Day 13 – Oursi to Gorom-Gorom to Dori to Kaya to Ouaga – “All Manners of Transportation”

Lauren and I awoke on our mattress outside in the sand with Abrahim standing over us, telling us to wake up in French. It was 5:00 AM, and our mopeds were here.

After a quick breakfast of bread and tea, we made payment to the two men who were to give us a ride back into Gorom-Gorom, climbed on the back of each moped behind the drivers, backpacks on, and set off into the early morning desert. Hanging on for dear life, we sped down the dirt road much faster than I would have liked, but made it to town in great time – 45 minutes later we had arrived, much quicker than the several hours it took to get out on the truck two days earlier. We managed to find a van back to Dori, which we waited on to depart for another 45 minutes. The ride was uneventful, though a big noisy with a goat bound to the top of the vehicle, wailing the whole way. We made it safely back to Dori, determined to avoid Googly Bear at all costs in order to get back on a bus to Ouaga without incident. This did not happen.

We learned it would be an hour wait before the bus departed for the capital, so entered a small café for a more substantial mid-morning breakfast. As we walked in, we encountered a large man we would later refer to as The Lumberjack, who apparently recognized us and greeted us accordingly. He left as we ordered our food, and came back minutes later with Googly Bear. He had found us again. We were forced to talk with him during our entire meal, as he invited himself to breakfast and sat down with us at our table. After 15 minutes of insisting he knew us, we finally gave in and agreed that we did remember him, and then had to beat him back from taking us on as customers for his tour guide services. We eventually escaped, exhausted, boarded our bus, and left him behind for good.

The ride from Dori back to Ouaga proved much more eventful than the trip from Gorom-Gorom to Dori. After around two hours of travel, our large bus, laden with passengers, broke down. We all filed off to the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, with only a tree and a small clay building in sight. Most of us congregated under the tree, out of the sun, and waited. And we waited. It soon became apparent that the bus would not be fixed any time that day, and so we were to wait for the next bus to come by within the half hour. The relief bus came by – and kept going. It was apparently too full to stop for us stranded passengers.

And so, a couple of young Burkinabe women began to signal for a ride from other passing vehicles, and Lauren and I joined. Though we could hardly communicate with each other, the women were very kind and helpful, and just as anxious as we were to get on toward civilization. We managed to flag down a pickup truck, whose driver agreed to take the five of us as far as Kaya, where we could then get a bus the rest of the way to Ouaga. As my first hitchhiking experience, I was very excited. We all piled in with our backpacks, tied our hair back for the windy ride, and took off down the road, leaving the broken bus and its remaining passengers behind.

Forty-five wind-blown minutes later, we arrived in Kaya. I was particularly excited to stop here, as my sponsor child Teb-nooma lived somewhere in town; I would be visiting her in a few days and was anxious to see what her community was like. The truck driver dropped us all off at a bus station, exacted his small fee from each of us (which I’m sure was much more reasonable than it would have been if Lauren and I wouldn’t have been with Burkinabe, who did the negotiating) and we went to wait for yet another bus.

After a short wait, and once our bags had been slung upon the top of the vehicle, Lauren and I boarded our last bus of the day and headed toward Ouaga. Hungry and exhausted to the point of giddiness, we eventually made it back to town and stopped for food at the first place we saw: a garden terrace/pizza restaurant on the corner. However, as it was only 4:30, we were too early for pizza! Instead we each had a Fanta, laughed hysterically at the lizards running underneath our table, grabbed a green taxi, and headed for home to SIL to scrounge up some dinner a bit closer to home, and a bit faster than the pizza joint was willing to go. We made it back to our end of town and enjoyed yet another bowl of rice, sauce, and meat at the corner stand.

Upon arrived back at SIL, we learned that we would not have our old double room, but would instead be staying in a type of apartment, with its own bathroom, living room, and kitchen! It was a bit more expensive, but the only room they had left to give us to honor our reservation. Apparently a sort of conference was being held there, and all of the small rooms had filled up in our absence.

Though the accommodations were great, Lauren and I had one last task for the day before we could go to bed. There were cockroaches everywhere. Most of them were dead, and an empty can of roach spray on the bookshelf told us the staff had sprayed for us before we arrived, however, there were still many alive. We quickly learned that Burkinabe cockroaches are also different from Ghanaian roaches in a very distinct way: they can fly. Luckily, the living roaches in our apartment must have been stunned by the spray and did not fly about, but they were much harder to kill once you caught them and flipped them onto their backs (which normally trapped a Ghanaian roach) because they used their wings to flip themselves back over and continue their escape. It was on.

Since I had much more experience in the war on roaches than Lauren, it was I who ended up killing most of the fiends. However, we each took one of my Chacos and hunted them down around the apartment together, running and chasing and smashing and screaming and generally releasing all of the madness pent-up inside us from the long day’s travel.  I felt strangely vindicated after the ordeal, scooping up over 30 dead roaches (only about 12 of which we killed ourselves) from under the bed, in the shower, in the kitchen, and under the couch. It was good to know I still had it in me.

Day 12 – The Sahel – “Your camel sounds like a dragon.”

We woke up on our first morning in the Sahel to a day we had been anticipating for weeks – it was time to ride camels through the sand dunes! We started out the day with breakfast, followed by a bird watching hike that Hussein suggested we come on with him while we waited for the camels to arrive. Unfortunately, neither Lauren nor I are big bird aficionados, so I think the wonder of the wildlife was lost on us. All I could see was desolation. The “lake” that the camp was supposed to be on was completely dried up, except for a small pond-sized puddle about a mile in. We walked through the cracked, grey-brown clay lakebed along with lines of emaciated cattle, occasionally using Hussein’s binoculars to spy on crane-looking birds picking at the mud. Neither of us was sorry when the bird-watching expedition ended and we returned to camp to find our camels waiting.

