, Daniel Compaore is a busy man. In addition to organizing literacy classes at area churches he also runs several private schools. But he says the rewards for teaching reading and writing skills are intangible.

DANIEL COMPAORE: As we endeavor to teach adults and see them grow into knowing how to read really well, we’ll see that they just have a new joy, a new opening in their lives.

LEHMAN: He says he’d like to reach more people with the literacy classes but primers cost money—a resource which is always in short supply. And he says unless more reading material is developed in the country’s native languages even his best students are in danger of forgetting what they’ve learned.

DANIEL COMPAORE: Even though the government has put great effort into literacy you have to develop reading materials, so that people once they learn how to read can have something to read. If they don’t, then they fall back into illiteracy.

[sound of local music]

LEHMAN: For Common Ground, I’m Chris Lehman is Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

MCHUGH: Cassettes and transcripts of this program are available. The transcripts are free. Cassettes cost $5.00. To place an order or to share your thoughts about the program, write to us at: The Stanley Foundation, 209 Iowa Avenue, Muscatine, Iowa 52761. Please refer to Program Number 0217; that’s Program 02-17. To order by credit card you can call us at 563-264-1500. That’s 563-264-1500.

PORTER: Transcripts are also available on our web site, Commongroundradio is all one word. Our e-mail address is For Common Ground, I’m Keith Porter.

MCHUGH: And I’mKristin McHugh. Cliff Brockman is our Associate Producer. B.J. Liederman created our theme music. Common Ground is produced and funded by The Stanley Foundation.

© 2002 by The Stanley Foundation

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