Burkina Faso: Bobo-Dioulasso

21st November - 27th November 2000


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It took about another two hours driving along the surprisingly good road from the border to reach Bobo-Dioulasso, my destination for today. Bobo-Dioulasso gained its name from the local tribe in the area and means home of the Bobo Dioulas. It is the countries second city with a population of 350,000. During the colonial times when this country was known as Upper Volta Bobo was the principle town. It remained so until the 1950's when the railway from Abidjan was pushed through a further 360km to Ouagadougou, today's capital. It was the middle of the afternoon when the bus finally pulled into the city. The streets were lined with trees and the whole town had a relaxed peaceful atmosphere to it. I took a taxi to the Casa Africa hotel on the edge of town. It had been recommended to me as a nice place to stay. Being on the edge of town it was quiet and away from the touts who tend to hang around the tourist class hotels in the city centre. My first day I just stayed at the hotel and didn't venture out anywhere; I needed a day off to fully recover from my trip from Bamako, as well as my last meal in Mali. The Casa Africa proved to live up to its good reputation. It was set around a courtyard and shaded by a lush green garden of trees, shrubs and tropical plants; the restaurant was excellent too, serving a selection of tasty meals; a welcome change from the eating houses of Mali. The steak in pepper sauce definitely would get my recommendation.

On my first night I bumped into a guide at the bar who gave me his card; Seydou Drabo was his name and his card told me to 'go wild, explore southern region.' I didn't take much notice of what he was saying, after a couple of weeks in Mali I had become immune to the sales talk of guides and touts. It was at breakfast the next day that a Dutch family recommended him to me; they had just been on a tour with him to some of the surrounding villages and said that he was excellent and very informative. Later that morning Seydou popped into the hotel and I discussed with him some possible tours around the area. He was busy that day but he would show me around the old district of the city, Kibidwe and the Grand Mosque that afternoon. Tomorrow he would rent a moped and take me out for the day around some of the surrounding villages.

I sat in the courtyard, under a shady tree, for the rest of the morning watching life go by. The gardener had arrived and was busy pruning, weeding and planting. Deliveries were being made to the restaurant; the chicken seller arrived on a moped with half a dozen live chickens hanging patiently from the handlebars. The Dutch family departed, heading south to Banfora leaving just a woman from Slovenia and her two children as the only other guests. They were camped in a corner of the courtyard; the two children, a boy and a girl aged about eight and ten respectively, played around the hotel and along the street with some of the other local children.

After lunch Seydou returned and we walked to Kibidwe, on the other side of the city centre. It was a pleasant walk along wide tree-lined roads that were laid out in a grid pattern with a couple of diagonal avenues thrown in which defined the commercial centre of the city. The Grand Market is the focus of the commercial activity in the city and is in the heart of the city centre.

Unfortunately during my visit the market was closed and was either undergoing renovations or a complete rebuild. This had the effect of forcing all the traders from the market out onto the surrounding streets. The streets were choked with people and traffic, an intoxicating mixture of sound and colour as we moved along the streets around the market building.

The main entrance into the Kibidwe district is opposite the Grand Mosque where the cities touts were waiting for the unprepared tourists. Seydou knew most of them and the atmosphere was far calmer than it would have been if I had turned up here by myself. Seydou stopped for a chat with his fellow 'colleagues' before leading me into the Kibidwe district. Suddenly, by just walking off the main street past the Grand Mosque, I had stepped back into an African village in the heart of the city. The buildings were all traditional mud brick houses. Alleyways wound their way around the buildings creating a maze that you could easily loose yourself in. The first stop we made was at a house of one of Seydou's friends. We climbed on to the roof to get a panoramic view over the old heart of the city. This district was organised along the same social structures as other traditional towns and villages; the various tradesmen and artisans were all grouped together into their own parts of town. We stopped to watch blacksmiths at work while we walked down to the small river, which flows through the centre of the city. There was a lot of work going on building retaining walls along the banks of the river. There was only a small trickle of water flowing past, winding its way along the bed of the river past the piles of rubbish and grazing goats. The river is seasonal and during the wet season it can turn into a torrent.

Standing along the riverbed next to pools formed by the brackish stream were groups of mostly old men staring intently into the water. The children were more interested in playing along the river using the piles of rubbish as a toy chest; finding old tyres to roll along the road or tin cans to drag through the dust on a piece of string. The old men ignored the noise the kids made as they played and continued to stare into the water. Seydou lead me up to the group and we said hello and acknowledged each other's presence. The men were watching catfish swimming around in the pools; the water was thick with catfish. Every now and then one would chase after another, suddenly disturbing the calm surface of the pool in an eruption of water. This always brought a smile to the old men's faces.

The catfish is a sacred fish to the Bobo tribe (as well as the crocodile) and people come down to the river just to watch these fish and to make sacrifices to them. This explained the silent group of old men standing beside the river. The legend of the catfish goes back hundreds of years. One of the great chiefs of the Bobo people became lost in the bush. He was close to death as he had run out of water when he suddenly saw a catfish sliver past him in the grass. He followed the catfish, which lead him to a stream and the water that saved his life. Ever since and to this day the catfish is sacred and worshipped by the Bobo people.

I decided not to share with Seydou, or the old men, my recent trip to Alabama were I went fishing for a day and caught catfish. Being a bottom feeder they tasted a bit muddy but fried with a lot of ginger seemed to disguise the flavour somewhat.

We finished our tour back at the Grand Mosque. You can no longer go inside ever since a group of Westerners decided that they would not remove their shoes when entering. I find it hard to imagine how a small minority of people can be so disrespectful to other people's culture and religion. The mosque is now closed to all non-Muslims. I could only admire the traditional mud-brick architecture from outside. A large wooden frame supports the mud-bricks, the spars of this frame jut out of the walls giving the walls a bristled appearance. The spars also serve another role, providing support for planks and ladders while renewing the mud rendering after the rainy season. Their role though, had become redundant since it was decided to render the whole mosque with sand and cement. This had saved money, as they no longer needed to carry out the annual mud re-rendering. The only drawback I saw was the overall appearance of the mosque; the cement had become stained and weathered and the building looked tatty and uncared for. It no longer had a uniformed earthy brown colour to it that the traditional building techniques provided.

Meanwhile back at the CasaAfrica hotel an overland truck had arrived in the courtyard. It was a private vehicle, rather than a tour truck, with German registration plates and driven by a retired couple. They were spending their retirement driving around Africa. They would travel for a few months each year and then park up the truck and fly home, returning a few months later to continue their journey. Today they had travelled along the same road from Sikasso in Mali that I had travelled a couple of days earlier. It was an old Mercedes truck dating back to the late 1960's; after a days travelling the owner said he always found himself spending two days tinkering with the truck to keep it running; African roads were expensive on spare parts.

Continue reading this journey: Around Bobo-Dioulasso