Journey Across Africa

Below you'll find stories of my two year experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the small West African country of The Gambia. After my service I traveled solo, with only a small backpack, across West Africa; reaching N'Djamena, Chad after two months. Visa problems for Libya and Civil unrest in the Darfur region of Western Sudan made Chad my last stop.

Peace Corps Service: Aug. 2003 - July 2005

Journey Across Africa: July 2005 - Sept. 2005

Location: Boston, MA, United States

Tuesday, August 30, 2005


Days 37 - 41
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

According to the UN, Burkina Faso is the 3rd poorest country in the world; and according to volunteers it should fall a rank to number two due to the locust destruction this past year. Despite being #3 you would never have guess it by travelling to the capital. [However, it's usually the people and living conditions outside the capital which makes the influence in the rankings] The streets were paved, the buses left on time, there was no rush, and it was very efficient. This was by far the most efficient running country so far in my travels.

Before Burkina Faso was called Burkina Faso it was called "Upper Volta" . After WWII France really ignored their little colony and instead focused on Cote d'Ivoire. This led to some of the downfall of Burkina Faso. It became independent of France in 1960 and went through military coup after another before the most notable one of 1982 happened. Captain Thomas Sankara seized power in a bloody coup and two years later renamed the country 'Burkina Faso' meaning 'land of the incorruptible', or better translated 'Country of the Honest Men'.

Despite coming into power with blood on his hands, he lifted his country up from decay and economic growth started to take. He even led a two-week marathon that vaccinated 60% of all Burkinabe children against measles, meningitis, and yellow fever - to the great praise of Unicef.

Five years later he was brought outside the capital by another captain and shot. His captor, Captain Blaise Compaore, buried his former leader in a simple grave next to the city dump and took over the country. The grave has become a place of pilgrimages to those who want to pay their respect for their lost leader who did so much for their country.

Compaore was elected president a few years later, as the sole candidate; and afterwards had his major opponent assassinated. He has since won every 'election' to date.

The guidebook had this to say about taking pictures in Burkina Faso:

"The official off-limits list is formidable, and includes airports, bridges, reservoirs, banks, any military installations, police stations or government buildings and post offices, train stations and bus and bush-taxi stations, TV/radio stations, petrol stations, grain warehouses, water twoers, idustrial installations and poor people."

So I can take a picture of the sky, right?

Despite all the hoop-la about taking photos it is quite suprising to find out that Burkina Faso is home to THE film festival of West Africa. Every odd year in February or March Ougadadougou hosts thousands of visitors and tourists to catch a glimpse of whats new in African film. If you want to hear music in Africa head to St. Louis, Senegal during their Jazz Festival; but if you want to see true African cinema head to Ouga where all-day long you sit back and enjoy the show - either the characters on the screen or the characters on the street. If you happen to be in Burkina Faso during an even year - no problem! The town of Bobo-Dioulasso in the South West hosts the festival in the even years.

In Ouagadougou I ran into a few volunteers who took me in as one of their own without any reservation or akwardness (who are you? why are you here?): Mike, Katy, Airy, and Jake. The first night in town they treated me by showing me the recreation room at the American Embassy, where we watched a few movies. The next night we went to a Chinese Restaurant. Katy, especially, was very helpful, as in the midst of a downpour of rain she went with me to the French Embassy to get information on how to get a visa for Niger. When the Embassy wasn't open yet, she showed me around town, still in the rain though not raining as hard. The next day during lunch she tried teaching a few french phrases to get by on. Airy cooked a few meals for the gang, which I was invited too, and I even brought desert one time (watermelons and pineapples). When one was leaving for the airport I went along, despite only meeting the person leaving two days before. It was a genuine welcome!

The first full day in town I tried walking around - took two wrong turns and ended up off the map. Ended up out of town. The taxi on the way back demanded more money, although I was already paying him a good deal (confirmed with volunteers). Two blocks away from the Hostel he refused to move unless I paid him more. "OK". Got out the door and walked away to him screaming. It led to nothing as he turned around and left.

When I did finally get to the explore the city I got lost within, and due to the humidity, the twenty minute walk back took me more than an hour to complete. One unique characteristic of this city is they have seperate lanes for the motorcycles and mopeds, which the bicycles use also. You have the main meridian seperating the two lanes of opposite traffic and then at the end of each a small meridian seperating the lanes for the automobiles for the lanes for the mopeds. The downside? When cars have to make a right-hand turn they must wait for all the motorcycles to finish crossing the street first before they can turn right.

