“THE LAND OF NO PROBLEMS”
What a trip! When we take off in a rattly mini-bus for the north-western border of Benin, we have no idea what we’re in for. There are five of us: Jordan, Megan, Phoebe, Rima, and myself and we are about to get to know each other a lot better.
The mini-bus in itself is an adventure -- things are looking pretty good until we cross the border. Not long after, the engine starts making ungodly racket which includes ear-piercing pops out the back every few minutes. The other passengers don’t seem concerned so we decide ‘when in Burkina, do as the Burkinabé’ and patiently wait for the breakdown. It doesn’t take long. The medley of ‘repair stops’ follow in quick succession. In between stops, the chauffeur keeps insisting everything is fine despite the fact the car is moving at approximately 1.5 mph. I’m not kidding. I couldn’t look at the window without cracking up, especially after we got passed by loaded down donkey carts. TWICE. Accepting the situation, we each tried to distract ourselves from the fact that if we weren’t so lazy we very well could get out and walk faster to Ouagadougou.
Several hours later, the driver finally admits defeat and we hail down another mini-bus, much to the chagrin of its already crammed-in passengers. Eventually, we make it and celebrate that night with a dinner of salad, french fries, and chocolate mousse. Our first taste of Ouagadougou is delicious.
The good thing about our prolonged arrival was there was plenty of time to take in the Burkina landscape. My first impressions are stronger than I expect – Burkina definitely has a feel altogether different from Benin. To begin, there are donkeys everywhere! I couldn’t remember seeing one such beast of burden in Benin (though plenty of asses…) but now they were everywhere you looked. Also, villages are more spread apart and houses are consistently mud-brick, without the sprinkling of cement building seen in Benin. All this backs up our knowledge of Burkina Faso as one of the poorest countries in the world. Despite the obvious hardship, there’s a great spirit here. The people are friendly and laid back, even more so than the Beninese. This was characterized by their use of the expression “il n’y pas de probleme” (“no problem!”) in about every other sentence. You couldn’t help but smile. And then, of course, there’s Ouagadougou.
Ouaga is a pleasant surprise. It’s a clean and relaxed city, or at least seems it in comparison to Cotonou which Lonely Planet describes akin to “being stuck in a taxi with a chain-smoking speed freak.” There’s green space and lots of people on bicycles, even businessmen. Every two years, Ouaga plays host to Africa’s most important film festival, and the effects of this role are clearly visible, not the least of which in the many movie theaters.
That first morning we walk directly down the street, past the huge central mosque, and buy a kilo of strawberries before going to a supermarket (a real supermarket!) where we purchase baguettes and goat cheese. We then classily gobble this breakfast feast outside on the curb. Even with all the build-up, the strawberries are worth the wait. Having heard they were grown in Burkina we became increasingly distraught when our many stops in villages along the way yielded no sightings. Finally, just before getting dropped at our hotel we see a woman carrying a huge pyramid of red that wasn’t tomatoes or piment!
That day we mostly just wander around… without realizing, we had planned our first full day in Ouaga on a Sunday and everything was closed. However, we do manage to find a BOWLING ALLEY, and are unable to resist, especially considering the total lack of more culturally appropriate options. They even have the cool shoes! That night we treat ourselves to lasagna and the best kiwi sorbet in the world at a popular ex-pat restaurant.
Having had a taste of indulgent city life, we head out early the next morning for Bobo-Dialasso. As if the name isn’t cool enough (locals call it simply ‘Bobo’) this transit town instantly wins me over. Centered around its huge market, the small city lazily makes it way down tree-lined streets bustling with merchants, tourists, and people going to and from work. Just one block from the market, our hotel is in a perfect location.
Wasting no time, we drop off our stuff and take off on foot for Kibidwe, the historic district landmarked by an extraordinary 19th century mosque. Touring the quartier requires guides and we luck out with two easy-going guys who deftly lead us through winding alleys and mud-brick passageways. Since most the buildings are still inhabited, we regularly glimpse families going about their daily routine, some greet us warmly while the rest ignore us completely. Along the way we see a sacrificial mound, a river of “sacred fish,” and many artisans eager to sell us their over-priced goods. Despite our unhappy new role as tourists, nothing can take away from the overall awesomeness of the experience. The genuineness of the people and their lifestyle emanates and I leave feeling honored to have shared in their culture, if only for an hour. The tours ends at the mosque which, with its many towers and protruding wooden struts, is by far the coolest I’d seen since arriving in West Africa.
