Monthly Archives: June 2015

Field Trip


My sweet ride


A TU participant brewing millet beer (dolo) in Lilibouré


Savings group weekly meeting, Lilibouré


Dried millet and sorghum outside a granary, Kasseba


Oh my goodness we need some rain


Burkina Faso 2-0 Comoros Islands


Big Weather

I like all types of Big Weather: huge rains, heat that makes pavement mushy, bone-cracking cold, snow that makes you lose your car, and chicken-stealing wind.  Burkina Faso does not disappoint, and I was exposed to some big weather out on the soccer pitch on Friday.

I play on a field opposite the Nigerian Embassy, although it’s more like an enormous parking lot.  There is not a single blade of grass on the whole surface, just gritty dust and trillions of tiny little ochre rock chips.  It’s incredibly skiddy, so even with cleats on if you want to stop you have to brace your legs and grind to a halt over 5 to 20 feet of space, depending on how fast you’re moving.  Defenders strategically don’t move very much: they just plant themselves like hopeful foosball players and hope to nick the ball off the attackers that come barreling towards them kicking up rooster tails of sand and rock.  We play with large teams and small goals, and instead of pinneys everyone wears their favorite pro soccer jersey.  Team are divvied up in a complicated triage before kickoff: in my first game we played Spanish, Italian and French league jerseys against Premier League and African national soccer teams.  I was initially confused by the system, passing to a guy in a Juventus jersey because I thought it was Newcastle, but I eventually figured it out.  I’ve played most days after work in the last week.

On Friday the wind was whipping the field, and because my teams started with our back to the wind the game was easy: no matter where we kicked the ball, it always drifted towards the opponent’s goal.  At times we had to stop play because the wind lifted up huge sheets of the playing surface and drove rolling clouds of dust across the pitch.  I lost sight of the embassy across the road, but it was fascinating to see crazy patterns in the dust clouds and see the palm trees bending sideways.   Then the rain started to come, and as drops driven in front of the wind started smacking us with painful force everyone ran for their motorcycles to go home.

It’s not much fun to ride a motorcycle into the wind during a rainstorm, especially if you’re wearing a tank top and soccer shorts.  The rain on my skin stung like being shot with a paintball.  I crawled along like a tank, and by the time I got back home I was plastered in mud that had stuck to me on the soccer field or been thrown up by my front wheel.  The power was out in my apartment, so I took a flashlight and headed for the shower.  Lightning was arcing outside the window, and I thought to myself “at least if the house gets hit by lightning, I’ll have warm water for once.”  As soon as I was lathered in soap the power came on and the water cut out.  I figured the rain would do as well as any shower, and the neighbors were all sheltering inside, so I sloshed my way out the door to rinse off under the water sluicing out of the gutter.  I couldn’t hear any thunder, but the lightning zapped across the sky and momentarily froze the shining raindrops in place.

The weather is now teetering between the dry and rainy season.  It’s 100 degrees during the day, but at unexpected times the clouds drop and the wind rises, and then the rain hammers down.

The Motorcycle Diaries, Part I

In Burkina Faso when you go to the gas station, you tell the attendant the total amount you want to pay rather than the number of liters you want.  When I first bought my motorcycle and went to the station I asked for 4000 francs worth of gas, which was the perfect amount.  It filled the tank up to the level without overflowing, and didn’t slosh around when I put the cap back on.  I’ve been moving around a lot and the tank isn’t huge, so yesterday when I was running on fumes I went to the Shell station and asked for another 4000 francs of gas.  Here’s the thing: while 4000 francs is the same amount of money from one week to another, gas prices fluctuate.  The price of gas had gone down slightly since the last time I filled up, and for the first time in my life cheap gas was not a good thing.  This week my money bought me half a liter more gas than the same amount the week before, and at 3913 francs, my tank overflowed and fuel spilled all over the bike and down my legs.

As soon as people saw what had happened I was surrounded by rubberneckers with suggestions, including a guy smoking a cigarette who didn’t get why I was singling him out and yelling at him to back off.  Several enterprising vendors who knew an economic opportunity when they see one offered to sell me boxes of tissues to clean off the bike.  I may not be the sharpest knife in the chandelier, but even I know it’s a real dumb idea to ride around on a motorcycle while you’re soaked in gas.  I pushed the bike behind the station and used a hose to wash myself and the bike off a bit.  Once I started riding home I was dry within minutes, but after 2 hours in the washing machine my jeans still stink of fuel.


