top of page

Of course I'd wanted to return to Burkina Faso ever since I'd left. But the years rolled by, and first it was ten years and then twenty and then twenty-five and even if I didn't feel old, I was getting there, and I knew that at a certain point, it wouldn't be feasible at all, and maybe already, it was no longer feasible to do it in a way that made it possible to really re-connect with that time and place from nearly 34 years ago. But there was also another motivation, more crass but also deeply felt - which was to get as far away from Christmas as we possibly could. Which was why we’d planned the Mali trip for our last week - to be in a Muslim World Heritage Site on the edge of the Sahara for Christmas - that had quite an appeal. Now that wasn't quite going to work, but we were going to get away, one way or another. Where we were headed for was a sort of alternative Dogon country recommended by Alain, with whom I’d communicated about Malian options when we first booked our room with him in November.


Alain had recommended that we check out Niansogoni as an alternative to Mali and now we were on our way. There wasn't much information, but Lonely Planet had suggested that it was "the end of the world". We drove about an hour or so from Bobo to Banfora on a good road, and then, not long after, we were on a dirt road, heading pretty much due west towards the Mali border. Though I’d seen quite a bit of Burkina Faso in the seventies I 'd never been to this area before, and I was quite surprised to see how very different it was - green, and textured with hills and even low mountains and high ridges and rock outcroppings and lakes and rivers. There were plantations of citrus and guava and cashews along the side of the road and real forests thick enough to block out the sun. The further we drove , the rougher the road got, but B’ali managed to make decent time without re-arranging our guts or shaking us up too seriously. And then we had arrived at the Campement Niansogoni, a collection of concrete and mud huts shaded by several huge mango trees, not far from the base of a 300 meter high rocky crag. The place was the brainchild of a certain Richard, a 40ish Senufo who seemed quite sincere in his desire to share his knowledge and love of Senufo culture and the beauty of the region with visitors, and managed to make it a very low-key but successful going commercial concern. In his spare time - or at least the spare time that wasn't spent on his mobile phone - I had the sense that he read the Bible. The kind of contradictions that just baffle you.


I was hoping that we could make a couple of excursions up the ridge, but Pat didn’t feel like venturing up the hill in the midday heat, and Richard suggested that instead, we could visit the village market. It was a short walk from the campement to what was, for all practical purposes, more of a social event than a commercial one. In a grove of a stately old trees, folks were sitting on mats or low stools, chatting and eating and drinking. Spread on some of the mats were piles of fairly pathetic looking tomatoes, peppers and local herbs, plus spare parts for bicycles and mo-peds, and various other items that were less easily identifiable. The focal point of the market was a small knot of men drinking dolo - a cider-like brew made from fermented millet. I knew the stuff from long ago, but Pat didn’t. We were invited to join in and to buy the obligatory round. It was, I have to admit, one of those “Bwana” moments when the white tourist intrudes and everybody sits around staring at each other with nothing much to say. When we’d waited a decent interval, we moved on, and took a walk through the rest of the village to get a bit of the authentic local flavor - the giant satellite dish in the dusty courtyard, the ten-year-olds pounding millet for the evening meal, the four-year old operating the bellows in a blacksmith shop filled with noxious fumes - and then retreated to the campement.


If you’d been to Africa before, or if even if you’d done a bit of camping over the years, then you might have thought that the campement was reasonably well equipped. But Pat had different standards, and the campement fell short by a lot more than a country mile. At the Campement Niansogoni, there were a few bare bulbs over the courtyard and no electricity in the huts (we’d been given the luxurious cement one) and no running water. There was a 20 liter bidon next to the front door to provide water for washing up and bucket showers in a walled off section of the hut, a flashlight, and off on the edge of the place, two or three fairly basic latrines. But no matter - after a moment of panic when Pat was trying to get her contacts out and into the case, and I had to hold the flashlight so she could see what she was doing, we got ourselves horizontal, and had a solid night’s sleep.


The next morning, we were heading up the mountain. Though we weren’t quite certain what was up there, we were assured by a young French development worker that it was very special. But when we looked up in the vicinity of our supposed destination, we were greeted with a disconcerting sight: the mountain seemed to be on fire. “Oh it’s nothing,” Richard reassured us. “Just kids setting fires to chase away the mice.” And so we set off through the bush - Pat and me, along with Richard and B’ali the driver. He proved both gallant and invaluable, taking Pat by the hand when need be, helping her up and over the more rugged sections of the trail, and doing it with such gracious nonchalance that she could feel at ease, rather than self-conscious.


As we neared the top, the acrid smoke of the bush fire filled our lungs. Richard and B’ali grabbed leafy branches from the underbrush and used them to try to beat out the flames along the trail with mixed results. But it was just patchy bits of fire, and though we could feel the heat, we were able to walk past it without difficulty. The trail leveled out, we passed a baobab tree in which a guy who had perched himself between a couple of the large branches near the top was knocking baobab fruit out of the tree with a long stick, and five or ten minutes later, we were in the old village. Basically, it was strung along a narrow ledge about two thirds of the way up to the top of the hill. A sheer cliff face rose up from this ledge to an impressive overhang that sheltered the well-preserved but eerily abandoned dwellings in the village from the rain.


It was not altogether clear why the place had been abandoned - whether it had something to do with cross-border conflict between Burkina Faso and Mali, or the difficulty of securing a reliable supply of water, or the sheer hassle of living so simply and remotely - but now the original village was only used for religious ceremonies and rituals. They buildings were actually built into the cliff face, which formed the back wall of many of them, with "banco" mud brick sides and front walls. Many of them were intricately decorated with patterns that had been etched into the banco, or with bas-relief - apparently laden with spiritual significance, if Richard was to be believed. There were as well dozens of beehive-shaped granaries. And a view to die for - to the south, far out over a flat plain to the blue smudge of a mountain across the border in Ivory Coast, and to the west to the ridges that straddled the nearby border with apparently unattainable Mali (which would, shortly afterward descend into chaos).


No, this was not the cultural spectacle of Dogon country I’m sure - and I'm also pretty sure that my knees could not have handled two days of trekking up and down those trails in any case, and that Pat would have been suffering something awful if we’d tried our luck on a hike from village to village on the Bandiagara Escarpment - but what we did have here was the entire place to ourselves, and that was in fact something to treasure. A long way to go, perhaps, for a few precious moments, and not what we'd planned for, hoped for, or expected. But if it it was what you expected, why would you ever go?.


The end of the world

bottom of page