Time to Talk about Marriage

Participant at the marriage seminar that is taking place this week.

Participants at the marriage seminar that is taking place this week.

This week the Mennonite Hostel in Ouagadougou is hosting a seminar on marriage. It started last Saturday and will end next Sunday, in total including 24 hours of teaching and discussion time. Marriage is an important and challenging issue for young people in the church in Burkina Faso. If in the West marriage is a lifestyle choice, here marriage and children are an assumed stage in life to the point of being required of everyone. The issue is not one of whether or not to marry but of when to marry and to whom.

Young people see examples of conflictual marriages and divorce, and they fear that this will happen to them. We hope that this seminar will help them prepare for marriage and give them additional ways to think about the marriage relationship. The instructor has done a lot of teaching and counseling in this context and uses practical examples, encourages questions, and includes participant discussion in his teaching strategy. We’re happy to see this opportunity for exploration and learning for the hostel residents.


Back to School

This past week Nancy, Jeremiah, and Deborah started the routine of school again at the International School of Ouagadougou. Yes, you read correctly, this year Nancy went back to school too! Tuition at ISO is expensive, so to help pay Jeremiah and Deborah’s fees she is teaching three classes: 8th grade Language Arts, Yearbook, and SAT Prep. Since Jeremiah is in 8th grade this year (Deborah is in 7th), he has his mother as a teacher for Language Arts and yearbook. Should be an interesting year as they explore their new relationship as teacher-student.

schoolBesides their regular classes Jeremiah has joined the ISO softball team and Deborah is taking up flute again (she took flute lessons when we were living in Boston) as part of the band. As is normal in an international school like ISO, there is a lot of turnover in the teaching staff and students. So everyone is making new friends and learning to adjust to new teachers. We’re confident that it’s going to be a good year.

Student Life in Ouagadougou Becomes Just a Little More Difficult

The students who live at the Mennonite Student Hostel face a number of challenges. Many come from families with minimal financial resources, most often they’re from agricultural communities in the country-side where there are few educational opportunities. While the students who make it to university have already gone very far in the minds of their families and home communities, the problems they face when they come to Ouagadougou seem enormous. But of course they persevere, facing challenges with courage and determination.

Group work during seminar at the Hostel

Group work during a seminar at the Hostel

Among the problems the students face is theft. Last Thursday morning they awoke to discover that two of their bicycles had been stolen during the night. One wonders how those who have so few resources can survive the loss of property or money.  This is where the community that the Hostel provides becomes their strength. Earlier this year, one of the students was on her way home from a tutoring job when a man pulled up beside her bicycle and spoke briefly to her. Before she realized what was happening, he had reached into the basket on the handle bars, taken her bag, and driven off. The bag contained her telephone and the equivalent of approximately $10.00 USD in cash. When she arrived back to the Hostel and told the others what had happened, they pooled their resources. One person had an extra telephone to lend her, and others gave small amounts of cash. The love and generosity of her fellow students consoled her heart.

There is now a new complication for university students. While traditionally the university closes down for the month of August for vacation, this practice has been suspended over the last few years because of irregularities in the school calendar. For example, this year the tests that are given to choose those graduates who will be employed by state agencies are happening during this month of August. But this past Thursday officials announced that university cafeterias upon which the student population depends will be closed for two months. On July 31 the residents of the university dormitories were informed that they had to vacate their rooms by August 1st. Some who had no other options had to sleep under the stars that first night. This is not a good option as the rainy season is upon us. At least the students in the Hostel have a place to stay even if their daily bread will be scarcer in the next two months!

For the Hostel residents, the community will be their strength once more. Those who are free to travel home will likely leave Ouagadougou for a time. Those left behind will find ways to pool their resources in order to have enough to eat. They will help each other and the congregation will contribute some foodstuffs and look for ways to support them in their efforts.

