Ouaga dou dou gou, Push a Camel Drink a Tea

Last week, I encountered frolicking hippos and gambolling footballers as I left the Atlantic Coast for the first time – entering the much-maligned desert region of the Sahel. This week, I am forced to fly, as I hop from no-go zones to no-no-go zones, with the no-est of them all on the horizon.

Day 57 – Niamey, Niger to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

After saying goodbyes to my virtuous host Nessa, this week began with a journey I never wanted to take: to an airport. My mantra has always been to hit the road (no surprise), as the most interesting and surprising corners of a country are often found, well, in the corners. Areas you would only come across if travelling overland e.g. dirt biking through villages untouched by modernity in Liberia or witnessing an astonishing Milky Way display in Benin or bonding with locals over our mutual hatred of the West African transport ‘system’ in Guinea, Sierra Leone and, well, everywhere really. Unfortunately, heeding the advice of both the Nigerien and Burkinabé embassies (and just about every person I have met), I simply can’t justify taking the road to Burkina Faso. Shootings, bombings and kidnappings are an extremely regular occurrence right now and taking a minibus right through the middle of the turmoil would be riskier than spending a night at Prince Andrew’s house in the late ’90s.

There was still time, however brief, to stop off at the Grand Mosque of Niamey before catching my flight. I was merely hoping to be able to walk around its virtuous gardens and take a few photos of its delightful exterior, before making a subtle exit. But as I passed the entrance to the prayer hall, I was zealously waved inside and given an extremely warm welcome by a local worshipper. I didn’t catch his name, but he was more than willing to show me around, explaining the history of the mosque (built on orders from Gaddafi in the 1970s) and encouraging me to take as many photos as I possibly could… of himself. Lovely chap though. After an extremely smooth experience at Niamey’s brand-new passenger-less airport, I had a modest forty-minute hop to a capital city with one of the greatest names on earth…

Day 58 – Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

Ouaga for short, hasn’t had the best of press in recent times. There have been large-scale organised attacks on visitors here in each of the last three years, hammering the tourism industry and hindering the growth of an already fragile economy. With nearly all areas outside the city off-limits to the few tourists that do come to visit (I was extremely disappointed to find out that Nazinga Forest, an elephant haven, in the safer southern region had also recently closed citing terrorism), I had to make the best of things by seeing what the capital itself was all about.

As per usual, I began my walking tour of this extremely dusty city at its rather colourful cathedral – which probably doesn’t see a great deal of footfall given that less than a quarter of the population is Christian. Although, the building does serve as exceptionally useful shade from the brutal mid-afternoon Saharan sun (as good a reason as any to join the church). I prayed for some cloud cover, or preferably a light covering of snow, before continuing my excursion.

I quickly discovered that walking from place to place in Ouaga is not all that common (at least for us foolish foreigners). Unless you fancy going face-first into an open drain or breaking your ankle in a pothole, then taxis are the only option. I preserved, however, passing through the bustling central market as well as the grandly-minareted mosque before night fell and the streets got very quiet, very quickly. I deemed it best to return to my accommodation (quite a sketchy task in all honesty) and drew a breath.

Day 59 – Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

I think my praying yesterday angered the big man. I woke up covered in more sweat than in a Thai sauna and feeling like my head was being sat on by an African elephant. I was extremely weak, barely able to stand and carry myself to the shower to cool down under its trickle of tepid liquid. This was easily the worst I had felt all trip but considering this is day fifty-nine (and I hadn’t exactly been able to keep myself in prime condition) I consider myself rather fortunate. Malaria was the main concern, as this would have been one of the worst places on earth (barring Syria) to have come down with that.

The fact that, by the evening, I was just about able to stumble to the nearest café dispelled my malaria concerns. As one unfortunate backpacker told me on day one of my trip, “If you get it, you’ll be bedbound for at least two days thinking that you’re 100%, definitely going to die”. I was feeling slightly more upbeat than that and was even able to stomach half a portion of Burkinabé jollof rice (I was probably better off dead).

Day 60 – Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

A slight improvement on yesterday’s stupor, although the constant flow of Harmattan dust in the nose, mouth and indeed every other orifice was not assisting my recovery. This dust also carries a slightly unpleasant smell, which is literally impossible to escape from (either that or it was the open sewers). Anyway, having had a baguetteful of French TV (they aren’t fans of Boris, that I can tell you), I decided to drag my weary torso back onto the streets of the Burkinabé capital in search of distractions.

