Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso Report of what it's like to live there - 05/21/16
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?
West Coast. It's about 24 hours from first takeoff to last touchdown. Routes are through Paris and Brussels as city-pair fares. Brussels requires another connection on the East Coast or elsewhere in Europe (Frankfurt, London) to get to the West Coast. If you're paying your own way, Istanbul is an option with Turkish Airlines.
3. How long have you lived here?
One year, with one year remaining.
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Embassy housing is divided in three neighborhoods: Ouaga 2000, where the Embassy is located, and Zone du Bois and Koulouba, which are 20 to 30 minutes north of the Embassy depending on traffic. All housing contains the usual quirks you might expect in this part of the world, but for the most part it is in good shape, and the Embassy goes to great lengths to maintain it well. In addition, every house in the embassy housing pool has a swimming pool.
Houses in Ouaga 2000 are typically newer, very large, but with minimal yard space. Houses in Zone du Bois are typically older but with sizable yards and very good tree cover, which you appreciate when it's 115F. If you want to be near a handful of restaurants that are within walking distance, Zone du Bois is the best bet.
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
There are a handful of supermarkets in the center city and one in Ouaga 2000.
Availability of certain products is much better than my (low) expectations coming in, but you'll pay for it. We've been surprised to find smoked salmon imported from Norway and knock-off cheddar cheese imported from France. Both are more than you would pay in the U.S., but they're here. If you like French cheeses and meats, the down-market versions are all available here for a reasonable price.
Fresh product is generally of very good quality, but very seasonal. From January to March, you can even get strawberries, broccoli, and cauliflower. Cuts of meat are different from what you'd expect in the U.S., but there are some butchers that have good quality and can cut to order.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
More dark beer and microbrews.
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
It depends how you define fast food. American fast food? No. Various forms of food cooked in roadside stands? Yes. You'll see grilled chicken, schwarma, and burgers. Cost is low. Most Americans don't seem to try it, but I can verify the chicken is quite good.
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
Malaria is endemic here, including in Ouagadougou, and taking malarone or your favorite malaria prophylactic is essential. The Embassy now provides malarone free of cost. Something like one-third of the local population contracts malaria every year. It's a way of life here.
Otherwise, the insects are not as bad as I expected. It's hardly the biblical clouds of mosquitoes I know well from the mountains in the Northwest in June, but the mosquitoes that you do see carry a deadly disease, so there is that. We encountered a few other large, creepy bugs, plus an ant problem in our kitchen, but overall it's been manageable.
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Embassy uses the diplomatic pouch, which takes about three weeks. We know people outside the diplomatic community who have received packages through local mail at a post office box, but it must be unimaginably expensive.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Very inexpensive, often around US$150-$200/month for full-time nanny or housekeeper. Gardeners/day guards are often less, as are drivers. If you can find someone who does both, that can bring a premium. We've been very happy with our staff, who are both hardworking and friendly. Others have had different results.
Be forewarned that only few domestic staff speaks English.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
The Embassy has a modest gym. There are gyms in a few areas of the city, including those that offer classes according to their signs. No idea how much they cost.
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?
Allegedly some of the expat-oriented grocery stores take them, but I wouldn't risk it. ATMs at major banks (including one at the embassy) are fine.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
Very few. There are some missionary-run churches that do services in English. The Vatican Embassy will occasionally do a service in English. Otherwise, it's all French all the time.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Though some people at the Embassy get by without French, it must be very difficult. There is very, very little English spoken in this country. Learning the basics in French to manage shopping is essential.
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes. The city is not accessible outside of the Embassy. No sidewalks, dirt roads with potholes, etc.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
Embassy personnel are prohibited from taking the ubiquitous green taxis, all of which are old Mercedes at the end of their functional life, often with sagging axles. Burkinabe refer to these as "France, Au Revoir."
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?
Highly recommend an SUV. If you plan on doing much in terms of safaris, having a clearance greater than that of a RAV4 is recommended. Imported parts can be very expensive or of suspect quality. But for routine care, you can find very inexpensive labor.
