Sorry for the gulf between columns. I had the privilege of visiting West Africa — specifically, Burkina Faso and Senegal — last month as part of a small delegation from Lansing. Dropping in for a short time hardly makes me an authority on anything I experienced, but I was awakened to a world hitherto only glimpsed through books and TV disaster snippets.
We met with leaders from Burkina Faso and Senegal who had visited here to learn about economic development and civil society. These folks work in their communities empowering women, helping those in extreme poverty, educating students from pre-K through university, training workers, protecting the environment and assisting entrepreneurs. They do it tirelessly, with great passion and compassion, and with no signs that they see this work as a burden, but rather as a responsibility to the places they call home.
Their stories are inspiring, especially as they have so few resources with which to work. But that hasn’t stopped them from opening schools and training centers for those in rural areas who otherwise would be left behind; getting women involved in the community, government and business; and tackling cultural taboos like female circumcision or polygamy. Burkina Faso just passed a law requiring that women have a minimum of 30 percent representation in their parliament or the political parties’ running slates will lose 50 percent of their funding. Meanwhile, Senegal has a parliamentary parity requirement of 50 percent women and men.
Women in Senegal have built a network of 106 organizations that work together on a wide range of issues in support of each other — and the affection they hold for one another and the spirit they bring to their work moved us all.
About a two-hour drive from the capital, Dakar, in the small town of Mboro, one organization has founded a school for children who are orphans, disabled, or otherwise so poor they have not been attending a regular school. The Center for Educational Research and Promotion of Children of Mboro, which we visited, helps get the younger children ready for entry into the formal school system, and those that do enter generally excel.
Those who come to the center too far behind to benefit from that form of education are trained here through the International Center for Practical Training in a trade — carpentry/woodworking, metal working, masonry, cosmetology, beekeeping — so they can move beyond their current station in life. But it doesn’t stop there. In Mboro, the center started a restaurant, a cyber café and a radio station that employ locals, while the profits they earn help sustain the school and training center.
The leadership, staff and volunteers (we met a Peace Corps worker from Atlanta) are not only dedicated, but also effuse compassion and caring at high levels. There was no hubris or arrogance visible to me in this work they do for the community. The dedication to democracy, to sharing in decisions, to valuing and empowering every member of the society was most inspiring. Their countries may have come late to the application of political democracy, but I sense they have a deep commitment and appreciation of its force for building fulfilling lives for all.
Burkina Faso is listed as the seventh least developed country in the world by the United Nations Development Program’s indicators. Indeed, our visit to some market places and even in the capital city, Ougadougou, revealed poverty of the kind I’ve never seen. But I came away with a strong belief that people with ideas and commitment working together for their community can build a better world and in the process they, too, are fed. My colleagues from the delegation were equally humbled by this experience.
Upon returning I pondered how to connect the local with the global. One idea has emerged. Cascade Engineering in Grand Rapids has developed a biosand filter for water that requires no electricity and can provide clean water for a family for eight years. Might we send some over there to be tested in that environment and see how they work for the many millions with little or no access to clean water? If it works well, we could export the technology and help them manufacture it. There is no shortage of discarded plastic in either Burkina or Senegal, so perhaps collecting the plastic and repurposing it to make the filter containers could generate needed jobs and make clean water available while reducing trash — a win-win-win. Maybe this will work, but what other ways might we share the best we have in Lansing to meet the needs of others struggling to eke out a life?
That’s an economic development model more sustainable than a $10 million scoreboard: 100,000 water filters serving half a million people everyday for eight years.
(Terry Link was the founding director of MSU’s Office of Campus Sustainability and recently retired as director of the Greater Lansing Food Bank. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)