My only questionable character trait is that I cannot help but tell everyone about Africa. Without being asked, for no reason at all. They talk to me, say, about love, but I barge in with my “But once in Burkina Faso…” I do understand that it is stupid, but I just seem unable to help it. This adventure stands out way too brightly in my drab life. I cannot refrain from sharing it. It is about time therefore that I legitimise it and write it down on these pages.
Just like everybody I have forever dreamt about visiting the true black Africa. Not Morocco, not Naples, but that true deep Africa that does not get pictured in glossy magazines. The one that we truly know nothing about, except that it is the genuine one. When cramming the capital cities of the world, I learnt about Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, and I simply fell in love with the name. That was more or less everything that I knew about the country. And that is why I decided to go there.
Burkina Faso is located in the west of Africa. It borders on Mali, Niger, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Ivory Coast. A former French colony with the name of Upper Volta. It gained independence in 1960. Population of 20 million. Unfortunately one of the poorest countries in the world. Famous for… well, somebody mentioned a film festival. It did not take place during my travels there; I was left with all the other noteworthy things to see. I was there in the December of 2013. Over the time my memories have somewhat faded. Only the essential remains. Or maybe the most annoying, or the most enjoyable.
In a true spirit of colonialism, the visa was granted to me by the French Embassy. They asked: “What do you intend to do there?”, inspected my hotel bookings and then glued into my passport a visa for the Republic of France, with a handwritten “Burkina” on top. Burkina Faso and seven other West African countries use the West African CFA franc. At the time, the calculations were easy, one Latvian lat equalled 1000 francs. 1032, if you insist on accuracy. To be exchanged at the destination.
The plane landed around nine o’clock in the evening. It was dark already. In the arrivals hall, I was snatched up by a taxi driver. He knew of my hotel – “Le Pavillion Vert”. We took off. I pictured myself throwing down my luggage in the hotel room and making an exploratory round of the nearby cafes of the capital. For now, I groped around for the seat belt, but found nothing of the sort. And the car rattled and clattered to the extent that the process of its disintegration seemed to have started already, so I attempted not to touch anything unnecessarily. I looked out of the window. Did you imagine it dust-covered? Not at all, since there was no glass in that window in the first place. I gazed into the dark and waited for the lights of metropolitan boulevards to appear – street lights, signboards, windows. I did see a few fire pits, with people gathered around them. The lights of the fire let me catch sight of single-storeyed barrack-type buildings. “Where are we?”, I asked the taxi driver. “Ouagadougou,” he replied, “that hotel of yours, it must be somewhere around here.” I, understandably, inquired about the electric lighting normally inherent to capital cities. “Outage,” he explained. The government, he said, buys electricity from Ivory Coast, and these kind of outages, voilà, are frequent and tend to last for a few hours. And, yes, here is the hotel, he said. I got out of the taxi. When my eyes became accustomed to the dark, I noticed a man squatting down right beside me, with a long rifle in his hands. All at once, I got homesick. But the man with the gun told me that the hotel is right here, and I should enter. Inside there was a man with a flash-light sitting at a desk. He asked for my room number and led me on into the dark. “Papers tomorrow”, he added and opened a squeaking metal door. I entered my room, felt around for the bed and sat down. The plan to inspect the local cafes got unanimously cancelled. I did not yet feel sleepy. The phone did not function. I sat on my bed and looked into the dark.
The morning arrived loud with the voices of roosters and donkeys, but surprises were to continue. Even in broad daylight nothing looked like I had imagined it would. The hotel was indeed fairly centrally located, standing proudly on the Boulevard of Independence. This centrally located boulevard was unpaved. The ground was covered in red dust. The dust also covered the walls, cars, everything. The street passed through rows of one-storeyed buildings, made of brick, iron sheets, plywood, cloth, everything in the colour of the red dust. The traffic – madly rattling cars, fleets of scooters, perky donkeys and scrawny hens. It all looked horrible, everything, except people. Women – dressed to the nines, all colours, flowers and lips. No, in truth there were no flowers around, none at all, not even a wisp of a flower bed. But they themselves were bright as flowers. With effervescent bustling all around.
