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Burkina Faso, 2014

The Dilemma of a ‘Toilet Business’ – Day 6 (15 September 2014)

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

 

 

 

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Find the Manioc – Day 4 (12 September 2014)

Today’s mission is this: to walk to the small market nearby and find manioc, a starchy root similar to potatoes that I regularly had when I was living in Vanuatu for two months. I had missed it desperately, especially the manioc laplap with coconut cream, but of course you cannot find such things in the UK. My eyes lit up when the host family told me I could find manioc in Burkina Faso, along with lion and camel meat.

I set off, and it’s not long until I meet Marie, one of the girls I did face painting yesterday. She is sitting under a tree by herself, and it’s only 3 pm. I guess she’s one of the kids who cannot afford to go to school. “Wakka, wakka! (Come, come!)” I call her  and hold her hand. We walk along for a bit and a few other kids see us from afar and scream excitedly. They come running and running but when they come closer, they stop and just stare with curiosity. So I gesture them to come and soon there is a flock of us walking. “Marquillage! Marguillage!” They ask for more face-painting but I tell them, “Après. Petit marché, où? (After. Little market, where?)”  A number of fingers point toward slightly different directions, so I walk towards the direction where the majority of the fingers are pointing towards. We walk the road with the mosque on our right, and whenever there is a junction I ask again, “Petit marché, où?”. The kids point toward right so I turn right. Another junction, and the kids go right. Another junction we go right again. The mosque is always on our rightside, and we are back to square one, quite literally. “Petit marchè! Petit marchè!” I keep saying and the kids now drag me to the opposite direction of where the market should be situated, and they take me to the spot where I did face-painting yesterday. I chuckle and get my kits out.

I have a booklet with all sorts of face-painting samples, and the kids busy themselves choosing which ones they want. A butterfly is popular among girls, just as it had been in the UK. “Tante! Tante! (Auntie! Auntie!)” The little fingers pull my sleeve and my skirt to grab my attention, and point towards the picture they like the best. It’s my second afternoon spent with the kids in the village, and I am slowly getting to know their personalities. Inesse is the fierce one, the one who bosses everyone around and has the loudest voice in the group. And of course it’s Inesse who pushes everyone away so she gets the first face-painting out of all. Ibrahim is the mischievous one, and always pulls a funny face when I take photo of him. Marie is the quite one, and her shyness reminds me of when I was little. She’s the only one who remembers and calls me by my name. She got a little upset when her turn didn’t come round fast enough, but even when I told her to come forward, she wanted the other girl to get the face paint first. She has a kind heart in her.

Sometimes, flies gather when I am face-painting, and it took me sometime to realise the source of it. A girl could not stand still when I was painting her hand, and she kept twitching and jerking her right leg. When I turned her round, I saw the back of her leg grazed deeply, revealing her pink flesh in a long line from her ankle to the back of her knee. The flies loved to sit on her wound. I remember seeing this in Vanuatu, where kids hurt themselves but the wounds are left open, completely untreated.

After seeing this yesterday, I packed my antiseptic cream and band-aid in my bag. When I see that Safi has a big chunk of her flesh cut off from her ankle bone, I chase off the flies and wash it with my bottled water. I cannot wash away all the sand that has gotten into the wound, and have nothing else to clean it properly. I have no choice to make do with a band-aid.

After some time I grow tired and hungry, so I ask a teenage girl nearby. “Je suis fatigue. Manioc?”  She speaks little English, just as much as I speak French. Her name is Rose and is 17. She takes me to a stall that sells fried potatoes and tells me “No manioc here”. When I come back with food and sit down, the kids flock around again. Rose tells them off in French and the kids step a few steps back. Maybe she told them to give me some space. In Kenya and Vanuatu, the kids were quick to come and satisfy their curiosity, touching my long, non-curly hair and my pale skin. Not in Burkina Faso. The kids keep their distance until I beckon them nearer. I think giving someone some physical distance  is part of their cultural manners.

