When I was at school I always enjoyed geography classes and I distinctly remember one particular lesson when I was about 12 or so and my teacher, Mrs Ozols, was teaching us capital cities. This, to me, wasn’t work but more like a trivia challenge or a TV gameshow. We obviously knew our Romes from our Parises and our Londons from our Moscows, and some of us even knew our Ottawas from our Canberras. But I was the only one to know my Ouagadougou! I’ve always liked to boast about my knowledge of capitals and back then I was no different as I surprised the class, and Mrs Ozols, by being the only one to know the capital of Burkina Faso. I don’t think I knew where it was at the time but I’d always loved the fact that a place called Ouagadougou actually existed. Well, it existed then and it is still the capital of landlocked Burkina Faso in West Africa, and last week I finally managed to get my passport stamped there!
The name always sounded so mystical and far-off, as if it were from a fictional tale about African voodoo, and I never thought I’d actually visit. Well, I can report that there are no unicorns or wizards or long-lost undiscovered relics from another dimension. There are, however, dusty streets, friendly faces, dilapidated green taxis, donkeys and carts, and even a couple of supermarkets selling Twinings English Breakfast tea. In short, there is very little to separate it from many other West African capital cities which I’ve visited. Plenty of African cities have an ‘edge’ to them which is tangible when strolling around the streets and some are even considered no-go areas for Westerners on foot but Ouagadougou is considered one of the safest and friendliest African cities. This I can vouch for, with many a smile being thrown my way as I ambled along bustling Avenue Yennenga towards the well-stocked Diacfa bookstore – where I chose not to buy the latest Dan Brown blockbuster. Even the cacophonous Grand Market (usually notorious for petty crime in Africa) was somewhat pleasant if you pinched your nose and held your breathe. The name Ouagadougou means ‘where people get honour and respect’ and I have to say that they chose the name wisely and the locals are doing a good job of adhering to it.
The nation has been independent from France since 1960 and changed its name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso in 1984. Burkina Faso translates as Land of Incorruptible People and the country is noted for its more transparent approach to matters in comparison to its neighbours. It is third highest in West Africa behind only Liberia and Ghana in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index (http://cpi.transparency.org/cpi2012/results/). Although Burkina (as it’s often shortened to) is one of the safer and less corrupt African nations it is also one of the poorest, with little money from tourists and an isolated land-locked geography. The tumult which arose in neighbouring Mali in 2012 has not helped matters either. Still, peace is more important than wealth to the Ouagadougouians (yes that is a word!).
The government have embarked in recent years on an ambitious project eight kilometres south of the city called Ouaga 2000 where gated villas are dotted amongst new glitzy government buildings and conference centres. It’s still a work in progress but it shows the forward looking intentions of the government, even if it is a world away from the lives of 99.999% of Burkinabés. Away from the wide boulevards and futuristic monuments of Ouaga 2000 and back in the city centre I came across my new ‘favourite roundabout’. Not that I really had one before but the Place des Cinéastes has a rather odd looking green and orange sculpture in the middle and for some reason I wanted to take it home with me!
Cinéastes means filmmakers in French and the city has a proud history associated with the silver screen. Who would have thought that the largest film festival in Africa is held in little-known Burkina Faso every two years? Billed as the ‘biggest regular cultural event on the African continent’ FESPACO attracts folk from the world over. The festival was held earlier this year so if you want to experience you’ll have to wait until March 2015 I’m afraid.
Often when on my data collection trips I’ll grab food on the go for lunch and often eat at my hotel in the evening but my hotel was in a pretty sorry state in Ouagadougou and so I took the opportunity to eat out at a couple of ‘expat’ restaurants. Both Le Coq Bleu and Le Verdoyant were teeming with the who’s who of locals and foreigners alike and if you’re an expat living in the capital and also a fan of lasagne then you’ll be pleased to know that I concur with the claims in travel books that Le Verdoyant does the best in Africa.
Lastly, with all of the travel I do people are always asking me where I go on holiday. Well, I’m off for the next couple of weeks to Serbia and Montenegro where I hope to not set foot inside a supermarket. Have no fear, though, as my colleague Hugh will be blogging in my absence on his recent hair-raising trip to the Guinea Republic…