I had no choice but to accept the rules of Burkina Faso. Like a pale penny I disappeared here. I travelled alone. My telephone never did return to functioning. The internet was only available in the internet cafes where the email page opened up no sooner than after full 20 minutes of waiting, so I discarded this symbolic communication channel. I never managed to acquire a city map or a feeling of finding my way. In this country I really was alone, so very alone that I could not recall a previous time of ever having felt so. I had nobody to turn to. Just in case, stay away from the police, I was told. It may have caused a tiny bit of stress at the beginning.
I quickly grasped a few things. The man with the gun at the hotel was not a bandit, but a guard. Many just like him sat near every of the very few ATMs and supermarkets. Sometimes the rifles were replaced by a machete.
Burkina Faso turned out to be even poorer than I had imagined. The nearby Ghana and Ivory Coast got called the rich and arrogant neighbours. In the city everything looked on the verge of a fall-down even before getting finished. Meanwhile the villages outside the city were well-arranged and harmonious.
Indeed, nothing here looked anything like what we had at home. The walls and fences of Ouagadougou boasted inscriptions: “Please, do not urinate!” Or, at times, there was a stark naked man passing you by on the street. Then again, is that not something potentially to be seen also in Berlin?
But some things really were different. The constructions in the old town Ouagadougou were the newest in the city, mostly up to 4 years old, since the rain and flood tended to wash the traditional clay buildings away, and these were then reconstructed by means of the same method. The reggae guys in this country were dangerous, they tended to be minor criminals. There were no Chinese goods to be found – since there was a Taiwanese embassy here at the time (this may have changed over the past years). Children played with wheel rims – like in old story books.
So I arrived in Ouagadougou where I stayed for a few days to catch my breath and admire the surroundings. I met Saïbo who became my guide in the city – I would have been completely lost without him. Ouagadougou is inconceivable for any newcomer. I cut down on the pleasures of cultural life (I found none), but rather checked out the clubs and the pubs. I also visited the copper melting craftsmen in the old town and attended a civilised private concert. I slurped local beer from dried pumpkin pots, and, to be honest, that was not really beer. I tried not to draw attention.
Then I boarded a bus and went to Bobo-Dioulasso, the second largest city in the country, also called the capital of culture. There one finds old mosques and an impressive old town. The city is split in two by a river with pigs bathing in it. In Bobo-Dioulasso or simply Bobo you can buy exquisite metal figurines. There you can also find a museum or two, and the world’s best “McDonald’s”, that has no link whatsoever to the global fast food chain. In Bobo the electricity supply was better, although by then I had already used to going to bed around the sundown and waking up with the sunrise.
I visited the Koro rock village. They say it was first founded around one thousand years ago and it did not seem to have changed much since. Buildings and deities constructed of rock. Black cows grazed under the hot sun and ruminated over the futility of all existence.
I then visited Banfora, a small town edged into my memory only because of its surroundings – a lake, sugar cane fields, unusual rock formations and waterfalls.
I also stepped foot in the city of Pô, for no reason that I can recall.
To finish the circuit I returned to Ouagadougou where I managed to experience a few more adventures. Just when I felt myself starting to adjust to Africa, it was time to go home.
I will spend no more time delving into the movements of my persona across the map, but instead highlight some ethno-cultural aspects that I found of interest and will try to draw some general conclusions.
Over the first few days to my great surprise it became obvious that several of the people I chatted to could neither read nor write. When I had accustomed myself to that, I received an even bigger surprise. Drisa (with whom I was developing a fairly complicated relationship) admitted that he did not recognise a single letter but could speak eight languages. French and seven local ones. And no, the local languages are not at all similar to each other. I was duly impressed. How do you acquire several languages without writing down the new vocabulary and grammar?
