Part 1 Introduction
Sometime ago I travelled to Burkina Faso for work. This is a description of what happened and how I saw the trip. It has some humour it has some observations about the country or more specifically the Capital Ouagadougou. Things almost certainly will have changed since then, some for the better some for the worse, the country is now influenced by the Wagner Group.
For me, at that point of time the City, the hotel, their approach represented the most dysfunctional place I had been to in my career, topping some truly entertaining places in Papua New Guinea. But like Papua New Guinea it is also a place of some charm, possibly because things not working cause you to engage rather more than you might if this was a tourist visit. The story is in four parts. Here is the first.
As an adult I have always had an urge to see new places.
I put it down to the National Geographic and to a lesser extent my mother.
Whether or not I was ill enough to be bed bound for much of the period from the age of 6 to 8 is probably down to the level of Munchausen by Proxy that was invested in her. My wife’s description of my Mother as “ a bit bonkers” is actually quite generous from closer acquaintance. She had “ nerves” – don’t we all ? I am adopted so it cannot be genetic. At least that is what I tell myself……..and my wife.
But I was very bored and at some point the National Geographic arrived at my bedside and from then until the age of about 22 it arrived regularly every month to be; analysed, wondered at and memorised while I thumbed through the Encyclopaedia Britannica to add detail to the amazing places that were described.
Somewhere in my mind and way before the phrase had been invented, I suppose a “ bucket list” of places, began to take shape. La Paz, Valparaiso, Addis Ababa, Gaborone, Nairobi, Khiva, Bukhara, Samarkand, Timbuktu , Ouagadougou, Istanbul, Skopje. I have actually visited all of those now bar Timbuktu.
La Paz was fabulous but choking in car fumes. Skopje is totally crazy and so full of gold painted street ornament bling that even Donald Trump would consider it lacking in taste. If not as a wonderful place in its own right, then as an entrance to the fabulous country and culture of Ethiopia, Addis did not disappoint. I was lucky enough to have offices in Gaborone and Nairobi, Valparaiso was very beautiful and the street art amongst the best I have ever seen. Khiva Samarkand and Bukhara I visited last October and it was worth the wait, I love Khiva especially. I hope to post a photo essay of the trip to Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan at some point in the future.
So you can imagine I was delighted when work took me to a 4 day conference in Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. It was one of those conferences where as a CEO of an International Not for Profit, this was our agenda and as my Policy Director Hassan said (name changed as he is still active) we had to be seen. People to meet, deals to do, that kind of thing, or as I prefer to call it “networking with a purpose .”
Flying economy from Charles De Gaulle airport, I was surprised but delighted to be met off the plane by a charming local young woman in a uniform carrying a “ VIP” name board, astonished my name was on it !
She took me past the long queues straight through the VIP Channel at passport control and off to an executive lounge where there were about 10 others also going to the conference all being offered cold drinks and snacks by several other uniformed young women. They took our passports and our visa fee ($200 those days) and as we nibbled our snacks and drank our drinks they insisted on completing our immigration forms for us, then we waited. And waited. Thirty minutes passed then an hour, then an hour and a half, and finally one of our very international group asked the now nervous looking young women “ What is going on?” It was by now after 11 in evening and we all wanted go to our hotels. They were placatory, “just a little longer ….more drinks ?”
Eventually a rotund official in a grubby open shirt sporting as I recall, a discarded dinner remnant noodle hanging on for dear life came towards us carrying a heap of passports and huge bulging back pockets where our collective $200s now resided, came to speak with us.
In broken English he said “ Desole mes Chers Desole, I cannot give you visa, ….visa machine run out ink…. is Saturday, shop is close we cannot get ink ……but is good, I have your passports and your visa money and I will get your passports to you at the conference. Please, the ladies will take you to your taxis for the hotels .”
Dread at being parted from my passport coursed through me. Amongst the nine others there was a guy I’ll call Chris who I’d met at another conference earlier in the year, he was from Ghana and I liked him.
“ Chris, am I hearing this right ? He has all our money, probably more than he earns in a year in his back pocket, he has our passports and we are being invited to come into the country as illegal unregistered immigrants, is that how you see it ? “
“ A very British assessment Steve, but essentially accurate .”
“ So Chris how does this end ? “
“ If this was Lagos, very badly indeed. This is the last you will have seen of your passport and your money and after a totally irrational interrogation you will face a period locked up in a very unpleasant prison while your embassy tries to get you out. But we are in Ouagadougou not Lagos, in Ouagadougou they will not have the energy to aspire to that level of criminality.”
