Treading in their footsteps, glimpsing their lives - part 1

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Africa » Burkina Faso » Sud-Ouest
November 22nd 2018
Published: December 28th 2018
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The faces shine out at me, as intrigued by us as we are by them. I can hear the drums, the insistent beat, as the women start to move, clay pots balanced precariously on their heads. I feel the heat of the mid-afternoon sun. I can smell the dust, the cooking fires. I laugh at the children, born with the beat in their blood, the youngest barely able to stand but already able to dance.

And then my phone beeps, and I’m at my desk in London, shivering in several layers of winter clothing, as I sort through my photographs. But for a few minutes I was there, back in Kawara, watching the laughing faces of the dancers, uncaring about the weight of the pots on their heads, sweat pouring off their faces, and the kids who’d picked up the insistent beat of the drums from the moment the musicians’ sticks first made contact.

I wonder what they’re all doing now, they and everyone else I was lucky enough to meet in Burkina Faso’s Senoufou country. It’s a part of the world that even their fellow Burkinabés regard with trepidation. A friend crossing the Malian border nearby was told in all seriousness by customs officials that “only wizards and witches live there”. But the Senoufou people I met didn’t look very magical or frightening to me. The young boy at Nioufila, who will be bringing in the family goats right about now. The fisherman, who will be laying his nets for the morning. The matriarch of our Bobadiougou homestay family, who will be overseeing the preparation of the evening meal by her daughters-in-law, the girls stopping occasionally to adjust the babies on their backs, fires burning, the dog looking hopeful, and the hens getting underfoot. The kids, who will be streaming out of school, Arsenal, Barcelona and Real Madrid drawstring bags flapping on their backs, books and lunch packets balanced on their heads, dusty feet pattering over dusty ground. Almost certainly, sadly, there would have been no ‘blancs’ to distract or entertain them today. Senoufou is off the beaten track by any standards, and cursed now by lying largely under the “red” travel advisory adopted by western governments taking the easy way out. It’s time-consuming to work out which parts of the country are safe and which aren’t. Let’s just brush the whole place in swathes of red, or, for the lucky bits, orange. Saves us having to pull people out of an area that’s safer than London, Paris or New York.

But the rewards are enormous for those who do get there, protected by specialist (and inexpensive) travel insurance, carrying oft-requested passports (though I’m not sure that every official requesting mine could read Latin script) containing hard-procured visas (with no embassy in London, my passport had had to swim the Channel). Apart from the warm welcome we received everywhere, surprised faces lighting up on hearing our one or two phrases of Doula, the scenery is rich and ancient.

The Sindou Peaks are the best known formation in the area, romantic, mysterious crags and peaks where an imaginative mind can run riot, finding shapes in the rocks and thinking about what life would have been like for the people living on this plateau, safe from neighbouring warring tribes but facing the daily challenge of bringing water up from the valley.

I preferred the only-recently-discovered-by-tourists Moussono Peaks, perhaps not as numerous but appealing for their anonymity. Little by way of paths, a vegetation wilderness, and even more tranquil, even further from anything approaching a road.

The village of Niansogoni had also sought refuge from its neighbours, hiding troglodyte-like up a dramatic escarpment that, for the tourist, provides fabulous views across to Mali only a few kilometres away. Our guide’s own parents had been born up there, the village only coming down off the mountain in the 1980s. With the erstwhile marauding tribes having settled down, better access to water was now more important than safety.

To the east are the bizarre Dômes de Fabedougou. Geologically very similar, I’m told, to Western Australia’s Bungle Bungles, here you can camp in amongst these horizontal-layered limestone beehive formations, though your sleep may well be interrupted by the eerie shriek of a barn owl. And, bar the occasional goat- or cow-herd, you’re almost guaranteed to have the Dômes to yourself.

Not far away are the Karfiguéla Falls, rushing torrents when we visited thanks to unexpected post-wet season downpours. Possibly cool and refreshing in the hot season, but too fierce right now for this somewhat trepidatious swimmer.

