Thursday, March 6, 2014

Burkina Faso: the end of an ICS placement is just the beginning

Lassane gets up at 4am almost every day. He crosses the city of Ouagadougou to the modern district of Ouaga 2000, an artificial neighbourhood constructed from scratch to relocate ministries, embassies and hotels to the periphery. The wide and empty boulevards (in practice, the city centre-Ouaga 2000 migration has taken place at West African pace) are ideal for him to practise his sport. After training, Lassane works a full day as an artisan, creating the handicrafts which have become the country's trademark. Bedtime is at 8pm in readiness for another packed day.

Lassane is a paralympic hand cyclist with a physical handicap. On his two arms, he wades into the office of the Burkinab√© Federation for Handicapped Sports, a partner of UK NGO International Service, and his smile lights up the room. And we learn about his life. We hear how he often has to partially fund his own participation in regional paralympic competition, but how he toils to do so because it puts that great smile on his face, gives him confidence and is great for his health. My amazing experience last year as an ICS volunteer is not a story about me - it's about the inspiring  lives of those we had the privilege to work alongside. I volunteered from September till December, seeking a career break, an experience of West Africa and to 'do some good' before returning to my job in Brussels. But two months after the end of my placement, I'm still zipping around this dusty Sahelien city of smiles and loving it.

The ICS programme gave me a taster - something to whet my appetite. It gave me food for thought, which fed an intense curiosity about the development issues of the region. It gave me time to explore opportunities to play a tiny role in the forward movement which finally seems to be in motion in an area whose image has been marred by war and civil unrest. Through socialising with Burkinabé and expats alike, opportunities soon arose. Without sending a single job application, I had two job offers from Chinese companies (having a Chinese background) and strong interest from a development consultancy. This and the end-of-placement feeling of having 'unfinished business' was enough for me to quit my comfortable job in Europe to make Ouaga my home for the next few months (years?).

I returned and secured a job at the development consultancy. A few weeks later, I was in talks for a short term project working for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) on their Burkina Faso and Togo strategies, and accepted it. The project, starting mid-March, will allow me to learn about the movement of people in the context of development, and also how the internationally-endorsed official development channels work (subject to praise and criticism). Moreover, I have also been in talks with a European entrepreneur who is interested in collaborating on a start-up aiming to assemble solar-powered vehicles in a country whose punishing sunshine should be transformed into a force for change. It's one of a number of private sector solutions which, in my view, are far more beneficial than pure aid, with clear positive effects for the environment, skilled labour and income generation.

West Africa is not for the faint-hearted. Institutions are weak, corruption an inevitable regularity and things just don't work. However, small, positive changes are taking place daily and a bit of go-getting and courage unearths a myriad of ways to get involved. I'm so glad I took my 'career break' to volunteer with the ICS and hope others will do the same.

Loksan Harley
Burkina Faso Sept-Dec 2013
To read more about Loksan's adventures in Burkina Faso, visit facebook.com/loksaninburkina

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