At a farewell party for a French couple one night in Ouagadougou, the impeccably named capital of Burkina Faso, I asked some friends about the situation in the north.
They laughed nervously. Hadn’t I heard? The government had evacuated all the expats some months before — had supposedly rounded them up in the dead of night, after rumors spread of an alleged plot targeting foreign nationals. Since neighboring Mali began to unravel, everything in Burkina Faso had changed. You couldn’t travel more than 60 miles north of Ouagadougou without written permission and an army escort, they told me. Hadn’t I heard?
No, I hadn’t.
What I had done, in fact, was to arrive in this little West African nation with breathless plans to travel across the Sahel in the country’s north. The long, parched belt of semi-desert on the southern cusp of the Sahara is Burkina Faso’s most evocative region, a place out of Paul Bowles or Wilfred Thesiger. I imagined crowded bush taxis and colorful Tuareg markets and desert campsites with my tent pitched beneath the stars. But now the north was off-limits, no more accessible than the fabled land of Timbuktu.
I let the news sink in, washing it down with an oversize bottle of Brakina beer, which, in typical Burkinabé style, was about the size of a camel’s shank. Smoke from a nearby grill pirouetted into the night sky. Wherever there’s a maquis, or sidewalk bar, in Ouagadougou (pronounced WAH-ga-DOO-goo), there’s a crafty entrepreneur near at hand, selling brochettes or grilled fish to hungry drinkers. It’s one of the simple pleasures of life in this ramshackle city.
There were worse places to be, I figured. After all, I’d been here before.
“You can’t be bourgeois in Ouaga,” said a young Frenchwoman. “Except here.”
We were having cocktails at Villa Kaya, an upscale tapas bar that had, since opening some months before, been adopted as the nightspot du jour for Ouaga’s energetic expat community. The tables were set in a sandy courtyard shaded by towering neem trees. The walls were painted blood red and hung with West African objets d’art. Everything looked stylish, sexy — chouette, cool, in the parlance of the French girls chattering at the table. It was decidedly unlike anything either of us — my companion, a longtime resident, had recently repatriated to Paris — had seen in Ouagadougou before.
I first visited Burkina Faso in 2011 for FESPACO, the country’s biennial film festival, which has improbably reigned for nearly half a century as the continent’s premier showcase for African film. Dust-swept Ouagadougou seemed like the unlikeliest of capitals for the African film world; it seemed an unlikely place, too, for a holiday. Like the country around it — a poor, parched, landlocked nation of 17 million — there was little on the surface to appeal to the casual tourist. Even the French, arriving in Burkina Faso more than a century ago, seemed ill disposed toward the colony they christened Upper Volta. For years it was little more than a source of cheap labor for the profitable cocoa plantations in neighboring Ivory Coast.
The festival passed, and yet I found myself sticking around, oddly seduced by the city. The Burkinabé were warm and genial. Even after some years of traveling in Africa, I was surprised by the good humor with which they took the day’s challenges in stride. Everyone was thoughtful, helpful, curious. The name Burkina Faso means “land of the upright men,” and that seemed to me in keeping with the character of the people I met.
The pace of life, too, was easy — a consequence, perhaps, of the oppressive heat. In the afternoon, men gathered in the shade of the city’s ubiquitous neem trees, chatting, laughing or kneeling on mats to perform their daily prayers. The city’s preferred modes of transport, the bicycle and the motorbike, felt like a natural fit for the lazy rhythms of the Sahel. In the evening, returning to my small outlying suburb from the city center — a drive that, even in rush-hour “traffic,” took all of seven minutes — I watched packs of schoolchildren pedaling home, drifting back and forth along the road’s shoulder like schools of khaki-colored fish. Life seemed to pass in the spaces between God’s breaths.
