By the time we had completed our month in Mali, the ‘hot season’ had started in full. Apparently we had arrived during the ‘cold season’ when daily temperatures rarely go over 45 °C. Therefore it was with a certain eagerness that we embarked on our trip Southwards towards the coast and the cool, cool sea. However, the landlocked Sahelian state of Burkina Faso lay in our way. Furthermore, we needed to acquire visas for the coastal states before moving on and these could only be had in the capital, Ouagadougou, so we decided to head directly for there from where we were, Mopti, and pass through the back roads of the ‘Dogon country’ – the tribal lands of the Dogon people – on the way.

The first leg of this trip was, by this stage, run of the mill, a 2 hour ride in a peugeot 504 with 10 people crammed in, across a 80km long appalling track from Mopti to Bandiagara. At this stage the transport infrastructure deteriorates and so the next 20 kilometres were achieved on a motorbike, or more accurately on a bicycle with a motor. These 50cc Peugeots are the most basic motorised vehicles known to man. They have no gears and are furnished with pedals for surmounting uphill sections which the engine can’t manage. We rented 2 of these machines plus one driver (who gave Deirdre a lift as she sat on the back carrier with her backpack on her back) and one porter (who sat on the back of my bike with my backpack on his back). The road was impassible by cars due to frequent boulder-strewn stretches but manageable by a bike, although I’d say that the youth on the back of my bike had a sore bum by the time we got to Dguiguibumbo.

Route taken in Burkina Faso, March 2000, full map

From Djuiguibumbo the road deteriorates, so the next 20km or so (including a few detours to visit villages, one of which we slept in) had to be completed on foot. While Deirdre managed to get somebody to carry much of here baggage much of the way, I was unfortunately obliged to carry all my belongings over the entire length of the walk, which happened to include stretches of climbing up and down cliffs, several hundred metres high, in the full heat of the midday sun. I can only assume that a passing witch doctor turned me into a donkey for a short time since otherwise I would have collapsed far before the end of the walk.

Having crossed the cliffs we arrived at the village of Kaini Kombelé where the road restarts. We had almost clinched a deal to rent a donkey and cart to take us to the next town when luckily a four wheel drive pickup truck happened to go by and we paid for transport 15km on to Bankass in the open back area, through a veritable blizzard of dust which necessitated keeping one’s eyes shut for the entire trip. From Bankass we got lucky again, after hitching for only a couple of hours, a vehicle passed by and we paid for a lift to the last big town before the border, Koro, this time in the comfortable interior of a plush NGO-owned four wheel drive.

In Koro our luck ran out, arriving 20 minutes after the only transport of the day left towards Burkina, for once on time. Thus we had to wait another 26 hours for the next one, passing the night in a dingy, battered campement with a swarm of depressed guides hanging around outside, in the forlorn hope of getting some business from the extremely infrequent tourists passing through. The 26 hours passed very slowly – drinking tea with the guides and watching them torture their captive monkey to ease the boredom. When the ‘bus’ did arrive, it turned out to be a lorry with a few benches in the back, at least it did leave only a few hours late.

From Koro it took perhaps 2 hours to reach the border which we passed through surprisingly swiftly and were finally into Burkina! After the border, the tortuous road slightly improves although progress was still extremely slow until we reached the first major Burkinabè town, Ouahigouya, the fourth town in the country. Coming into town in the early evening at around 8pm it appeared like a vision of civilisation to us. The electricity danced along the wires, sparkled from the street lights, sang out from the stereos in a rhapsody to development. It takes a visit to Mali to be able to appreciate the sublime beauty of street lights. The other sight which warmed our hearts was the collection of open-air bars along the main street, filled with enthusiastic drinkers. The overwhelmingly Muslim Malians and Senegalese had nothing of a drinking culture and this was our first sight of popular bars since leaving Ireland almost 4 months before. Since it was already late, and we were thirsty, we decided to stay the night here and toasted the enlightened pagans of Burkina with a round of beers at 45 cents a pint.

