Spotlight on Burkina Faso
A Quiet Revolution – Priorité Femme
I traded the Swiss Alps for Sub-Saharan Africa. Ouagadougou – pronounced “wah-gah-doo-goo” – is the capital of Burkina Faso and where I´ve called home since August 2013. In response to requests for an insider´s view of life in West Africa, I am excited to announce the first of a two-part series on Burkina Faso.
In the next two installments, I will share with you the stories of two Burkinabé (as locals are called) that are making powerful changes in their own lives as well as the lives of others. You will come to learn about particular challenges both women and children face in Burkina. This month the spotlight is on one woman who is transforming progressive ideas of personal development to make critical changes in the lives of everyday local women.
One important caveat: This article gives special attention to one person´s perspective, one person´s story. It in no way implies that this experience applies for every woman in Burkina – nor does it imply that it applies for every man. The experiences of women in Burkina vary greatly and are influenced by their ethnicity, socio-economic status, education, as well as their unique personalities. The aim of this article is to give voice to important aspects of the female experience in Burkina Faso and to shed light on one woman who is doing powerful things to make change.
Did you know? Burkina Faso…
- was formerly known as Upper Volta? Burkina Faso is a land-locked country in West Africa bordered by its six neighbors.
- has been led by the same president, Blaise Compaoré, since 1987 – when he seized power from Thomas Sankara?
- is home to approximately 60 ethnic groups?
- is rated by the UN as the third poorest economy on the planet ?
- is considered to have the most optimistic population, based on a 2012 Gallup poll.
While cultural life in Burkina is rich and the Burkinabé are known for their friendly and optimistic nature; life in Burkina is not easy. Approximately half of the population lives under the poverty line. Life expectancy for the total population is just under 55 years old. The risk of catching an infectious disease like malaria, typhoid or even meningococcal meningitis is high. The birth rate is estimated at 5.93 children born per woman for 2014. Child labor (ages 5-14) is estimated at over 1.5 million . Burkina Faso´s limited resources and high population density make it hard to make strives economically. With this backdrop, it is no surprise that women – the focus of this article – face particularly tough challenges. In fact, according to a 2012 report , discrimination against women and children is considered to be one of the most significant human rights problems in Burkina Faso.
Role of Women in Burkina Faso
Gender inequality in Burkina Faso plays a significant role in many women´s lives, affecting their health, safety, fertility and vocational possibilities. For example, although women play an important role in agriculture, they have significant barriers to receiving credit or equipment – as well as live in harsh environments . While the government of Burkina has adopted policies toward gender equality, there are many areas where women are left unprotected, including the absence of a law specifically to address domestic violence or spousal rape . Efforts are being made to reduce the gap in status between men and women by both the local government and foreign NGOs. Nevertheless, it is obvious that this is no simple task as the inequality is based on a complex system of long-held traditions as well as cultural and social factors.
Making Women a Priority
Priorité Femme is a private training and coaching company for personal development based in Ouagadougou – the capital of Burkina Faso. The literal translation of Priorité Femme is “priority woman” – placing women at the center of focus. Priorité Femme partners with organizations and individuals to improve the lives of women by essentially helping Burkinabé women take more control of their own lives and happiness .
The company´s founder, Madina Lalonde, is committed to helping women live more fulfilling lives and become happier despite challenging conditions in Burkina. Madina was born and raised in Bobo Dioulasso, a city 355 kilometers south-west of Ouagadougou. When I asked what inspired her to do this kind of work, she shared the following story (paraphrased below based on an interview in French and English):
It all started when I was a young girl. Around ten or eleven-years-old. My sister, who was much older than me, got married when she was 20. It wasn´t forced. But she had a lot of problems because of the in-laws. Over and over again, I saw married women come into my home – crying. They complained about not being respected. They complained about how they were treated at home. I saw all of this. I thought, “How can I take this?”
Madina was raised in a relatively liberal family which granted her a lot of freedom and allowed her to later study abroad in Ghana. Yet, even the women in her family were deeply challenged. As Madina got older she faced yet another awakening:
The same problems of respect were going on with intellectuals, the well-educated. I realized that it wasn´t just a matter of education. I asked myself, “Why do these women accept this?”
As Madina got older she came to realize just how strong the social pressure is for women.
If you are not married, you have no social status. You don´t have any respect. Women get married so they can gain respect within the society – but you are not always respected within your marriage.
Many women, thus, get stuck in the proverbial “rock and a hard place”. If you don´t get married, you may be free of marital stress (which could be as serious as verbal abuse, infidelity, and domestic violence). At the same time, you may expose yourself to immense social pressure from your family and community to “become something”. Madina reports that many women she knows feel that choosing a bad marriage is better than dealing with the pressure from their family and community.
Madina waited for the right man to come along to marry. By Burkina standards, it may have been considered too long as she also started to feel pressure from her family and community. In Madina´s ethnic group, Dioula, there is a marriage custom which involves eight days of celebrations, from Sunday to Sunday. On the final night – the evening before the family officially sent her to her husband – she received advice from her female elders in her community. The women´s advice was in the spirit of bracing for a bad storm:
- Furu yi mugnu le ye.
- Ni musso mugnu na, a deen wu bi barika sôrô.
- Tche yi tche le ye, I bi a minè ten.
