Burkina Faso, November 21 - 23, 2007

Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
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62
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Trip End Jan 05, 2008


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Flag of Burkina Faso  ,
Friday, November 23, 2007

The road on both sides of the Mali-Burkina Faso border was a rather rough one through a subsistence farming area with few true settlements and an especially prevalent "middle of nowhere" feel.  We exited the Malian border post into a wide no-man's land strip before the Burkina entry post, which we arrived at just before dusk near its official closing time.  The friendly Burkinese border guards, however allowed us to camp at the border post and for a small cadeau (the French West African term for bribes/tips/baksheesh) stayed late to complete the long drawn out process of issuing our visas and stamping our passports so we could get an early start in the morning.  Whoever said official corruption was a bad thing?  A bit of corruption can actually work to everyone's benefit. 
It was a rough day in terms of food as well, as Robin's cook group was in charge.  Robin had adopted the view that camp meals should be simple and stay within the very tight budget dictated by the food kitty, one paid and denominated in U.S. dollars and thus declining in value along with the dollar.  Her strategy seemed designed mostly to annoy people since most of us cared very little for the lentil, couscous dishes, and other veggie slop this entailed.  I joined others in boycotting this day's lunch of "couscous salad", mushy grain mixed with a few canned vegetables and dined solely on watermelon.  The dinner of nearly tunaless pasta/tuna casserole, bread, and some hard-boiled eggs leftover from a previous meal I chose not attend was nearly as gruesome.  And for its finale of culinary treats, this cook group served a breakfast of cornflakes and warm milk. 
Perhaps it was an attempt to sing myself to sleep, perhaps a sense of camaraderie in shared misery, or maybe just the effect of my trying to ward off hunger by filling my stomach up with too much beer, but we had a fun time that evening at the border.  Murray got his drum off the roof and thumped the night away, while the rest of us sang various songs from our home countries.  Well, mostly I sang, which could have been because I have the loudest voice and everyone hoped my singing would wake Robin up, or maybe it was just that I had the most beers.  I'm not sure, but in any event, in response to David's and Richard's prodding, among other things I sang "God Bless America" and "The Star Spangled Banner" that night at decibel levels high enough to wake up villagers from miles around. 
My malnourishment was such that at our stop for diesel in the first significant town in Burkina Faso (named Ouahigouya), Richard and I wandered out into the market in a desperate search for sustenance, cursing Robin under our breath much of the way, "Witch!"  "No, no cans of pop, no crisps, no juices, no biscuits.........We're looking for meat........Roast goat.........Beef or goat on the fire........On the grill."  But so early in the morning none of the meat was ready and we returned dejectedly to Daphne and continued on our merry way through the Sahel scrub country
The next significant town we passed through was around noon and was named Yako.  As we passed a rotisserie chicken stand there was a near mutiny on board as we starving passengers demanded a protein fix.  Dave stopped the truck, "I think we have some very malnourished people on board," as we all charged out the door and a dozen of us crowded around the chicken man's small stand, each buying one of his small roast chickens and quickly devouring it.  "Ummmmmm, so nice.  I'm finally not hungry for a change," I thought.   
It must have been like Christmas for the chicken man; I'm sure it's not every day a truckload of famished white people mob his stand and buy up everything he has at a very inflated price.  The chicken man must have been thinking, "I don't get these white people - they're all so fat, but they act like they haven't eaten anything in two weeks." 
In crossing from Mali to Burkina Faso we were going from what is officially the world's fourth poorest nation to its third poorest.  From what I can tell, there's not much difference between #3 and #4.  Burkina Faso was mostly a transit country for us, one we would be in for only three days.  Our initial plans to stay a few days longer and visit the supposedly more interesting city of Bobo Dioulasso were scrapped when Dave got word in Mali that it would take 48 hours for the Ghanaian embassy in Ouagadougou to process and issue our visas.  Thus, our stay in Burkina Faso consisted of about two days in the capital city, Ouagadougou, roughly the halfway point in our transit from north to south across the country between the Malian and Ghanaian borders. 
Ouagadougou is another name that rolls off the tongue in a fancy way, but the reality of the city is far less charming than the name suggests.  Ouagadougou struck me as especially dusty and much more spread out than Bamako or Dakar, its streets mostly on a grid system with mostly low-rise buildings and a few grandiose Sovietlike communist-inspired monuments. 
On the other hand, Ouagadougou is full of friendly people who rarely see tourists, making it a low-hassle environment with a rather safe feel about it.  Although Burkina Faso has an ethnically mixed population, the vast majority of the people in Ouagadougou and the central part of the country are from the Mossi tribe, resulting in most people having some strong commonalities in their appearance, in my estimation very black skin, rather narrow faces, and prominent cheekbones, at least compared to other populations I had been among in West Africa.  There is supposedly far greater genetic diversity among Africans than among the descendants of the people who crossed the Sahara during a wetter era and went on to populate the rest of the world; that diversity is very apparent is the differences in appearance between peoples not only in different parts of the continent but also between tribes that tend not to intermarry much with each other in regions like the Sahel in Mali and Burkina Faso
Feeling in need of some serious exercise, I did the five mile or so walk to downtown on foot from our campground beside a hotel on Ouagadougou's south side.  Walking is a way of experiencing a place that I find gives me a much better feel for it than riding around in taxis, something that can be true even when there's a thick ground-level fog of diesel exhaust as there was along the main road into Ouaga.   
There aren't many real sights in Ouagadougou.  The National Museum was recently relocated to a distant suburb.  The Music Museum showcasing musical instruments of Burkinabe tribes (xylophones, drums, harps, etc) was interesting but quite small.  Much more exciting was the Marche des Artisans crafts cooperative in the center of town where prices were fixed and artisans were working on such traditional Burkinabe crafts as batik and bronze work.  I'm not sure how traditional they are, but I determined I could not happily live without two beautiful embroidered table clothes I found at the market. 
Ouagadougou turned out for me and my friends to be mostly about eating, with numerous high quality French restaurants catering to whitey expats working for businesses and NGOs.  Besides that, it was Thanksgiving in America and how better to celebrate than with lots of food, even if it's not traditional turkey with all the trimmings?  I had lunch with Charlotte, Stacey, and Nina at Le Verdoyant, an Italian/French restaurant that was so good I had to return for dinner.  My two meals included a Three Lasagna Taster Platter, Tournedos de Beouf, Tomates Provencales, Pommes de Terre Dauphinoise, red wine, a salad of grapefruit, avocado, and shrimp, and ice cream in the most amazing flavors - ginger, grand marnier, and chestnut, to name but a few.  I left Ouagadougou thinking the city must have restaurants awarded with more Michelin stars than those in Paris.
Burkina Faso and Ouagadougou seemed like peaceful enough places to me.  However, at the end of February 2008, about three months after my visit there, I read in the New York Times about food riots in Ouagadougou and other Burkinabe cities.  I was particularly interested in the story since it struck me that the return journey of the tour through West Africa I just completed would be passing through Burkina Faso at about that time.  Sure enough, a day later I received an e-mail from James, one of the two drivers on the trip, detailing his harrowing experiences.  Here is the link to his travelpod blog account of the riots they were caught up in: 
http://www.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/chisanga/chisan ga2007/1204371420/tpod.html
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