I am on my way to Bobo-Dioulasso, the second largest city of Burkina Faso. I catch the earliest bus at 7 am – an air conditioned pink coach, in fact – which is not so bad for a six hour journey. There are several coach companies here, and this one plays cheery African music to keep the passengers entertained. Some other coaches play Burkinabe films and soap dramas that has overly dramatic story lines – one I heard was of a seven year old boy having simultaneous relationships with four different women.
The bus is full with passengers. One man on the opposite row has an alive chicken at the bottom of his seat, and a lady in front of him talks (shouts) to another passenger at the back of the coach with a shrieking voice. Aside from the bouncy music (one song kept singing célibataire ou marié?), peeking through the curtained window for its unique African view is enough to keep me interested. As we travel closer to the cooler climate of Bobo, the landscape turns greener and lusher with its tall grass, maize fields and lakes with white lotus flowers. We are still in the rain season and water levels have risen significantly, leaving only the top of the trees visible above its grey-brown water in some regions.
I am starving and thirsty, but I stubbornly refrain from intake of any food or water so that I don’t have to use the toilet on the way, which I’ve heard it’s just a hole in the ground. My friend had said there will be one toilet break en route, where you can also buy some food and snacks.
Someone must have requested it though, because the bus abruptly pulls to a side of a road where there’s nothing but fields. A few passengers get off and disperse into the grass field to find their own private spots, the grass just tall enough to cover their legs. I actually do need the toilet thanks to the whole glass of milk I drank for breakfast, but decide not to. My ethnicity is bound to draw attention, and having 20 or so sets of eyes fixed on me while I relieve myself is not what I consider to to be a pleasant travel experience, however unique it may be.
When we do actually arrive at the ‘service station’, the hecticness of the place throws me back. As soon as the coach arrives at the area which looks like a huge market place, a large group of women and children with their baskets of food on top of their head swarm around the vehicle, almost like a flock of bees around its hive. They hold up their baskets towards the windows, all shouting out something which I assume are the names of whatever they are selling.
I really do need the toilet, and I literally have to push myself through the crowd of insistent sellers to make my way towards it. The toilet is a series of roofless cubicles, and it’s relative cleanliness actually impresses me. I had pictured a small hut with a large hole dug in the soil, where you can taste the stench from the piles of human waste even when you are not breathing. But this one, the cubicles are all tiled including the floor, so that whatever people dispose of into the hole is not exposed to the open air. Apparently there used to be western toilet seats, but they were rather dysfunctional as there are no plumbing system to enable the flushing. So the locals took off the seats and the hole in the tiled floor is what remains of it. The charge for the toilet is 25 cf (0.25 pence) for Business No.1, and 50 cf (0.50 pence) for Business No.2. Upon entry you are given a pot of water to flush down your disposals.
The cubicles have no doors, and I choose to use the one at the furthest away from the entry. The hole is where the toilet seat used to be, which means it is awkwardly placed too near the back wall. Aiming for it is quite a task unless you move to the wall as close as possible. What it also means is that you’d have to face the entry of the cubicle if you were to do Business No.2, which has no door to shield you from other toilet users.
Thankfully, it’s only Business No.1 for me. Not wanting to risk my possessions to theft, I have all my belongings with me – a camera bag hanging across my shoulder and a heavy backpack on my back. Please, please, please, let me not lose balance. Not in here.
Then I hear someone else walking down the corridor of the toilet, towards my end of the cubicle. In my squat position, my self-conscious mind flees to another petty worry. What if this is the wrong position? What if I should be facing the entry, not the back wall? What if she laughs at this foreigner, not even knowing how to use the toilet properly? Then to the consideration of consequences of the two positions: If I stay facing the back wall, she’ll be seeing my bare butt. If I turn to face the entry, I’ll have to meet her eyes while pissing, and I’ll have to be polite and smile and say my bonjour, WHILE pissing.
Both equally, unfathomably, unquestionably, extremely awkward situation. I chose to go for the former. So the lady walked towards my cubicle, made a little ‘oh!’ sound upon seeing my Asian bare butt, and moved to the cubicle next to mine.
15 September 2014 – On the way to Bobo-Dioulaso