The big differences globally are not between countries anymore, but between villages and cities. To get a better picture of village life, I interviewed Koala, a young man who grew up in a town of 4,000 people in Burkina Faso in West Africa. Now he’s a graduate student in California. What he misses about the village is the social connections, unlike the individualism of the West. People have to be nice to each other because they need each other, helping each build houses, etc. If you visit a family while they’re eating, you share food. When you’re hungry, they’ll feed you. Elders are respected and cared for. With no police, people let elders know if someone does something wrong. People encourage each other and help solve problems. Some older people get a reputation for being wise and people go to them for counsel.
Alfred Koudougou, known as Koala, grew up in a Muslim family. His mother was the first wife, who acts like a mother to the younger second wife, who he refers to as his stepmother. His parents were very displeased when he converted to Christianity and stopped helping him pay for school, so he worked hard on his own.
Each adult in his family had their own hut, made of mud bricks crafted by young men for sale, with thatched roofs or an aluminum covering, often no windows, and mats to unroll for sleeping. Boys get their own hut after age eight or so, but girls stay with their mothers until marriage in the early 20s. A house must be rebuilt every six to 10 years, during the hot dry season. The bathroom is in the bush away from the village with leaves or bark instead of toilet paper. Water has to be carried from the distant well (1 to 3 miles depending on where you live) by women or families with more income pull it on a donkey cart. Some people have bicycles. Food is cooked outdoors in pots over a fire, so wood must be gathered.
All the food is grown during the three months of the rainy season, when everyone works hard by hand in the fields growing vegetables, legumes, and grains like millet. A few fortunate ones have oxen to pull plows, thanks to a program Koala started for his village. But the food doesn’t usually last through the dry season, so it’s common for adults to eat every four days, going hungry for three days. Food is set aside for the children, but only enough to eat once a day. Any surplus is sold at weekly markets and some buy food like dried fish and sell it at the market. When Koala was in the village, the young boys hunted for small rodents, birds, and lizards while the older boys hunted rabbits and bigger animals. Since then the government made hunting illegal to try to preserve the wild game.
Few can afford to send their children to school, although more girls are attending now that the government gives bags of rice to their families. Of the 53 students in Koala’s elementary school, nine made it to high school—and only one girl. Students have to pass a baccalaureate examination to go to college, and only two of his friends made it.
Initiation into adulthood by age and gender is done differently in various tribes. Some do male circumcision for teens, some in the early 20s, and some don’t do it. Some tribes remove a baby girl’s clitoris. The circumcised boys in his village are taken in a camp outside the village until the wound heals where elders teach the boys to be truthful, to be good providers for their future families, and not to commit adultery or try to date a girl who is promised to a particular man. Great value is placed on respecting elders, including a wife obeying her husband who is usually older.
Wives accrue honor for being obedient wives. As more women help with earning money, they are more likely to share in decisions and husbands are less likely to beat a wife who makes a mistake. The first son of the previous chief inherits village chiefs; they’re always male because women don’t fight in wars. Each section of the village has a chief and the person at the top of the tribe is called a king.
In addition to Muslim or Christian influences, his village also reveres ancestors who are called on to intercede with God and sprits he called demons. Idols represent the god of the village or forces of nature. Animal sacrifices are made to the idols under the direction of witch doctors. Koala went to rituals with his father, both a Muslim and a witch doctor, where demons were called on from the air for help. He heard them speak on their own, not channeled by one of the men, providing instructions.
For entertainment in the dry season when less farming work is required, people gather under a tree and listen to elders tell stories about their lives, history of slavery, and ancestors. Some people have battery-powered radios. People also have dancing parties with drumming and singing. Sometimes they play western music, like reggae, powered by a generator. These parties provide a meeting place for young people, so arranged marriages are decreasing in frequency. About once a month, young people collect money and rent a video and video player from the city powered by a battery. Some villagers don’t understand the films aren’t real; they feel people are really dying and feel sad when cars crash. The skimpy clothes and pants worn in the movies disturb the women, feeling showing all that skin and shape of the legs dishonors women. They see paved roads but know they can’t afford them. Koala doesn’t think there’s a problem with wanting what they see in the movies. Although buses go to the city, most don’t go because they don’t have the money and enjoy their interactions with each other in the village.