Please pray for the students, both those at the Hostel and those who find themselves scrambling to find food and lodging. This is a time of increased strain between the authorities and the student population. There are likely political factors mixed with economic considerations that have led to these abrupt changes in policy. Recent demonstrations of those in opposition to the current regime have taken place near the university and may have included students. By closing the university at this time and forcing students to move away, authorities may be attempting to decrease the size of such demonstrations. The student population was already frustrated, and the current situation risks increasing tensions. Pray for wisdom and wise action on the part of both the authorities and the student leaders.

University life in Ouagadougou

I (Nancy) have been meeting with the students who live in the Student Hostel one by one in order to get to know them. I have learned a great deal not only about their individual lives, but also about the challenges that face ordinary Burkinabe children who wish to pursue their education. Here are some of the situations that our students have lived through:

  • Several students left home when they reached the equivalent of Grade 6 (sixieme in the French system) because there was no middle school or high school in their home town. They move to a larger center where they live with a relative – sometimes just an older sibling. Some of our students have been living among students without adult supervision from the time they were 13 or 14!
  • Several students have had to figure out how to pay for their studies even before they get to university. In fact, even public education costs money. So if the student’s parents cannot afford to send him/her to school then he/she has to make enough money to cover the cost of studies. Many students have worked alongside their studies or in the summer time and put themselves through high school.
  • One student had to attend night school so that he could work during the day. The problem is that night school does not give the student the same number of hours and so in exam years (see below) the night school students are at a clear disadvantage. This student found a family connection who was willing to cover his costs for the two exam years. Although he had not had the equivalent preparation as the other students in his class, he passed the exams when he was able to study full-time.
  • Once the students arrive at university, financial costs are not the greatest challenge they face. If they have good results from their BAC exam which they take at the end of high school, they only need to pay the equivalent of $30.00 to register. As well, the state provides a small assistance for those students. However, there is no possibility of getting student loans, so the students still need either family support or else financial opportunities in order to cover their living expenses.
  • The greater challenge for many students is the sheer number of classmates. Some first year programs have over 2,000 students. Rather than dividing them into smaller groups, these 2,000 plus students sit in the same conference hall to take core classes with one professor. Those students who are at the back may not be able to see what is written on the blackboard, but that is not an acceptable excuse for not passing an exam!
  • The professors often make the first year extremely challenging in order to reduce the numbers in the upper years. One student told me in first year there were over 1800 students, but only 500 (less than one-third!) passed into second year!
  • Along with huge classes, the students must also put up with very irregular schedules. One program puts out the course schedule week by week rather than semester by semester. From one week to the next your classes may be offered on different days or at different times. This means that it is very difficult to have any other commitments (such as regular work hours.) Classes can start as early as 7:00 AM or go as late as 9:00 PM and there are frequently classes or even exams on Saturday mornings.
  •  Many times the professors engage in other activities to augment their salaries. When there is a conflict between teaching at the public university and other activities, it is often the university that is deprived. Therefore, in certain classes it is difficult to get all the required hours in or to cover the required content before the exam period. This also affects the students’ ability to be successful in their program.
  • Several years ago, there were a series of strikes by students who were dissatisfied with a number of things on campus. As a result, many programs no longer follow the usual academic calendar. Some students graduate from high school in July and wait an entire year (June of the following year) to begin their studies. What is particular difficult about this is that the students are not contacted and given a date for the beginning of their program. It is their responsibility to keep track by visiting the campus regularly or by asking another student who is on campus to check for them. One student came to Ouagadougou (from her home 400 KM away) for a wedding and then stayed because the program began a few days later!
  • Many of the students do not have computers. It is possible, however, for a professor to make reading material available only electronically. One student finally had access to the material needed to prepare for an exam three days before the exam. While he was not able to read all of it, he got enough information to pass.

In spite of these many challenges, our students are succeeding in their studies. They face a great deal of odds with courage and faith. I am very proud of them.

The organization of the elementary and high school system in Burkina Faso:

Primary school (not counting kindergarten) is six years. At the end of primary school, the students write an exam. Those who pass are allowed to go on to the next stage. They are awarded a Certificate: abbreviated as CEPE.

