Peaks, domes and painted houses

Burkina Faso had not exactly been near the top of the list of countries I wanted to spend time in when I moved to West Africa in 2006. However I had been working my way through the more obvious draws of the region and now I had the opportunity to spend a week or so in this “land of upright men” (as the name means!).

So it was quite a surprise to start reading through my Bradt Guide and finding a whole range of attractions, easily enough to keep any visitor busy for a month. But as my work was taking me to Bobo Dioulasso, in the south-west corner of the country, I decided to focus there. Bobo itself is a lovely town, with an old quarter full of artisans making woodcarvings, bronzes, batiks, etc (I spent a couple of hours there watching the production of three batiks), a pretty old mosque and lots of decent eating places.

From there I headed off to the countryside. The Domes of Fabedougou were deserted apart from some stunning red-throated bee-eaters, and nearby were the impressive waterfalls of Karfiguela where I had a swim and watched the wood hoopoes and violet turacos in the trees over the water. I also bumped into an English lady I had eaten dinner with a year or so before in Guinea; what a small world!

The Peaks of Sindou, also deserted, gave me another chance for a bit of exercise, and then further along the increasingly rough dirt track was the village of Niansogoni where I hiked up a hill to visit the remains of mud dwellings and granaries built into the side of a rock face. People had lived there back in the nineteenth century because it was safe from the raids of a neighbouring tribe, and the last inhabitants to leave only moved down to the plains in the 1980s.

It is an area where you can organise treks of many days, sleeping and eating in the villages, but I did not have the time. Mind you, trekking in the 40°C temperatures there would have been quite a challenge.

I also visited the Loropeni ruins. These comprise a mysterious set of big rock-walled enclosures in an area of woodland. Nobody knows when they were built or why, but they are impressive and were recently designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Just about worth the 160km each way along a dirt road on the back of a motorbike, although I’m not sure about the walking in the dark, waiting and final two hours squeezed with four others into the front of a lorry after the motorbike broke down 40km away from the end of the trip…

My final destination was Tiebele, a small village near the Ghanaian border famous for its architecture. Houses were traditionally built in a figure of eight shape, with the entrance only about waist height. This meant anyone entering the house would have to show their head first – which was thus easily chopped off by those inside if they were unwelcome intruders!

Thankfully tourists are not considered unwelcome in the royal palace of Tiebele, nor in a large compound in nearby Tangassoko. We help them to pay to continue painting the houses in the traditional way, with a number of symbols and geometric patterns, representing various important aspects of their lives and history. The “paints”, and the “varnish” which preserves it for three years, are made of natural muds, minerals and plants, but the cost of extracting and transporting these has meant that the tradition is dying out. Some are trying to replace it with a cheaper modern alternative, painting the walls with tar, but it really doesn’t compare.

Finally back to the capital, Ouagadougou, for my early morning flight home. The evening before the flight, however, I admit that I quite enjoyed being chatted up by a charming and good-looking young French man staying at my hotel. Something to raise the spirits – that despite my apparent loss of youth and beauty (see my last post) I still have something left that appeals to someone!

In need of a facelift

Two days ago I was sitting at the dinner table at my guest house, chatting with the owner. He looked at me for a while. "I can see from your face that you must have been beautiful when you were young" he said.

I smiled uncertainly and kept my composure for long enough to finish my dinner. Later in my room I cried, then laughed, then cried some more. I've been avoiding mirrors for the last year or two as I don't like the evidence that stares back at me, but still hoped at the back of my mind that I was being self-critical, that other people wouldn't have noticed what I could see. Of course I always knew that the years of sunbathing would catch up with me eventually - and now they have. & what I also have to accept is that ageing is not an illness - something I will recover from next week - but that I will NEVER be young and beautiful again in my life.

The guest house owner was not being deliberately cruel. In Africa, the wisdom of age is valued much more than the innocence of youth, and beauty has little value. Any African man would choose a rich woman above a beautiful one, and as I am white I am obviously rich...

However whilst I am sure that I have absorbed some African values during my time here, I have clearly not lost the Western veneration of youth and beauty. If anyone knows a good plastic surgeon, please send me the details.