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July 16, 2018

No problems, only solutions – My learnings from Burkina Faso

Last night, I talked to my friend with whom I once shared a house in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (West Africa). Our conversation about “good old times” made me think back to some of the standard sentences we frequently used. Back then, they made me laugh, and today, I realise that they imply more wisdom than I had thought. As much as these standard sentences shaped the Burkinabè’s minds they ultimately shaped mine. I learned to face uncertainty with creative flexibility, I learned that we can see problems in the light of solutions, and, I learned what it means to see scarcity as a circumstance rather than a destiny.

Burkina Faso 101

Burkina Faso is a low-income, landlocked country in West Africa. Regarding economic and social development, it ranks 185th out of 188 countries covered by the UNDP Human Development Index. The country gained independence in 1960 as “Upper Volta” and adopted the name “Burkina Faso” in 1984 which means “Land of upright people” (pays de l’homme intègre). 

“Burkina should be on everyone’s travel list – it may not have many big-ticket attractions, but the warmth of its welcome and the friendliness of the Burkinabé people is unique.”

Lonely Planet

Burkina Faso is home to more than 27 ethnic groups who practice a custom that people refer to as “parenté à plaisanterie” (joking relationship). By encouraging members of “related” ethnic groups to make fun or even insult each other without consequences. The tradition helps to defuse possible ethnic tensions and fosters social cohesion. I learned about this custom when a policeman once run towards our bus after a field trip. As I could not understand the words but only witnessed the shouting, I felt tremendous relief when our bus driver and the policeman both started laughing and we continued on our way.

Face uncertainty with creativity

The most important lesson I learned from the “upright people” was how to deal with uncertainty. Daily life confronted us with power cuts, roadblocks and even a curfew after military shootings. For the research schedule not to suffer, creativity was a necessity, and mental flexibility a condition. It was Eustache, one of five interviewers, who found the right words during one of our first interventions when we arrived in the booked location, full of people but without chairs:   
“C’est le terrain qui dicte les règles.” (The field dictates the rules)
Whenever reality dictates the rules, we waste mental energy if we try to stick to a plan that had became futile. Recognising this has ever since helped me to access creative energy to adjust to the circumstances.

There are no problems, but solutions

Instead of complaining or blaming, life forces Burkinabè to come up with creative solutions. When facing a challenge, their standard phrase is:
“Il n’y a pas de problèmes, il y a que des solutions.” (They are no problems, only solutions.)
When the location we rented had no chairs, we found a nearby school to host us. When the village we visited run out of drinking water, the driver activated his network to find the nearest water supply and get refreshments over. And, when one interviewer thought that he could answer the questionnaires himself, all we could do was moving on and engaging the remaining team members.
They became used to unexpected outcomes and adopted a flexible mindset that focuses the process instead of the result. To them, just because something has been done, must not mean that it remains as it is.
“C’est bon mais c’est pas arrivé d’abord.” (It’s good, but it hasn’t arrived yet.)
The team’s joint mission after the disappointment by one of their peers was a quick recovery to work harder towards the goal of providing accurate results.

Out of stock vs. inexistent

One of my addictions is ice-cold Diet Coke, which is considered a luxury good in any developing country. In Burkina Faso, Diet Coke was my “white elephant”. Unlike regular Coke, the diet version was more of an illusion in Ouagadougou’s shops and restaurants. Interestingly though, almost every snack bar had the item on its menu. Stubborn as one could be, I ordered it any time I read it and ended up deceived when receiving the same answer:
“Il y en a. Mais c’est fini!” (There is some. But, it’s out of stock!)   
Contrary to what I first thought, there was no irony involved in the reply. I understood that the response was more of a life-philosophy than a sign of poverty. The shop owners implied that there had been Diet Coke in the past and there will be some in the future. I learned that the “upright people” considered scarcity as a circumstance that must not be perceived as an inevitable future.

The nutshell to take home

The words we use, shape our minds. From my two stays in Burkina Faso, the Land of upright people, I learned that the best way to face uncertainty is by training my mental flexibility. Instead of fearing change, we may try to embrace it. I learned that we can see any problem as an opportunity for a creative solution. And if we fail, at least we fail forward. Finally, I learned that we can see scarcity as a circumstance rather than a destiny. Just because something is not at hand now must not mean that it won’t be in the future. 

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