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.