Waiting with the camels stood a young boy who looked about 13 years old, and a short man who could have been his father. They explained to us how we would need to hold on tight to the wooden saddles and cross our feet on the camels’ necks for support in order to not fall off when the beasts stood up. Lauren climbed aboard her camel first, a docile giant who seemed to not even notice her. After she was firmly seated on the animal’s back 6 feet above me, I climbed aboard my resting giant. It definitely noticed me. The closest thing I can compare the roar of a camel to is that of a dragon, even though I have personally heard a dragon roar (oddly enough.)This thing was ANGRY. And he didn’t stop being angry at any point on our trek – the poor boy who led it on foot through the dunes was fairly weary by the end, I think, having to put up with the roars and stubbornness and general grumpy nature of the camel.

The trek through the dunes was beautiful. We traveled around the perimeter of Oursi, and I was amazed to find a cell phone tower in the middle of the village. They might not have water, or food, or much of anything else, but they had access to communication. When we arrived at the only shop in town to buy water, Lauren discovered she was missing a shoe. Lauren had only brought one pair of shoes to Burkina Faso.

As Hussein ran back to try to locate Lauren’s shoe, Lauren took initiative (believing her shoe was gone forever) and began to construct a new flip flop from the garbage that littered the ground around us. She found a flip flop base with no thongs attached, and picked up a scrap of cloth to thread through the hole. As she worked, a group of local children, and even adults, began to crowd around in curiosity. The fabric scrap was too long, and she tried to rip off the extra, until a passerby with a turban offered his sword to cut it with. She then tied the end in a knot, tried the shoe on, and began to walk around. The children were mesmerized. This white woman had just made a shoe out of garbage! Just then Hussein returned with Lauren’s real shoe – a miracle, in our opinions. Lauren kept her homemade shoe, and we climbed aboard our camels and rode home.

The hottest part of the afternoon was spent in the shade of the campsite tent, trying to nap through the sweltering heat and swatting the buzz of mosquitoes away from our ears.

As evening came and the desert cooled off, Hussein decided to take us to see the “lake”. Worried about dehydration, Lauren and I each drank a water bottle full of her emergency hydration salts. As we walked the mile or two into the dried up lake in search of the actual lake, our hands and feet swelled up like balloons. Entirely uncomfortable, we vowed to put away the salts for the rest of the trip, and drank even more water.

When we eventually reached the “lake,” we regretted coming at all. The “lake” was a muddy pond, from which the village women were all walking away with their mudfish catches for the day. They all tried to sell us their fish as we passed them, if they were actually fish. They looked like fat, black eel things, hardly edible, and entirely ugly. The poverty was incredible – it was hard to believe that people actually lived off the land here. Lauren and I felt extremely out of place, as if these people’s way of life in all its squalor was some sort of tourist attraction for us rich white people.

We made our way quickly back to camp and had three cups of tea once more under the stars. My French had improved enough that we managed to talk politics with Hussein, with Lauren asking most of the questions (she was about to finish her Political Science degree at this point) and me doing the translating. It was interesting to hear Hussein’s opinions on President Obama, as he explained that most Africans expected him to save their continent because it was his original homeland. Hussein disagreed with them, saying that Obama had his own country to take care of first, and that Obama wouldn’t save Africa, but that he was still a good man and a good leader. It was a very interesting conversation, to learn that Obama was held in such high esteem because of the color of his skin, and to hear of the expectations so many millions had of him around the world, expectations that surely couldn’t be met by just one man.

We closed out the day by communicating our need for a ride back to Gorom-Gorom the next day. We would be leaving at 5:30 by moped, and quickly went to bed in order to get some rest.


Today – After ten months back in the States, I finally mustered up the courage to open my journal from my time abroad. It seems silly that it took me until now to do this, but I think there was a lot of processing to get through before I could take that closely of a look back. It’s heart-wrenching, in ways, reading back through my words penned in some very difficult and exciting times, but what struck me most is this – it’s a beautiful story.

I never got to finishing the written record of my adventures with Lauren in Burkina Faso after I returned home – I tried, but think that I was just so emotionally rocked that I couldn’t bring myself to complete the journey, or even to look back once I was home. In reality, the journey will never be complete – I relive it in ways every day, and add on to it every minute. The journey is my life itself. However, I think the time is finally ripe that I complete the record on my chapter in Ghana and Burkina Faso. In the next few weeks I aim to finish the story of our wild escapades in Burkina Faso, and the return home to Ghana and to the U.S. This isn’t for posterity’s sake, or for the sake of reminiscing. This is for me.

It’s time to return.

Day 11 – Ouaga to Dori to Gorom-Gorom to Oursi – “I have named him Father Earth.”

We take our best bus ride yet with a new company called S.T.A.F (pronounced “staff,” wish they were all that easy,) and arrive in the main northern town of Dori by 10:00 AM. After that we wait for about an hour for the bush taxi (the Burkina version of a trotro) to fill up and take us to Gorom-Gorom, the next town northward.

While we are waiting we struggle to fend off a self-proclaimed guide who looks like a lumberjack and is anxious to cart us around the area. He happily shows us his “credentials” as a qualified tour guide with a prestigious local organization and flips through his binders of pictures and info pages. However, he doesn’t speak English, and though my French has improved enough for me to understand the gist of most conversations, it would do us no good to pay someone to take us places we would already be going if we can’t understand what he’s saying, even if he is a real guide. He tells us we’ll get ripped off without him, which we might, but we are also convinced we’ll get ripped off with him, so whatever. We travel unguided!

After we finally get rid of him, another man approaches, claiming he’s the nephew of the chief of Gorom-Gorom, and that his father is a camel salesman/border crossing official at the Mali border (this is all questionable due to my lack of language skills,) and that we should come stay at his house. “NO!” we almost yell, after I translate for Lauren. He gets a little offended, but he’s not the first person to tell us he’s related to the chief, and he very well may be, but we are not interested in buying a camel or going to Mali. Sorry, man.

We finally load up into the bush taxi, with our bags and a bunch of extra men on top of the vehicle, when this strangely familiar man with googly eyes pops his head in the window and starts speaking to Lauren and me.

“I KNOW YOU!!! Do you remember me?” the man exclaims, his eyes bulging.

I start to laugh and look the other way, because he’s really creepy-looking and I’m just not sure what to do with myself.

“I know you!!! I met you in Ouagadougou, at the hotel!”

Lauren keeps her cool and replies, “No, we don’t know you, sir. I think you’re thinking of someone else. All white girls look the same, you know.”

