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Peter Espeut | From Niger to Burkina Faso

Published:Thursday | September 20, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Five the hard way! Boys have fun on a motorcyle in Ougadougou, which Peter Espeut refers to as ‘motorbike city’.
Giraffes grazing in a field in Niger.

Last Friday, we left Niamey (Niger) by car bound for Ouagadougou, the capital of the West African country of Burkina Faso. It is now the rainy season in the Sahel, which means that the fields are green with corn and sorghum and millet, and that sheep, goats and cattle have plentiful fodder.

Why are we Jamaicans so addicted to wheat, which we cannot grow ourselves? Being so close to the USA with its temperate lifestyle is both a blessing and a curse.

Touring a capital city - even spending time in the local markets - is not enough to come to know a country; one must visit the countryside to see how people live, move and have their being.

In the deep-rural countryside, some homes are of baked clay, and others are the round thatched huts of the type you see in the movies. I am told they are cool in the summer, and warm in winter, which is why they are preferred to concrete houses.

In almost every cluster of dwellings is a small mosque built of concrete, a place for Islamic prayer. Attached to the tower - which reaches towards the heavens - is a loudspeaker to broadcast the call to prayer. Muslims pray together several times each day. In terms of outward appearances, Muslims are much more religious than Christians.

The road surfaces were not bad, but every few kilometres - it quickly became tedious - there was a checkpoint, manned by either the gendarmes or the military. In this part of Africa, terrorism is a real threat, and the smuggling of contraband and the disposal of stolen cars across borders is a perennial problem, and so, frequently, we had to show our passports and have the contents of our vehicle inspected. I suppose the inconvenience was a small price to pay for the increased security.

At the Burkina border, customs and immigration procedures were brief and efficient. The production of my Jamaican passport, along with a "Yeah, man!", usually produces a broad smile, a clenched fist over the heart, and a cry of "Bob Marley!" We reached Ouagadougou after eight hours on the road.

Formerly the French colony of Upper Volta (since it lies on the upper reaches of the River Volta), at independence in 1960 it became the Republic of Upper Volta. In 1984, the name of the country was changed to Burkina Faso, which means 'Fatherland of the Upright People' in local languages.

The population of Burkina Faso is 60 per cent Muslim, 19 per cent Roman Catholic, and 15 per cent follow traditional religion; there were fewer hijabs and veils, and so more skin was visible. We stayed in a hostel run by Roman Catholic nuns, and had lunch in a restaurant run by a different group of nuns. There I had my only pork meal in Africa.

[Correction: Last week, I wrote in error that the Mechoui I ate was slow-roasted pig. Of course, it was slow-roasted lamb; they would not be eating pig's flesh in 90 per cent Muslim Niger].

Ougadougou is motorbike city. Striking is the number of women - young and old - in their headdresses and robes, weaving confidently around cars. They rule the road. There were at least 2,000 motorcycles parked in front of the central market. I have never seen so many motorcycles in one place in all my life.

In Ouaga, there is a market where craftsmen who work in brass display their jewellery and objets d'art, and in Niamey there is an artisanal village in the National Museum for traditional weavers and craftsmen who work in silver, nickel and semi-precious stones.

I have always found it remarkable that in Jamaica, we have no record of art or sculpture before the 20th century, and no tradition of weaving or working in metal. I am sure our ancestors came from Africa with many artisanal skills which slavery worked out of them.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and development scientist. Email feeedback to