I'm reluctant to admit it, but I've been having Africa issues lately. I've stopped reacting the way I normally would when faced with signs of abundant poverty. In other parts of the world, I've generally felt an urge - a gut reaction, often abstract and fanciful, and therefore ultimately meaningless - to do something. Having passed from Mali into Burkina Faso, I notice that in Africa, all too often I don't feel anything of the sort. Perhaps it's the procession of children (and adults, even) asking for a "cadeau," or gift. People are evidently in need, but I don't react well to the demand for beneficence. Nor do I react well to my reaction.
According to what I've read, I'm now travelling through one of the poorest regions of the world. Every year, the United Nations ranks 169 countries using its Human Development Index, a mix of indicators including life expectancy, literacy and overall standard of living. Of the last 20 nations on the list compiled in 2010, eight of them - Gambia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Mali, Burkina Faso, Liberia, Guinea-Bissau and Niger - are in West Africa.
The signs of poverty are unmistakable, yet Burkina Faso seems rich with a certain non-tangible wealth, especially compared to Mali. Known as Upper Volta until 1984, the name of the country itself means something like Country of Men of Integrity, or Land of the Incorruptible, in the More language of the Mossi people. And something about that holds true, for not only do people here seem less likely to cheat you, they'll actually return your change - and far more than that - if you forget it.
At one point I ate a lunch of rice and sauce in a shabby food stall with a dirt floor on the side of the road, and absent-minded as I am, I actually left my wallet sitting on the table. It's probably no exaggeration to say the wallet contained enough cash to buy several such shacks, and yet when I returned hours later, the owner of the shack, a matronly woman you'd not want to cross, had it waiting for me, wrapped up in a plastic bag for safekeeping - along with a ready helping of scolding. Not a franc had gone missing. It's not marketing; this is Burkina Faso. (Yes, I left her more than a little, and was grateful for the scolding.)
It was inspiring, therefore, to meet another such woman from a different part of the world. Katrin Rohde, a young 63, is German. She founded and runs an orphanage and related charities in Ouagadougou, the capital, and she isn't exactly what you'd call unsentimental. For example, she tells the story of being brought to tears when a group of 50 middle-aged Burkinabe women, recipients of a micro-lending scheme her organisation had administered, came to her with a simple request: "Please teach us how to read and write."
But Rohde gives off a no-nonsense attitude, with the air of somebody who doesn't dither and doesn't suffer people wasting her time. When she feels there's something to be done, she does it. As she puts it: "I'm very German, very correct, very strict, very good at organising, very -". She stops and sighs. "I wouldn't know anybody who can do it as well as I do. Sorry - I don't mean to be arrogant, but it's a fact."
Rohde first visited Burkina Faso 20 years ago, a bookshop owner from a privileged Hamburg family with no idea what to expect from Africa. "When I saw the disaster for children in this country, I sold everything I had in Germany," she says. "I sold my two bookshops, my car, my house, my everything. I came here and started to work with street boys. It was a very, very small project. I did it with about eight street boys. After a year we were about 25, and today we have 320 children here."
The funding comes entirely from private sources, with Rohde raising €1.5 million (Dh7.4m) annually ("I never asked anybody for money, never," she says. "I just say what we do. That's enough") for her organisation, Association Managré Nooma pour la Protection des Orphelins, or AMPO. Much of that pays for school fees, based on proof of performance, for 1,000 children outside the orphanage whose families who could not otherwise afford their children's education.
Managré Nooma, in the More language, means "a good thing is never lost", a sort of karmic philosophy that Rohde says guides her life. I left Ouagadougou hoping it will do the same for the people of Burkina Faso.
Scott MacMillan is blogging about his journey on his website, www.wanderingsavage.com