As we entered Burkina Faso the border official stamped a one week visa in our passports. Naturally it felt a little restrictive, but it was a good thing, preventing us from dawdling and forcing us to pick up the pace. South Africa felt a whole world and too many thousands of miles away, and our aim to reach it often became clouded by the glories and distractions of the here and now. We’d given over a fortnight to Morocco and the Western Sahara, 9 days in politically dubious Mauritania, 10 to tiny Gambia, and even our sometime nemesis, Senegal, had eaten 9. As for giant Mali, with its absolute abundance of things to see, we’d taken 15 days.
‘This is good,’ we convinced each other, eyeing the modestly dated Burkina stamps, ‘we’ll just have to take in the best of the country in a week’. Compared to Mali, the country was small; another landlocked country, giving the traveller the pleasing sense of being deep in Africa. With the exception of one street in Ouagadougou and the bus stand at Banfora, Burkina also proved relatively hassle-free - a welcome break from touts, hawkers and intimidating loading boys in minibus stations. All in
all, life in BF slipped down to a cooler gear, and the hot Malian harmattan dust was replaced with skies that brought to us the first rain in two months.
Vincent was on his way from homeland France to jungley Togo to visit friends, and it was a pleasure to be his passenger. The three of us listened to Bob Marley, drank tea, were given a tour of a traffic circle (don’t ask) and ate mangoes by the roadside, enjoying our new, greener environment. Locals constantly offered to buy his white camper van, and I noticed he had the admirable gift of charming everyone he met with his genuine, open-minded attitude and big smiles; an all round good guy. It was still light when we reached the capital and took rooms in the Pavilion Vert.
I can’t tell you much about Ouagadougou. We ran practical errands there. The Nigerian visa has been an issue and a worry since before the trip even began. One is supposed to apply for it in one’s own country of residence, and a letter of invitation is required from a Nigerian citizen, as well as a photocopy of their passport - intense. Luckily the father
of one of Seth’s work colleagues was able to kindly oblige, but we ran out of time to apply in the UK, receiving the info just days before leaving for Morocco. Now we were running a gauntlet of Nigerian Embassies, hoping to be allowed to apply for our tourist visas despite our non-African citizenship. If we failed we would have to take a flight from Benin to Cameroon, breaking up our overland flow and missing out a country so vast and significant as to hold one fifth of Africa’s population (can that really be true? It seems mad!) If you glance at a map of the continent, you’ll see the kind of roadblock Nigeria can be for a traveller not granted access. Neither is there a feasible way around it; Niger is currently unsafe for travel, as is Chad. (NB: there are other such difficulties to be faced further along our planned route, not least the 200km wedge of the far Western DRC between Congo and Angola, plus visa issues with the latter, but the massive scale of our journey forces the mind to cut it down into chunks and deal with one chunk at a time. At first it
was Mauritania and its safety problems. Now it was Nigeria.) This takes us to the embassy in Ouagadougou, where a notice pinned outside regarding visas didn’t mention anything about them being exclusively available to citizens of Burkina and gave us hope. Inside, a big bubbly character behind a desk had a rapport going with the visitors around the room. The TV played a Nigerian soap opera. Walking in, I felt instantly uncomfortable. Getting this visa was beginning to matter too much and I was sure we were wearing it all over our faces.
‘Hi, how are you?’ I asked the official. There’s no such thing as just ‘hi’ out here; it’s always ‘hi, how are you/bonjour, ca va?’ and a handshake with a big smile, otherwise you’re being rude.
‘Very well’, (the beaming official), ‘What do you want?’
‘We want to apply for tourist visas for Nigeria,’ asserted Seth, and I hoped it was only me who could sense how desperate we were. The official, reclining casually behind his desk in the small, dark room - lit only, it seems, by the television, nods. He seems positive but non-committal.
‘From where do you cross to Nigeria? You can get your
visa from the last country you visit before Nigeria.’
‘So... Benin?’ I volunteer.
‘Yes, Benin, you get your visa there,’ he smiled and nodded. We must have looked depressed. ‘It’s a tourist visa - tourist visa, no problem.’
We thanked him and left, wishing that it was no problem, but feeling faintly optimistic. As we walked in the hot sun, I reconstructed the conversation in my head and wondered, had we come at it from a different angle, would the outcome have changed? If we had explained how much we wanted to secure that visa as soon as possible...? Our guidebook sited Accra, Ghana, as a good place to apply for Nigerian visas abroad, so we walked to the Ghanaian Embassy, paid our fees and left our passports with them. (We hadn’t planned on visiting Ghana, hoping instead to head into Togo or Benin directly, and had no idea at this point that it would actually prove to be our favourite country so far, lush, stunningly beautiful in parts, with friendly locals and a laid back air.)
At dinner that night Vincent explained his day’s explorations in Ouagadougou, its markets and museums, and we felt a little ashamed to give
in return only tales of bureaucracy and of an amusingly bad run in with beef bone jelly soup.
The following day, Seth and I took a bus to Bobo-Dioulasso. The city is considered a tourist destination in itself, but we were going because I had - from guidebook, postcard and internet research - identified the nearby Banfora region as the most beautiful in the country, on account of an awesome rocky range called the Sindou Peaks. (That Seth was not so impressed by the images and that these peaks were way off our route, far, far West, and practically on the border with Cote D’Ivoire, yet we still went, is testimony to both his kindness and my persuasive skills...)
