A Travellerspoint blog

Burkina Faso

Gold Digging in the Wild West

What to do when a country – in this case, Burkina Faso – lacks obvious attractions to visit? Gold mining? Sure!

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Sissoko (middle)

Sissoko (middle)

West Africa could be described as ‘the Wild West’. Mostly known for civil wars, blood diamonds and Ebola; it’s not far from Indian wars, gold rush and dysentery. But I’m old school, so I went hunting for gold rather than diamonds.

Last time I was in Burkina I made some good friends in the north of the country. Not far from the border with Mali. One of those had told me that there are some pretty impressive gold mines a few hours north-west of the capital Ouagadougou. So why not visit a goldmine. I’ve certainly not done that before, and I was pretty sure my travel mate Bo hasn’t done either. My Burkinaian friend, Sissoko, even came down to show us around the mining area.

Legoland

Legoland

To be honest, I didn’t expect much. We knew it was so-called open-earth mining, meaning that the mining was done by hand and straight from the ground. Jokingly, I suggested that it would be a little like visiting Legoland’s western town, where kids can wash fake gold out of mud to get a shiny medallion. At most I expected a few fortune seekers were digging through the dirt. Was I in for a surprise!

Driver and red(?) car

Driver and red(?) car

Having arrived in the rather unimportant truck stop town of Yako, Bo and I met up with Sissoko, who had been hanging out with a friend of his, waiting for us. Once there, Sissoko was a champ and asked us to wait in the shade for a couple of minutes while he would organise a ride out to the mine. It wasn’t more than six or seven kilometres away, but he insisted that jumping on three taxi-motos would be too bumpy and too dirty. A little while later he came back with the only real taxi in town – a former red car, so old that all the paint had peeled off and it was now simply a white/rusty car.

The driver was the father of Sissoko’s friend, and both him and Sissoko insisted that he would drive us for free. That wouldn’t do for us, so we paid the gas for the ride (about 4€’s worth) secretly. Sissoko would later pay our driver another 4€ for the gas, in that way the driver did get a little for his troubles. We also bought both of them lunch at the finest restaurant in town after the visit to the mine, which isn’t saying much. We tried our best, but between the four of us, we still weren't able to eat and drink for more than 15€…

Women tracing ore

Women tracing ore

Driving along the dirt roads, we quickly arrived at the village that’s the centre of operation for the gold mining. As we drove into town, we spotted a few makeshift dredges. We thought we’d arrived and were impatient to get out and chat with the guys showering dirt. But we kept driving. Straight through the village. Only to do a short stop where our driver shouted our arrival to the village chief – and more importantly that our purpose there weren’t to steal people’s gold.

Gold mining

Gold mining

We soon found out why we didn’t stop in town. Just outside it, behind a ridge of red earth, lay the real mining site. And what a shock. It wasn’t just one mine. It was dozens. Hundreds of young men, working in shacks, around handfuls and handfuls of mine shafts, dug straight out of the flat ground. All of it – including the young men – were covered in a fine layer of white sand, which must have been dug up from under the red top soil.

Shaft

Shaft

We all headed for the nearest shaft. The guys working there were openly surprised to see white people, let alone tourists. But they also took pride in the work. In the hardship of it. And in the danger. This particular shaft was 70 metres deep. Less than half the depth of the deepest shaft we came by. They offered us to be lowered down to see it from the inside. But standing on a small plank of wood strapped to a rope, with 70 metres of darkness below, was a little more excitement than both Bo and I was looking for. It goes without saying that we hadn't gotten many kilometres out of town before I regretted not risking my life to get a closer look at those mines!

Teenager pulling up ore

Teenager pulling up ore

The work itself is back breaking. Once a day’s shift has been lowered down, they stay in the mine for 24 hours. Always digging, hacking and washing out the potential ore. Others haul the ore up – 50 kilos at a time. This then gets washed, wild west style. Larger rocks and stones get crushed into powder, which is then also washed. Everything, every gramme of dirt, is carefully examined for specs of gold and gold dust.

