by Emily Berry

Part-time Hinterland resident and video documentary producer, Emily Berry recently visited the tiny African country of Burkina Faso to make a corporate video about a unique humanitarian project. Emily travelled with her partner and cameraman / editor, Yann Guerin to film the impact of thousands of pairs of used spectacles collected in France for the benefit of these African children.

BURKINA FASO is a little known, land-locked country in West Africa bordered by six African nations: Mali, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Nigeria and Benin. More than half of its people (called Burkinabe) are under 18 but when we first landed in the capital Ouagadougou, there was no evidence of its nearly nine million kids wandering the streets. Once we hit the rural areas though, they appeared in their hundreds, out of every nook and cranny, in the remotest of areas.

Upon arrival in the capital, we were taken directly to The Mercure to meet our host, Didier Papaz, CEO of French eyewear company Optic 2ooo. He is a self assured young looking director, still in his 40s, perfectly groomed and composed like most Frenchmen in his position.

The next morning we set off in a convoy of four, black 4WD, sticking out like sore black thumbs against the sandy rural landscape. First off, we’re headed towards the town of Ouahigouya which served as the capital of the old Mossi kingdom, before it fell under French colonial rule in the 19th century. Now independent, the town still bears some memories of its origins, namely a king, le Roi du Yatenga who presides over the land, as counsel and support to the myriad of tribes, languages and religions that call Yatenga home.

As we drive through the dusty desert landscape, I cannot help but be reminded of some of the more semi-arid western Queensland terrain. While only 10 per cent of the earth here is arable land, about 90 per cent of the Burkinabe depend on agriculture to survive. Soil erosion, caused by de-forestation, overgrazing, continuous cropping and drought, continues to threaten their means for survival. It is no wonder then that Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world – ranked 177 out of 182 countries – according to the latest United Nations Human Development Index.

A day or so later, we’re visiting a bush village in the dry plains of Yatenga. Straw huts with thatched peaked roofs separated by mud brick walls are neatly arranged into a compound-like formation. Each household has it’s own plot which I am told can contain up to five wives, with each wife giving birth to on average six children. The demands on the family are great, and it is no wonder then that able children are often pulled from school to work on the family plot or become part of Burkina Faso’s biggest export: migrant workers to neighbouring countries.

The people of Burkina Faso also suffer from immense health problems, illiteracy and unemployment. Schooling is in theory free and compulsory until the age of 16. To add insult to injury, many Burkinabe children suffer the early onset of eyesight disorders.

Enter Optic 2ooo who, In 1985, joined hands with French NGO Jeremi to provide support to the thousands of Burkinabe in need of eye care. They began by setting up a makeshift office in the local hospital of Ouahigouya, and armed with optical equipment, they set out to the remote areas of Yatenga, setting up camp in schools and community centres, to test vision and supply eyeglasses to those in need.

Some 20 years ago Didier Papaz was part of this first mission to Ouahigouya. Now CEO of Optic 2ooo, Didier has ramped up the company’s commitment. Last November two teams of French optometrists travelled to the remote areas of Yatenga in an attempt to reach some 6000 children over 15 days.

By visiting local schools and community centres, and with the assistance of local authorities, the medical team were able to test each child’s sight, and within days, furnish them with a pair of glasses suited to their needs.

The success of this initiative has been in part due to the partnership with NGO Jeremi but what’s interesting about this initiative, is where the money comes from. Back in Europe Optic 2ooo has installed drop boxes in its 1200 retail outlets across France and Switzerland. People can trot down to their friendly Optic 2ooo optometrist and dispose of their old glasses. The Mission: “Give your glasses a second life! Glasses for the children of Africa” – is a lovely thought. Not only are you saving the environment from more landfill, but your glasses get a second life with a Burkina Faso child.

However, this isn’t the whole picture and it certainly isn’t where the money comes from. Those frames that are in good condition do make it to Ouahigouya. But what they’re really looking for are the frames embossed in gold which are separated from the rest. The metal is extracted, and the gold is then melted down to produce a small ingot that fetches about 15,000 Euro on the gold market.

Each year this little ingot contributes to the running of the hospital in Quahigouya, including the maintenance of the optical equipment that is used to manufacture and test the lenses for the Burkinabe children.

Despite the slightly misleading advertising in France, there’s no doubt this humanitarian mission is doing wonders for the people of Yatenga. What’s even more impressive, it’s a mission run on the ground by the Burkinabe, who have been medically trained thanks to those gold ingots. As Didier Papaz explains, success of the mission has been in part due to the simple nature of the operation. “There’s little administration; it’s mostly equipment, well trained staff and infrastructure… If you give the Burkinabe the opportunity to help themselves, and to help others, they will.”

And that is truly the case. Proud and optimistic, the Burkinabe are extremely resourceful with the little they have. What we found to be a simple solution to an African heath problem became a wonderful lesson in the complexities and richness of this proud and optimistic African culture.

View the video at the Broadoak productions website: