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Published: March 11th 2019
Burkina Faso. Not an obvious destination. Not a country that ever hits the headlines, good or bad. Neighbouring Ghana gets the good-news stories, the headline-grabbing presidential and royal visits, the glowing reviews as ‘easy’ Africa. Ghana speaks English, things work (comparatively), and, if not always a paragon of western democracy, it’s at least been free of civil war and third party altercations for much of its sixty years of independence. Nearby Mali and Nigeria get the bad-news stories, the kidnappings, the terrorism, the desecration of history. Burkina Faso is one of those countries in the middle, in every sense. Landlocked, unremarkable, unremarked. Most people needed a map when I mentioned it. And/or looked worriedly at me, wondering aloud or inwardly, “is it safe?”.
In terms of pre-trip homework, there was remarkably little. Bradt’s country guide hasn’t been updated since 2011, and Lonely Planet only provides an 18-page chapter in its 19-country West Africa book. Google “Burkina Faso” and “travel”, and the words that jump out are “hazardous”, “avoid”, “reconsider”, “discouraged”, “risk”, “terrorism” and “sadly”. A quick scan of recent blogs on this site reveals little since mid-2013. While a tiny bit of me relished the chance to travel
somewhere so far off the beaten track, so little known, I couldn’t help but worry that the world wasn’t giving Burkina Faso much of a chance.
Tragically, the country is near the bottom - or the top, depending on how you look at it - of all the worst international indices. Food insecurity. Literacy. Infant and maternal mortality. The number of trained medical staff per head of population. For it to be largely deprived of what passed for its tourist industry is yet another blow. Recent events, however geographically limited, have scared away the tourists, and major volunteer organisations, such as the US Peace Corps, have pulled out. I don’t know why any of this should surprise me. I saw the same thing in Myanmar towards the end of 2017, after all. The awful situation in a tiny part of distant Rakhine state was enough to make a lot of people look elsewhere for their let’s get-off-the-beaten-track trip, regardless of the fact that the affected area is a long, long way – particularly in terms of travel time and sheer inaccessibility – from the country’s ‘must-see’ sights. Burkina Faso suffers, in the eyes of the developed world, from its
Parc Urbain Bangr-Weoogo
proximity to the better-known deemed-to-be no-go areas of Mali, Niger and Nigeria. And I admit, realising that all three major purported-to-be-but-not-always-claimed terrorism incidents in the capital over an eighteen month period, the most recent of which was in March 2018, happened within a mile of where I was staying eight months’ later made even me pause momentarily for thought. Yet you could make the same over-reacting case against visiting London, Paris, Brussels, Barcelona or the European Christmas markets. Fewer deaths. Trucks and knives, not bombs. Yet still terrorism propagated by individuals with a warped sense of their God’s demands.
Ok, I’ll get off my high horse. Suffice to say, two days in and I came under the country’s spell. The people were wonderfully very warm in their welcome, “bonne arrivée” mixed up with “bonjour” and “bon soir”. By breakfast my second day, the staff at the gorgeous Jardins de Koulouba took great delight in teasing me that they’d run out of coffee, just to watch my aghast reaction. When I returned at the end of my trip to the west of the country, they welcomed me like the returning prodigal, keen to hear of my adventures in a place
as remote to some of them as my home country.
The first morning, I was swept up by the perhaps too charming and helpful Ibrahim, a tour guide self-attached to the guesthouse, and, on the back of his moped, I was whisked off for a tour of the sites of this most wonderfully named capital. But Ibrahim was not quite what he seemed. Looking back on it, it’s easy to see how he might have taken advantage of my immediate post-arrival discombobulation, my still-dusty French, and the wonderful coincidence of his name with that of the tour leader of my forthcoming trekking trip to Senoufou country in the west. At the time, I blamed his not knowing if we would be starting our trip west by bus or by train on the vagaries of Burkina public transport; when I asked if the third person was only joining us a day into the trek because she was coming overland from Ghana, he had simply agreed with me. That he was not the ‘right’ Ibrahim only became clear several hours’ later, when, after he had said that he would not be in town when I returned, I’d queried why a tour
guide would not be accompanying us all the way back to the capital. Even at that point, I blamed the misunderstanding on my lack of comprehension earlier in the day, only working out, and – to be honest – finally forgiving his ruse much later on, as I learnt more about how the country’s tourism and economy were suffering. The Mali-based company that I was going to travel with, Papillon Reizen, has a reputation for only selecting the best and most reliable guides and staff, and then for paying them well; is he really to be criticised for passing himself off as one of theirs in order to earn a day’s wages at a time of such work-drought? Particularly – as I was to learn later – when he was responsible for the upbringing and education of his nephew as well as his son, his brother being, like many Burkinabés, away working in Côte d’Ivoire.