II. TRADITIONAL LIVING

In reality Burkina Faso is poorer than Mali. In terms of GNP per habitant, it is the 9th poorest country in the world. Most of the bottom 8 are disaster sites rather than countries. Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and Somalia are not good countries to have immediately beneath you in the global wealth league. However, the impression of development, when compared to Mali, is sustained as long as one remains in one of the 5 big towns. They are less squalid, more spacious, shadier, better lit and altogether more agreeable than the large towns of Mali. The markets are more bountiful, the street food more exotic. Luxuries like frozen yogurt, avocado salad, and roasted pork are widely available on the streets. Cinemas are numerous, large and well attended, the open air bars are often full of people. Beer, accommodation and luxury foods are cheaper and easier to find. In short everyday living is relatively comfortable, although the temperatures remain punishing.

Starting from Ouahigouya in the North, we travelled to the capital Ouagadougou in the centre, spent about a week there, continued to Bobo Dioulasso, the second city, where we based ourselves for a few weeks, rented motorbikes and made several trips to surrounding areas. Finally we took a week long trip on a motorbike around the SouthWest, visiting Banfora, Gaoua, and many smaller places. In general, the towns contain a remarkable lack of ‘sights’. Monuments, religious buildings, museums, palaces and brash ‘prestige’ modern buildings, all of which provide a framework for a tourist’s day, are notably absent. Neither Islam nor Christianity managed to become very widely believed here, doubtless why there is only one famous religious monument in the country (the mosque in Bobo, a whitewashed mudbrick building, pimpled with the typical protruding Sahelian wooden scaffolding, which gives the gently curving prayer tower an uncanny resemblance to a studded sex-toy). The French mostly accounted for the historical buildings. During the kind introduction of their ‘protectorate’ in the 1890’s, all of the palaces, large buildings, forts and most of the towns were burnt down and destroyed. Poverty and lack of resources has limited the number of monumental buildings built since.

The countryside too, is somewhat colourless. The land is mainly flat and dry, sparsely covered with desert bushes and trees. The Southwest which is Burkina’s hilliest, lushest area would be considered a gently rolling desert plain in Ireland. Nevertheless around water-sources there are often thick, tropical forests. Few of the water-sources run all year round, those that do are highly valued, especially those that allow swimming. We were there at the peak of the hot dry season there and well understood this importance since the heat and humidity are practically unbearable. The swimming holes were always crowded with bathers and many people would jump in fully clothed, to remain cooler a little longer once they got out. Apart from these natural swimming holes, the natural attractions of the countryside are limited to a few lakes full of hippos and the odd rock-formation or seasonal waterfall.

It is fortunate, therefore, that there is much of interest to observe in the people who live there. Signs of extremely different cultural practices are immediately evident. Ceremonial face-scarring is common. Even suit-wearing businessmen in Ouagadougou have often got elaborate patterns incised on their cheeks. These are the most visible bits of the various animist religious systems which abound. Many towns and villages have sacred spots around them. These could be simple features like a small hill or a grove of trees, or something more elaborate like a bat-filled cave. There are many sacred spots specially for sacrifices and the more important ones have pools of enormous sacred catfish or crocodiles to whom the sacrifice is fed. These can attract people from some distance around. We chanced to observe a chicken sacrifice at the home of Bobo’s sacred catfish. It took place among a grove of trees around a deep pool, surrounded by steep cliffs. The ground around site was thick with feathers, blood, mud and chickenshit, as an antidote to the spectacular beauty of the place. The chicken’s throat was cut over an altar while the supplicant chanted various things. The chicken was then allowed to tire itself out struggling about headless before it was carved open and its innards extracted. These were then fed to the catfish in the nearby pool, and the supplicant left with the rest of the chicken for his tea (the symbolism of the sacrifice being more important than the chicken). Since we had no chicken with us and were unwilling to effect a purchase from the resident chicken-hawker, we were luckily allowed to sacrifice a stale loaf of bread that we happened to have with us, which was just as good at enticing the hideous catfish, whose sacredness has protected them from fishermen and allowed them to grow to monstrous proportions, out of the murky depths of the pool.