On the topic of superlatives, Bobo’s Grande Marché wins “Best West African Market.” It’s expansive, but not overwhelming. Labrynthine lanes branch out from a central star-shaped cement structure open to the sky. Occupying the inner circle are the fruit and vegetable stalls, watched over by colorfully clad women. From here to the market’s outer rim are stalls of most anything you can imagine, including booth after booth of beautiful African prints. The wider lanes are covered by thin muslin sheets that billow in the breeze and glow in the afternoon sun.
The market also has great food, saucy pasta with the most incredible, melt-in-your-mouth cooked cabbage. Yes, cabbage. You’d have to taste it to believe it.
The next morning we walk to a museum which to our delight has a gallery of contemporary local artwork, in addition to displays of traditional ceremonial items. Even more exciting (especially for Megan our resident art history major) our guide is one of the artists being showcased and the other arrives within a couple minutes. Megan, Phoebe, and I each end up buying small canvas pieces painted with all-natural mud dyes. For the equivalent of 15 US dollars we purchase truly unique African art and get to chat with the artists afterward! Continuing through the small but charming museum, we tour two models of traditional nomadic and sedentary (farming community) Burkinabé homes. We later mingle with more local artisans working on batiks, iron, and wood carvings on a shady hillside behind the museum.
That afternoon we put on our swimsuits and pile into a taxi in search of “La Guinguette,” described as a crystal clear bathing area in the middle of a lush forest. Sounds good! Supposed to be only 18 km out of Bobo, after 45 minutes it becomes clear our driver has no idea where he is going. He claims he “went there as a child” and “thinks he remembers a short-cut.” What follows is a ridiculous comedy of errors which find us trespassing into a water-processing plant, driving down an empty creek bed and through several families’ compounds, and finally coming in the back way to a mission where we are told “Oh yes, of course, just down the road” when we ask for directions. Three hours after setting off we arrive hot and sweaty, only to hear the news that visitors are no longer allowed to swim. FINE. We decide to go see it anyway and it ends up being a beautiful little hike complete with a suspension walking bridge, a valley of ferns, and (as promised) a crystal clear swimming hole no longer used for swimming.
The next morning, the real fun begins. Sitting in front of our hotel drinking coffee, we notice large groups of people roaming around the streets. We heard the market would be closed due to a one-day strike but had no idea it was quickly spreading into a nation-wide protest against rising product costs.
So we continue sipping our coffee, casually watching as the groups of people (upon closer inspection all men, mostly young) get increasingly rowdier, at one point tearing down a stop sign and setting fire to some tires in the middle of an intersection. They also have started building road-blocks which, when we look down the road in the opposite direction, we see are for approaching armed police vehicles. When we start to smell something suspiciously like tear gas our sweet and overprotective waiter Andre kindly suggests we move inside. As bizarre as the situation may sound, we never felt in danger. We were part of a crowd of people, tourists and locals, standing on the side of the street just watching. No one was paying a bit of attention to us.
We later wander down the empty streets to the bakery where we buy some pastries black market-style, out the side door since -- for solidarity’s sake -- they’re not supposed to be open. Accepting we won’t be getting out of the city that day (police have all roads blocked) we resign ourselves to a day by the pool in a nearby hotel. It’s there we run into Cory, a Burkina volunteer, who is there with his parents who are visiting from Tennessee.
Thanks to him, we get the full update on the situation and realize we should probably call Peace Corps Benin to let them know we’re okay. Within a few hours, what starts as a simple check-in call escalates to the point of all of us being escorted by a Peace Corps SUV to a hotel outside the city. There we meet with Burkina’s safety officer who makes it sound like we’ll be on lock-down for a couple of days. Not so, the next morning the country director calls to tell us to be ready to leave in 15 minutes and “pack light” since we’d be squeezing in nearby volunteers – 16 in all for one car –to evacuate to a different town. Already loving what a good story this has become, we’re all in a jovial mood as we introduce ourselves and cozy up for the 2 hour ride. In a huge coincidence, I end up in the back of the SUV, knee-to-knee with a girl I graduated with from William and Mary! In the words of Ani DiFranco “the world is absurd, and beautiful, and small.”
The next day finds us back on the road again, this time doing a cross-country trip dropping off three Burkina volunteers in their villages before finally pulling up to the Peace Corps transit house in Ouagadougou at 7:30 that night. Early the next morning us and three other Benin volunteers who had been passing through are driven to the border where we are met by Noel, our safety guy, and another air-conditioned SUV. And so ends our Burkina adventure, safe and sound back in Benin, having not done everything on our itinerary but having seen more than we could have imagined.