When Eric Tiénou, a Burkinabé American and avid cyclist based in New York City, learned that devastating flooding in West Africa had killed at least 150 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more, he knew he could help.
Seeing the flood devastation online, Tiénou searched for a quick and innovative way to help. On his bicycle in Central Park in New York City, he realized that two wheels and a laptop could help him raise awareness in the United States about the tragedy — and help the most vulnerable flood victims in Burkina Faso.
Tiénou signed up to ride in the New York Cycle Club’s 15th Annual Escape New York ride on September 26 for a 105-kilometer ride. With less than three weeks to prepare, he researched charities on his laptop, selecting the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies appeal in support of the Burkinabé Red Cross Society. Using e-mail and Facebook postings, Tiénou reached out to “people from different stages of my life — from elementary school to investment banking colleagues.” He used the I love Burkina Faso Facebook group site to reach potential donors and to publicize his effort. Messages about his initiative were also posted on the Friends of Burkina Faso Web site.
Within two weeks, he had raised $3,700 for flood relief. The funds will go toward water sanitation and hygiene kits, blankets, insecticide-treated nets, sleeping mats and tents.
Before moving to the United States as a child, Tiénou had lived in Burkina Faso and many of his relatives still reside there. “For me, it shows the importance of Burkinabé-American individuals showing people in Burkina that we are proud of where we came from, and that we can help. It also helps people in the U.S. to be informed about the flooding, to understand that something severe happened, even though it did not get a lot of news coverage here.”
Raising funds for Burkina Faso through a bike ride made sense, he said, because “Burkina Faso is the two-wheel capital of the world.” Bicycles, motorcycles and mopeds outnumber cars by more than 2-to-1, and for 23 years Burkina Faso has hosted the Tour du Faso, a 10-day bike race organized by the Burkinabé Cycling Association in conjunction with the same group that operates the Tour de France.
While the 23rd Tour du Faso began October 23, the recent floods have made biking in the capital city Ouagadougou nearly impossible. The flooding destroyed roads, bridges, buildings and dams. “This has been a tough year for the African continent in terms of weather,” Tiénou said. “In the East there are terrible droughts and in the West there has been tremendous rain.”
West Africans are used to the rain, as the monsoon season traditionally lasts from June into October, but the floods this year have been more severe than usual, with almost a third of a meter of rain falling in Ouagadougou in a 12-hour period. “It was an extreme amount of rain for a city in the Sahel,” Tiénou said.
Burkina Faso is considered one of the poorest countries in the world, with half of the population living under the poverty line. Most people are dependent on agriculture as their major means of survival. The flooding has left the poor even more vulnerable, severely affecting Burkina Faso’s agricultural production capabilities, leaving thousands without shelter, and threatening the contamination of the water supply.
Tiénou rode in support of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies appeal for assistance to the Burkinabé Red Cross Society. In early September, the Red Cross asked the international community for food, emergency shelter, medical care, water and sanitation.
Tiénou collected his donations using firstgiving, a Web site that makes it easy for individual donors to contribute directly to charities. Today, it is easier for individuals like Tiénou to use social networking tools and Internet resources to directly benefit the lives of people in need thousands of kilometers away.
On the day of the race, Tiénou rode with the cycling team from Hope for New York, a group that works to serve the poor and marginalized of New York City. Raising funds for those in need in the United States, and – in Tiénou’s case – in Burkina Faso, the riders embarked on their 105-kilometer journey. “It turned out really well,” Tiénou said. “I did it in about four-and-a-half hours, which I was happy about.”
In addition to individual donations to Burkina Faso flood victims, since September the U.S. government has provided more than $2 million in flood relief for Burkina Faso.