Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Do you go to Ouagadougou?

We drove to Ouagadougou (say 'Wa-ga-DOO-goo') for the African film festval, FESPACO, this week. It's about 6.5 hours of driving, plus numerous stops at the border and for tolls. We rented an old American 4x4 with no working speedometer--nor registration, as it turned out--put the car seats in the back, and our 6'3" friend Illiasou in the cargo space, and took off about 3 hours behind schedule. Stopping at the borders was like a bad movie, when travelers stop at a desolate checkpoint with fat, sweaty officials--except far, far more desolate. The customs officials, wearing uniforms and 9mm pistols, stopped us because the registration card is temporary (and expired, but they didn't notice that) and told us to wait for their boss to come back from lunch. We sat in the baking heat of their shed while they ate chicken and threw the bones to the vultures. After half an hour, the boss shuffles up in new leather scuffs, dressy slacks and a brightly-patterned, untucked shirt, like he was just coming back from a disco. Business at the customs house must be good. He waved us in without delay, glanced at the papers, and let us go with a smile.

The whole ride is the same dry landscape called Sahel, with sparse dry scrub over orange-beige sand, tiny villages and tracks leading off into the barren landscape toward the horizon. The most visually interesting things to see were the baobab trees and the vultures. Every kilometer there is a baobab tree, something you might know from The Little Prince--they're the massive trees he worries will overgrow his little planet (Antoine St-Exupery was a bush pilot in northwest Africa). They're only 40-60 feet tall usually, but the trunks are often 10 feet across--sometimes as much as 40--ropy and bulging with thousands of gallons of stored water, and the short branches turn down at twisted angles. They're bare in this season, except for their football-sized fruit pods, called monkeybread.

The vultures are real vultures, like on nature specials, not the little turkey buzzards we have in the States. They're the only wild animal to be seen; domestic animals, however, cross the road in front of our vehicle every few kilometers, sometimes in herds. As soon as we crossed the Burkina broder, we saw something else we hadn't seen--pigs! Niger is all Muslim, and Muslims, like Jews, don't eat swine; so, as I said when we stopped for the pig: where you see pigs, you know there are Christians. Burkina is about half-and-half, and they get along and intermarry freely, thus the Islam is much more moderate, and you see women riding bikes and mopeds, working, and not being covered from head to toe.

Ouaga is more a city than Niamey, very lively, and there are bookstores and such things that don't exist in Niamey. It was a welcome change. We stayed with the Fulbrighter there, Gina Greco, and her 9-yr-old twins. The kids were all so happy playing together, we hardlly heard from them, and we got to go to 7 movies, all refreshingly good.

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