Dogonia

These types of traditional beliefs and practices exist almost everywhere in Burkina, even in the sophisticated cities. However this animist culture is most pervasive in the remotest areas where people, often occupying the most marginal lands, have retained ways of living largely unaffected by the homogenising effects of a modern capitalist economy. The Dogon country, which is actually mostly in Mali, is one of the best know traditional people in Africa. Their villages are mostly clustered along a long escarpment, a 50 km long series of high cliffs. Many villages are made up of two parts, one on the plain, the other built into caves on the cliff, often making use of old ‘pygmy’ dwellings, remnants of a people who the Dogon annihilated when they arrived at the escarpment. These cliff-villages are mostly abandoned now, in these peaceful times the plains above and beneath the cliffs are more convenient and almost everybody lives there. The cliff part is now mainly used for sacrificial and spiritual matters. We saw a large collections of monkey skulls stuck to the cliff-face with mud in one of the villages, and also the bodies of a few cats, dangling here and there from peoples houses. The old dwellings are tiny, 2 to 5 feet high, built into scars in the cliffs and sometimes 100’s of feet above the plain so that it remains a puzzle how they got up there.

For several centuries the Dogon, protected by their marginality, inaccessibility and natural defence of the escarpment, have maintained an intricate individual culture, seemingly little affected by the more powerful Muslim kingdoms along the Niger river a little way north, who periodically launched jihads to convert these heathen savages. The invading French colonial powers finally managed to ‘pacify’ the Dogon in 1920, but thereafter almost completely ignored this tiny, isolated, resourceless, semi-desert patch of the vast territory of French West Africa. While their distinctive civilisation was able to withstand these military onslaughts, modern tourism is proving to be much more powerful than any invading army, as a force for change. The Dogon villages are picturesque beyond belief, carvings and sculptures performing complex religious functions abound in the villages, the inhabitants perform elaborate dances and ceremonies wearing fabulous painted masks, in short they are everything that a tourist looking for the real Africa could want, a real living, breathing, dancing drumming primitive tribe! Like everybody else in the region, they are desperately short of cash and so are quite willing to part with pieces of their culture, such as their carved ‘anti-witchcraft’ doors, in exchange for some filthy lucre. Tour groups are bused into some villages to watch the entire villages perform ritual masked dances that were formerly performed only once every 60 years. Unless something changes soon, the Dogon’s cherished culture could soon become pure pastiche.

Lobonia

The Lobi country in a remote corner of SouthWestern Burkina is another area where people have retained traditional ways of living. Again it is the region’s isolation – the main town is 200km from the nearest surfaced road – which has insulated the distinctive culture. Since public transport is very scarce in the area, we travelled there on a rented motorbike, an 80cc Yamaha moped which was totally unsuited to the dirt tracks dotted with patches of deep sand and gravel. Thankfully we managed to avoid crashing, despite a large number of skids and slides, since we were unable to locate any helmets after trying for a week.

The first Lobi village we got to was Loropeni, the site of one of sub-Saharan Africa’s only surviving ancient stone remains, a massive structure with walls almost intact to 20 feet high and 100’s of feet long. The huge rectangular building, simply sits, 3km out of town, in the middle of the bush, in an area of thinly wooded savannah lands with tall trees growing everywhere in what was once the interior. In another sign of the lack of resources devoted to uncovering Africa’s past, it seems that nobody has the faintest idea of who, when or how this structure got there. There do not appear to have been any excavations or digs on the site and the only evidence that anybody knows its there is a small signpost about 1km away on the main track.

After Loropeni, we continued North, along tiny tracks to the Gan village of Obiré, 8km away. Since it happened to be market day in Loropeni, there was a constant stream of women walking along the track with massive burdens of produce on their heads to be sold in the market. Occasionally a man on a bicycle or motorbike would saunter past. A local man had explained to us that this division of labour, whereby the women do all the hard physical stuff, was desired by the women, to keep the men fresh for sex. When we got to the village, it was almost deserted, save for a group of young men who agreed to show us around.

