Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso * November 27, 2008
They’re harvesting millet in a sun-parched field or sitting idly outside a wooden shack or a thatch hut. A shirtless man is laboring along on a rusty single-speed bicycle towards town with a large load of branches fastened up on the rear. Two others on a smoky moped potter along on the shoulder of the road.
Women in colorful dresses and headscarves stroll through a village with baskets full of tuber roots on their heads and babies in pouches on their backs. Men sit on wooden benches and plastic chairs and watch their goats amble about a dusty street while barefoot children kick a dented can or lounge in the shade of a tree to escape from the burning sun.
The settlements are shockingly poor to the Western eye. Every day the sight is the same -- mud homes and cockeyed weathered shacks and dirt streets and broken vehicles and creaky bicycles and scrawny chickens and frisky goats and garbage scattered liberally about.
They hear us coming. Heads swivel in unison. Some stand to look, so arresting is the sound. Then they see us – three monstrously large, outrageously outfitted adventure motorbikes from distant lands. I can only imagine what they hear – a three-stanza Doppler Effect symphony as we roar past:
We are acutely conspicuous. The motorbikes command attention. They are huge and loud and ostentatiously arrayed with gear – the big silver top box on the back of my Suzuki DR, the sleek panniers on the sides of my partners’ motorbikes.
Some gape in what appears to be amazement. Some observe each rider individually, heads turning back and forth like a kitten watching a ping-pong ball. Many smile and nod and wave, and of course we return the greeting. Many break out in an appreciative grin and thrust a thumbs-up or holler an unintelligible encouragement.
A few scowl. Fewer still narrow their dark eyes in palpable hostility. Others watch with narcotic apathy, their faces expressionless. But rarely does someone see us and simply look away.
I can only imagine what they see and think as we ride past. They stare, as would I if I saw an equally alien spectacle in the United States -- three donkey carts loaded with wood and thatch and piloted by barefoot and shirtless men wearing headscarves, creaking through the streets of downtown San Francisco.
By and large, they are poor and uneducated. We are, comparatively, immensely wealthy. Many are illiterate and eke out an existence by subsistence farming; we have college degrees and are educated in geography and history and mathematics and literature. We have traveled the world. Many of them have never been beyond the next village.
The gulf between us is galactic. It compels my consideration. One, I am intensely curious about what these people – them, for lack of a better word – think and see as we ride past, and what they are doing there along the road.
Two, I struggle to come to grips with having an audience, with being the center of attention, if even for an instant. Why are they beaming and smiling so brightly, why are they thrusting their thumbs in the air or pumping their fists? It can turn your worldview and sense of identity inside out.
But often it is more than an instant. When we stop for a break, the crowds that surround us can be large. Two dozen people, 50 people, even more than 100.
One singular thing supplies a common denominator that they see and appreciate in an instant – the motorbike.
Geoff and I lodged at an auberge called Maison de Arts in Sevare, Mali. It’s a lovely place, with clean, simple rooms and a scrupulously tended garden courtyard. It had been recommended by Peter Cullen, who for the past several days had been off on his own exploring Mali’s tourist jewel, the Dogon Country.
I had been wondering how Peter was doing. It was about time for him to turn around and head back towards England to meet a November 29 deadline, and it saddened me to think I probably would not see him again.
It was morning, and I was getting started with the task of installing new knobby TKC 80s on the DR650 in the Maison de Arts courtyard to better ride the sandy piste run to Timbuktu. I heard Geoff say, “Hey hey hey hey hey hey!”
I looked up to see Peter maneuvering his BMW 650 Dakar into the courtyard. His stopping here was a pleasant surprise, and the three of us spent the next hour trading stories of our adventures. I hadn’t seen Peter since November 4 in Ziguinchor, Senegal, when I took off solo for Cap Skirring on the coast, and Peter and Geoff rode east towards Mali.