Thus assured we were taken down the hall to awaiting taxis. Some, the UN representatives and Company executives went off to the Sheraton or similar. I waited and finally I was the only one going to the Hotel Parfait, ( name definitely changed to protect the not particularly innocent and from legal action.)
The Taxi was nice enough, the driver was polite enough. But there was a problem.
Although I am genetically half French the accident of my conception was all too fleeting. I had no time in my life to meet my Father and from an account of my adoption, my birth mother’s acquaintance with him was only just sufficient in duration to complete the essentials for the creation of life. Hence I do not speak French. Actually, a slight white lie , I understand French a little but on the basis that my speaking it makes Edward Heath look like a natural, I do not inflict my French on say for instance, the French .
West African French is a bit of a bonus, they speak very clearly and it is easier to understand, so I understood enough to be very worried by what the Driver said next.
“ Ou et le Hotel Parfait?”
So the let me summarise, the airport is now essentially empty of officials, no lovely young women in uniforms, not even a tubby official with his dinner down his front and my taxi driver doesn’t know where my hotel is. My Franglais kicked in immediately.
“Vous est un taxi driver, est votre job description to connais ou le Hotel ist .” ( I sometimes get my French and German mixed up but I console myself that is it better than shouting in English. Somehow I wonder at the accuracy of that self delusion.)
With marginally raised eye brows he said “ Je deso..”
“ Desole, yes I know, so how do we find the Hotel, I have never been in this country. “
Of course he knew how to find out. What else would you do other than to ask the blind lottery ticket seller in the corner? Astonishingly he didn’t know, neither did the 12 year old boy selling chewing gum. Using my superior talents in getting out of hideous situations I suggested he asked the policeman who was walking towards us . He actually spoke passable English.
Him “ Yes I know where the Hotel Parfait is. ( Joy) Me “ Where is it ?
Him “My brother in law built a house next to it last year “ ( Expectation ) Me “ So how do we get there ?” Him “ Have no idea I have never visited my brother in Law’s hous .” ( Despair.) Me ” sigh .”
It was now about half past midnight and as a cost saving exercise the council of Ouagadougou were switching off the street lights, so I am in a strange city with a lost taxi driver in the pitch black dark and I have no passport, no visa, no idea how to get to my hotel. Oh and no money either, the exchange had closed by the time we got to the airport.
The Policeman made vague circular hand movements in a general direction and suggested it was maybe 5 km “ over there .” So off we went into the dark steamy heat.
We stopped at a police check point. “ Parfait ? Non monsieur.” We stopped at a bar “ Je Des…”
We stopped at an illicit beer sellers, he pointed up the dark road towards the desert . My driver bought several bottles. He offered me one, I politely declined.
Finally at 3am we rocked up at the Hotel Parfait
“ C’est bien maintenant je sais ou se trouve l’hotel Parfait “ Said my beaming driver as if he had just found Xanadu.
The Parfait in my opinion is a “ Long March number 5 B .” In other words it was designed and built by the Chinese and could have been anything from an office building to a Clinic to a block of shops. You see them all over Africa in different guises.
This Chinese creation had “ Hotel “ on the board outside so that was promising. Reception was less so, or rather it was functional but the function is assisted if the receptionist is awake, in fact he was very much not awake, and clearly regretted being roused from that state.
Finally he asked for my passport ….you can see where this is going. Thankfully the grubby shirt man at the airport had given us all a piece of paper with his name and title and a phone number on it. The receptionist looked at it suspiciously then registered who it was and winced and quickly gave me a key .
“ Room 5 Floor 5 .’
I walked to the lift with my cases, it was still very hot but especially so inside the hotel.
“ Lift no work it needs parts from …”
He looked at me astonished as if I had just solved the Gordian knot then turned back to his chair and his dreams.
5 floors. Much sweat. The key did not fit the door.
5 floors down and a brief but compelling discussion with the receptionist.
5 Floors up much more sweat but the key fitted.
I slumped to the ( remarkably comfortable ) bed and saw a sign for Air con. I switched it on to meet a stream of icy air and a noise like a large aircraft about to take off and fierce thumping on the wall by an enraged fellow sufferer.
Much much more sweat.
So ended my first day in a place of my bucket list Ouagadougou.