Going with God

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May 5th 2006
Published: June 23rd 2017
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Geo: 12.3569, -1.5352

On the morning of April 19th, we left Mali to cross overland to Burkina Faso. Our main reason to go to Burkina was to get a visa for Ghana. The easiest way to get where we were in Mali to Burkina was to take a bush taxi to the border town of Koro, at the edge of Dogon country, and catch some other transport into the capital city of Ouagadougou (Ouaga for short - pronounced "Waga"😉. What an adventure that turned out to be!

To be quite honest, at the time of travel, we were both miserable from the rigors of the travel and a bit homesick - it is only now that we are safe that we can look back with any sort of amusement.

We got to the "taxi stand" at 6:30am and bought our seats in a Peugeot 504 - a French-made station wagon circ. 1975 that looked like it was held together with silly putty. We needed to wait for it to fill up with 9 passengers. By 7:30am, it was full and Justin and I squeezed into the front seat, meant for one person, but used for two (Justin gingerly straddling the emergency break). We spent four hours going back through Dogon country on dirt roads to the Malian border.

Though we are not Muslim, Jamie kept praying to Allah (maybe He was more receptive in that region, since He would be used to so many people praying to Him there). Her mantra was, "Inshallah" - "God be willing" that we get there safely. . We didn't want to go through any windshield (luckily the car had one). So, after about two hours of bumpy riding, we hit the steep descent from the escarpment of Dogon country into the plains below. There was a sign that said "Dangerous Road" - in French, naturally, and we hoped our driver heeded that advice. We hoped that honking the horn was standard procedure when approaching a blind intersection. Hah! We came down a one-lane road and entered a blind curve ahead.

No horn from us, but a car coming head-on gave us all surprise! Both cars hit their breaks, luckily for us, we had breaks on the car. Our car hit a cement pillar, which was a good thing since it prevented us from going over the side of the small hill. Luckily (again), the car was drivable. The handy crow bar kept in the car helped straighten out the metal in the wheel well that had been bent in and was scraping against the tire. After some heated words between drivers, we were on our way again. Of course, there was no insurance paperwork to attend. Allah, must have been listening, because no one was hurt!

Just when we thought it couldn't get worse, it did. When we got to Koro, a small dusty and depressing border town, we had the scamming touts tell us that one of their mini-vans was going to Ouaga in 30 minutes. In stead of waiting for three more hours for the state-run bus to depart for Ouaga, Justin suggested we get the "hell out of dodge" and take this mini-van.

Well, mini-van is a loose term. It was more like a rust bucket that fit 17 people inside. We were happy to note that motor cycles and goats were not strapped to the top of the van like others we saw. These are vehicles (and tires) that are no longer fit for the roads in Europe or the West and they are then sent to Africa to be used as long distance transport for the locals. Apparently, European junk yard owners are only too happy to have African vendors come in and take junked cars and tires off their hands (it saves the former substantial environmental impact fees!). So, we climbed into the back of this death trap (we'll just call it the "Trap" for short).

It was just a shell of a car, no dash board, no padded sides, just metal welded together in places. Where the windows had fallen out, there were sorry-looking wooden boards to provide some protection from the elements. As we got going, we realized that the wooden windows did nothing to keep out the brown dirt from sheathing us like a death shroud. Jamie shut her eyes and kept singing "American Pie" to make the time go by and the journey seem less arduous. There were no shocks on the car, and being on a dirt road, our bums kept vibrating long after we would stop. We swore we felt the floor swaying against the motion of the car under our feet. Fun is not the word we would use to describe this journey, but we can't write how we really felt - it would be too rude. We felt extremely fortunate that we didn't have to rely on this type of transport our entire lives, like the locals do. Now we have greater empathy for them when we think of their means of travel.

Entering Mali, we stopped at the border "town" of Thiou. With a single mud hut, lots of red dust, one immigration officer, and a sorry excuse for a fan, this was where the immigration officer makes his home.

