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And then we were on our way to Ouagadougou. It was a bright Wednesday afternoon, and all went according to plan after a moment of panic in Accra when we discovered that no - they weren’t going to announce our gate, and yes, the flight was about to depart. We rushed to check our bags and got to the gate just in time.

It was a pleasant, 90-minute flight, and we were through immigration in minutes - instead of the hour and a half it had taken us in Accra. Outside, we were met as promised by a driver and shuttled through town in a rickety old Renault held together with tape and baling wire. The car, I guessed, had arrived in Ouagadougou around the same time I’d arrive for the first time in 1976.


I’d lived very near the airport then, and I had a pretty good visual memory of what it had looked like in 1978, but as we drove past shiny new 3, 4 and 5-story edifices that had replaced ramshackle mud and concrete shops, I didn’t recognize anything. I probably should have been pleased to see the development, but instead I felt a bit of pique that they changed everything and left me feeling like a stranger - that I’d come a very long way to end up being nowhere at all.


But within a few days, I felt reassured: The “Avenue Kwame Nkrumah”, leading from the airport to the center, was the showcase avenue, but most of the rest of Ouagadougou was much the same as I’d left it in 1978. More perhaps, even, than I was expecting, and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Indeed, within a couple of days, I was not only negotiating rides and meals in awkward but passable French (my brain seemed unable to differentiate between two very different foreign languages, and my conversation was peppered with Dutch words even when I knew the French perfectly well); I also seemed to know my way around at least as well as most of the cab drivers.


Before we’d arrived, we’d booked a room in “La Case d’Hotes”, which had received a top rating on the Trip Advisor website. It was a little way away from the center, in the very African neighborhood of Ouidi - run by a curious Frenchman name Alain who had picked up and settled in Ouagadougou 10 or 15 years ago. His hospitality was excellent, even if his English was close to non-existent. La Case d’Hotes would have been fine, in any case, were it not for the fact that there was no hot water. It seemed something of an oversight that half a dozen enthuiastic reviews of the place had failed to mention that the place was lacking in one of the basic amenities of a quality accommodation. OK - no matter - we found our way to “Les Palmiers”, a somewhat swankier hotel not far from the market. And though the hot water there was not altogether reliable, we found the staff friendly, the courtyard a pleasant refuge from the streets of Ouagadougou, and the nightly invasion of the bats to pick bugs off the swimming pool at sunset a great diversion.


At the request of my good friend Josh, whom I'd first met in Ouaga in 1976, we sought out his old home in what had once been an outlying district, but which had now been swallowed up by the sprawl of the city. We found instead a school compound, but when we entered, hesitantly, we discovered the home still standing in the back corner of the courtyard, at the end of a row of mango trees, as well as an elderly couple who remembered Josh and his wife Rosa well.


Then we went looking for my old home. I'd been warned by Alain that much of the old neighborhood had been cleared away for urban redevelopment, but when I told our driver it was near the Oubri Hotel, he knew the hotel and the neighborhood. I directed him to where I thought it should have been, but at the spot, we discovered a high wall surrounding a compound, and I didn’t think it polite to intrude, so we retreated.

We paid a visit to the Peace Corps office, and sat around chatting with young volunteers, comparing notes on how it was to work in Burkina Faso then and now. They were mostly enthusiastic, committed, intelligent folks, but their stories suggested that most of the problems that existed in 1976 still plagued development work in 2011, and that for many people living in the villages in the bush, life was not very different than it had been a third of century earlier. Except, perhaps, for mobile phones. Still, I had a good feeling leaving the Peace Corp office, thinking that there were still idealistic Americans - and ones far less cynical than I had been - who were willing to leave the comforts of home behind to do some good and learn something about the rest of the world.

I'm probably not so different from others who vow, when they leave a place they've called home for a few years, that they will write and keep in touch, and then fail dismally. I may have exchanged one or two letters with students and friends I’d met in Ouaga, but within a year, I’d lost touch with everyone who’d remained behind - and most of the Americans who’d been there with me as well. Now, back in Ouaga, there was one connection to an old friend that mattered to me - a brilliant musician named Dougoutigi whom I'd met in 1977. Dougoutigi was a balafon player and I’d heard that he could make balafons to order. I had a crazy idea in my head to have a balafon that was built in the traditonal manner, but that had a western 12-tone scale. Dougoutigi had agreed, calling the hybrid instrument with two keyboards (one for white notes and one for black notes) a “balafon automatique”. We’d worked together for a year on the project - me providing the tones and showing him how the notes were arranged, he methodically tuning the wooden slats and tying it all together with leather thongs.


I had plied him with beer and given him more money than we’d originally agreed to, and he had invited me into his home like a member of his extended famiy. We played some weird combination of blues and traditonal music that Ry Cooder might have appreciated quite some time before Ry Cooder arrived in that part of the world. And when I left, I sent one letter via a friend, but never heard back. Not so surprising, especially since Dougoutigi couldn’t read or write.


But then, thanks once again to Google, I’d found one of his sons, who now resided in California, and he had told me where I might find his father. Salifou had somehow communicated to Dougoutigi that I was looking for him, and given me his number, and a few weeks before our departure, I had a short conversation with him on a bad line - so bad in fact, that combined with the language problems (Dougoutigi’s French had never been very good, and mine was so rusty), it wasn’t altogether certain that he’d understood I’d be seeing him. But I was pretty certain he did.


And then, there in Ouaga, Pat and I took a taxi from our hotel over to the cultural center where, according to Salifou, I should be able to find his father. I was nervous, excited, worried that perhaps to Dougoutigi I would be nothing more than a dim memory or a nuisance. We were directed into a courtyard. And there he was. Instant recognition. It was a magical moment. Ouaga had been my home for two years, and embracing Dougoutigi with tears in my eyes, I realized that yes, sometimes you can still go home again.


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