The next stage is called “college” and lasts for four years: 6, 5, 4, 3. At the end of the level called “third” they write another exam. Those who pass receive the BPC or Brevet and are allowed to go on to the next level. ) It is not unusual for a student to take this exam several times. Many students drop out at this point if they are not successful.

The final three years are taken at “lycee”: 2nd, 1st and terminal. At this point, the student is oriented into a particular area: arts (history, geography, languages), sciences and maths, or business (secretarial or accounting. The student who continues on to university will be streamed into programs that correspond to the courses he/she took at lycee.

At the end of the third year, the students write a series of exams (including a four-hour philosophy exam!) as well as taking oral exams in certain classes. The students who pass are awarded a Baccalaureate and may go on to university. It is not unusual for a student to take this exam several times.

Oumarou Dakuyo

Oumarou (pronounced “Ooh-ma-roo) is one of the first faces you will see if you arrive at the student hostel on Sunday morning. He is one of two or three students waiting at the door to greet people as they arrive for the Sunday service. He is a natural greeter with a friendly, open face and a ready smile. He is a regular at all of the events at the residence, not just Sunday worship.

I only recently learned more about Oumarou. After he graduated from high school with his BAC, he was not sure he could go to university. The university is located far from his home and he does not have relatives with whom he could stay. Therefore, he would be required to find lodgings and pay rent. The students are given a modest assistance from the state (to the tune of $300.00 a year), but it often takes a few months for the money to be distributed. The students are on their own in the meantime. Renters in the capital, Ouagadougou, often have to pay two or three months’ rent as an advance before moving into their lodgings. Oumarou comes from a farming family where spare cash is a scarce commodity. His family would not be able to help him pay his rent. This fact alone could have prevented him from pursuing his studies.

Oumarou has an older friend from the same village who lived at the Mennonite student residence. This friend told Oumarou about the hostel and Oumarou asked if there would be room for him. There was a bed available and Oumarou moved in. Thanks to the student hostel, he is able to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor while also growing stronger in his Christian faith.

March Prayer Letter

New Prayer Letter Format

Greetings once again from Ouagadougou! This month we’re test-driving our new prayer letter format. Instead of sending an attached file we’re using a service called MailChimp to embed the letter directly into an email message. We hope this works better for those who have not received our letters consistently because of technical glitches. If you’d like to sign up to receive our email prayer letters, click on the link Subscribe to our newsletter in the column on the right, just above the calendar. Let us know what you think of this new medium.

International Women’s Day

March 8 was International Women’s Day around the world. In Burkina Faso it is also a national holiday. The standard joke is that 364 days of the year are “Men’s days” and that women get the one remaining day! On March 8, 1987, Thomas Sankara, then leader of Burkina Faso, required men to do the shopping and cook for their wives. He felt it would help men to understand the challenges their wives faced. In many homes there is conflict over how much money the men give their wives to shop with: the wives say that it is not enough, while their husbands accuse the wives of not purchasing enough with the money they get!


This year on March 8 the students who live in the hostel organized an outing at a local park. We spent some time debating the topic of community life. The discussion leaders asked questions like: What is life in community? Does the student hostel constitute a community? Is it important? What behaviors will help us be successful in our community living? The most interesting answers were about how easy or difficult it is to live in community. Some said that it was easy if we learn to listen to each other and demonstrate respect and understanding. Others said no, it is difficult because we are different from one another and all need to work at self-control. Clearly with 24 students currently living at the hostel, this is a very relevant topic!


It’s Hot!Screen_shot_2013_03_09_at_18.52.42_

I (Nancy) have never liked air conditioning. I get cold very easily and prefer to be warm rather than cool. When it gets hot I slow down, drink more water, wear loose clothing and sit under a fan. When we lived in Benin we kept cool with fans and didn’t use air conditioning. In Ouagadougou we’re encountering a level of heat we had not experienced before and have taken to using the air conditioner at night. We’re hoping for an early rainy season to cool things down! Although we were warned, I don’t think we really understood how much the temperature would change. Pray that we acclimatize rapidly in this new context!