In the meantime, reluctant to maintain a pretence for several weeks, I had not wheeled out ‘my husband’ in answer to Ibrahim’s more personal questions, but had settled for the truth… and then had to shrug off his more physical advances as we walked
through the woodland paths of the Parc Urbain Bangr-Weoogo, and found myself being asked to “réfléchir” on his quasi-proposal overnight. (With the passage of time, I found myself wryly amused at this. I was in Ghana for nine days before receiving my first proposal of marriage; it had taken less than twenty-four hours in Burkina Faso. Not a common indicator of the level of a country’s Western tourist trade, but not a bad one.) By the next morning, when he came to take me to the weekly Moro-Naba ceremony, I’d adopted a cursory, monosyllabic approach to dissuade his further attentions. I fear he might have been a bit of a repeat offender in this regard. One of the staff told me on my return that “votre ami, Ibrahim” had been asking after me. I looked hard at her: “il n’est pas mon ami,” and, although she didn’t answer, her eyes said it all.
But that’s not to denigrate his performance as a tour guide. The first stop, at my request, was the post office, so that I could dispatch a large pile of postcards that were to do duty as Christmas cards. I’m not 100% sure that I could
have found it on my own. Yes, it was where it was supposed to be on the map (downloaded Google maps offline were proving invaluable on this trip), but it was in an unmarked little room on the far side of the building, a cheerfully unoccupied lady behind a small counter delighted to have the chance to sell someone something, even if it was a complex number of stamps to EU and non-EU countries. I was surprised to find a distinction in postage rates, and it certainly bore out in delivery times. The UK-destined cards managed to arrive within an impressive ten days or so; some of the Australian ones only appeared four months’ later (I’d love to know where they’d been all that time).
Chore completed, we went sightseeing. Both the Grande Mosquée and the Ouagadougou Cathedral are huge and impressive, the former oddly quiet given it was a Friday, though perhaps this was simply because I was there mid-morning, between Salat al-fajr, the dawn prayers, and Salat al-zuhr, the midday prayers. Ibrahim found a senior imam to show us around, but he was oddly disengaged, barely acknowledging me. It’s not an unusual reaction. I’ve found this in
other mosques, though I haven’t been sure in the past whether this has been because of my over-sensitivity to being in an environment where I know my sex is regarded as a lower order of beings, or whether I have genuinely been being treated that way. Perhaps this imam simply couldn’t be bothered with tourists. It was already hot, after all, and our arrival required him to leave his seat in the shade and walk around with us. With bustling markets outside and scaffolding inside, the mosque is more prepossessing from the other side of the road than from within its walls. I couldn’t readily find out when it was first built: there’s debate over when Islam came to this part of the country, and travelogues tend to fixate on the dramatic Sudanese architecture of the largest mosque in the country’s second city, Bobo-Dioulasso, ignoring this one. By contrast, the Cathedral was much easier to date – a bust of the responsible Frenchman, Joanny Thévenoud, stands just outside the 1930s building.
If Ouagadougou means little to the ignorant West, it is important in terms of African culture, biennially hosting both the Pan African Film and Television Festival, and SIAO,
Le Salon International de L’Artisanat de Ouagadougou, the so-called window of African handicraft. Frustratingly, I’d managed to miss the 2018 SIAO, but the country’s role in the continent’s film industry is permanently commemorated in the line of sculptures along one of the roads leading up to the garish monument at the centre of the Place des Cinéastes, the dusty-orange and blue-green of this abstract construction now as much of an icon of Ouagadougou as the Opera House is to Sydney or Tower Bridge is to London.