Well, the Ouagadougou Museum of Music was closed (because of course, it was a Monday), so I hot-footed it across the capital to Bangr Weogo Park – one of the few places in the city where you can get away from the noise and dust and get eaten alive by mosquitos instead. Whilst not Central Park (thankfully not enough United Staters for that), it was a welcome change from the norm. It comprised an abandoned theme park (with humorously designed elephant slide), an abandoned restaurant (which I doubt was ever Michelin-starred), an abandoned river (water had long since vacated the area) and a slightly unabandoned conservation centre.

In last week’s post, I got on my high horse about an awful zoo in Niamey. Whilst Ouaga’s centre was hardly the Garden of Eden, I was assured that all animals were either in the process of being returned to the wild or were unable to do so on health grounds (akin to Trump in the Vietnam War). They also appeared to be far better looked after (the zookeeper genuinely seemed interested in their welfare) and in reasonably good spirits too. Here’s a happy hippo for proof…

Day 61 – Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso to Bamako, Mali

With a similar situation along the Malian border as with that of Niger, carpooling across the Burkinabé countryside was once again off the table. Therefore, I made a return to Ouaga’s ageing airport and booked myself on a flight with the nation’s largest, safest, most respected (and only) airline: Air Burkina. Whilst the passenger terminal looked as if a puff of wind would knock it over at any second, the WIFI was of South Korean standards – allowing me to attend to the important business of finding somewhere, anywhere, to sleep at my next warzon… I mean destination: Bamako.

As I sipped on my ice-cold red wine at a tickle over thirty thousand feet, I mulled over the wonders that were passing me by, far below my blistered soles. The African bush elephants, the mud-brick villages, the AK47’s, it is a nation I shall most definitely return to (once there are a few fewer emotionally and sexually repressed men wielding their weapons with vim). Upon landing in Mali (a country with even more repressed-male problems), I had the sheer joy of being greeted by a driver holding a sign with my name on! Someone who actually wanted to see me – what a novelty! The ninety-minute crawl through darkness, dust and smog to my military-style compound was not.

Day 62 – Bamako, Mali

As I mentioned, Mali (much like my two previous destinations), is not currently top of the list of the hippest and hottest travel destinations to visit this side of Dubai (unless by hot you mean blood-boilingly hot). It has its own security issues in the north, west, east and along most of its vast borders, with UNESCO sights in Timbuktu, Gao and Djenné all off-limits. In fact, not just off-limits, but there may not be anything left of them once they are safe enough to visit, given the malevolence of their current squatters.

Given these unfortunate circumstances, it is in the capital city of Bamako where I will entertain myself over the coming days. Far more developed than Ouaga, and more populated than Niamey (although, cockroach-wise, so were my lodgings), the city had a chaotic but warm and friendly Sahelian vibe similar to both of my previous stops. Well, that’s what I thought until I stumbled across the large military presence surrounding the ‘important’ buildings and was informed that the threat of attacks was still very real (thirteen French soldiers were killed earlier in the day in a region close to the border, with a certain militant group claiming responsibility). But that will not stop me from visiting my national museum, oh no! Well, maybe tomorrow.

Day 63 – Bamako, Mali

Visit it I did. Following strong advice from my host Moussa, I’ve deemed it best to avoid public transport, opting for a lift from his cousin instead (not a bad way to drum up business for the family taxi company, ey Moussy). Anyhow, he dropped me right outside the immaculate gardens of the National Museum, which was also right next door to the National Park and National Zoo (not allowing any guides to emotionally blackmail me into a visit this time).

The museum was split into three exhibitions, the first being on Malian textiles. I always feel like this is the go-to display when they’ve run out of thousand-year-old clay pots, or prehistoric dinosaur eggs, or flint tools from the earliest settlers. Most of the ‘ancient’ cloths and fabrics looked as if they were purchased from Bamako Artisanal Market that morning and hung in various different forms and profiles as to attract interest. Fortunately for me, the two other exhibitions were filled with flint tools and clay pots, providing a far higher level of entertainment than the aforementioned bed linens.

The gardens and adjoining park were well looked after too, a rarity on this trip, with sculptures of various Malian buildings, including the Great Mosque of Djenné, hidden around each bush. When one is unable to visit the real thing, a selfie with a small-scale replica must do. A minor bluff at the rear of the park also provided a respectable view of the nearby athletics stadium and of the Malian wilderness beyond. “Oh, what I would give to be going in that direction”, I muttered as I hailed a taxi back to my gated compound…


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