In Focus, Lifestyle, Ludotheque

Moving slow in West Africa

After a 75 pence haircut and some food I decided to follow the music across the road. Inside they are showing a collection of National Geographic films, including The World’s Most Dangerous Animals and CSI (that’s Croc Scene Investigation), just the job for an exciting night out.

Graham Douglas

It’s being projected onto a giant screen, without a soundtrack because we have Hiplife playing through speakers the size of wardrobes.

Suddenly the show is cut short by a technical problem, and the pool table becomes the focus of attention.

The players are 2 teenagers with style. One has a baseball cap and around his neck a big chunk of crystal jewellery and an MP3 player; while his friend just has a scarf wrapped vertically over his head and under his chin.

Both of them are dancing to the music between shots, and at one point they decide to swap the gear they’re wearing.

Pretty rough and ready the table, if the balls get lost just tip it up till they fall out, and the triangle is metal and looks like the ones you put behind a car when it breaks down. But everyone is having a great time and it beats the film show.
Next day I move on, and the Rough Guide (RG) assures me that there is tarmac most of the way to Bimbilla, and the men in the tro-tro station said I’ll be there in a couple of hours. It turns out the tro-tro only goes to Nkwanta, but I’ll definitely be able to get another one straight away.

After a 2 hour trip on a rough earth road we get there just as a truck-bus is filling up. It’s a magnificent old Mercedes with a very sweet engine and we are soon flying along at 50 mph over a corrugated road, and the engineering is so good it only seems to transmit noise but no vibration.

Now in Kpaca things are slowing down. They park me in the front seat of the most decrepit, falling-apart old taxi I’ve ever seen. I’m there to attract punters it seems, and eventually we do set off.

After 7 ½ hours including a ride on a 20-ton truck I reach Bimbilla. There are not “several hotels around the lorry park” as the RG tells me, not even one, but fortunately I spotted one on the way into town.

After Bimbilla it’s fairly easy to get to Tamale but these buses are something else. Inside, I can’t sit down because everyone is keeping a seat for someone else, and mainly because there are extra seats which fold down in the aisle, which you can’t sit in as long as there are empty spaces behind.

The roof is low, my rucksack is heavy, it’s very hot, and next to me an argument starts between a woman who is keeping a seat and another who wants it. They are soon literally screaming at each other about a foot away from my head (still pressed at an uncomfortable angle against the roof). I push someone’s luggage away enough to squeeze into the seat next to her, which she doesn’t seem to like very much. Eventually the driver arrives and things are sorted.

When we arrive I notice the decal which all the buses have across their windscreens. They usually have a religious saying: this one just says “Fear Women”.

Into Burkina

My first night in Burkina is uneventful, and the French influence is nicely summed up in the slogan for Flag beer: The Outer Sign of Conviviality. It takes a nation of intellectuals to come up with that, and contrasts to Ghanaian Star beer which claims to “unlock the joy of life with sparkling brightness“.

Ouagadougou is a surprise, as I always thought Burkina was one of the poorest countries in Africa. Here the traffic lights work, water regularly comes out of the tap, and there are no open drains to fall into at night. But there are lots of children begging for food which doesn’t happen in Ghana, and Avenue Nkrumah looks like a slice of Paris with new 4X4’s parked by swanky bars. I move on to Bobo Dioulasso which is said to be greener and a few degrees cooler.

There is a lot more hustling in Burkina, and in a restaurant a guy crept up behind me, squatting next to my table whispering that he would wait outside and we could discuss “des petites soeurs”, which presumably is just girls, hopefully not children. I notice he doesn’t hassle a group of French guys who come in, so as I  leave I make a point of stopping to chat with them, and suddenly there’s no sign of him: he targeted me because I’m alone.

Hitting the Fan

When you get in a low frame of mind concentration slips, and standing under the fan in my room to put a T-shirt on, I push my hand through the sleeve a bit too enthusiastically and straight into the blades. The cut stops bleeding fairly quickly but there is the worry of infections in tropical climates. With some Paracetamol the pain is less, and the swelling has gone down enough after 3 days to be able to sign a traveller’s cheque…

Today the fever seems to be worse but after buying a 3-day Malaria cure I decide it wasn’t that. I just wrote Maria but there aren’t any of them here to bite me like those beautiful Ghanaian mosquitos.
At the hospital they ask me who I want to visit, then sit me on a slab to check my blood pressure and temperature and give me a prescription to kill worms, and some ampoules of amino acids for energy.

Trying to find an omelette for lunch later, the man at the counter says they don’t do them but points me down the road opposite, and another guy comes over and says he will take me there. But then he says something bizarre, asking me if I want to drink milk or wine. I take a closer look at him and notice his glazed eyes and slurring speech, so I say “no thanks” and take off in a different direction, which leads me through a group of women sitting on the ground selling pots and pans.

When I find a gap and reach the road he is right behind me and suddenly tries to wrench some papers out of my hand, that I’ve printed out at the internet cafe. He puts his fists up and says ”Vous voulez combattre avec moi ?’ 3 or 4 times. I have to do the same, so the two of us are facing off with fists up in the middle of the street. I tell him that “no, I don’t want a fight, why should I?”, while I wait for the inevitable crowd to gather and defuse it. I can’t walk away in case he jumps me from behind. Sure enough we soon get taken aside to calm down by different people.

When I get back to the hotel I need a sleep, and turn on the fan which makes a noise like an amorous couple on a noisy mattress. As it accelerates the effect becomes comical, but eventually it reaches its plateau and continues stirring the air more decorously as I fall asleep.

Jazz Feeling

Time to relax at the blues bar Ivoire. ‘Jazz Feeling’ play on Thursdays and Fridays, and the guy with the straw hat has a real presence.

He plays Malian blues and Hendrix riffs on his electric guitar, as easily as breathing, and the music begins to cook.

One night a clown gets on stage, with things stuffed down his clothes to give himself breasts and a huge bottom, which he waggles at the audience. His motor bike would look perfect on Brighton seafront in the summer.

It’s plastered with testimonials, plus a banner saying he is on tour between Bobo – Ouagadougou and Cotonou (in Benin, about 700 miles away) for 28 days. At the back there is an aerial with something like a bearskin hat on the top of it. An African Mod Clown on a motorbike —- you couldn’t make it up.

The stage is a platform with a wooden roof, lit by a single blue striplight, and the tables are in the open.

Across the road at another bar there are two girls on the garden door calling out to passing guys.

Later I need the toilet, which is in the other bar, and my lovely companion of 30 minutes ago takes me there and helps me find the right spot in the dark, — by shining her mobile phone.

Sometimes hanging out at tea bars is more interesting than going to see sacred catfish or “the oldest mosque in the world”.

Another day I met a veterinary surgeon with a doctorate from Rabat, who spoke perfect English. He has projects for artificial cattle insemination, and says that 2 years ago the banks were falling over themselves to offer loans, but by the time they had processed his applications the credit crunch had arrived.

He hopes I might know a businessman in Europe with say £500K to invest, and invites me to his office, with trophy cups from Egypt and Morocco, and six little files of bull sperm suspended in a fuming cylinder of liquid Nitrogen at minus 1800 C ….. His business plan is interesting because it shows how much people earn here. The director pays himself about £13K a year and the people at the bottom get a twentieth of that, or £2 a day, compared to a basic single room price of £9, and breakfast in a tea bar at about 60 pence.

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