I recently had to take a flight that left from Ouagadougou International Airport. It’s a strange place. When it was originally built in the 60s it stood just to the south of the city, but because Ouaga sprawls outward rather than growing upward the airport is now smack in the center of the capital. Whether you travel from north-to-south or east-to-west you have to skirt this massive flatland area to get to any of the busy neighborhoods around it. A staple of conversations in bars around the city is the “Ouaga Pause,” where people stop mid-sentence as a plane roars deafeningly overhead, and then resume exactly where they left off 20 seconds later when the noise has passed. Having an airport right in the middle of everything is wicked convenient for travelers but bad for everyone else, especially when you think about the fact that the majority of Ouaga citizens are not frequent flyers. There are vague pans to build another airport 35 kilometers out of the city, but they’re on hold at least in part because Muhammar Qaddafi, the Patron Saint of Ouagadougou Infrastructure Development, is not sending checks anymore.
My friend G gave me a ride to the airport to catch my most recent flight. Gate security was tight due to a recently foiled coup attempt in the capital, and grim soldiers manned machine gun placements at the door and beckoned cars one by one through a serpentine of concrete barriers. They checked ID of everyone in the car before we were allowed to drive to the passenger drop off point.
I took my bags over to the first checkpoint, just inside of the terminal. Here I had to present my passport, empty my pockets, pass through a metal detector, and then I was frisked by hand, although oddly no one looked inside my bag. I walked 15 yards to the second checkpoint, where armored soldiers checked my passport and visa before waving me through. I walked up to the gate agent to get my boarding pass, and handed over my passport for a fourth time. She printed my ticket, handed it to me, and then asked me for my ticket so she could register my cabin baggage. I handed over the document, still hot from the printer, and she ran it under a special scanner to ensure that the paper she had just printed for me was not counterfeit. I did not say anything about this, because I know better. My documents were found to be in order, and I was allowed through.
I filled out a departure card and passed through immigration, where the officer inspected my visa, scanned my fingerprints and photographed me. He asked me to note the address of my headquarters office, because I had simply noted the location of our mining camp on the card and it doesn’t have an address. He stamped my passport, an agent checked my boarding pass, and then ushered me into the line for security.
After a long wait I arrived at the scanning belt, where a security agent checked my passport, exit stamp and boarding pass. Signs in block letters instructed passengers to remove your jackets, empty your pockets, take out laptops and liquids, but DO NOT remove your shoes before passing through the metal detector. I removed mine anyways and the guy scanning bags told me to put them back on. “These are steel-toed boots,” I explained, “they’ll definitely set off the machine.” He looked at me with the expression that I use when explaining to someone that it’s impossible to get stuck if your truck has four-wheel-drive, and said “this is a special machine. It does not require you to remove your shoes.” I shrugged, walked through, triggered alarms, and was sent back. The agent on the other side of the gate demanded that I remove my glasses and walk through again. More alarms. “Have you had any knee replacements or prosthetic limbs?” he asked. The line was backing up behind me. He crossed his arms and glared at me. “Your problem is that you are wearing your boots!” he announced. I put them on the scanning belt under the baleful gaze of the agent on the other side of the gate, passed through the detector, and was through.
After passing through the metal detector everyone’s bags were searched by hand on the other side. The agent searching bags demanded to see my passport, and I pointed out that to get to this point my passport had been checked 6 times already. He shrugged and said “Maybe they missed something.” He began unpacking my bag asking me if I was carrying any Sumsung Sivins. I couldn’t figure out what this was–a drug, a weapon, an endangered species?–until I realized he was asking about those Samsung phones that occasionally spontaneously caught fire. I promised that I wasn’t.
My boarding pass was checked again before I was allowed into a shuttle bus, and after a 30 yard journey to the aircraft it was checked again at the base of the stairs to the plane. The stewardess checked my ticket for the final time before pointing me towards my place, and I sank down into my seat. The engines hummed and then roared, the plane gathered its forces before rocketing along the smoothest section of pavement in Burkina Faso and sliding into the night sky. Ouaga twinkled below me like a golden doughnut, the scintillating lights of the city interrupted only by the black hole of the airfield in the center.