Only two steps in the process are electric driven. The machines crushing the rocks, and the pumps pumping water down into the mines for the workers to wash out the ore. It’s all dangerous work, and people die every month here. And it’s not only dangerous due to the risk of the mines collapsing. Shacks must count at last ten strong men; otherwise, they’ll risk getting jumped by other groups of miners, who are after the ore they have dug up.

The open mine

The open mine

It was an unbelievable sight. Like stepping back in time. To the American, rather than the African, west. Having talked with a few of the crews and gotten our photos, we headed back to the car. Away from the burning Sahel sun that made conditions horrific. We wanted to sit down and have a drink, but Sissoko – himself a retired miner – warned us. Every single drink available at the mines are spiked with drugs, natural or chemical, that energises the workers. So better wait until we’re back in Yako.

Kid washing for gold

Kid washing for gold

On the way back to the car we came past a couple of kids – around nine years old, I would think – who were busy washing gold out of the mud. Child labour if I any saw it. But not particularly more horrible than the kids working in the fields, markets or harbours all over the continent. But it still, somehow, struck a nerve.

One thing is certain. What Africa lacks in ordinary tourist sights, it more than makes up for in shocking, fascinating and crazy experiences!

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Posted by askgudmundsen 17:32 Archived in Burkina Faso Tagged travel wild africa western sights gold mining mine travelling west_africa burkina child_labour Comments (0)

The Last Train in West Africa

Riding the Ouagadougou - Abidjan Railway

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Officer seating people

Officer seating people

Settling into the hard, blue plastic seats in the second class carriage is all, but easy. Typically for West Africa, one-half of the passengers insist on sitting on the seats designated to them by their ticket. The other half of the passengers are just as keen to ignore those seat numbers. Many loud arguments quickly erupt, and it’s not before three train staffers and a police officer armed with an AK47 have passed through the train that people come down and everybody gets seated. In any such situation, the people insisting that the numbers do not matter wins.

Window view

Window view

My seat was a window seat in the sun. So predicting where things were going, I quietly found a spot on the opposite side of the aisle. At the window, but in the shade. Interestingly, enough nobody wanted my seat. Maybe, because I had picked a seat that was free, perhaps because the person with my seat had found somewhere else to sit, or maybe because nobody wanted to bother the only white guy on the train. That’s not usually something holding people back, but for whatever the reason, I could sit back on the uncomfortable hard plastic and “enjoy” the spectacle...

The train from the door

The train from the door

Readers who have follow my past travels in Central Asia know that I’m especially glad for train journeys. However, for train fanatics, West Africa is a bust. Nowadays, railways here are built by the Chinese for the sole purpose of transporting raw materials from the mines inland to the coast. Most often the trains run directly into the ports. No stops needed.
West Africa used to have some legendary train rides. The journey from Dakar to Bamako (Senegal to Mali), especially. Not because it was enjoyable, though. It was slow, delayed, dusty, and uncomfortable. But the experience was always worth writing about. The less-than-flattering description probably also explains why the line is now defunct. Only a small section, just outside Dakar, is still functioning – these days, it’s nothing more but a suburban line. Elsewhere in West Africa, passenger trains have met the same fate as the Dakar-Bamako train. Almost all have been overtaken by the highways. You could count the Iron Ore Train in Mauritania, after all, there is one passenger carriage on the 2.5 km long train. But really, that’s little more than a cargo train with a small upgrade.

Bobo-Dioulasso Station

Bobo-Dioulasso Station

All this makes the rails between Ouagadougou, in Burkina Faso, and Abidjan, in Côte d’Ivoire (the country uses the French name internationally), West Africa’s last passenger railway of significance. It’s the only railway that can be travelled for a major distance, and it’s the only one to cross an international border. This being my only chance to experience life on the West African rails I had to jump aboard.
I could have bypassed most of Côte d’Ivoire by buying a ticket all the way to the coast, but I got places to be and things to see in the northern part of the country, so I opted to take it for about 200 km only. That’s out of a total of 1250 km. Departing from Bobo-Dioulasso in southeastern Burkina to Ferkessédougou in northern Côte d’Ivoire.