Unexpectedly, Ouagadougou ‘does’ parks. To the north of the city is a series of large artificial lakes generally known simply by their French name, barrages. While they were established to supply the city’s water, they also provide a literal breath of fresh air along the neighbouring paths and allotments, extremely welcome in a city where the daily temperature can exceed 30°C (87°F) year-round. To the east of the barrages, is the Parc Urbain Bangr-Weoogo, roughly translated as “the urban park of the forest of knowledge”, a square mile’s worth of tranquil woodland. But the attached mini-zoo was distinctly distressing. A young female hippo had a pool barely bigger than her, though she looked
how strong are these bamboo bars?
unexpectedly close to a hippo and her lunch
to be in reasonable shape as she benignly lumbered out of the water at the sound of the keeper rattling the bars of her enclosure with tasty leaves and branches (a very curious experience to be watching this vast animal eat only a yard or two away from me). Dramatic black-crowned cranes and black storks stalked their way around a dusty area smaller than my kitchen. A dozen crocodiles gaped in the heat, too many to cool off in their small pool. A jackal agitatedly paced its cage; a vervet monkey lurked dolefully by the bars next door, its cage so low that the animal could not have stood up to its full height. I was only relieved to see that all the animals were in the shade, away from what was now a midday sun.
After a lengthy walk through the Parc, our final stop was at the delightfully-named Jardin de l'Amitié, “friendship garden”, where cafés, craft stalls, live music and nationalities combine. The drummer of the band playing when I arrived spotted me taking a photograph, so came over to say hello. When he lapsed into English, I discovered he was from Ghana. A fabulously-robed and statuesque
Tuareg from Niger was in town to sell his silver jewellery. Speaking with him was like conversing with another time. If he weren’t so persistent in trying to sell me something, and if my French could have stood it after a five hours’ conversation with Ibrahim, I would love to have talked with him longer.
But now it was time to strike out on my own. I had told Ibrahim I wanted to visit the Musée de la Musique, now housed in a curious custom-built adobe structure, and, as it was walking distance back to my hotel, he didn’t need to wait for me. By this stage, his not being the ‘right’ Ibrahim had emerged, and the day was feeling a little tainted. In any event, it was time for me to meet Ouagadougou on foot, on my own terms.
The next day, moving to the trip hotel on the other side of town gave me the opportunity to explore another part of town. My immediate mission was to Change Money (a process that takes over an hour deserves capitalisation). I later learnt that my hotel would have done the necessary, but that would have deprived me of
the fascinating people-watching experience of sitting in a bank’s waiting area, not to mention the challenge of how to get into a bank in Burkina Faso: two sets of locked doors, armed guards and X-ray security in-between. (I did beep as I went through, but no-one looked up.) One of the guards laughed at my impatience to open the first set of doors; I simply hadn’t been expecting it to be locked. Once into the bank, yet another armed guard got me a ticket and I sat down obediently to await my turn. Around me, in the muted atmosphere, few people moved, perhaps simply enjoying the air-conditioning. Occasionally the screens would show a change in ticket number, but this didn’t seem to prompt much movement. Officious-looking men in suits bustled past importantly from time to time. After half an hour, my type of ticket hadn’t been called at all, so I went to find out what was going on. In an amusingly African moment – we have a sophisticated electronic queuing system, but it’s readily circumvented if you only ask – I was directed to a particular desk behind the screen that separated bank staff from the irritating distraction of
customers. At the desk, not surprisingly, one lady was already deep in negotiations with the teller, and another was hovering close by, ready to take her seat the moment it was vacated. So much for a waiting area and ticket system. All in all, the process took so long that I had to be escorted out the back entrance, the rest of the bank having already closed for the weekend, and I stomped off in the dusty light of the late afternoon to find the Naba Koom.
