Being on a three day African Train journey between Kigoma and Dar es Salaam the story of how Burkina Faso caught me up in jail comes back to me. I have never wrote anything about it before but it was on a similar train ride that it all happened.
Me and my American Friend Travis had border the train in the Burkina capital Ouagadougou in order to visit some Belgian friends and go to a music festival in Bobo Diolasso, while our visas to Ghana were being issued at the embassy.
It started as a nice train ride. We were drinking cheap wine and our favorite African beer called “Brakina” chatting to a girl from the Ivory Coast who was working as a model in London and was happy to meet tourists in West Africa where she was from.
It was then that the trouble started. A super drunk local guy were shouting at us in French that “le blancs” were coming here to steal their ladies while he raised his fists. A policeman was quick to arrive and immediately asked what was going on and to see our papers. We showed him our passport copies and explained that our passports were at the Ghana Embassy, but then he just said “biig problem” and asked for 10 us dollar bribe. Knowing that we had not done anything wrong we refused and ended up having to join him to the police office at the train station where they questioned us for hours.
After repeating the story for the tenth time and after they had looked through all our luggage, phone photos etc they said “OK, we will take you to where you are staying tonight”. “Great!” we thought and got on their motorbikes where they were pretending to find “Villa Bobo” where our Belgian friends were staying, but instead they drove us through some guarded gates and then more officers helped them drag us into a cell where they told us that this is the place we would spend the night.
Night after night passed and when we asked for information or a phone call, they just took away our water and told us to sit down on the bench. Rice or spaghetti with some sauce was brought to us 1-2 times a day and they escorted us to the messiest toilet I have ever seen three times a day. The rest of the time we were just waiting until we saw the faces of the Belgians walking through the door, shouting excitedly “it’s them!”. Apparently they had reported us missing and vouched for us when they were told that we were being locked up.
We were still not fee men, but instead were escorted by two officers to the train station, where they joined us (on first class which we didn’t have to say for!) all the way to Ouagadougou where a friend was waiting at the train station with our passports. The police then let us go and we caught the same train heading back to Bobo Diolasso and our Belgian friends. This time as free men with out passports.
Burkina Faso’s landscape ranges from the dry and sandy Sahel in the North to Savannah covering the center and then there is a region in the South- West called Banfora which receives a lot of rainfall making it much more green and fertile than the rest of the country. Everywhere we looked we saw trees with mangoes with the size of melons and the Auberge we stayed at in Sindou told us that we could have as many as we wanted for free, so that was almost all we ate the two days we were there.
For sunset we walked up to the Sindou Peaks which was national park made up by limestone mountains that had been carved out by wind and erosion. Even though it is Burkina Faso’s biggest tourist attraction, there were no other people there to be seen.
The next day we had to leave early from Sindou as we had a lot of sightseeing that we wanted to do before departing with the evening train from Banfora City. First up was visiting Tengréla Lake where some locals took us out on some creaky old pirogues to see hippos. The wind made us drift pretty close to some of them, but they were all just laying peacefully in the water, not minding us at all.
Second up was the Domes of Fabedougou which was a short but rough drive from Banfora City. The mountains were made up same kind of minerals and erosion as the Sindou Peaks, but the landscape was very different. Instead of slim and tall peaks there were big and red dome shaped mountains that could well have been used as a movie scene from mars.
Last up were the Karfiguéla Waterfalls. When we got there the locals insisted on us taking a guide with us because they said it was too hard finding the way up, but once we started walking we noticed there were arrows pointing in the ground all the way up to the top. Having a couple of hours in the waterfall pools was the perfect way of killing the last time we had before catching the train to the Ivory Coast.
It is no secret that I am a train freak. I love traveling with trains and have previously traveled on the Trans-Siberian Railway, the Silk Route and the Mauritanian Iron Ore Train to mention a few. All since I knew that the overland truck I am traveling with for six months would go through Ouagadougou, I have wanted to travel with the only international train route that is still operational in Western- Africa. Being also a much safer option than bus for this border crossing (having several armed guards instead of just one and because of traffic) and since it went through Bobo-Dioulasso and Banfora were cities I wanted to visit as well it was something I just had to do.