After the fried potatoes, I try out maize porridge from another street stall. It’s sour, as if they have put lemon juice in it, and comes in a thin plastic bag. I saw a boy sucking the porridge out of the bag earlier and wanted to try it. All this costs me 400 franc, which is around 40 pence.

It gets darker which means time to go back home. It’s been my fourth day in this city of Ouagadougou and I still haven’t managed to venture out properly.

My mission to find manioc continues.

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Chocolate Thief – Burkina Faso, Day 1 (9 September 2014)

I cannot find it. My 600 euros that I had hidden in my pink make-up pouch so people won’t know it’s actually a money pouch. Had I misplaced it?
My head frantically shifts through my memory. When was the last time I opened this bag? I check my first-aid kit pouch, electrical charger pouch, toiletry bag, telling myself think, think, think.

I call my friend in Dubai, and my friend picks up my call during a meeting with a customer. Panic already setting in, I can’t even explain the situation properly and abruptly ask, “Have I left any euros at your flat?” “No,” my friend says. “But I’ll have a look again”.

I open the front pocket of my luggage. There is an unopened, brand new dark chocolate bar my mum had put in for me. Only that the wrapper is now torn open and a bite has been taken off from it. A realisation. I go back to my pink pouch again and take out an empty envelope.  The significance is that it’s an envelope that used to contain the cash. I connect the dots. An intruder. A Thief.

This is how my first morning in Burkina Faso began. An airport staff (Qatar? Algiers? Burkina Faso?) breaking into my checked in luggage and then leaving his teeth mark on my favourite bar of chocolate as if to say,  hey, I’ve been here.

The local police says they can’t issue a report, and my travel insurance company says they won’t be able to issue me a compensation for this particular loss (so much for the Premier level insurance). None of the ATMS here will accept my master card and all I have is 90 euros in my pocket. There goes all my plans to travel around the country, and here I am, stranded in this foreign land of Burkina Faso.

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9 September 2014, Burkina Faso

Here, in West Africa – Burkina Faso, Day 0.5 (8 September 2014)

I quit my job as a TV news producer. I chose Burkina Faso as my next place of travel, a small West African country that most of my friends go, ‘Huh? Where?’ It didn’t take me long to decide this. Without even consulting my Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Experiences travel reference book, I just ran a few country names in my head and decided on Burkina. Just like that, after one minute of pondering.

Getting there is no easy task. I leave from Dubai after a week of visiting a friend, fly to Qatar, Algiers, then to Burkina Faso. Over 27 hours are spent on flying and waiting around in the airport. It is a plentiful time to amuse at my unusual travel itinary of 6 days of being driven around in a sleek Porsche sports car visiting  the world’s tallest/biggest/most luxurious places; and then to spending 10 days at one of the world’s poorest countries.

I get off the plane. The weather is much cooler than I had expected. Nothing like the humid heat of Dubai. It’s only 25 degrees here and the breeze is cool and pleasant. There is a whiff of earthy musky smell in the air and people. It’s the smell of Africa that I so love and had missed.

Many had asked me why I had chosen Burkina Faso, and I’d say, “Because I like Africa”. I give this over-simplistic answer because my real answer would be a bit too vague for many ears  and it does sound a bit too romantisised. In fact, I, myself, cannot exactly pin point out why I am here.

I always felt pulled towards Africa since I was a small child. Something about it makes my heart beat faster and my eyes brighten with a hawk like focus. When someone asks what my future life plan is, I answer, ‘ I want to live in Africa’. I don’t know why, and I have no detailed plans in what I would do. It’s all up in the air and I don’t even know how I would make it happen. It’s like squinting far far ahead through a thick layer of hazy atmosphere, trying to make sense of what it is that is laid on my path. I hear a faint drum beat from somewhere but cannot make out the source of it. I swish my hand around in a murky pond trying to catch the fish that I swear that had just swam by.

What IS this thing that keeps me calling? Tugging and pulling consistently and obsessively?

How else to better find out, than to get there and see what I find?

8 September 2014, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

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