Saturday, October 15, 2011

Sense of Place

If you ever visit the West African French-speaking country of Burkina Faso, you’ll likely visit its most popular vacation city Banfora. Traveler's guides know Banfora for its natural wonders: the Waterfalls of Karfiguela, the Domes of Fabedougou, the Peaks of Sindou, the Sacred Hippo Lake of Tengrela, and the relics and ruins of ancient civilizations in such villages as Loropeni. The scenery around Banfora is lush and gorgeous: sprawling sugarcane fields, mango and papaya trees everywhere, and plentiful waterfalls cascading down from the cliffs. The local arts scene is thriving: balaphone music performers, traditional dance troupes that tour Europe, creative painters and craftsmen, and even artisan cobblers who make designer shoes from tire rubber. Top that off with the fact that Banfora has some high-quality hotels to boot—Hotel Canne a Sucre, for instance, synthesizes fruit jams and distills over ten flavors of homemade rum.

Despite being a tropical paradise with a lively community, few tourists get the chance to recognize it as such. For travelers looking to spend money, Banfora seems like an overqualified job candidate wearing a t-shirt and jeans to the interview. The city has so much potential to capitalize on tourism, but as any city in a developing country, it's not prepared to cater to tourists. Banfora's inhabitants work hard to feed their families each year. They often cannot accrue savings for their personal futures, much less invest in the future of their city. As one of the poorest countries worldwide, the government of Burkina Faso has few resources to invest in tourism. And because tourism is an afterthought to locals, most Westerners regard Banfora as a pitstop between Point A and Point B (usually, the must-see destinations of Mali and Ghana). I want to know what makes Dogon Country in Mali so popular to travel guide books but why isn't Banfora a must-see?

I occasionally meet tourists and ask them out of curiosity about the sights they're seeing in town. Typically their itineraries only span a night or two. This is in part due to the fact that if they can rent a vehicle, all the local hotspots can be seen in a single day. The consensus among jet-setters is that although the Burkinabe are friendly and the excursions just outside of town are worth the trip, the city on its face isn't too appealing for two reasons.

One, the atmosphere isn't comfortable or inviting. There's the distinct divide when you step out from the utopian poolside oasis of your hotel into the unnerving developing world. One minute you're sunbathing and sipping wine and the next minute a 10-year-old panhandler with a tomato can is tugging at your clothes. It's not that the streets of Banfora look especially bad- they're dusty and overcrowded with merchants just like any other city in the country. It's just that due to this economic situation, Banfora isn't likely to get a facelift any time soon. I'm not saying it's a good idea to mask the poverty. I just think that there is more than one type of tourist. Banfora attracts the rugged backpacker demographic but not so much European honeymooners and luxury sightseers. This is a missed opportunity for local business.

The second reason is that since a tourist can tour all major attractions in rapid succession, there remains nothing for him to spend his time doing. Paris and Rome have more monuments and landmarks than there are days in a year. Las Vegas has a nonstop gambling and entertainment at all hours. But Banfora visitors are too busy holding their breath as they speed through that they can't breathe it in and appreciate it as though strolling through a museum. What Banfora needs to do is slow the pace of its tourists, encouraging them to rest a few more nights and spend a few more bucks. There is an obvious demand that’s not currently being supplied here. And for a tiny West African city, it's hard to think of a more lucrative and more sustainable revenue stream than the wallets of vacationing Europeans.

In summer 2009 I worked for PEC, an association that tries to preserve scenic and historic land. I drove around Virginia filming interviews with folks whose properties were in the viewshed of Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah National Park. One of these landowners, a white-haired gentleman with a mountaintop cabin, introduced me to the concept of a "sense of place."

He was the founder and publisher of The Piedmont Virginian, a local quarterly magazine dedicated solely to energizing and celebrating its community. The front cover of the summer issue features a kneeling mason who specializes in stacked stone walls, an uncommon art style that decorates many rural pastures in the vicinity. Magazine articles detail local myths and legends as well as local histories—everything from Native American tribes to Civil War battles. Colorful photos accompany articles on local performance arts, farmer's markets, wine cellars, community fairs, and parks events that all add up to the reader feeling thankful to be connected to such a spirited and special district. It's a magazine that through the power of PR takes some ordinary place on a map and gets people excited about it. We’ve been thinking about how in the same way a developing community such as Banfora could draw out its own sense of place.

This brings me to the Banfora theater scene. On recent projects we’ve worked with some local actors called the Troupe Brigue (pronounced bree-gay) to raise awareness on HIV/AIDS, family planning, etc. Banfora is fortunate to know this talented ensemble that has won honors at the UNICEF National Week of Culture 2011 and the Best Stage Actress Award at the International Festival of Theatre for Development in 2006. I’ve watched eight of their performances so far. Audiences always burst into uproars of laughter and become passionately engaged in the participatory debate.

Through multiple collaborations, we’ve grown close to the troupe’s driving force, a playwright and director named Oumar Diarra. When he’s on board for a project, his critical thinking makes for smooth sailing on normally rough seas. Oumar told us a few months ago that it has always been his lifelong dream to open a community theater. He envisions the theater having performances each day of the week, catering to tourists, and hosting annual culture festivals. It’s a community space for musicians to perform concerts and for nongovernmental organizations to host free awareness raising benefits. Potentially situated on the city outskirts facing the mountains, Oumar hopes such an outdoor amphitheater would become the hub of mass-scale arts and educational activities. The scope of it reminds us of Richmond’s own Dogwood Dell.

This theater would profoundly shape the community. Not only would it foster a sense of place for the Burkinabe, in so doing it would catch the eyes of tourists. Some travelers might even stay an extra night or two to sit back and watch a dramatic performance or enjoy some traditional music.

Since late July when we expressed interest in helping this project, Oumar has been in talks with accountants, construction companies, the local government, and land chiefs to try to bring it to life. Today the budget is being finalized and tomorrow we will begin an application for the Peace Corps Partnership Program, which will open a secure channel for anyone around the world to donate to this theater project (and write it off on their taxes). We’re trying to rope in as many volunteers into this as possible, since it’s for the benefit of the Banfora region and the country. We’re also campaigning for local buy-in from hotel proprietors and community leaders. After PCPP approval, we will begin soliciting Stateside donations from Virginia theater programs, groups at our university, friends and family (my apologies in advance), and Oprah. Come on, Oprah, you owe me this.

We’ll post more on this once things get rolling. If you’d like to be involved or remain informed; if you have questions; if you’ve thought up some cool ideas for fundraising or people to contact; if you want to fly here and help us build it; or if your name is Oprah, then post a comment here or e-mail me.

Creative Commons photo credits: Flickr users felixkrohn, guillaumecolin, riccardopatrizi, and 300dtorg. Panoromio user clericus. Thanks for the pictures!


Anonymous said...


You have a gift for prose. This blog is a lifeline for your family to stay connected over these very long two years. Believe me, it is much appreciated and has softened the pain of missing you guys.

Here's a thought, expand your readership.

Send some of these articles (or write some other ones) to National Geographic or travel magazines like Conde Nast or Frommers, etc.

YOU personally could help pump travel industry to B.F. You can also start by organizing travel itineraries... in fact, you can use me for a pilot run when I come over in January.

Here's a thought: design vacations around helping people (ie mission trips for the non-churchy) keep it secular to avoid any religious overtones, but include activities like digging a well or some other altruistic component.

God bless and be safe - Ken

Chad said...

Thanks for the ideas! Can't wait for your visit

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