Five Days in Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso is not the most common destinations for tourists. In fact, I’m fairly certain the average person in the UK has never heard of it, let alone know where it is. According to easy-accessible stats, just over 180,000 tourists visited in 2014 (the year I visited), mostly from neighbouring countries; the only two countries outside the region with a significant number of tourists were France (the largest nationality, about 16% of tourists) and the USA (3.3%). According to official stats, 2,192 British citizens visited in 2014 (or 1.2% of the total tourist influx). Compare that with over 8 million visits to France by Brits alone. I know they’re not quite the same criteria but when the number of Brits visiting a country in a year can comfortably fit inside a non-league football ground, you know it’s slightly off-kilter.

Partly of course it’s that Burkina Faso is one of the many French colonies in the region, as opposed to neighbouring Ghana. This means not only do we Brits have the language problem (we all learned French at school – what happened?! There’s a joke from late 90s sitcom ‘Chalk’ about that very point, the usefulness of French teachers in the UK education system), but we also don’t have Burkinabe disapora going to/from the country. It’s no Bangladesh.

Anyway. I had five days in the country on my trip, and as I’ll explain, that was clearly not enough. I only had five days partly due to my itinerary – I was using it as the northern part of a loop between Ghana and Benin – and partly due to not being 100% sure that my visa was valid.

The flag of Burkina Faso, painted on a concrete barrier.
The colours of Burkina Faso.

This is the flag of Burkina Faso painted on a concrete barrier. The flag dates from a socialist revolution in the early 1980s – the red band represents socialism and the green represents the natural resources, while the star symbolises the revolution itself. Apparently. The same revolution led to a change in the country’s name from ‘Upper Volta’ – the name ‘Burkina Faso’ is taken from the two main languages of the country (Mossi and Dyula), and means ‘land of the honourable (lit. ‘upright’) men’.

Introduction to Burkina Faso

– “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 seemed to go down well – I used it a couple of times now and it never failed 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.

Young men, dressed very colourfully, in Ouagadougou
The group of young men I met in Ouagadougou.

Many Westerners view Africa as one homogenous ‘country’ (to coin a phrase); indeed on a visit to Southern Africa a couple of years later my mother said ‘aren’t you worried about Ebola’ – well, as it happens mother, the Ebola outbreak at the time was in and around Guinea, which is nearer to where you live than where I’m going, so, uhm, no. 😀

My expectations prior to arriving were fairly neutral. I didn’t know a lot about it, other than its capital city being called ‘Ouagadougou’ (‘Ouaga’ for short), and that it’s most noted for being at or near the bottom of many stats issued by the UN and associated bodies – education level, GDP/capita, life expectancy, etc. But with that in mind, it certainly didn’t feel as … shall we say, ‘downbeat’ as those stats suggest – remember that everywhere is more than simply a series of numbers on a spreadsheet.

Other facts about Burkina Faso that you may be interested to know:
* At 274,000 sq km, it’s marginally larger than New Zealand.
* Although 40% of the country uses the Mossi language (Mòoré) as their native language, there’s almost 70 other different languages spoken across the whole country.
* Its highest point (Mount Tenakourou) is in the far SW of the country, and stands 747m tall. This makes it almost the same height as the highest point of San Marino.
* They have never won an Olympic or Paralympic medal.
* As in common with many previously Marxist/Communist states, International Women’s Day (March 8th) is a National Holiday.

Visiting Burkina Faso after a revolution

I mean, I’ll admit I travelled there at an interesting time. Two weeks earlier, when I arrived in Ghana, there was a question-mark as to whether the borders would even be open.

Just before I’d left the UK, and 29 days prior to my arrival in the country, the president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré, had been overthrown in a popular uprising. He’d been in power since 1987 and was one of those long-standing African dictators that successive Western governments seemed happy to tolerate.

An example of anti-Compaoré grafitti in Ouagadougou – 'Assassin, Dictateur, Makind' it says,
Anti-Compaoré grafitti in the suburbs of Ouagadougou.

On the walls of the cities were occasional graffiti, often either criticising the recently-deposed president Compaoré, or welcoming his demise. Apart from that though, there was no sense of any danger, or even undercurrent of feeling; a group of local youths I chatted with near the centre of Ouagadougou (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.

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, but I didn’t get any bad comments for it.

It is probably obvious though that in my time in the country, I saw no other Western tourists.

Bobo-Dioulassou – City of Trees

As an aside, I was always keen on visiting the city of Bobo-Dioulassou, if only because I had a small furry white dog called Bobo for many years.

My old dog, Bobo, on a train. A Pomeranian-Chihuahua cross, and very vain!
My old dog (Bobo), on a train.

