Monday, 29 November 2010

The Perfect Pass

I don’t feel you need to be a football lover to understand this, but, if the sight of 11 boys kicking a pig-skin makes you feel nauseous, then feel free to either look away now or find the nearest bucket.
I love a game of football now and again. Perhaps a contender for the 2010 ‘Understatement of the Year’ competition.
So, on the way to work the other day, Antoine needed to pass by the local photocopier shop near the University to copy out some notes for his impending exams. As he spent five minutes in the ‘copy-shop’, I went to stand under the shade of a tree to watch a game of football between approximately 20 or so locals. Bricks for goalposts, a dusty surface and a notable lack of footwear on show. I stood there in my shades in the background, doing my best impression of a sleazy scout from some second-rate European club, ready to prize away any African talent. Ever the ‘know-it-all’ when it comes to football, I thought there was clearly some skill out there but, even in the mid-morning heat, it did seem like some energy and running was lacking – along with sweat – which I would provide in bucket loads (“No skill and little quality – but Chris likes to run a lot” – even in Burkina Faso, the sound of former teammates nodding in agreement is deafening). The truth be told, I wanted to be out there to prove to Africa that England’s dismal display in the World Cup was, of course, down to my absence. Then - my chance. The ball trickles into my path from a wild shot by a young striker, who misses the breeze blocks by some distance. A casual jog over to the ball, I realise the nearest player is about 30-yards away. 20 pairs of eyes glaring and in shock at the sight of a ‘le blanc’ coming out from the undergrowth to meet the ball.  
I absolutely nailed it. Spot on. To the guys feet. An arrogant swagger to finish off the pass. Antoine comes out with his copies. “Allez Chris”. “Ok Antoine, my work here is done”.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The Kettle: Part 2

I often wonder whether people read this and think I am a fabricator, an embellisher of the truth.......a total and utter liar. If only it were true, because as you will read, I could really murder a brew right now.
After ‘kettlegate’ (see ‘The Kettle’), I decided enough was enough and went out into the manic suburban chaos near my hotel to buy a kettle from a local vendor. The biscuits I brought over here were just looking far too lonely without something to be dipped in, and, after going to all the effort to bring my own Sainsbury’s coffee, as George Best probably said on one more than one occasion, “it would be rude not to”.
Now, something I’ve learned from my brief time in West Africa, is if you need to buy something in particular, you needn’t go to an actual shop which sells it. Merely trot off to a shop which vaguely resembles what you are looking for, and if they don’t have it, I guarantee the shop keeper will know a man who does. Not only will he/she know somebody, but the chances are they are in close proximity and can even be called upon with a loud ‘shout’. Indeed, my guy didn’t really know what I was asking for, nevermind sell the item, but alas, in 10 minutes his friend was over with a choice of 3 plastic kettles. Each looked a bit ‘Blue Peter’ for my liking with Chinese writing scrawled over the front. I was assured however, that two were definitely better than the other – so I went for the other; a slightly cheaper option saving about a pound. In hindsight, I regret my decision.
The next night, I opened a packet of Custard Creams and went to make a cup of coffee. After unearthing the Plastic Chinese Electric Water Boiler (to call it a kettle would be offensive to those kettles more deserving of the title), I plugged it in to see if all the adapters worked in harmony. I could hear a faint hissing noise. Nice one. Bingo! And then.....BANG! Two minutes later, after wiping the Chinese kettle gunpowder from my eyes and emptying the contents of my now rather nervous pants, I realised that perhaps these things weren’t designed to be switched on empty. Maybe the Chinese writing really did mean something after all?

The exploding kettle. The translation of the Chinese text reads, 'Buy this kettle, and the only mug around here is you'

