Snapshots

The drive from the mining camp to Ouagadougou takes eight hours. There are frequent police checkpoints along the road, and the closer you get to the capital the checkpoints become more professional and organized. Whenever you travel by road on official business in Burkina Faso, you need to have a document called l’Ordre de Mission. It’s a holdover from the French colonial era that somehow exists to this day: a clean sheet of paper marked with the dates of the trip, the names and occupations of the passengers in the vehicle, the purpose of the trip, and then a lot of signatures and stamps.

At the first checkpoint we reached after leaving camp, an officer got up from his lawnchair and demanded the Ordre de Mission and identification for everyone in the vehicle. He glared at mine suspiciously and then said that we could not continue. The problem was that the Ordre de Mission listed Sam Gant as a passenger, and my drivers’ license identifies Gant, Samuel. “These are not the same person!” he cried, “What is written on the page must be the same as what is written on the identification. These are different people. Where is Sam Gant? You have no proof that he is in this car.” We sat there for 20 minutes before he relented and waved us on. At the next checkpoint we were stopped by another soldier. He also scrutinized the Ordre de Mission and declared it unacceptable. “This is dated for November 30th. Today is the 29th. You can continue tomorrow,” he said. “Excuse me sir,” the driver said, “but today is the 30th.” The officer checked the calendar on his cellphone, shrugged, and waved us through.

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I took my motorcycle to the mechanic to have my oil changed, and he pointed out that there was a small crack on the exterior of my gas tank that should be welded. He said he could do it right away and I sat down in the shade to wait. To my shock he fired up an acetylene torch right there and began to approach the bike. “Whoa!” I shouted, “What are you doing? Take the tank off the bike before welding it. Are you seriously planning to do welding on a tank that’s filled with fuel? Drain it dry, weld it, and then put the fuel back in.” He and his apprentice giggled as if I had told them to wear a helmet while inflating tires with air. “It’s just a tiny crack,” they said, but I held firm. They drained, detached, welded, reattached and refueled. The whole process took about 45 minutes. When they had replaced my fuel I checked the tank and saw that it had gone from nearly full to a quarter full. I pointed this out and asked where the rest of my fuel went. “It evaporated,” they said.

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My friend Momo and I went out to a local bar one night. They have an old TV there that shows films on the Burkina national broadcasting channel, and as we walked in Momo said “oh, I’m in this movie.” I looked. He was right. There on the screen he was dressed as a security guard, chasing some miscreant through a vacant lot. I told him I thought it was pretty cool to go out to your local bar and see yourself onscreen on TV. He said he had been in four movies total, all local productions made by directors he was friends with. For the most part the pay was low, but he got paid 700 dollars for one movie where he was only onscreen for five minutes. This sounded like a good pay day, but he explained that in that movie he was playing a cheeky suitor who got slapped by the object of his affection. “We don’t have any special effects here,” he pointed out, “so I just had to get slapped a lot. I insisted on bonus pay. The movie wasn’t even that good in the end.”

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I went to an artisanal crafts market to buy Christmas presents before flying home. I found a guy selling batik prints on local cotton and hand-forged bronze figures. His wares were spread out on a rickety table made of unsanded planks. I asked if he had made the prints himself and he said he had, showing me the pencils and wax blocks he used to sketch out his designs. “Wow,” I said, and put a few prints aside to buy. I asked him if he made the bronze statues as well and he said he made those too, showing me a small forge and clay molds behind his table. “Cool,” I said, and put some bronze figures aside as well. I got out my wallet to pay and he leaned towards me carefully. “I made the table myself, too.” he said, hopefully.

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