Peter’s biggest bit of news was from an email Migo had sent the group. Neither Geoff not I had checked email recently, so we were delighted to learn that Migo had fixed his KTM’s water pump problem back in Ziguinchor and was heading towards Mali.
Over farewell beers at Maison de Arts that evening, we got to talking about why we were riding motorcycles through Third World nations. I found Peter’s perspective interesting. He is a lifelong traveler, by planes and buses and trains, but only 15 years ago, at age 53, had he begun motorcycling.
Peter started touring in Europe, and then made a two-wheeled foray into Turkey and Syria, and now he was in Africa for a second time on a motorbike. He was hooked.
“A lot of it is that the bike enables you to better engage with the people,” Peter said. “You see how the crowds form around you, and all the waves and the greetings we get from people along the road. The motorcycle intrigues people much more than a car, or if you’re getting around on a bus. Then you look like any ordinary tourist.”
But we didn’t look like ordinary tourists, not when we were on or near our motorbikes. A loaded adventure bike is perhaps the most compelling conversation piece outside of the Western world. It is among the most outrageously conspicuous vehicles to pass through the areas we have ridden.
When we stop for fuel or a cold drink in the middle of the night, a crowd gathers – as many as 100 people. It is an incredible phenomenon. The questions come, along with a studied curiosity of our motorbikes, our gear, and us, white men in black Africa.
A toothless man will ask where we are from, and whistle when we tell him. I’ll trace our route on the sticker of the African continent affixed to the rear of my bike’s top box. A teen-ager will point to my GPS unit as a way of asking what it is.
A boy tugs on the motocross armor that I wear and asks for a cadeaux. Another boy pets the stuffed rat that Geoff has fastened up to his front fender and giggles. An old man pats his stomach and points to his mouth and looks at me beseechingly.
Outside our hotel in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, I asked a guy whether he and everyone else in the crowd would pay so much attention to us if we were not on motorbikes.
He thought about it for a minute. ”No,” he said. “Your motorcycles are very beautiful. Very beautiful.”
He stepped back to admire the bikes and went on, “I would like to travel on a motorcycle. You are doing something we can only dream of. We have no money. There are no jobs. You can’t even buy a big motorcycle here. You are strong men. You are seeing more of Africa than Africans ever do.”
I want them to understand us. I want them to see that we are good and ordinary men, though our elaborate motorcycle attire may suggest otherwise. I think occasionally of what a small boy in Latin America said to my friend Joe Ortega of San Francisco, who rode South America in an armored motocross flak jacket and big buckled Sidi Discovery boots: “Are you a Power Ranger?”
That’s the impression that I believe some of the children have – we are from another world. And in many ways, we are – same planet, different world.
I hope that somehow, some way, we provide some sort of inspiration. Maybe there’s one kid in a crowd of 20 who will study harder or strive to go to college because of the impression that we and our motorbikes make. It’s hard to say, and perhaps I am overstating. But maybe not.
Many of the towns and villages in which we stop are dirt poor. Some of the people having nothing more than a filthy shirt and a plastic water jug and a stick and rubber sandals and space in a crowded mud hut and the hope of one meal a day – some rice with sauce and a boiled egg. In towns with no electricity or running water, I suspect that a visit from an adventure motorcyclist may be the highlight of the day, the week, maybe the month.
It is difficult to know. The motorbike engages people, but often my interaction with them raises more questions than it answers. It is maddeningly fleeting and superficial. The language barrier often makes meaningful conversation virtually impossible.
We are besieged with requests for gifts or money. Some requests I oblige with a coin or a balloon. At one stop, a boy tugged on my arm and asked for a pen. It was a small, impoverished settlement. His eyes were big and brown and earnest. He wanted a pen for school, because he didn’t have one.
I carry three pens for journal writing, a blue and a red and a green. I gave him the green one, and the other children wanted a pen as well. A day later, I would buy a selection of pens to give away the next time I was asked.
Most times I cannot satisfy the requests, simply because I don’t have enough coins or balloons or pens. One would need a tractor trailer full of coins and balloons and pens for all the children and other people who would like something.