The country itself comes to aid for the studious. The name of the state is made up of words from two languages – Mossi and Dyla. In total, there are more than 60 languages spoken in the country. Europe, language-wise, is the poorest region in the world, which is why European travellers are so amazed. It is only natural then that Drisa, when driving around and trading in his wooden figurines, had acquired the survival language minimum.
The communication with foreigners usually flows in French, though at times it could only be called that to a point. Saïbo taught me some Mossi words: nasara – the white, which was the name the children yelled behind my back on a regular basis. Yibeogo – hello. Yelkavē – on the meaning of which I am still in doubt. It might mean ‘no problem’, but at the same time it signifies ‘talking to the clouds’. The meaning remained beyond me. Even though when I was sitting on a cliff near Banfora, I seemed to come within the grasp of it for a moment, but then the moment passed. It made no major sense to remember the words as every new city had a different language spoken.
The only thing in common were the abbreviations – Ouagadougou became Ouaga, Bobo-Dioulasso was Bobo and Burkina Faso was Burkina.
MAN, DON’T STEP ON IT, IT’S SACRED
It is a frequently repeated fact that in Burkina Faso 40% of population are Christians, 60% Muslims, 100% – animists. My experience confirms this. I saw very few Christians. The Ouagadougou cathedral was completely empty. We dined in a monastery restaurant, it was a sophisticated and expensive venue. The waitresses were nuns, the “Silent Night” melody permeated the premises and the outer world seemed to have ceased existing.
I saw quite a number of Muslims. Every morning and every night the minarets sounded the call to prayers. In Bobo-Dioulasso there is a very unique mosque; it is extremely old and quaintly built. But in general the locals take pride in their religious tolerance. The Muslims happily join the Christmas celebrations by the Christians. The old town of Bobo-Dioulasso is made up of three parts standing side by side – Christian, Muslim and animist. Everybody gets along splendidly. Even more so, the local Muslims did not shy away from sharing a beer with me. Or the palm wine called the bandit.
Animism – the attribution of a soul to all inanimate objects and beings – was the most noticeable of all. In the old town Bobo there is the main deity of the city erected – a steep hill, about the height of a man. On top of it lie the feathers of the sacrificed chicken. I asked, full of innocent surprise: “What is this?” – “The key fetish of the city”.
The locals have adopted this French word as a term to signify all deities. A fetish is a name attributed both to towering stone stacks, and to lumps of soil that may be easily stepped upon by the unanointed in the depths of the knowledge. Indeed, there was a case just like that, and the surrounding crowd started muttering. The culprit came to his senses and stepped off of it, but Saïbo explained: “He must be from Mali.”
The animists do not lack for sanctity even in the absence of lumps and clods of soil. The Basule lake is inhabited by sacred crocodiles, the village of Tumuseni has a sacred baobab, in Koro there are sacred rock piles and near Banfora – sacred cliffs. The incident of stepping onto the sacred blob of soil took place in a special place and on a special day. It was the day when the king of Motsu – a local tribe – appears to its subjects, it is a special ceremonial rite in the sacral life of Ouagadougou.
Saïbo took me to the venue early in the morning strictly admonishing me not to take photos. I searched the surroundings with my eyes, in vain trying to find anything noteworthy of a photo. An empty square and a few clay huts. Crowds of people, and a lone Briton caught in the process of sketching the square in his notebook. The crowd started muttering and he was saved only by the same infamous Malian who stepped on the clod of soil.
Later on the Briton and I discussed the absurd ban to draw anything. Though deep down I supported it, the conversation between two proud Europeans heard me saying:
– They may as well prohibit us from remembering!
The Briton enjoyed my comparison. Strangely enough, later on when listing through my scarce travel notes, amongst the drawn shapes of women I found a sketch of the king’s appearance square. I seemed to have sketched it regardless of the ban. Without even remembering ever having done so. Was that my punishment – the prohibition to remember?
