top of page

The plan had been to spend week in Ghana, a week in Ouaga, and then a week in Mali. Tour books and weblogs gushed enthusiastically about Dogon country and the unique culture of the Dogon people living above, below, and actually on the Bandiagara escarpment, which was located just a half day's drive north of the Burkina Faso border. Mopti was a big, busy port city on the Niger River. And Djenne was supposed to be everything that Timbuktu ought to be but wasn't - a small, low-key old town of traditional mud brick houses and a world renowned mosque. As we prepared for the trip, I spent hours figuring it out - how to get there, where to stay, how to engage a guide to trek through Dogon Country, how many days it would take, where to stop along the way. We got our visas and booked a couple of hotels. And then a bunch of thugs grabbed a group of European tourists from a restaurant in Timbuktu, and killed one when he resisted. It would sound a little self-absorbed and insensitive to say that the kidnappers put a serious kink in our plans, when one guy got killed and a whole bunch of people suffered considerable grief. But once the kidnapping had taken place, all the usual alarms went off, and officialdom concluded it wasn't safe to travel to that part of the world. Very annoying for us.


Still we hadn't made up our minds, and when we got to Ouaga, we started making inquiries. Mostly, people told us they thought it was probably safe. But is also turned out to be inordinately expensive, and more of hassle than we'd imagined it would be. You needed a car for about a week, with a driver and probably a guide as well, which meant we couldn't really be on our own. A couple of fairly unctuous travel agents tried to sell us on a trip that would take about a week and cost us at least a hundred dollars a day, before we started adding in hotels, food, and other costs. We'd already paid for the visas and a hotel for a couple of nights, but in the end, we decided to head to southwest Burkina Faso instead.


But about four or five days into our stay in Ouaga, I started getting sick - not, as you might expect, with a case of the shits, but rather with some strange throat infection. It was a bit sore, but the worst of it was that I could barely swallow. My head was killing me, my muscles ached, and all I really wanted to do was to lie in a dark room and sleep. Usually, even when I'm sick, I figure the best way to get past it is to ignore it, but normal things like moving one foot in front of the next or getting a spoonful of solid food down my throat seemed to demand more effort than I could muster. Still, this was not going to keep us from moving on. We boarded a bus on the Wednesday before Christmas in Ouaga, headed for Bobo Dioulasso.


I was feeling too wasted to try to read, so I split my time gazing out the window and trying to sleep. Much of the road had been paved, which may have been one of the most important developments in the Burkina economy of the last 30 years - especially since the train that used to be reasonably reliable had all but ceased to operate. This was the line that had been optimistically named the Regie Abidjan-Niger sometime back in the early twentieth century, but it never made it much past Ouagadougou, and from what I could gather, when things began to fall apart in Ivory Coast a decade or so ago, the train service fell apart as well. Once out of town - the bush which had begun just a few kilometers from the center of town in the seventies was now much further removed from the built-up core, with scattered and fairly disorganized settlements along the road for 10 or 20 kilometers - things didn't look much different than they had years ago - flat, dry, brown, dusty, and pretty dull. The only really noticeable difference was that there were cell phone transmission towers every few miles. Burkina Faso, like much of the rest of the world, had gone mobile, and also, like much of the rest of the world, people often seemed to be more interested in their cell phones than anything that was happening around them.


The bus itself was miles removed from what had passed for public transportation in 1977. It was big and comfortable, fitted with overhead video screens that showed horrible soap operas and melodramatic films, and equipped with an air conditioner that actually worked. But the most extraordinary thing of all about it was that it left exactly on schedule and arrived in Bobo on time too.


In Bobo, We got nicely ripped off by a taxi driver who took us on a fifteen minute ride to get us to our hotel, which was less than 1000 meters from the bus station. Should have checked Google maps, I suppose... La Villa Rose was itself a pleasant enough place - except for (once again) the unreliable hot water. It was owned and operated by a Dutch woman named Franca and her Burkinabe/Malian husband Moctar - and yes, that in itself would certainly make a great story - but we couldn't really quite figure it out. From what I could make of it, it sounded exceedingly complicated and confusing. He had lived in Amsterdam, she now spent half her time in Bobo and half in Amsterdam, his brother was an imam in Mali, but he had been born and raised in Bobo. And it wouldn't have surprised me if their domestic relationship deviated in one way or another from the western norms (not that it mattered). In any case, they both treated us exceedingly well, and seemed in particular to appreciate the opportunity to speak Dutch with the guests, even if they were guests speaking Dutch with American accents.


Best of all, Franca offered to rent us her Toyota Land Cruiser - for the very reasonable price of about $70 a day with a driver. So we spent a few days in Bobo, me mostly dragging my feet from one place to the next or sleeping, until Pat forced me to see a doctor. He prescribed antibiotics for me, and within a day, I was feeling much much better, just in time to continue the journey.


bottom of page