Monthly Archives: February 2017

Road Trip

I’m wrapping up my stay in Burkina Faso and finding ways to say goodbye to the country that has welcomed me for the last year and a half.  I’ve eaten in my favorite restaurants in Ouaga, met friends to bid them farewell, and picked up souvenirs to share with friends back home.   It’s also time for me to say goodbye to The Scarlet Menace, the temperamental Chinese motorcycle that has carried me nearly 10,000 kilometers through the dust of Ouaga, the pavement of the hottest clubs, and goat tracks in the forest and the village.  I arrived in Burkina Faso for the first time on the night of June 4th, 2015, and I purchased the motorcycle in cash on the morning of June 6th.  I’ve carried up to three people on the back of this bike, crashed it twice, rebuilt it once, and learnt to repair its most common breakdowns with a Leatherman and a stick.  I rode this bike through the burning tires of the roadblocks to leave my neighborhood during the coup, ridden it through rivers on trips out to the village, and replaced a significant number of the original parts.  It has made my movements here possible, and it’s a big part of my life.

Entropy is the natural inclination of the universe, and nowhere is this more true than in the case of my motorcycle.  When I first bought it it had all kind of reflective trim on it, which I thought would be really useful for making me more visible at night.  I soon realized that none of this trim was screwed on: it was all fastened with an epoxy that seemed to dissolve at speeds greater than 20 miles per hour.  For the first two weeks that I owned it my motorcycle left a trail of parts across Ouaga: reflectors would spin off into the breeze behind me, turn signals fell off, wires unplugged themselves, and I learned a lot about fixing problems on the fly.  After a year and a half the bike is now thoroughly broken in, and although it will never re attain its straight-out-of-Guangzhou chrome glory days, it now functions smoothly.  It’s not a particularly powerful bike but I can cruise at 55 MPH with two people on it.   That’s pretty quick when you’re traveling on a highway built by engineers who control speed by hiding speedbumps in random places.

On Monday morning I rolled out of bed and decided that I wanted to go on a road trip.  This would a be a proper ride: I would bring only a backpack, I would plan nothing, I would aim my motorcycle toward the setting sun and see what I found.  I mentioned my plan to my friend Momo and he announced that he would join me.  He hopped on the back and we set out for Koudougou.  Koudougou is the third largest city in Burkina Faso, but its population is one-twentieth the size of Ouaga’s.  When you leave Ouaga in the space of ten minutes you leave behind the highway interchange, the neon lights of the roadside bars, and the swell of hundreds of motos sliding through traffic like fish through a coral reef.  You then come to a semi industrial zone, where steel warehouses and concrete factories share the landscape with undeveloped plots of land and stray goats and donkeys.  Finally you enter the surrounding villages.  These are significantly more developed than most rural areas, but very few houses have electricity, none have running water, and most of the construction is mud brick and thatch.  All this within 15 kilometers of the hustle and buzz of downtown Ouaga!   Driving out doesn’t feel like travel, it feels like a time warp.

Momo and I made good time to Koudougou, and it felt GOOD to whip past the stubbly cornfields and swoop over the low hills and see afternoon village life from the ground level.  We stopped at one point to drink locally brewed millet beer, and we stopped at another point to reinflate the rear tire after it inexplicably decoupled from the rim.  All vehicles need routine maintenance, but my motorcycle needs surprise routine maintenance.

We descended on Koudougou on the lookout for the nearest biker bar where we could park the steed and put some Allman Brothers on the jukebox, but we had to settle for a tour of the downtown.  We drove past a brand new covered brick market, and a central mosque with a massive spire made of mud plaster and unvarnished timber.  We stopped in the palace of Maurice Yameogo, the first president of Burkina Faso who was deposed in an uprising three years after independence.  His mansion stands unused and abandoned, but you can walk through it and see the salons and terraces where he hosted visiting heads of state.  We kept looking, and we found a bar overlooking the reservoir as the sun set.  Pigs rolled in the mud in unabashed bliss and huge bottles of beer cost a dollar and came out encased in ice as if they had been harvested from a glacier.  The kitchen had an actual menu of food you can choose from, as opposed to most bars where the proprietor comes out and informs you what you will be eating tonight.  We were tinted with dust and perfumed by motor oil, and we hit the nightlife.

