In the early part of January of 2016, I had occasion to travel to delightful Burkina Faso in West Africa, located just below the Sahara desert and just above the equator. Long a bastion of peacefulness, stability, and welcoming generosity among it’s neighboring countries, Burkina went through an uncharacteristic stretch of political upheaval in the past 15 months. There was also the matter of the horrific terrorist attack aimed at ex-pats which occurred at a downtown Ouagadougou hotel the evening after we safely departed, which was orchestrated by outsiders. Yet, the predominant mood I encountered was one of strong positivity and sincere friendliness. The Burkinabé believe in the their future, are proud of their national demeanor, and have good reason to be. This is one of a series of reflections occasioned by my visit there.
There are about 70 official state orphanages in Burkina Faso. An average one houses about 40-50 children at any point in time, so this gives about 3000 children officially institutionalized, which does not include the occasional extremely poor and decrepit beggar children one encounters wandering alone about the city of Ouagadougou with a look of permanent resignation and misery etched upon their faces and hollow eyes. Aside from this, one social working volunteer from Italy remarked to me that a majority of the orphans, mostly boys, once they reach age 10 or 11 while still going unadopted at their facility, simply elect to ‘escape’ into the unknown and unfed mystery world beyond their orphanage walls, rarely to be heard from again. Thus, whether they realize it or not, the clock is ticking from the moment they first achieve self-awareness. Will a suitable family situation be found in time? Will there ever be a mommy and a daddy?
Many orphanages have nurseries, special rooms for infants aged zero to twelve months. Maybe three or four caregivers sit around ministering to them, gradually discerning clues to the children’s unfolding personalities and idiosyncracies, information which may someday become part of a two or three sentence psychological description in a prospective adoption dossier. After the child’s first birthday it is gradually introduced into rest of the facility. Many can walk by this time, but they may elect mostly to sit on the floor at some secure vantage spot and observe the confusing, perhaps terrifying cacophony of activity whirring by. Meals are taken by hand, fingers at first, in simple bowls; the staple meal is bland porridge made from a local root vegetable related to yuccas, called tou. As infants get older they may have a carrot soup or spiced tomato puree to enliven their tou. On special occasions there are treats.
The toddlers reign supreme at the orphanage I visited. At one point I saw a confident and amazingly swift squadron of barefoot 3-year-old boys purposefully tearing around a corner and down a tiled corridor into a large open-roofed room. Following, but with much less speed and glee, I arrived to see a couple of them, pants down, shooting streams of pee into spittoon-like bowls against a wall. Accuracy was not the main concern here. From the fragrance I discerned that both excretions were accomplished in this manner. In less than 30 seconds they were off again, pants up and dashing to other parts of the compound. Their demeanor had that irrepressible aspect of positivity and optimistic comradery of new masters of their physiques and world, for which every moment is a shared joyous exploration. I asked one of the guides about how toilet training works. He explained that the workers are happy to clean up after the children regularly, several times a day, and that this system of a public wall lavatory was both natural and less problematic than ushering toddlers and infants into bathrooms one-by-one. Besides this, it encouraged the children’s freedom and responsibility. He also told me that Africans do not toilet train their children (saying this with some pride and a mild culturally accusatory air aimed westward). It was okay to have to clean bedsheets frequently, and diapers, until such time as the child naturally learned to control things by themselves. One of the most endearing quirks I’ve noticed about west African adoptees, the boys at least, is the way they uninhibitedly whip out their units to relieve themselves wherever and whenever — a habit that is easily altered if dealt with gently and with a dose of good humor.
One afternoon all the children were assembled for a party. It was a special day because one of the young boys were leaving with his new parents. These were always celebrated occasions, a last chance to bid farewell and perhaps to deepen the reality of the dream of departing for some children. There were drummers invited to make music for dancing, cakes and treats, and bananas and oranges and speeches by the directing staff. It was notable to me how orderly and well-behaved the group of thirty or so kids were. They participated in a most lively manner but easily remained seated when told to or when listening. They would erupt in laughter alertly at any humorous provocation. I noticed the strong, seemingly inherent, unlearned communal spirit active among the group. A temporary worker from Europe who was spending some months there confirmed this. He was spearheading a project to irrigate some land within the compound’s walls to grow a few vegetables for more self-sufficiency. He remarked that he noticed it almost immediately, even among the youngest inhabitants. These children thought and acted for the good of the group in ways unthinkable among a similar group of American kids. Sharing was completely natural and even something taken pleasure in. Politeness, social cohesion, and a giving attitude was simply so present that it stood out. It was a delight to experience, and I wished for more time to deepen these realizations and explore their relatedness to the elusive and likely wildly naive ideas I had about the ‘African character’. Taking leave of that party was one of the warmest departures I’ve ever experienced, all the young eyes upon me.
Is There Fault?
Orphans arrive at their Burkinabé facilities in a variety of ways. Some transitions are planned and carefully managed even before childbirth. Others are a product of some kind of tribal decision made by elders, perhaps due to economic or other social factors. Sometimes, of course, a baby with a blanket is just found at the doorstep of the orphanage in the morning, and staff must react. A social media posting I found from staff at one Burkina orphanage captures the exasperation during a particularly difficult week during the summer of 2014:
But is this locating of the blame exclusively upon the ‘recalcitrant’ birth mothers really fair? Going against the wishes or dictates of elder counsel in such a patriarchal and tight-knit social context would not be easy. It might not even be possible or conceivable to some young mothers who would have no economic independence whatsoever, and face isolation or banishment. And of course there are many situations in which the father is not present. I heard a fair amount about the many social factors which could make a child an orphan candidate according to the morays operating in Burkina Faso — factors which make little or no sense when artificially dropped into a western context. It is surprising to me that female orphanage workers in situ could discard these cultural factors and see the birth mothers as the primary source of the problem.
It’s fairly recent that international adoption protocols have been successfully negotiated between Burkina Faso and western nations. The process began with France due to the colonial history between the two countries. There is something wonderful and beautiful about the destinies of these young explorers from the savannas of the Sahel, and the circuitous routes they’ve taken to gamely brave the cultural wilds of Europe and North America. What will they bring in the coming decades and what will we have the grace to accept? I can only salute and honor their penetrating gazes, astonishing smiles, and unfamiliar yet pleasing spirits.
If interested, you can read another item in this little series of reflections about wonderful Ouagadougou here.
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