The Lunatic Express

The Lunatic Express

My only other sub-Saharan train experience has been driving with the Lunatic Express in Kenya (twice). Leaving Nairobi with a delay of three and eight hours respectively, the one hour and fifteen-minute delay in Bobo was a pleasant surprise. However, it didn’t change the chaos on board. Assigned seats and Africa are two things that do not go well together. I experienced the same chaos flying between Dakar and Capo Verde: Half the passengers insist on sitting in their assigned seats, the other half don’t care.

To be fair, some of this chaos is unavoidable in countries with a high rate of illiteracy. Even numbers can be difficult to follow if you have no knowledge of how they are written or how the system works. You try to figure out Korean bus seating (unless you’re Korean, that is, then I’d imagine it to be pretty easy). But a lot is also attributed to a stubbornness and defiance. No one likes to brag about not being able to read numbers, so quite a few passengers seem too proud to care for the number system. Others were simply not giving a fuck, taking a “no numbers shall tell me where to sit” approach.

At the border

At the border

The police officer and train staffers were more interested in getting everybody seated than getting everybody seated correctly. The result, naturally, being that people pretty much just stayed put, while people standing arguing for their spots were shown other places to sit. Interestingly, none of this happened at the smaller stations we stopped at along the way. Maybe people only get assigned numbers on the bigger stations? This lack of general commodity, unfortunately, made the most of the six hours train ride a somewhat tedious affair. Nothing like the charms of the Tran Siberian or the Lunatic Express.

The station bar

The station bar

At least there was a tiny bar, at one end of the train. But it was packed and standing room only, so I decided to give that a miss. This changed as I reach my destination of Ferkessédougou (gracefully shortened 'Ferke') at around midnight. A tiny station, I was pretty much the only one getting off the train. I needed to find a place to sleep, and the guys running a small bar in the station parking lot was happy to help. They just needed the train to leave the station first. This, incidentally, took more than an hour. A bunch of the guys working on the train even joined me at the bar drinking beer, while the waited for the train to take off. At which they seemed happy almost to run after, and jumping on to, the already rolling train...

Posted by askgudmundsen 14:38 Archived in Burkina Faso Tagged trains travel africa railway travelling west_africa burkina abidjan ivory_coast ouagadougou lunatic_express Comments (0)

Keeping Score

UNESCO World Heritage Sites and why they are worth going out of your way for.

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The Loropéni Ruins

The Loropéni Ruins

My passport has to stay at the Embassy of Côte d’Ivoire over the weekend. It's pretty overdue. The visa is supposed to take less than 48 hours to process, but I've heard nothing since Tuesday when I handed in my passport, and they promised to call me when it's ready.

Instead of wasting my time in Ouagadougou, I figured I’d head out of the capital to see some of rural Burkina Faso. I decided to head to Lobi Country in the south-west. Why? Because that’s where the country’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site is located. The site is essentially just some overgrown stone walls, without any explanations, and very little is generally known about the locality; I doubt many people would have made the seven-hour bus ride to get here, just for that. Especially, because I have to make the return journey back to Ouaga to fetch my passport on Monday (if the visa's ready). 14 hours in buses for some overgrown, unexcavated stone walls. Sure, ruins are significant because they are some of the only precolonial stone ruins in West Africa and there is a lot of tourist potential, but still, overgrown walls aren't really something to travel far and wide for given the state they’re in at the moment.

Mounts Nimba, WHS Guinea

Mounts Nimba, WHS Guinea

So why do I bother?