Jeremiah and Deborah

Growing up in Cotonou and now here in Ouagadougou, Jeremiah and Deborah have benefited from having relationships with people from a wide range of socio-economic levels. They’ve had friends at the international schools they attend who are wealthy. But they’ve also had friends who are quite poor. They have seen both wealth and poverty and place themselves somewhere along the continuum. This year they have the opportunity to reflect on the rich/poor disparity. Their youth group is organizing a thirty hour fast which includes raising money for three different social programs in Ouagadougou: a ministry for street children, a home for at risk young women, and a food program for needy families. After the fast they will have a hands-on experience with the three ministries. We hope this experience will further educate them about wealth disparities and increase their desire to put their faith into action.

Please join us in praying:

  • Pray for the students at FEMO, the Mennonite hostel. Recently two have lost fathers rather unexpectedly. Pray for Elizabeth and Kinani and for their respective families.
  • Pray for a smooth transition as the students prepare to move to the new FEMO site. Pray that the remodeling will be finished quickly and for good closure with the landlord as we move out of the rented facilities. Pray for the community spirit and understanding to remain strong as the students adjust to a new living situation.
  • Pray for Jeremiah and Deborah and their youth group, that their thirty hour fast will be a good experience as they learn to make sacrifices in order to share God’s love with others in concrete action.
  • Join us in thanking God for abundant goodness in our lives. We are grateful for cold water, for air conditioning, and for a reliable car, all of which facilitate living and working in Burkina Faso.

Spirit week, talent show and softball tournament: Russian and Chinese rap anyone?

Aside from academics, one of the tasks of an international school is to provide social activities for the student body. In a city where there are few activities for middle and high schoolers, after school activities, sports teams and movie nights are some of the options the International School of Ouagadougou provides for its student body. Along with those activities, this week, ISO held spirit week, put on a talent show and hosted SOFANWET – Softball fanatics weekend tournament.

Six teams traveled from Niamey to compete with five local teams this past weekend. Both Jeremiah and Bruce played on separate teams. While most of the teams are dominated by American and Canadian players, one of the best teams has mainly Burkinabe players who have been playing softball for several years now. They are quite good and getting better all the time. Their strength is their ability to run around the bases like they were running the 100 yard dash! Bruce’s team was made up of folks who play for fun (as opposed to the competitive teams who play to win!) with some of the players recruited at the last-minute. They did not distinguish themselves. Jeremiah is part of the ISO school team, the Turtles (the school’s mascot because there are two giant turtles who live on the campus). They did very well as one of the youngest teams – all the players are in grades six to eight – beating the Peace Corps team and coming in third place. They lost to a team of men, some of them marines, who were able to hit the ball out of the park too many times. If these middle schoolers continue to play together for a few more years they will be a force to contend with!

The week before the softball tournament was spirit week at school. All the students from grades 6 to 12 were divided into teams and on Friday they competed in games designed to build team relations rather than test athletic skills. It was a good way for the students from different grades to interact. On Thursday afternoon at the talent show, each team presented a team cheer and a team mascot. Jeremiah’s team, the red team, chose “red bull” as their mascot. Deborah’s team chose the “blue troll”!

The talent show was a mix of singing, dancing and instrumental talents. The student body was very supportive, cheering on all the performers whether they were good or mediocre. There were no mocking laughs, just gasps of pleasure or more enthusiastic applause for the better performers. One of the most interesting acts was a combination of a Russian rapper and a Taiwanese rapper. Their act alternated between Russian and Chinese rap, transitioning from one language to the other without losing a beat. This is one of the things I love about international schools: where else could two students from such vastly different cultures and languages join on stage in a duo act? I continue to marvel at how our children are being exposed to people from around the world, learning to understand and accept differences as normal.