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Week of 3.9.07

Producer's Notebook: Na Eng's Journey to Burkina Faso

NOW producer Na Eng The journey to Burkina Faso in West Africa actually began in Washington, D.C. where I took part in a program at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies called the International Reporting Project Fellowship. Born out of a concern that American press coverage was becoming more insular as the world was becoming more closely connected and complex, the program offers journalists the time and funding to cover an under-reported international subject.

After reading that West African countries had appealed to the World Trade Organization claiming that the subsidies were choking their own cotton sectors, I sought out to investigate the global impact of American farm subsidies—focusing on the plight of cotton farmers in Burkina Faso. For some of the most impoverished countries in the world, cotton is the lifeblood of their economy.

Cotton farm Before I left for Burkina Faso, I first went to Lubbock, Texas. The American cotton harvest was beginning, and I wanted to hear the perspective of the farmers there who rely on subsidies. The trip made the story much more concrete for me: seeing the lives behind the policies and breathing in the country air, filming the wide expanse of irrigated cotton fields and seeing all the giant mechanizations of modern farming. Before hanging out in the fields of West Texas, it was just another policy question. Now I could hear the worry underneath the voices of the folks I met, and I could really sense how much was at stake in this debate. "Without the subsidies, we're sunk," one farmer told me. I also heard from a small cotton grower who, despite receiving subsidies himself, concluded that the subsidies were not only hurting African growers, but small struggling farmers in America as well.

Shortly after, I flew to Ouagadougou, Burkina's cosmopolitan capital, where you can enjoy the café life as long as you don't mind the hens pecking near your feet. I had traveled to rough cities in the developing world before, so I braced myself for the pollution, slums, begging and aggression that I was sure would greet me. To my delight, I encountered none of these urban menaces. Instead, I was completely disarmed by the easygoing pace of life there. Everyone greeted with friendly smiles. Red dust coats every surface. Mopeds and bikes crisscross the busy streets alongside ambling donkey carts.

Burkina Faso means "the land of honorable men," and I can report that the country lived up to its reputation.
For a country that lands right near the bottom of the United Nations global ranking of living standards, Ouagadougou has a thing or two to teach the rest of the world. For one thing, it has got to be the safest big city in the world. Crime is extremely rare. Burkina Faso means "the land of honorable men," and I can report that the country lived up to its reputation.

I was most impressed by the people's incredible diversity and long history of peace and stability. Muslims and Christians intermarry and celebrate each other's religious holidays; and people take it upon themselves to learn several languages of the sixty that are spoken. I was there during the Muslim holiday of Ramandan. I remember asking someone if he was looking forward to the holiday weekend. "I'm not Muslim," he told me, "but I will celebrate it in solidarity." I thought that was such a nice sentiment and a good model for intercultural tolerance!

Na shooting in the field While in Ouagadougou, I got my bearings, hired a crew, and prepared for production. After a five-hour bus ride to Burkina's second major city, Bobo-Dioulasso, we trekked down to Padema, a small cotton-dependent village where we spent most of our time. To reach Padema, we drove for two hours swerving every which way to avoid potholes that were the size of moon craters. This was not the kind of place where you could call AAA for help. We did, of course, endure not just one flat tire, but two.

When we finally reached Padema, we stayed in the compound of the newly elected mayor of the town, Moussa. It was the most deluxe accommodations available. This meant that Moussa and his four wives had a well nearby, and most importantly for his special guests, the cleanest latrine in town. But that's where the luxuries ended. Moussa and his large family, like everyone else in the community, slept on a woven mat on the dirt floor. It was so hot that the crew and I all slept each night outdoors under a gorgeous night sky strewn with stars.

Na Eng filming cotton A man named Tahirou Konate opened his doors to us. We spent several days filming him and his large family. For a man who had never spent a day in school, Konate had a very good grasp of the connection between the low prices he saw on the market and farm policies in the U.S. and Europe. He said he harbored no ill will toward Americans personally, but felt it was his duty to denounce the policy. He also had a nuanced understanding of the role of his own government and cotton industry in how much he was able to bring home to his family. But he was most angry about the American subsidies, which he said were definitely hurting his bottom line. And he wanted Americans to understand that he would rather be earning an honest living and compete on a level playing field rather than rely on a foreign aid handout.

There are some images from Padema that remain seared in my memory: an infant nursing on her mother as she handpicks cotton; a flock of kids waving to us with glee from a pool of foggy water, a large extended family gathered in the fields with no tools, no hats, no water to drink under the sun, nothing but a sack to place those precious cotton bolls. For this Muslim family, midday prayers are held under the shade of a tree; an empty rice sack is used as the poor man's prayer rug.

We also visited the one school in town, where I filmed the kids singing a song about—of all things—cowboys. I also saw Konate pay the annual school fees: 2,000 CFA (that's West African francs) for each of his kids, which is roughly $4 for an entire year. Yet Konate told me he feels frustrated that he cannot afford to send all of his school-age kids to school; three of his daughters stay behind to work in the cotton fields. I asked one of his girls, a 12-year-old named Zalissa, if she ever did anything for fun. "I don't know how to answer your question because I'm not sure what you're talking about," she replied through a translator.

As we were ready to bid farewell, Konate came out with a gift for me. I saw it in his hand and knew what was coming. I leaned over to my translator: "There's no way I can politely refuse, is there? Just explain that journalists can't accept gifts." He looked at me mortified, "No way!" It was a live squawking chicken hanging upside down. "Thank you so much for coming all the way here to listen to us," Konate said to me. "Whatever you can do to share our views with the American people, that we are living close to the edge of death here, we are so grateful."

And with that, I had a chicken in my jeep to take home and a life of a village to share with NOW's viewers.