There are two reasons. A good one and a bad one. Let’s start with the bad one. It’s a way for me as a traveller to keep score. Out of the world’s 1052 Heritage Sites have I visited 146 (and there are seven more in the countries I'm heading to). I’m a competitive guy, and most people like to brag about what they are good at. As someone who spends way too much time and money on travelling I need something to show for it.

Bassari Country, WHS Senegal

Bassari Country, WHS Senegal

Travellers aren’t different from other dedicated people with a particular hobby or interest. We need some way of comparing reproductive organs. Just like a mountaineer, who have scaled Mount Everest more than once or an artist who's proud of having yet another piece exhibited at a renowned museum. Most travellers simply count countries. We do that because we have been to quite a few of them and that’s an easy way to compete and brag - no-one who've only visited a handful of countries cares to keep score. But there really isn’t an agreed consensus about how many countries there are in the world as there's no official definition of what a country is. Therefore, it might be worth looking at additional ways of competing. Just for the record, I think there are 208 countries in the world* and I’ve visited 90-something once I’ve finished this trip.

Kunta Kinteh Island, WHS Gambia

Kunta Kinteh Island, WHS Gambia

Countries come (South Sudan) and go (the Soviet Union), and many have pretty arbitrary borders. Africa was demarcated by a bunch of Europeans sitting around a few desks in Berlin in 1896. A few countries have more interesting, but just as arbitrary, stories behind their borders. Part of the Gambia’s border was decided by sailing a gunboat down the Gambia River, shooting cannon balls onto the shore. Wherever the canon balls landed marked the boundary between the English and the French colony.

Determining the scope of my travels based one something as arbitrary as the number of countries I have travel, visited or just passed through seems strangely unsatisfying.

Cidade Velha, WHS Cabo Verde

Cidade Velha, WHS Cabo Verde

That's when the second reason for going out of the way to visit UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites comes into play. These places are landmarks selected on the basis of having cultural, historical, scientific or some other form of significance for the collective interests of humanity. These are places of outstanding cultural or natural importance, and such places do seem more fitting as a measure for travelling.

Heritage Sites aren’t always in the guide books either. But for anyone who appreciates history, culture and nature they're often rewarding anyhow. Realising that Africans built massive stone forts to protect their gold mines a thousand years ago is an important antidote to the common idea that Africans lacked civilisation, technology, etc. before Europeans came down here a few hundred years ago. So while it might not have been the big tourist attraction, it was definitely worth the long bus rides to get some perspective on West Africa’s past that I wouldn't have got otherwise.

And that's the strength of UNESCO’s list. No matter where you travel on this planet, there might be something significant close by that you wouldn't have visited otherwise, had it not been on that list.

Aït Ben Haddou, WHS Morocco

Aït Ben Haddou, WHS Morocco

The list isn’t without its issues, though. Its focus on history and technology makes it bias towards “the Old World”. Combined, the 17 West African countries I’ve travelled through hold 34 Heritage Sites (8 of which are built by Europeans). Morocco holds nine of these, places like Sierra Leone and Liberia none. In comparison, Italy alone has 51 sites. China 50, Spain 45, France 42, Germany 41 and India 35. However, I still find it a better way of keeping score, than by counting countries. Because the World Heritage Sites add some depth and thought provocation to one’s travels, and because they can take you places you might not have gone otherwise.