The people in the village are Gan (the Lobi country is occupied by some 13 ethnic groups, the Lobi being the most numerous) and live in polygamous compound groups. A man and his wives live around a courtyard together. The man has a rectangular hut while each of his wives has their own circular house, with cute overhanging porches over the door. All the houses are made of mudbrick and thatch. Unfortunately the king, who was I think the 27th since the tribe’s arrival in the area, was not at home, but we did get to see the tombs of most of the previous 26, consisting of small huts with a statue of the king within. The only sign of external influence was a German development agency’s concrete building housing a pump and a rice dehusking machine.

After this small incursion into the Gan country, we continued 40km East to Gaoua, the largest town in the area, blessed with its own electricity supply. Having travelled about 500km along dusty tracks in the last 4 days, sleeping in mosquito-ridden, sauna-like huts, we were relishing the prospect of a room with running water and a fan. We were disappointed to find that the taps in our rented hotel room ran dry but at least the fan worked. Then it started to rain, a vast tropical downpour, and the lights went out. 3 days later when we left Gaoua, the power had not returned. For those powerless nights, we had to either sleep outdoors, mosquito feed, or lie awake indoors trying to break the world sweating record. To make up for our discomfort, we were fortunate that Gaoua is famed for its cabarets, bars where home-brewed millet beer is made and served, and the drinkers engage in frequent bouts of traditional music and dance, played on balafons and calabash drums. We drowned our sorrows, and made a large collection of friends whose sorrows we also drowned, which was fine since the millet beer came in gallon portions, at the royal price of 25 cents per gallon.

The other place that we visited in the Lobi country was Doudou, a traditional Lobi village some 40km Southeast of Loropeni. Physically this was quite different from the Gan village since the Lobi, who only introduced the technology of clothes reluctantly under French colonial pressure, are only just introducing mudbrick building techniques and still mostly construct their large, weird, rectangular houses out of large slabs of mud. When we pulled up on our bike, we were immediately surrounded by about 20 boys between the ages of 6 and 26, many ragged and barefoot. This entire group then proceeded to show us around the village and its surrounds, including a tour of the sacred hill. The people live in polygamous groups like the Gan, and indeed a nearby village is famed as housing a man with 27 wives. We saw women panning for gold, young men hunting for game with home-made rifles resembling colonial era European ones, and were shown the deserted houses where white men, who had come in search of gold, had formerly lived. As we were about to leave, the chief announced that since we had seen the sacred hill, a very dangerous act for outsiders, he would have to carry out a sacrifice to appease the spirits for our safety. Therefore he needed $5 to buy a chicken or else we would surely crash, breaking arms and legs, on the way back. After some haggling $2 sufficed to lift the curse and we departed with the spirits on our side.

III. THE LAND OF THE NGO

It would be very easy to think of oneself as a great explorer when visiting these remote villages and people, far from the beaten track, was it not for one thing. Wherever you are, no matter how tiny, poor remote or ugly, there is bound to be a development worker close by. Burkina and Mali are the domain of the NGO. A vast proportion of the motorised vehicles, especially the flashy new 4 wheel drives have the logos of a development organisation emblazoned on the doors. The most numerous are the big international, UN agencies: the WHO, WFP, UNDP and UNICEF each seem to have a huge fleet of Land cruisers, but there are also many others which are connected with particular countries, religious institutions, or private groups. If you are in a small village and you hear the sound of a car, you can bet that its a shiny new 4 wheel drive and you can double your bet that it belongs to some development group.

While it is the big international agencies which own the majority of vehicles, they mostly employ local labour and it is the American peace corp volunteers who are by far the most numerous foreign aid workers. They are volunteers who spend 2 years as development workers, normally alone in small remote villages. They are almost all college graduates but rarely have any particular development qualification. They are given a three month training course before going out into the field, to work on the health, education or small business programme. They are paid a living allowance of $200 per month and receive additional travel allowances and a bonus upon completion of the programme.

