White Camel Dream – Burkina Faso/Niger

White Camel Dream

Burkina Faso/Niger

Monday, 20 February, 2006

On Tika
On Tika
I didn’t realize what adventures were awaiting me when I said goodbye to Kati in Oagadougu. I thought Burkina Faso will be just a country I’m going to pass through, on my way to meet Rebekah in Niger. I was hitching slowly along the less travelled road towards the Nigerian frontier. And here in the north, I got distracted a bit – each time I saw a Tuareg passing, riding a camel. Yes – riding a camel, alone… something I dreamt about doing but couldn’t do with the camels in Morocco, as there they’re only trained to follow a guide. “Come, I’ll take you on my motorbike to Gorom Gorom, tomorrow’s market day, you can surely buy a camel there,” told me a guy in a little town in the north.

The market was amazing, with colorfully dressed people from various ethnic groups arriving from far and near, on foot, with donkey carts, by trucks or riding their camels. The white camels here that were for sale, were young, not yet trained. And a good, trained one wasn’t white… But the following day I found myself riding yet another motorbike with a Tuareg man, about 50 kilometers through the desert, to his village. It’s a long story, but to make it short – the motorbike broke down, we walked, slept with his family, watched a couple of camels that people brought the next morning. And… yes – I am a happy owner of a beautiful white camel! Kati wanted me to name my camel with her name. But me… I couldn’t bring myself to do that – she’s too unique, and no animal, not even my lovely camel can be called Kati, it just wouldn’t be the same. But, in her honour, I just changed the two syllables, and baptised my camel ‘Tika’. Burkina Faso is one of the friendliest countries I’ve been to, my camel is munching quietly on the leaves of a tree at my local Tuareg friend’s place right now, and generally – life is beautiful.

Saturday, 25 February, 2006
So OK, I have a camel. But… I guess it will take a while before I can say we’re really friends, Tika and I. The thing is – people here treat camels, and all animals, in fact, in a very utilitarian way – a camel is just a means of transportation, slowly replaced by motorcycles, even within the local Tuareg population. So, nobody makes friends with animals – and Tika doesn’t really trust or make friends with anybody either. Yes, he will stand up, sit down, walk, turn left or right, but even sometimes for that you need to use some force. And me…I guess I’m just a bit too gentle. But slowly, I’m learning the tricks, attaching the saddle and riding Tika outside the village each day, leaving him there to munch on the desert bushes, guarded by a slave of my Tuareg friend, then returning each afternoon to bring him back home.

With my local friends, we washed Tika two days ago, gave him a good nice bath, to make him even more beautifully white. And the following day, when I returned to fetch him in the afternoon, I couldn’t recognize my own camel – he deliberately lied down and turned around and around in the ashes, so that I’m not sure anymore whether I have a white or a dark grey camel now… He did the same thing today.

But slowly, I hope we’ll get there. I feel I can learn the most just along the way, and I was ready to leave tomorrow. But tomorrow there’s a feast of giving the name to a new born baby of my best friend’s friend, so I guess I’ll stay one more day in Gorom, and try to leave Sunday morning.

Tuesday 28 February, 2006
The first thing I see coming out of the hut today, are women and girls pounding the millet with long wooden sticks. As soon as I come out, a bowl is thrust into my hands: “The chief of the village sends you ‘masa’.”

That is round greasy millet cakes which I share with the kids running around in front of the hut. At one of the morning stalls in the village I drink a bowl of ‘bui’ (a thick millet porridge). I go to say thank you and goodbye to the hospitable village chief and come back to get ready. Chief’s brother helps me to fasten the backpack behind Tika’s hump, and, accompanied by the crowd of kids, personally assists me and Tika out of Falagountu, to the road. There I order Tika to sit down, and to the delight of the excited crowd, I give a performance of a white woman getting on white camel, and slowly disappearing into the sun bathed horizon.

Up High
Up High
It turns out that the road was going only as far as Falagountu. From here it is a dusty path, with tracks of donkey carts, bicycles and footprints, often splitting into a couple alternative ones, when the main one gets too sandy. I try to keep to the larger one, in order not to get lost. It was too easy up until now – following one clear road. Now this path leads more or less straight to the Nigerian border. I’m not sure if I can call it a desert, but the surrounding landscape is full of thorny bushes growing out of the sand, and once in a while some thorny trees. And some flat top mountains appear on the horizon. I pass a cluster of simple round earth-brick huts, surrounded by smaller ones with no door, just a tiny window – these are millet storages. A group of colourfully dressed women with large silver coins in their hair and buckets of water on their heads wave to me as I pass them by. And some long robed, turbaned Tuaregs carrying long swords, on bicycles and occasionally motorcycles give me a surprised glance and ‘Salam Aleikum’ as they swish by.

There’s about 15 kilometers to the last Burkinabe village. Although I know it’s an unacceptable behaviour, I let Tika stop and munch on some dried up grass or the leaves of a thorny bush. The heat becomes more and more intense. A man with a colourful dress and a donkey cart with two metal barrels says hello. It turns out he’s coming from the same place as me, that is th Gorom Gorom area. What is he doing here? He’s going to fill the barrels with water and on the Nigerian side head into the desert to sell the water in the nomad settlements. That’s the only way he can make some money. He asks whether I have anything to eat.

“I only have things that require cooking.” I say, “Rice, beans, pasta. When we make it to the village and find anything there, I invite you for a meal.”
And… is it far still?
“No, no. We’re almost there.”

