Burkina Faso: Stripped Down
By Jackson Bliss
I used to go on hour-long bike rides toward the Malian border right before the dusk. I had a perfect system worked out: I’d prepare a modest salad of tomatoes and onions—when they were available—imported olive oil that I bought from Ouagadougou, the capital, some red-wine vinegar, and a bunch of herbs de provènce. That salad, patiently waiting for me in two Mondrian-colored plastic bowls, protected from the explosive invasion of flies, mosquitoes, and other insects, and, some of which, were sure to be carrying typhoid fever, anthrax, yellow fever or malaria, was my reward for biking through near darkness and not dying in a pothole.
Three days a week, as villagers gathered in front of boutiques to drink tea and condensed milk or to meet at local buvettes to nurse bottles of orange Fanta or SoBBra beers—luxuries for a village encapsulated by the Sahelian Desert—I’d bike up the solitary dirt road that went from Djibasso all the way to Bamako. I’d wave at various people I knew (Disco the cassette man, Mamadou the tailor, Henri the gendarme) as I pedaled towards my compound. Music poured into my ears from my walkman. My body pulsed with vitality and sweat. My mind was calm and blank.
Biking was how I let go. It would get hypnotized by the dirt road, by the habitual realization that I was the only person traveling who wasn’t carrying an amphora on his head or riding a bush taxi.
Each time I returned home in the vanishing light, I could feel my shirt sticking to my back; but my legs were steady and my heart was beating slowly, soft and strong like a Chopin nocturne. And the thought of a quick bucket bath, some freshly baked bread delivered by my favorite shop owner, and my precious salad—everything waiting for me lovingly, after a day of being bullied and cajoled by the sun, and choked by sandstorms—sustained me. I knew I could always count on that salad, on the BBC, on my collection of cassettes, on a seemingly infinite, lonely darkness at night. I was slowly forgetting the things that used to matter most to me, forgetting everything that complicated my pursuit of lasting happiness back in the states. And I was okay with that.
One evening, after I pulled up to my gate, opened the door and entered my compound, something changed inside me. I did all the things I normally did during my post-biking ritual: I took a bucket bath, dried off with a pagne, and got dressed in light pants and a polo shirt that a tailor in Bobo-Dioulasso had made for me the previous summer. Then I walked out to the terrace, pulled my petit bois table close to my canvas chair, turned on the radio and began eating my salad.
Suddenly, the steel door of the gate opened up and a little shadow approached. A person only became visible as light reflected off the whites of her eyes and teeth.
“Bonsoir monsieur,” the little girl said.
“Bonsoir, Ça va?” I asked.
“Oui, ça ba.” The shop owner’s daughter spoke French phonetically.
“Boici le pain,” she said, handing me a little black plastic bag.
I grabbed the bag. Her eyes were glued to me. The bread was still warm—I could feel it through the plastic bag. I pulled out a coin from my pocket, grabbed some candy from the table and delicately placed them in her hands, as if I were handing her something fragile and precious that would disintegrate if not handled carefully.
“Merci,” I said.
She smiled, before turning around. “Au rebois, monsieur,” she sang.
She waved at me even though the darkness was as thick as tar and she probably didn’t expect me to notice. I smiled.
In America I always felt like I was never doing enough. I always felt like I was never reaching my potential as a human being. And yet in a tiny Burkinabè village, I spent almost every waking hour--whether I was writing letters, or playing solitaire with an incomplete deck of cards, or biking, or reading long-winded French novels, or reheating leftover spaghetti, or listening to Nick Drake cassettes, or drawing pictures inside the cement walls of my house with chalk pastels, or eating salad--content, just existing, just being there. . It hit me: my life is so simple, stripped of its perpetual wish-lists, now that it’s been reduced to a crawl. My life is simple. Simplified. Slow. Sane. Lucid. I remember all my dreams now. They’re vivid and angst-free.
With the exception of the call-to-prayer battle between the two neighborhood mosques, each located twenty sandal steps in different directions from the compound gate, time simply ceases to exist at all. Without wrist watches, without mirrors, without newspapers—there is no way to count the way it passes.
And if time does exist, it exists in the gradations of sweat, in the changing shapes of shadows, in lost calories of bike rides, in the frequency by which the moon casts milky blue shadows on lonely terrace concrete. Time is how often I listen to track 3 on my Nick Drake cassette. Time in Djibasso exists only as a solar arc.
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