Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso Report of what it's like to live there - 11/18/12
Personal Experiences from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
Washington, D.C. and Detroit, Michigan. For D.C., it takes roughly 17 hours when you include layovers. The flight takes off at night from Ouagadougou and lands at Paris-CDG in the morning, then you get a direct connection to the U.S. (normally Dulles), which takes more than 7 hours..
3. How long have you lived here?
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
(The coontributor is a diplomat at the U.S. Embassy who has lived in Ouagadougou for six months so far, a fifth expat experience.)
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
There are two general categories of homes: larger, more elaborate (Roman columns in the living room, etc.) homes in Ouaga 2000 near the Embassy, and older homes with more green space, closer to the downtown. We live in downtown, near the ambassador's residence, and love our house. We have a garden with fresh herbs, mango trees, bananas, and a nice, but small, pool.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
Western groceries are expensive and it's difficult to find a lot of American things besides sweets, Heinz ketchup, and Jack Daniels. Vegetables, fruit, nuts, and honey are locally available, cheap and generally pretty good, but you need to take precautions.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
We'd definitely ship more American snacks.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Fast food is available, in the form of "mouton au four", chicken and beef kabobs, and other African-type fast food. American-style fast food is not common. Food is generally pretty cheap, but there are some surprisingly expensive and very good restaurants in Ouagadougou.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Lots of insect problems...it's impossible to keep ants and spiders out of your house. Lizards and geckos also get into your house and will help control the population. Insect problems do seem to be somewhat seasonal.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Shipping is complicated - it's best to check with government regulations based on your agency, but local mail and international mail is slow, irregular and governed by many laws. The embassy is trying to pursue a DPO, but currently, packages from the U.S. take 2-3 weeks, and there are many restrictions on liquids, electronics, etc.).
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Very available, normally excellent, and very cheap. We have a gardener and housekeeper. The gardener comes three days a week, takes care of the pool and washes the car and costs $80 a month. The housekeeper comes 5 days a week and costs $120 a month.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The Embassy has a small but well-outfitted one-room gym that even has yoga and pilates classes. The American Rec Center also has some facilities. There's an expensive gym membership at the Laico Hotel, but otherwise, not much. Gyms tend not to be air-conditioned. This is not the place to come if you are a gym rat. However, there are lots of great outdoor physical activities, like running, riding bikes, horseback riding, rock climbing, etc.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
Credit cards are almost totally unheard of in hotels and restaurants, so be prepared to use cash everywhere, even if you're spending four days in a top-quality hotel (by Burkina Faso standards). In Ouagadougou, most ATMs are ok, just look for a 24/7 guard on duty outside and use a legitimate bank. Visa is much more common than Mastercard in terms of ATM access.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
There are services available, I have heard, with missionary groups, but we honestly have not attended any services here.
6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?
There are no locally-produced English newspapers. However, you can get South African DSTV satellite (we do). It's actually pretty good, and has different packages (you have to pay in cash for up to a year in advance), but our premium package costs about $120 a month. We get U.S. channels like Comedy Central, National Geographic, Discovery and TLC and also can pick up BBC stations. South African television often runs U.S. shows, but you will suffer if you are a sports fan. You can get lots of soccer and cricket, but for American football, baseball or hockey (the only sports I watch), you have to get AFN. The problem with that: AFN only covers one game at a time. Internet is your best bet for sports.
7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Local language, none. French, a lot. If you don't speak French, you won't be able to do anything on the local economy.
8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
There are no accommodations made whatsoever.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
They are not safe. I have seen more bus and taxi accidents in six months here than any other country I've lived in except Afghanistan.
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Bring a 4x4, truck or some type of smaller SUV, just for comfort and because many roads are in really bad shape. If you don't plan on leaving Ouagadougou, you'll be fine with a sedan. There's a Toyota dealership, but they will not work on your American Toyota, which I learned the hard way. All car parts are insanely expensive, a tire costs 2x - 4x what an American tire costs, and they try to pass off used tires as new tires.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
"High speed" is relative, but we have the fastest package at 1MB per second. I don't know how much it costs because I have yet to pay it. I've never gotten a bill. I'm sure I will get a hefty bill when they finally figure it out. You can't stream video exactly, but you can download movies and TV shows on iTunes or Apple TV and watch them later. We usually download overnight and watch the movie or TV season the next day.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Don't bring a CDMA phone. Bring a GSM phone, get it unlocked if it's from the U.S., and you can have it on the network here in no time; just buy a SIM card from a guy on the street. They do have EDGE network, but I haven't seen 3G here, much less 4G. The country has remarkably good cell phone coverage, even in the far north and south.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
I'm not sure, but I haven't heard anything about a need to quarantine pets.
2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?
