By Eric Elliott, U.S. Africa Command Public Affairs
Each day during much of FLINTLOCK 10, those of us assigned to the Multinational Coordination Center would travel by bus from our hotels in Ouagadougou through the outskirts of the city to Camp Baangre near the village of Kamboinse. Morning and evening, dozens of exercise participants from more than a dozen different countries would make that 45 minute drive and for many it was a priceless glimpse into daily Burkina daily life.
Ouagadougou is a city of more than a million inhabitants and has traffic typical of any modern capital. Fortunately we would travel opposite the normal flow of Burkinabe commuters. So each morning and evening we would pass long lines of cars and trucks that would give way to carts of wood, stones, sand, vegetables or other goods drawn by jaded donkeys or pushed by weary young men as we moved away from the city. Often our progress would be slowed by a donkey or goat loose in the road or a group of men trying to move an exceptionally heavy cart. There were also the buses full of people with boxes, bundles, suit cases, chicken cages bikes, piled high, defying gravity, on top.
And everywhere were people, young and old, on bicycles and motorcycles. Women in colorful dresses with a baby strapped to their backs or with a toddler clutching her back. Men in traditional outfits that would billow in the wind or three or four teenagers balanced precariously on a single bike.
Once I expressed my amazement about a young lady who rode by on a bike with a large platter of papayas balanced on her head and a baby on her back and the Nigerian officer sitting next to me snickered and said, “Brother, this is Africa.”
Along the side of the road, there was the constant movement of people walking. We would see the mass of bright African cloths with an occasional glimpse of Bob Marley or Barrack Obama from the back of a t-shirt. We would see groups of children going to school and often one or two would break away from the crowd to run waving after the bus.
What has always amazed American visitors is the ability of many African women to balance almost anything on their heads. Sacks of grain, tubs full of shoes or toys, bundles of wood, trays of fruit, bags of cloths, a broken bench are just a few of the things I saw conveyed on the heads walking or riding past the bus. Or there were the groups of four or five teenage girls standing in a circle gossiping, each with a plateau of mangoes or papayas poised on their braids.
Behind the people we would see the shops and stands selling everything imaginable. It was like driving through a shopping center with themes that would change by the block. There was the block with the furniture stores. Row upon row of couches, love seats or recliners on display on the side of the road and trestle tables piled high with fifteen or twenty twin sized mattresses. Next would be the hardware stores with metal gates, electric fans, bricks and lumber for sale. At the next corner there were people hawking cloths, toys, fruits, vegetables, grain. All the necessities of life seemed available along this single stretch of highway.
Usually our bus driver would put on some sort of entertainment for us. Sometimes it was African music videos. Other times it would be African sitcoms that would leave those who understood French hysteric with laughter and leaving those who don’t understand French wondering what was so funny.
On my last day on the bus I was surrounded my officers from Mali, Senegal, Nigeria, Morocco and Burkina Faso, and the driver put on a Kenny Rogers CD. I thought it as an odd choice until they all energetically began singing “you picked a fine time to leave me Lucille.”
Then I remembered the words of the Nigerian officer, the one who was singing loudest about his four hungry children and his crop in the field.
“Brother, this is Africa,” he said.
(Note: Eric Elliott, U.S. Africa Command Public Affairs, was in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, while supporting Exercise Flintlock, a multi-national military exercise conducted in various Trans-Saharan countries to develop military capacity of African, American and European participants.)