Monday, February 27, 2012

On Being a Tourist in Burkina Faso

Gas Stations

Being a tourist here is not quite like being a tourist in the states. For example, after a visit to my village, we needed to refill the tank with diesel fuel.  The one gas station in my village was out of it.  We hoped we would be able to get to the next village large enough to have a gas station.  We found a place along the way that did have diesel fuel, but the attendant had to pump the gas by hand.  I don’t think I have even seen anything like this before.

Speaking of gas, one of the things you see all along the road are “gas stations” that consist of whisky bottles filled with a liter of gas for motor cycles. When I first saw these I thought the contents really were whisky and I was surprised that it would be sold from a stand like this.  Our driver said he would not trust the gas from places like this to put in a car, but people with motos use it all the time.

What with all the terrible roads we drove on, I was not too surprised when we got a flat tire.  Here there is no AAA to call to come to the rescue and I was glad we had a good spare tire. We had to take time out to look for a replacement.  We stopped at several villages along the road before we found a place that had the right sized tire and we were keeping our fingers crossed that we would not end up with another flat before we found one. Luckily this was our only tire disaster. 

Another challenge for the traveler is avoiding the animals that may decide to cross the road in front of you.  As in the American west and England, the animals have the right of way. Here are a few we had to avoid:


I have always been a bit surprised to see signs that say STOP, regardless of the language of the country.  This sign, however, takes the cake.  Is it a stop sign or a yield sign?

We stayed in a variety of places, with very different levels of accommodation.  The most luxurious was the home of the Country Director, where Dawn and her family, and later Elizabeth, were generously given three nights in very comfortable beds, with hot water, fans, and even access to air conditioning, although they did not need it at that time of the year. When we stayed at the Ranch with the elephants, we stayed in these small cottages that do have running water, but it is whatever temperature it happens to be in the water tower. 

There we had electricity only between 6 and 10 at night. Elizabeth took this picture of me (with her flash) so you can see how we managed to carry on even when the power went off at 10 or in the morning before the sun came up. I have the cloth over my shoulders because it was quite chilly.


Where Elizabeth and I stayed in Banfora, I was able to access the internet with my cell phone connection from our room, but it was very slow.  In the morning I saw the sign at the registration desk saying (in French) there is WIFI here.  Elizabeth was happy to get on high speed internet to take care of a few things at JCU.

In Bobo, with the family, we stayed in a very nice small family place that was something like a motel, but not on a main street. There some of the rooms had hot water, but not others. We had one of each kind.  As you can imagine, the shower in the room with hot water was used by all of us. The courtyard was beautiful, and a really nice place to hang out and enjoy the lovely setting.

When I was traveling with Elizabeth we stayed at a very nice hotel in Bobo.  Here she is, by the swimming pool.  It was a bit cool for a dip this time of year, but in the hot season I am sure it would be much appreciated.

While we were traveling in a 4X4, we got much the same treatment as the folks in this bus every time we stopped at a toll booth or near a bus stop.  Women spend the day waiting for the next bus or car to stop.  They run to the bus, holding up whatever they have to sell: onions, apples, water, bread, eggs, or sweet treats made from sesame seeds and honey. I am surprised many of them are not injured by passing vehicles. I am also surprised that they usually get paid for what they pass through the window.

One of the most eye-catching things they sell are bunches of carrots. They scrape off the skins and keep them moist so they are bright orange and ready to eat.

One final thing I found odd about driving on the two lane highways here is the use of turn signals.  Roads, of course, have hills and curves, and some vehicles go faster than others.  When a faster one comes up behind a slower one, it is not always clear whether it is safe to pass.  On some roads there are lines between the two sides of the road, dashed when it is safe to pass and solid when it is not. People do not always respect these signs, especially when the vehicle ahead is going very slowly.  In order to signal a person overtaking you that it is or is not safe to pass you put on your right turn signal if it is safe and your left turn signal if it is not safe.  That makes a kind of sense, because if the vehicle ahead of you is signaling a left turn, you would not want to pass.  However this has been extended to putting on the left turn signal when you are approaching an oncoming vehicle. At first I thought it was a bit odd, because when you see this, it looks like they are about to turn in front of you.  Our driver explained that people do it so that the oncoming drivers know that you have seen them and you are not asleep at the wheel. An interesting custom!

Sunday, February 19, 2012


In and around Bobo

Visits this year from my daughter Dawn and her family and from my colleague from John Carroll University, Elizabeth Swenson, gave me a chance to see some tourist sites I would not otherwise have visited.  


I have written about Tiebele, the village of painted houses.  Another village that is opened to tourists is the village of Koro, located on a high plateau near Bobo-Dioulasso. This is a picture of the slope up to the village.

This is an example of how you manage to make a foundation for a house on the side of the hill.  I guess you just hope there are no earthquakes!

We did see a few people who appear to be living here, although many of the houses seemed to be vacant, like this one.

Our guide told us many of the people live down on the plain most of the year, especially during the growing season, and return to the village only for ceremonies and special events like weddings and funerals. Life can’t be easy here. We passed these women carrying water up the hill as we were leaving. Can you imagine doing this several times a day to have water for drinking, cooking, washing dishes, and bathing?


One of the things they pointed out to us was the place where the men meet to discuss problems.  Only men are supposed to enter this area, so here is a picture of my son-in-law, Jay, sitting in the place reserved for men. This structure is very similar to the one Janet and I saw in Mali, in the Dogon county, when I visited her there in 1984. 

Here is a view over the rooftops of the village to the plain below.  You can see the village is a long way up, which would make it easy to defend

There were fetishes here, similar to those we saw at Tiebele.  We were told this one at Koro was put up by someone who was hoping for twins.

