And the Streets Will Be Lined With Gold…

As an American in Burkina Faso, you find yourself facing a lot of different kinds of harassment and requests. I have found that not even my decrepit, desperate and unshaven Peace Corps look dissuades Burkinabe from approaching me to ask if I can take the back to America or if I can pay for a ticket for them to go. It is very easy for any American to wrap their brain around the absurdity of this request, sometimes asked in earnest and sometimes jokingly. In order to take a Burkinabe to America I would have to marry them, and then, somehow, find a way to pay for two tickets back to the promised land when I can’t even pay for one myself.

But the Burkinabe assume that, as an American citizen, you carry with you blank passports ready to be filled with their names and information, permanent visas and a magical stamp that, when applied to the paperwork you can surely provide to your Burkinabe assailant, will make any customs officer throw open their arms and cry “Welcome to America!” But what is so great about America in the first place? Why does everyone want to go there? Why is it that I get followed in the streets by hopeful Burkinabe that have somehow heard that I can take them home with me? Talking with Burkinabe about this makes me realize that there are a number of misconceptions about the United States, pieces of reality that didn’t make it into the action movies and television shows the Burkinabe watch. I was sitting outside the ministry of education in Solenzo one morning drinking tea with a few teachers when the subject came up.

“So, why don’t you take me to America?” A secondary school teacher asked smirking at me, “I’d like to go there so that I can have lots of money.” After explaining to him that it would be more than impossible to take him to America with me, I challenged him on his assumption. “Do you think that going to America will make you rich?” I asked, “You know, there is great poverty there too. And life is not easy for immigrants.” But I couldn’t convince him. Even when I explained to him that people, especially immigrants, fall through the cracks in America too, that there is racism, that there is even hunger, that the cost of living can be prohibitive and that Americans are not hospitable and kind like the Burkinabe. Somehow he couldn’t get the image out of his mind that he would step of the plane and find work and housing immediately that would allow him to rise through the ranks and become a wealthy citizen. Has this ever happened? Of course. The American dream isn’t a complete fantasy, but for every immigrant that comes with nothing and makes their way to CEO, there are hundreds more that get stuck and lost and find themselves in poverty stricken and violent neighborhoods in a strange land.

So what does this mean to a Burkinabe? The secondary school teacher who I was talking to was not poor by Burkina Faso standards. He and his colleagues are what are called ‘fonctionaires’ or government workers with a stable salary-a relative middle class with enough money to pay for food and housing and school for their children. But for the 80+% of Burkinabe who live off of subsistence farming, being ‘American poor’ is far more desirable that what they have to go through if the rains don’t come. There is a stagnation in that bottom 80%, a place they cannot see beyond because preventable diseases kill 30% of the population every year. Because 60% of children die before reaching their first birthday.  Because life has not awarded them the ability to look further than their next meal. These are realities that most Americans left in the 20th century. Is it fair for me to say to someone whose reality is as such that America would be no better for them? If there is even the possibility of earning a little extra money, why wouldn’t you take it? 

I know my status in the community as an American will always make my relationships with the Burkinabe different than if I were a host country national, but still I  have managed to find some people that I really trust and respect. One such friend, a young Muslim man who just recently passed his high school exams, is a shining example of where hard work and determination can get you. My friend, lets call him Muhammad, is keen on learning English and will often insist we practice when I come over to his family compound to drink tea with him and his brothers. He is well read, a critical thinker, has a great sense of humor, and is very driven, and I find myself comfortable talking to him in a way that escapes me with other Burkinabe. After finally finishing his exams, he is torn between continuing to University or finding a job to support his large Muslim family, being that he is the oldest boy and his father and all three of his father's wives will be looking to him for support.

Muhammad on Ramadan

One evening Muhammad told me a story about a friend of his that played a clever trick on African border patrol. He hopped on a fan bus to go to a soccer match in Angola, and when he arrived he sped out into the city to find work, shrewdly avoiding going back to Burkina Faso. Eventually, he earned enough money to buy his mother and father a house in Angola, and even a car. With the weight of familial responsibility on his shoulders, Muhammad found this story inspiring. He told me that he understood that, if he had someone in America to vouch for him, he could go get a temporary sales visa at the embassy and fly to the US to be received by his American sponsor. Then, he told me, it would be easy to simply go find work and begin to make money for a few years.

My heart dropped when Muhammad expressed his plan to me. Not only did I catch the implication, that he needed an American sponsor (me), but his assumptions were so deeply riddled with inaccuracies that I could hardly fathom what to say. There were two sentiments in me in fierce conflict: the first was anger. I thought Muhammad was my friend, how could he even imply this? Was that all our friendship was to him, a ticket to America? Eventually, when he got bolder, he outright asked me if he could borrow money from my parents! The second was sympathy: How could I blame him? And this is the constant conflict here: the resentment for being seen as nothing more than an opportunity to take advantage of when I came to do so much more, and the realization that this far off fantasy is all some of these people have to hold on to.