The first thing you’ll notice about Ouagadougou is the heat. The second thing you’ll notice is it’s poor. And the third thing you’ll notice are the colours.
Everyone tells me that two months is not nearly enough time to take it all in; to really get a feel for it. Already, I know I want to return to West Africa someday soon.
It’s busy, colourful, dirty and hot, and brimming with cultural pride. It’s like no place I’ve ever been before.
Almost everything imaginable is sold in the streets. From shoes, hats and sunglasses, to tupperware, TVs and mattresses. Most other necessities can be purchased from vendors on the street or in markets, or in little “mini markets,” usually small huts that carry everything from bread to toothpaste, their tiny shacks filled to the brim with seemingly random supplies.
Curiously enough, white mannequins are used almost everywhere to showcase clothing – showing that even in a country where whites are a sparse minority, race inequality in terms of representation is quite prominent.
Transportation is another world altogether. Motorcycles, mules, transport trucks and cars fill the streets, which are endlessly crowded and busy. It’s not just the sheer chaos of the roads either; it’s motorbikes loaded up with as many dead chickens as can fit, furniture piled high on the rooftops of green taxis, and vans struggling under the weight of three or four people, several motorbikes, and maybe even a few cows, all precariously perched on top of them. There are no carseats or “baby on board” stickers here. Babies are strapped to their mother’s backs with a piece of cloth, and everywhere their mother’s go, they go – even if this means on the back of a motorcycle.
If you’re feeling hungry, there’s plenty of options for you to choose from. Whether you pick up some poulet bicyclette off a griller in the street, (the term used for chickens found and killed in the city streets), or sit down for a nice steak or pasta dinner at a restaurant, the price of your meal can range from under $1 to about $10 – which is the maximum I’ve ever spent on food here. Riz sauce is the most common thing you’ll find here, available in the simplest of roadside huts to the more expensive restaurants. It’s exactly as it sounds – a bowl-sized portion of rice with a side of sauce which you mix in with the rice. The sauce usually consists of a medley of vegetables and either fish or beef. A strong French influence still exists here when it comes to cuisine, with baguettes being a staple item, and crèpes and croque monsieurs sold in many restaurants.
Of course you almost can’t go out into the street without someone trying to sell you something, but that’s simply the way business is done here. No one here is really concerned with brand names or the chicest new trend. Women dress in brightly coloured and patterned cloths that are made into traditional looking dresses and elaborate two or three piece sets, (the third being a headpiece). Even the poorest of people are dressed like this, working hard to ensure their clothes are pressed and proper each and every day.
The land itself, however, is another thing altogether. Fields, roads and rivers are covered in trash that is covered in sand then covered in trash again. While residents can pay to have their garbage collected weekly, from what I understand, there aren’t many – if any – designated dumps here. And unfortunately, plastic seems to be the material of choice here. The stark reality is that when your biggest concerns consist of feeding, clothing and educating your children, while simultaneously trying to bring down a corrupt government, there’s not much time left in the day to become an environmental activist. I had never realized until now that in a society such as this one, looking out for Planet Earth is very much a privilege.
I think perhaps what I enjoy most about this city, however, is that despite the hustle and bustle on the surface, the people here are incredibly relaxed. This can kind of be a double-edged sword, because when it comes to the workplace or even just when waiting for a taxi, there can be such a thing as too relaxed. But, when walking around on weekends or in the evenings, there are no superficial standards to be held to. I could have been walking for the better part of an hour, drenched in sweat, and I am still greeted with a smile and a “good afternoon” by almost everyone I pass on the street. The only judgements here are of the personality. While the air might not be refreshing here, that certainly is.