I chance a glance back at the man, and it hits me: Oh. My. Gosh. It’s the man from Pavilion Vert (Day 2.) He found us. All the way in Gorom-Gorom.

“Is this man your guide?” the camel salesman/border crossing relative man inquires through the other window.
“NO! Oh my gosh, no. He is not our guide!”
“But wait, Lauren, do we know him? Remember, he’s…”
“NO, Sara! WE DO NOT KNOW HIM. He’s thinking of the WRONG WHITE GIRLS. Remember?” (Under her breath, “Don’t give it away, or we’ll never get rid of him!”)
“Oh, yah, you’re right, noooo, we don’t know him. Yep. Wrong white girls.”

I’m half afraid he’ll hop on top of the bush taxi and ride along with us as he continues to insist our knowledge of each other, but we roll away as Googly Bear stares after us, looking confused as to why we didn’t remember him.

As we make the incredibly bumpy 2.5 hour ride down a dirt track, we encounter numerous stops at police “posts” along the way. At most of them the mate just jumps off the top of the taxi and hands the police officers a bag of drinking water or a loaf of bread as payment, but at one the officer in charge comes up to the van and demands identification from all of the passengers. Lauren hands him her passport; I am instantly terrified that he’s not going to give it back. However he does, and doesn’t even take mine. We’re obviously together.

We finally make it to Gorom-Gorom, and I am amazed at how much the poverty increases the further north we reach. It’s market day in town, and the chaos, the dust and the heat, the garbage and the animals, are all tremendous. “Oursi?” A man inquires. “Est-ce vous allez a Oursi?” Thinking he’s another guide, we snub him a bit and venture on our way toward where our previous driver pointed to the other bush taxis. As it turns out, this man is the mate of the truck driving to Oursi, and because of our rudeness he charges us triple the price when we figure it out (I guess that’s what we get.) Our ride to our final destination is a giant cargo truck with an open air bed with 7-foot-high railings around it and already holding what had to be over 40 people with all of their belongings in the back. People were triple-stacked. Lauren wanted to ride in the back with the masses, which I admit would have been an adventure, but there really wasn’t room for us, so we rode in the cab with two ancient-looking Burkinabe men with awesome walking sticks. Lauren named them the “Father Earth numbers One and Two.”

After another 2-hour ride through the flattest, most desolate land I have ever encountered, with several stops at mud hut clusters here and there, we are dumped off at the edge of Oursi at our bush camp. We are truly, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere. We introduce ourselves to the men running the camp, pick out our Fulani tent made of sticks and woven grass mats (our bed is a mattress on a platform outside in the sand,) and inform the guide-man in residence that we’d like to ride camels through the sand dunes the next day. He promises to arrange it, and we order dinner in a hurry, requesting a few bottles of water as well. (Side note: we haven’t eaten since we left Ouaga at 5:00 AM, and have only drunk a water-bottle each. Can you say dehydration?) Whoops – turns out they don’t have any drinking water. No worries; our new friend Abraham runs to the village for us.

That evening after dinner and showers (yes, we have rudimentary showers!) Abrahim and Hussein (pseudo-guide man) bring a big Persian-looking rug over to our hut with a few cushions and treat us to a serving of Taureg tea over a coal fire. It is brewed in tiny tin teapots as we watch the stars and discuss Obama (in French,) and they teach us that Taureg tea is drunk in three cups; the first for friendship, the second for strength, and the third for love. (If you’ve ever read Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, you’ll realize how powerful this was.) It was a beautiful evening, and the tea was delicious.

Day 10 – Retrieval of the Passports – “Yep, we’re American.”

We slept in, ate more mangoes, and joined the line of eccentric foreigners also waiting to pick up their visa extensions at the warehouse (I mean, government office) in the afternoon. Lauren comments under her breath, “Well, at least we don’t look as crazy as these guys,” referring to the Europeans with incredibly long dreadlocks down their backs. I inform her that we’re probably just as crazy looking, for the fact that we are by far the youngest people in line. One thing we have definitely realized while traveling Burkina: we are practically babies. Twenty and twenty-one years old and traipsing about one of the poorest counties in the world? By ourselves? Without a guide? And we don’t speak the language? Yes, we are just as crazy, probably more so. At least the dreadlockers speak French.

They bring out a cardboard box full of passports and distribute them. Then everyone gets in line and starts signing their information in a book to record that they got their visa extensions, but when Lauren and I get to the front of the line, the woman looks at our passports, says, “Oh, you’re American!” and tells us we can go on our way. Thank you, America, for allowing us to skip the paperwork.

Day 9 – Rest up in Ouaga

Well, we needed a break to catch up from the trauma of the chicken slaughtering nightmare and the horrendously long Sogebaf bus ride back to the capital, and we found our oasis again at the S.I.L Guesthouse. God bless them all! We were supposed to leave for the north this morning, but they let us extend our stay by a day so we could stay the night.

The day was spent eating mangoes and baguettes, chatting (in French) with the locals down the street at our little café/restaurant where we found dinner, and purchasing headscarves for the north, since it is much more predominantly Muslim in that region. We also took our passports back to the sketchy office, where they were accepted and where they would be held overnight to be extended. I wasn’t too sure about this, but we got official looking receipts with our passport numbers on them, and I decided I would just fight like hell the next day if we didn’t get them back. What can you do? We couldn’t pick them up until 4:00 PM the following afternoon, so now we would be a day even further behind schedule. (We had originally planned on leaving for the north this morning, and then tomorrow morning when we realized we needed a break, and now would have to wait until the morning after that since we wouldn’t get our passports until late tomorrow.) Oh well! No complaining here. The less time in the northern desert, maybe the better.

Day 8 – Bobo to Ouaga – “Sogebaf Buddies”

Our final Sogebaf bus ride, and for adequate reasons. It should not take 8 hours to drive from Bobo to Ouaga.

First, we sat at the bus station for over two hours waiting for the bus to get loaded and depart. Then, we started out on a good note when fail to make it up the hill out of downtown because someone forgot to get gas. I mean, fuel just might be sort of helpful for a 329 kilometer journey. We managed to turn around and coast back down the hill to the second gas station we passed (the first one we saw signaled they were out of fuel to sell us.)

