Saturday, October 15, 2011
Written by Chad
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!
Friday, October 07, 2011
Written by Chad
I don't know what the term "en brousse" means to you, but to people who speak French it means "in the bush," as in multiple bushes, as in "out in the wilderness." Though I claimed to speak French, I didn't know what it meant last December when we were told the pet dog we were supposed to inherit had run away "en brousse." That was the tall tale they fed us when in all likelihood it was our adopted dog that fed them for dinner. Yesterday after ten months the opportunity finally arose to safari out into nature to see our tiny border villages. However, doing so would mean venturing even farther away from those precious, sacred amenities of modern society.
Though we don't have electricity or running water like you dwellers of suburbia, we're still close enough to it for peace of mind. The paved road in our backyard is a safety net. Just knowing that a couple miles away, an empty wall socket and a shower are ready and waiting for us, that's what keeps our neuroses at bay. That unequivocal promise that I could take a timeout from this two-year camping trip and delay going off the deep end until sometime later in adulthood. So I guess we're wedged somewhere between the two worlds of urban poshness and rural isolation.
In West African culture, if someone says you live "en brousse," then they're probably making fun of you. It's a touchy phrase. And that's why it's a peculiar quirk of PC culture that volunteers gain more social capital the farther their mudhuts are from the comforts of civilization. In general, the more rugged and physically taxing their journey is to buy mozzarella cheese at Marina Market, the more honor they stand to reap with city-slickin' volunteers. Sociologists call this the Mozzarella Accessibility Hypothesis (MAH). And of course a special pedestal is occupied by volunteers who must pedal 20 miles or more to reach the closest paved road. To reign supreme on this throne and be the "en broussiest" of them all, one must always be prepared to describe one's trip from village to city as outlandishly as possible, listing each life-threatening peril, comparing self to Bear Grylls or Indiana Jones, and slipping in a few trailing zeroes to the total hours spent in transit.
You can well imagine that our paved road access disqualifies us from such "en brousse" bragging rights. Though we may be living the country mouse life, we are usually seen as city mice by those truly surviving out in the wilds. That's why yesterday, although we feel welcome in our village, we weren't sure how we'd be received by the chiefs and councilors of these four satellite villages. Tana and I would be piggybacking on the two motorcycles of Salif and Ibrahim, riding through Paul Revere-style to publicize an upcoming HIV/AIDS theater campaign. We would try to get the blessings from all the big cheeses and avoid being eaten by the buzzards.
Before plunging deep into the jungles, we stopped at Burkina's version of an Exxon or a Wawa--a roadside stand that looks like a bunch of wine bottles, except instead of wine, gasoline. After the tanks had downed an irresponsible amount from a bottle of white, we paid the attendant some grant money and were on our way. We cruised through miles of sugarcane fields, winding underneath the mountain cliffs. We jetted past a spot where I had once seen a half-mile high waterfall on a joy bikeride (I'll try to return for some pictures next summer when it's rainier).
Our first of four stops is a village that shares the same name as ours with "#2" appended to the end of it. I'd tell you, but we're not supposed to post its name. As the tale goes, SameVillage #2 used to be united with ours under one name, but in the 1970s the big ol' government struck a deal with the land chiefs, converting all the fertile land in the middle of it into industrial sugarcane fields (See SOSUCO). All the locals got in exchange was temporary employment and ten years of tax incentives. This controversial deal closed schools for 10 years, impacting literacy of certain now middle-aged locals. It also created a rift in residences, forcing everyone to relocate to either #1 or #2.
So when we arrived at a schoolyard in #2, all the elementary schoolers on recess stood by in fascination. We must have looked like half-dressed astronauts with planet-sized space helmets as we struggled to wiggle them off our noggins. I was awestruck at just how many kids live out here, and the kids were just as surprised that our kind would visit them. It was National Teacher's Day, so naturally all the teachers were absent and the school director was forced to teach 4 grades in 4 classrooms all by his lonesome. Before we left, the school director called them in. And as we stood in front of their dozens of wide-eyed, open-mouthed stares, the teacher asked, "Can anyone tell me what 'volunteer' means?"
Our motos had to hydroplane through a brook to get to the next village, even deeper into the vast forests and grasslands. This second village Sikanadio was much more cozy with fewer denizens. As we waited outside its only convenience store for the chief and the councilor, I noticed a nearby house had a gigantic satellite dish. When I handed the councilor our letter of request, his eyes focused intently as he held it upside down.
The third village down the rabbit hole was Fandjora, known for its occasional migratory elephants. In 2008, we're told, a hungry elephant herd hiked all the way from Fandjora to our village to munch on sugarcane. SOSUCO tried to drive them away, perhaps to save their product but more likely to prevent elephant diabetes. Fandjora will soon host a nursery of thousands of mango trees to be planted by my organization UPPFL/CO and Oxfam that hopefully the elephants will not discover. Fandjora is also famous for sitting on a vein of valuable minerals, most notably gold. Unlike most other villages, it's patchily populated with clusters of settlements sprawled out over miles and no municipal hub to speak of. We zipped past the trailers, trucks, and generators of Australian gold mining companies such as GEODRILL. According to health clinic records, when the goldmine first opened, for some reason the local incidence of STDs skyrocketed.
The Fandjora councilor showed us some educational murals that Amanda (the preceding volunteer) had painted near the school. In the 95-degree heat this venerable community elder wore a cotton ski hat with a puffball on top. When we handed him the letter, he spent five minutes reading it out loud to us. Ibrahim looked over his shoulder and couldn't resist correcting his pronunciation. The councilor was only interrupted when he darted off to chase some wandering poultry out of his hut. You can tell PETA that this is one of the underpublicized problems of free-range chickens.
Finally we continued onward to our last destination Serefadougou. Though it took Ibrahim dozens of tries to kickstart his moto each time we set off, the ride thus far had been carefree, for me anyway. Meanwhile as she held on for dear life, the laws of physics were not kind to Tana. She was forced to call upon stomach muscles she never knew she had, contorting her posture to avoid spooning Salif or flying away like untethered cargo. Her only respite from this ab workout was while closing her eyes and "pretending to be on a jet ski."
At a fork, given the choice between (a) the slightly longer but more sensible beaten path or (b) off-roading a more direct path through the shrubs, we foolishly seized the day and charged full-speed into the great unknown. This narrow path cut through a field where every row of green beans was a speed bump. We forged into a muddy flood plain where Ibrahim's moto kept stalling out, forcing us to hop off and wade in soaked sneakers. Each time Ibrahim unsuccessfully revved the engine, we braced ourselves for Murphy's law to kick in. We would be stranded out here like lost boyscouts and those Fandjora elephants would surely trample us on a sugar rush. Fortunately his moto held strong and we found salvation.
Like a surprise party of strangers, we suddenly popped out of the bushes into a confused Serefadougou family's courtyard. When we chatted up the councilor, a normally smooth-talking Tana found herself fumbling to speak with this tall, hunky local celebrity. And oh how the tribal scars on his cheeks complemented his facial contours. We repressed laughter when he introduced himself as though greeting Martians, "I am Moussa and I come from a place called Serefadougou."
At long last our duties were fulfilled. On the homeward trip, the grim reaper finally paid a long overdue visit to Ibrahim's motorbike. Old Faithful broke down next to a watermelon patch, not a mile from our village. Lucky we weren't still "en brousse." I stood aside and watched him rev it endlessly for ten minutes. Then I got bored and started playing on my phone.
Table of Contents
- ► 2012 (13)
- ▼ 2011 (27)