Be it as it may, we were standing there eager for what was to come. Saïbo kept whispering stories of the king into my ear. Long, long time ago the king had an enemy, by the name of Bad (Evil) Horse who stole the fetish of the king. The subjects, surely, should go to war to recover the fetish. But this task gets postponed times and times again. And the present ceremony consisted of them asking forgiveness for this procrastination.
Then a few jeeps brought in the king and his entourage, and the ritual commenced. There was no understanding it, but at some point after a loud bang a horse rode into the square – all alone, unsaddled and not looking very evil at all. The king gracefully sat himself down on the ground and the Christian, Muslim and animist communities approached him to beg for forgiveness for not rushing into the war just yet. Make no mistake, the war was by no means forgotten, it would take place, just not now. And when it will, the fetish will be returned.
NOT ONLY THE LAND OF HUMANS
A customary promise made to travellers to Africa is about the magnificence of nature. Namely, you are forewarned that there is no abundance of cathedrals and skyscrapers, but the nature is simply paradise-like. In Burkina I saw no such thing at first. Red sand, dry, scorched grass. A lone goat chewing on a plastic bag. By the way, I used to think it a joke. But no, the goats do eat plastic bags. And they do not have to worry about shortage of supply. There are plastic bags everywhere and the Burkinese have started to tackle the issue. There are dolls made of used plastic bags on sale.
Saïbo took me to the Basule lake, the one with the crocodiles. Of course, the crocodiles are sacred. The legend goes that they were the ones to bring water to the locals once upon a time. It would be down right unfair to forbid them to paddle along in the water that they themselves have brought. There are warning signs at the lake “Watch out – crocodiles!”. Accompanied by a respective pictograph. But kids play in the water. I asked: how so? Duh, these are sacred crocodiles, of course they would not touch a kid. Upon approach I saw a few well-fed reptiles lounging under the sun, with a perpetual smile on their faces. My hopes that this would suffice were crashed. The lake guide walked me up to the biggest of the crocodiles. It kept ignoring us. But the guide started poking and squeezing it, encouraging me to do the same. I tried to get out of it, but he was insistent.
I got more scared of the uneasy situation developing than of the crocodile bite, so I slowly extended my arm for a caress. A few thoughts ran through my head: what will it be like? Will its cold blood exude chill from the very depths of its body? But no, to the touch it felt like a sun-warmed leather suitcase. Afterwards the crocodile was treated to a sizeable chicken.
On the lake side, you could buy souvenirs and toys made of glass beads. When inquiring about the price I recalled the stories of the European seafarers who used to cheat the locals out of their gold by exchanging it for glass beads and similar trash. The history has been waiting patiently for a payback, and now we buy back these glass beads with a similar added value.
Much later I did happen to see a crocodile that was not pronounced sacred. It lazed about in a park in Ouagadougou and I did not approach it for a caress. It would not have been too strenuous though, as there was no fencing between him and the park’s pathways. A couple of boys kept watching it, but mostly it was ignored. The crocodile did not seem to mind though, it just lay there and smiled.
When I arrived in the south-west part of the country, near the Banfora city, there were green patches, cliffs and waterfalls in sight. Lake Tengrela had gigantic water-lilies in it. But the boatman promised me something bigger still. I did not quite believe him, but after a while there was a loud snort and a small island rose itself out of the water – the head of a hippopotamus with most expressive nostrils.
– Are these not dangerous? I asked the boatman.
- Why, no! He replied, but kept his boat at some good 10m distance.
I am not much of a nature lover per se, and I would have been contented with the sighting of donkeys and the hippopotamus, but on the day before last Saïbo suggested that I see elephants. When I imprudently agreed he rose and went looking for a jeep. The next day it was there, driver included. I had never seen anything like that vehicle. This was for real. We drove to the Mazinga National Park. Another payment made and a guide joined us in the jeep – now we made up a jolly company of four, with me being the only tourist. At the gate there were drawings of all the wonders to be encountered in the park. It almost brought tears to my eyes to see our own white stork listed among them. So we entered the park. I observed that there was no small number of lumps on the road and the road could only nominally be considered a road. It was so rutted and potholed that even our jeep staggered along as if hit by a storm. The guide and the driver both told me that the elephants, surely, were somewhere around here, but it was not always certain that you get to see them. And then there they came, through the bushes crossing the road, two grey giants. The jeep hit on the brakes, but the elephants were not scared of us. There were two, three, no, even more of them. The driver yelled:
– Take your camera!
