Jonas Østergaard Nielsen – University of Copenhagen

Waterworlds > Letters from the Field > Jonas Østergaard Nielsen

Jonas Østergaard Nielsen 

November 2010

Al Qaeda is the big topic. Is going to the north of Burkina Faso save I ask at the Danish embassy in Ouagadougo. Its up to you I am told, but we don't send any people up there at the moment, the woman working for the embassy tells me. Not that it unsafe as such, but you just never know she adds.

Ouagadougo is like all other big cities full of people from elsewhere. Also from the north of the country. In the afternoon I meet up with my good friend, or ‘brother', Ahidjo. Ahidjo is Bella, a desert people living in the Sahel region of West Africa. He has lived in Ouaga for a long time. Working as a driver, taking tourist, the few that do make it to Burkina Faso, and people working for Western institutions around. He is, to put it mildly, upset about the fear about going to his home region. "There is no problem" he keep telling me in an agitated voice while making us tea in his courtyard in a dusty hot suburb of this rapidly expanding city. Of course, the Al Qaeda ‘problem' is not good for business, but I trust his judgment.

The next day I am on my way. The journey is uneventful, except the obligatory breakdown of the truck I caught from Dori to Gorom-Gorom. Blaise Campore touring the country campaigning for yet another term as president is selling himself in this region by promising to pave this treacherous piece of road. The people here love this idea. Indeed the reason why and the election have guided my first weeks of fieldwork in Biidi 2, the small village 14 km from Gorom I have worked in for years and is now revisiting.

Coming back to a place you know well is always interesting. There are of course a number of reasons for this, but change is a crucial component and something has changed. People seems happier, cleaner, better dressed, well simply better off. Why I wonder?

The rain. The rain has become better, well in fact I am told they cannot, even the older people, remember a year this good. Well, ok, maybe there was a year around 1990, but maybe not. Moreover, 2009, 2008, 2007 were also good years. But 2010! The rain has fallen beautifully. Not in an extreme quantity, but in the right way. It started early, had no long breaks, no destructive downpours and it did not finish until October. Rain in October, that is "something we have never experienced before", I am told again and again.

Clearly good rain make a big difference for people engaged in rain-fed agriculture. But, and of course there is one, even a perfect year like this one does not result in a sufficient harvest. There is still not enough crops on the fields to feed the household until next harvest. Food has to be bought and food is expensive. In fact, the price of food is, I am told, their major concern. It goes up and down, but mainly up.

It is as if one unpredictability, the rain, has been replaced by another, the price of food.
Another change is development projects. These have been an integral part of life here for a number of years, but since my last stay the number of them has exploded. They are everywhere and catching up is difficult, but one thing is clear: The two most important projects are the ones selling food in the village. The villagers have worked hard to attract these projects and they finally arrived this year. The price they sell at is less than half compared to the market. This means the villagers eat more, but also have money for other things than food, like better cloths, medicine and motor bikes. They are consequently extremely interested in keeping these projects or even attracting others that sell or give away food. The election provides them a platform.

All the parties running for the election visit the village these days. Here the parties tell their plans if they win and in turn the villagers tell them about their wishes. The villagers want projects, they want stable food prices and better roads. The one from Dori to Gorom needs to be improved, for example. This will lower the price of food. They also want the president to win, because, I am told, "he has the power to negotiated with other countries about the arrival of aid and the price of food".

Focusing on the villagers negotiation with their votes in the shadow of good yet insufficient rains and rising food prices a nexus of local actions, political power and global connection reveals a picture of how an isolated village in northern Burkina Faso understand and try to influences national and global forces. It is this picture I am trying to grasp.
See you in January!