Published: June 11th 2008June 11th 2008
Now that school is out, Radhika and I decided to take a trip to Oursi, a village in the Sahel region in northern Burkina Faso. This would be the place we tried to go last summer, when we caught a ride on top of a truck and then got stranded in the middle of the desert overnight because the road was flooded out.
This time we brought bikes so we wouldn’t have to rely on slow, rickety trucks for transport. We took a bus from Ouaga to Dori in the morning then hid from the sun for a few hours, ready to bike the 57 km to Gorom-Gorom in the afternoon. We sipped cold water at a small restaurant with PCV Jeremy.
The day was especially hot, with that stagnant humidity that usually means it’s going to rain soon. But the sky looked clear and Radhika and I were anxious to get to Gorom. So We tied our bags to our bikes and started pedaling. Not 15 minutes later we were in the middle of a violent dust storm.
The Sahel region is the semidesert just south of the Sahara. It has sparse vegetation and vast expanses of flat sand. The wind whipped across the land with such force that the blowing sand stung our skin. As the first drops of rain began to fall, I still hoped the storm would miss us and wanted to keep going. Yet Radhika, always the voice of reason, had to point out that the sky was dark and threatening for at least the next 10km ahead and that we were more likely to drown in mud than bike to Gorom that evening. She was right, so we turned around and headed back to Dori.
As soon as we turned around, the storm hit us and we were soaked. After 10 minutes the road was already flooding. Our second attempt at going to Gorom had failed. When we got back to Gorom we pulled our bikes into the first place that had cold beer and waited out the storm.
PCV Yanneth was nice enough to let us stay in her house for the night. Jeremy was there too; he couldn’t get transport back to his village because of the storm. It continued to rain most of the evening.
The next morning the weather had cleared and we started biking early. The road was muddy but the ride was still nice. About 15 km in I got my first of several flat tires (there are a lot of thorny plants in the Sahel), so we stopped to fix it. It was then that we noticed Radhika’s bike was missing an important part: the bolt that holds the front wheel on the frame. Yikes. On the bus ride to Dori, the front wheels on our bikes had been removed in order to put our bikes in the luggage compartment. The baggage guys always insist on helping reattach the wheel upon arrival; apparently one guy didn’t screw the piece in place very well.
So Radhika hailed a ride on a truck while I kept biking. Soon I arrived at the first of those dreaded inverted bridges. This is a cheap version of a bridge: a cement platform on the river bottom that the water flows over. Vehicles can only pass if the water level is low enough. I got nervous when I saw the line of trucks parked along the side of the road, unable to cross. But when I arrived at the riverbank I saw people wading across. The muddy water was only thigh high. So I walked my bike across and a couple of guys were nice enough to walk with me to make sure I wouldn’t get swept away by the current. There were two inverted bridges to cross, and on the other side I met people who had come from Gorom that morning. The told me that the other river crossings were all dry, I should have no problems.
The land was so flat that you could see for miles in every direction, and in every direction were sand and spare shrubs. I occasionally passed a tiny Pheul village, a herd of cattle, or a group of goats trying to eat the tiny leaves between the thorns on a scruffy tree. I stopped to take a picture in the village where we spent the night on the ground last year, but a local man wagged his finger at me. No pictures allowed here.
I was concerned about the river crossing after that village, the one that prevented us from getting to Gorom last year. But when I arrived at the river there was a brand new bridge! A real bridge, the kind where the water flows underneath and you don’t have to get wet! I was impressed.
When I got to Gorom I found lunch at the Hotel de l’Amitie and spent the afternoon wandering around the small town. I was impressed at how everyone in Gorom-Gorom speaks French to each other. In every other city I’ve visited, people speak a local language and save French for talking to foreigners or people from other tribes. I was told that Fulfulde is spoken in the surrounding villages, but many of the people who live in Gorom are from other parts of the country and don’t know Fulfulde. Anyway it was nice to be able to understand the conversations going on around me.
I spent the night at the Catholic Mission. Usually those provide cheap, clean lodging. This one was cheap and dirty. I don’t recommend it.
While I waited for Radhika the next morning (the truck she was riding in hadn’t been able cross that river, so she had gone back to Dori for the night to fix her bike), I checked out one of Gorom’s tourist attractions: the Large Rock. The name is a pretty good description of the actual site. It is a pile of white boulders that looks out of place in the landscape of endless sand. From the top you can see the whole town of Gorom-Gorom and miles of empty Sahel. This place was once a sacred site used for rituals and sacrifices, but as Islam has replaced Animism the Large Rock’s status has been reduced to that of scenic viewpoint.
When Rahika got in we moved to a cleaner hotel for the night and prepared to leave early for Oursi. The hotel had a ceiling fan, which was nice, but the electricity cut out around midnight and the room became dreadfully hot. We dragged mattresses outside to sleep under the stars.
The 42 km ride to Oursi was lovely. The dirt road had recently been repaired and was easy to ride on. We were able to enjoy the vast, silent scenery without any flat tires. As we kept going north, vegetation became rarer as did villages and animals. I was astonished at how people are able to live in this environment. Farming is extremely difficult and people rely on raising animals. Yet I was amazed that the animals find enough to eat.
In Oursi we stayed at a nice little campement set up for tourists. We stayed in a Songhai hut - a dome made of sticks that looks like an armadillo. The campement was peaceful, situated between sand dunes and the mare d’Oursi, a large marshy lake. The area around the lake is covered in short green grasses that support countless herds of cattle. The water here also allows some large, shady trees to grow, making Oursi an oasis in the dusty dryness of the Sahel.
It was market day in Oursi and the center of town was crowded with vendors who’d traveled north from Gorom-Gorom or south from Mali. We wandered the market for a short while, looking at the silver coins that Pheul women weave into their hair. It did not take long for a crowd of gawking young boys to form around us and follow us. When we got irritated with the attention we were receiving, we went back to our peaceful campement on the sand.
That afternoon, we took a guided camel ride out into the dunes. Riding a camel was an interesting experience. You climb onto a wooden saddle while the camel is lying down and rest your bare feet on the camel’s neck. As the animal stands up, back legs first, you’re thrown forward. As it straightens its front legs, you’re thrown back. All the while the camel lets out lots of goofy grunts and groans. As the camel walks, you are thrown forward and back on every step. I can’t imagine crossing the Sahara like that, but people have for centuries.
On the dunes we could see people leaving the market on donkeys or on foot. They were going back to their villages, 15-20 km away. There was no path for them to follow, just some animal tracks in the sand.
We slept outside that night and biked back to Gorom early the next morning. We arrived just in time to get transport to back Dori, and then we were able to catch a bus all the way to Kaya. It was a day of good transport luck. We stayed a night and a day with PCV Kim in Kaya, who showed us where to find good food and entertained us with movies on her laptop. Oh the joys of having electricity at your house. We perused Kaya’s well-known leather markets the next day before returning to Ouaga.
So now I’m in Ouaga working on my Close of Service, meaning medical exams and signing a bunch of papers. I will officially finish Peace Corps on Friday.