An Ill Land, a People with a History of Healthy Resistance

Even with increase in aid peoples’ health in Burkina Faso has been deteriorating but progress can be made, slowly but surely…

Mother and child, Burkina Faso by Lien Diaporama

Her knees in excruciating pain, a mother of four walks in the 41 degrees sweltering heat from her home to a medical centre in a neighbouring village called Saonre. She enters the nurse’s medical room – to call it poorly equipped to treat patients would be an understatement.  It is ominously bare apart from two chairs, a blood pressure sphygmomanometer and thermometer lying on a table.

The woman tells the English nurse that her knees are in agony from tending crops.  If the pain continues she cannot carry on planting the seed; but if she cannot get back to work her children will starve. The nurse hands her a box of the painkillers – just a simple packet of Ibuprofen. Yet the tablets mean a livelihood to her – she embraces the nurse and leaves.

Shirley Higham, a nurse from a Dorset village surgery, went to the Ellel Medical Centre in Saonre to volunteer for two weeks. Aged 46 years the patients thought she was miraculously old- the maximum life expectancy in Burkina Faso is 52 years.

Shirley belongs to The Family Church Christchurch who organised the trip with the Christian NGO Tear Fund and Burkina Faso’s NGO called ACTS (Action Chretienne Tous pour la Solitarite).

Shirley explained:

“It was a challenge to work with little electricity and water.  I relied as much on prayer and common sense as any medical know how.”

The practising nurse of over 20 years recalls the vivid and shocking memory of another woman who arrived at the surgery:

“The patient was going blind and after enquiring into how her eyes were damaged she revealed that she’s a village cook. Standing over a big, old fashioned pot and stove over the years  meant the boiling fumes were always in her eyes and were in effect slowly cooking her eyeballs.  Nothing could be done for her.”

Burkina Faso is the world’s sixth poorest country with over 15 million inhabitants with 43 percent living in extreme poverty with 80 per cent of the population dependent on subsistence farming. Yet the people have to pay for healthcare.

The World Bank said it is investing in projects representing $658 million commitment to development in Burkina Faso and states:

‘Burkina Faso has enjoyed political stability since 1987, with the “rectification” of the revolution, which marked a shift toward more market-oriented economic policies and re-engagement with the international community.’

But ‘drop the debt group’,  Jubilee Debt Campaign’s Communications Officer, Jon Stevenson said that Burkina Faso has had $1.4 billion of debt cancelled since 2000, following the World Bank’s HIPC (Heavily Indebted Poor Countries) and MDRI (Multilateral Debt Relief Initiative) debt reduction schemes.  However, startlingly the country’s debt has increased at $1.7 billion compared to $1.6 billion in 1999.

Flag map of Burkina Faso

Head of policy and campaigns for Health Poverty Action, Sarah Edwards said how the issue should be tackled:

“Debt is a major issue, another big obstacle is the IMF and World Bank initiative for developing countries’ governments to issue ‘User -fees for health services’, introduced in the 1980s and 1990s to save public services costs.”

The nurse at the village medical centre is regrettably turning away women for treatment because they can’t pay for the plastic medical gloves they must provide themselves. However,  big business in Burkina Faso is sitting pretty and getting away with enormous tax evasion.

Sarah Edwards explained:

“The solution would be for increased tax on the multi-national big businesses and health fees abolished so the poor can access health. “

On April 27 2010 UNICEF reported that Sierra Leone has abolished user -fees for pregnant women and children under five.

Burkina Faso needs the same; ACTS states that, “Burkina Faso has a high incidence of death among new mothers and infants under the ages of 5 years.”

The Human Development Index shows that in Burkina Faso 1 in 5 infants will die before their 5th birthday, 37 % of children are underweight for their age and only 13 % of the population have improved sanitation.

Such facts seem out of sync with the World Bank’s positive statement of the ‘rectification’ of the revolution.

Thomas Sankara on the right

The revolution referred to is that led by socialist Thomas Sankara – dubbed the Che Guevara of Africa.  He became president in 1983 and worked to change the politics reflecting its past French imperial rule since 1896. Named Upper Volta by the French – Sankara changed it to Burkina Faso, which translated means ‘land of the upright/honest people’. He then set goals which included improving his nation’s health.

In a United Nations speech in 1983, Sankara decreed: ‘imperialist aid blocks development of his country and Africa’.

He said:

“Very few countries have been inundated like mine with all kinds of aid but one searches in vain for any signs of development. I quote the writer Jacques Giri who said: ‘the goal of this foreign aid is to saddle our meagre budgets with heavy expenditure, widening the gap of trade deficit and accelerating our indebtedness.’ “

Sankara was eventually toppled by one of his allies, Blaise Compaore, who arranged a coup and Sankara was assassinated. Compaore rejected socialism and embarked on a programme of privatisation and austerity measures sponsored by the IMF.  As President for 23 years – he claims to be his country’s pillar of stability and economic progress.

But the country is often hit by environmental disaster and hasn’t the strength to beat it. It’s prone to severe droughts and was hit hard by flooding in 2007, thus the deadly disease Malaria spread quickly to children and adults already weakened by malnutrition and aid money was spent on emergency vaccination.

Jean-Marc Jacobs from Médecins Sans Frontières (UK) commented:

“We have witnessed widespread malnourished children in Burkina Faso. Early health problems cause long-term impaired mental and physical development and susceptibility to infections and fatal diseases.”

Now there is a new strain of meningitis is at epidemic levels in the country and in addition it’s short of money to run a measles prevention campaign. There are no simple answers for a country hit by climatic misfortune,  industrial disadvantage and still reeling from political instability – to start the people need their health and strength to get on the road to tackling these hurdles.

Prince Oluwatoba Omidele of Nigeria gave his opinion of the situation:

‘The public service sector has not improved since the death of Thomas Sankara – I met him and admired his plans for his country’s recovery. But today health care is dire, children mortality is very high and women’s health is very bad.

Corruption is very rooted in all the facets of the government sector. The way forward in this country is that the NGO have to be on ground if really they want to help. Again the sit tight President Campaore does not allow democracy to grow. The era of sending money to any faceless organisation in Burkina Faso should be over.’

By Jameela Oberman

One Response to “An Ill Land, a People with a History of Healthy Resistance”

    it is good write-up, i hope things will soon be okay in that part of African country. I wish them well.

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