Yet now, two years later, change seemed to be blowing across the city like the fierce harmattan wind that sweeps down from the Sahara each year. Wildcat exploration companies were pouring into Ouagadougou, flush with foreign currencies, on the heels of the discoveries of new gold deposits around the country; friends told me that rents in fashionable parts of the city had doubled in the past year. Crime, too, was on the rise, a troubling trend for a place long considered one of Africa’s safest capital cities. You did not have to go far in Ouaga to find a young Frenchwoman whose pocketbook had been snatched by opportunistic thieves on motorbikes. A few other foreigners had been stabbed.
What was going on?
When I last lived in Ouagadougou, the country appeared to have reached a tipping point. A series of increasingly bellicose student demonstrations had spread to trade unions and merchants — and eventually to the military. Panicky expats fled the country. A curfew was imposed. Sitting with my housemates in our darkened compound, fretting over lukewarm bottles of Brakina, we listened to the popping of distant gunfire as disgruntled soldiers took up a nightly campaign of drunken looting across the city. One night there was a shootout at the presidential palace: President Blaise Compaoré, surrounded by his elite presidential guard, was spirited from the capital to the safety of his village.
For a few weeks, Western analysts wondered breathlessly whether Burkina Faso might, on the heels of the Arab uprising, provide the spark to ignite an “African Spring.” But the protests petered out. Wily Compaoré had lived to fight another day.
Sitting at Villa Kaya two years later, pondering the downward slide since my last visit, I asked my friend what was happening in the city we both knew and loved. She had her theories — the expat rumor mill in Ouagadougou was never short of grist. Some said it was Ivorians from Abidjan, allies of the deposed Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo, who feared retribution and no longer felt safe in their country. Others thought it was drug traffickers from Liberia or Sierra Leone. Still others said that it was remnants of the Burkinabé military, since hundreds of soldiers had been left jobless when the government, in the wake of the 2011 protests, disbanded several regiments.
Each theory seemed entirely plausible — oddly fitting, perhaps, for this peculiar crossroads. Two years ago, I had met a young Cameroonian novelist who had quit his studies in Algiers, hustled his way across the desert and found himself now toting his manuscript around the dusty streets of Ouagadougou. Then there were the two Gambian brothers who, through an improbable series of twists and turns, had tried to make their way to Europe via Libya, only to get caught up in that country’s civil war. They were looking for a way to get to a refugee camp in Ghana.
Moammar Gaddafi himself, in his final days, was rumored to be looking for sanctuary under the protective wing of his good friend Compaoré. (The colonel had pumped millions of dollars into Burkina Faso; a mosque, a luxury hotel and a shopping center in the upscale Ouaga 2000 neighborhood were part of his dubious legacy.) As the Libyan government tottered, there were reports of a fantastic convoy crossing the desert, like the great trans-Saharan caravans of old — hundreds of vehicles, laden with guns and riches, kicking up dust on their way to Ouagadougou.
“La vie est simple,” a Burkinabé man once said to me when I asked, with a certain feigned naiveté, how life is in Burkina Faso. A few days later, the phrase was repeated verbatim by a Frenchwoman I’d met in Ouagadougou two years ago, when I asked, over a strong cocktail, why she’d never left. “La vie est simple,” she said, delivering the line with one of those whimsical Gallic facial expressions that suggest the answer is obvious to all but the most bovine Americans.
Life is simple. In fact, I would often say it myself when trying to explain to friends back home the odd charms of a dusty, brown-tinged city where temperatures this time of year regularly top 115 degrees. It is perhaps the reason everyone looks at the troubling signs — the rising crime, the neighboring unrest — and takes them in stride. Life in Ouagadougou has a metronomic quality; it’s full of evening drinks at the crowded maquis, Saturdays at the pool, Sundays paying visits to family and friends. It’s no easier to imagine the city’s rhythm being ruffled than to imagine an end to the heraldic call to prayer, which rouses the heat-stilled city from dozens of minarets five times a day.