The other village tourists can visit is in the heart of the city of Bobo-Dioulasso. It is referred to as the Old City and, as with the other places, you can visit it if you pay a mille (about $2) per person, and tip your guide at the end of the visit.  The money helps with civic projects, we were told, and it is the way the guides make their living. Unlike Koro, it was clear that there were lots of people living here. This is a typical street in the old city, with women at work.

There were also lots of kids around.

One of the things we were shown was a big fetish site. 

Here is a close up of the chicken feathers from someone’s sacrifice here.

This is the place the men of the old city meet to resolve problems.  Our guide said they do not turn malefactors over to the city police but discipline them themselves. Penalties can include fines or beatings.
This is the oldest house in the old city, supposed to date from the 11th century.  They must refresh the coating pretty often to preserve it.

Because this is a tourist attraction, along the way the guide took us to several places where we could buy souvenirs. At the first place there were a couple of folks playing traditional instruments and singing songs in the local language. Here you could buy instruments, carvings, and CDs of the group that was playing there.

Another stop was at the black smiths’.
They were making figures out of the iron. Nice, light little souvenirs to take home with you. They are only about 5 of 6 inches tall.

We also visited a place that sold bags and purses, and one where people were making figures out of bronze, but I will tell you about that in a future blog on arts and crafts in Burkina Faso.

Another tourist attraction is the grand mosque.  Here is a view from the entrance to the old city that is right across the street from it.

When I was traveling with the Garrett-Larsens we took a tour of the mosque.  The interior was mostly pillars holding up the roof.  There is not a large, open area such as you see in churches, but just corridors between the pillars.  


Here is the place where the Imam stands when he is teaching the lesson on Thursdays when the Muslims have their biggest gathering of the week.


Here are the steps we took to get up to the roof of the mosque.


Up on the roof  you could see something of how the building was constructed. 

There is a loud speaker that broadcasts the call to prayer five times a day (or more).  You can see it toward the top of this spire in the picture below. In my village there is a wake-up call broadcast at 4:30 every morning sofolks can be up and be ready to pray at 5:00. No need for an alarm clock! I can’t understand anything that is said, of course, because it is all in Arabic.

Another thing we liked in Bobo were the decorations in the middle of their traffic circles. This one is in honor of women.

This one lighted up at night, with the top part green. the bottom part red, and a yellow star in the middle, like the Burkina Faso flag.  To us, it looked like a Christmas decoration. It looks pretty cool as a crystal pyramid, too.

In Ouaga we visited the national museum,  no photos were permitted inside, but here are a couple of the buildings.

We also visited the music museums in Bobo and in Ouaga, but I will tell you more about that in a later blog on music in Burkina Faso.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Burkina Faso's Southwest

The Sindou Peaks

With my daughter Dawn and her family I visited an interesting natural area called the Sindou Peaks. These reminded us of Bryce and Zion canyons in the American southwest. The tall rock spires just seem to rise out of the flat plane. 


We took a guided walk through part of them.  Our guide told us that, in olden times, when there were wars between ethnic groups, one group made their home on the plateau among the rocks because it was easy to defend.  Since the end of ethnic rivalries people no longer live here, but the area has been used as the setting for a number of African films, so if the rocks look familiar, you may have seen them on the big screen. 


Here is the obligatory group photo, taken by our guide. Our driver, Hamadou, is on the left, and Prosper is hunkered down between me and Jay. Notice how Dawn and Jay stood on a rock to be taller than Jesse? He is now over 6 feet tall.


The climb up was not too bad, because we followed a path that was cut by the movie production company, but getting down was interesting. It would be easy to push people back who were trying to scale the rocks here.



One of the things you see around Banfora, in the southwest, are lots of these palm trees.  The sap is used to make palm wine.  All you have to do is tap the tree, like you tap a maple syrup tree.  When you get the sap, you let it sit for a few days and you have a tasty alcoholic beverage.  The longer you let it sit, the stronger it gets, I have been told.


Another sight is the sugar cane fields. They are watered with the kind of irrigation system you might see in the US.


When I went back to Banfora with my friend Elizabeth, we invited a married couple, who are volunteers in the area, to come to town for dinner.  Their site is about 15 kilometers out of town so we went out to pick them up in our 4X4.  It was quite the adventure. The road was very rutted and full of dips and holes.  The worst place was where a bridge was deteriorating. It was not safe to cross and, because it is just going over a dry stream bed in this dry season, cars now go off the road, down the bank, and up the other side.  

It seemed steeper from the inside of the car, but this looks bad enough! It was even scarier when we took them home after dark.


The Cascades

The next day we went to see another tourist attraction, referred to here as the cascades. With the terrible roads it is surprising anyone goes there, but there were folks waiting near the falls to try to sell us souvenirs and cold drinks. Here are the falls.


I hiked up a trail that goes to the first of three levels.  The first part had man-made steps.


In some places, you just scramble up the rocks.


Some government project built these picnic shelters here.  I understand groups do sometimes climb the rocks and have picnics here.

The falls are said to be spectacular in the rainy season, but then tourists can’t get there very earily because the roads are even worse than they are now.  I was also told the falls were bigger before the sugar company started taking water from the stream above the falls. Here is the view from the first level of the cascade, out across the lower lying lands.


The hippos that live in a lake near Banfora, that  I showed in the earlier blog about animals, were not as cooperative when Elizabeth was with me.  This is all we saw of them, literally eyes, noses, and ears

The guide tried to make it up to us by making these necklaces from water lilies he picked.

More on our travels next time….