Anyway.
There are sometimes towns that, from the first moment you set foot in them, you know it’s not going to be right. Whether it’s a bad initial contact, the company you’re with, the weather, or even something external to travel that affects your mood, you may end up with such a negative feeling about a place that no matter what you find to do there, you can’t help but feel you want to move on. The worst I’ve felt like that was probably my first time in Fremantle, Australia; I just didn’t ‘get’ what everyone raves about. (I have been back to Fremantle, but in the company of a local, so everything made much more sense).

Then there are the opposite; towns which may in themselves not be that special, but you arrive at them in a mentally happy place. Whether because you’ve just come from a place that makes you feel low, or your first contact with locals is warm and welcoming, or even if things just feel right, it makes your whole mood lighten and you want to be there; indeed it feels ‘right’ to be there. I had this feeling in both Vilnius (despite the rain) and, of all places, Adelaide.

Bobo-Dioulasslou Railway Station, Burkina Faso; quite a distinctive, 'Moorish' look.
Bobo-Dioulassou Railway Station – from where you can catch trains to Cote D’Ivoire. Sometimes.

Bobo-Dioulasso has fallen quite squarely in the second camp. I had so many fears; would I cope with the language? Would I find it less easy to get around? Would I panic and spend most of the time locked in my hotel room? For some reason though, despite the bus dropping me off at some obscure petrol station not on my map, despite the driver of the shared taxi take me on a tour of downtown Bobo in a vain effort to find a bank open to change money, despite taking a couple of hours to find a hotel because one of the two I wanted no longer existed and the other had changed its name, despite all this, it all felt perfectly calm and natural to be here.

To be fair, it is a very pleasant city. There are trees everywhere – while not quite a Sylvan Elf town built in and of the forest, the centre of the city is very verdant which must provide a natural air-conditioning environment in the height of summer. Although the pavements are slightly dubious, the majority of the streets are wide enough to walk comfortably down without fearing for your life from wild motos. In addition, the layout of the city itself is quite easy to navigate – very much a grid pattern, centred on a huge market area that makes up most of the central area. A ‘Central Business District’, if you will, except with stalls rather than skyscrapers.

Bobo Town Centre – the market in the trees.
Bobo Town Centre, in the trees, near the market.

While I didn’t end up buying anything in the market (one aspect of travelling with only hand luggage is a relative inability to take items back home), I did end up chatting to a couple of of the stallholders – one in particular selling local tribal crafts, who was disappointed when I declined any purchases (so was his dad!), but in general very glad that I, as a Westerner, was here at all.

Christian church in the centre of Bobo, Burkina Faso.
Christian church in Bobo that looks like an old railway station.

The city lends itself well to idle walking, with quite a few things that catch the eye. The large and quite imposing railway station doesn’t see a lot of traffic, but its location and design certainly draws you towards it. There are a couple of small mosques, and a slightly odd church that looks for all the world like a disused Victorian railway station, but the main sight in Bobo is the Grande Mosquée.

Grande Mosquée in Bobo, Burkina Faso.
The Grande Mosquée in Bobo. It’s very distinctive…

It’s set in quite large, flat grounds and surrounded by trees. But what makes it most notable is its construction – it’s made primarily of mud, with huge wooden sticks holding it together. This is quite a typical method of construction for the area (making full use of the materials you have), and of course mud sets like stone when baked in the endless Sahel sun. Although larger and more impressive examples exist in Mali especially, this mosque is the largest of its type in Burkina Faso, and by inference one of the largest that’s currently convenient for tall, hairy, pasty-white backpackers to get to. The only downside is that it’s surrounded by ‘hawkers’ desperate to act as a guide for a quick buck.

The ambiance of the guesthouse I found also helped my mood. It was called the ‘Villa Olivia’, and lay on a wide stony backstreet on the far side of the railway line. Not quite ‘the wrong side of the tracks’, more the ‘peaceful suburbs’ – indeed the area is known (rather optimistically, I will admit) as ‘Petit Paris’. By the time I found it (after asking two people for directions for its old name, with no results), I was knackered; this, plus my need to mentally self-medicate after my issues crossing the border from Ghana, meant I chose one of the more luxurious rooms (with AirCon) for a whopping 15,000CFA (around £16) per night. Sometimes you have to pamper yourself, right? Even as a backpacker on a budget!

Villa Olivia Guesthouse in Bobo, Burkina Faso.
The outside of my guesthouse in Bobo.

The room was very colourful inside, and appealed to my quirkier tastes, even making me subconsciously feel even more rested. The main courtyard area, whilst not very large, felt spacious with the trees and tables scattered around it. There was also, rather unexpectedly, a small enclosure of monkeys. Food was available, but while you gave the hotel staff your order, rather than cooking on site, they ordered it from one of the nicer restaurants in the city.

