Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Bike Story


In one of our first meetings with the directorice of the Peace Corps here in Burkina Faso, she reminded us that there are bad people everywhere. Even though most Burkinabè are generous and honest, they have their fair share of criminal types. Volunteers do tend to get a bit romantic about the good qualities of the Burkinabè and to forget the fact that every culture has bad guys. I have encountered two so far, but not face to face, thank goodness. A couple of months ago, after I had locked the gate in the wall of my courtyard for the night, I went to my "office" to check my e-mail. When I returned to my living room, I could not find my cell phone, which I was sure I had left on the table. Someone climbed over the wall and quietly entered the house to take it. Since then I have started to lock my door whenever I am in the house, and I have given up sleeping in the court yard. A friend told me his cell phone was taken from right beside him while he sleept outside. It is kind of a nuisance, but I was lucky that it was just someone snagging that small item, and I was not threatened or hurt.

The second encounter was a couple of weekends ago. I had a skin rash in reaction to an antibiotic I was taking and the Peace Corps doctor asked me to go to the medical center to have the doctor there take a look at it. I rode my bike there and left it in the "parking" while I went into the compound and waited for her to be ready to see me. While I waited, a man entered the courtyard and came over to me. He said something I did not understand and waved his hands by his ears. I thought he was looking for help with pain in his ears, but others have told me that was to indicate that he was deaf and dumb (which he was not). After I saw the doctor I went to get my bike, and it was gone. He had told the kid who was watching the bikes that I had said he should take my bike to town and get something for him. He left his bike there in place of mine, but it turned out he had stolen that one from someone else. The Peace Corps bikes are quite distinctive so the police and gendarmes both thought they might be able to find it, but sofor a couple of weeks there was no luck on that front. From now on I will be locking my bicycle (the original or a replacement) even when I leave it in guarded parking. Sad to say, there are, in fact, bad people everywhere. I am really happy to report that most of the people here seem appalled at the idea that someone would steal it and they have been supportive and have spread the word about it.

Just when you give up hope
I was in Ouagadougou for a work related activity I will tell you all about later, and decided while I was there I would pick up a new bicycle to replace the one that was stolen. Because the bike was not locked and I did not have a "parking" receipt, the Peace Corps rules say I am responsible for it and have to pay for a replacement. I would hate to see them try to collect for the poor father of the little boy who was fooled into letting the thief take my bike, so I was happy to pay for it. Well, not really HAPPY, but willing. They gave me a used bicycle and charged me the equivalent of $200 for it, which is a just about half of the value of a new bike like this.

The day after I paid for it, I got a call from the Gendarmes in the big city about 23 kilometers away from my village (I will just call it X for simplicity, because we are not supposed to give out any information about where we live) saying they had found my bicycle. I was going to take a bus to X to retrieve it, but when I found I could get a taxi to take me from the capital to X for about $40, I decided to go that way. I am sure glad I took him up on it. When we got to X we stopped at the Gendarmerie at the edge of town assuming that would be where my bike was. It turns out there are actually three different gendarmeries in town and my bike as at the one on the other side of town. The bus station was half way between them, and if I had taken the bus I would have had a long walk just to learn that the bicycle was at the other place.

When we arrived the bike was sitting there in front of a pile of about 30 bikes. I am not sure if they were all stolen and the owners had not been located, or what. I had asked the bureau to print up an receipt/proof of ownership and with that and my Peace Corps ID there was no problem, We put it in the trunk and headed out. The driver told me he was surprised that there was no charge. He said if it had been his bike they would have demanded payment for their trouble. Go figure.

The front tire was completely flat and the bike was in first gear on each gear shifter, so I expect he rode it that way for a while. The break cable was frayed and the gel seat is also somewhat the worse for wear. Surprisingly, there was a new set of hand grips on the handle bars. I guess he stole them from somebody else. The Peace Corps put on a new tire and break cable and a volunteer who was leaving the country gave me a slightly used seat, so it is almost as good as it was before its adventure.

The Peace Corps safety and security folks talked to the gendarmes and found out that they had been chasing this guy, who had stolen something else. Apparently the tire went flat and he abandoned the bike. He got away, but the gendarmes rescued my bike. Go gendarmes!

Janet D. Larsen, Ph. D,
Professor Emeritus
Department of Psychology
John Carroll University
Peace Corps Volunteer
Burkina Faso, West Africa


  1. Great story Jan - what did you do with the second bike?

  2. Thanks Jan. I've enjoyed all of your posts. Thanks for keeping us updated.