From Houston to Sydney 2013

West Africa



Considering they are both former French colonies in West Africa, it is surprising to see how different Burkina Faso is from Mali.  For example, the level of economic development, while low, is nonetheless higher than that in Mali.  I understand that until recently this was not the case, but Mali’s security issues have really hit its economy, which is now in decline – in contrast with Burkina Faso’s economy, which is growing slowing but steadily.

From a traveller’s perspective, the food in Burkina Faso is clearly superior to Mali, both in quantity and quality, and the cost in Burkina Faso is about half that of an equivalent plate in Mali.  Even a small feature like the number of traffic signals is different; in Mali there are almost no traffic lights, but in Burkinabè cities (Burkinabè being the adjective for a person or thing that comes from Burkina Faso), they are almost too plentiful.  So much so, that in Ouagadougou people tend to ignore them because they slow down the journey too much, whereas in Bobo-Dioulasso they serve as a competition starter – whose reflexes are fastest to start blasting their horn the microsecond that the light turns green?

This morning we had a fairly long drive from Bobo-Dioulasso to Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso.  I am sure that no other capital city in the world has such a cool name!  The distance between the two cities is 355 kilometres.  Although most of the road was in excellent condition, a section of almost 100 kilometres around the middle of the journey was in a sorry state, so the trip took us five and a half hours (7:30 am to 1:00 pm), with just two stops.

The first stop was beside the road at what is known in this Francophone part of the world as a “pissoir” (i.e. a small scrubby tree that is used for you know what).  In this semi-arid region, I found it quite a challenge to find a tree that was large enough to obscure the necessary parts of anatomy, but eventually the search was successful and the journey continued in a far more comfortable state.

The second stop took a little longer.  We stopped near the town of Sabou to visit a pool with ‘sacred’ crocodiles.  In this region of Burkina Faso, which seems predominantly Christian (with Assemblies of God churches in every village), “sacred” means simply that the local people do not eat the crocodiles, and when they (the crocodiles) die, they are buried in a special crocodile cemetery.  In that sense, I suspect / hope that I too am ‘sacred’ here.

In order to see the crocodiles, we were led by a local man who had a live chicken tied by its feet to a rope.  The chicken was the live bait to entice the crocodiles from the water.  It worked, and the chicken seemed to die a long and painful death as one crocodile after another bit it and pulled tenaciously at its failing body, adding a bit more of the chicken’s blood to the periphery of its mouth as it did so.  It was not a pleasant thing to watch; in fact, it was a bit sickening.  Animal rights activists obviously still have a lot of work ahead of them here in Burkina Faso.

We arrived in Ouagadougou at about 1:00 pm, but a false start in finding our hotel (the Splendid Hotel) meant we did not get to our room until after 1:30 pm.  The hotel is probably the best I have stayed in since Monrovia, and the first one since Bamako to have both shampoo and hot water.  Andrew and I were also very impressed with the food we were served at lunch time – for Andrew spaghetti bolognaise and for me spaghetti carbonara, complete with a raw egg yolk served on top of the pasta in half a roughly opened egg shell.  Yum!

Ouagadougou is a much more modern city than any I have visited so far in West Africa.  Its streets are wide (indeed, very wide!) and well laid out, traffic seems relatively orderly even though so many drivers ignore the red lights, and there are considerably more foreign tourists here than in Mali, almost every one of them French.

On the other hand, Ouagadougou seems somewhat sterile after Mali and the Burkinabè countryside.  By ‘sterile’, I don’t mean clinically clean (which it certainly is not), but it seems to lack vibrancy or … something.  Perhaps it was the white dust haze that permeated the city today.  Perhaps it was the soulless concrete block buildings or the lack of buzzing markets along the streets as we have seen elsewhere.  Whatever the reason, Ouagadougou has struck me so far as a relatively characterless city by African standards.

We met Mama and Harouna at 3:30 pm for some afternoon explorations.  Our first stop was the National Museum, situated to the east of the city centre on the N4 Highway near the junction of Boulevard des Tensoba.  The Museum is on a large area of land, with several widely spaced buildings built in various shapes in styles which seem to mimic Burkinabè baskets, handicrafts and traditional buildings.  Being Sunday, there wasn’t much action as we drove in; indeed, everything seemed locked and I assumed it was closed.

However, Mama managed to find a man who was urinating in the grounds, and he kindly offered to open up two of the buildings.  The first building featured masks from various tribes of Burkina Faso, while the second featured statuettes, mostly made of wood although a few were fashioned from stone.

We received a very thorough explanation of each exhibit in each of the two buildings, and the visit thus took almost an hour and a half.  No photographs are permitted, perhaps because potential visitors would realise there is so little to see and how sterile the exhibits are (yes, you are right, I’m not a huge fan of museums).

The masks were divided into sections according to their purpose: initiations, funerals, religious use, social interaction, decoration, ceremonies, praying for rain, protection from evil spirits, cursing other people – you know, the usual things.  Many of the statuettes were designed to promote fecundity, either in reproduction or in crop growth.  In traditional Burkinabè society, having lots of children was necessary to be looked after in old age, so many of the statuettes focused on fertility.  Indeed, one statuette was specifically for the purpose of praying to have twins in animist society.  Interestingly, most of the fertility statuettes only received a sacrifice (of a goat or chicken) after a baby had been born; I guess that was an age-old form of performance pay.

Other statuettes were used for fortune telling, while others were used to promote good health – one doing so in a very practical way by having a place to store traditional medicines inside.  Some of the statuettes were in the form of stools that had some interesting restrictions.  For example, women were (and are) prohibited from sitting on three-legged stools (because three symbolises men, and four symbolises women).  And then there was the example of the statuette of a frog that women may sit on provided they are not cooking at the time.

It was interesting to see some small wooden statuettes (dolls really) – females with huge breasts – that are given to little girls when they turn three so they can care for them just like their own baby.  Less ‘cute’ were the virility statuettes to help men overcome impotence.  These were standing figurines with the men holding their artistically sculpted penises with their left hands, or in some cases, with both hands (perhaps the more effective statuettes???).

Although it was only 5:00 pm when we left the National Museum, it was already starting to get dark because of the smoke/haze in the air.  We drove a few kilometres south along Boulevard des Tensoba to the Artisans’ Centre where, we were told, we would see basketry, batik fabrics, wooden statues and masks, jewellery, leatherwork and bronze castings all being made.  The centre was open, but unfortunately, not one single piece of activity was underway in the entirely vacant shelter areas.  The shop that sells their handiwork was open, however, but the high prices and poor quality of many of the goods made buyer resistance very easy.

We were also scheduled to see the Music Museum today, but it was closed for renovations.  It was therefore a mildly interesting but quite frustrating afternoon in Ouagadougou.  From what I have seen so far, I would come here for good food, a good bed and a good wash, but perhaps not for the scenic highlights of West Africa.  As one of the travel guides I have brought with me describes it so eloquently, “Ouagadougou has little to offer”.  As my other travel guide says, “Ouaga, as it’s affectionately dubbed, lacks standout sights, and its architecture doesn’t have much to turn your head.”

It’s probably a good thing that we are scheduled to have a day trip out of Ouagadougou tomorrow.


12 January 2014

Day 16 - Bobo-Dioulasso to Ouagadougou