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Very expensive and not very fast. There are two payment levels: US$125 for 1MB, $250 for 2MB. We pay the higher rate, and it seems we may actually get a higher speed due to proximity to other diplomatic enclaves. That is not the norm. While we can usually stream video (at reduced quality), many cannot at all.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Embassy provides cell phones to officers and SIM cards to officers and EFMs. Otherwise, credit can be purchased anywhere, including at most red lights.
A surprisingly large amount of the country, and nearly all of the capital, has 3G.
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?
No. Pet importation is quite easy, and on Brussels Airlines, relatively inexpensive. Most people ship in pet food/litter via pouch. I'm unaware of vet options, but will need to use them for paperwork when we leave.
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?
No. Pay would be very low, and you would need French.
2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?
Some, mostly orphanages. The embassy offers a self-help program to sponsor projects in communities.
3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Given the climate, the dress code is a little more suit- and tie-centric than you would expect. Burkinabe businesspeople dress well, so there is certainly a culture of putting on your best.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Yes, and increasingly so. The last 18 months have seen a popular uprising, a (failed) coup d'etat, and a terrorist attack at a popular expat cafe that killed nearly as many people as the Brussels terrorist attacks. Mali and Cote d'Ivoire saw similar AQMI-funded or -inspired attacks in the same timeframe. The region is beginning to shift toward greater instability, which is disappointing given how hard the Burkinabe are struggling to build a functioning democracy.
There are also some concerns with street and property crime. We've experienced two attempted, but failed, break-in attempts. Overall, though, on a day-to-day basis I feel pretty safe. But after the terrorist attacks, there's the lingering sense that something similar could happen again.
2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?
Malaria, malaria, malaria. It's real, and people at the Embassy have contracted it when not regularly taking meds.
Medical care here is pretty spartan, with a few bright spots. Any major issue will involve a medevac to London, which is a 10-hour transit time. We've been pleasantly surprised with basic care. The Embassy med unit has a full-time American nurse and Burkinabe doctor. The French medical clinic (Centre Medical International) has a handful of doctors fluent in English who have been quite helpful. We were sent for an ultrasound (non-pregnancy-related) at one point, and were pleasantly surprised that the equipment seemed modern and technician seemed well-trained.
But don't let that give you false confidence. In a pinch, it'll do. But the overall quality of care here is sub-standard.
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?
Air quality can be very poor in the dry season (effectively from October to May) due to dust from the harmattan. Everyone told us about dust before we got here, and I admittedly blew them all off. How bad can dust be? Newsflash: Quite bad. The leaves on the green trees in our yard turned an orange color. During the peak hazy season (around December), the dust would hang like fog. I heard it described as nearly as bad as Beijing from a particulate matter standpoint (albeit without the arsenic), which I find hard to believe, but it is still much worse than I anticipated.
4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?
The dust can create respiratory issues for some people. I'm unaware of any other allergy issues.
5. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
There are two seasons: summer in Miami, and summer in Phoenix. The wet season can bring significant tropical rainstorms and epic thunder, which we've rather enjoyed. The dry season is in fact bone-dry, with peak temperatures during April/May as high as 115F on a daily basis. On a bright note, temperatures that high will naturally heat your pool like you wouldn't believe.
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
There's an American school (International School of Ouagadougou) and two French international schools. The embassy community has increasingly taken advantage of the French schools, but it's had more to do with families interested in bilingualism and not a commentary on ISO. French school families are still a minority.
ISO is said to be best at the elementary level, when class sizes are bigger, but there are families with middle and high school age students. Les Laureats is a French private school in the Ouaga 2000 neighborhood that many families have used for preschool. Lycee Francais Saint-Exupery is the French government-operated international school in downtown. Children need to be fluent in French or entering the kindergarten level. But if fluent in French, it does have a sizable middle school and high school. It also includes a number of extracurricular activities on weekend.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
They try their best, but it's limited. There are some providers on the local economy (speech, occupational therapy), but they are overwhelmingly francophone.