I doubt it, but I don't know.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
There are some jobs, but French fluency is an absolute requirement. The US government makes a respectable effort to employ family members, but as with many small embassies, family members will likely be vastly overqualified for anything they're doing as an EFM.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Surprisingly formal. Burkinabe dress up, either in suits or colorful traditional clothing, and I've been the most underdressed person at several events. As a result, I've actually bought a few things here and on trips to Europe to dress up a little bit more.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
There are, especially in the north with the situation in northern Mali, so it's not a good idea to venture up that far. Pickpocketing and scams are very common, but violent crime targeting Westerners is rare.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Yes, lots of health concerns. Everything from respiratory problems to frequent stomach and intestinal problems due to the food, malaria, infections, etc. Local medical care is really poor, and you should definitely leave for Europe for better care for anything serious. However, if you're an Embassy employee, the Health Unit is very helpful.
3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
In Ouagadougou, it's very unhealthy. It's very dusty most of the year, and traffic means lots of pollution. Respiratory problems are frequent.
4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
It rains a lot from May through September, and then the rest of the year is pretty dry. It rains so hard in the summer that a room of our house flooded and had 3-4 inches of standing water. This is not uncommon. March/April are searingly hot.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
Based on conversations with kids, they love the international school, and we go often for events. In discussions with parents, there are some complaints, but overall the attitude toward the school is positive.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Not much from what I've seen.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
Household help to take care of children is usually excellent and inexpensive.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, surprisingly, quite a few.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
The expat community is pretty large, but mostly Francophone. The English-speaking expat community is pretty small, you'll know the majority of other Americans within 6 months.
2. Morale among expats:
Generally good. In terms of trends, I'd say that the most unhappy people are singles and spouses who stay home by themselves while their spouses work.
3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
Social life usually involves going out to restaurants, pot-luck dinners, movie nights, barbecues, celebrating American holidays, Marine Guard events, or events at the French cultural center like occasional concerts or embassy-hosted rep events and happy hours.
4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Families: absolutely. You will be surrounded by other families with children. There are lots of events at homes (game nights, parties, trick-or-treat at Halloween, school events, etc). Couples: not as great, but not bad. There aren't a lot of couples without children, but enough to have a social circle. Singles are pretty unhappy. There's not much of a nightlife to speak of, very few other expatriate singles, and the few singles I do know here just work all the time and don't seem to be that happy.
5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Burkina Faso is not tolerant towards gays and lesbians. It isn't talked about, and the culture is pretty conservative and traditional, although it's not really seen as a problem in the community. There is a gay community, although it is very much underground and seems to intend to stay that way. If you are discreet and don't talk about it, you shouldn't have a problem here, but it's not a good city for gays, as you would probably expect.
6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
With race and religious, no - none at all. Honestly. Actually, Burkinabe make a lot of jokes about ethnicity and race, but it's never mean-spirited. In fact, this is probably the most religiously tolerant country I've ever lived in, including the U.S., and much, much, more tolerant than Europe (where being very religious is often looked down upon). There are definitely gender biases and discrimination, but it is nothing like the Middle East.
7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Our highlight so far is having friends from the U.S. visit and taking them to Banfora, in the southwest, to see some amazing rock formations, swim in the waterfalls, and see tiny villages where people welcomed us with traditional music and showed us a mask-carving workshop.
8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Nazinga Ranch for elephant-watching, camping in the east, playing sports, waterfalls and rock formation in Banfora, visiting small villages, shopping for handicrafts, attending the biannual film festival, drinking beer and eating brochettes in the maquis.
9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Burkinabe do amazing bronze and leather work, and you can get incredible deals on beautiful wooden masks from Mali and Ghana. Taureg silver jewelry and household items (I bought a beautiful dagger and bottle opener) are incredible as well.
10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Burkina Faso doesn't have much to offer in terms of tourism, but the people are great. You can save money as long as you don't leave the country very often (our biggest cost so far).
11. Can you save money?
Yes, very possible. We save more here than in D.C., but if you travel outside the country anywhere, that will deplete your savings. It costs nearly as much to fly to Accra as it does to Paris, and if you have plans to go to East Africa on safari, save up in advance.
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Absolutely. Everyone I know who is leaving either doesn't want to leave, or they're happy to be leaving because of the job, not the country.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Cold weather clothes, luxury car, expensive jewelry, golf clubs, high heels, road rage, hopes of seeing African wildlife on safari (few exceptions)
3. But don't forget your:
Swimsuit, board games, music/DVDs, sunscreen, digital camera, cosmetics, computer, SUV, patience and an open-mind
4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
The best travel guides are in French, but Brandt has one on Burkina Faso that's fairly recent. Caution on Lonely Planet's West Africa guide: it was published a few years ago and much is out of date. Businesses fail here pretty often.