Another sort of person we frequently encounter in larger, touristed towns is the merchant, the hustler, the tout. They are selling African masks or bracelets or tapestry or wooden elephants. They see us coming and hustle over and make a quick introduction and inquire about our nationalities and our motorbikes. Then they launch into a sales pitch. The zeal with which they attempt to close a sale can be astounding.
That farewell night at Maison de Arts, Peter Cullen reminded us of a bit from a book called Adventure Motorcycling by Chris Scott. “As the book said, these guys have barely anything,” Peter said. “No healthcare, no Social Security – they’re just trying to get by.”
Part of the challenge of adventure riding is dealing with these hustlers graciously when you are hungry and tired and irritable, and after you have politely and repeatedly declined a purchase and explained you can afford neither the weight nor the volume of a nice African mask on your motorbike, and they continue to pester and harass and tag along.
Peter left the next morning. We bade him farewell outside Maison de Arts and watched him turn the corner from a dirt street, bound for England. The crowd of dozens of youngsters and adults that had gathered to watch the rich adventure rider setting off on his big fancy motorbike now turned its attention to Geoff and I.
With us was Kaye, the gracious 50-something English proprietress of Maison de Arts. Kaye said, “I would think you like theatre, because everywhere you go and everything you do, you will always have an audience in Africa.”
An audience of many – many, many, many thousands of them.
Little has changed here in centuries. There is no electricity or running water. People live off the earth in the same manner as their ancestors. They harvest millet and onions and tend cattle and goats. Their mud homes are built with unique conical roofs of thatch. This is Mali’s Dogon Country, a string of primitive settlements at the base of the vaulting and picturesque Bandiagara escarpment.
With his KTM repaired, Migo had caught up with Geoff and I in Sevare and we rode pavement, and then a red-dirt piste, to reach Dogon Country. Now Geoff headed off solo to a town called Koro with the idea of fixing a motorcycle for a Dogon village leader he had met, while Migo and I opted to stop in a tiny village called Kani-Kombole.
To the east from Kani-Kombole was a sandy track, leading to villages named Teli and Ende and Yabatolou and Doundjourou and Gimini and Nombori and Tirelli and Ireli and Banani and Ibi and Koundou and Youga-Dogourou and Sanga and Bamba and Bongo. These are rural settlements with no infrastructure. Migo and I stood at the intersection and debated whether to ride the track. As always, a crowd gathered.
A man on horseback told us the track was very sandy – deep sand. It will be difficult on your big bike, he said. Stay here in Kani-Kombole, he said, and we can take you to Ende on horseback.
Migo and I decided to try the track. It was indeed difficult, with deep sand and dry riverbeds and tight corners and shadows from trees that made it difficult to assess the terrain. And it was well trafficked by people and donkeys and goats and cattle. To better enjoy Dogon Country, we returned to Kani-Konbole and arranged to tent at a place called Campement Arneme.
In the afternoon, we set off for a six-mile ride to Ende on the back of a wooden cart pulled by an ox named Nanga. Our guide was named Sekou. He was 23 years old and fascinated by the idea of America. Someday, he said, he would like to go there.
On the hour-long ride to Ende, I observed the people. They greeted each other in the local language, with a well practiced exchange that was almost musical. Everyone said the same thing: How are you? Well, and you? Fine, how is your mother? Well, how is your father? In the Dogon language, this was a rhythmic, singsong dialogue, pleasing to the ear.
The Dogon people are notable for having resisted Muslim influence and preserving the way of life of their ancestors. They believe in a single god called Amma, with an elaborate creation myth. On the ride to Ende, we could see holes in the cliffs of the grand escarpment. Centuries ago, people lived on those cliffs. The caves date to the third century B.C. How they got up and down, I have no idea.
In Ende, women pounded millet. Men lounged about on benches and talked. Tourist activity here is brisk, and local entrepreneurs offered jewelry and carvings and colorful cloth. Migo and I bought pieces of cloth and fastened them up as seat covers – Africanizing the motorbikes bikes, as Migo put it.