Turns out there isn’t a ton to do in the third-largest city in Burkina Faso on a Monday night.  We found a cool reggae bar but the only patrons were older civil servants and Nigerian prostitutes.   We heard loud music elsewhere and rolled over to investigate, but it turned out to be funerary rites.  We finally stopped at a wine bar and came across a French expat, L, who had spent five years here working for an organization that promoted the use of traditional plants for medicinal purposes.  We chatted about the uses of aloe (surprisingly numerous), nightlife in Koudougou (great if you like gardening), and PSGs chances of advancing in the Champions League against Barcelona (good).  At the end of the night we cadged an invitation to sleep on her floor, which is good because Plan B was the open air.  If you want to get the real moto roadtrip experience, it seems like cheating to sleep in a hotel at the end of the day.

I awoke the next morning fully dressed down to my boots.  We got back on The Scarlet Menace and headed for Sabou, a nearby village with a swamp filled with sacred crocodiles.  We got there by dropping off the highway and winding our way through the villages.  As I drove I looked carefully for modernity, or things that were constructed recently.  If you took away the cellphones, motos, and water pumps, life in the village is very much the way that it’s been for the last 200 years.  From Sabou we hooked back east to Ouaga, wrestling the bike through clouds of orange dust and occasionally dropping onto the shoulder of the road when a trailer truck loomed up behind us.

We made it back to Ouaga before nightfall.  I was exhausted: a motorcycle takes physical effort to ride, especially if you’re traveling in the slipstream of trucks or wrenching the bike along sandy paths in the village.  The motor whined and ticked under us, and I could feel the heat radiating around the bike.   I dropped Momo off and resisted the urge to sleep another night with my clothes on.  I showered and then sat on the porch, listening to the tick-tick-tick as the The Scarlet Menace recovered from her brave efforts.


Mechanic working on the rear tire


The central mosque of Koudougou


The covered market


Maurice Yameogo’s entrance hall


The first floor of the presidential palace


Sunset over the reservoir


Momo and The Scarlet Menace


Riding in the village


Materials for sacred amulets and traditional medicine.  In this photo we see elephant skin and vertebra, caiman skin, and the pelt of a leopard.



The mine was interested in sponsoring local people to attend technical training classes on welding, plumbing, electrical work and carpentry.  If you send a cohort of 20 people out for training it’s a positive addition to the community: they learn a trade, get a certificate of completion at the end, and the mine can hire two or three of the top performers and train them as apprentices.  I was dispatched to meet with potential training partners and assess their capacity.

One of my colleagues had driven past a brand new polytechnic school on the outskirts of the nearest large town, and recommended that I start my search there.  I got the number of the school’s founder and called him.   I explained briefly that I worked for the mine, was exploring potential training partners, and wanted to visit the school and see their facilities and learn about their training courses.  He was effusive.  “Our workshop—gorgeous.   Absolutely state of the art, cutting edge equipment, all the newest gear.  Bilingual education in French and English.   Internationally educated teaching staff.  What programs are you interested in?”   I told him briefly, and at each one he told me that there was no finer school in Burkina Faso, possibly the whole world, to teach those subjects.  “Our curriculum is flexible!”   he said in closing.   “We can design our programs to meet any of your requirements.”   This last line should have tipped me off to what was coming, but I’m a bit slow and just assumed he was enthusiastic.

The town isn’t far from our site on the map, but the roads are terrible and it takes two hours to drive there.  I went with a colleague who had to do other errands, and he dropped me off at the school on the outskirts of town and we agreed to meet again in the late afternoon to return.   The building was simple but brand new, with a sparkling concrete wraparound porch and fresh paint.