I did. He yelled:
- Get out of the car!
Do I really have to, I stumbled upon this thought and got out. He was relentless:
- Climb on the roof!
The jeep was fairly high, but there was a narrow ladder attached at the side. From above I saw that the elephants were standing very close to the car. Five big ones and three small ones. Though even the small ones were quite big. The driver kept yelling at me to get to taking photos already. That, after all, was the reason why I got chased up on the roof of the jeep. I lifted the camera, but my hands shook so much that I almost punched myself in the eye. The elephants turned towards the car and started approaching. Their huge bodies seemed to be covered in faded asphalt, the black eyes shone with unhumanlike wisdom and I turned to animism. “Spare me, my huge lord,” I kept thinking and it was not just for fear.
- Get down!
The driver yelled. I clambered down, staggered inside and he speeded off. Don’t you know that an elephant can develop up to sixty kilometres per hour? We have to leave immediately if they turn towards you. They are the bosses here. The park road was unprecedentedly and admirably impassable, it required a proper jeep and even so we would never have been able to accelerate to sixty. We saw elephants a few more times. We also saw the striped backside of an antelope and a few baboons in the bushes. But that did not signify. We punctured a tire in a road rut and it needed replacing. I stepped out and watched the savannah. There were quite a few lumps on the road. At closer inspection I understood that it was elephant poop. I considered them fetishes now.
JAZZ AS GENRE OF POLITICS
Quite a few years after gaining its independence the country that was then still called the Upper Volta saw the birth of a band “Tout à coup jazz”. Jazz had to be returned to Africa. The band consisted of two inseparable friends – Thomas Sankara and Blaise Compaoré – one played the guitar, the other sang. I have not managed to get my hand on any records produced by this band, but the rumour goes that during a concert they were simply magical. Some claim that Sankara took the music making part much more seriously. Others insist that Compaoré was more pragmatic.
Both musicians had other projects on the side. In 1983 Blaise organized a coup d’état, and deposed the current president. An African jazz standard. The same fate had been suffered by the previous three presidents of the Republic of Upper Volta. Meanwhile, Blaise did not appoint himself the president, but allotted this honour to his long-time friend and band member Thomas. What other musician has ever presented their colleagues with a gift like that? Thomas became the president and kept taking up the guitar now and then, for example, when campaigning in favour of vaccination against meningitis, yellow fever and measles. He also composed a new anthem for the country and renamed the country itself – Burkina Faso. He opened the first ever supermarket and fought for women’s rights and against illiteracy. He became wildly popular in Africa, and his portraits still hang alongside those of Che and Nelson Mandela. Many believe that the course taken by the president Sankara gave hope to all of Africa. Yes, it did have its drawbacks, apparently there were certain executions and the fight against colonialism might at times have been an end in itself.
In any case, in 1987 our good old friend Blaise Compaoré continued his improvisations and organised another coup d’état. This time Thomas Sankara did not come out on the winning side. He perished immediately under mysterious circumstances. Meanwhile, Blaise became the new president of the country. Thus the band “Tout à coup jazz” can boast of two state presidents among its members. The events, however, did put an end to the band’s existence.
When I visited Burkina, Blaise had been in power for 26 years. The local newspaper discussion forum read: “How can you criticise the president of the state? By criticising him you turn against the state and the nation!” The comment had a reply: “You have no idea what it’s like in Europe. There they criticise their presidents to the brink of triviality.” Conversations over beer tackled the topic of politics with an enviable ease. The president was amicably called by his name, and my mates mentioned that he had killed Sankara and it was a well-known fact. Meanwhile, the picture of Sankara hung just above us on the wall. There was no identifiable fear of the omnipresent power of the dictator.