Whenever we thought we were as far as possible from the beaten track, we’d suddenly come across a fresh-faced youngster from Ohio or Wisconsin; in Sibi’s marketplace, in the back of a pickup on the way to Djenné, on a footpath between two Dogon villages, in a tiny Lobi village, as well as in bigger places. In general they were friendly to us, although it sometimes required some persistence to get into conversation with them, since they tend to feel differentiated and even superior to tourists as they, after all, are members of the community. This was no problem since us independent backpacking tourists tend to look down on them since we have to survive on our own without the help of a US government agency.

Curiously many of them appeared to be somewhat disillusioned with what they were doing. They often seemed disappointed that they didn’t feel to be more ‘part of the community’ and that, despite the length of their stay and their immersion in the life of the people, they were still treated as a rich foreigner by some people. Some also expressed the opinion that their work was of limited usefulness to the people that they were living among and indeed a random straw poll that we conducted would seem to add weight to this impression. On many occasions we asked locals what the peace corp volunteers were doing in their villages, but on only one occasion did we receive a reply which reflected the aims of their program, regarding a nurse in a Lobi village. Other people either didn’t know or responded that they thought that they were either here to learn the language or to do some type of research.

Few of the volunteers have any specialist skills and considering the fact that the streets of all the big towns are full of educated young Burkinabè, who have been forced to leave their villages due to lack of work, working as itinerant salespeople for a fraction of the $200 that the volunteers are paid, one gets the impression that this type of development program is tackling symptoms rather than causes. Furthermore, most of the volunteers we met were working on developing small businesses, including some who were ostensibly engaged in other programmes, which involved anything from setting up eco-tourism schemes to convincing shopkeepers to put up coke signs outside their shops. Although many of the volunteers were obviously somewhat critical of American society, it inevitably forms the basis for their conception of a ‘normally’ functioning economy and normal social relations. Considering that capitalist relations are alien to many of these village societies, which contain complex hierarchies combined with broad systems of communal obligations, these volunteers could be seen as teaching capitalism, mopping up the few corners of the world where the capitalist value system is not seen as normal. Memorably one volunteer complained to us about the villagers where she was staying by saying: “it’s not true that people have a great sense of community here. Just try starting projects, as soon as somebody tries to get ahead, everybody gangs up to pull them back.” Apparently she couldn’t see the contradiction of her words.

IV. THE BIG MAN

The Great Brother Leader Comrade President Thomas Sankara !!! - Imgur
Thomas Sankara – some men never die

Burkina’s president, Blaise Compaore, is perhaps West Africa’s least convincing democratic ruler. He attained power by means of the assassination of his predecessor Thomas Sankara, who remains to this day widely esteemed as a popular icon across the whole region. Sankara was a young, radical army officer who gained power in 1983 after a series of coups. He notably played guitar, rejected IMF policies, abolished rents and used a Renault 4 as his state car. Stickers of his face, against a red, green and gold background, are common alongside the images of reggae stars and religious sayings on the dashboards of cars and the fuel tanks of motorbikes. Compaore, who was not exactly popular over his method of attaining power, ruled as military dictator from 1987 until ’91 when he was elected president, unopposed, on a turnout of 25%. This has largely remained the modus operandi since, a democracy which the dictator just can’t lose since he gets to make up the rules.

Since Mobutu’s demise, and Zaire’s disintegration in the face of the onslaught of jackals attempting to grab a piece of the lucrative racket that he had going, Compaore is a serious contender for the biggest thieving autocrat of a ruler on the continent. He supported the wars of Charles Taylor in Liberia, Foday Sankoh’s RUF in Sierra Leone and Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA in Angola, by channeling arms to them and providing a transit point for the sale of their diamonds. In return for this service he personally got to keep the profits from this embargo breaking trade. Since Burkina lacks natural resources and riches, he was forced to turn to outside for opportunities to adequately feather his nest. While we were in Ouagadougou, the UN released a report condemning his part in the arms for diamonds trade with UNITA. Nevertheless, his uncomplaining adherence to IMF and World bank ‘advice’, means that the international bodies and the imperial states are unlikely to turn against him, despite his international profiteering and domestic autocracy, especially when the alternative could well be some attempt at returning to Sankara’s independent nationalism.