‘Amost there’ can mean anything here. Anyway, the donkeys are trotting at about the same speed as Tika’s walking, so we’re going together. The village of Sela isn’t really a village, just a couple of scattered buildings. And a well, around which a local crowd together with some cattle is gathered. I come up with Tika and he quenches his thirst making funny faces. My friend with the donkeys is going to fill up his barrels here and tells me to head on – according to different sources, it’s three to five kilometers to the first Nigerian village, and we’ll meet there. So we walk on, crossing the dried up river – I guess – a border. With no passport control, with no stamps. Luckily – because I don’t have neither a Burkina nor a Nigerian visa. Nor entry or exit stamps from the last couple of countries. So – on a camel back I enter a new African country. The first round huts that I pass here aren’t even earth-brick ones, they’re made just of straw mats. But the village is still far away, more like five rather than three kilometers.

When the houses of Amarasinge finally appear, my friend with his donkey cart shows up as well. We stop just before the village. I take down the saddle and the luggage and put it in the shade of a tree, and a young Tuareg with adorned green robe and a sword agrees to look after the stuff and the camel for about fifty cents. My friend invites me to jump on his donkey cart, so this is how I enter the first Nigerian village. The sandy square in the village is taken by now empty market stalls. The weekly market here was yesterday. “Come to the marabu house” (Muslim spiritual leader), says my friend, “we can take a rest there.” Marabu with long black robe, turban and a beard welcomes us enthusiastically. An elevated platform with a colourful matt – marabu’s bed – stands in the middle of the dusty courtyard. And in the two opposite corners – two similar platforms, only with a little roof. Each one taken by one of marabu’s wifes, surrounded by a group of half naked children. After a while of customary conversation with the marabu, my friend and I part to see if we can find anything to eat in the village. The only thing that they sell in front of one of the houses are the greasy millet cakes. But this is also a shop, so we agree that if I buy a kilo of rice and a kilo of beans, they’ll cook it for us and bring it in an hour. We go back to the marabu’s place where I get a comfortable chair to sit down, and where a little crowd of locals gathers intrigued by my sight.

“Where are you from?” – asks one of the Tuaregs with sunglasses.
“From Poland.”
“Poland? Is that on the Ivory Coast?”
“No. Let’s see… how to explain that – that’s quite the opposite direction than the Ivory Coast.”
“I see.”

On the Road
On the Road
After an hour a boy with a huge bowl of rice and beans shows up. The crowd leaves, while my friend and I sit down to the meal, inviting the marabu and his wives. The marabu only takes a few bites and goes back to studying a few pages with Arab writing – fragments of the Koran. But more than half of the bowl of food is left, and that goes to the wives and children. I feel I need to rest for a while. Marabu says there’s no problem. My camel and I are welcome to stay here as long as we wish. We can continue tomorrow or whenever. He immediately sends some of his boys to bring the saddle and my backpack from under the tree, and to change the young Tuareg with guarding Tika. The youngest kids here run around naked. The older wear random pieces of garments. One boy only wears shorts. For another, maybe four year old one – a way too large jacket is his only piece of clothing, he doesn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that he has neither shoes or underwear.

I spend the afternoon in the shade of the large tree, trying to concentrate on writing my diary. One of the wives is pounding millet. The other one sets out with a bucket on her head to fetch water. The boys are heading somewhere with a donkey, the marabu lies down in the middle of his kingdom, and a young goat takes a sip out of the bowl of water brought for me. My friend from Burkina says goodbye and heads on into the desert.

I give Mohammed, marabu’s oldest son, a packet of tea and a handful of sugar from my supplies brought from Gorom Gorom. The youngest kids scrounge for some half burnt coal and Mohammed sets off to brew some tea on a traditional metal thing with coal. I realize the depth of their poverty when he asks me whether he should use the whole of just half of the packet of tea. I assure him half is more than enough. Everwhere else, in Mali and Burkina, one little packet was just for one brew – a brew of super strong, super sweet tea, served in tiny quantities, usually three rounds of it. Mohammed who has never been to school and can’t read or write, speaks quite good French which he somehow picked up. Only two of his younger brothers attend school. It lookes like they have no habit of sending girls to school.

It gets dark. I take out my last candle, the candle that broke into two halves. When I lit up one half of it, Mohammed’s numerous brothers and sisters run, sit around and stare at the flame.
“Maybe we could blow it off for now, until the water boils,” suggests Mohammed.
“No, it’s OK. It’s nice with the light,” I say, realizing at the same time that it might sound a little extravagant, in the place where the half of my candle is the only light in the village during this moonless night.

“Mohammed, how many children does your father have?” I ask out of curiosity.
“Maybe… about fourteen, I guess,” says Mohammed hesitantly.

One of the wives appears out of the darkness carrying a huge bowl. The evening meal. It’s the marabu, two wives, the oldest teenage daughter, and eighteen-year-old (looking more like fourteen) Mohammed, that sit around the bowl. I’m invited as well. The meal consists of rice. Plain boiled white rice, with a little bit of oil. The younger kids have to wait until the older finish. I decide to leave the marabu and his family most of my supplies tomorrow morning.

So this is just one day of my trip with Tika. But… yes, I miss him badly, now that I said goodbye to him. Some people asked me how much I paid for my camel. It’s no secret – I paid exactly 500 Euros. But – it turns out, I’m not the best camel dealer. I sold him in Niger for about two thirds of the price. So, next time you buy a camel, you should better get it in Niger and sell it in Burkina than other way round. Or maybe… maybe it doesn’t matter anyway, because as a white person here you’re gonna loose either way. But experiences, moments, lessons, laughter, surprises… are countless. And they’ll stay forever. It’s hard to describe it all. So I’m just sharing some of the random photos – as there was nobody really who could take photos of us together.

Photos and more of my African journey on my site..

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