I walked into the main office to find the secretary asleep literally facedown on her desk.  Her arms dangled by her side and her forehead was balanced on the teacher’s directory.  I coughed a few times but she didn’t stir.  I scraped an iron chair across the floor.   She raised her head and squinted at me.  I told her I wanted to speak with the founder, and she gestured to the door behind her and then replaced her head on the desk.

I opened the door to find a middle-aged man sitting in a dim room staring at me as if he had been waiting all week for my visit.  The desk didn’t have anything on it—not a pencil or a scrap of paper—but the walls of the room were lined with binders and papers in crenellated mounds up to two feet high.  I asked him if I had the pleasure of addressing the same gentleman I had spoken with on the phone two days yore, and he shook his head mournfully.  “The founder lives in Ouagadougou,” he told me.  “Our General Director has been traveling for the last two weeks, and our Principal recently accepted a position as an accountant on a poultry farm.   I am the Adjoint General Director.   You are most welcome.”   I was a little shaken by this news, but I sat down and launched into my list of questions.

I asked how many students were enrolled in the school currently, and he reached behind him, located a piece of paper that had been torn from a lined notebook and consulted it.  “156,” he said.  “I just walked past a few classrooms and there was hardly anyone in there.  And it’s a Friday.” I said.  He nodded slowly.  “Last Friday was a holiday, and not all of the students own calendars.  Perhaps some of them think it is last week.”  This didn’t make any sense to me, but I moved on.   I asked what equipment they had…welders, mig/tig/acetylene, circuit boards, solar panels, plumbing supplies, etc.   He rolled his chair to a different stack of paper on the floor and handed me a printed list.  “This is all of the equipment for our workshop.   The founder plans to place an order tomorrow.”   “But you don’t have any of this stuff now?”  I said, “I need to know what will be available to any students we send here.   What do you have?”   He blinked and then said slowly, “That’s a procurement list.  When the equipment arrives here and is installed, it will be available.   Everything on that list that is delivered here will be available.”   I asked about the bilingual education, and was told that one of the teachers had lived in Ghana for a bit and understood the lyrics to several Michael Jackson songs.

The office was making me claustrophobic and I didn’t feel like I was accomplishing much.   I asked for a tour of the facilities.  He nodded ruefully as if he was a man who was born to suffer and give tours of facilities, and then pushed back his chair and directed me past the sleeping secretary.   We walked past the classrooms, all of which were brand new and barely used.  The blackboards had the kinds of equations you see in New Yorker cartoons; figures that fill whole panels and Greek symbols.  Some of the boards made references to Computer-Aided Design programs, another listed building code regulations in France.  Another board explained that triangles can be identified because they always have three sides.  Out the window I could see rice fields.

I asked to see the workshop where students did hands on training.  He led me around the corner of the building and pointed without irony at a large field where several cows ripped hunks of grass from the stony ground.   “The students will build the workshop themselves, thereby learning structural engineering, welding, foundation construction and plumbing and electrical connections,” he said.   “We are awaiting a partnership that will give us the funds to buy the equipment and materials to construct the workshop.  Then the teachers will come, because they will be impressed by the project and ready to work hard to ensure their future at the school.  Then the students will come, because the teachers will inspire them.   Other enterprises will want to partner with us when they see the quality of students we will produce.  This will be the greatest technical school in Burkina Faso, if not the world.”

I thought carefully about the verbs the school’s founder had used over the phone, and it occurred to me that he never said that any of these facilities existed yet.  I thanked the Adjoint General Director for his time and shook his hand.   He thanked me for visiting, then asked if the mine was hiring, and if so, how could he submit an application?

The Beautiful Game

“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death.  I am very disappointed with that attitude.  I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”  

                                                                                                            -Bill Shankly

On Wednesday night Burkina Faso faced Egypt in the semifinals of the African Cup of Nations.  The winner of this tournament is crowned champion of all the national soccer teams on the continent, and since Africa usually makes the news for coups and humanitarian crises, this is a rare bright moment for international acclaim.  I had watched the Burkina Faso Stallions play live during the qualifying rounds for this tournament—I was present in the national stadium when we spanked the Comoros Islands 2-0—and I turned up a solid 15 minutes early to watch the game at the bar outside the camp gates.

