A year ago I woke up, cotton-mouthed and dry-heaving, after ringing in my 32nd birthday in eastern Congo. It’s hard to top that fete for sheer dramatics, however superficial. (I had dinner at a swank Belgian restaurant and drank my face off at a lakeside villa; Heart of Darkness this was not.) But there’s something to be said for celebrating your anniversaire in a place called Ouagadougou.
It has been, as regular readers of this blog already know, a trying week in Burkina Faso, with military unrest sweeping across the country and a 9pm curfew in effect since Wednesday night. It would hardly seem like the time for anniversaires – the very word gets stuck on the tongue, impeded by the lowered portcullis of the couvre-feu. Yet yesterday, miraculously, the curfew was lifted – an unlikely gift from the Compaoré regime, not known for its bonhomie or benevolence.
The day was off to a sluggish start, the crippling effect of Saturday’s workout at the impeccably named Super Gym Club in town. It has been more than a year since I gave my much-neglected chest and triceps a healthy going-over, and on Sunday I felt each press and reverse-curl – every last huffing second on that rundown treadmill – like grains of sand sifting through the hourglass of time. Old! My body felt like one of the banged-up Peugeot taxis you see on the streets of Ouaga, the windshield veined with cracks, the passenger door jerry-rigged with wires and cords and oily rags to creak open but not, magically, full off its hinges with an overzealous tug.
It was a two-cup-of-coffee kind of morning. By midday, though, I felt refreshed, revived, downright spry. There was a fresh breeze blowing on the streets; it was a Sunday; I’d put off my work for another day. Happy birthday, old dog! I made plans to meet a friend, a local actor, Davy Renaud Ouandaogo, in town for lunch. My spirits were high, my mood celebratory. Brochettes de capitaine at La Forêt? Champagne at the Independance? This was no day for meager bowls of riz sauce and water sachets. For one day, if one day only, I would live like a citizen of the First World, a New Yorker. “Pas de problème!” I would tell Davy, as he nervously eyed the prices on the menu. “J’ai t’invitée. My treat, buddy.” In the back of the taxi, flush with the high color of my birthday budget, I soared. Life! Life! Life! It was a valedictory, world-beating sort of mood. Only when I got to the Place de la Nation and saw Davy on the side of the road, shifty and hard-contoured, his face fretted with cares, did I come tumbling down to earth, back to the grumbling realities of my African life.
I had met Davy during FESPACO – he’d attached himself to me outside the festival siege on day one, offering his ambiguous assistance in arranging rendezvous with obscure members of the Burkinabé film community. I was wary from the start: his narrow eyes seemed especially cunning, engaged in the sort of poor-man’s calculus that would no doubt yield some financial reckoning when the final tally was made. What was he after? It was the question that troubled me each time I saw his eager eyes singling me out from across a crowded room, or received one of his thrice-daily text messages: “Yo frèro,” he began, before inquiring about my news, my health, my spirits. He was poor, he had a four-year-old son, his bag-of-bones body barely filled out the handsome goloban tunic he wore like some long-deposed prince. He said he wanted to take me to the north of the country when the festival was over – to show me the sun rising and setting over the sand dunes, the desert landscapes dipped in gold.
We hardly crossed paths during the week of the festival. I was putting him off, making excuses. I was wrapped up in my own dramas. Only after the festival ended did we set aside a day for lunch.
He came to pick me up on his battered old Peugeot motorbike: it cost him CFA 400,000 – about 840 US bucks – when he bought it five years ago. The bike, with its patchwork frame cobbled together by the hands of countless mechanics, seemed to me like a metaphor for Davy himself: somehow, in spite of the hard life in Burkina, the fickle rewards of his career as an actor, through odd jobs picked up here and there, he persevered. He took me to lunch at a maquis near his house – he refused to take my money for the riz sauce; blows almost ensued. Then we went on a driving tour of the quartier, waving to friends and passersby, to the many fans who recognized Davy’s almost-famous face from such films as Sur la Drougue or Samira la Belle. “Tranquille! Tranquille!” he called out to them. We met the Minister of Health, who greeted Davy with vigor: Davy had once starred in a Ministry-financed film about circumcision. We stopped often – to greet a friend or cousin, to bum a cigarette, to engage in some shifty side-racket in which small rumpled bills changed hands. The young men we met were uniformly skinny, they sat in wise-cracking packs in the shade: the sellers of single cigarettes and phone credit and hard-boiled eggs, hustlers in ill-fitting clothes always 100 francs shy of their next meal.
Davy took me to his home, a cramped, stuffy room that he shared with his brother in a concrete barracks on the outskirts of town. The place was Spartan: a small wooden bench, a pile of sneakers and blue jeans, an FC Barcelona poster, yellowed Polaroids, an old blazer hanging from a rusty nail on the wall. A bedsheet hung across the doorway. Joel, 32, five years Davy’s senior, was sleeping on a thin foam mattress on the floor. He got up, groggy and smiling, pleased and confused to meet me. A friend came to join us, holding a pot of oily rice and beans that he ate quickly, greedily, scooping with his hand. Davy introduced me as his “bon ami.” We sat there for some time, laughing, talking. Davy told me about his son, Nicholas Dieudonne, who lived in a village some miles from Ouagadougou with his mother. Davy and the boy’s mother had split up; sometimes he called her on the phone, just to talk to the son who he hoped would some day grow to be an actor, just like him.