Having read a couple of French blogs saying that the ride was horrible I expected the worst while in reality it must have been more wrong with those bloggers than the train ride itself. Second class is packed with people who bring fruits and other goods that they will sell abroad, but that makes it more of a cultural experience like being in an African market. Me and Travis were seated among a band that had been performing on the National Culture week in Bobo-Dioulasso and in the evening they came to life playing their drums, singing and dancing right in front of us. We had paid 25 euro for our ticket to Abidjan and when we got tired we felt it was worth paying another 15 euro to rest comfortably in an air-conditioned first class for the rest of the trip.
First class had aircon, entertainment and comfortable chairs
In the restaurant behind the first class they sold hot meals, snacks and 0,66l beers for an euro and talk to other travellers. Every time people were pulling up something to eat, either it was beside, behind or in front of us they would offer some to us and they were also eager to inform us about what was happening along the way such as waiting time at the stations and the procedures for the border crossing. We were let through the queue at the immigration office, but those who did not have a yellow fever vaccination card were forced to take the vaccine there and the slowest ones through the border were left behind, just like we had experienced on a lunch stop for a bus a couple of days ago.
All in all I had a quite interesting train ride and I would recommend taking it over the bus any time!
Second class, which was packed with people and cargo during the train ride
Having to wait nearly a week for our Ghanaian visas we had lots of time to kill in the capital of Burkina Faso. In my opinion it is the capital in the World with the funniest name, but it was definitely not the most fun one. Just like most cities in West Africa it feels like a smaller city which has jut been built wider and not higher and with more traffic and Ouagadougou is no exception. They had built monuments in every roundabout that were nice to see but after a few hours walking around town I felt like I had seen it all. Luckily there was a reggae festival and free rock concerts at the Rock Ouaga festival that was helt at the French Institute on the weekend. There was also a Congolese TV crew staying at our hotel who were in the city to capture it’s live music scene and they asked us if they were allowed to film us one of the evenings. They followed us around that whole evening with light and cameras- maybe we will be celebrities by the time we get to Congo now!
Renting scooters one of the days was also a good idea to be able to go to Bazoulé village with the sacred crocodiles and then me and an American also did a weekend escape riding the train back to Bobo-Dioulasso where we got arrested for five days. Now we are just ready to get out of this country and meet up with the rest of the group in Ghana.
Bobo-Dioulasso is a city famous for being the cultural city of Burkina Faso with a lively art and concert scene and a beautiful old mosque built in Sudano-Sahelian architectural style just like the famous one in Timbuktu. It was all built only by clay and sticks in the 19th century and is the biggest clay mosque in the country. Entering it costs about one and a half euro which included a guided tour through it and up on top of its roof.
Except for staying five days in jail, the highlight was seeing the mask dances that the region is famous for. On Saturday evening there was one in the city center where the dancers wore suits made out of straws and danced around drunk of millet beer to chase evil spirits away from some elder who had recently passed away. This was our first meeting with the Animist culture that West Africa is famous for and it left me and Travis an urge to see more so we stayed behind to see another mask funeral ceremony that would happen in a village called Niamadougou the following weekend.
We rented scooters together with some Belgians staying at the same Auberge as us and took off early in the morning. An hour later we followed some shady roads down to the village of Niamadougou where we could hear the familiar sound of flutes and drums as we had heard at the mask ceremony the weekend before. The Belgians having lived in Burkina Faso for three months already, explained that we should first ask to meet the chief to ask for permission and that we should follow certain rules of not wearing red (which was the chief color) and that we should sit on gender specific chairs/benches (two legs meant girls, three legs meant boys). As we got there the chief was very welcoming and explained the traditional to us over a few millet beers. He then got someone to bring us some benches that he placed in terms front of the big crowd that had gathered around the dancers so that we would have the best view. It was much a much more wild and intimate experience than we could have hoped for. The dancers were jumping doing flips, spinning their heavy masks and kicking and whipping in the air, sometimes hitting the people who watched. Animist culture rocks!