Sunday, 21 November 2010

It's Election Night in Burkina Faso

Thousands of voters lining the streets, throngs of supporters, a swing-o-meter, constant political debate on TV and the air of suspense at a new dawn in Burkina Faso’s history.
Not here I’m afraid.
November 21st. Election day in Burkina Faso. When I was told the Presidential elections were this weekend, I genuinely felt a twinge of excitement thinking I would witness something remarkable and unique for someone from my part of the world. To understand my disappointment, you need to understand some history.
1987. Thomas Sankara, nicknamed the ‘Che Guevara’ of Africa, was ousted in a military coup. ‘Thom Sank’ is famed for changing the name of a country previously known as Upper Volta to Burkina Faso (‘Land of the Incorruptible’), introducing literacy, giving the country some financial grounding and ridding it of corruption. I see his name scrawled on a brick wall on my way to work every day. It simply says, “Thomas Sankara est en vie”.
Introducing Captain Blaise Campaoré. The captain led the military junta and in 1991, was elected as the sole candidate and President on the back of low voter turnout. 19 years later he remains President with little opposition, some controversy and consistently over 80% of the vote.
Today, Burkina Faso is 161 out of 169 nations in United Nations (UN) Human Development Index (a quote I have yet to see omitted from any article about BF). In other words, it is a very poor country, even by Sub-Saharan Africa standards. So why will Blaisé still be President when I wake up tomorrow morning? It may be a poor country, but Burkina Faso is also one of the most stable. Remember, we only hear the bad stuff on BBC and SkyNews and this is probably why many of us have never heard of Burkina Faso before. Blaisé is seen as a peace moderator in a region of Africa where countries seem to ‘love a squabble’. I read one voter say, “we don’t have anything, but we have peace”. I asked Antoine’s friend, Fernando, why he was voting for Blaisé. He just said, “C’est Blaisé”.
It’s not all ‘familiarity breeds content’ however. Others feel ‘familiarity breeds contempt’. But, no one can decide what to do about it. There are in fact six other candidates, but the chances of seeing an election campaign poster without President Campaore’s face on it, are about as good as finding a white guy in a red and white hooped jumper in Ouagadougou called Wally.
My biggest disappointment. As I write, Reuters are reporting a trickle of voters as the polls close. Only 3million out of a population of 16million are registered to vote; and of these, with the result a foregone conclusion, people are simply not bothered. If you allow me to saddle my incredibly high horse for one moment (the only time I promise), this is a real shame when you consider the effort put into and lives lost to get that vote. I went with Antoine to cast his at a local primary school this afternoon. I think the parent’s evenings see more action. Blaise was urging people to get out and ‘rock the vote’ this afternoon (he didn’t actually say ‘rock’ but you know what I mean). He needn’t bother. He won’t be phoning up the local estate agent tomorrow to move out of his big house in central Ouaga.  
Whatever the outcome, I was ready to take my camera out on to the streets of Ouagadougou today and capture democracy in Africa, in action, and tell you all about it. More fool me. I had a Sunday afternoon snooze instead.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Strangely Familiar

As the last blog highlighted. Few things change. And during my first day back in Ouagadougou, it seems nothing changes in Burkina Faso, except for maybe my room. I now reside in A11 instead of my previous home, room A2, which has experienced a small but significant natural disaster. The toilet has flooded. No you cheeky wasn’t me!
There was something almost cocky about my entrance into the country yesterday. I breezed through passport control and then just sat at the back of the terminally ill-looking terminal, waiting, as the herd flocked toward the comically dumped bags on the floor. A few of the other Europeans on the flight looked a little lost. I took my bag and waltzed though customs (not literally – wonderful image though).
The same hotel. The same lack of towels. The same friendly faces at work. The same “Ca va, Chez toi?” and then blank look on my face as the art of conversation moves on from mere greetings. I even knew the little lad who served me my sugary yoghurt in the suburban mini-mart (wow, ‘mini-mart’, since when did I become American!).  I even seamlessly went for a plate of oil with a splattering of spaghetti on top at Madamme Claude’s round the corner. I guess, with a touch of exaggeration, it’s like going to the Moon and just going back to the same crater. What’s the point?! I’m in danger of making Burkina Faso ‘a familiarity’.  So, I’m not going back to Mdme C’s tomorrow, or any other day for that matter. Plus, I did once see a stray cat crawl over the kitchen tops precariously close to the spaghetti bowl.
I feel like I owe an apology. I promised last time to describe a country which, lets face it, not many of us had heard of previously. All you got was tales of lizards, crap French and avocado sandwiches. Well, what better way to start discussing the history and a bit more about this place than with the Burkina Faso Presidential elections this Sunday. Blaise Campaore, the incumbent President has over 20 years of office and is set to win again this weekend. Did someone say, “Strangely familiar”?
Now I know how the locals feel.

Friday, 19 November 2010

The Kettle

I can’t quite recall which general, admiral or famous leader (or was it Shakespeare) said the words as his troops went into battle, “once more into the breach dear friends, once more”, but those words certainly ring true when asking for a kettle to boil some water in the Hotel des Conferences. Yes, I’m back in Burkina Faso. Let’s do away with the pleasantries.
I prepared my ‘pre-match’ speech in my room and gave the hotel the respect to look up ‘kettle’ in my mini French dictionary (bouilloire). I even took a final swig of water so my palate and French were in harmony. No point. On delivering the game plan, the receptionist maintained a look that rather suggested I wanted to pour a kettle of boiled water over her head, rather than just hand one over. After some confused chatter and on realising Plan B wasn’t working (hot, chaud + water, l’eau), she called over some colleagues to join in the fun. Finally, we got there and a kind hotel clerk offered to bring some hot water to my room so that I can enjoy a cup of the Dairy Milk hot chocolate I remembered to pack.
He’s just knocked on my door with a jug of water. It’s cold. And there’s no cup.
Bienvenue a Hotel des Conferences