During the ride we were sandwiched in with two aid organization workers from Chad who help Sudanese refugees. While entertaining and interesting, their company was a bit wearing after a while, since there’s only so much to talk about when you don’t speak each other’s languages much. But they kept trying, for all 8 hours, bless them.

About 3 hours into the journey, as we are preparing to pull over for a rest stop, a commotion in the seat behind me causes to me turn and see a teenage boy attempting to jump out of the back of the bus. All of the men surrounding him are holding on to his arms as he flails out the back door, trying to escape or commit suicide, we’re not sure. The word on the street is that he was being transported to Ouaga to be admitted to a mental hospital; at least that’s what our Sogebaf buddies translate for us.

The journey continues as we are constantly passed by bigger, faster buses, which can obviously handle the loads of people and goods they carry. Our bus cannot; I can see out the window that several plastic containers tied to the top are flopping out in the wind for most of the ride as we slowly plug along. At one point we stop, start to reverse back down the highway for about 300 yards, then stop again for about 3 minutes. Then we keep going. Half an hour later we pull over to let a long stream of bicycle racers pass going the opposite direction, followed by an entourage of fancy cars. Who in their right minds would bike race across Burkina? Everything just seems a little bizarre.

About an hour and a half outside of Ouaga, we were met by two fierce, back-to-back rain/wind/dust storms. We had to pull over for a few minutes at one point to wait out the horizontal rain, and Lauren and her Chad buddy took turns plugging the leaky hole in the ceiling with their handkerchiefs. Roofs, chickens, roads, and little dogs too all flew by as we continued on.

We finally arrive in Ouaga, deciding we’ll try one of those bigger, faster, non leaking buses next time. We exchange email addresses with our Chad seat buddies just for fun. The funny thing is, as I’ve been typing this, I received an email from my Chad seat buddy, who is called “Joe” because he says no one can pronounce his real name. Here’s his message:

Dear Sara

I hope that you’re well,is that rigth?Just to tell you that i’m back home and every thing is alrigth.What about you and your freind?I thing,you will remember me.

Have a pleasant week-end.Benjoe from Chad republic


(end message)

Thanks, Joe.

Day 7 – Banfora to Bobo – “Sacred Fish Pools are not Coy Ponds”

We moped back into Banfora from our bush camp early that morning, winding our way through donkey-led carts, children on bicycles, women with their market goods balanced on their head, men on their mopeds, and all number of farm animals wandering the streets: cows, chickens, goats, pigs, you name it.

I’m a bit on the sleepy side, after not resting much the night before because of my paranoia of non-existent safari animals wandering into our hut at night. The thing is, the door on our hut wouldn’t close, so we slept with it open both nights, knowing the bush mice and lizards would find their way in with or without a door in their way.  In the middle of the night, I swore I heard Lauren’s metal water bottle fall over, and was convinced a dog or a lion or a crocodile or something sinister had wandered in and was about to eat us. I flail over and whack Lauren in the face.

“LAUREN! Did you hear that?”

“No,” she replies groggily.

“There’s a large animal in here, I just heard it. I swear, there’s something in here, and it’s going to eat us.”

“Do you really want me to turn the flashlight on and look? Because if we look, we’ll see it, and if we don’t look, we can pretend there’s nothing there. Because there’s really nothing there.”

“OK, fine.”

“Besides, there’s a mosquito net around us. They can’t get through that.”

Yah, you wanna bet?

Lauren turns the flashlight on anyway while I hide my head in my pillow, and confirms that the coast is clear. She goes back to sleep, and I lay awake still convinced the intruder will return in the night. The next morning it turns out it was probably just a bush frog, which I found hiding under my pack upon our departure. Stupid amphibians.

Anyway, we make it into town, catch our third Sogebaf bus back to Bobo, and return to Le Zion to find it’s only noon and we have a whole day to kill.  The guide/guesthouse worker named Adama had told us during our previous stay about these sacred fish ponds we could go visit, which were also briefly mentioned in our guidebook too. Fish ponds sound boring to me, but Lauren convinces me they’ll be pretty and relaxing, “like coy ponds, Sara.” Coy ponds, my foot.

Adama obtains two mopeds for us and we begin our expedition to the ponds, stopping at a live poultry stand on the way. Adama buys a live chicken, much to our curiosity and confusion, and I understand (my French is getting much better) that we are to kill the chicken to gain entrance to the fish ponds. (We should have gone back at this point, but we didn’t.) Adama goes through almost every bird in the cage, weighing them in his hands and scrutinizing them, much to the dismay of the poor 13-year-old running the stand, who has to keep capturing new chickens, and who gets chicken puke on his feet from the last bird we finally approve of. Adama ties the bird’s feet together and hangs it upside down on the handlebars of the bike like a grocery sack, where it squawks the whole way as we motor out of town.

We proceed out into the countryside past an expansive cemetery, along a rough dirt track that I swear is just a dry creek bed. The chicken on the handlebars continues to squawk. We arrive at a small hut at the edge of a canyon, leave the mopeds under a tree, and are joined by another man who produces three more live chickens from a basket. We carry the foul, along with a machete and a gas can full of local beer (where did those come from?), on a half-hour hike down into the canyon. As we get to the bottom and near the pools, the man starts whacking rocks and trees with his machete and calling out in a local language, knocking to let the fish know we are coming. I get the feeling this is going to be more of an intercultural experience than I was anticipating.

We descend into a shady, rocky enclosure at the base of the canyon, and all I can immediately see is rows of goat(?) skins slung over tree branches and the ground quite literally carpeted with a thick layer of chicken feathers. We are told to remove our shoes, and we pick our way barefoot through pools of scummy water, all manner of chicken parts, and clouds of flies, past a muddy pool where a man is feeding some enormous water monster with foot-long whiskers.

