Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Ouagadougou. Wagga-doo-goo. Or quite simply ‘Ouaga’ as it’s commonly known. It sounds like what you'd end up with if you joined the name of a northern Queensland town to that of a Welsh village. Or a Cocteau Twins' B-side. Just brilliant. Anway, I’ve been here a week already and there are many things which separate Burkina from its West African counterparts. First off there’s the appalling poverty which is far more pronounced here than it had been in any of the other countries I’d visited. In spite of this, without any hesitation I’d say that the Burkinabé are the friendliest and most welcoming people of any country I've visited in West Africa. It’s overwhelming and humbling in equal measure. Remember that this is one the poorest nations in the world and yet I have been the recipient of countless offers of spontaneous generosity in my short time here. Most of these people earn less than $1 a day but they‘ll think nothing of buying you a sachet of water when you‘re sitting on the bus beside them. To put it into context, that’s about one eighteenth of the average daily wage here.
Because of the poverty, families tend to be of old Irish Catholic dimensions - the more children there are, the more workers there will be to provide for the family is the logic. Infant mortality rates are high though and under 25% of the population are literate. The children the many many children here are fascinated by the presence of a ‘blanc’ and are fearless in approaching me. Several times I have been walking down a back street, to hear children begin a chorus of ‘Tu vas ou?’, quickly followed by a child -usually the eldest, around 3 years old - rushing out to grab on to my finger as I walk past. This then sets in motion a blur of kids, each rushing out and all of them grabbing on to the 9 remaining fingers until their mother barks at them to stop hassling the foreigner. Either that or she’s told them not to bother, that he’s clearly a tightarse.
There’s also the honesty of the people. Very often in West Africa - Mali in particular - there’s an unofficial ’blanc’ tax which adds 10 or 20% to the price of your taxi, dinner or even a mango. Not so in Burkina Faso. Everything I buy is for the same price as the locals. In Mali, whenever I bought something and asked ’C’est combien?’, there was a discernible pause when you could see the person think ’How much can I add on and get away with here?’ Mali needs to get its shit together in terms of holding on to the few tourists it’s getting these days - Sarkozy, the pint sized fuckwit, certainly hasn’t helped things - and not milking them for everything they can, a bit like Ireland with the Americans, only the Americans have stopped coming in their droves now. Burkina is a much poorer country than Mali and the people are happy that you’re here so the emphasis is on welcoming you rather than ripping you off. Very refreshing and a credit to the Burkinabé.
Ouagadougou, in spite of its amusing name is, much like any other West African capital city, largely charmless. There’s little to see but it’s a hell of a lot more inviting than, say, Bamako or Dakar and certainly has a warmer atmosphere but, again, that‘s down to the people. It does have a strong tradition of sculpting and, surprisingly, film-making and it hosts one of Africa’s biggest film festivals - FESPACO - each year. A walk around Ouaga’s streets will involve several invitations to see an artist’s studio or workshop but there’s none of the hard sell encountered elsewhere. In many ways Burkina seems unique in West African terms and just one week in it’s rapidly becoming my favourite country in this part of the world.
Apparently there’s a curfew in operation in Ouaga at the moment from midnight to 6am, though not that you’d notice. Apparently there’s quite a bit of unrest here with the army and the police force both protesting because of their poor rates of pay. I spoke to a fellow traveller who on her first 3 days in the country wasn’t allowed out of her hotel once because the army had taken to the streets as a show of force and to demand higher pay. She described hearing explosions, breaking glass and sporadic gunfire - I have no idea who they might be shooting at - though I’ve witnessed none of this in my two separate visits here. The unrest here is nothing like what’s happening in Libya or Syria though, it’s more a case of chest thumping by the armed forces to better their collective lot.

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