It was a beautiful and fascinating journey into another time and another world, where traditional ways of life have been preserved and even honed, to better sustain tourism and its economic benefits. That night, back at Campement Arneme, our guide, Sekou, played with his cell phone.
Kani-Kombole had no electricity except from solar panels and diesel motors, but unlike the Dogon villages to the east, it had a cell phone tower. Throughout Africa, I have observed that life’s priorities seem to be food first and a cell phone second. Cell phones are used in all but the poorest communities. This makes sense, because the importance of family and community in Africa is far greater than in the West.
Sekou sat with Migo and I for a dinner of chicken and couscous at Campement Arneme. It was dark. We ate by gas lantern. The couscous was hot and delicious. I had told Sekou I had a gift for him in appreciation for his good work as our guide to Ende, and now I got out an Obama sticker.
“Barack Obama!” he declared. He was enchanted with the idea of a half-black man becoming the president of the United States. The next morning, he showed up at the campement with a small American flag draped about his shoulders.
After dinner, Migo got out the IBM ThinkPad laptop he had bought in Senegal and played music by the Malian artist Ali Farka Touré and showed pictures of our trip to a crowd of eight or 10 young men. Then I showed my pictures on my computer, too. They watched intently as we explained our travels by bike through Senegal and Mali.
Our motorbikes were parked just 10 feet away. After our picture session, we sat quietly at the outdoor table. The young men remained, just sitting there with us. Someone would say something, then it was quiet. It was enough simply to be.
We slept outdoors next to our motorbikes. The stars were amazingly dense and bright and resplendent in the clear night sky.
The first thing that struck me about Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, was neon lights. We rode into the city at dusk, through rivers of scooters and small motorbikes. The density of bikes here was matched only by that in the Malian capital, Bamako. These are dirty, two-stroke machines, and chiefly responsible for the huge cloud of smog that hung over Ouagadougou.
In the dark, we found a cheap, shabby hotel in the center of town called Hotel Zaaka. We took cold showers and stepped out for dinner, and two blocks away were neon lights for banks and insurance companies. I couldn’t recall having seen a neon light since Dakar, Senegal. Burkina was by no means prosperous, but clearly it was more economically advanced than the poor Malian towns and cities through which we had ventured.
Over my two days in Ouagadougou, I saw traffic lights and public waste receptacles. These were uncommon sights, as well. Some downtown streets were graced by large, leafy trees. Most of the streets were paved. Along them were a variety of small stores selling electrical equipment and hardware and cell phones and even, I was pleased to see, books.
People were all over. The city was a bustle. It was noisy and busy and throbbing. Young men selling pornographic CDs and phone cards and magazines hung about the Marina Market, a sizable, semi-modern supermarket three blocks from our hotel, waiting for a white person to come along. They would implore a purchase and chat us up. In the evening, hundreds of hookers sat at large outdoor patio bars that reminded me of Paris or Rome.
Everyone is friendly. My Rough Guide to West Africa called Burkina Faso the “friendliest country on the continent,” and that seemed approximately correct.
Across the street from Marina Market, I spotted a sign that said horloge – clock, in the French. I wanted to buy an alarm clock. The man had a small one for sale. How much? I asked.
Forty-thousand CFA, he said. I laughed out loud and waved him off and started to walk away. It was a cheap, Chinese-made piece of junk that might or might not work – and he wanted $80 USD for it!
You have to love these guys. They are bold and inventive. You can see them thinking furiously once you ask the price. The clock-seller trotted down the street after me, and then began the negotiating process. We argued and bickered, but he would go no lower than $20 USD. Finally, I gritted my teeth and told him no and turned on my heels and walked firmly away, while he trotted along beside me for the next block until finally giving up.
Later, I stopped at a bank to withdraw money from its ATM. The clock guy found me and negotiations resumed. After 15 minutes, I had him down to $10 USD. Close enough. I bought the thing, and was not surprised to find that it lost 10 minutes every hour.