While it is hard to translate into English exactly – Madina explains the general idea:
1. Marriage for a woman is about the hard reality that you have to accept everything.
The acceptance is of a reality that includes not only the behavior, beliefs and attitudes of your husband but also your in-laws and the extended community. Implied here as well is to prepare for treatment including infidelity, verbal and physical abuse.
2. If a woman accepts all of this, the children will be blessed.
This by default puts many women in the difficult position of accepting hard circumstances (such as abuse) to ensure that the children are (seen as) blessed. Women who do not follow the first piece of advice may be marked as mothers who do not behave in a way that allows their children to be blessed.
3. Men are men. You have to accept them as they are.
The subtext is that this advice is preparing you to expect and accept bad behavior. The women advise you to accept this because of the conviction that should you leave one man due to mistreatment, you are likely to find another who does the same. Madina emphasizes that this likewise puts pressure on men to behave in ways that are expected within their community – and potentially not in alignment with what they really want.
Madina´s elders encouraged her to “say nothing” when her husband comes home late without knowing where he was, never refuse sex and don’t engage in a dialogue. She was told, “If he talks you, you don’t have to reply. Just listen.” Madina was advised to adopt an attitude of, “Les hommes ont toujours raison” – meaning that the men are always right. She admits though that the understanding is one in which you pretend like they are right. Her elders would end these statements with, c´est comme ça – meaning that´s the way it is.
Madina knew it was often like that – but she wanted to find another way. And she did.
How Priorité Femme Promotes Change
So, how has she set out to achieve her goal of challenging the acceptance of inequality and helping Burkinabé women live more fulfilling and happier lives? She integrates personal-development concepts and a coaching approach. Hold up! Allow me to take this article to a screeching halt. Put this in context. Personal development? Coaching? Fulfillment? Perhaps a photo of the largest selection of self-development books in the capital will put this in perspective.
Madina is a trailblazer. Her work is innovative and gutsy in this context.
Context is important. Anyone who has been injured can attest to this. Injured athletes who typically run triathlons celebrate making one painful rotation on a bike during physical therapy. One rotation. For women in this context, making a simple request to get a need met may be that one painful but empowering rotation. A Burkinabé women with a university education explains:
As African women, we are educated in such a way that our own well-being, pleasure, etc. is not the most important and we learn [at a] young age that a good woman should have the sense of sacrifice for her children and put her husband at [the] forefront. Culturally most women – though uncomfortable – accept that and generally do not question [it]. We start thinking differently with exposure to other cultures and also with education. The more women are educated, [the] more they tend to demand more respect from their husbands and in-laws.
Priorité Femme´s approach to education is in the form of workshops on marriage, life balance and personal development. In these workshops, Madina´s message includes taking responsibility for your own happiness, emphasizing the co-creative nature of our relationships and communicates a strong conviction that you cannot change others, only yourself. These ideas seem so foreign to some that one acquaintance even accused her of being in a cult. Perhaps less of a surprise considering it is a context where hundreds of women annually are still accused of witchcraft. What some people don´t see is that it is not a sect, rather it is about developing self-confidence, recognizing their agency and starting on a journey of personal development.
Concerned that Madina might make some enemies by challenging the status quo so boldly, I asked her if she was ever afraid or felt like she was taking a risk. She replied:
The only thing I am risking is to help women become happier.
Madina is convinced that by starting with women´s self-development, men are bound to gain in the long run. She aims to promote positive change in women´s lives, and indirectly in the lives of their partners. Madina is committed to supporting the growth of relationships, richer in connection and excitement.
Being Burkinabé herself, Madina knows how to get women to sign up for her workshops. She emphasizes the aspect of the “couple” in her marketing. The workshops definitely aim at improving the overall health of the marriage. What participants might not realize is that once they get to the workshop, they have to take a hard look at themselves. Madina reports that many of the participants are resistant at first, but with time they start to see the value of taking charge of their own happiness.
As a result of applying the concepts of the workshop many women report surprising changes in their husband´s behavior, including spontaneously helping with the dishes. Some women have to overcome cultural barriers to be able to even attend the evening sessions. It is not uncommon in Burkina Faso for the responsibility for childcare to be placed on the woman. Thus, it may go against the grain for a woman to leave the children with the husband in the evening to attend a course. Madina shares a story from her workshop (paraphrased below)
I had one participant attend my course on a Thursday night. She wanted to return but her husband said that it wasn´t right that she spent time away from the kids in the evening. It was important for her to continue with the course – so she saw this as an opportunity to apply what she had learned. That weekend she was on the computer and invited her husband to look at what she was reading. It was the course description from the Priorité Femme website. He replied, “Looks interesting.” She dropped the subject. The coming Tuesday (the night of the course) the husband was watching TV just after the wife had put the kids to bed. He called out to her over his shoulder while still looking at the screen, “Aren´t you late for your course?” She, grasping the opportunity, quickly said, “Oh, I forgot!” and grabbed her things and left. She never missed a single session after that night.
Without the inspiration and input from Madina, this woman may have never found an approach to effectively get her needs met – and continue her own journey of greater fulfillment.
Priorité Femme, and the work of Madina, in this context goes well beyond personal development. Madina is a promoter of cultural change. She stands in courage to challenge social pressures in a way that does not create resistance but creates change – one woman at a time. It is a quiet revolution. She asks women to take their lives into their own hands. She takes cutting-edge thinking from personal development gurus in other corners of the globe and puts them into the hands of West African women in a way that they understand it and can apply it to their own lives and cultural context.
This is promoting change through the hearth and the heart.