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No, really, there aren’t any official definition of what a country is. So I’ve made my own criteria (it’s about to get nerdy):
The UN have 193 member states, plus two observers. The observers are the Vatican (the least country-like country in the world) and Palestine, which is only recognised by a 138 UN members (plus the Vatican). Then there are places with limited recognition, but without UN status, like Western Sahara (recognised by 84 UN members), Kosovo (recognised by 110 UN members) and Taiwan (which is formally recognised by 21 UN members + the Vatican, and unofficial recognised by most of the Western world). I count these as countries because their recognition is significant, while de facto states such as Somaliland, Transnistria, Nargono-Karabakh, etc. simply do not have enough recognition (official or unofficial) to make the list. So, 193 UN states, plus two observers and three partly recognised countries. That’s 198.
Next, there are constituent countries, that is countries that are constitutionally part of a sovereign state: Scotland and Wales (of the UK) fall into this category, but not Northern Ireland, which is only a province. Greenland and Faeroe Islands (of Denmark); Aruba, Curacao and Sint Maarten (of the Netherlands), and French Polynesia. That’s 206. Finally, there are five countries of free associations - that is, they are officially independent, bit rely so much on their supporting state that they de facto aren't independent. Three of these, Marchall Islands, Micronesia and Palau, is in association with the US and independent UN member states (thus already counted), while the last two, Cook Islands and Niue, are in association with New Zealand aren’t UN members. If we count the former three, we ought to count the latter two as well. And that is how we arrive at 208 countries.
Provinces, self-governing territories, overseas protectorates, Hong Kong and Gibraltar, and whatever else is around are not countries. Period!

Posted by askgudmundsen 02:43 Archived in Burkina Faso Tagged travel china world sites heritage africa unesco site europe sight travelling west_africa burkina world_heritage_site ivory_coast Comments (0)

A Royal Audience

Or rather two audiences and a big ceremony

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Ouahigouya

Ouahigouya

Early evening, on the same day I finished my Dogon Country trek, I left Mali to the relative safety of northern Burkina Faso. More precisely a town called Ouahigouya. Entering a new country means finding a new way to quell my Internet addiction, i.e. buy a new local sim-card and load it with data. Sure, travelling through West Africa would be a good way to get “off the grid”, but I’m not leaving the Internet behind for a whole year. Besides, the mobile 3G is the only internet down here fast enough for me to actually update this blog. Wi-Fi and internet cafés are painfully slow.

Royal Yatenga Grave

Royal Yatenga Grave

Walking into the nearest mobile company office, little did I know that I wasn’t just shopping a sim-card. I was making a friend. The guy selling me the sim-card, Sissoko, decided to help me out once we’d finished the formal business. He offered to take me to the guesthouse I wanted to stay in, so we jumped on the back of his scooter to find me a place to sleep. Things were pretty full, so we had to shop around. Having finally found a place, he not only paid for the first two night (so smoothly that I didn’t realise it and thus couldn’t complain/stop him), he also bought me dinner and paid my beer.
We met up the next day so that he could show me the town. As you might have guessed, he insisted on driving me around seeing stuff. Passing by the traditional king’s palace, I casually mentioned that we should go and visit the King. You know, as a sign of respect from a traveller passing through his lands. Sissoko wasn’t as keen as I was. Bursting in on the King unannounced apparently isn’t something you do here. He’s quite the powerful guy. Let me explain.

The Royal Palace

The Royal Palace

In Burkina, the old pre-colonial kingdoms still exist. The most powerful are in Ouagadougou – the capital. The second-most powerful is in Ouahigouya, and a third is in the eastern part of the country. These kings sort of have the role of civil society leaders. While they are all decedents of the original, pre-colonial kings, the modern state’s president and other political leaders wield the official political power. The Kings, wield unofficial power. They hold sway over dozens – if not hundreds – of village chiefs, who then have the respect of their villages. So the government have to consider their opinions during policy making.

The King and His Spokesperson

The King and His Spokesperson

Despite the unannounced nature of our visit, the King was happy to see us. Once he’d woke up from his nap, that is. So we had to wait a few hours. We used them pro-actively and did another tour of the town. When it was time to see the king, he was sitting in his courtyard on a white plastic garden chair. A few other guests were sitting on mats on the floor. This humble throne was the only thing physically distinguishing the king from his guests. As a foreign visitor, the king ordered for another throne to be fetched, and I was honoured with a white plastic chair opposite the King’s. Between Sissoko’s decent English and my basic knowledge of French, we did manage to tell the king that my visit was a show of respect. However, we didn’t get much further in the conversation. Asking questions about a Burkina king’s skillset, the secession order and the size of the realm were a wee bit too complicated with the languish barrier. Instead, the King asked us to come back the following morning with prepared questions and told his grandson to accompany us back to town so that he could answer some of my questions. Hashtag: Hanging out with a prince.

