Thursday, July 3, 2014

Getting Djigui in Ouagadougou - Not a Euphemism

It was a warm and dusty night when 22 young Brits, all wearing t-shirts with the slogan ‘challenge yourself to change your world’, stepped off the plane in Burkina Faso – ‘the land of upright people’. We didn’t know one another, but one thing we did know is that we had a desire to fight poverty in the developing world. We had committed to spend three months in this landlocked West African country, working on development projects as part of the ICS scheme.  It was the start of a new year, and none of us had any idea how things would develop. I had no idea what a profound impact it would have on my life.
I had come to Ouagadougou, the capital, to work with Djigui (pronounced ‘jiggy’) Espoir, an organisation set up to offer paid work to disabled women who might otherwise be destitute.  After a brief spell on crutches in 2013, I had become more sympathetic to the difficulties faced by the disabled in London, but in Burkina, disabled people are the most marginalised in society: valued less than others and rejected by the wider community. To be disabled in Burkina is to face unbelievable discrimination. There are many taxi drivers who won’t drive them and it is typical for restaurants to refuse them entry. Very often, families with disabled children simply hide them away. Most critical however, Burkinabes with disabilities find it all but impossible to find paid work; living in extreme poverty; unable, even, to eat. It is within this context that International Service works to support organisations that empower disabled people in Burkina Faso.
Djigui, the place I worked at, was founded in 1995 by a Burkinabe called Marie Dominique Toé. Toé, a disabled woman herself, wanted to challenge attitudes towards disabled people by creating an organisation that would help and empower and eventually provide disabled women with the work they needed to feed their families. Today, Djigui is primarily involved with manufacturing foodstuffs from soya beans and other cereals.
There is no clear job specification for the role of International Service Volunteer, and it took some time for us as a team, to work out how we could use our skills to make a difference. When we arrived, Djigui’s main source of income came from selling delicious soya brochettes which were either made to order or sold at food festivals. The tofu that was being produced was clearly healthy, versatile and inexpensive and it was evident from the versatility of Quorn in the UK, that there was huge potential to include tofu as a key ingredient in local cuisine. So, while we were there, we worked hard to develop a range of tofu products which could be sold to passers-by from a brand new kiosk, attached to Djigui HQ, which had been organised by the previous cohort of volunteers. On most nights we experimented with new tofu-based dishes that we thought might work within the Burkina culture, and bit-by-bit, created a book of Djigui recipes.
The work was varied and included creating marketing materials and organising a promotional open day, as well as helping with the fundamental task of producing soya-based products. 
The pace of work was a far cry from that of a London office and some days were more rewarding than others. But taken as a whole, I found my time in Burkina inspirational. Over 19 years, with limited money and resources, Djigui Espoir has grown in the face of adversity, from one woman’s vision to a thriving group of over 30 members. The work of International Service will continue to be vital in changing attitudes towards disabled people in Burkina Faso and with every cohort that goes to work with Djigui, hopefully more and more progress will be made.
In the months since I returned home, not a day has gone by without my thinking about my time in Africa. I met some really great people, not least the local Burkinabes, who often had me crying with laughter, and the others in the group of 22 who were a pleasure to work with. The experience has influenced me in ways that I had not anticipated and has pointed me (hopefully) towards a career in international development. Whatever happens, I am determined to continue to ‘challenge myself to change my world’.  
Team Djigui - Jan - March 2014.
From left to right - Rory, Serge, Rowan, William, Pippa, Little Elred, Val and Laura

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