Marie-Ange, serious contender for the title of busiest woman in the village, rang up the other day to tell us about a film to be shown a couple of days later. On no account were we to miss it, she said. It was a truly remarkable record of the vill
Marie-Ange, serious contender for the title of busiest woman in the village, rang up the other day to tell us about a film to be shown a couple of days later. On no account were we to miss it, she said. It was a truly remarkable record of the village expedition to Africa, to Burkina Faso, a name which means, Marie-Ange's husband Albert told us, Le Pays des Personnes Intègres, The Land of Upright People. Upright in the sense of just, godly, righteous and sober, I suppose, rather than vertical. Anyway, our heads filled with unlikely visions of village people in solar topees and khaki shorts, water-bottles, machetes and mosquito nets at the ready, and we said we'd do our best to be there.
We've come to know a little bit about Burkina Faso, one the poorest countries in the world, landlocked south of the Sahara desert, partly watered by the river Volta (indeed, in the days when I used to collect stamps it was known as Upper Volta) and peopled by a tall, slender and handsome race who speak Burkinabé as their mother tongue and ex-colonial French as their vehicular language. An expat from Burkina Faso, Liliane, used to help in the house here before a greater involvement in working the local street markets took her away, but she took care to replace herself with other members of her clan, turning her Saturday morning job into a sort of hereditary position. Indeed, on one occasion several years ago she sent along her cousin-by-marriage Esmé, sister of the President, to pick our cherries while we were away one Whitsun.
The film was actually a DVD projected on to the auditorium screen in the local environmental centre. It had been made by a local hotelier, one of the group of village people to fly out to Africa in February. There's a twinning association in the village, presided over by Marie-Ange and Liliane and other contenders for the busiest woman title, which promotes links between our village and Liliane's native village, a place called Gossina. A group flies out to Gossina every February, their luggage allowance fully taken up with clothes, shoes, school books, generic medicines and other portable necessaries for a people who have very little indeed in the way of material possessions. (And, I have to say, don't seem much the worse for it. But that's very easily said from the ease of our plenty.)
So we saw the group leaving Ougadougou airport in a minibus with a roof-rack piled so high with bundles of shirts, sandals, the French equivalent of Janet and John and milk of magnesia bottles that the driver at least could be thankful that Burkina Faso isn't a country blessed with many bridges to pass under. We saw the hitherto barefoot village kids lining up to have velco-strapped sandals fitted, and we also saw them staggering about, anything but upright, and falling over helpless with laughter, at first quite unable to negotiate footwear, something the donors can't have foreseen. We saw the French visitors entertained and feasted, canoeing up the river Volta among the hippos, being given seats (well, plastic garden chairs) of honour at a village festival animated by fantastic dancers in animal masks and gorgeous costumes, accompanied by mesmeric drumming. We saw the hotelier's wife Jacqueline gingerly tweaking the tail of a crocodile, something she'll remember for the rest of her life.
And the film also showed us, almost incidentally, the artesian well, the school, the generator and the pumps and the irrigation basin - which doubles as a swimming pool - which the twinning association's activities have provided for Gossina. In its small but beautiful way, the system works like this:
1. The French group flies out at group travel rates, partly subsidised by the association's fund-raising activities, partly at individual members' expense.
2. They cram their luggage with clothes, etc. as above, which have been collected in the village for several weeks beforehand.
3. They're hosted in Gossina free of charge for a week or more.
4. On their return, they cram their now empty luggage with artefacts from Gossina.
5. Liliane sells these though the extensive market network she and her clan have developed in the area. She deducts her living expenses and remits the rest to Gossina, where the exchange rate is interesting, to say the least, and where people work voluntarily on community improvement projects, so that most of the cash can be devoted to materials.
I think this is a wonderful system. I'm really taken by it. There's direct contact between donor and donee - even to the extent of unexpectedly recognising the shirt you donated some years ago on the back of some unwitting Gossina-ite - and there's no question of funds mysteriously finding their way into unauthorised pockets or being inexplicably swallowed up in administration costs.
The charity industry isn't nearly as extensive in France as it is in other European countries, particularly the UK. In a highly-developed socialist country the government is expected to look after the needy, and most French people seem as content as any taxpayers ever are to fork out accordingly and pass the practical responsibility on to the government. But maybe ideas are changing: in the same week that we saw the village Burkina Faso film, I went to a concert two villages along the valley to hear head alto Josephine singing, along with the rest of her choir, in aid of a charity called Retina France. This is an organisation which funds research into a disease of the retina called macular degeneration. Every year choirs all over France - the figure 88,000 springs to mind, but I may be behind the times - are asked to put on concerts to raise funds. Quite an original idea, and one worth developing in other areas.
I used to conduct this choir. One year the organisers sent me a T-shirt with 'Retina France' printed on it. Unfortunately it was much too big, with room for at least one conductor and one head alto inside it, so it went the way of good quality but surplus clothing in this house, i.e. Gossina. I expect we'll see it again one day.