Sissoko (middle) and Tiraogo (right)

Sissoko (middle) and Tiraogo (right)

The king’s grandson, Tiraogo, had a bit better command of English, than Sissoko, and with a bit of help from Google Translate, I got explained, among other things, how succession works here. Not surprisingly, it’s agnatic primogeniture, meaning that the oldest legitimate son will take over the throne once a king dies. Interestingly though, an interim mourning period lasting between six weeks and six months have to be upheld before the new king can take to the throne. In this time the senior woman of the royal family will take over leadership of the kingdom. The senior woman being either the deceased king’s oldest living sister or his oldest daughter.

Extended Royal Family

Extended Royal Family

Returning to the palace the next morning, the King had changed his attire to a more royal rope. Formal audiences are held in a small building in front of the courtyard. Here the king was launching on a mat on a raised plateau, while his guests were sitting on mats on the floor. Again, I got a plastic chair. We exchanged some diplomatic pleasantries, like me thanking the king for his time and willingness to answer my questions, while the King expressed gratitude of my interest in learning more about the kingdom. Then, through Sissoko and Tiraogo, I had a chance to ask questions about the role and skillset of the king, the importance of the institution, and how it co-exists with the more formal political hierarchy. I’ve already summed up the answers in the beginning. The king also invited me to attend the “year’s first” ceremony that afternoon. My plan was to leave town after my meeting with the king, but I don’t know when I’ll be invited to a royal ceremony again and decided to stay for another day.

The King and Village Chiefs

The King and Village Chiefs

That afternoon me, Sissoko and his English teacher, which he had brought along to explain to me what was going on, once again returned to the royal palace. Traditionally the year in Burkina starts at the end of the rainy season. It is the king’s duty to scarifies and talk to the ancestors, in order to secure a good harvest during the rains. Thus, at the first part of the ceremony the king’s village chiefs thanked the king for the good harvest and donated some of it’s result to him. Either in the form of millet, firewood or cash. The king was back on this white plastic throne, wearing a white dress of peace (there’s also a red dress of war) and a red hat. Surrounded by his ministers, close family members and bodyguards, he took centre stage while a hundred or so village chiefs were sitting on mats and roughs to his sides. Like in a proper court. A few hundred spectators, mostly kids and women, had gathered to witness the ceremony and were standing on the edges of it all.

Royal Ceremony

Royal Ceremony

During the second part of the ceremony, the chiefs (on behalf of their villages) and individuals who wished to, could ask the king for good luck and safety for the coming year – at the token of a small donation. This pretty much worked out like this: gifts of money were handed to the king’s spokesman who would then announce the person’s or village’s name as well as the size of the donation to the crowd. Some social competition is a huge part of this. Figuring out that it would give the crowds a thrill I donated the equivalent of 3€ (about the median of the donations given) to the king and asked for protection, hospitality and good luck for any travellers, who is going to pass through the kingdom the rest of the year. Loud cheers and laughs from the crowd insinuated that I hadn’t been wrong about my participation being well recessive.

Fire!

Fire!

In general, this was a ceremony clouded in smoke from some heavy guns his bodyguards were carrying. Otherwise, everything was done in a quite formal and professional way. Every person taking part in the ceremony having specific and designated roles. Ceremonies here in Ouahigouya is apparently rare. But the king in the capital Ouagadougou hold a short ceremony every Friday morning should some feel like visiting.

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Posted by askgudmundsen 21:17 Archived in Burkina Faso Tagged traditional travel king ceremony meeting travelling west_africa burkina ceremonies naaba audieance Comments (0)

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