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Africa » Burkina Faso » Sud-Ouest » Gaoua
November 14th 2009
Published: June 23rd 2017
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Geo: 10.3271, -3.18466

The drive to Gaoua was supposed to take 3 hours (which we immediately doubled to 6) but it quickly became apparent that both our driver and our vehicle were a little off centre. The engine started overheating and prompted a couple of stops which drew crowds and plenty of loud advice but no actual fixes. At the next major centre we were encouraged to wander through the local market while a mechanic, who appeared out of nowhere, replaced the rad hose (which, of course turned out to be unrelated to the overheating problem).. After a couple more stops, we found another mechanic at the next (and last) big town before Gaoua who replaced the bracket for the fan (which, of course, was also unrelated to the actual problem). The next breakdown gets very concerning as we are now travelling in the dark in a truly isolated area of Burkina Faso (not too far from the troubled border region of the Ivory Coast). After refilling the rad, we went about 10 feet and realized that during the last stop, a tire had gone flat. Once this circus was back on the road we began these short bursts of driving until the engine temperature approached the red zone, stopping the truck, letting the steam blow off, refilling the rad, and starting again. We did finally make it to Gaoua and settled into the Hotel Hala which looked to be a converted army barracks (but was a welcome alternative to sleeping in a broken down truck in the middle of nowhere).

During one of our many breakdowns we had conspired with the english speaking guide (who had only a loose connection with the driver and chauffeur which seemed to grow more distant with each breakdown) to hook up with a friend of his in Gaoua who had a much nicer vehicle. True to his word he showed up in the morning with a new 4x4 and driver which left the tricky task of getting some money back and firing the original stooges. Given that they still hadn't fixed the truck when they finally showed up, they were fully in agreement that the drive with them was over and a refund was due- they just had to check with their ‘patron' (boss) in Ouaga to get the money. This is when the standard African game of bosses not answering phones and cell phone batteries dying started up. We wanted to get on with seeing the sights of Gaoua so I thought I was being very clever by stripping their truck of all relevant certificates, insurance, and licenses- given that you couldn't drive an hour in Burkina without being stopped by a police road check of some sort, I assumed that would immobilize them (beyond which their Beverly Hillbillies truck had already done) and motivate a refund. As our new guide pointed out after the fact, it was likely that the chauffeur had most of the money and would simply use it to bribe police all the way back to Ouaga- it wasn't much money and was probably a cheap price to pay to be rid of Jed and Jethro so easily.

As for Gaoua, we started with a visit to a World Heritage site, the Loropeni Ruins. I'm sure that at some point they will have a better understanding of what this fortress was as well as a bit of history (there are a number of current theories), but for now it's number of stone walls with nothing to hold one's interest for long.

We then wanted to visit a Gan ‘graveyard' but that required a visit to the local village and an audience with the Chief who would decide whether or not we were permitted to visit the site There was some doubt around this as apparently one of the tribal elders had died that day and the chief was very unhappy. We did get the audience with the unhappy chief, who was both relatively young (his own father had passed away a couple of years ago and apparently he was in an acting role until the elders made a permanent decision- 2 years to make a decision- I had a Rogers flashback), and clearly disinterested in our presence within his court. Despite this, after a number of extended pauses, we were given permission to visit the graveyard which turned out to be memorial area for anyone of importance who had passed away. Each individual was represented by a life-size replica (at least in height and weight) of themselves which was housed in a small mud hut that contained nothing else- it was here that family members came to honour him and conduct sacrifices in his memory- the real bodies were buried in non-descript graves elsewhere.

From here, we went to see the local ‘Diviner' who was a magic-man of some repute. To get there we had to come within some 10 km's of the border with the Ivory Coast- an area that has seen some heavy fighting over the last number of months. We were told that there was nothing to worry about- the rebels were led by a Burkinabe and were good guys who would come into Gaoua and neighbouring towns to party on the weekend. There were a number of things wrong with this reassurance: heavily armed rebel fighters drinking millet beer in the local saloon is not something I would have seen as a positive, I couldn't imagine that the Burkina army/police were all that keen on this weekly incursion, and what kind of war is fought from Mon-Fri with weekends off? Supporting the supposition that it really is a small world apparently the Ivory Coast Rebels were frequent visitors to the very same Diviner that we were going to see- they were sometimes given powers that left them impervious to bullets and they were also able to become invisible any time government troops invaded in strength. Obviously these are stories you take with a double-dose of scepticism but the thing that struck me is that the guide and driver we were with had no doubt that these stories were true and had both a fear and respect for this magic man. They were quick to recount the story they had witnessed whereby another tourist was told he was going to receive news that his father had died and before getting back to the vehicle the cell phone rang. I wasn't going to convince them, and they weren't going to convince me (not speaking any French except for “bonjour“, DH remained neutral), but it was interesting to see just how strong the animist culture was here.

The Diviner himself wasn't there when we arrived but his son (and apparent heir to the magic throne) agreed to show us around the various shrines. They were all contained in mud buildings with doorways and tunnels you had to crawl through. The shrines themselves were something out of a top rated horror movie, complete with recent evidence of chicken sacrifices- these were definitely rooms you didn't want to get locked into. Although all of the shrines seemed to serve multiple purposes, the primary purpose of the first seemed to be for fertility and connecting with the dearly departed, the second was for travellers and those going to war (probably a favourite of our rebel friends from the Ivory Coast), and the third, which was housed in a stand- alone mud hut, was for the ‘crazy people' the magic man was tasked with fixing (this was a hut you actually did get barricaded in until you became more rational- then you were sent home with a clay pot filled with some sort of witches brew, and you were obliged to return the pot when empty- the pot was then smashed on top of a pile of previously returned crazy-people-pots). As we left our own offering (money, not chickens) at the shrine outside of the huts, I was struck by how deeply engrained the animist beliefs were in this area (as an example, there was absolutely no questioning the idea that, if the Diviner predicted that you were going to die soon, you could secure an additional 3 years by sacrificing a dog- but only a dog would work in this circumstance). It was a fascinating visit and I suppose, upon reflection, that we in the West have our own set of shrines that we worship at without question- see just about any Hollywood or sports star cult. What would the Burkina Faso magic man make of that?

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