We climb back into a gap in the rack wall to a bloody altar absolutely reeking with chicken innards and feathers, flies and old bowls of beer, drenched in puddles of brilliant red. Lauren is holding the chicken we have brought; it sees the mess and pukes on her leg in terror. The man with the machete starts going through the traditional ritual of prayer to the sacred fish, pouring some of the local beer from the gas can onto the alter in hand carved calabash bowls, and ceremoniously slaughtering the chickens by slitting their necks and draining them of their lifeblood over the rocks. The smell is overwhelming, the chanting incomprehensible. The chickens flop around on the ground mercilessly after being drained, because how they land and die has some sort of importance spiritual significance. I’m further into the enclosure than Lauren, where there’s no air circulation, and she holds me up as I start to black out as the third chicken goes down. Finally it’s over, and we go to sit in more open air in a pile of feathers and flies while the chickens are plucked and roasted over a fire. We sip some of the traditional beer out of bloody calabash bowls while we watch, because we can’t refuse.

After the birds have roasted, we briefly return to the altar of terror to offer some innards and a final prayer, then go to see the catfish to feed them the rest of the bird entrails. The fish are massive; Adama says some are as big as people. They explain to us that if you don’t sacrifice the chickens, you never see the catfish, because the sacrifice atones for your sins. (This is also why you can’t wear red to the pools and I had to change out of my pink tank top before leaving Le Zion; red symbolizes the blood of wrongdoing.)

When we finally get out of the nightmarish enclosure and back to the mopeds, dying of thirst and thoroughly traumatized, the bikes aren’t working. We get one to run about halfway back to the village, then pseudo-pedal/walk our way home, our poor guide Adama completely exhausted towing the fully broken bike.

Upon our return to Le Zion, Adama’s sister Odile prepared our chicken for dinner, which we brought back from the fish pools in a bloody cardboard box. Lauren and I ate lasagna, insisting the guesthouse staff enjoy their bone-cracking meal of poultry while we felt sick in the corner, eating by candlelight because the power was out.

What a coy pond.

Day 6 – Banfora – Domes de Fabedougou and Falls de Farfiguela

After a lovely breakfast of baguette, mango, and tea, Lauren and I hopped on the mopeds the bush camp staff had procured for us and took the most breathtaking ride on the red dirt roads through the sugarcane fields and tiny villages. Destination: the Domes de Fabedougou, a fabulous rock formation playground, followed by the lovely waterfalls de Karfiguela, which we climbed to the top of and splashed around in.

Although the sites were fantastic, I think my favorite part was just riding around the countryside past huts and fields and cows and children, attempting to wave and nearly crashing my bike.

Day 5 – Bobo to Banfora – “Voila, bebe!”

The next morning we catch another Sogebaf bus further west to Banfora, where we plan to stay for a couple of days sightseeing. The two-hour ride begins with a group of 20-or-so men pushing the loaded bus around the block to get us started. We take an unplanned stretch break about 15 minutes outside of Banfora as we descend into the valley, when the bus gives a mighty lurch and shudders momentarily with the disconcerting sound of screeching metal. We coast for a ways down the hill before pulling over, as the engine is no longer running, and we all pile out onto the side of the road while the driver takes a look. After only 10 minutes he declares the engine fixed, and all the men gather to push the machine to a start again. One man comes over to Lauren and me, hands us a 2-year-old, pronounces, “Voila! Bebe!” and goes to help. We are back on the road in no time at all, after backtracking to retrieve the 80-year-old man dressed in sunshine-yellow robes who had started back toward Bobo on foot, apparently not confident in the mechanical abilities of our driver. (You’d think he’d go toward Banfora, since it was so much closer, but you don’t question elders in this culture.)

Banfora itself is beautiful, set in a lush green landscape that I compare to the Great Valley in the Land Before Time, in stark contrast with the desolate desert we traversed to get here. Sugar-cane fields as far as the eye can see, and, get this: they’re irrigated!!! (Something we have never seen in Ghana, which still confounds me.)

Upon descending from the bus, we had to barter our way through about a dozen Burkinbe men for a taxi to our bush camp slightly out of town. We arrived to find an apparently abandoned set of mud/plaster huts, but eventually found the boy in charge of welcoming guests sleeping under a table.  Buckets of water for baths in mud huts, a hole in the ground in a mud hut for a toilet, and kerosene lamps for light at night. We were looking forward to this!

Day 4 – Ouaga to Bobo

After spending the previous evening researching Burkinabe bus companies in our woefully outdated guidebook, I decided Sogebaf (pronounced “So-jeh-boff) looked like our best bet for traveling to the west of the country. We bargain with a taxi driver to take us to the station (my French is rapidly improving) and as soon as we arrive I regret my choice. “I am so sorry, Lauren,” I moan. “Don’t apologize, this is AWESOME!” Lauren replies.

The bus station is full of run-down, broken-down, just plain down-and-out buses, covered in dust and cobwebs. The waiting area looks like a scene out of an old Western movie, with old furniture piled up in corners and a cobweb-draped disused ceiling fan and worn wooden benches under the shade. The one mini-bus that looks with it is working must is ours, and is being loaded with everyone’s cargo, from bicycles to baskets to bags of rice to mopeds. Our bags are loaded on as well, much to our excitement.

The ride to Bobo, our rest place for the night, is long but bearable, with a pleasing mix of reggae and Indian-inspired music blaring the whole way. We find our next guesthouse, Le Zion, without a problem, and spend a peaceful evening eating lasagna under the mango tree. There are birds and lizards living in our ceiling, but when we don’t bother them, they don’t bother us.

Day 3 – Pavillon Vert to S.I.L. (pronounced “Seal”)

Our next step is to find the correct guesthouse, which we were supposed to be staying in the night before. Since our phone was “finished” we inquired at the front desk about a useable phone, really putting my French skills to the test again. The man in change of customer service told us we could use his phone for a small fee. “Okay.” we said. After trying our 5th phone number (not exaggerating), we finally got through to a cell phone number of a Compassion employee. Just as I have finished the customary greetings in French, “Bonjour. Ca va? Oui, ca va bien. Parlez-vous anglais?” the phone time ran out and the man behind the desk started to laugh. “We will pay the *#$^% bill! Let us continue our conversation!” Lauren yells. At that moment the Compassion man called the payphone back and the desk worker slyly hangs up on him, pretends it was an accident, forcing us to paying him more money to call him back. I am able to reach him once more and tell him our location. In his compassionate nature (no pun intended), he tells he will send someone to pick us up and take us to the guesthouse. At that moment the phone line cuts out again and we refuse to give the desk man any more CFAs, so we set our bags down and wait.