Compaore is one of Africa’s big men, autocratic and self-important, authoritarian and brutal. While we were in Burkina, one of the regular political clashes occurred between the president and practically the entirety of society, over the ‘Zongo affair’. In 1998, the president’s brother suspected his chauffeur, Davide Ouédraogo, of stealing from him. This was obviously an affront to his status as a ‘big-man’ by blood links and therefore he naturally got the president’s security service to torture the insolent chauffeur to death. Norbert Zongo, editor of ‘Independante newspaper’, started to investigate the case when the tortured body was found. A few months later, in December 1998, Zongo and 3 of his associates suffered a horrendous car accident, during which their car went up in flames. However, forensic evidence later showed that the stationary car had been deliberately burned with the dead bodies already in it. This affair has provided a focus for a broad-based protest movement, comprising trade-unions, human rights organisations and the political parties which have not been completely co-opted by Compaoré. Since 1998, there have been periodic waves of strikes, demonstrations and protests demanding independent investigations of the killings, an end to impunity, and sweeping political change.

Over the month that we spent in Burkina, there were at least 2 protests organised by the ‘too much is too much’ collective about this Zongo affair, then on April 10th, the day after we left the country, the issue burst into flames again. The unions called a general strike, widely observed across the country and there were various demonstrations, often dispersed by the batons of the security services. In response the big-man, obviously outraged by the cheek of his subjects, arrested the entire opposition leadership and announced the indefinite closure of the country’s only university and all of its secondary schools. “Due to the population’s disgraceful misbehaviour in protesting and going on strike, all education privileges have been withdrawn until I feel that the lesson has been learned.”

In such an autocratic, top-down arrangement of power, the big-man syndrome is all pervasive. The rigid hierarchy inherent in such an organisation means that every official is both tyrant and slave. Terrified of the absolute power of his superiors, contemptuous and tyrannical of those beneath, big-men are everywhere. The majority of people are, of course, at the very bottom of this heap, powerless and neglected. As tourists, we had an ambiguous place in the order, sometimes having high status and at other times none.

V. CULTURE WEEK

We purposely timed our stay in Bobo-Dioulasso to coincide with the celebration of Burkina’s national culture week. This is a biennial festival of national and regional dance, music crafts and culture, organised by the government and unusual in this, since most West African festivals are concerned with local or ethnic traditional groups and are only barely connected to the modern nation-states. The stamp of the ‘big-man’ Burkina state is firmly imprinted on the organisation of this festival.

We arrived in the town over a week before the festival was due to start. It took us several days of asking people to learn the exact date of its commencement, several more days to learn the location and, when we showed up at the prescribed time and place, we were turned away . It turned out that the opening ceremony was reserved for dignitaries, so we had to be content with catching a few glimpses of the president and his friends receiving praise songs and dances live on national television. The next day, when we arrived at the venue, we were again turned away on the grounds that it wasn’t open to the public, but were assured it would be at 10 am the following morning.

Despite the fact that we were beginning to doubt the festival organisers’ commitment to their public, we dutifully made our way to the venue well in time for the scheduled opening. There was already a large crowd of several thousand people milling about in front of the railings of the enclosure. 10 o clock came and went, the sun grew hotter and hotter in the shadeless wasteland between the railings and the main road and the gates remained closed. Suddenly, inexplicably, the whole crowd seemed to rush towards a single point on the railings, forming a rough queue in front of one particular spot, a queue which mushroomed dramatically towards the front as people struggled to get at the spot. It is my experience that, when in strange parts when one is waiting for something with a crowd of people, when one does not understand how things work, if everybody suddenly starts running in one direction, then you should also run as fast as possible that same way. After a few minutes wrestling with competitors, we gained a decent place in the queue, perhaps 40 feet from the railings.