As non-volunteers are not allowed to stay at the hostel I found a way around it. Before it got too late I left the hostel to go the office to 'work'. I made sure to stop 'working' before the office opened and head the two blocks to the hostel to log on as each day's first visitor at 6:30am. I never stayed a night at the hostel, but took an occasional nap or two in the morning. When I told this to the volunteers they asked: "Who taught you that?" thinking it was one of their own. Every country that has an office and transit house has volunteers who 'work' late to save a few bucks. It was nothing new.

My second-to-last night in the city ended up being violently sick. Volunteers love to go into details, but I'll be semi-nice here: explosive D with projectile V, simulatenously. I had a choice, stay on the toilet or not. Split second decision. I stayed. Took two hours to clean up the walls. I finished at sunrise.

I crashed the next day, barely going outside, with that night we headed to the airport and Jake convinced me I should go down to Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso's second largest town.


Blogger Karen said...

mike, it's karen from the paraguay blog. thanks for the info! i haven't event had time to tell my friends/family i have this yet and you found it. karen

5/02/2006 06:39:00 PM  
Blogger Beth Wager said...

I managed to pick up giardia twice while serving in macedonia, I feel your pain. The first time I was living with my host family and they kept trying to make me eat the food they prepared, which all contained ridiculous quantities of oil, not good for a vomiter. Eventually PC evacuated me to what we called the "sick hotel" for multiple reasons. I stayed in a room with water, gatoraide, bananas and frosted mini wheats for the next 4 days. That was tough.

6/28/2006 04:45:00 AM  
Anonymous France and Africa said...

France and Africa
By Obadiah Mailafia
May 30, 2010

In February 1986 a young charismatic West African statesman arrived at Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport to attend the conference of La Francophonie, France's equivalent of the Commonwealth of Nations.

In full military fatigues with a pistol dangling by his side, the fresh-faced Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso addressed the press with uncommon eloquence and panache. He spoke about liberation, about pan-Africanism, about freedom and justice. The world was awed by this new Sahelian political phenomenon.

After the summit ended and all the delegates had dispersed, President François Mitterrand was interviewed on national TV about what he thought of the young man from Ouagadougou. The Pharaonic Mitterrand, a man of few words, respond rather tersely: "Il est impudent." That evening I was hanging out with some friends in a fashionable cafe in Montparnasse when the interview was being aired. I turned to my mate Camara from Guinea: "C'est fini pour Thomas", I sombrely prophesied.

Barely a year and a half later, Sankara was felled by the sword of his own bosom friend and comrade Blaise Campaore. He was thirty-eight. Whether France had a hand in the martyrdom of Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara, we would probably never know.

Much water has passed under the bridge since that fateful day of 15 October 1987. We have seen several of France's surrogate African rulers come and go.

After all their atrocities, the Bokassas, Mobutus, Houghouet-Boignys and Omar Bongos of this world lie silent in their traitorous graves while the names of Patrice Lumumba and Thomas Sankara continue to loom larger than life among the luminous firmament of Africa's immortal stars. Jacques Foccart, the adviser responsible for many shady deals with African tyrants for succeeding French Presidents since Charles de Gaulle went the way of all flesh in March 1997. The notorious mercenary and hitman, "Colonel" Bob Denard, went to join his ignominious Roman ancestors in October 2007.

For over three decades, he operated a shadowy network of economic hitmen and mercenaries who overthrew governments at will and sabotaged the economies of entire countries as the evil spirits moved them.

We would recall that after formal independence, the French stationed even more technical advisers and ‘administrators' throughout their former colonies than they did before. When Guinea said ‘non' in 1958, the French behaved like Ghengis Khan applying a scorched earth policy of destroying everything as they left. What they could not destroy they dumped into the sleepy Lagoon of Conakry. My mentor Ladipo Adamolekun has written a luminous essay about the Frances's shameful legacy in Guinea.

There is a part of me that will always feel affection for France in spite of the uncivil manner in which she has treated my people. I spent some of my formative years in that country; first, in the idyllic countryside of the Auvergne; and then in the elegant Parisian suburbs of Luxembourg and the medieval cloisters of the Sorbonne. The old haunts of my youth -- the art works of the Louvre, the courts of Versailles and the royal chateaux of the Loire Valley and the cathedrals of Notre-Dame and Tours and Clermont will always be a part of me forever. There is no one to beat the French for style, good taste, elegance and intellectual lucidity. What I am as an intellectual and a humanist I owe to France more than to any other culture: St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Rousseau, Michelet, Blaise Pascal, Alexandre Dumas, Louis Bachelier, Emmanuel Mounier, Sartre, Camus, Raymond Aron, Simone Weil, Anatole France, Jean Monnet, Paul Ricoeur, Jacques Maritain, Bernard Henri-Lévy, Maurice Duverger, Emmanuel Levinas. As far as I am concerned, not even Harvard and Oxford and Cambridge will ever match France's ideal of the Universal.

6/18/2010 09:45:00 AM  

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