Here I am in Burkina Faso. It was a long trip to get here: Boston to New York, New York to Paris, Paris to Niamey, and finally Niamey to Ouagadougou. The approach to Ouagadougou is breathtaking: the plane soars 20,000 feet over the Sahara, but because there are no rivers or rock formations to contextualize the terrain, you feel like you’re skimming over the surface of the earth. From that aerial vantage point you can almost see the horizon peel away at the edges hugging the curvature of the earth, but you can also see human habitations in the desert far below: dark rings of goat corrals with ocher rooves next to them; two or three of these clustered next to a green well or oasis. When we took off from Paris the pilot was scrupulously bilingual, making all announcements in French and English, but as we got deeper into the Sahel the announcements were primarily in French. As we approached Niamey, in Niger, the captain announced our cruising altitude, the time and temperature at our destination, and the length of our layover before continuing to Burkina. Then there was a pause, a crackle of static, and, in English, “uh…this is Niamey.” And that was all.
Burkina Faso is wicked hot, although admittedly I’m not the most objective judge of these things. We got off the plane into buses that carried us literally 50 yards across the scorching tarmac into the immigration and customs building. I had to fill out a form saying that I had no Ebola symptoms, which was stamped with due gravitas before I was ushered on. I’m glad they let me through, because I’m pretty sure that the punishment for failing the form is a month of quarantine in Presque Isle, Maine. I collected my bags, met the driver who had been dispatched to meet me, and rolled to my new apartment in Ouaga 2000, a new neighborhood in the southern part of Ouagadougou. My apartment is swank and fully furnished, and is also the only finished building in a 100 yard radius. This neighborhood is comprised of buildings under construction, sprouting rebar sprouting from dusty walls, and my gleaming white compound stands Ozymandian in the middle of it all. It’s an interesting neighborhood to walk around: there are people everywhere who live in the concrete shells of buildings under construction, but also finished houses behind high walls with humming air conditioners, mirrored windows, and flowers tumbling over the walls. One of my neighbors has a horse so white it’s almost transparent, who stands in a paddock in front of the house flinging hay in all directions. My apartment is a nice space: I have a galley kitchen, living room, bedroom and enclosed bathroom. There’s a gas stove, running water, small TV, furniture and kitchenware included…it’s decadent.
I went out to eat for my first night, and ended up in the outdoor garden of a nightclub called Le Select. I was the only patron apart from a group of French girls, and the bar showed Nigerian music videos on a projection screen that lizards crawled across. There are lizards everywhere here: there’s one dangling from my window screen right now as I write this.
Ouaga is a really spread out city, and my apartment is 8 kilometers from the city center and 4 kilometers from the office where I work. There are few taxis and everyone gets around by moped so (Mama, close your eyes while you read this next part) I bought a motorcycle. I went to the Moto lot intending to buy a little moped, but they were having a huge sale to clear out stock for new models. I bought myself a brand-new Rato motorcycle (described as RATO-homme in the flyer), chili red with a digital gear display, cargo rack, five gears, electric start, high and low headlights, and all kinds of amenities that I didn’t see on the Ugandan boda bodas. The bike’s quality is about in line with its low price, but it’s heavy and feels solid, and rides smoothly on the corrugated roads around my apartment. I am the only person on the road who wears a helmet.
I like it here a lot. This is a dream come true for me: I have a good job at the heart of a fascinating economic development research project, living in a fine apartment in Francophone West Africa. The people I’ve met are kind and gracious, I can zoom around the city under my own power, and I’m warm and dry. What’s not to love? In the coming weeks I’ll fill you in on the details: my apartment, the places I go in town, life on two wheels, my work etc. Next week I’ll be traveling to the field for two days, working WAYYY up north in Burkina about 20 miles from the Malian border. I’m excited to get to work and do what I came here to do. Send me emails and comments, and let’s keep in touch.