I got to talking with the guard. His name was Barry. He was 27 years old and from Conakry, the capital of Guinea. He had moved to Ouagadougou three months earlier, from The Gambia, where he had lived for two years and learned good English while making a living selling clothing.
He came to Ouagadougou, he said, to earn money to send back to his four younger brothers and sisters and his blind father. His mother was dead. He stood about 5 foot 6 inches and was slightly built and his face was soft and open and handsome. He showed me the inside of his forearms. They were covered with what appeared to be puncture wounds, like a heroin junkie’s.
These were mosquito bites. He had slept on the street, homeless, for a few weeks after arriving in Ouagadougou. He was penniless. Mosquitoes ate him alive, and he contracted malaria.
He recovered and found a job as a bank security guard. He worked seven days a week, 10 hours a day, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. He earned 25,000 CFA a month – about $50 USD. That’s $600 USD a year. I invited him to join me, and Geoff and Migo, for dinner that evening. We sat at an outdoor table at a place called Le Bureau.
We talked about white men and black men. “It is hard to speak with the white man,” Barry told me. “He is always so serious and he does not have time. He doesn’t want to speak with me. I don’t think he likes me. The white man needs to take it easy.”
“But Barry,” I told him, “it can be difficult to speak with the black man. Every day the black man asks me for money or tries to sell me something. In Ouagadougou I have been approached by, what … dozens of men, 50 men? In two days. I cannot speak with every one of them and become their friends. You saw me today with the clock-seller. It’s not easy for us.”
I asked Barry how the black man felt about the legacy of slavery. He didn’t recognize the word immediately, but then said, “Oh – colonialism!” He grew animated and his soft voice ratcheted up a couple of octaves. He had learned about colonialism in school, and volunteered that Kunta Kinte, the protagonist in Alex Haley’s book Roots, hailed from a village in The Gambia, not far from where he had lived.
“Some black men, they cannot let it go. They hate,” Barry told me. “For me, it is past tense. I have to forget the past of Africa to make my future – to make my way.”
He picked at his omelette and refilled his glass with Castel beer and took out his wallet and wrote on a piece of paper, “Tonight Wednesday 26 November 2008 I have dinner with three white men, Mark of America and his two friends.”
What Barry really wanted, he said, was to finish his education. Some years ago, he had taken a couple of college computer classes. “But it is so expensive,” he said. “Life is hard. It’s a bitch, man. There are no good jobs here. They pay me nothing.”
He looked at me hopefully.
People alongside the paved road from Douentza to Sevare in Mali clapped and cheered as Geoff and I rode by. It was an incredible sight. I had not seen people clap and cheer before. It was oddly unsettling. It wasn’t just one group of people, but several groups of people, in different settlements.
If you didn’t know better, you could easily imagine that they were clapping because they knew you had just ridden a sandy and challenging 130-mile piste from Timbuktu to Douentza strongly and well. As if they mysteriously apprehended the magnitude of your whole Africa ride and were cheering you on. The sight of those people clapping and cheering was so affecting that it came to me in dreams.
They – them – are my audience. I entertain them. We are, in some strange and symbiotic way, in this journey together.
I rode through Venezuela in May 2005, bound for its capital, Caracas, and a plane flight to Miami. My eight-month ride through Latin America was about to come to an end. I motored through small, poor rural communities and outside their decrepit homes and wooden shacks shirtless men and barefoot boys and women and girls beamed and smiled and waved and hollered at the spectacle that I was.
I cried. Tears streamed down my cheeks inside my helmet. I rode and cried for their hardship and privation and earnestness and joy and innocence and hope. For eight consecutive months I had seen them, every hour, every day that I rode through their communities.
I knew I would miss their beaming brown faces and their waving hands and their big bright smiles and the children, jumping and yelling and chasing after me and my big loud outrageous motorbike. I had come to love them.