Friday, 21 October 2011

He was OK

Travelling around Burkina Faso, occasionally we come across a major road-building work going on - the old washboard dirt tracks being transformed into proper tarmac roads. Often the huge equipment and trucks busy at such sites are emblazoned with a large "OK". These are the initials of the company founder, Oumarou Kanazoe, who died aged 84 on Wednesday, a man who worked his way out of poverty to become the wealthiest man in Burkina Faso.

Born in 1927, Oumarou Kanazoe was an only child of a poor family, and was sent to Quranic school, aged 7. When he was 12, his father died, making him the family's breadwinner. He began making cloth, then selling it as well as cola-nuts, salt, and matches. He opened his first store and restaurant aged 23, and five years later bought his first goods truck. In 1970, aged 43, he started his company (Oumarou Kanazoe), and in 1973, gained his first road-building contract. The company developed to employ 1,000 people, building dams, roads, etc, not only in Burkina, but also in other West African countries. No-one knows how wealthy he actually is. People tell me he never learned to read and write. What is sure is that he remained un-schooled.

But the website says: "Oumarou Kanazoé, at the height of his wealth, was considered a good father, a leader, a man devoted to his religion. Oumarou Kanazoé was also considered a tireless worker, who rose early and went to bed late." He had four wives and 30 children. He worked to bring unity among Muslims in Burkina Faso, and this was recognised by his appointment as president of the "Federation of Islamic Associations of Burkina". But he also gave generously to build dams, roads, churches, and schools. Since 1995 he has been President of the Chamber of Commerce of Burkina Faso.

His name might be little known outside West Africa. But he was known throughout Burkina Faso with great affection, often just by his initials...

He was "OK".