Bobo I could take or leave. The 106 year old mud mosque, still with the prickles but painted cream, was my favourite thing about it. Otherwise, the market had as much atmosphere as a stroll around Morrisons (bitchy!) and as for the tour of Kibidwe, ‘the old town’, offered by local guides, it was a tourist trap leading from one shop to the other. Ugh!
At Banfora, we arranged a taxi to the Karfiguela falls, the Sindou Peaks, and back, which took over an hour of bargaining. This journey was the reason for our big diversion west and utterly worth it. There’s nothing like a good dose of natural beauty to soothe the soul, especially souls troubled over visas. At both the falls and the peaks, you could count the number of other visitors on one hand, and the sounds of bees, bugs, birds and falling water replaced the sound of shouting and car horns. The falls tumbled from a cliff top over unusual chunky brown boulders that looked like giant chocolate brownies. Near the top we found a secluded section with its own powerful, solitary flume, and splashed in, resting in the full force of the water. There is nothing better for the skin than the pounding force of raw water on the shoulders, neck and face. For hours after my whole body felt zingy. As for the peaks, they appear very suddenly on the horizon after an hour of driving through flat countryside full of sugarcane crops and villages full of thatch roof huts, along a road lined with trees and busier with human traffic than motors. You climb up into the Sindou Peak range and are very soon surrounded by them. They are very hard to describe - if I think about it too much, this will go from being a blog into some kind of arduous Byron epic, though far, far inferior. Sigh. The best I can do is - they are bobbly, knobbly crags, coffee-to-peach in colour, powder-dust rough to touch (and warm, under the afternoon sun.) They are like giant stalagmites grown up out of the earth, and like those long, fingerlike termite mounds we have begun to see everywhere we go, yet in monolithic form. Mostly, they are like, when you switch on a lava lamp and the wax makes that odd, solid, static, bobbly formation before it gets quite hot enough to melt. Beyond that I am lost. Luckily, I can attach pictures. For me, this place was a real highlight of our journey so far; another one of those places you are standing in, and turning 360 degrees, and still can’t quite believe it is real.
If you remember from my last blog, the most important thing in Burkina Faso, through alphabetical eyes, were the villages in its midst that began with ‘I’. From Bobo we rode the bus east to Koudougou, checked into a hotel and inquired at reception, had they ever heard of Imasgo? Yes, of course they had, it was some 20-25km north. How could we get there - by minibus, taxi? A gaggle of staff gathered and debated this, and soon it was decided. Jacques, the head chef, and Jean, from the laundry department, would take us to Imasgo and back on their motorbikes - all we had to do was cover petrol costs. It was kind, and brilliant, and a huge stroke of luck. Ten minutes later we were on the road to our ‘I’, with no idea what to expect, racing through villages full of fortified, circular compounds with straw roofs, and swerving to avoid pot-bellied goats, small pigs and stray chickens. Jacques drove me, clearly enjoying the outing, and as cheery as his bright lime green shirt. Jean drove Seth and looked a little more serious, perhaps not quite so in love with this bizarre mission to Imasgo, though to his credit he was polite and helpful throughout. As you might guess, it was a small place. Women pounded millet in the shade of trees and flocks of guinea fowl scuttled around in the dust. Jean led us off the main road, along a short dirt track and into the market; a bustling place you would never have known was there. Here we parked up, instantly becoming a curiosity, causing excitement, puzzlement and shyness alike. The four of us trailed through the market single file, lowering our heads (against a poke in the eye with a straw roof edge) and careful feet (against stepping on the endless bundles of green leaves for cooking). Seth snapped portraits and inspired hilarity, especially among the little boys playing table football - a classic Francophone Africa pastime. I was focusing on the trinket hunt - plastic jewellery, Avril Lavigne T-shirts, padlocks, vegetables - nothing seemed right. Then I found it; a small pig-shaped flashlight (the beams of light shine from the pig’s nostrils...), with this pleasing advertisement on the side of the box: ‘THE PRODUCT DESIGN WITH CARTOON PIG, DEEPLY YOUTH’S AFFECTION.’ (Yeah, deeply youth’s affection, but also certain regressive 28 year olds as well.)
Back in Koudougou, after thanking the Jean and Jacques, we rejoiced in our non-Dogon ‘I.’ By now our week was almost up. We’d been busy - too busy, perhaps, to think much outside our travel bubble. Burkina Faso is actually one of the poorest countries in the world. Adult literacy is at 13%, half the population live on less than a US dollar a day and a third of the people will not make it past the age of 40 (these stats are from the Lonely Planet.) As a traveller passing through for six days, it is hard to believe such things, and it is a reminder of the layers on which one’s experiences exist.
On May 16th, at sunset, we left Burkina Faso. The border official quietly studied my passport and inked up the exit stamp.
‘Is this page Ok with you?’ he asked, ‘Just here?’ I nodded, stunned; it was the first time in ten years of travel that anybody has ever asked where I might like my stamp, and undoubtedly the last. As we crossed the no man’s land to Paga, Ghana, a colony of yellow weaver birds were screeching in a palm tree, carrying long strands of grass to add to their basket shaped nests.
‘Hey, how are you?’ called a smiling man from outside a chop bar decorated with Guinness signs, ‘Welcome to Ghana!’
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