Lauren walks across the street to buy Sangria in a box, which she reports was surprisingly easy considering she has no French skills. We get a few weird looks for drinking in the courtyard at 11:00 in the morning, but we need to calm down as we wait, and people always look at us weird anyway.

While we wait, a man we now refer to as “Googly Bear” (I’ll explain later) approaches us with a pile of photos of white girls on camels, explaining to us he is a guide and offering us his services. We are not interested in his help, and explain this kindly to him, but he shoves his contact information in our hand all the same as Francoise, blessed Francoise, our savior from Compassion, appears to whisk us away.

Francoise, the new visits director for the Burkina Faso Compassion Office, and the one who will take us to visit my sponsor child in a couple of weeks, takes us to the S.I.L Guest House (pronounced “Seal,” silly us) where we are well taken care of by the staff at this International Linguistic Society/Bible Translation/Missionary Family Headquarters compound.  Safe and secure, we recoup for the night without any terrorist attacks or sandstorms.

Day 2 – Tamale to Bolgatanga to Paga to Po to Ouaga (whew!)

After a two-hour tro ride from Tamale to Bolgatanga, we got ripped off when the mate charged us to take our bags down off the top. Then we managed a half hour shared cab to Paga, the border town on the Ghana side, where we were accosted by black market money changers and guides, one of which just decided to become our guide for the border despite our refusals.

We made it through the Ghana Visa Office, where the officer helping us was very impressed we had obtained Ghanaian visa extensions, while a Burkinabe man stood next to us insisting his nationality to the border officers with no identification whatsoever.  We traipsed through a hot grubby truck stop area to the Burkina Visa Office, where they were stamping our visas before we finished our paperwork. (They didn’t care who we were or what we were carrying, they just let us in.) Border-guide-man led us through more truck stop, and the official border was two girls holding a chain open insisting we buy their gum.

We get in a new shared cab to Po, the next closest town in Burkina, holding our bags on our laps so we don’t have to pay to put them in the back (but we end up paying for them anyway.) Outside our hotel in Po, we learn from the hotel guide Patrice that it’s 50,000 CFA each ($100 US) just to get driven to Nazinga Game Ranch, our first planned tourist stop. We definitely haven’t budgeted for this, and it’s only noon, so we decide we’ll skip the elephants and head strait to Ouaga (capital of Burkina.) Patrice tells us the bus to Ouaga will pass in 5 minutes. Perfect! Half and hour later, with no bus in sight, he hails a Land Cruiser with whites (“les blancs”) in it, and arranges us a ride with them.

The couple is French. The man apparently guides European hunters to “hunt” (probably poach) elephants in Nazinga. The wife smoked a lot and scoffed when I tried to ask them about Ouaga in French.  The man spoke English but refused to speak to us, apparently finding our Americaness offensive on his post-colonial French turf. He found great pleasure in careening up over the banks and over dirt speed bumps, so much so that Lauren and I were hitting our heads and flying out of our seats for the entire ride. Jean Pierre and his wife were not very helpful upon arrival in the capital either, dropping us off at a random taxi station in the middle of Ouaga to fend for ourselves. Oh well, I guess we got ourselves into this.

We tried to pick a cab to the S.I.L Guesthouse, our planned housing suggested by Compassion International, but none of the group of 10 Burkinabe taxi drivers we were talking to understood us or recognized the name. (Why, WHY did I not brush up on my French more before we came?) Finally one guy waved his arms about and told us he knew where it was, so we put our bags in the back. He drove us around town for a bit and proceeded to take us to what appeared to be a strip club called La Prestige. We insisted that this was not our hotel. Our driver proceeded to consult the strip club neighbors including a Nigerian who spoke English. They tried to help us use our unusable phone to call the numerous contact numbers we had for Compassion, our hotel and guesthouses. After about 15 minutes we gave up, collected our Bradt guide from our backpack and picked the most affordable hotel on the list.

With directions from our nice strip club neighbors, Nigerians and Burkinabe alike, our taxi driver once again insisted he knew where he was going. After paying him twice as much as we originally agreed, we were finally had a bed. We ate a yummy dinner, and then headed for water sachets across the street. We wondered why the formerly busting streets were now empty of their mopeds and donkey carts and masses of people, but found as we walked that a sandstorm was quickly gathering speed and a full-blown thunderstorm was about to erupt above our heads. We bought our water and ran as fast as we could back to our room, yelling the whole way, since I am blinded by the grit in my contacts and Lauren is trying to lead me home.

Our adventures did not end for the day, oh no. As we slept we kept seeing bright flashes of light through our window and hearing loud popping and cracking noises, almost like firecrackers outside our door. Our sleep induced deliriums caused us to interpret these unusual happenings in very different ways. I assumed the flashes were lightning, and attributed the strange noises (which were certainly not thunder) to my dreams. So since there was no real threat, I felt no need to get out from under the mosquito net and investigate. Lauren, however, was under the impression it was a terrorist bombing attack aimed at getting Burkina Faso on the political map via the assassination of the white American exchange students in the guesthouse. She felt it was critical to not only confront the terrorists outside, but also to cover the crack in the door with a towel to keep the fire from the bomb off of her feet as she opened the door standing in her underwear. As the door opened, I woke up to see a strange figure in the doorway, whom I am convinced is a Burkinbe man who has just kidnapped Lauren (she is no longer in bed) and is about to come get me. I try to sound calm as I inquire, “Hello?” Lauren replies, “It’s just me. I think there’s a bomb outside. But I don’t see or smell anything.” I reply, “Me neither. Come back to bed.”

In the morning there is an electrician curiously peering at the exploded light bulb outside our room as we brush our teeth in the shared loos.

Backpacking Burkina – Day 1 – Accra to Tamale

And so the adventure begins!

We took a twelve-hour STC bus to Tamale in the north of Ghana, loving the air conditioning and comfy seats. Upon arrival, we wandered around the dark streets for a while, asking people here and there if they knew the location of the  “Al Hussein Guest House.” We eventually asked a military officer on a motorcycle for directions, and he followed us on his bike to the “Al Hassan Hotel.” Very helpful. After checking in we caught a late dinner at the restaurant that had just closed, talked with a couple of men in advertising about colonialism and pan-Africanism and got our meals paid for.

