Burkina Faso is one of the poorest and most illiterate countries in the world. Formerly called Upper Volta, like many other African countries it has had an unstable few decades since independence from France in 1960. Not-so-benevolent dictators and military juntas have wrestled each other for power since 1958, when it became self-governing, and now the country is under the leadership of democratically-elected Blaise Compaore. This instability has contributed to the lack of growth in Burkina, both in the economy and the infrastructure, and this is evident as soon as you land in Ouagadougou.
The capital looked as though it had been deserted and then sneezed on by the Sahara. We descended through a hazy cloud of fine dust and everything below was blanketed in soft Sahara sand. And predictably it was hot. Dry and hot. The kind of heat you can hear. It?s layered and sounds like a didgeridoo.
The most striking image when you first emerge from the airport to make your way into town is the number of motorbikes, mostly scooters. They?re everywhere. Bicycles too. Like shoals of fish they accelerate from traffic lights and dash and wind their way down the dusty road with no discernable plan or direction. There are no designated lanes for the traffic and whatever rules of the road there are seem to be taken instead just as general guidelines. From young men wearing shredded football shirts to professional women dolled up in their best work suits, everyone in Ouaga seems to be on a scooter.
My first night in town was a quiet one. I sampled a few of the local beers and enjoyed the relatively cool evening air at the hotel pool. The temperature drops rapidly when the sun goes down and the stifling heat of the day gives way to a very welcome evening breeze. The second night, however, I summoned up the courage and energy to explore a little of Ouaga?s nightlife, and the result was one very bizarre night.
As I stared out of his office window watching the sun and the temperature descend, my colleague advised I visit Appalloosa. Being a Thursday night he said there wasn?t much on offer in the way of entertainment, but I would at least have a good time there.
With waxing optimism I left the hotel in need of a taxi and before I knew it a hotel porter ushered me into a car while shouting instructions in French over my shoulder. I heard Appalloosa and found no reason to fret. That is until I introduced myself to my taxi driver, Inousa. It was pretty impressive we even got to the introductions such was the level of his English and my French.
As we meandered through the city, being passed left and right by noisy two-wheeled mosquitoes, I realised that any direct communication was going to be impossible. My only alternative would be to bring in an interpreter. I called a friend from Benin and, when he stopped laughing at me for long enough, gave Inousa the phone so that my questions could be relayed. My Franco-friendly friend then gave me Inousa?s answers and so our exchange went on until we had a destination confirmed, a price negotiated, and a pick-up time agreed.
"A Burkinabe in cowboy hat and jodhpurs asked me if I wanted a booth"
In full confidence of Inousa responding to my call when I?d had enough, I warily pulled open the heavy wooden door to Appalloosa and entered. In the middle of Ouagadougou one would not expect a saloon straight out of the ol? Wild West, yet that?s exactly what I walked into. And if I?d been wearing a crocodile?s jaw on my head, wielding a bright pink light sabre and balancing on stilts, I don?t think I could have been less inconspicuous.
A Burkinabe, humiliatingly adorned in cowboy hat and jodhpurs, asked me if I wanted a booth. I most certainly did not want a booth. Having convinced him of my intention to just have a drink or two at the bar, I realised that the lonely booth might actually have been less awkward.
Five or six very Eastern European-looking bartenders were engrossed in a variety of domestic chores behind the bar. I got indifferent looks from two painting their toenails and one sipping on a mug of coffee and flipping through a magazine. When I finally found one willing to bring me a beer, she too could not speak English. She was Ukrainian and had lived previously in Bamako, Mali, and had recently moved to Burkina Faso.
"?You get to tell people you went to Ouagadougou?"
Two or three beers later I summoned Inousa and found, when I got into the taxi, that we had company. In his friend?s broken English I gathered that we were on our way to help him get his car started. Well, I assume that?s what Inousa was doing when I inconvenienced him with my transport request. Sure enough, 10 minutes later we?re all out of the car and playing mechanic-mechanic on the side of the road in Ouaga. Eventually the dilapidated old Mercedes crawled off with an appreciative honk and, after putting his battery back in his taxi, Inousa turned his attention to getting me back to my hotel.
Flying back to Accra the following morning, I was left feeling that I hadn?t really seen enough of Ouagadougou and that I?d like to return. Of course, that might be because I spent most of my time there stuck between 'Lost In Translation' and 'From Dawn Till Dusk'. What I did see though I enjoyed, and I can certainly recommend dropping in on weird and wonderful Ouaga if you?re ever in the neighbourhood. And of course you get to tell people you went to Ouagadougou, which just never gets old.