One afternoon I called on my friend Davy, a young Burkinabé actor I’d met during the last film festival. He took me to eat at a sidewalk cafe, where a stout, frowning woman dished out piping-hot piles of spaghetti — a low-cost staple across West Africa — into plastic bowls. We talked about his maquis, which he had opened a year before. Business was tight. One of his employees had taken off with his savings — more than 40,000 francs, around 80 U.S. bucks, which he had pieced together through months of work. Though life in Ouagadougou has a simple charm, it’s still a grind for most of the 1.5 million Burkinabé who call it home.
I asked after Davy’s brother, Joel, a wiry, mischievous 30-something who washed cars in a nearby lot. Joel had a poet’s soul; he kept a wooden tablet by his bedside, on which he scribbled verses from the Bible for daily inspiration. Recently, Davy said, he had written the words: “Un homme qui a faim n’est pas libre.” A hungry man isn’t free. “Il est philosophe,” said Davy, laughing gently at his philosopher-frère.
Walking home from lunch one afternoon, I was approached by a young man on the dirt road that ran in front of my house. Tall, handsome, his arms ripped with muscles, he told me that he was a soccer player from Nigeria.
I asked how he had ended up in Ouagadougou, of all places. However ephemeral today’s borders can often seem, the dividing lines between Anglophone and Francophone Africa are pronounced. (“Burkina life is different,” he said simply.) Though just several hundred miles separated us from his family in Benin City, Martins was in many ways farther from home than I was.
As it turns out, he had been lured from Nigeria by a Dutchman, a scout who’d offered to find him a spot on a team in Ivory Coast. The Dutchman had vanished with his recruitment money in Abidjan, and a few weeks later, Martins was on a bus that deposited him in Ouagadougou. For six months he’d trained with a local squad, but now the coach was refusing to play him with the first team, which meant that Martins wouldn’t get paid. The season was about to start, and he now found himself without a squad. It was a terrible bind.
Couldn’t he go back to Nigeria? I asked.
“My mother, she sweat just to give me small money,” he said. “If I go back, I’ll look like a foolish boy.”
When I arrived in Ouagadougou in February, full of avowals to improve my threadbare French, I bought a children’s book from one of the itinerant hawkers who ply the city’s streets: “La Belle Histoire de Leuk-le-Lièvre” (“The Beautiful Story of Leuk the Rabbit”), by Senegal’s former poet-president, Léopold Senghor.
It tells the story of a young rabbit who ventures forth into the wider world, where all manner of mishaps and misadventures befall him on the path to age and wisdom. I couldn’t help feeling an empathetic bond with that rabbit, and with my young friend Martins — each of us lost in the world, in our own ways.
If all went well, according to my logic, I could commit myself to my studies, acquiring my own sort of wisdom along the way. With any luck, after a few hard-fought months, I’d be speaking French like an 8-year-old Senegalese boy.
The book was slow going. Learning a language is like discovering a new country: its singularness, its nuances, its odd rules and whims. You’re always arriving at new frontiers. Armed with my French-English dictionary and my notebooks, conjugating everything in sight, I slowly charted the uncertain terrain around me, in the same way that I was reacquainting myself with the changing city. Slowly I could feel that expansiveness that comes with discovering a new language or place: approaching its spirit, its rites and mysteries, like a sacred temple. After a month I knew that there was no going back — I could never return home like a foolish boy.
A few weeks later, I saw Martins again, his rangy legs loping down the street. His spirits were high: He had made friends with another footballer, from Togo, who had told him about upcoming tryouts in that neighboring country. Martins had scratched together money for a bus ticket; he was leaving Ouagadougou the next day. We exchanged contacts. West Africa is a small enough neighborhood, and I knew that I might find myself in Togo a few months down the line. I promised to look him up in Lome. It would be, I thought, a beautiful story.
“A trial isn’t the end of a man’s life, it’s the beginning,” said Martins, a few precocious whiskers on the smooth baby skin of his cheeks, sounding wise beyond his years. “This is my beginning.”
Vourlias is living in Nigeria and working on his first book.