Monthly Archives: October 2016

Up up and away

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.


Mud Season

I grew up accustomed to a certain cycle of seasons: winter is followed by spring which is followed by summer which is followed by fall which is followed by winter etc.  Then I went to Africa and everything changed.  Here in Burkina Faso there are only three seasons: hot and dry season, very very hot and dry season, and rainy season.   Right now we’re on the cusp of the hot and dry season.  It only rains once a week as opposed to daily, the wind picks up, and the sun beams out of a cloudless sky every day.

Two weeks ago I was out at the mining camp, and I decided to take advantage of my half-day off to drive to the nearest town to have a look around.  There is a long spine of bizarre rock formations there that look like they were poured onto the earth from great height.   Big boulders are perched on narrow towers of sandstone and the wind whistles as it rips through the narrow canyons.  If you climb up into the cliffs you can find shards of pottery from civilizations that took refuge in this natural fortress hundreds of years ago.  The sedimentary rocks are a reminder of a time when Burkina Faso was beachfront property, and it’s a strange and interesting day trip.

The town is about 15 miles from the camp, which means it’s an hour away if all goes well.  The Burkina countryside resists road construction the way a wild horse resists being saddled for the first time.  The place is geographically challenging.  Surveyors come out to from the capital to try and plan roads along a route that may have knotty granite outcroppings at one point and then marshy rice fields a few miles later.  In Western Burkina Faso there are riverbeds everywhere which swell and recede depending on the season and even the time of day, so a stream that washes away a car in the morning may find women washing laundry in that same spot in the afternoon.  Roads are built to connect towns, obviously, and a lot of these communities were established back when footpaths and donkey bridges were the only transportation network out there.  Typically the government will build roads that run right through streams and rivers.  They pour a concrete base in the riiverbed, and then you just shift to four-wheel-drive and hope that your truck lumbers out on the other side.  I’ve been driving out there and traversed streams that flow across the road from left to right, and then in a few miles you’ll pass a stream that flows right to left.  It’s tricky countryside.

I set out to look at the rocks with a colleague from the camp.  It had rained the night before and the road was a bit sporty, but I was driving a 4X4 pickup and I thought we could make it.  The first miles were slow.  The ground was saturated and the dirt roads were slick, and in some areas water had just flowed along the hard-packed laterite.  The shocks thumped over riffles where the water had run and the truck lurched over gouges in the road where the boreen had washed away.  After 45 minutes of careful progress we were within a few miles of the town when we hit the mudfields.

The road ran between rice fields on either side, which made the ground marshy.  This was a low area with no drainage, so even when the rest of the countryside dried between storms this area was still soaked.  Massive trucks had churned through the mud leaving furrows, and as I sat in the truck thinking about crossing a motorcycle arrived at the other side and decided to try his luck.  The engine whined as his rear wheel fishtailed under him, and the tire spun up a roostertail of black clods.  He managed to battle the machine across.  I decided to try as well.

I shifted into low four-wheel drive and began to steam across the mud patch.  The truck swayed a bit from side to side but was firmly aligned in the ruts of the trucks that had gone before.  I glanced in the rearview mirror and the pickup was actually leaving a wake behind it; the mud rippled and flowed to fill the tracks of our passage.  Two-thirds of the way through the mud patch I felt the wheels lose traction, and our mission ended, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

I got out and sank up to my shins.  We hadn’t bottomed out, we hadn’t snagged anything, we were just stuck.  I tried everything.   Put the floor mats under the tires and then tried logs when that didn’t work, lowered the air pressure in the tires, rocked the truck back and forth, nothing.  There was no winch.  Like many outdoor enthusiasts have before me, I reflected on the fact that four-wheel drive doesn’t prevent you from getting stuck, it just allows you to get stuck deeper in more remote places.   I got back in the cab to see if time had solidified the muck or perhaps a friendly sorcerer had taken an interest in my predicament, but the vehicle was becalmed on a sea of black mud.  It was like trying to ice skate across a swimming pool filled with marshmallows.

Then Salvation chundered over the horizon.  A little Nissan minibus spluttered down the hill, daring to take on a mud patch that had snared a 4X4.  The driver stopped at the edge of the patch and gazed at it as if wondering what fresh hell this could be.  Then he clapped his hands three times and ordered everyone out of the bus.  It was a fourteen seater machine that had been retired from Europe or Asia when it began to fail emissions tests or be deemed a safety hazard, and now at least 30 people unfolded themselves from the inside of the bus.  The men stretched, lit cigarettes, looked at us with no particular surprise, and began rolling up their pant legs.  It was a practiced gesture.  20 men waded into the mud, lifted the pickup from the ground, and shifted it to a solid position I could drive it from.  I had had enough shenanigans, and I reversed until I was on the side of the mud patch that led to the camp.   Then the driver got back in his bus and arranged the cohort of men around him.  He popped it into first gear and then charged into the muck.  The bus tires were totally bald and the clearance was half as high as the pickup truck, and because it was high and motos and baggage were strapped to the roof, it swayed alarmingly.  The engine groaned and spewed black smoke and all of the men pulled and pushed, at times digging under the sides to lift the bus bodily and lighten the load a bit.  It cleft the mud like a boat, and the mud oozed easily over the tracks it left behind.


On the other side the pushers suddenly relaxed and broke into grins and laughter.  People lit their other cigarette, washed their legs, and rolled their pants down.  One man had lost a shoe in the mud, never to be seen again.  A woman took advantage to sell him a pair of flip flops from a bag she carried on her head.  People compressed themselves into the bus again and it roared on to the next mud patch.   The truck was fine, and I got back to camp with no problems.