Ouagadougou – City Of Open Spaces

Firstly, 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.

The walk from the bus station in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
The road from the bus station to the centre of Ouagadougou.

The walk from the bus station into the centre of the city passed through vast blocks of nothingness between buildings. Occasionally half-built (or half-demolished) structures rose out of the stony ground but otherwise the space was 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.

Odd sculpture at Place des Cineastes, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Towers that look like they're made of children's shape toys.
An odd sculpture in the middle of a roundabout in Ouagadougou.

It was an interesting walk through the city to the embassy, 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.

Place de la Révolution, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Big obelisk.
The Place de la Révolution in central Ouagadougou – symbolism pretty obvious. Note the Burkinabe stars and colours on the fenceposts.

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.

Place de la Révolution, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Crowds.
The Place de la Révolution in central Ouagadougou, earlier in the day when there were more crowds.

There wasn’t a great deal to actually do in the city, 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.

Man leading some goats through the main streets of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
Rush Hour in Ouagadougou.

Ouagadougou was also where I came across ‘rush hour’ in the form of a local farmer herding goats. You just couldn’t do that in the centre of London. Well, I mean, you’d be quicker than the traffic in rush hour but there wouldn’t be enough room on the road. There’s barely enough room for bicycles.

La Pavillion Vert guesthouse, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.
Inside my guesthouse in Ouagadougou – very calming.

The guesthouse I stayed in (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.

Fada-N’Gourma – City with the Stone Lion

The entry for Fada N’Gourma in my guidebook was a couple of paragraphs (admittedly this was longer than the very brief two-sentence mention for Hamile in NW Ghana), so it didn’t give me much to anticipate. Despite only using it as a break-of-journey overnight stop on the long trek from Ouagadougou to northern Benin, it’s always nice to know a bit about a town before you get there. Like, you know, if there’s anywhere to eat, or sleep.

As it turns out, there really isn’t much to anticipate. Fada’s nothing more than a small town built around a roundabout, where the main routes to Mali and Benin break off from each other. It’s very much a trading town, with a large empty town square, a lively open-air market between the two roads, and a large stone lion in the middle of said roundabout.

Stone lion in the road junction, Fada-N'Gourma, Burkina Faso.
The famous stone lion of Fada.

The advantage of its small size means that it felt much less ‘in your face’ than much of West Africa; the people here didn’t really seem to care that there was a tall, hairy, white man bumbling aimlessly around their town – certainly they never approached me to enquire. Maybe I scared them?

What was evident though in the few conversations I attempted was that there was much less fluency in French. It was more difficult to communicate, partly because of this language barrier, but also the local accent was much harder for my ears to understand and pick up on.

Diana Guesthouse, Fada-N'Gourma, Burkina Faso.
My guesthouse in Fada.

It was quite a long and characteristically bumpy minibus ride from Ouagadougou, taking around 6 hours – including a brief stop of around 20 minutes a short way outside Fada when we broke down. The bus I was on was actually a regular service to Mali, so I was one of the few people to disembark in Fada – there was no bus station and everything (from buses to coaches to lorries) dropped off & picked up from random places in front of the market entrance. No-one seemed to know where from or when minibuses to the Benin frontier would go, so on leaving it would just be a case of standing around on the right side of the road and hope I wouldn’t be there too long.

Unexpected war memorial to the French Navy, Fada-N'Gourma, Burkina Faso.
A war memorial in Fada – dedicated to the French Navy in World War Two.

Finding a hotel wasn’t a problem; we’d passed a couple on the way in so I wandered back to one of those (the Auberge Diana). On going in it felt more like a gentleman’s club – there were quite a few men in the main lobby watching football on the TV, but I very much got the impression they were either ‘residents’, or friends of the owner; I only know about one other guest for certain as I heard him in the room next to mine. My room was ‘out the back’, along a narrow walkway, thus quite secluded and hidden from the sun by both trees and the wall on the other side of the path. In a major surprise, the hotel had wi-fi.

Would I visit Burkina Faso again?

Absolutely. Without hesitation.

I was essentially only using it as a ‘by-pass’ to get to the right bit of Benin and prevent the need for backtracking, but it struck me as one of those ‘hidden gems’ of countries that if I had more time, I’d want to explore a few more of the nooks and crannies; two regions spring to mind immediately – the far west, beyond Bobo, near the city of Banfora has stunning scenery and old caves, whilst the far North, near Mali, is very scenic and cultural, where the cultures of the South merge with those of the desert to create a unique atmosphere of people.

I am sure I will be back. But not in Summer when the temperature hits 40°C …

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My experiences of spending five days backpacking across Burkina Faso.

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