Here I am in Burkina Faso.  It was a long trip to get here: Boston to New York, New York to Paris, Paris to Niamey, and finally Niamey to Ouagadougou.  The approach to Ouagadougou is breathtaking: the plane soars 20,000 feet over the Sahara, but because there are no rivers or rock formations to contextualize the terrain, you feel like you’re skimming over the surface of the earth.  From that aerial vantage point you can almost see the horizon peel away at the edges hugging the curvature of the earth, but you can also see human habitations in the desert far below: dark rings of goat corrals with ocher rooves next to them; two or three of these clustered next to a green well or oasis.  When we took off from Paris the pilot was scrupulously bilingual, making all announcements in French and English, but as we got deeper into the Sahel the announcements were primarily in French.  As we approached Niamey, in Niger, the captain announced our cruising altitude, the time and temperature at our destination, and the length of our layover before continuing to Burkina.  Then there was a pause, a crackle of static, and, in English, “uh…this is Niamey.” And that was all.

Burkina Faso is wicked hot, although admittedly I’m not the most objective judge of these things.  We got off the plane into buses that carried us literally 50 yards across the scorching tarmac into the immigration and customs building.  I had to fill out a form saying that I had no Ebola symptoms, which was stamped with due gravitas before I was ushered on.  I’m glad they let me through, because I’m pretty sure that the punishment for failing the form is a month of quarantine in Presque Isle, Maine.   I collected my bags, met the driver who had been dispatched to meet me, and rolled to my new apartment in Ouaga 2000, a new neighborhood in the southern part of Ouagadougou.  My apartment is swank and fully furnished, and is also the only finished building in a 100 yard radius.  This neighborhood is comprised of buildings under construction, sprouting rebar sprouting from dusty walls, and my gleaming white compound stands Ozymandian in the middle of it all.  It’s an interesting neighborhood to walk around: there are people everywhere who live in the concrete shells of buildings under construction, but also finished houses behind high walls with humming air conditioners, mirrored windows, and flowers tumbling over the walls.  One of my neighbors has a horse so white it’s almost transparent, who stands in a paddock in front of the house flinging hay in all directions.  My apartment is a nice space: I have a galley kitchen, living room, bedroom and enclosed bathroom.  There’s a gas stove, running water, small TV, furniture and kitchenware included…it’s decadent.

I went out to eat for my first night, and ended up in the outdoor garden of a nightclub called Le Select.  I was the only patron apart from a group of French girls, and the bar showed Nigerian music videos on a projection screen that lizards crawled across.  There are lizards everywhere here: there’s one dangling from my window screen right now as I write this.

Ouaga is a really spread out city, and my apartment is 8 kilometers from the city center and 4 kilometers from the office where I work.  There are few taxis and everyone gets around by moped so (Mama, close your eyes while you read this next part) I bought a motorcycle.  I went to the Moto lot intending to buy a little moped, but they were having a huge sale to clear out stock for new models.  I bought myself a brand-new Rato motorcycle (described as RATO-homme in the flyer), chili red with a digital gear display, cargo rack, five gears, electric start, high and low headlights, and all kinds of amenities that I didn’t see on the Ugandan boda bodas.  The bike’s quality is about in line with its low price, but it’s heavy and feels solid, and rides smoothly on the corrugated roads around my apartment.  I am the only person on the road who wears a helmet.

I like it here a lot.  This is a dream come true for me: I have a good job at the heart of a fascinating economic development research project, living in a fine apartment in Francophone West Africa.  The people I’ve met are kind and gracious, I can zoom around the city under my own power, and I’m warm and dry.  What’s not to love?  In the coming weeks I’ll fill you in on the details: my apartment, the places I go in town, life on two wheels, my work etc.  Next week I’ll be traveling to the field for two days, working WAYYY up north in Burkina about 20 miles from the Malian border.  I’m excited to get to work and do what I came here to do.  Send me emails and comments, and let’s keep in touch.