Joel sat up on the mattress and laced his sneakers. He was on his way to work; he washed cars in a dirt lot down the road. He made 300, 400 francs – less than a dollar – to run a soapy rag over someone else’s voiture. Sometimes, he went a full day without washing a single car. He showed me the palms of his hands, hard and calloused; he cinched his belt tight across his waist, the leather frayed and shot through with countless holes, each one a testament to another luckless day of work.
I was wrong about Davy – neither the first nor last time, as a white guy in Africa, that I’ve had to admit as much. I warmed to him, his solicitudes, his yo-frèro messages that arrived like clockwork every morning, afternoon, and night. We made plans for lunch on Sunday, another afternoon I expected to spend being hustled from one relation to the next, offering greetings and well-wishes, Davy already gunning the engine of his motorbike to take me to our next appointment.
But when I saw him standing next to a taxi on the side of the road, he looked anxious, his whole body sagged. His motorbike had had another small breakdown, he said; it was at a garage just up the street. Dreams of brochettes by the pool at La Forêt vanished into the exhaust-choked air; it would be an afternoon of hustling, of small favors, of deciding which repairs would have to wait for another day. We walked along the avenue, the listless Sunday-afternoon traffic dragging by, the families shuttling to the weddings or birthdays or funerals of some distant relations. I could tell Davy was stressed; no doubt he had planned some grande programme for the afternoon. Now everything was unraveling. He arranged for a friend to take me to a maquis in his neighborhood; he would meet me there as soon as his bike was ready. It took close to an hour for him to finally turn up – not on his own bike, but on one he borrowed from a friend. His shoulders hung heavily over his mug of Lipton tea; he ate his riz sauce in quick, sullen bites. It wasn’t until we hit the road and felt the wind on our faces that his spirits were revived.
We were on the road now leading out of town, the endless sprawl of dry-goods shops and fruit stalls and quincalleries cluttered with hubcaps and spare parts. Davy wanted to greet his uncle, who lived on the outskirts of the city, in the romantically named secteur 24. It was a very long ride. The motorbike Davy had borrowed was an old Peugeot with the deceptively bad-ass name “Ninja” stenciled on the side. It was a low-rent model; to jump-start the engine, Davy had to work the pedals like an exercise bike. I sat on the back, gripping the frame with white knuckles, while we bumped and jostled through a labyrinth of wide dirt alleys. Children scattered like marbles from our path. Old men, having seen just about everything in their day, seemed startled by the sight of a white guy wagging his hands in greeting. By the time we arrived, all the pains of Saturday’s workout had grown exponentially. I couldn’t feel my ass, though there is plenty there to feel.
The family lived in a large, walled compound surrounded by shade trees; Davy rapped his knuckles against a rusted gate and pushed his way inside. Two girls in their early-teens sat under a mango tree, one braiding the other’s hair. Somewhere there was the sound of an infant wailing. A husky woman, just out of the shower, came to us with an embarrassed smile, holding a towel to her bosom. Davy’s uncle, she said, was in the office. She led us through the cluttered yard and gestured inside the room, where a short, genial man was sitting behind an ancient PC, pinching a cigarette stub between his fingertips. He wore an oversized polo shirt that had faded, after countless washings and dryings under the Sahel’s fierce sun, from a vibrant green to something vaguely institutional. His hair had gone gray, his beard was threaded with silver; he regarded me with no uncertain pleasure, his eyes bright and mischievous. Yes, there was no doubt this was the sort of uncle who would make off-color remarks at the Easter dinner table, who would grab Aunt Sally’s ass in her Sunday dress, who would make obscure sexual allusions that sent the pre-pubescents within earshot rushing to the Webster’s dictionary. I warmed to him instantly.
Davy explained that his uncle, Joseph, used to work in some government ministry, but had since shifted into private enterprise. He sold agricultural machinery, the spare parts of which we had picked our way through in the yard. Joseph was finishing up a print job – the printer, an old HP model covered in a layer of brown dust, wobbled on the table with each pass of the ink cartridge – and offered to show us some of his inventory. He led us to his workshop next door, which was part junkyard and part mad scientist’s Third World laboratory. There were pumps and generators and drills and vices, sheets of scrap metal, pipes, rods, rolls of chicken wire, empty paint cans, cords, cables, blades, mixers, gears, cranks, chains, ropes, plugs, wires: all the detritus of his love affair with spare parts, the inner workings of things, the nuts and bolts of life. Joseph went into elaborate, French descriptions of some of the machinery in the yard, the specifics of which were almost entirely lost on me. Davy nodded and gestured, goading his uncle on; his tone was eager and expansive, as if, with a little bit of convincing, I might just be picking up a grain mill on my way out the door.