While we were sitting there watching the immigration guy process our paperwork, a white guy came into the hut. Jamie asked him if he spoke English and he did. It turns out he is an Italian who has lived in Togo for 20 years and was going back from Mali in his own Land Cruiser. Jamie asked if we could go with him and he said yes. We joyfully took our bags off the Trap and loaded them into the much safer Toyota (and very quickly passed the van on the road). We enjoyed the remainder of the 5-hour journey in much more luxurious conditions. We felt lucky. The day turned out to not be as bad as it had started. Allah must have been listening.

The next morning we woke up and ventured to the Ghanaian Embassy. Jamie wouldn't let Justin eat breakfast because she wanted to get there early in hopes of getting the visa that same day. Our luck ran out. The only person who can put a stamp in a passport for a visa would be out of town for four days. Why there is no back up person is a mystery to us, but hey, we are in Africa after all and they do things differently here. The earliest we could get our visa was in four days (not counting the weekend). To top it all off, the bus that goes to Ghana only runs three times per week. This meant that we were "stuck" in Burkina Faso for one whole week - the duration of our visa for Burkina Faso. Luckily there was a bus leaving on the day that our Burkina visa expired. But this knowledge of having to stay in Ouaga for one week was disheartening - especially since we were so anxious to get to Ghana, get settled in and start working at West African AIDS Foundation.

We do have to admit that we hit a low point on our trip after this information. Homesickness had set in earlier and now kicked in to high gear - and the isolation brought about by not knowing anyone here and not being able to speak French got us down. The clothes we have been wearing for the last 6-months are starting to disintegrate off our bodies and to top it all off, we were running out of English-language reading material, which is the best way to occupy hours of empty time.

So, after a few pep talks, we decided we needed to live by an Ethiopian proverb we read - "the foot that is restless, will tread on a turd." That about sums up W. Africa for us. Jamie decided that we would not be great Africans because we don't know how to sit still and just be. Maybe because it is so hot here, people seem to just stop and hang out in the shade for much of the day. We decided we would learn how to hang out.

So you may ask, why don't we take those 7-days and explore a bit of Burkina? Well, we looked into it. There is not much in the way of tourist sights here in Burkina (tourism is not their main industry...not that they really have any industry) and the only possibly interesting place would be a two-day roundtrip affair. Distances are long and transport is precarious. Additionally, having been to six countries in the last month, we decided to stay put and try our hand at "just hanging out."

Ouaga proved to be one of the more pleasant of the capital cities in Africa that we have been in because, while it is by no means a pretty place or even had anything in the way of tourist sights, it is fairly low key, easily walkable, and people don't hassle you to buy their carved wooden mask or whatever every five meters. It is also a relief to not have to contend with the taxi drivers. A few years ago, the government made a campaign to close all the open sewers, and for that we are grateful! They also tore down many blocks of buildings in order to build modern ones and promote more business growth. Yet, several years later, these plots of land stand abandoned except for the piles of trash that have accumulated there. In contrast to other African governments, the government did compensate the business and people who had to move as a result of the demolition.

Our hotel is right near a "super" market, which stocks many French delights like goat and blue cheeses and meats. Being so close, we decided to "self-cater" as the guide books call it. It is a nice change from eating out all the time. However, we did stop short of spending $15 for the Hagan Daz pint of ice-cream, though it was tempting!

In our guide book, which is quite out of date for this city, we discovered that there is a US cultural center and library near the Embassy. Curious to see where our tax dollars are going abroad, and in hopes of finding other Americans to talk to, we headed out in search of familiarity and American accents. The only Americans we saw were the pictures of George W, Condi and Dick hanging over the entrance - right past the metal detectors and guard. We were left wondering what terrorists would be doing in Ouaga - target practice on the garbage piles? All we could find out was that the cultural center showed English movies dubbed in French to the students who use those facilities. At the library we did manage to find Time and Newsweek magazines and other publications, like Oprah's magazine stuck in between scientific journals - go figure.