The time of elections was approaching and my new friends worried if Blaise would be ready to give up his post. Drisa said: “If only it were like in France! Once you are not president any more, everybody leaves you alone there! But here the president is justified to be afraid of letting go, since he will definitely be shot or incarcerated afterwards.” I kept my mouth shut about the fact that the past French presidents have had charges brought against them after their time in office. I wished them luck.
The local white people did not deny the consequences of colonialism: “This is the French rule! They never did gain their independence. All the bodyguards of Blaise are French soldiers.” A bizarre combination of pride and guilt. They did venture, though, to say that Africa – and especially Burkina – had a great future awaiting them. Blaise was finally disposed in 2014, it took a while despite minor unrest and victims. Hope springs eternal.
If anybody believes that Latvia and Burkina Faso fly in completely detached orbits, listen in now for a true story. In 1981 a certain student V from Riga received an inheritance in foreign dollars from his grandma and searched high and low for a possibility to sell the currency. The official rate was not to his liking. Then a Mr Lysenko who later turned out to be a KGB minion found him a buyer. The buyer, in his turn, was a citizen of Upper Volta, a Mr Barro Tieba, then a student at the Riga Institute of Civil Aviation. He bought the 600 Canadian dollars and paid 2 roubles and 70 kopecks per dollar (the official exchange rate standing at 0.83 roubles per dollar). He then departed for home. In the airport Mr Barro Tieba was searched. He screamed: “Provocation!”, and he was right, of course, but that helped him little. Mr Barro was recruited. So, you see, a Burkinese ended up in the same KGB files as Latvians! His destiny was not that simple though. Information is scarce but most likely Mr Barro Tieba was executed in his homeland in 1984.
HOW I TURNED INTO A RACIST
Around halfway through my trip it dawned on me that I was turning racist. Never before had I observed a similar trait in myself. But now I watched the locals with suspicion. The women I still regarded with admiration but it was accompanied by a touch of alarm. I had ceased to believe in their selfless interest in me. Meanwhile on those few occasions when I met a white person I had an inexplicable urge to approach them and cuddle up with them. That was not too far-fetched in general, since whenever a white person in Burkina came upon another white person they promptly approached each other, got to know each other and became fast friends. The most frequent question was: “What’s your story?”, that is, how come you are here. I felt at ease with the white people, I spoke of sophisticated topics. We became almost inseparable with a Norwegian girl when we attended a concert in a Ouagadougou club. We had both stayed aside from the crowd and philosophised on how very interesting and diverse their culture was and how very superior was the sense of rhythm of the black people compared to that of the white. Then, suddenly, the musicians stopped playing and the singer invited “our white guests” to step forward. We did not manage to pretend not understanding, and were pushed to the front. We stood there, painfully introvert, and had no clue what to do. The ignorance was corrected and we were asked to dance. The band engaged in a very attractive beat. I was on the verge of dying from shyness. I looked at the Norwegian girl, she looked at me, and I saw in her eyes her very personality withering away. And then we danced, we exhibited the best moves possible for somebody who was internally dead and represented a non-rhythmical nation. The audience clapped for us on the beat.
Despite the general friendliness I noticed that the relationships between black and white people go in all directions. The whites were the rich ones. Hotel owners, mine operators, key speakers in cultural broadcasts. And they kept repeating: “You can’t rely on the locals to do it,” or “they don’t read books here.” In Bobo I bought a couple of Burkinese books. The locals also exercised a reserve towards the white people and their values. The hurt is still there. The superiority of the whites is not acknowledged, and the same goes for their equality.
