Dispatch from Africa: Driving in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso

MC1 Steve Owsley, a journalist with U.S. Africa Command, is covering the Burkina Faso Pandemic Disaster Response Tabletop Exercise. The exercise, which runs May 14-18, 2012, brings together representatives from African nations, international aid organizations, and AFRICOM to practice preparation and planning in the event of a pandemic disaster, such as an influenza pandemic. MC1 Owsley sent us this dispatch as a glimpse into everyday life in Burkina Faso. Look for his stories on the tabletop exercise coming soon to our website. Read a short intro to the event here.

15 May 2012
MC1 Steve Owsley
U.S. Africa Command

The flight deck of the an aircraft carrier has been described as a chaotic and dangerous ballet: hundreds of moving parts and people, but everyone knows where they are supposed to be and what they are supposed to be doing. I’ve never seen anything like it — until I saw how people drive in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso.

The roads were pretty good. They aren’t nearly as complicated as roads in the United States or Europe. Typically, they consist of a broken center line to separate two lanes of traffic and solid white lines on the left and right edges to show where the road ends.

While the roads sound simple, navigating them is not.

I was lucky to be with a group with professional hired drivers. Typically, these drivers were young men who had been driving for years. They were friendly, professional and absolutely essential to getting around in Bobo-Dioulasso.

The traffic is a mixture of cars, motorcycles, motor scooters, bicycles and carts pulled by both people and small burros.

Somehow, everyone seems to co-exist peacefully. There’s a sort of unspoken cooperation that keeps traffic moving with nearly no confrontation. Our professional drivers would lightly tap the horn to let a scooter driver know we were approaching. Without hand gestures or yelling, both SUV drivers and bicyclists took and yielded the right of way.

In the apparent chaos of the traffic, you see a pattern emerge: Everyone seems to know where they belong.

That being said, I wouldn’t want to inject myself into the traffic tangle. It made me appreciate our driver, who calmly eased our vehicle among the bicyclist, motorcycles, scooters and carts. If it sounds chaotic, it’s nothing compared to what it looks like if you’re seeing it for the first time.

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