All in all, an uneventful day of travel. Probably the only one we’ll have.


For those of you who have been asking, yes, I am home safe and sounds back in the U.S. I’m currently compiling the whole story on my adventures in Burkina Faso, and will share as soon as I’ve gotten it all down on paper!

Thanks for all of your prayers, it’s what’s gotten me through this wonderful ride safely and I really appreciate all of your encouragement over these months. Thanks!

Burkina, anyone?

I am in the midst of planning the most fantastic adventure through Burkina Faso with my dear friend Lauren. On the agenda so far: Sindou Peaks, Domes de Fabedougou, Karfiguela waterfalls, camel rides through the Sahel, camping under the stars in the sand dunes, canoe ride on a hippo lake, safari by moped through Nazinga Game Ranch (including elephants, warthogs, monkeys, and more) and visiting my lovely sponsor child, Tebnooma!

The mango tree

After nearly 4 months in Ghana, you would think traveling around the greater Accra area by trotro would be commonplace, without surprises or excitement. One of the most wonderful things I love about Ghana, though, is that nothing is ever commonplace here. At least, not for me.

It’s a Saturday morning, and I’m on a quest to locate and interview a prominent professor from the University of Ghana for my research project on Ghanaian greetings. Now, I call it a quest because I have been attempting to meet with her for about 7 weeks now, and she is a difficult woman to track down. She told me she would be glad to talk with me almost 2 months ago, but has failed to show up to our appointments. No worries, she’s a busy woman, and I haven’t been in a hurry. Anyway, I finally obtained her cell phone number and called enough times to secure that she would be at the International Institute of Advanced Study all day Saturday, and I got directions  from her secretary so that I could go after her myself. As with any directions in Ghana, to tell someone how to get somewhere, you have to tell a story. There are no street names or house numbers. Here is the story I was told on how to get there:

Trotro to Adenta – last stop.

Trotro to Oyarifa – School Junction.

Gravel road on right. (I learned this actually means “paved road.” There are really no gravel roads in Ghana, only paved and dirt. Mostly dirt.)

T-junction at transformer. (No mention that the transformer is hidden in the bushes.)

Right turn.

IIAS signpost. (it had fallen over in the dirt, but I found it.)

Love Street. (what is this?!? a street name? with a  street sign?!?)

Next junction on right.

Black gate, cream walls.

If this seems a bit ambiguous to you, well, it did to me too. However, I had no problem finding it once I got to School Junction, and when I started looking confused trying to figure out if the walls I was standing outside of counted as “cream” or not (they apparently did not) a nice man on a bicycle asked where I was going and pointed me to the correct walls (which were not cream either, in my opinion.)

Anyway, backtrack, because there was indeed some slight trouble at the beginning:

I walk 15 minutes to the Blue Gate in my neighborhood (again, landmarks are everything in Ghana) and take a shared taxi to the front gate of the University, where I hop on a trotro to Adenta. So far, so good. But in the distance, I see a great swirl of black clouds looming ominously, I suddenly know that I will soon be getting very, very wet. My host sister Carolyn even warned me this morning that the radio had forecasted a storm coming from the northeast, but I don’t believe much of what the radio says around here, since in January they tried to forecast an earthquake and sent the whole of the country into a panic. (People were running around the streets at 4:00 in the morning, houses got broken into, it was a giant mess.) So anyway, now I’m wishing I wouldn’t have disregarded the weather warning, but what do you do? At least I’m in a vehicle.

Five minutes later I am seriously considering just asking the driver to pull over so I can turn around and go home. It’s 11:00 am, but looks like dusk, the clouds are so dark. The wind is whipping so wildly, the dust storm is unbelievable, dirt and garbage and small dogs flying everywhere. Someone was smart enough to start a burn pile on the side of the road before this happened, and flaming debris blows by for a little before we pass far enough away to escape the blaze. Everyone shuts up the windows of the trotro, which is moving at a snail’s pace due to horrendous traffic, and the windows steam up but we manage to stay dry as the water commences crashing down. Within ten minutes, there is a genuine river flowing down the side of the road, 6-feet wide and about 6 inches deep, by the looks of it, carrying trash and broken furniture, and even washing out a poorly parked taxi. The poor market women are wading through ankle-deep toffee-colored water between their wooden stalls.

It takes almost a half an hour before I get to the end of the Adenta route, but thank my lucky stars that the storm has moved on by then, and I, miraculously, have survived unscathed, clean and dry. Apparently, though, there was a flaw in my directions: the “last stop” i.e. where the trotro stops and parks, is not the “last stop” I was supposed to stop at. I get off and ask the nearest mate for “Ayarefah?” and he says, “Oh, dear lady, you have lost your way.”

Well, shoot.

The kindly mate shoes me onto his trotro and starts heading back to Accra, and I am thoroughly confused, but we get to the main junction I had passed a few blocks earlier and he says, “Dear lady, I will show you. Look, go and catch a car under the mango tree, see? You must pick a car under the mango tree.” And he points across the street, of course, silly me, to the mango tree. I wade through a small lake to the mango tree, board an Oyarifa trotro, and find the rest of my way fine. The rest of the story is indeed commonplace: I locate the professor, I get my interview, and I get on home, but the whole way I wonder when I will ever in my life get to catch a trotro under a mango tree after a thunderstorm again.

Easter in the village

In Ghana, Easter is such a big celebration that it receives special holiday status: Good Friday and Easter Monday are both days off in addition to Saturday and Sunday, making for a fantastic four-day weekend. In honor of this special occasion, my drumming professor, Johnson Kemmeh, planned a trip for his foreign student class (my class) to go visit his home village in the Volta Region.

Friday afternoon, we met at the benches under the trees where we conduct class and loaded up two chartered tro-tros with eighteen oburunis and twenty-some foam mats for us to sleep on over the weekend. We drove 3 hours to Dzodze, our professor’s village, where we were led through the winding paths between cement houses and mud huts to his family’s compound. (Johnson’s extended family is indeed very extended, and takes up a large portion of the village.) The boys stayed in one room, and the girls stayed in another room a ways along the path.

