West Africa 2006

Site Visits to West Africa: Burkina Faso, Togo and Cape Verde
October and November 2006

When I began planning my trip to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Daopong, Togo and Praia, Cape Verde, people teased me that I had found places off the map.  But, I discovered that these places are very much on the map of sisters’ outstanding ministries. All three countries are listed by the United Nations as least developed. Hot, humid climates without much rainfall, poor soil and political conflicts or oppression within and in neighboring countries have kept Burkina Faso and Togo poor. Almost half of Burkina Faso is desert. Climate, rocky soil and isolation are major causes of poverty in Cape Verde. Ouagadougou is the political capital of Burkina Faso and Bobo-Dialasso is the commercial capital. A main road that is mostly paved connects these two centers. In between are large expanses of land, often desert, where the people eke out a living. They grow millet, corn, peanuts and a few vegetables. Cotton was once the major export of the country, but the country has been inched out of the market by western nations, namely the United States. Thus, people are very poor. Malnutrition is rampant as families switch from food to cash producing crops. Families are broken as fathers leave their homes in search of employment in neighboring countries. Frequently, they do not return and women are left to find any means they can for their children’s survival.  Traditional customs of early marriage for girls keeps them uneducated and unable to provide for their children. Polygamy is practiced, another tradition that hinders woman’s development. HIV/AIDS is fast becoming a major killer of women and men. Lack of clean water is also a serious health problem. Many people die from cholera and other water-borne diseases because there are not sufficient medicines.

Sisters are one of the major influences in the country that promote development through education, health care and social services. There are many missionary congregations present in Burkina Faso and four native groups. All have schools, projects to train women in income-generating skills and sustainable agriculture, clinics and training for mothers. They also have water projects to help people obtain water and teach them how to safely treat it for drinking. The sisters themselves are keen to learn skills in management and budgeting for projects and have established programs through their national conference for this to happen. They are also committed to education of girls to help end the traditions of the culture that keep young women from development, providing them with hostels to keep them safe and focused on study.

The sisters also have many creative programs for orphans of parents who have died from HIV/AIDS. These children are left without food, safety and education. The Sisters of the Annunciation, founded in Bobo-Dialasso and one of the first native congregations, has many such projects near their mother house and in rural areas. The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary also have a project in Bobo-Dialasso where malnourished children and their mothers are rehabilitated. The sisters keep the children and mothers until the children regain their health. Meanwhile, the mothers are taught how to prepare nourishing food with things at hand, sustainable gardening and food preservation, something very new to people used to total dependence on nature. I was especially intrigued by the food preservation program.

I also visited a very impressive project of intercongregational education. It was first initiated as a national program for formators of young members and gradually developed into an international program for West Africa.  The program is in a lovely setting and it is well-organized. The National Conference also has a credit and loan program for its membership and a health insurance plan. It was my first experience of hearing of such an initiative among sisters themselves.

Since Togo is close, the sisters drove me to Dapaong, just across the border from Burkina Faso. Even though it is close by, it was the first time one of my companions had ever been in Togo. Our first stop was at a pediatric hospital managed by the Sister Hospitallers of St. Augustine. On the same grounds as the pediatric facility is an outstanding HIV/AIDS project where people can receive testing, counseling and treatment for the disease. The sisters also have a home for orphans and a program where at-risk young women can learn income-generating skills and the hospital has a nutrition program where algae is produced, harvested, dried and used as a food supplement for malnourished children.

I traveled with an American Sister of the Assumption and a French Sister Divine Providence the full length of Togo, a narrow, small country south of Burkina Faso. As we traveled, we visited projects or potential projects: hostels for young women attending secondary school, pediatric centers and orphan projects. We arrived in Sokode late one evening where the Sisters of the Assumption have a secondary/vocational school, originally for girls; it now includes boys in compliance with government regulations. It is the only school in the northern part of Togo that offers computer education which the Fund for Sisters helped to start. It is a beautiful school and well managed. The school no longer has boarders because of many complications of such a ministry, but it does provide outdoor study centers with electricity so that students living in nearby boarding houses or in homes without electricity can study at night. I thought this a unique strategy.

Before traveling on towards Lome, the capital of Togo, I visited a group of sisters that are active contemplatives, The Orantes of the Assumption. They are learning to manage a printing business for the diocese and have a large farm in a remote area where they teach sustainable farming. We also stopped to visit an amazing farm that the Assumption Sisters have started to generate income to finance their schools, hostels and other projects. The farm produces teak, ebony and cashew trees as well as corn and pineapples. The sister who manages the farm was trained in France.

Lome was my last stop in Togo before going on to Cape Verde, a small, nine-island country off the coast of Senegal. There are only about 160 sisters in the country and only one native congregation. On the main island, Santiago, I visited several hostels for young women attending primary or secondary schools, kindergartens and skills training centers for sewing and tailoring. People are very poor and because the land is so rocky and rainfall not reliable, even growing vegetables is nearly impossible on the main island of Santiago. Nearly everything is imported, including food and clothing. Only recently, the government is allowing secondhand clothing from the United States to be imported and sold. One of the other islands produces coffee and another has been developed for tourism. A major part of the economy is still from money sent by relatives living in other countries.

Tourism is also gradually increasing on Santiago as people recognize the potential of the gorgeous mountain scenery, beautiful beaches and fishing opportunities. Many immigrants are returning Cape Verdians from Portugal and the northeastern part of the United States where about one million of the 1,200,000 natives live. They are bringing money with them to retire and to start small businesses. One of the most practical businesses is taxis, a nearly non-existent service only a few years ago. As I walked about the small towns, I also saw burgeoning construction of lovely houses—homes for immigrants or rentals to generate income. Due to poverty, sending children abroad to work was common practice for many years. In fact, one of the sisters said to me that even today the primary export of Cape Verde is its children, legal and illegal. However, the government is now enforcing new laws to inhibit child trafficking.  Since the people are poor and unemployed, the sisters are challenged to keep projects operating and must often depend on funds from overseas. Their commitment to girls’ education was very inspiring to me.

I found these three countries of West Africa very interesting due to the variety of ethnic groups, traditions, languages and economic challenges. I was intrigued with the many bicycles I saw in Burkina Faso, which reminded me of my time in China. In rural areas, polygamous family settlements fascinated me. They were built like small forts where the various huts for the wives, small girls, small boys, older boys and husbands had connecting walls. The compound had only one entrance that was secured each night by the father. Older girls usually do not live with their family because most would be married-off at about age 12. Togo’s forests were very beautiful and I experienced the almost daily challenge of halted traffic on the main north to south road due to overturned trucks coming from Lome.  Cape Verde’s people wore very colorful clothing and the country reminded me of Haiti—the island culture and the melding of Catholicism and African spirituality. However, Haiti is even poorer. I was surprised to see the strong influence of Brazil and Portugal on dress and on the Church. I also enjoyed riding from one small town to another on vans chocked full of people.

After seeing the many needs of the people and the challenges they face day after day, I look forward to having the Fund for Sisters become a partner with the sisters in addressing them.