Before I left Joseph gave me a color print-out of his stock: a collection of smashing, grinding, plowing machines with names like la pompe, l’extracteur, l’egreneuse, la batteuse de fonio, le crible rotatie. They sounded like the sorts of things you did to disreputable girls in cheap hotel rooms. I thanked him graciously as he showed us out; he pompe’d my hand enthusiastically. Davy beamed – the visit had been a success all-around.
It was late in the afternoon; the temperature had dropped; there were the stirrings of life in secteur 24. Davy wanted to find a quiet place for a drink – somewhere we could sit and discuter before he brought me back to Gounghin. We drove back toward town, past the men hammering and sawing and lacquering furniture on the side of the road, past the old Muslims who sat in the shade of mudbrick walls, their richly colored boubous gathered about their legs. We passed an abandoned taxi which sat in tall grass, like some pre-Colombian ruin, and two goats nosing for scraps outside a restaurant specializing in Senegalese and Togolese dishes. The motorbike thrummed and surged – I could picture Davy pressing his heels into its flanks, goading it on.
We found ourselves at a manguier – a famous gathering place in Ouagadougou, where people came to picnic and drink bottles of Fanta and Flag in the shade of tall, leafy mango trees. It was a beautiful, tranquil spot, full of families and young couples enjoying the late-afternoon breeze. After six o’clock, said Davy, the place would be packed. Already there were dozens of tables and lawn chairs spaced apart, young boys hustling between them, selling water sachets and phone credit and DVDs and soft drinks. Before we’d even picked a place to reposer, two boys came bustling over, setting up a table for us. Packs of kids were everywhere, working for small change, or else trying to knock mangos from the trees with long poles tied together end to end. We drank orange Fantas and listened to the wind in the trees. Davy asked if I had any special plans for the night. Birthdays, he said, were a big deal in Burkina Faso. Either you would have an elaborate dinner at home with your family and friends, or you would all go out to a favorite maquis and spend the night drinking and dancing. Last year, for his 27th birthday, he invited everyone he knew. “Mon frère, ma sere, mon ami, mon cousine, ma baby girl, mon ami, mon ami,” he said, as if ticking them off a checklist.
“Burkina aime la fête,” he said. Burkina loves to party.
Later that night, my own plans for a small birthday fête were coming undone. Two friends had just gotten in from out of town and were too tired to leave the house; another was laid up in bed, not sure if he was in the early stages of malaria. I had dinner instead with Lassané – Lasso, as he’s known in Ouaga, the owner of Napam Beogo and a regular man about town. We sat in the breezy garden of Le Verdoyant, an Italian restaurant and expat haunt, eating their highly overrated pizza. Waiters bustled about with thin-crust pizzas on silver serving trays. There were white people everywhere. I felt too good about my day to get the usual stirrings, the longings, the pangs of disappointment. Still, there was something there. It hadn’t been easy for me in Ouaga, I confessed to Lasso. My work had gone well, but I’d failed so far to make a life for myself in the six weeks I’d been here. Friendships were slow to form; the language barrier made it hard for me to approach a stranger at a bar, to flirt and banter and dispense the sort of low-rent small-talk on which many a relationship is built. These French had put me off, moving about in their small, shifty packs, like some Mesozoic tribe of chain-smoking hunter-gatherers. I doubted I would ever get admitted into the club, earn the ritual scars and markings that would make my life in Ouagadougou feel so much less lonely. I sulked and sighed and downed my quart of vin blanc. It was only later in the night that I realized I’d poured my heart out elaborately, feelingly, and almost entirely in French.
On the way home we had a small dust-up with a taxi outside the FESPACO siege. The driver got out and stood gravely surveying the damage, of which there was none. Soon the passengers joined him. If I were to say the word “skinny,” you could not imagine such meagerness of flesh and bone as came shuffling forward, like the ghosts of breakfasts past: one, a tall, limber young man in a Burkina Faso soccer jersey, and the other, a short spindle in track pants and sandals, wearing Chelsea blue. They approached the accident scene like they’d been called in to file a report. There was a great commotion of gesticulating and reenactment – maybe they were calculating trajectories, force of impact, rates of collision. Suddenly, in a country that ranks below Haiti, Suriname and Papua New Guinea on the UNDP’s Human Development Index, everyone was a fucking forensics expert. In the Chelsea jersey, CSI: Ouagadougou wanted to call our attention to a scratch above Lasso’s rear tire. What was he getting at? Did he want to run some paint chips by the lab? Lasso laughed, shook his head, shrugged, and laughed again. He made an expansive gesture which took in his entire vehicle – an old, dented pick-up with a broken windshield and an air of having seen better époques. Exactly which dent or scratch were they trying to use as evidence, anyway?
Behind the wheel, driving back to Gounghin, Lasso was laughing madly. He had worked himself into a state. Most likely the driver was looking for some small payout; the passengers would take a cut. As soon as Lasso had offered to call the police, they got back into their car.
“C’est afrique,” he said, laughing, shaking his head.