Burkina Faso: Around Bobo-Dioulasso
21st November - 27th November 2000
The next day after breakfast Seydou arrived at the hotel on an 80cc moped; a fairly fast machine when most people were riding around on 50cc machines. This was his budget tour to the Bobo villages in the surrounding hills, a far cheaper option that hiring a vehicle with four wheels. I hopped on to the back and we drove off through Bobo-Dioulasso, weaving through the traffic and headed east out of the city along the Ouagadougou road. Our first stop was Koro about 14km east of the city. We turned off the road and continued our journey along footpaths, the moped bogging down in the sandy soil at the sharp corners. We soon came back onto a track created by vehicles rather than people and continued to Koro, which was perched on the top of a rocky ridge overlooking the surrounding plains.
Seydou seemed to know quite a few people who were gathered below the village at the few buildings near the track. It was not a surprise as he probably takes tourists up to this village nearly every day. A local lad from the village accompanied us on our walk, a guide leading my guide. Most of the buildings of the village could not be seen from the track; they were only single storey mud dwellings hidden amongst the large boulders and rocky outcrops along the ridge. Dotted around the village were many fetishes. These are places where in traditional beliefs; sacrifices are made, usually of the humble chicken. The scattering of white feathers, gently blowing around the buildings, soon became a telltale sign that we were near a fetish. The actual fetish was nothing that elaborate, just a small mound of earth like an upturned bucket, where the unfortunate chicken was sacrificed. Seydou pointed out a hunter's fetish by a tree; again there was this small mound of blood stained earth, but the trunk and the branches of the tree were carefully decorated with the skulls of animals.
The village was almost deserted, it was harvest time and everyone who was able was out in the fields working to bring the harvest in. A few people were left in the village, some women and a few old men. The women were mostly busy making pots, while the old men sat in the shade watching life go by. I was surprised by the lack of children around the village; I was expecting to be mobbed by kids and to be followed endlessly wherever I went. Instead I only saw a handful of kids and they quickly disappeared down an alley when we approached. We climbed to the top of a rocky outcrop in the centre of the village where we had panoramic views of the settlement and the plains below us stretching out into the distance.
We walked back down to the track where we had left the moped. On the way we passed exhausted people returning from the fields. A few of them stopped us asking for medicine and explaining to us their ailments; I didn't have anything to give them. During my travels it had become fairly common for people to stop me and ask for medicine, mostly they were after paracetamol and were complaining of headaches and dizziness. The majority of the people who stopped me were, like today, farmers who had been working out in the fields under the baking sun. It seemed to me, and others, that these ailments were caused by dehydration rather than any physical illness and that the cure was water rather than drugs.
On the way back to the Ouagadougou road we turned off the track and Seydou took me to a local Fula village. The village, situated out on the plains, consisted of traditional round mud huts with conical straw roofs, a common sight across West Africa. Again most villagers were out working in the fields, herding cattle or bringing the freshly harvested crops back to the village. A huge bundle of maize, stripped to reveal the yellow kernels, hung from a tree near the centre of the village out of reach of the goats that stood in the shade staring at the maize hungrily.
Seydou introduced me to one of the local women and stopped for a chat; again all the men were out at work in the fields and the village was only inhabited during the day by the women, working pounding the millet and looking after the children who played around the huts. I was invited to look around inside a hut. It was all very neat and tidy; the only piece of furniture was a large double bed to one side of the hut, the children slept on rugs on the bare earth floor. Large storage jars and pots lined the opposite side of the hut which served as the kitchen; a blackened hearth as the cooker. We stepped back outside from the relative cool and dark of the hut into the bright sunshine and the heat of the day where the children waited patiently. As soon as we were out they ran to a paw paw tree beside the hut and lined up wanting me to take a photo. This looked like a well rehearsed routine, the ten children had lined themselves up in a perfect composition, tallest at the back, smallest at the front. I obliged and took a photo, probably just one of many that has been taken of the kids posing by the paw paw tree.
We hopped back on the moped and rode back to the main highway to Ouagadougou, negotiating a herd of cattle coming the opposite way along the track. Seydou had to stop to see a friend in the city to negotiate hiring a 4WD for an upcoming tour he was arranging. Once Seydou had completed his business we popped into a local bar just down the road. Millet beer was the only drink on offer, which was brewed on the premises. The bar was also a local hangout for musicians, as were most of the bars around the city; every evening the city came alive and where ever you were you could hear the distant sound of drum beats. There were about eight musicians jamming, playing drums and the xylophone. We sat down with a bottle of millet beer and relaxed to the rhythms these musicians were making, which were all improvised, drinking our warm millet beer from cups made from gourds. The beer was not alcoholically strong and had the taste of a home brew. If you hadn't drunk premium lagers to compare it to, you probably would have said it tasted quite good.
