Fred and Donanne Hunter visited West Africa thirty years after he had been a journalist there. Here’s the report of their return to Burkina Faso.
Our trip across Mali and through Dogon country – so luxurious with its private driver and tour guide – had begun to wear on us. That was no surprise. After all, we had been moving every day, camping, hiking, eating the same uninteresting food (canned tuna, peanut butter, confiture and ry-krisp, Tang to flavor whatever it was we drank) And all the while we were trying to absorb an overload of sights and colors, sounds and smells and make some sense of them. We had designed the visit to Burkina Faso as a rest stop and we were glad to have it. We seem to have set the camera aside; we took no photos. We did take photos on an earlier trip to Burkina Faso (it was known as Upper Volta then). We include these to offer glimpses of what Mossi village life looked like.
When I was in USIS training at the Foreign Service Institute shortly after African states had acceded to independence, Ouagadougou was considered the end of the world. To get assigned there was to be banished to the uttermost parts of the earth.
We visited Ouaga in 1970. According to the diary I kept then, we took the train from Abidjan’s Gare de Treichville on August 1 after leaving the splendid Hotel Ivoire where we caught up on much needed sleep for two nights after visiting Ghana. A night on the train lurching through the darkness. I remember with admiration the dexterity of the African waiter who ladled soup for us from a tureen balanced on a tray, his arm swaying to compensate for the lurching and never spilling a drop. (I recall that waiter after all these years and have no recollection of the soup!)
My notes for 8/2/70: “All day on train. Leisurely (we arrived in Bobo-Dioulasso 3-4 hours late) and interesting as rainforest of southern Ivory Coast has changed to open, lightly treed savannah, green and apparently widely cultivated. Periodic rain including heavy downfall at one stopping place where we watched small village (Bereba?) getting wet, young man from city departing train with sunglass (in rain) and suitcases juxtaposed against a naked child under a red diaphanous cloth. Food on train not bad and bed not too uncomfortable, though short.”
My main recollection of that train journey is the well-dressed mature woman in the neighboring compartment. At every stop she bargained for local produce for sale on the station platforms. By the time she arrived in Ouaga, to be greeted by adoring relatives, she had the compartment filled, seemingly to the ceiling, with foodstuffs for them.
We arrived in Ouaga at 12:30 at night, four and a half hours late. “African at station gave me a message from Allen Davis [the Embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission] of room awaiting us at splendid Hotel Indépendence.” My chief recollection of the Indépendence where we stayed comfortably for three nights involves being greeted in our bathroom by the largest, blackest and possibly fastest cockroach I had ever seen.
In 1970 Ouaga struck me as a pleasant small city. We looked forward to returning – even if we did nothing but rest at the OK Inn, another place with a strange-sounding name. We were assured the inn had a swimming pool and a decent dining room. We could wash our clothes, catch up on our journal writing – Donanne’s had lapsed for the moment – and sleep again in beds.
My journal notes:
Ouagadougou, Friday 11/24/00
Ouaga has grown tremendously since we were last here – no great surprise in that – but it now seems (from a not very exhaustive look and in the heat of midday) to be a most dreadful place. The OK Inn (of which we had fond hopes that it might prove to be another Hotel Kanaga, that gem in Mopti) is something of a disappointment.
Ouagadougou, Saturday 11/25/00
I’m writing this Saturday morning while sitting in a demi-rondavel (roof but no sides) beside the OK Inn pool. Six or eight Burkinabé kids have been getting a swimming lesson in the small, shallow, circular kiddie pool, watched over by an instructor. The kids pushed across the pool, then had free-time fun circling around it, all wearing inner tubes (probably from motorcycles). Now they have moved to the Big Pool where the lesson continues – at least for some. Others loll on the matelas and lounge chairs – along with two French women. One woman carefully sits in the shade while the other carefully sits in the full sun, getting a tan after basting herself in the pool. The Burkinabé kids are very dark, the French women very white.
Nice to be in a hotel actually used by locals. Some Burkinabé were swimming late yesterday afternoon while D and I had our late lunch in the dining room: rolls, cheese and papaya. Last night a Burkinabé man in handsome djellaba led his wife and two kids into the dining room for dinner. They entered through the poolside doorway and were most likely locals rather than hotel guests. The couple’s daughter – only three or four – made a racket during dinner, a racket of the sort devised to call attention to herself. This disturbance – not really very disturbing – was notable only as a reminder that such things happen frequently with American kids, but rarely with African ones.
The swimming lesson is over now. Across the pool from me at the kiosk where one gets towels the kids are changing out of their swimsuits. (No need for changing rooms for them! They seem to wear underpants beneath their suits.) Obviously the offspring of elites, they’re putting on European kids’ clothes: dresses for the girls, shorts and tee shirts for the boys while the instructor puts away the inner tubes and kicking floats. (One girl wears pants over her swimsuit, the swimsuit top acting as her upper body covering.)
A young European, presumably French, has arrived with his Burkinabe girlfriend for a swim.
Last night at dinner there was a long banquet-like table set up in the center of the dining room. We counted eighteen places and assumed there must be a tour at the hotel, eighteen being, as former tour director D noted, a good break-even number for a tour. But where were the tourists? We saw few people who would seem to qualify. There were European men at the bar and others kept arriving (and departing) through the swimming pool entrance. Before long waiters lengthened the table to accommodate six or seven additional diners.
