Ouaga teaches what 'foreign' is

February 25, 1996|By Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan,LOS ANGELES TIMES

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso -- Why, friends wanted to know, was I determined to go to this remote, euphonious city, the capital of Burkina Faso but known to its residents simply as Ouaga?

It started with a desire to attend FESPACO, the Pan-African film festival held every other year and considered the premier cultural event on the continent. Never mind that an overseas advisory service typically called Burkina "not near the top of anyone's short list of travel destinations." I found I couldn't get the city's name (pronounced wah-ga-DOO-goo) out of my mind. It set off the kind of echoes that make places like Timbuktu and Angkor Wat sound so irresistibly romantic. What could be more foreign than Ouagadougou? What could it possibly be like to actually be there?

Since FESPACO is a biennial event, I had plenty of time to research both the West African country and its chief city. What I found, in research, was not initially encouraging. Just for starters, Burkina Faso, known as Upper Volta when it was a French colony, was one of the least developed countries in the world, known, said one guidebook, as "desperately, and famously, poor."

About 80 percent to 90 percent of the Burkinabe toil as subsistence farmers; 1 million others have moved to the neighboring Ivory Coast to find work; the country's literacy rate is estimated as low as 15 percent and a recent U.N. Human Development Report ranked it 170 out of 173 nations.

And, with life expectancy at 48 years, health is also a problem, especially for visitors. During the 19th century, West Africa was known as "the deadliest spot on earth," and even today buying medical evacuation insurance (it's not as expensive as it sounds) is strongly recommended for all travelers.

Still, I kept hearing that Ouaga was one of the most popular of West African travel destinations. More than ever I wondered what it had besides that romantic jawbreaker name.

Because Burkina is part of the edge-of-the-Sahara area known as the Sahel (from the Arabic word for shore), it is a supremely hot and dusty place for much of the year, so dry it is rare to see a Westerner without a bottle of Lafi, the local mineral water. Yet unlike neighboring Abidjan, the bustling capital of the Ivory Coast, Ouaga has the refreshing air of an overgrown village, with no skyscrapers to speak of and the ambience of a city that is never going to be finished.

Taxi ride

One of the more interesting things to do in Ouaga during the day is to take a drive around the area in one of the taxis that congregate near the main hotels. Even a 10-minute journey into the countryside brings you past traditional village compounds that look as they have for centuries: conical, thatched-roof huts inside a traditional, circular enclosure. And the city itself -- where the streets are either completely nameless or grandly dedicated to heroes of liberation such as Nelson Mandela, Che Guevara and Kwame Nkrumah -- features a never-ending parade of street life.

Though Burkina is a poor country, it is an industrious one, with makeshift market stalls on many streets. Every drive brings you past women dressed in colorful print dresses balancing huge loads of everything from oranges to piles of mirrors on their heads. And bicycles do not transport just people, they convey huge loads of hay, massive water cisterns, sacks of coal, piles of ox skins, anything and everything you never imagined could be moved this way. Even my French-speaking driver would occasionally eye a precariously balanced load and sigh, "Ah, Afrique."

Despite the dizzying nature of this panoply, it is impossible to move through Ouaga without noticing the poverty, visible in everything from persistent child beggars to grimly substandard housing to the country's paper money, which has been worn to a remarkable thinness by repeated use. And the fact that vultures can be seen everywhere, often just perched on buildings to have look around, does not make for a prosperous ambience.

Yet to talk about Ouaga only in terms of its lack of material goods is to give a completely misleading impression. For if the broad cliche of African travel is that you go to East Africa for the wildlife and West Africa for the people, the Burkinabe are known to have perhaps the most wonderful spirit of any group on the continent. Warm, lively, with an enviable self-assurance linked to a dignified sense of who they are, the citizens of Ouaga have not been overwhelmed by their poverty and manage to turn almost every transaction with them into a restorative experience.

Shopping trip

Unless you come for the film-intensive FESPACO (scheduled for February in odd-numbered years), or for SIAO, a huge Pan-African crafts fair that is also biennial (set in October of even-numbered years), one of the main things to do in Ouaga is shop in the Grand Marche, a completely involving, not to say exhausting, experience.

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