The captain slowly taxies our plane around the runway to the designated location; we’ve been going around for a little while now. It’s a good time to reflect but I’d rather let my mind go numb just now – my heart’s not into thinking at the moment.
In, The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley is making a compelling case for trade and specialization being the fundamental contributor to the evolution of prosperity. He is convincing – he has been arguing it one-sidedly for the last 163 pages after all, it better be convincing by now – but it makes me wonder how much of it is already in Adam Smith’s original proposal…
The plane stops and the Captain’s voice rings out on the intercom ‘Flight attendants prepare for takeoff.’ Outside my window, a turbofan starts rotating, air is drawn into a compressor, pressure is increased tenfold, gas is infused, a mixture is ignited, temperatures neighbouring 1000 °C are reached, a turbine starts turning, and a giant technological marvel, built directly by the combined knowledge of hundreds, indirectly by that of millions of people, lurches forward into the night. Within seconds, we are off the ground. Good bye again Montreal.
Departure was hard this time – harder than last time. That time, Catherine was in France when I took off and had been for over six months already. That made it easier. It was also in increments: first to Toronto for a week, slowly getting into the African and EWB mindset during pre-departure training with an amazing group of volunteers, then to Ghana with most of the same group, and eventually arriving in Burkina Faso on my own to meet up with my eventual coach, Val. I expected only the unexpected and to learn a lot.
Nearly 24 hours later, a second plane that departed from Paris lands in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. It is 60 degrees hotter here than it was where I started from but I am surprisingly comfortable. I even manage to keep my sweater on, which bodes well for dealing with the consistently 40-45 + weather that awaits me in April. We are ushered from the plane, to a small overcrowded shuttle, to a small backdoor with a sign saying ‘Personnel only’, into a dim building – noticeably smaller than Montreal’s central bus station – that constitutes Burkina’s only international airport, beneath a fan that risks at any moment to fall on my head, on through to security officers who assuredly do not understand the English that the Chinese visitors ahead of me are trying to communicate, and to the wooden planks that constitute baggage claim. Hello Burkina Faso.
I felt strongly about my and EWB’s mission in Burkina, but I didn’t really know what it meant in practice. I had no idea what Burkina Faso was like, or how were its people, what my work would be like and if I’d be able to do it, whether I would have impact, whether it would be positive. I came in the hopes of creating change, but especially to learn about it – and myself – to understand development and where I fit within it.
Crate after crate is emptied of its contents, which are then put on to the planks. The room slowly empties as Burkina Faso’s latest arrivals reclaim their belongings one by one. I wait calmly and tiredly, confident that, despite containing some urgently needed Indian food wrapped in socks for Val, my baggage can’t possibly have gone M.I.A two flights in a row (our baggage arrived two days late in Toronto in December when coming back from Ghana). I am eventually obliged to admit that that confidence is unwarranted and must make a claim at the only office I can see.
I’m certainly not done learning, but that’s not why I’ve come back. I’ve witnessed development through many different Burkinabé eyes that used to be completely foreign to me: government agents’, university directors’, teachers’, students’, NGOs’, volunteers’ and Dorothy’s, and now I look to deepen my understanding rather than take it in another direction completely. I also found out that I’m not that crazy about Burkinabé food and that I’ll take snow over dust any day. I certainly like the people, but after a little while I really miss my friends, my family and my love; the five weeks I spent reconnecting with them around Christmas were amazing and I was sad to see that time end so quickly. I’m even really excited about creating change in Montreal and being a part of a global engineering movement – the time spent with my chapter got me incredibly psyched about what we could accomplish at home. So, why am I back in Africa at all?
I step out of the airport, minus my backpack, to the last person left still standing. Nasser, EWB’s first Burkinabé volunteer, has been waiting to pick me up for well over an hour, but you would never have known it. Indeed, motorcycle helmets not far behind, he welcomes me like a brother. Nasser has been part of the EWB team in Burkina for just over a year now and his success inspired us to hire two additional Burkinabés, Idrissa and Hermann, already several months in. When I think of Nasser and those like him, why I’m back here becomes inescapably obvious.
Because Burkina Faso has immense potential. Burkinabés have immense potential. There are those, like Georges Ouédraogo, the Director General of the agricultural college, that strive relentlessly to make something truly grand out of a dull status quo. There are those, like Tasré Bouda, my old counterpart at the ministry of agriculture, who give the best of themselves at their job in the hopes that it will change their country. Finally, there are those, like Nasser, who have been given a small opportunity to begin achieving that potential and are surpassing all expectations both by their personal accomplishments and their ambitions.
But many Burkinabés don’t buy this. If they do, then they are too often soon defeated. They are constrained by systems that are as indifferent to innovation as they are to complacency and that often even reward nepotism if not outright corruption. They have been taught – if not at school, then in life – to do and repeat what they are told, perhaps no less but certainly no more. They have also been led to believe – sometimes intentionally and sometimes with the best of intentions – that they cannot do anything without an outside source (government, NGOs, the West, me, … take your pick) first giving them everything they need. As they say, “C’est pas facile.”
There needs to be a push in the opposite direction. Systems that reward innovation, that encourage bottom-up feedback, that ensure top-down accountability. Higher education that pushes students to develop their own potential. A movement of people armed not with the belief but the certainty that they can have real impact and bring positive change to their country.
I’m not going to do all of that. Not even close. But I’m going to do everything I can.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”