An hour passed but he still had not arrived. I was getting restless; to while away my time, I engaged in a conversation with the concierge of Azalai Hotel Independance where I was billeted. In his heavily French-accented English, he told me that the word azalai refers to the camel caravan routes between Timbuktu and the Taoudenni salt mines in Mali. The caravan sometimes consisted of 10,000 camels bringing salt – referred to as white gold -, as well as slaves, jewelries, etc. It constituted the trade route which linked West African cities with Europe and the Middle East in 300 A.D.
The caravan, he said, usually stopped right in front of the hotel. The hall of this fully refurbished four-star hotel has been named after the renowned Senegalese film maker, Sembene Ousmane, the man who since he arrived at the Ouagadougou African Cinema Week (now called Fespaco) had chosen to sleep in Room no. 1 instead of the duplex he had been given. The concierge captured my interest also because since my high school days I have always fascinated with Timbuktu which is regarded by many as a mythical place which I have been dreaming to visit one day.
My mind wandered between the rich history of Burkina Faso and the man I was supposed to meet. Did he really mean to meet me or did he just simply forget our appointment? I knew he was a busy man. Just as I thought the appointment had been cancelled, he arrived and greeted me warmly. I did not recognize him easily because he was wearing casual safari short pants and an ordinary white cotton T-shirt time unlike the first time I met him in London. I was dressed up for a business meeting. I thought we were going to visit Banque Agricole et Commerciale du Burkina (BACB) where he was working.
I met Wolfgang Heupel last February 2007 during the international conference on remittances in London. It was a brief meeting but we both learned that we were also involved in European Microfinance Platform (E-MFP), a network of Europe-based microfinance institutions. He was one of the key people who founded the platform and I lead the Working Group on Remittances. I was in Ouagadougou to attend the experts’ meeting of International Alternative Financial Institutions (INAFI) on the link between microfinance and remittances. I expected that we were going to talk on that day about INAFI and E-MFP and how we would strengthen the Working Group on Remittances where he was also listed as a member.
He told me he was going to take me around the city for a sight-seeing and I excitedly agreed. It was an easy ride passing through wide tree-lined boulevards. The road was full of motorcycle riders and bicycles. I told him that I noticed there are so many Western Union branch offices and banks in Burkina Faso when the country is supposed to be one of the poorest countries in Africa. Wolfgang answered quickly that Burkina Faso is not really that poor, if only things are done the right way. It has lush vegetation that farmers can plant to a lot of varieties of crops. There are thousands of Burkinabe migrants especially in Italy and France who send money home regularly, which explains why there are so many Western Union outlets in Ouagadougou.
Small and medium enterprises thrive and contribute in wealth and job creation in Burkina Faso, but many of them do not keep appropriate records and still operate in an unconventional manner. This means, while they have a great knack in running the business, they do not keep proper accounting and management records. They keep the information on their head and they usually manage the business alone. He told me the story of an illiterate man, a successful hands-on entrepreneur who is a running a large trucking business. He has no office and he does not have a bookkeeping system but he knows exactly how to manage the business profitably by jumping into the water and getting his feet wet. If he suddenly dies, there are no records of his business and no legal successors have been named to take over the running of the business. This lack of transparency in management and operations is a problem for banks. Wolfgang’s role is to support the capacity building and provide professional coaching to these small and medium enterprises so they can meet bank requirements and ensure continuity of the enterprises.
We passed through FESPACO, the site of the Pan-African Film and Television Festival. It looked impressive, something you do not quite expect in a resource-poor, landlocked, former French colony on the edge of the Sahara Desert. He showed me the main market and I sighed and said to myself that our market in Bansalan is far better than what I saw. The Grande Marché, which is in the centre of the town, remains to be rebuilt after a fire ravaged it in 2003. It was supposed to be one of the largest shopping centers in West Africa.
He kept talking while driving, but our discussion on microfinance was not the one that fascinated me and lingered in my memory. It was why he left his job in Germany and chose to live and work in Ouagadougou. He loved the place and the people. It seems to be very challenging for a European to be working in this place where there is massive poverty and lack of many amenities which can be found in Western countries. Wolfgang thought otherwise. He said he had everything he needed in Ouagadougou and he felt his life was far enriching than staying in Germany. His young son attends classes in Ouagadougou. He talked about the health services in the city. They are not at par with those of Western countries but it was adequate, he said. He bought food and groceries from the public market just like the locals and was happy to be able to live normally like anyone else.
His passion for Africa was contagious and I could not help but admire the man. We drove to several places while he related his own personal journey in this African country.
“Africa is my home and I wanted to stay here in Ouagadougou for as long as I can,” he said. When I heard this I thought I was talking to an African. He took me back to the hotel around 3 pm and we agreed that we meet again in Luxembourg two months later.
When I arrived in the Netherlands, I sent him a short “thank you” note primarily for the rich conversation we had. Wolfgang opened my eyes to the other side of Africa. I was touched by his humble and positive outlook in life and how he was taking life day by day. Apart from his position as microfinance expert and high level staff member of one of the largest banks in Burkina Faso, Wolfgang was a simple man at heart.
We did not meet in Luxembourg last November. I thought he decided not to come at all. I sent him a Christmas card but I did not receive a note back from him. One of those passing encounters, I said to myself. You meet a person and you never hear from him or her anymore. I did not attempt to contact him anymore.
Last March I received from E-MFP a glossy copy of the proceedings of the conference which was held last November. I browsed the pages and on the inside portion of the cover, I was shocked in disbelief to read:
“In memory of Wolfgang Heupel (1956-2007), who played a major role in the creation of the European Microfinance Platform and was highly devoted to the development of the microfinance sector.”
I couldn’t believe he was the same Wolfgang I had met last August, so I contacted Axel de Ville, the director of E-MFP. He was sorry to hear that I learned so late that Wolfgang contracted a tropical virus and died several days later. He died on October 17, which was barely two months after I met him.
I used to take pictures while traveling. I was carrying my digital camera but I never had a chance to take pictures of him nor the places I saw. But I remember him quite well, for what he shared with me cannot be captured by a camera. I closed my eyes and said a brief prayer for his eternal peace. I recalled our conversation and remembered a fragment of the poem that says “I shall pass this way but once; therefore, whatever good I might do, let me do it now, for I will never pass this way again.”
Wolfgang did not know that he had opened the doors for me to Africa — to appreciate the people, its beauty despite its poverty, and the opportunities for development that remained unleashed. Burkina Faso was the first African country I ever visited. I am grateful that I met him and I know I will remember him vividly when I think of Africa. (Mindanawon Abroad is MindaNews' effort to link up with Mindanawons overseas who would like to share their experiences in their adopted countries. Leila Rispens-Noel, a native of Bansalan, Davao del Sur, left for the Netherlands in 1979. She was a staff member of Mindanao-Sulu Secretariat for Social Action (MISSSA). Aside from being a wife and a mother of two grown-up sons, she works as programme officer in a Dutch development agency. She devotes her free time in supporting small development projects in Mindanao. Her passion is to encourage fellow migrants to harness the development potential of migration and to harness their skills, resources and talents for the development of the local areas. Visit her blog: http://diasporajourney.blogspot.com . You can contact her at Leila@rispens.tweakdsl.nl.