We spent the weekend drumming, dancing, attending church Easter morning (which none of us understood, as it was in Ewe instead of English or Twi,) playing with the thirty-odd children in our area of the compound, and eating lots of banku. Banku for dinner, banku for lunch, and on the last day, banku for breakfast. (Banku is a sour-tasting ball of fermented corn dough that sits like a rock in your stomach; tasty with spicy sauce, but darn filling.) We showered with buckets (nothing new to me, but the on-campus students had to adjust,) used a hole in the ground for a toilet, and were constantly dusty. All in all, a neat way to see what life in rural Ghana is really like.

Monkeys, Waterfalls, and Mountains

This weekend CIEE took us on another field trip, this time to the Volta Region. We took a 3ish-hour bus ride north into the steamy, mountainous jungles of Ghana on Saturday morning, stopping at a monkey sanctuary on the way. There we were each provided with a banana and led into the forest with our guide, who made a funny monkey call to let the monkeys know there were people with food coming through. (Note: I didn’t believe it, but monkeys actually love bananas. I thought it was an old wives’ tale, you know, like you’re always taught that mice eat cheese, and elephants eat peanuts, but you know they don’t really.) Within a minute, a dozen small, furry bodies came leaping through the trees up to the trail, and the guide showed us how to hold onto our bananas tight while they ate out of our hands. Once I worked up the courage to hold my banana out, I had four or five monkeys on it, but I got scared when their little fingers started scrabbling at mine and let go of the banana. I had more fun watching other people feed them.

That afternoon, once we drove on a little ways and had lunch at our hotel, we went to visit the tallest waterfall in West Africa, where we swam around and enjoyed the cool jungle water. It was breathtakingly beautiful, with dark brown butterflies flickering everywhere through the trees and frogs the size of your fingernail springing about on the banks of the stream.

Sunday morning we drove a half hour to the base of the tallest peak in Ghana, all of us ready to climb up and view the country from the clouds. When our guide, Dennis, told us it would only take 40-45 minutes to get to the top, we all were a little disappointed, thinking it would be a quick, easy hike up and down. Oh gracious, were we wrong. Instead of taking a gradual approach at the mountain, this trail tackled it head-on, taking us STRAIGHT UP the side. There were points where we were “climbing” more than we were “hiking,” using hands and feet to get up the steep slope. It took me about an hour to make it up the 295 meters, and once I reached the top, it was beautiful. The way down turned my knees to jelly, but at least my lungs had caught up with the rest of me at that point.

All I could think of on the bus ride home:

What a grand adventure.

Just another day at Hope Community

This morning was my first morning at Hope Community in almost a week, due to recent class schedule conflicts and the weekend away at the Volta Region. I was really quite tired and not sure how ready I was to tackle work with the kids, but goodness, how I forget what fun it is to intern at an orphanage.

As I walk into the courtyard, I see that most everyone was still eating breakfast, each child with a steaming bowl of porridge and a slice of bread. Eunice, the adorable (yet strong-willed) toddler daughter of Pastor Joel and Felicia, walks up to me and demands, “Auntie Sara, you do it,” holding out her bowl of breakfast. “Feed me.” Simply because she is she such a beautiful child and all the others are obviously occupied, I sit her down on a stool opposite me and began blowing on her cereal for her, spoon-feeding her and asking of the other children. Pastor Ashley sees me from the window upstairs and yells down, “Sara! Are you tasting the porridge?” I explain that I am feeding Eunice, and he laughs and starts to come downstairs.

Desmond, a sweet, whip-smart 13-year-old, comes up and announces, “Sister Sara, today is Eunice’s birthday!” Eunice is three years old today, and everyone is celebrating. Pastor Ashley comes out, along with Eunice’s mother Felicia, and Desmond leads us in a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Afterward, Desmond and Prosper, the 6-year-old, dip their hands in the faucet and yell, “Hip-hip, HOORAY!” splashing Eunice with every “HOORAY!” while everyone cheers. Desmond brings Eunice her slice of bread and pretends it is her birthday cake, “cutting” it ceremoniously with his hand for her.

After all this excitement there is even more happy news: Pastor Ashley’s wife had her baby last week! The man is simply beaming, and I tell him I will come up and see the baby once Courtney, my work partner, arrives.

The older children start to disperse for school, and the younger ones set into the morning chores, the boys washing dishes and Matilda, the only girl at Hope besides Eunice, washing a large pile of clothes. At this point Courtney walks in, and we make our way to the classroom, knowing that lessons won’t start until we sit there for a while and wait for the children to trickle in from their chores. We’ve tried to help them in the past, but we’re so inefficient we just get it their way.

Right as we walk into the classroom inside, Courtney and I hear a terrible loud noise outside, the sound of a creature in appalling distress, and all the children start yelling with excitement. I hurry back outside to see what the ruckus is, and see an old woman walking through the courtyard carrying a large, squawking chicken by the legs as if it was nothing at all. The thing is really making a racket, and all the children are loving it, while Courtney and I just stare dumbfounded at each other and the old woman carries it inside and down the hall, past the classroom to the kitchen. “They’re going to kill it right now,” Courtney says. I nod; the squawking stops, and we believe the poor bird a goner. Felicia comes down the hall from the kitchen and pokes her head in, asking, “Did you see the chicken?”

“Oh yes, we did. It was very loud. Did you kill it?” we respond.

“Oh no, not yet,” Felicia says, and she whips the poor thing out from behind her back, holding it by the wings now, and it starts yelling and screaming again, scaring the wits out of Courtney and I. She proceeds to take it back out to the courtyard, laughing all the way, and the condemned fowl meets her sorry demise.

As we wait for the other children, and avoid the mess outside, we decide to go upstairs and meet Pastor Ashley’s new baby girl. She is indeed beautiful, sleeping on the bed beside her mother, with a lovely full mouth pursed into an O like only babies can when they sleep, and a fuzzy head of hair. If it weren’t for all the paperwork, I might just bring a baby or two back with me to America. A good idea, yes?

All in all, an exciting day; can’t wait to go back tomorrow. Thank you, Hope Community, for always keeping me on my toes.