Later that afternoon Seydou picked me up again at the hotel; this time we were off to La Guinguette via the village of Koumi. Koumi is another Bobo village, this time 15km south east of the city beside the main road to Banfora. The village is very distinctive with the buildings made from the ochre coloured mud, many of them two stories high. The village seemed busier than Koro, which we had visited that morning; there were a lot more artisans at work, blacksmiths, potters and weavers. The village is also unusual because of the underground shelters dug between the village and the nearby riverbanks. The women dug these shelters as places to escape from the heat of the day during the hot days in the dry season. This afternoon though, most of the women were down by the river doing the laundry creating a multicoloured patchwork on the banks of the river as they laid the clothes out to dry.
We continued on our way to La Guinguette. This place is a natural swimming hole fed by crystal clear water from a spring in a small patch of lush forest called the Foret de Kou. The forest has been fenced off and is a small park out in the wilderness. During the French colonial times La Guinguette was off limits to the local people this is where the white men and women would come to relax and cool down away from the bustle of the city and the heat of the plains. Today though it is open to everyone and is popular with both locals and tourists.
From Koumi we took the 'back roads' to La Guinguette, in fact they were only footpaths and became tricky to negotiate on a moped as we kept getting bogged down in the soft sand, it was like driving into a gravel trap. If we weren't getting stuck in the sand we were getting whipped by the vegetation beside the path as we dodged the worst of the ruts and potholes. After, what I can only describe as an interesting drive through the countryside we arrived at the main gates to the forest. As soon as we rode into the forest I could feel the drop in temperature as we rode down the path in the shade of the trees that formed a seamless green canopy above us. We parked down by the river in the heart of the forest and were deafened by the silence around us once we switched off the engine on the moped.
We walked the rest of the way to the swimming hole following the river upstream; all we could hear was the birds singing amongst the trees. We reached the swimming hole and found the place deserted. I thought there would of been a few other people here relaxing in the peaceful surroundings, but was happy to see we had the place to ourselves.
The water lived up to the guidebook description and was crystal clear and pleasantly cool. While floating around on my back staring up at the trees above me my mind drifted back to the office back home and work; I realised then why I travel and why I don't think I could ever stop. I laughed to myself as I imagined my colleagues back home having another boring day at work while I was here now, thousands of miles from home in the middle of nowhere relaxing in a swimming hole in the African bush.
As with any stretch of water around this area it was inhabited by catfish, which stayed near the bottom. Seydou reassured me that there were no crocodiles here; he kept asking me why I was worried about crocodiles. Well, I replied, aren't we swimming in a river in Africa? I didn't think my worries were unfounded; after all there were crocodile lakes in the area where people went to sacrifice chickens. Crocodiles as well as the catfish are sacred to the Bobo. Personally I couldn't help but to feel sorry for the poor old chickens. If they weren't sacrificed at daybreak to appease the Gods they were either thrown into a pond full of catfish, or worse still a lake full of crocodiles. If they survived that the chances were that they would end up on someone's dinner plate by dusk.
I really didn't want to leave the swimming hole. I could of stayed there for days; suddenly time didn't seem that important any more. However, the reality was that I was on a tour and Seydou had other business to attend to and to him, as with any other business, time is money. We rode back out of the forest and along a track back to the main dirt road to the city. Back on the dirt road we seemed to be going very fast. I looked behind us and saw a bus catching up with us, billowing out a huge cloud of dust behind it, and realised why we were going at such a pace. We didn't manage to outrun the bus and were soon swamped by the dust cloud as it overtook us. We came to a stop, we couldn't see where we were going and within seconds were caked in dust, so much for feeling clean and refreshed after our swim.
On our way back through the city we stopped at the new football stadium, which was built in the last few years to host the African Nations Cup. The stadium was empty except for a few grounds men tending to the pitch. We climbed to the top of the stadium and looked out on a panoramic view over the city looking down along Boulevard de la Revolution. As well as being a venue for both international and local football, the stadium also staged concerts for some of the top West African musicians. Seydou seemed very proud of the stadium and I could understand why; it was a nice stadium, probably with a seating capacity of about 20-25,000. The African Nations Cup is held every other year and the organisation builds new or overhauls old stadiums providing the local people with a much valued sporting amenity in their country. The next hosts will be Mali and on my travels through that country the previous week I saw a new stadium being built in the outskirts of the capital city, Bamako.
I ended up staying in Bobo-Dioulasso far longer than planned. I found it a relaxing place to stay, especially at the Casa Africa hotel, a real oasis of calm on the edge of the city. Eventually I had to leave and travel east along the main road to the capital city Ouagadougou in order to get to Ghana where I would spend my last two weeks of this trip before flying home from Accra. Leaving the hotel with my luggage it was just my luck that there wasn't a taxi in sight; there is never a taxi when you really need one. A few lads on mopeds stopped to offer me a ride but with my luggage I had to decline their offers; falling off the back of a moped was the last thing I wanted to do. Almost half way to the bus station a taxi pulled over and picked me up and took me via the scenic route around Kibidwe to drop off another passenger. From there we took a shortcut across a football pitch and on eventually to the bus station.
Continue reading this journey: Ouagadougou & on to Ghana