Then in came the banqueters. All European men, but of what nationality? They reminded me of Flemings I’d seen long ago in Belgium. We decided they weren’t French, weren’t German. Maybe Dutch. Doing what in Ouaga? Who knows? The curiosity was that among these men, who eventually numbered 22-24, there was one very dark Burkinabé woman. She was in her 20s probably, seated near one end of the long table, surrounded by men in their 40s. The men next to her paid her no particular attention; in fact, they ignored her. A woman of no obvious charm or sophistication, she appeared somewhat baffled by the gathering and her presence there. Her hair had been straightened (this seems well nigh universal in the larger towns these days), but she was not particularly pretty. And she did not light up with joy and laughter as so many African women do. So why was she there? Was she a local representative of a tour company, as D wondered? Or everybody’s girlfriend? One of those mysteries you can never unravel.
Madame who runs the restaurant (and may own the hotel) was about – and if we had been in an English-speaking place I’d have been tempted to ask what the woman was doing among all those men. But it was a question sure to sound disapproving – “Madame, cette femme africaine parmi tous ces hommes européens: qu’est-ce qu’elle fait?” – and I was, in any case, unlikely to understand the reply. My French deserts me with distressing regularity. On leaving the dining room I said, “Bonjour” (not “Bonsoir”) to Madame the owner, thinking I had thanked her for dinner. Realizing suddenly what had escaped from my mouth, I did also say, “Merci!”
Listening to a CNN broadcast last night (we’re still wondering whether Bush or Gore won the election), we heard about difficulties in the Hague where a UN commission is having trouble working out the technical problems of how signatory countries are to cut back their (is it?) fossil fuel emissions by five percent of the 1990 levels agreed on several years ago in Tokyo. [In early 2001 George W. Bush announced that USA would pull out of this treaty.] US and some other countries are proposing credits for various elements (like forests) which relieve global warming. But American environmental activists charge that these proposals are really designed to let the US and others (e.g. Canada) do nothing at all. It’s an interesting dilemma.
Here in Ouaga there has been a tremendous influx of migrants into what was thirty years ago a small and in its way charming city. Now it seems huge and sprawling and without the trees that gave it charm. A Lonely Planet article on BF says that there is now a 70 km swath around the entire city of land denuded of trees. [It was clear on the ground that this was a considerable exaggeration.] But wood seems to be the Burkinabés’ main source of energy. Beside the roads we see large piles of wood prepared for sale in Ouaga. The chopping down of trees, of course, accelerates the pace of desertification. Because of their poverty the Burkinabé are hastening their own impoverishment. It’s a depressing sight, a depressing downward spiral that one sees no way of stopping.
By contrast the Americans on the global warming issue are doing the same kind of thing. Because of their basic values – efficiency, comfort, profitability – Americans are also hastening the impoverishment of the entire world. Americans don’t care if other peoples – the world’s poor and voiceless – are inconvenienced by Americans’ accelerating use of the fossil fuels that cause global warming. Power companies, car companies, etc., can easily argue that the scientific bases for global warming are not proved, etc., etc., arguments that permit them to continue to grow rich as others are damaged by their greed and selfishness.
Ouagadougou, Sunday 11/26/00
At this moment in the pool a blond-haired white man is teaching his two mulatto kids to swim. One wears bright red/orange water wings and is crying just now having gone out beyond her depth. Papa holds and reassures her and takes her to the edge of the pool in his arms.
At dinner last night D and I were eating alone in the dining room. The maitre d’ approached and bowed with great dignity. So did a waiter who served us brochettes outside at noon and had a nice sense of humor. I said something about “tous les hommes hier soir” and the maitre d said, “Coureurs!” (Runners!) I said, “Tous ces hommes et une seule femme! Pourquoi?” And both men laughed and repeated the question, having no more idea than we did about why the woman was there or what happened to her.
Guiré and Champion fetched us at the OK Inn early on Sunday morning. The guys could already feel the pull of their homeward journey and raced us across eastern Burkina Faso. We passed sections of the country inhabited by people different from the Mossi of Ouaga, people who built their huts differently. But we moved so quickly that we saw none of that.
At the border with Niger there were formalities to arrange. While Champion took care of these, we watched Land Cruisers and trucks load up with passengers for Niamey, the capital of Niger. I saw the first recognizable Tuaregs of the trip, men with lighter complexions and Berber features with cheches at their necks. They insisted on sitting in the front of an overcrowded LC.
After we entered Niger, the roads grew progressively worse. But we reached Niamey without difficulty. It was early afternoon. We crossed the Kennedy Bridge over the Niger, passed the splendid Sofitel and finally found the Grand Hotel on its marvellous bluff overlooking a bend in the Niger. Marvellous location, yes, but the hotel itself? I could hardly believe what we saw. A dump. A reconstruction project in process. Scaffolding blocked off the front of the hotel. Where the hell was a guest supposed to enter?
And so began our journey into the Sahara.
Here is how we looked a week later in the deep Sahara:
Next post: Preparing for the Sahara