I don't really have any deep thoughts on leaving Burkina Faso, considering I didn't even have the decency to explore it. Like the vast majority of travellers I simply wandered in from Mali, grabbed a visa for Ghana and shot out on the first bus south. How rude of me; this is an entire country we're talking about, and I couldn't even be bothered to give it the time of day.
But don't blame Burkina for this; blame the fact that I'm not a natural French speaker, and now that I'm within the gravitational pull of Ghana – an Anglophone country that consistently gets the thumbs up from travellers who've been there – I can't resist. I want to spend Christmas on the beach with people who speak English, and that's both a physical and social impossibility in land-locked French-speaking Burkina Faso; besides, Ghana is astoundingly Christian while Burkina isn't, so it has to be the better bet for the biggest Christian festival of all. But language and religion are just two factors; I need a holiday, and it sounds like Ghana can provide me with one.
Of the incredibly short amount of time I spent in Burkina Faso, I already have great memories, not because anything particularly spectacular happened, but because Burkina feels so different to Mali, and in a good way. Senegal and Mali felt – to me – a little unwelcoming, but Burkina (or to be more precise, Ouagadougou) is full of friendly people who don't treat visitors like walking wallets. I fell into a routine of breakfasting in the coffee shops, lunching on fruit and dining in style, and my days were punctuated by visits to the reasonably priced internet cafés, hassle-free visa applications, and sitting round reading in the shady courtyard of the fondation. I didn't do anything memorable, but I already feel as if my Christmas holiday has begun.
A possible explanation for this stark difference between Burkina and the Sahel is in the country's history. From independence in 1960 to the last of a long line of coups in 1983, Upper Volta, as the country was then known, suffered from dictators, military coups, strikes, corruption and economic meltdown – a pretty typical African story, really. But in 1983 Captain Thomas Sankara seized power, renamed the country Burkina Faso (which means 'Land of the Incorruptible' in the country's two major languages) and started rooting out corruption. His socialist policies and charismatic leadership turned the tide and Burkina started improving, but most important of all he managed to make the people proud of their country, and it's this that shines through. It felt as if the Burkinabe wanted me to enjoy my visit to their country; it felt as if the Malians and the Senegalese simply wanted me to pay for my visit to theirs.
Despite being assassinated in 1987 – like all good socialists Sankara alienated the country's fat cats and was eventually overthrown himself – it's Sankara's legacy that Ouagadougou has such a wonderfully clean and ordered vibe, covered with a happily African veneer of madness and chaos that prevents it from being remotely boring or dour. For example, at one point Sankara decided that Ouaga needed sprucing up, so he ordered that all the houses on the principal routes should be painted white, and he knocked down the old market and built the current one, which was arguably not a good move, as the new one is a horrible concrete monstrosity, but at least he was trying. He cared about the capital, and it shows.
I was so impressed with Ouaga's laid-back atmosphere that I briefly considered hopping on the bus to visit Bobo-Dioulasso in western Burkina – probably the closest thing to a tourist area in the country – but in the end the thought of good food by the sea prevailed, and I booked a ticket on the direct bus from Ouaga to Kumasi, in central Ghana. The direct bus only runs twice a week; it seemed a crime to miss it, and I can always come back to Burkina if I miss speaking French.
It's a big 'if', but there are worse places to come back to. Our relationship was short, but I enjoyed my brief flirtation with Burkina, much to my relief.