“Mellow” is a good word to describe my experience of cycling in Burkina Faso. Much drier than Ghana, less populated, and poorer, we spent just 13 days here. We shared the road with many other cyclists. Bicycling was a major form of transportation for men and women, young and old, often carrying small children, some on their mother’s back. The roads we traveled were well maintained, lightly trafficked, flat, relatively wind-less, and rain-free (during this season)…perfect for cycle transportation. We also saw donkeys pulling carts. This picture, to me, is the epitome of mellow. In the larger cities, Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso, more people rode moblyettes (small motorcycles). Especially fun were seeing women, dressed to the nines in spiked heels with tightly coiffed hair riding in rush hour. Mango trees were everywhere, greening the dry landscape. In villages the mango tree was sometimes the only tree, usually standing in a central place and always surrounded with locally fashioned benches where men and women lounged and chatted in the shade of the midday sun.
One of my favorite experiences was our stay in Chez Tess, a sweet B&B in Ouagadougou. We shared the home with another family, Tony and Idoia, and their soon to be adopted daughter Leonce. Tony and Idoia, from northern Spain, had been working to adopt a child for the last 5 years, and had begun the process of adopting now 3 year old Leonce, from an Ouagadougou orphanage two and a half years ago. They were waiting for paperwork to come from Cote d’Ivoire, where the disputed election was creating problems for them, and then planned to fly to Paris to make it home in time to celebrate Leonce’s first European Christmas. I felt lucky to be party to their great joy as their long awaited child was becoming a reality for them. It was also fun watching a very cute three-year-old Leonce get acquainted with her new parents. We left before knowing the outcome of the adoption and whether holiday snowfalls in Europe disrupted their Christmas. In a recent e-mail photo, Leonce was dressed in a winter hat and coat braving the northern Spain winter with her lovely smile. They had made it home Christmas Eve and she was making progress in her multi-lingualism adding Basque and Spanish to her 3 year-old fluency in French and Bambara.
We decided to spend a 4th night in Ouagadougou to give us time to get information about our route. We planned to travel north from Ouagadougou to a lonely Mali border crossing, and then on to Mali’s famed Dogon country, much visited by tourists. The US State Department had issued travel warnings for part of this route, not including the tourist areas we wanted to visit. Al-Qaeda has its fingers in a wide, but desolate area of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Mauritania in an organization known as AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Mahgreb). Most people are not sympathetic to its message, but it has found some followers in disaffected youth, as one source I read put it. In the past several years a dozen or so people, many of them European tourists, have been kidnapped in these areas, and held for ransom. A few have been killed, including two Frenchmen in January 2011, who were kidnapped from a bar in Niamey, Niger. They were killed by their captors during a rescue attempt by French authorities. I didn’t take the warnings lightly, but I also knew, realistically, we were more likely to be killed on the road by a passing truck than by terrorists. Yet, David and I hadn’t talked with anyone who had traveled this route recently, no cyclists, no other tourists, no locals. So we waited until Monday when the Peace Corps Office would be open to talk with their security person. As he was on vacation, Shannon Meehan, the director of Burkina Faso’s Peace Corps took the time to talk to us. She gave us a very sobering picture of cycling our route, including our plan to go north along the coast in Mauritania. Mali’s Dogon area was still safe but we would need to go around the long way to get there. She was very enthusiastic about our changing our route to traveling in western Burkina Faso, southern Mali, and western Senegal (where she had been a Peace Corps Volunteer 20 years ago). She graciously gave David a detailed map of Burkina Faso, a treasure for him. We decided we would not visit Mali’s Dogon area (a disappointment for me) because of the increased distance. I didn’t know what I would do about Mauritania and its travel warnings. The road along its coast was the only practical way to cycle north north. I decided I would gain what information I could and figure out what to do when I got there. AQIM’s presence was a bother for us, but (among a host of other negatives) it is an economic disaster for people depending on tourism in countries where paying jobs are difficult to find.