The queue was at this stage 100 feet long and 6 or 7 people wide at the front, thinning to 2 or 3 people wide where we were. We remained in this situation for some time, in a subdued, slow, wrestling war of attrition with our neighbours, everybody constantly jostling and squirming to achieve a better position, more central and further forward. In Bobo late March is the hottest time of the year, the closeness of the crowd and the exposure of the terrain meant that we had to drink several litres of cold water to stay alive, bought from the numerous itinerant traders who were doing a roaring trade. As the minutes passed, the discipline of the queue started to ebb. Bunches of people, mostly young men, started hanging around the fringes at the front of the line and even barging into people’s places.

We soon learned ot the importance of a central position in the queue when, after we had baked for 20 minutes, without advancing at all, a group of 6 riot police launched a surprise attack on the crowd, apparently in an attempt to convince us to stand in an orderly single-file and to dissuade people from lurking on the edges of the queue. They simply waded into the crowd, swinging their long truncheons indiscriminately, despite the large number of women and small children present. The attack caused all those on the fringes to flee in panic and created a neat single-file line, except, since they had attacked from one side only, the encroachers remained on the other side and were joined by those fleeing the truncheons. Fortunately, during the melee which followed the onslaught, we managed to strengthen our position and thus avoid the blows. The next hour passed slowly. Every 10 minutes or so the police would launch attacks, always from the same side of the queue, and clear any people hanging about on the fringes on that side. The temperature continued to rise and the water hawkers kept up a brisk trade. All the while, the same person, with an unmistakable hat, was agonisingly visible at the very front of the queue – we had not moved at all. One of the policemen assured us that it would eventually open at 11.

Towards 11:30, something finally happened. A cavalcade of a dozen shiny Mercedes and 4 wheel drives pulled up. The police quickly batoned the crowd away from the entrance and opened the gates. A procession of dignitaries in ceremonial dress, some military, some traditional, emerged from the cars and entered the gates. The gates were closed once more. Just then, the police cunningly mounted and assault from the other, hitherto unattacked, side of the queue, causing a mass flight of people. Some 20 minutes later, the dignitaries emerged, shook hands with each other, got into their various cars and drove off. Almost immediately afterwards we noticed that the hat had disappeared from the front of the queue, tickets were now on sale! Apparently we had been waiting all this time for these big-men, several ministers and a mayor, to arrive. They, being very important, had to be shown the venue without the annoying presence of the rabble. They had been due to show up a few hours earlier, but since they’re the biggest men around – they’ll show up whenever they damn feel like it, and everyone better be happy when they do.

By this time, when the tickets went on sale, the queue had been batoned into a very long, single-file line. As we slowly advanced, smaller queues started to appear at various spots along the railings, formed by sudden rushes of bunches of people who had been towards the back of the original line. We could discern no apparent reason for these sudden sproutings of smaller queues, but we learned later that ticket-sellers had set up shop at several different spots along the railings. It was too heartbreaking to try our luck in any of these smaller queues since we had put so much time, effort and especially sweat into hanging onto our spot. Almost as soon as the tickets were on sale, touts started to sell the 15 cent tickets for 25 cents to people at the back of the queue. By 12:30 we had struggled to the front and bought our tickets. Finally, after waiting for 3 hours, we were admitted by the group of policemen through the gates and into the festival itself.

The festival area was a large, rectangular field, perhaps 80 metres squared, with various stands and booths scattered around it. The stalls contained displays by ‘Burkina Aluminium’, ‘Frytex cooking oil’ and various other companies, touting their wares to the public. The main popular attraction was a small number of ‘throw the hoop over the prize’ stalls, with thick crowds gathered around them. After investigating the who;e area, we came to the inescapable conclusion that there was no music or dance and that the only culture available was from the souvenir stalls whose owners were very keen for us to view their wares. Upon enquiring from some people, we learned that there was a programme, containing details of the music and dance component of the festival. We managed to secure one of these after much searching and learned that the music and dance displays were on in a totally different place, and only on in the evenings. We had sweated in vain.

