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Poor old Ouagadougou, it really doesn't stand a chance. Despite sounding like a 1970s concept album, the capital city of Burkina Faso reflects the country it represents, in that it has no serious tourist attractions; for this heinous crime it's rarely anything other than a transit city for people travelling between Mali and Ghana. For me it was exactly that, and I expected nothing other than a few days of killing time while waiting for the legendary bureaucracy of Ghana to chug its way through my visa application.
Perhaps because I was expecting absolutely nothing, I really liked Ouaga. It doesn't have anything particularly stunning to occupy the average visitor – there's a big market, an ugly cathedral, a museum and that's about it – but what it does have is a congenial atmosphere, friendly people, not too much hassle and shops absolutely everywhere. Walking round Ouaga is fascinating simply because its shops are so varied, and every few metres there's another pile of merchandise spilling out onto the street and making the mopeds swerve.
On a walk from the Fondation Charles Dufour to the other side of town, I started jotting down a list of all the different shops I passed en route. I ran out of space after a few blocks, but what I saw was fascinating. Just round the corner from the hostel sits a quincaillerie with white porcelain toilets stacked in piles of three, propped up by bags of cement and surrounded by electric fans and plastic garden seats. A photo booth next door offers instant passport photos and film developing, despite the almost totally empty interior making it look more like the after-effects of a recession; it appears to be business as usual, though.
A block away a sign points to a shady-looking grille which apparently sells armaments, and the men sitting on the veranda shout, 'Monsieur, monsieur, come and look at our guns!' Bustling on past the music shop that blares out loud American rap music, there's a man carrying a huge board of stickers sporting colourful slogans like 'I love Jesus', 'Allah is the One' and 'Osama bin Laden' (the latter also appears on countless T-shirts, normally with fighter planes flying over his head). Past the seed shop – which specialises in 'vegetables, flowers, grass and plants for the tropical zone' – sits one of the countless telecentres, offering telephone calls, faxing, photocopying and anything else they can squeeze out of their tiny booth-like cabin. Meanwhile the tyres piled high next door threaten to tumble onto the delicately stacked bicycles on the other side, as we move into a slightly more industrial zone.
If motors are your thing there's a shop with eight massive car engines, sitting like huge metal hearts on yellow tables in the middle of the street, and next door air compressors are the dish of the day, their shiny aluminium casings polished bright in the afternoon sun. Dotted around the next corner are scores of shacks flogging electrical equipment, the TV aerials and multi-plug extension leads hanging from the awnings like sausages in a butchers' shop, while one door along stacks of orange gas canisters bake dangerously in the midday heat alongside rolls of wire mesh, gas cookers and piles of colourful rope. One street on is the Chinese corner, with one spotless shop selling traditional Chinese remedies, another one selling neatly packaged oriental decorations, and a third mopping up the market with all those nick-nacks that you don't know you need until you wander into the shop.
A little further up town things take on a classier air, with two supermarkets selling packaged western goods and luxuries like cheese, wine, and meat that isn't smothered in flies, while next door an incredibly smart shop sells satellite dishes, televisions and DVD players, a stark contrast to the little boys begging with their tin-can bowls in the street. A couple of doors down lies a shop that is perfectly western in its appearance; it's a wine shop that presents its bottles in landscaped pine-wood window dressing, and while the inside of the shop looks no smarter than an off-licence back home, it feels utterly out of place and incredibly decadent in this, the capital city of one of the world's five poorest countries. The clothes store next door carries fashionable items that have floated down from the catwalks of Paris and Milan, passing through an African tailor en route, and this classy street rounds off with a spotless scooter showroom, the latest models posing in a shroud of flashing lights and Christmas decorations.
For Christmas is coming and the rich are getting fat, but you too can join their ranks if you buy a lottery ticket from the LONAS stalls standing on every street corner, promising prizes of millions of CFAs and entry into the glossy wine shops of this world. Given the odds, though, it's probably better to spend your money in one of the coffee shacks around town, where super-sweet café au lait makes a wonderful accompaniment to a baguette filled with butter or mayonnaise. Alternatively the fruit stalls round the corner sell oranges, melons, guavas, bananas, papaya and a bunch of strange gourd-shaped fruits that no doubt taste as bizarre as they look.
But wander back through the stationery stores and past the colourful mattress shops with their piles of spongy foam and choices of garish covering material, and you come to the grittier end of town, outside the concrete bunker that houses the grand marché. Racked outside the market lives the sharp end of Burkina's sales pitch. Stands sell grilled skewers of unidentified meat, which you can pick up in a length of baguette for a pittance; young boys guard ice boxes full of red, yellow and white bags of frozen drinks, sweet-tasting bisap going for a paltry CFA25 and quenching even the biggest thirst; just down the road a man presides over a collection of old Pastis bottles that now contain liquids of various shades of red and yellow, but this isn't bisap, it's petrol, ready to pour straight into the tanks of the motorbikes puttering round town through clouds of black exhaust. Young men with phone cards slotted into wooden holders wave them in people's faces, hoping that their technique will earn them a sale, and past the pink lights of the video rental shop and the dry cleaners squat the ugly block-like buildings of the banks, looking down on the busy capitalism of Burkina's commercial centre while brand names like Shell and Mobil tower over the shacks trying to scrape a living from passers-by. In their shadow a hopeful young man punts along the road carrying two fully decorated Christmas trees, the tinsel glittering in the glare from the headlights of the brand new Mercedes and shiny four-wheel-drives that cut up the home-made handcarts at the intersection.