This six-metre high statue of a woman carrying water, just outside Ouagadougou’s train station, is regarded as a symbol of welcome, but, with only three trains a week, if that, she doesn’t have much call on her services. In fact, as she’s in the middle of railinged-off and overgrown gardens, she took a little tracking down. The station itself is vast, taking into account the whole area that I had to circumnavigate. My new hotel was in the middle of its northwest side; the Naba Koom was in the middle of the southeast side. I’d put Google Maps away, content simply to weave my way through the streets in approximately the right
red-headed rock agama
direction. Reaching a large square with an impressive monument on one side, I’d stepped over the looped chain around its edge and started to walk towards the monument. Not apparently what one should do. A couple of hitherto sleepy-looking soldiers jerked up their heads; one even went so far as to heave himself upright. I put on my best smilingly-ignorant-tourist-face, and returned to the right side of the chain, managing later to sneak a photo of the soviet-esque monument. What a waste of a wonderful, almost Trafalgar Square-sized area, I thought. And found out later that I had been in the middle of a military area – to wit, the École Militaire Technique de Ouagadougou, Camp Militaireand Camp Guillaume Ouédraogo. Well, if they don’t label these things… Naba Koom was definitely welcoming in comparison, her face oddly haunting in its appeal to the heavens.
The morning had started early and with Ibrahim one final time – taking me, as promised, to the weekly Moro-Naba Ceremony where Mossi leaders re-enact a historical event when they persuaded their king, even now the most important tribal leader in the country, not to go to war, and instead to make peace. From a
tourist’s perspective, it’s frustrating that taking photographs is prohibited, but from a people-watching perspective, it’s second to none. A token number of ‘blancs’ – a smattering of tourists and a senior French diplomatic or commercial official, perhaps new to the city, marked out from the rest of us by his linen suit. Locals and participants, arriving in dribs and drabs, vehicles with the more important ignoring the edict not to drive across the parade ground. The ‘councillors’ themselves, assembling in all their glorious finery at the edge of the ground, chatting and catching up with friends. A horse stood, impressively saddled, in the sunshine, a young man holding her reins as he sat on the ground at her feet. Every so often, the mare would toss her head, jingling the bells on her harness.
In amongst all this, musicians had appeared, bearing two kinds of drum that I’d seen in the Musée de la Musique the previous afternoon. One was a large drum made from a gourd, balanced on the ground; the other – and primary instrument – was hourglass-shaped, the skins forming the drum-heads pulled tight by strings laced between them. Held under one arm, it is struck
with a claw-like drumstick while the player alters the pitch of the drum by squeezing and releasing the strings.
With no obvious signal, the Mossi leaders began to take their places on the parade ground, ordered by seniority. A few sat together closer to the palace, on a raised piece of ground, a few others off to one side, and the remaining 150 or so, sitting two or three deep, sat the width of the parade ground. Shallow red pillbox-hats and sandals were removed, ceremonial swords and walking sticks kept on hand to help the older or larger with standing up again. But nothing was happening quickly. Conversations continued; a few opened out newspapers to while away the time.
And then a small cannon was fired – making all the ‘blancs’ jump – and the Moro-Naba appeared over by the gatehouse to his palace, a brief flash of red, flanked by a trio of lackeys. He seemed curiously remote to the whole event, simply sitting on the ground like his councillors, chatting to those around him, and then disappearing a little later to return briefly, now garbed in white. The horse’s purpose was to take him into battle,
but king and horse did not in fact come within hailing distance. When he had presumably been persuaded not to go to war – the moment of the exact exchange being a little hard to discern – the mare was finally led over to the shade, unsaddled, and taken away. A second equally heart-stopping bang from the cannon and the show was over, the councillors hauling themselves to their feet, and the ‘blancs’ looking around wondering if that was it.
It had been a curious spectacle, a non-event in some ways, but a wonderful chance to see a little of Mossi tribal costume and custom. My thoughts moved more prosaically onto coffee, and I walked over to find Ibrahim and his moped.
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