We eventually did get to see about 10 displays which were entertaining, although relatively high prices meant that the audiences were small, with a massive over representation of foreigners. Overall the festival had little to do with the public, being directed towards a small number of dignitaries and tourists. The one noticeable effect on the Bobo streets was the unusually large number of hustlers prowling around, attracted by the possibility of tourist cash, and made angry and aggressive by the lack of business due to the small number of tourists compared to hustlers.

VI. SINDOU’S LITTLE BIG MAN

After leaving Bobo, we had one more serious brush with the Burkina state machinery, in the person of the police-chief of Sindou, a small town in the extreme Southwest of the country, with the country’s most famous rock formation nearby. As soon as we arrived in town on our rented motorbike, he spotted us, blew his whistle and ordered us to come over to him. He appeared very angry that we hadn’t automatically come to report to him and started requesting various documents relating to the bike. He laughed contemptuously when we showed the rental receipt; declared the bike impounded and made us fill out ‘ethnographic profile’ reports which he claimed was compulsory for all passing through his town. For the next half hour or so he kept telling us how much trouble we were in, and interspersed these comments with lewd asides to an underling about Deirdre, based on the fact that we had both written ‘single’ as our marital status on the cards. “Funny the way a single woman is travelling around with a single man isn’t it? Ha Ha Ha”. As we pleaded for our bike back, this leering, lewd man continued to provoke us, knowing that we were utterly powerless to do anything about it. Eventually we persuaded him to give us the bike in return for my passport, so that we could go and see the rock formations. This was lucky since Deirdre was just on the point of getting us arrested by verbally or even physically attacking him. As we sped off to the rocks, she couldn’t restrain herself from unleashing a volley of curses at him. Thankfully they were in Irish and while he knew she was insulting him, not knowing what she was saying, he couldn’t really arrest us.

When I returned a couple of hours later to retrieve the passport, I came alone, since both myself and Deirdre agreed that there seemed to be a low level of tolerance between her and this cop. The cop was no longer at his desk, he had moved outside, onto a hammock under a mango tree, by the village’s central roundabout. Moustachioed, fat, sipping a beer, with 2 young men at his side to bring him beer from the bar and carry him mangoes as they fell from the tree, he was the big man in a small town. Sindou is a very small, quiet town. In the 2 or 3 hours that I spent beside its central roundabout, perhaps 1 motorised vehicle passed and 20 cyclists. On several occasions the passing cyclists were stopped and asked to produce various papers, some were detained for up to 20 minutes and continued on their way with lighter pockets. At various intervals, people would arrive with goods for the chief; beer, a chicken, fruit. All the while, for a couple of hours, I pleaded with him that I couldn’t afford the fine he was demanding. He wanted $7.50, we only had $4. He refused to budge and so we had stalemate. We were 60km of quiet dirt track from our beds so we simply could not leave the bike. He showed me his book of fines to demonstrate his seriousness. The book was full of records of people being fined $7.50 for cycling the wrong way around the roundabout. The roundabout in question is little more than a pole stuck into the middle of the junction of two dirt tracks with almost no traffic. This big-man seemed to have an easy life, lying on the hammock scratching his belly, clients waiting on him hand and foot, while he provides for his old age by extorting cash on the basis of a spurious traffic structure.

Eventually I tried a very weak bluff, saying to him “okay, you can keep the bike, I’m going to ring the tourism ministry to tell them to come to collect the bike that I rented from them”, and stormed off down the road. 5 minutes later I returned with my tail between my legs after discovering that there was no telephone in the village. Yet upon my return a miraculous change had overcome the chief. Whereas before he had been combative, contemptuous and provoking, now he seemed jocular and friendly. It quickly became apparent that my bike was free to go. “It was just to warn you”, he explained, “not to trust these charlatans who rent motorbikes without the proper papers. It wasn’t because I wanted to get money, oh no. In any case I wouldn’t like to trouble the minister for tourism about it.” Before I was finally released I was obliged to give my address to his son so he could come and visit me, then he waved me goodbye as if I was his best friend. Obviously the minister for tourism is a bigger man than the chief, the mere mention of his department was enough to reverse the situation.

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