Burkina Faso

Thursday, August 21
Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso

Suzanne had seen so many children growth-stunted by HIV that she had a warped perception of how big kids should be for their age.

The doctor prepared me to meet Jean, an 18-year-old patient, by explaining he looked like he was 10. In reality, he barely passed for an 8-year-old.

Most kids in West Africa who contract HIV from their mother during birth don’t survive until their teenage years. But Jean had defied the odds, staying relatively healthy aside from his young appearance, years after both his parents died. For some reason, HIV had long remained dormant in his body.

But not any more. Now he’s one of the sicker patients at the pediatric AIDS clinic in Bobo-Dioulasso. Jean is fighting lymphoma, amongst the other ailments that have targeted his weakened immune system.

I was visiting the clinic this week because it’s run by doctors with the Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative, which is based in Houston. Jean happened to stop by — not for a check-up, just to say hi — during my visit, and so Suzanne suggested we take her patient to the zoo. I think it was more for my benefit than for his.

The “zoo” was largely deserted; we were the only people inside the compound other than a few kids. At the far end, we entered an open cage that was home to a large chimp named Lolita.

Lolita greeted Jean first, then Suzanne, then quickly turned to me, I suppose because I was a new face, or perhaps a new smell. She put her face close to my toes and hung there for a moment, sniffing me out, before slowly running her man-like pointer finger up my leg, coming to a stop at a freckle on my shin. Then she tried to pick it off.

It’s a sign of affection for chimps to take bugs off the skin of those they love, Suzanne explained, and Lolita thought my freckle was a bug.

Lexi with chimp

Lolita the chimp looks both shy and small here. She was neither!

I’ll admit I was a bit freaked out by Lolita’s attention, and when she started picking at a scab on my leg, I shook her off.

But Jean felt completely at ease with her, letting the chimp touch his face, play with his watch, even steal his medicine out of his pocket.

The last time they had visited, Suzanne said, Lolita had touched Jean’s swollen legs, and Jean began to tell the chimp about his illness, how he was very sick but getting better. This chokes me up a bit, picturing the scene: Jean, with little emotional support other than his doctors, longing to share his story, and Lolita, a lonely, chained chimp in a deserted zoo, willing to love him back.


Monday, August 18
Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso

Hungry for a snack? Here’s an up-close shot of the food I was offered on the street today:

Yum. Almost like a bag full of gummy worms.

Yum. Almost like a bag full of gummy worms.

That’s right; fried caterpillars are popular here in Bobo-Dioulasso, (see map) Burkina Faso’s second-largest city.

An American I met here named Hannah says they taste like “crunchy burntness.” I’ll take her word for it. I’m pretty open to trying unidentifiable fruits, veggies, starches and drinks, but when it comes to munching on something with too many legs to count, I’ll pass.

As I’ve slowly moved across West Africa during the last two months, I’ve watched the street food change. And I’ve eaten so much of it without getting sick that I’m convinced I’ve got a super-human stomach.

In Senegal, I started my days with bean sandwiches. In Mali it was fried eggs on bread. Here in Burkina, they’re more into meat on a stick with a risky but tasty mix of raw cucumbers, onions and tomatoes.

Homemade peanut butter

Homemade peanut butter

Avocados also are plentiful here, much to my delight. And I’m now rotating my fruit diet of mangoes with juicy watermelon and pineapple.

Since peanuts are harvested locally, peanut sauce on — you guessed it — rice is a staple meal. Locals also feast on homemade peanut butter!

If this entry seems disjointed, it’s because a huge rat with a long tail just ran across my desk in this Internet cafe. Ugh.

* * * * *

Friday, August 15
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

Burkina is one of the poorest countries in the world.

Half the population lives on less than a dollar each day, my Lonely Planet guide tells me, and more than a third don’t live to see their 40th birthday. (Check out this BBC News country profile.)

And yet, in the capital city of Ouagadougou (see where it is on a map), pronounced Waga-doo-goo, the government has organized a project that smells of wealth, a neighborhood of mansions, expensive hotels and fancy boulevards.

They call it Ouaga 2000 (See Wikipedia’s explanation). I had to see it.

Since I’m still too much of a wuss to rent a motorbike and drive it in the free-for-all here they call traffic, I hired a guy to drive me there on his moto, just before dark.

On the way there, we passed: a Catholic parade in celebration of some unknown holiday; a motorcycle driver wearing a helmet (first I’d seen in Ouaga); men on bicycles with goats slung over the handlebars; and Muslims lined up along the street, bending over in prayer.

I, too, was praying as my driver darted in and out of traffic. A car came so close to us at one point it nearly brushed my leg. (My driver announced that the guy at the wheel didn’t know how to drive. I guess that’s universal.)

Our arrival at Ouaga 2000 was obvious. Huge streetlights dotted the beautifully paved road and large houses — mansions even by U.S. standards — were under construction on both sides. I laughed out loud when I saw the Christmas-like lights in delicate shapes on the posts in the middle of the boulevard, a sight straight out of Houston’s upscale Galleria shopping area.


Tuesday, July 12
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

The man in charge of night reception at the hotel I had chosen in Ouaga said he was sorry. All rooms were full.

It wasn’t the news I wanted to hear at midnight after traveling since 7 a.m. to cross the Burkina border. The Burkinabe sympathized with this weary wanderer and called a few nearby hotels to find me a room, then sent a hotel guard to accompany me on the walk there.

The streets were dark and empty aside from a few lurkers. So imagine my surprise when I saw two white guys walking towards us.

I squinted to see whether my eyes were playing tricks on me. Cedric and Ed! My friends from Timbuktu! We had parted ways in Mopti when I headed east for Dogon Country and they continued south to Burkina.

They, too, stared at me for a few seconds in disbelief.

“How’d you make it here in one day?” asked Ed, who knew I had planned to leave that morning.

The trip from Mopti to Ouaga had taken them two days, he said. But I had gotten lucky. Twice I switched vehicles just in time to catch one that was full and leaving right away.

And here my luck was kicking in again. Instead of staying alone in a sketchy hotel, I climbed under the guys’ mozzie (mosquito) net and drifted to sleep.

In the middle of the night, Cedric arose and made his way to the toilet, where he puked up the chicken he had eaten a few hours earlier. He returned to our room gripping his stomach.

“Africa,” he said in his German accent. “I am never coming back.”