Ouagadougou – City of Open Spaces

– “Have you ever been to Africa before?”
– “Well, a long time ago I went to Morocco and Tunisia, but they don’t count; this is the first time I’ve been in Africa proper.”

This response always seems to go down well – I’ve used it a couple of times now and it never fails to get an amused and smug reaction from the locals; in this case a group of young men I bumped into near the centre of Ouagadougou.

Firstly, though, the stereotype. Most people in the Western world have only heard of Burkina Faso’s capital because of its name, which rolls off the tongue in the same manner as “Tegucigalpa” and “Nuku’alofa”. Probably even those people who’ve heard of the city for itself wouldn’t have any idea where it was in the world, much less the country itself.

Ouagadougou is … I guess one might call it a ‘sprawling metropolis’ in terms of size, but it didn’t give me any sense of being ‘enclosed’, as I’d have felt in many cities around the world. Partly this is due to its size being a function of useful land rather than population growth – although the bus station I arrived at was a couple of miles outside the city centre, much of the land in between was either derelict, or never built on in the first place. In a sense it’s a bit like Las Vegas, and possibly every desert city, whereby there are large blocks of land between roads that just aren’t being used, regardless of the fact that blocks further down the road are.

Southern Ouagadougou
The walk from the bus station into the centre of the city. Vast blocks of nothingness between buildings. Occasionally half-built (or half-demolished) structures rise out of the stony ground but otherwise the space is only occupied by improvised car parks.

It also felt quite ‘open’, but then the city doesn’t have many high-rise towers. Since the surrounding landscape itself is relatively flat, and the roads are, by and large, straight, the city feels much more expansive than it probably is. That’s not to say it’s a small city; my journey to the Beninese embassy took me around 4-5 miles into the deep South of the city, and under the cloudless sky and bright dry-season sun it comes as no surprise to learn that I did take a taxi back to the centre.

It was an interesting walk there, if not amongst the prettiest. Most of my journey down was along one of the major thoroughfares out of the city (Avenue Bassawarga) – a dual carriageway lined with beige stone buildings, fairly dusty and sandy – and the pavement was only mostly complete, being occasionally interrupted by a purposely-planted tree, or narrowing to barely a tightrope’s width due to an encroaching building or wall. I did notice also there seemed to be quite a bit of patriotism inherent in the city; across the city, the Burkinabe star that appears on the flag was widely present on everything from buildings to concrete barriers/walls.

Burkina Star
The Burkinabe flag, as imprinted on a small stone block. Dating from a socialist revolution in the early 1980s (at the same time the country’s name was changed from ‘Upper Volta’, the red band represents socialism and the green represents the natural resources, while the star symbolises the revolution itself. Apparently.

revolutionary graffiti
An example of anti-Compaoré graffiti.

On the walls were occasional graffiti, often either criticising the recently-deposed president Compaoré, or welcoming his demise. Apart from that, there was no sense of any danger, or even undercurrent of feeling; a group of local youths I chatted with near the centre (who were trying to sell their paintings and local trinkets) held the view that it was the best thing to have ever happened here and that the majority of people now felt ‘free’, more so than they’d ever done before – almost like a weight had been lifted, not only from the people, but from the country as a whole. They were also happy to see me here, not on a personal level, but the fact that a Western tourist was here at all, due to the recent coup – it was these people amused by my comment above.

Local Youths
The group of young men I met along a road in central Ouagadougou.

While not the first time I’d applied for a visa at an embassy while travelling (as opposed to doing it in my home country), it’s not something I do on a regular basis; partly because most countries I’ve been to have either been visa-free, or visa-on-arrival, or to countries (like Ghana, actually) where due to government regulation, it would otherwise have been hard to get a visa anywhere but home. At the time of travel, you could get a visa-on-arrival for Benin, but it was only valid for around 48 hours and had to be renewed in Cotonou, the entire length of the country away from where I was due to arrive, the whole point being I wanted to see places in between.

The embassy took a little while to find, being down a side road and not at all signposted. It resembled a large townhouse, with a nice ceramic-tiled front yard enclosed by trees and high fences, and free tea while I waited & filled in the form. Aside from a need to provide a photocopy of the details page of my passport (which necessitated a hunt for the local reprographics shop – that there was one at all in the vicinity was a surprise to me, though no doubt it gets regular custom, although again it wasn’t indicated), the actual process ran pretty smoothly and only took about an hour.

Smoothly, at least, for me.
I was not the only person attempting to get to Benin. Not long after I arrived, I was joined by 12 young Pakistani men, who seemed to have had some trouble at the border. They’d apparently been here a few days earlier, but when they reached the border, whatever paperwork they’d had or been given hadn’t satisfied the border guards who’d turned them back to Burkina Faso. They were here to try to understand what was wrong, and to try to fix it – although never aggressive, you could tell they were angry, and a bit ‘direct’ at times.
The main stumbling block was one of language. They didn’t speak French. My French wasn’t really good enough to mediate between them and the friendly diplomat who was trying to remain calm but it was clear she was getting a little frustrated with them; in any case, their English surprisingly wasn’t as good as even some of the people I’d come across so far in Burkina Faso.
We did end up chatting a little, finding initial common ground in cricket, but that line of discussion ended swiftly when we disagreed on the merits of T20 (they loved the quick form of the game, to me it’s the sort of thing you’d play in your garden when you’re eight).
They were still there when I left. For all I know, they’re still there now.

My guesthouse (La Pavillion Vert) was in the Northern suburbs, a reasonable but easy walk from the city centre, although I did get lost a little in the grid-like road system where everything looked the same and again, no street signs. It was worth finding though; a lovely little place filled with trees, with a decent bar that also served standard African pub grub, and it seemed like a good place to arrange trips further out into the wilds of the rest of the country – unfortunately I didn’t really have the time for that on this trip.

The outside of my hotel
The exterior of the hotel. It also serves as a shop for local crafts, and arranges tours to see them in action.

Hotel bar
The lovely bar, hidden amongst the trees.

Signpost
A very typical backpacker sight – distances from the hotel to various places in the world. But not Kirkby-in-Ashfield, obviously.

There wasn’t a great deal to actually do here, but that wasn’t the point; for me, just being there was enough. Exploring the more central streets itself was quite appealing; watching the people and the traffic pass by, and seeing some of the more unexpected sides of the city. As a rule the people were friendly, without being overly attentive as often was the case in Ghana – at one point I was lost looking for a place to eat a late lunch, and a chap selling water at a street stall physically walked me to someone he knew, an old lady, who ran a very small hut (big enough for two people) selling rice for 3,000 CFA, and then wandered back before I had a chance to thank him.

Goats on the Road
Local traffic in the centre of Ouagadougou.

Globe
The ‘Rond-Point des Nations Unies’, complete with globe.

The main focal point of the city was the main square (Place de la Révolution), with a tower and a stone map of the provinces of the country; it was interesting standing in it knowing that this was the place that recently saw large protests – and indeed on my first pass by there seemed to be some kind of public meeting going on, with people in the square and some police with guns just standing by, watching and waiting, but by the time I came back later in the day the place was completely deserted.

Main Square
The main square in Ouagadougou. Note the ‘flame’ statue and the preponderance of Burkinabe symbols on the posts.

Surprisingly, no-one seemed particularly interested or worried by the fact I was taking pictures. I’d expected a bit more push-back in the post-revolutionary world, especially in a country with such a major dictatorship past (Blaise Compaoré had been in power from 1987 and he’d only been overthrown 29 days prior to my arrival in the country), but I didn’t get any bad comments for it.

visited 1-4 December 2014

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