WORTHINGTON — It’s a long way from the African nation of Burkina Faso to southwest Minnesota, which explains at least one component of Moumouni Zeba’s arrival in Worthington.
How Zeba got to Worthington, however, is not quite as straightforward. While many immigrants aspire to achieve the American dream, Zeba originally had a different country in mind.
Winning the lottery
Burkina Faso is a landlocked country in West Africa bordered by Mali to the northwest, Niger to the northeast, Togo and Ghana to the south and the Ivory Coast to the southwest. The capital of the nation is Ouagadougou, a city of nearly 2.5 million people in which Zeba was living and working as a nurse in the early 2000s.
While only 15% of Burkina Faso’s citizens speak French, the country’s official language of government and business is French as a result of its roots in French colonialism. Zeba is fluent in French and, because of his knowledge of the language, had an interest in a North American nation other than the United States.
“I had been thinking about Canada,” Zeba recalled. “I wanted to go visit Canada on vacation, but it didn’t work out.”
He’s now thankful that the Canadian trip didn’t materialize. He had the good fortune of being a winner in the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program (better known as the DV Program), a United States government lottery program for receiving a U.S. Permanent Resident Card.
“I won at the end of 2005, and when that happens it takes about a year to get a visa,” Zeba said. “They gave me appointments to the U.S. embassy (in Ouagadougou) for the interviews, and then I qualified. There were three interviews and, after the last interview, they said I should come the next day to get my visa.”
Zeba had six months to use his visa and get to America before it expired — if he didn’t in time, he would have to begin the lottery process over and hope to get lucky and win again. Fortunately, he had a familial connection already in the U.S.
“One of my cousins was living in South Dakota, in Sioux Falls,” Zeba explained. “When I got a visa, I talked to him to know exactly his location. … I chose the date I was going to leave and the destination, and that was South Dakota.
“He told me to get ready because it’s very, very cold over here.”
Getting to Worthington
About a week after his arrival in South Dakota, Zeba received his permanent residency card. He quickly began looking for employment.
“I started looking for a job and my first appointment was at the Ramkota Hotel,” he remembered. “They called me the same week, and I got an interview and they said I could start working. I was a dishwasher over there.”
That job, of course, was a far cry from Zeba’s work as a registered nurse in Burkina Faso, but he was still happy to be hired quickly. He planned at the time to earn money to go back to school to get the necessary American credentials, but he wanted “to get a little stability first.”
Zeba worked for between three and four months at the Ramkota before learning about another professional opportunity.
“That’s when I heard about JBS Worthington,” he said. “They said they need people there, and I’d never been here. I said, ‘JBS, how much do they pay?’ and it was better than the hotel, so I decided to apply to JBS.
“I asked somebody to drive me over here to get an application and when I filled it out, they called me two days later for an interview. I decided to leave the hotel for JBS; it seemed better.”
Zeba began working at JBS in the spring of 2007 as a forklift operator, and is still working in that capacity today.
For his first four months or so at JBS, he rode a bus from Sioux Falls to Worthington for work.
“Then I was thinking, ‘You get so tired, you don’t sleep enough,’ so I decided to look for an apartment here,” Zeba said. “I found one on Collegeway and I applied, and the next day they called me. The manager, we talked for a little bit and he said, ‘OK, if I want it right now, he can give me the key.’
“I took it and gave him the check and I got the key the same day, but I didn’t have any stuff,” he continued. “It took me about two days ... and then just came to my apartment after going to Walmart and getting an air mattress. Little by little, I added stuff.”
Zeba remained in that apartment until October 2020, when he purchased a home in Adrian. His living situation had already changed considerably at that point.
It was difficult for Zeba to leave Burkina Faso for the United States, most of all because of the family who stayed behind. Both his wife, Fatimata, and their two sons remained in Ouagadougou, and the plan was to bring them all over to join him. About five years ago, his two sons — Peda, now 16, and Cheitk, now 14 — arrived in Worthington. His wife was working part-time and going to college in Burkina Faso; it’s hoped she will join the family soon.
“When you have a resident card … the rest of your family can come faster,” Zeba said. “I got my U.S. citizenship in 2011. After I got a passport, I decided to start the process for the kids to come a couple of years later.
“My wife is still over there, but she’s probably going to come this year,” he added. “She’s done what she needed to finish college now. I started the process just one month ago, but because of COVID-19 it may go to the end of this year.”
Zeba has returned to Burkina Faso on three occasions to see his wife. His most recent trip was last November, and he stayed for a full month. Zeba said his wife hopes to open a hair salon upon relocating to Worthington, while also continuing to pursue her education.
Making an adjustment
Zeba noted that Burkina Faso has two additional national languages other than French, and that he speaks French at home with his sons.
“We learned English in school, but … if they wrote it down I understood it, but when they spoke it I didn’t,” he said.
Zeba’s English has improved considerably over the years. Since the arrival of his boys, they have traveled to Minnneapolis, the Mall of America, Sioux Falls and St. Cloud for getaways. They attend the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Worthington. He has continued to work a 3 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. shift at JBS.
Zeba said he is the only Burkina Faso native he knows in his new hometown.
“There was another guy from Burkina Faso who had been working for the embassy there and asked to come to the U.S. when he retired,” Zeba said. He came two years after I did … he came to South Dakota and I brought him to JBS. He ended up leaving and going somewhere where they don’t have very cold weather.”
As for Zeba, the U.S. is his adopted — and proud — home. Not that Burkina Faso was necessarily bad, mind you.
“It’s been a democracy since a long time ago,” Zeba said of his birthplace, “and we don’t have war like in some countries. “When I was living there, I was probably in the middle class. Today, when I go back to Burkina Faso, they think I’m rich.”
Zeba believes “there is a bad side of every country and a good side,” and he is grateful to be living a life he didn’t expect to have.
“When I got the U.S. visa I thought, ‘What should I do?’ but I decided ‘If I don’t like it, I’ll come back.’” he said. “My dream was going to Canada, where they speak French. This is probably my destiny, because I didn’t think this was going to happen.”