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?
Yes, but most families rely on nannies, which are very inexpensive. Some families will begin with French-language preschools around age 3. ISO also offers preschool.
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes, but only through the schools. ISO offers soccer
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
Given the location, expat morale is surprisingly high, but that is beginning to change following the January 2016 terrorist attack. There seems to have been an above-average number of people in the development community cutting short contracts or choosing not to extend.
Within the Embassy, I would characterize morale as high. The Embassy goes to great lengths to make our lives as comfortable as possible here. Historically nearly everyone who can extend for a third year has done so. It remains to be seen how that will change in the future.
2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?
House parties and restaurants.
3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Families and couples seem to do the best here. There are singles, but it seems like a difficult environment to meet people, especially if you don't speak French. The vast majority of the expat community here is francophone.
4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Burkina Faso is one of the few countries in the region where homosexuality is not illegal. On the other hand, a recent presidential candidate partially ran on the platform of making it illegal.
5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
There is a surprising level of religious accord here due to the country's history. We've seen no issues of racism prejudice.
6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
Seeing more than 60 elephants on a safari that cost what I can only imagine is a fraction of the price for a safari in Kenya or South Africa. Of course, it was plenty rustic to make up for that. Traveling to Banfora (southwest of country) in the rainy season to see how verdant other regions of the country can be compared to Ouaga. Burkina Faso is what you make of it, and much of the expat community here is quite tightknit, which can make for a very good experience in spite of the hardships.
7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Safari at Nazinga, the waterfalls at Banfora, dance festival in Bobo-Dioulasso, the biannual film festival in Ouagadougou, the mask festival in Dedougou, talking a walk in Ouaga's forest park (and steering clear of the crocodiles that live there). Social life in Ouagadougou mostly revolves around house parties and the occasional odd activity (bowling, a trip to Faso Parc, which is an amusement park dreamed up by personal injury attorneys.) We are surprised at how busy we are on a weekly basis, but there are still moments of feeling like there's nothing to do. I miss parks.
8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
The full range of African handicrafts. A few things more unique to this region of Africa: bronze sculptures, Tuareg jewelry, and the illusive Tuareg sword.
9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
It's been said elsewhere (in nearly every post report), but the Burkinabe people are some of the warmest, hospitable people you will ever meet. Many countries are divided very clearly along ethnic, linguistic or religious lines, and all those lines certainly exist in Burkina Faso. (More than 70 languages spoken, and large numbers of both Muslims and Christians.) But the vast majority identify as Burkinabe first, which creates a degree of national cohesion that's a wonderful thing.
Otherwise, you can definitely save money here, quite possibly lots of it. If you like hot weather, this is the place for you.
10. Can you save money?
It's hard not to, unless you are routinely flying out on your own dime. Even trips to Accra (a one-hour flight) will put you back US$500/ticket.
Words of Wisdom:
1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?
A crystal ball that the security situation was going to destabilize. But in all seriousness, we expected a hardship tour, and that's what we've gotten. There have been plenty of bright spots as well.
2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
Yes and no. When we bid, it was known as a hardship tour with a very stable political and security situation. Half of that equation has since changed, although it still doesn't impact life much on a day-to-day basis.
We don't regret coming here, but we are looking forward to a break from the Sahel in a different region.
3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
Sweaters and jackets, ski gear, love of a white Christmas.
4. But don't forget your:
Wide variety of inflatable pool items.
5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?
If you haven't lived in Africa yet, read "The Shadow of the Sun" by Ryszard Kapuscinski.
6. Do you have any other comments?
Ouagadougou is a gem, but not without its downsides, which have increased in the past year. If you're willing to step into the uncertainty of the evolving security situation, it's a good introduction to Africa where the people are friendly and the Embassy works to every extent imaginable to make our lives easier here.