And finally the mirror-smooth waters of Tengréla Lake where the locals live in remarkable harmony with the local hippo population, seemingly on the basis of “we won’t disturb you, if you
keeping our respective distanceskeeping our respective distanceskeeping our respective distances

hippo, Tengréla Lake
don't disturb us”. Familiar grumpy honking as dusk fell sent a happy shiver down my spine.

It wasn’t an easy journey, averaging 18 km a day for nine days in temperatures of 35-38°C (95-100°F), unseasonably hot even by the standards of this part of the world. Increasingly, the day’s walk became a matter of endurance, a case of “let’s just get there”, rather than pausing for any length of time to imbibe our surroundings. Setting off at 6 am one day got us to our destination by 10.30am or so, with little to do for the rest of the day other than lounge, hotly and dustily, dozing, reading, and intermittently flicking away flies and squashing ants. On that particular occasion, we were camping in a distant corner of a school’s grounds, but it was a Saturday so the kids finished at lunchtime and gradually dissipated, apart from a fluctuating number of hard-core ‘blancs’-watchers who stood a couple of metres away and gazed at the strangers. Too hot and sleepy to interact with them for much of the time, we turned away and left them to their staring. Curious, I asked them at one point why they were there, whether they had anything else to do, prompting shy giggles but no answers that I could understand.

The walking itself was easy, the land largely flat and the tracks well-used if occasionally too narrow for the moto-tricycle that carried our kit and possessions between campsites. Sinaly, our unflappable and ever-smiling guide, knows this area like the back of his hand. Occasionally I’d stop: just what had made him take this particular dusty track in the scrub at the fork back there, rather than the other? Road-signs there were not. If our small group had spread out too far, he’d mark the turning with a broken branch, and, although I was sceptical that such markers could withstand a passing moped or herd of cattle, we didn’t lose anyone.

For the most part we were walking through or between fields where an amazing range of foodstuffs were growing. To my chagrin, I couldn’t identify anything other than rice. I didn’t know what a groundnut plant looked like, nor sesame grasses, sorghum, tamarind or cashew; I hadn’t heard of red hibiscus (a popular tea in the area that is also exported to nearby wetter countries that can’t grow it, such as Côte d’Ivoire). Nor did I know what a cotton flower looked like, nor teak or kapok. Mango trees we quickly grew to recognise and love for their generous and welcome shade.

Around the two ‘barrages’ – huge artificial lakes constructed in the 1980s at the instigation of the ‘father’ of Burkina Faso, the remarkably modern-of-outlook if controversial Thomas Sankara – and below the Karfiguéla Falls, we walked alongside seemingly endless Roman-road-straight irrigation canals. Women worked in the fields, and washed clothes in the waterways; kids herded cattle, sheep, goats. At harvest season, everyone turned out to help, men moving between mounds of cut rice plants to assess their quality and value.

The day starts early here, life being dictated by the sun. Dawn would not yet have broken but the kids would be pulling up leaking buckets of water from the well, herding the sheep up the track, and helping to feed their youngest siblings, before scampering off to school, while women tended the fires and began their day’s chores. Villages would be empty of people by mid-morning, but by the late afternoon cooking fires would be lit, young kids bringing back the livestock, and the smallest being reluctantly subjected to a wash.

At Bobadiougou, where our Turka hosts had suggested that we set up our tents in the middle of their compound, generously making us feel part of the family, the matriarch came to join us after dinner and regale us with a couple of her people’s legends, Ibrahim translating, sentence by sentence. To my chagrin, little of the tales themselves has stuck in my mind: I was just bewitched by the experience. Here we were, a Brit and three Dutch, sitting at the feet of this village elder, listening – along with three generations of her own family and other villagers – to tales that had come down the years, decades, centuries, tales that had been retold again and again, never committed to paper. Simply being there was the most enormous privilege. I didn’t want the evening to end.

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