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Burkina Faso Top 5: Part 1 - Food

As some may know, I love a top 5 (except with Bealtes songs – it is impossible to have a top 5 so don’t even try to tell me you have one). For the next few posts, I’ll give you a few top5s of Burkina Faso and hopefully it will show just what I really like about this country. There is very little not to.

Today’s topic. Food.

Missing out on the top5 is this plate of caterpillars served with a helping of rice. They tasted of wood.

5) Ragout et pommes de terre. Its meat. Its potatoes. Could almost be in Yorkshire. What more do you want?

4) Yaourt et sucre. As I said in my last post – this is a delicious desert after a huge lunch. More like a shot of sugar.

3) Chicken and chips. If you’re Western and don’t fancy dipping your toe into the luke warm bath of West African cuisine, I’m guessing you’ve ordered ‘Poulet et des frites’. Its usually covered in oil but this is the best thing about it. Naughty but nice.

2) Riz et sauce. Burkina’s favourite. The legend Seydou’s favourite. With ‘sauce tomat’ or ‘sauce feuille’ (quite nutty that one). At 80pence in one of the countless Madamme’s restaurants – a steal. And the portions are huge!

1) Advocat sandwich for breakfast. My favourite Burkina Faso dish for my favourite meal. Sound strange? It did to me at first but since I discovered this delightful little stand near work run by the evergreen Dauda, it has become my staple meal to get me pumped up for another day in Burkina Faso. It has got to the stage when Dauda doesn’t even ask me what I want. I’ve watched him make it so much, here’s the recipe.

• 1 advocat

• 1 small tomato

• 1 small onion

• Loads of oil

• More than a pinch of salt

• A fresh baguette.

Take the advocat and remove the stone. Scoop out the inside and chop up in a warm pan. Finely chop an onion and a tomato and mix in with the advocat. Throw as much oil as you can into the pan (Dauda doesn’t use Tesco’s finest I’m guessing?) and a fairly kind helpful of salt. Mix together and spoon into a baguette. Serve with a ‘voila’.

Just don’t order Cafe au Lait with your sandwich. Dauda serves his coffee in a bowl with a spoon.

Friday, 3 September 2010

He ironed my boxer shorts.....

He ironed my boxer shorts. There are three possible reasons for this:

a) He thought it is what us white folk do.

b) He was in a really good mood.

c) Its how Burkina men roll. Pressed.

Anyway, after two weeks of wearing the same trousers (I was considering a trip to the local hospital for some surgical removal) and coming scarily close to that ‘inside-out’ tactic, the guy at the local laundry has quickly risen up my ‘favourite people’ chart.

If only I could say the same about some of the shop assistants and waitresses in Burkina Faso. It is an irony I can’t get my head around. The Burkinabe have to be the cheeriest and most pleasant people on the planet. There isn’t a five minutes which goes by when someone doesn’t say, “Bonne arrive”, “Bon appétit”, “Ca va bien”. Regardless of wealth or status – everyone is the same. It makes you feel good about yourself and is my favourite thing about Burkina Faso. So when you go to get some food or buy some soap, someone definitely switched off the ‘happy tap’. An example. Today, Antoine drove me to the local bus station to check out the times of the buses for my weekend adventure (to be revealed). Anyway, minor details. On the way back, we stopped off at a typical ‘grocery store’ for Antoine’s weekly shop. As we were leaving, I realised I wanted a ‘Yaourt de sucre’. This little packet of sugary yoghurt has become a firm favourite following a recommendation from a friend. So, as I approach the counter, the man with the frown told me to go the adjacent counter. A normal request, if only the woman behind that counter wasn’t a sleep. “Well, can’t you serve me?”, “No, she will serve you”, “But she’s asleep?!” ......shrug of the shoulders. She awakes at this point and gives me a stare the Wicked Witch of the West (Africa) would shudder at. “Je suis desolee madamme pour reveiller” (bad French for Sorry to disturb your sleep). What am I doing?! I’m apologising for buying a yoghurt and waking her up at 2 in the afternoon! Its the same at the local cafes/restaurants. Sometimes you’d think that instead of asking for ‘Riz Sauce’, I asked, could I punch your mum.

So the Burkinabe. Nicest people on Earth – except in Tesco!