We did not stumble upon a single English-speaking American, but we did make friends with the English-speaking Burkinabe librarian.

This may seem minor, but this interaction was very exciting for Jamie. In most of the countries that we visit, it tends to be the men who speak English, leaving Jamie isolated from conversing with other women. Josephine, our new friend offered to take us around the city and show us a few things - not that there is much to see. We jumped
on her offer. She explained that her husband is studying to become a pastor in Dallas, Texas. When she visited him last year, Texans showed her around, so she was happy to reciprocate for their countrymen.

At the start of our guided tour she helped us find the office to buy our bus tickets to get to Ghana. This is where we met our first person in all of our travels who likes George W. (we thought you would want to know that "those people" are out there).

On the way back from the bus station, we stopped at a movie store that sold Nigerian English-language Christian movies - a big industry for Nigeria. We met the owners who are from Nigeria and spoke English (it being a former British colony). They were nice and invited us to their church service on Sunday. They belong to the International Evangelical Pentecostal Church, the same one as Josephine. Josephine offered to pick us up on Sunday and take us. We figured why not: what else were we going to be doing?

Through Josephine, we also learned that there is a recreation center (and pool) at the Embassy that can be used by US citizens. So on Saturday, we decided to go in search of this oasis. There we found American accents and Americans. We talked to a missionary couple who told us about a lending library at the recreation center where we could borrow novels in English! That was exciting news for us, so we stocked up on a few books each - great murder mysteries. They also had a restaurant that served the "American standard fare." We ate our first burrito in months. Although not the best, it was nice to taste at least the semblance of Mexican food. So with our books in hand, we went back to our hotel to do lots of reading and hanging out.

Just as Josephine had promised, she picked us up at 8am Sunday morning to go to church. As we arrived, we could hear the spirited choir singing songs about Christ in the local language - "More" - as well as in French. To us, the music
was the best part of the entire experience and very much reminiscent of the Gospel choir we heard in Selma, Alabama. Since it is an International church, there was a section where the service was translated into English. We were ushered over to seats; the other English speakers must have been from Nigeria or Ghana, as we were the only whites there. We sat for 2.5 hours through readings and lessons about God. We can't say the service put us in spiritual mood as the sermon and readings were being shouted in three languages over loudspeakers at the same time. We can't say that we agreed with what was being said - Do not trust human wisdom, only trust the wisdom of god - but to Jamie it was an interesting look into a denomination of the Christian religion that she had never experienced before. She felt like she was a cultural anthropologist being a participant observer to faith and belief of over 3,000 church members.

After church, Josephine took us back to her home for a traditional Burkinabe meal. The base is a ground millet or rice mixture that is boiled into a mush called tô. This is topped with a mixture of okra and tomatoes. It was quite tasty. After lunch and viewing a sitcom from Côte D'Ivoire, we came back to our hotel to hole up for another night of reading, eating Jamie-made guacamole with baguettes, goat cheese and cured meats, and fresh mangos.

We find it interesting how we end up in places like the International Evangelical Church. Maybe it is our refusal to just "hang out;" we actively search for people who might be interesting. Sometimes these interactions are more interesting than seeing a local monument and we are always struck by how far a simple smile, or nice exchange can open ones world up to new experiences.

The next few days before we were issued our visa, we spent quite a bit of time reading in our hotel room. We can't remember the last time we have idled an entire day away by reading.

So in the end, we never met many other foreigners, but we received hundreds of smiles and "sa va" (how are you?) from the locals who had gotten to know our faces over the last week. The Burkinabe people have a spirit that is calm and genuine. It is also the first country we have been in where a tout has apologized the next day for an aggressive interaction. Although we couldn't talk to them in French, we could tell that if we knew French, we would have had many new friends. You'll note that, in contrast to Mali, there were not a whole lot of things to take pictures of in Ouaga. Despite the fact that we first felt that we were "stuck" here, after 7 days, we have come to like Burkina Faso and Ouagadougou.


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