And there aren't many places where you'll get a man running up to you, eager and enthusiastic, shouting «Allo mon ami, ça va?» as if he's got the bargain you've been waiting for all your life... only to try to sell you a moped. London's used-car salesmen could learn a thing or two from the Burkinabe salesman, and that's really saying something.
But Ouaga isn't just about shops and shopping, it's about the incredible conflict between Burkina Faso being amazingly poor, and the quality of life in its capital for the casual visitor. After the big city shocks of Dakar and Bamako, Ouagadougou is a clean, ordered, polite and downright civilised city, perhaps best summed up by the fact that the city's grid-based road intersections are all controlled by traffic lights... and they're actually obeyed. This is highly unusual for West Africa, and makes wandering round the city possible without the constant game of hit-or-miss that normally characterises the African pedestrian experience.
Another welcome surprise after the dour food of Mali was the Restaurant Sindabad, a Lebanese restaurant which sounded good in the book and which turned out to be absolute heaven in reality. My first visit was with the two English girls who were also staying at the fondation, and who'd spent a couple of months in Ghana before heading to Mali; we spent the night swapping tips over a feast. I couldn't resist and ordered the hamburger special, and I was amazed when a genuine hamburger arrived in a big bun, with fries, coleslaw and pickles on the side. It tasted just like a real burger should, and I washed it down with a beautifully cold bottle of So.b.bra, Burkina's local brew that's pronounced as it's spelt (i.e. 'So-bee-brah'). The restaurant was dimly lit by quaint little lights in wicker lampshades, and the thatched walls and copious trees and plants made it feel more like a travellers' haunt in Bali or Thailand, rather than a Lebanese shack in the capital of land-locked Burkina Faso. The prices were good (after Senegal and Mali, anyway), and we were so enthralled by the ambience and food that we went back the following night to celebrate Republic Day.
Republic Day, which falls on 11 December, is a national holiday to celebrate the day in 1958 when the French territory of Upper Volta voted to become an autonomous state, paving the way for independence in 1960. Even though there have been plenty of political upheavals in Burkina since those heady days, Republic Day is still Burkina's principal holiday and the capital parties hard.
The most noticeable effect of Republic Day, apart from all the official buildings like banks and embassies being shut, is the large amount of drinking that goes on. Senegal and Mali are pretty Islamic in their approach to life, and although they're far from strict when it comes to alcohol, you don't tend to see people drinking in public – most pubs are hidden away from the street, and although large signs advertising Flag, Castel and Guinness hang outside, you don't often get to see the infidels actually consuming alcohol. I remember getting a Coke one morning from the bottle-shop warehouse on the river front in Mopti, and as Brook and I stood there sipping what was to be our last cold drink before four days of corrugated hell on the public pinasse, a man came in, handed some cash to the proprietor, mumbled something under his breath, took the bottle that was handed to him and stood behind a stack of crates. I could still see him, and although it was 10am and Ramadan, he cracked open the chilled bottle of Castel and necked it in two or three long chugs. A swift burp later he dropped the bottle innocently into a crate of empties and strode out into the street, whistling. This struck me as odd, not so much because of the obvious alcohol problem this implied, but because you just don't see that much public drinking in the Sahel, at least not compared to the West. But there are alcoholics in West Africa just as there are alcoholics the world over, it's just that in Islamic Africa, they hide well.
But Burkina's capital doesn't seem to care about spilling its parties onto the street. Just around the corner from the fondation, in an unlikely position sandwiched between the city's Christian cemetery and the disappointingly ugly city cathedral, lies Rue Joseph Badoua, which is home to all sorts of shady looking bars with glowing neon lights, blaring music and dimly lit tables cluttered with empty bottles. This is where the hardcore come to drink, and from the early hours of Republic Day the bars are full of people knocking back bottles of beer, spirits and probably some strange local brews as well. Mopeds lined up in front of the bars promise some interesting driving later in the day and this infectious celebration seems to permeate the rest of the city, though elsewhere there isn't quite as much overt decadence in sight. It was even enough to persuade me to have a couple of big beers at the Sindabad that night, quite a luxury for your average budget traveller.
And that was Ouagadougou. Perhaps it's precisely because tourists shoot straight through that it hasn't developed an attitude problem towards the white man; indeed, in Ouaga I saw more white people driving around than in any other place I've yet visited, and I met people from the UN Development Programme and wandered past what looked like a large UNICEF building, so perhaps the white invasion here has been aid-based instead of tourist-based. Whatever the reason, I thoroughly liked Ouaga and found it to be an easy-going and relaxing city, and after the turgid boredom of waiting around in Mopti, it was a relief to be enjoying my time in a town full of nothing to do.