Strange, when Stefan was so nice to his wife. When she was washing the laundry of all the hotel guests in the courtyard, Stefan sat nearby and played back all his favourite songs from the nineties on his phone. I was ashamed that Manuela had to wash all that dirty laundry of mine, but, of course, I did not say a word, just went walking on my own and returned feeling estranged and irritated. I started to get the problem. I saw practically no beggars in Burkina, but I was always being offered some useless service in exchange for a fee that seemed to increase in the course of the conversation. In Ouagadougou I was shadowed by Drisa who cheated me in his dealings with wooden sculptures and local beer, but kept playing the injured party and reminding me that I owed him. In Bobo-Dioulasso his role was taken over by a version of rastaman who gave me a lift to the hotel on his scooter upon my arrival to the city. He charged me a fee 30 (thirty) times higher than any taxi. I was not used to things like that and they quickly became tedious.
One evening the haggling with Drisa must have reflected on my face too clearly, and the owner of “Le Pavillion Vert” asked me if I wished to go out to a bar with him and his friends. I replied that I had no cash on me. And then he uttered the most amazing phrase that can ever be exchanged between two persons:
– No stress, I can lend you some ten thousand.
Finally there was somebody who did not ask anything of me. So I took the ten thousand, we climbed into a huge jeep and drove to a bar named “Le Petit Bazaar”, and then to a “De Niro”. This seemed to be an isolated island of concentrated Europe. Nobody danced, we delved into global issues, there was billiard, darts and getting wasted. The drive home in the jeep was very merry. The driver did not even try to hide his stage of inebriation, we were surrounded by a still unlit city, I had no view of where we were heading at a mind-boggling speed, but the fellow passengers kept reminding me about it in their joyful screams:
- This is Africa!
I felt a vague presence of some provincial bigotry in these words, but I still felt at ease with them.
Then, in Bobo, we attended a wedding. During the course of the civil ceremony the clerk repeated (close to twenty times) the fact that polygamy was discouraged. We then proceeded to the wedding party. I somehow failed to end up in the same car as Stefan and was standing there, as always, completely clueless, when an unknown black gentleman offered me a lift. By then I was used to automatically and categorically refusing similar offers. On this occasion, however, I accepted it. The gentleman was dressed in a presentable suite. We climbed into a presentable car and exchanged greetings with the gentleman’s wife. On the way to the wedding, we chatted about Europe, history, literature. The racism evaporated. No traces left behind. I suddenly felt as comfortable with him as with my old study mates upon meeting.
Having analysed myself for a bit, I concluded that my racism stemmed not from belonging to a race, but from social economic factors. I was scared of poor people because I had a feeling that they wanted something from me. Because I was ashamed. Because I did not know how to behave. After this revelation the racism disappeared without a trace. And the fear as well, almost. Now the locals seemed to rarely demand anything of me. I started understanding things, and loving it. Of course, that happened just before I had to leave.
Please, just do not think that everything was plain bad. The people there are beautiful, they do not wallow in nonsensical sorrow, but exhibit a genuine, artless decency. Burkina is a country of numerous problems and injustices, but there seems to be a way forward visible and I, not unlike many others there, believe that this country is heading for an amazing future. I mean, the country is amazing already, full of wonders. But it will become better still.
Neither would I ever claim that all is well in Burkina, and that everybody knows nothing but happiness there. The people there do understand that their life is not exactly satisfactory. “Look, how deplorable is my dwelling,” said Amadou showing me his room. A few years later Saïbo wrote to me: “We will all die here soon.” A human life carries no great value there. During my short travels I saw three people die. 3. But they do not seem to fret too much about death. Not least because so many of Burkinese are very young.
I felt a tad younger myself. When I took off the belt of my pants at the security control in the airport, my pants slid down to the floor freely. This had never happened before. I had lost weight.
The travelling starts when you have returned home. That is when the forgetting starts as well. The distant land becomes more and more mysterious. The memories compete among themselves, the important bits may fade and the unnoticed come into spotlight. When the plane took off, I felt relieved, but the more the distance grows between the goodbyes and now, the more I yearn. It is no minor thing to be able to talk to the clouds.
Translated by Dace Rubene