When you step off the plane, even as you stand at the top of the steps, the smell of heat and dust, sweat and spice, diesel and sand greets you in that warm and gentle West African way. Welcome to Burkina Faso! It is mid evening, and Ouagadougou, Burkina’s capital city, is surprisingly dark at 8pm. I had come to visit missionaries and see this country for myself, trying to understand the state of the churches and the challenges they face. It has been eight years since I last visited West Africa, and this was my first visit to Burkina. Now that I am back in Blighty and have been able to reflect on those life-packed days, here are some thoughts about the culture of Burkina Faso, and its opportunities and challenges.
The dust is what strikes you first; the red dust of Mars that gets everywhere. Only the main roads have tarmac, so all the side streets are a bright red dust that gets on your trousers, in your nose, on every home appliance and all over anything that stands still. With temperatures kindly settling no higher than 37o at midday (‘This is cool, and the humidity has gone’ they all said with relief), November was a good time to travel, but you can’t escape the attrition of the heat. Police guards on the roads, clad in body armour and AK47s, sweat in the roasting heat, but take it in their stride. Mad dogs and Englishmen need to rise early and enjoy those precious first two hours after daylight, and retire to the shade at lunchtime. After dark is also productive time, which the British generally waste at home in front of their TVs.
I’ve been to Manila, Chennai and Johannesburg, so shanty towns seem normal in any urban setting. What surprised me here is that tin shacks are rare. The poorest live in mud brick houses, still cherishing some of the building skills handed down from their forebears, while anyone further up the social scale will build with concrete blocks. The edge of the city blends more naturally into the countryside, as a village here is a much more tight knit community of mud brick houses. I was told that the father stands at his door and throws a stone, and where it lands there he builds a house for the child who is leaving home. The effect is that houses butt together in small clusters, set among trees and grassland, but with small signs of technology creeping into this ancient arrangement of homes – perhaps a motorbike, a plastic sheet covered with advertising, or an abandoned car tyre. Then among these tiny settlements rises a radio mast, for everyone must have a radio, and many will have a smartphone. The radio and the mobile, as they require so much less infrastructure than land lines or mains water, are technologies made for Africa, and feature prominently in the work of cross-cultural mission.
The thing that surprised me more than I expected was how much of the countryside was not farmed. Land is rarely enclosed here, which is an issue of some contention. The Fulani are nomadic herdsmen, and they roam wherever there is feed for their cattle. But if they stray onto a farmer’s crop, he will lose his harvest and there may be violence. At the same time, defining who owns land and organising its proper cultivation seemed to my eyes to be a real challenge. I may be a mistaken townie, but it did seem to be that the land could be more productive. Many African countries lack effective agricultural policies, and this fertile continent could produce so much more. A friend of mine in my college days was a Peruvian agronomist, and when working with TearFund in the Andes helped improve the soil so much that yields increased tenfold. Could something similar be achieved here?
It is still sad to report that there is a failure of political leadership in too many African countries. The new government of Burkina Faso ousted a government that had ruled for years. That means that those who now in power are only just finding their way, and already people speculate on where the money is going, and why they aren’t stopping army guns from falling into the hands of Jihadists. It was good to see new roads being built, but you long to hear of universal free primary education being set as an achievable goal. A third of children who fail to get any primary education live in West Africa, and literacy in Burkina Faso sits at only 36%.
As I sat on the steps of a school with my colleague in the midday sun, he reflected on how the Francophone world is so far behind the Anglophone world. Referring to The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization, he pointed out how the Bible has shaped so many of the aspects of protestant civilisation that we take for granted – the rule of law, moral values, literature, rational enquiry and science, having compassion for the poorest. All these become rooted in a culture when the Bible is translated into that language and its message transforms that culture. In West Africa the church is young – mostly first or second generation – so it is exciting to consider how life can change for these countries, but it takes a hundred years of gospel work. At the point where the gospel is making an impact in West Africa, how tragic to think of how much Britain is rejecting the book that made our world.
And the churches of Burkina really are growing. We were taken to a church where over four hundred young Christians crowded in to hear a national preach a fine sermon on the sovereignty of God. It would be interesting to know how many could follow in their Bibles. When the service was over, another two hundred older Christians crowded in to the next service in the Lobiri language. If sound doctrine is to be taught to this generation, then they need to learn to sing it. That was the secret of Whitefield and the Wesleys: illiterate Christians learnt the gospel by singing it in the words of Wesley, Newton and Cowper. So it was a pity that the songs that were sung were simplistic one-verse choruses – a missed opportunity when you consider the passion with which they were sung.
It was good to see that the national churches are taking wings and flying without missionary leadership. That is important, because the effect of colonialism has been to build dependency into the culture. The answers to so many needs are still seen as being in the West, and any westerner is seen as a potential cash flow. I was taken to see several church buildings that are going up and are urgently needed, and the implication is that I would take photos and promote them. One pastor asked me ‘How long did it take you to raise the funds for your new church building, Jim?’ I had to tell him it was ten years, and it cost £400,000. He was astonished. In four years, they as rural village Christians have the walls and roof beams up on a building for a hundred people. It will be appropriate for them when it is done, they will have proved that with God nothing is impossible, and their songs will shake the tin roof to his glory.
Finally, it is a serious thing to be a Christian in Burkina. In the capital and the northern provinces, those who come to believe in Christ from a Muslim background face real dangers. Among those who come from recently/barely reached people groups this will be particularly true. And those who have come to serve here as missionaries struck me as having a seriousness about them that impressed me. They serve the Lord in the face of more attrition than most, and they do so with joy, love and a graciousness that moved me. It was a privilege to be among you.