Ouagadougou - Burkina Faso
"Treasure Hunting"

Instead of taking a taxi straight to the Festival market, Alaghi and I walked through the back alleys near our hotel to find a small craft market that we had seen on our previous journey into the city centre. Amongst many tourist items, some old stone and glass beads were available, but mostly not in the best of condition. Amongst the offerings were some unusual clay beads with printed patterns, that neither of us had seen before. Further research in the UK revealed these to have recently come from the Côte d'Ivoire and by pure coincidence, the same types were featured as an attractive necklace in the Daily Mail's Lifestyle magazine in March 2005, shortly after my return to the UK.

A few of the traders in the Festival market had remembered to bring their 'special beads' .. some of which we bought .. finding that word had quickly spread that we were looking to buy trade beads.
As we walked round, we were inundated by requests to visit other stalls and to make appointments to meet more traders in other parts of the city.

We headed back to see our first contact, in his Gallerie in the city centre to buy some lovely strands of 19th century Venetian Bicones and some unusual modern Eye Beads from India, which he had found for us. Also waiting were more traders, wanting to take us to a variety of sources of supposedly superb trade beads, but which in most cases actually turned out to be mountains of brass and bronze figurines. They all looked and were described as ancient, but it was impossible for us to tell which was which. Beads are one thing .. brass and bronze a completely different ball-game altogether ! More often than not, it was a case of making a snap judgement on the honesty of the seller .. rather than having all the necessary identification knowledge .. when politely declining most items on offer, but buying the occasional rings and figurines which caught our eye.

In a nearby hotel, packed full of toubab reporters and journalists who were covering the Film Festival, we found some lovely traditional Chameleon rings in a specially erected art and crafts market. The rest of the day and into the early evening was spent visiting new contacts all over Ouagadougou.

During one of many conversations, I mentioned that some five years previously in The Gambia, I had met a very friendly guy from Ouaga, who had had a problem with his legs since birth and who I would really like to meet again. Once having made contact with a local African trading network, nothing is impossible as far as people knowing each other. A telephone call was made and within ten minutes he arrived on the back of his friend's scooter. My delight at finding him so quickly was only exceeded by his happiness that not only had I asked for him after so long a time, but that I had asked him how his legs were. "You remembered me ?" "Of course," I said. Big smiles all round !

It had been his first ever visit to The Gambia and as he had hardly been able to walk at the time, it was a heroic effort to have travelled so long a distance to seek business. Since then, thankfully, his legs had gained a lot more strength and he was very pleased to see us .. remembering exactly the ancient bronze Cormorant figurine and Chameleon ring he had sold me and which remain a treasured part of my personal collection.

He offered to be our guide, so we hired a taxi back to his communal compound to find a host of traders and rooms packed with wood carvings, brass and bronze figurines, finger rings and stone artefacts .. all looking thousands of years old. Being totally honest with us, he pointed out the old from the new and the fake from the genuine .. good lessons were learnt, but the supply of artefacts seemed never ending. It would take a lifetime of study to become proficient in their identification.

Although having no Trade Beads, word of mouth ( via mobile phone ) was as usual working well .. and other traders began arriving with some interesting examples, including some lovely ancient Faience beads which originated in Egypt and are extremely rare to find in West Africa.

On to an out of town trader / importer with a large and dusty display room that was full of ancient wood and stone artefacts, but sadly very few beads. This building was especially memorable because of the enormous wooden bird statues standing outside and the many sacks of charcoal next door, both awaiting delivery to the local markets.

Our next visit was to a French family's business that has been operating out of Ouaga for many years, supplying markets all over the world with African artefacts. They told me that they had over 400 artisans working for them in many W. African countries, making a whole range of objects using traditional methods. All seemed to have been made to a very high standard, as the photographs of just a small selection of their stock will show.

A couple of hours was wasted in searching for a suitable bank to exchange some travellers cheques and in queuing to exchange them. Beware .. in this modern city, used to hosting the Film Festival and which seemed to have everything else worked out, changing travellers cheques is a nightmare ! 

Having eventually found the only bank that would accept travellers cheques, we waited for over an hour in a long line until we reached the teller's window. Form filling in African banks is usually carried out at a laborious pace .. this was abysmally slow .. with the tellers making frequent trips to a neighbouring office to get photocopies of the documents, which also took an age. Having supposedly completed everything, all the people with travellers cheques were then asked to produce the receipts they received when buying them. As the recommendations from the issuers specifically tell you not to keep cheques and receipts together .. of course no one had their receipts !

The bank's official solution, only attainable after going through the queuing process, was to march up to the top floor, knock on the office door of the bank manager, apologise for interrupting the meeting with a client that he was having and ask him to authorise the exchange. Seemingly basing his judgement on the appearance of the person concerned .. and after my attempt to look like the most honest person in the world, he initialled a piece of paper and we left him to his meeting. Only to have to return to the back of the queue and have to go through the whole flaming process again. Grrrrrr !!!

The bank's only saving grace was that it had air-conditioning. With temperatures hovering around 40 degrees C ( 104 F ) and after the day's many taxi journeys, enthusiastic bargaining and a lot of walking .. we were exhausted. After catching up on my e-mails in an Internet Café, using the latest computers and operating systems for only FCA 300 per hour, we taxied to an open-air restaurant that we had seen on the previous day. A brilliant meal of steak brochettes, chips and salad, fresh fruit cocktails, beers for me and soft drinks for Alaghi, followed by tea and coffee .. freshly cooked, tasty, served to European standards .. and all for a very reasonable CFA 11,550. As well as being seated in comfortable and pleasant surroundings with many arts and crafts on display .. we were entertained ( and sometimes deafened ) by the live show of musicians .. belting out African music, both traditional and modern, into the night sky .. at somewhat of a high volume. It must have been amateur night, for some were excellent and others were appalling .. but entertainment it certainly was !!

Within a few minutes walk of the Maison du Peuple Festival Market, we decided that :
Le Festival Bar and Bistro, 01BP 5467, Ouaga 01 Tel: 50 30 06 13 .. is THE place to eat in Ouaga.

The next day was a repeat of touring around yet more new friends and acquaintances, buying some items and refusing thousands .. mainly because most of the 'treasures' on offer were either bronze

or stone and we were very conscious of the weight we would have to carry on our upcoming journey to Niger. Old trade beads were not in abundance, but the ones we did find were worth the effort of the constant walking and talking involved. Bus times and tickets had to be researched and organised .. so by the morning of the fourth day we were tired out and ready to have a long rest on the bus that would take us to Niamey, Niger's capital city.

The orderliness, politeness and calm behaviour of the general Burkinabe population that we observed throughout the country, is probably due to the rule of law and universally accepted standards of good behaviour being enforced and maintained by the authorities. Perhaps I was a little harsh in my judgement of the officials at our entry to the country .. but in travelling through the rest of the region, one is unused to any such standards being enforced, except when 'monetary considerations' are involved. Albeit only a few days' visit to any country does not give a totally accurate overall view .. but we remained impressed with Burkina Faso, its cleanliness, its order and its people .. we both look forward to the time we will undoubtedly return.

2007 update: We retraced our route from Mopti and returned to Burkina exactly two years later and were very pleased to find that the Customs and Immigration personnel at the Thiou border were much more relaxed and polite ( even to the point of friendly conversation ) a marked improvement to a traveller's first impressions of what is still an extremely well-organised and friendly country.