By that time there were already dozens of motorcycles strewed around haphazardly.  This was the only place within 15 miles showing the game live, and 150 people were clustered around a TV the size of an iPad.  I looked around the crowd and noticed that there weren’t more than ten women present, and maybe half of those worked for the bar.  I also saw that not more than a quarter of those assembled were drinking beers or sodas that they had ordered there.  At a dollar a bottle a beer represents several hours working wage, and is an extravagance for all those who don’t work in the mining camp, as illegal gold diggers or as merchants in the town.  Nevertheless, no bartender could be heartless enough to chase away his fellow citizens when the national team are playing.

The game kicked off and it was clear throughout the first half that Burkina had the advantage.  Their passing was far sharper and more incisive than that of the Egyptians, and the stalwart defense soaked up pressure and then launched cunning breakaway attacks.  At halftime the mood was optimistic, but early in the second half the Egyptians nicked a cheeky breakaway goal.  There were no groans or complaints of foul or offside—just silence in the bar as people craned their necks to see what had happened.  Within ten minutes the Stallions surged forward and equalized.  I’ve never heard such deafening silence as when Egypt scored the opening goal, but when Burkina equalized the place erupted.  Beer bottles smashed to the ground, and as Aristide Bancé controlled a pass with his chest and smacked it into the net the crowd went wild.  People honked motorcycle horns and flashed their headlights, five different people shook my hand, and the bartender poured shots of rum for everyone, including some kids who didn’t look more than 14 years old.

I felt a sense of pure joy in the bar that night, but more than that, a sense of true connection.  Our link to the game was distant…the village where I work is 10 miles from the Côte d’Ivoire border and 15 miles from Mali, so we are about as far out in the country as you get while remaining on Burkinabé soil.  The TV we were watching was powered by a series of car batteries linked with twisted wires and charged during the day by a solar panel; the color commentary of the match came from a studio somewhere in France.  The action on screen lagged several minutes behind real life-whenever a team scored my phone vibrated 2 minutes before the play occurred on screen.  Nevertheless the fans around me were glued to every single pass, substitution, and throw-in of the match.  They cheered the loudest for players who had come from the Western region of Burkina Faso.  Everyone watching, young and old, screamed advice in Dioula and Senoufo at players who were playing a game two minutes in the future.

I first became hooked on watching soccer in Hoima, Uganda.  I was living in an outbuilding made of cinderblocks with no running water just outside of the office where I worked, and soccer matches provided me with a sense of community and international connection.  I would visit the Hoima Resort Hotel to watch Manchester United and Chelsea and Arsenal clash with each other in the Premier League, and I’d wonder if Wayne Rooney ever knew that kids in rural Ugandan villages saved their shillings to buy his jerseys, and screamed his name whenever he scored the winning goal.  I wondered if Arsene Wenger knew that old men in Hoima scoffed at his tactical setup, mocking him for relying on delicate attacking midfielders when his team was clearly lacking some backbone in defense.  I wondered if Luis Suarez knew that when Crystal Palace came back to draw 3-3 with Liverpool in 2014, grown men cried along with him.  Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that they didn’t know this.  Premier League teams are so globalized that the players and managers can’t imagine every village in every country on every continent in the world watching them.

That’s the joy of watching the Burkina Faso national team.  All of those players are boys who grew up in the villages, and played on stony soccer pitches like the one where I play after work.  When they score a goal they can see the people leaping for joy next to the straw-thatched huts in the village bars, and they can hear the whine of motorcycle horns in the starry night.  They really do play for the people, and the people can see that.

Burkina Faso lost to Egypt on penalties, 4-3.  After the match the bar cleared out instantly.  They played well, their resolve was strong, and they lost due to bad luck.  There’s always the World Cup in two years, and the African Championship two years after that, and then…