Essay: In the stillness of the Sahal
Issue 35
In the deserts of northern Burkina Faso, where many people have few possessions, there's richness of a different sort, as Kate Eshelby discovers. 

ImageTears rolled down my cheeks as I hug Daouda goodbye at the airport. “Why are you crying?” he asked. “I am not dead. We will meet again.”

It was a statement which tells so much of the African philosophy. In the course of my numerous trips to Africa I have frequently noticed that whatever hurdles are put before them, Africans always believe the future will be better and strive forwards. Hope is an integral part of their culture; after all tomorrow is another day.

Daouda was my translator for one month. We became extremely close, sharing a great deal. I was photographing the numerous groups of pastoralists in northern Burkina Faso, an arid, land-locked part of West Africa, where the scenery is stupefyingly beautiful, ranging from miles of blooming white cotton fields to endless expanses of desert. Last year, this region was frequently in the news because of the severe drought and the locust invasion that ravaged both crops and grasslands. Certainly it was important to report on the suffering. But why are the positive stories of Africa, of which there are many, never covered?

“The last rains were good. I am confident about the future,” says Issa. Dressed in an embroidered boubou and vibrant yellow plastic shoes, Issa is from the Bella tribe; his life centres around his cattle. Last year, before the rains finally came, he lost at least a hundred cows. Following behind him, we took his surviving cows through the soft sands to the closest watering hole. Backed by sand dunes the water stretched, covered in water lilies. I had never seen cows so big and healthy, with shining hides and towering curved horns.

The majority of people living in the Sahel of northern Burkina Faso are pastoralists, whose way of life, developed over thousands of years, is suited to this environment. There has been hardship but for now they are on the path of recovery, rebuilding their herds. With the arrival of the much-needed rains, the grasses have grown.

Like our attraction to bad press, we also dwell on the aid we, in the West, give to Africa. In truth, it is Africa which gives to us – those of us lucky enough to visit the continent – and what it offers lasts for ever. The generosity and warmth shown to me in Burkina Faso was a lesson in the kind of humanity that many parts of the west have lost. Sharing is part of the African tradition, and I saw countless examples of this; one Burkinabé proverb says, ‘If there is enough for two, then there is enough for three.’

I was invited to stay in the homes of those I met. People ask whether I was afraid, a blonde female alone in Africa. But I would be more scared on my own in a European city than in the deserts of Burkina Faso. I know that while I stay with any Burkinabé community they have a strong sense of duty to protect me. Receiving guests, and offering hospitality, marks their culture. As I left one desert village, Guingani, the traditional doctor gave me a chicken. This gift touched me: I had spent only a short time in his village and yet a man who has little, chose to share it with me, his visitor.

Solidarity and family relations are also strong. Daouda sends money to his family every month. “It is difficult for me to imagine my family having financial problems and being unable to help,” he says. One of his proudest achievements was being able to contribute money towards his parents’ new home.

While travelling with Daouda we constantly bumped into people he knew, even in the most unlikely places. I lost count of the number of cousins he seemed to have. I soon realised that not all were related to him by blood and started to ask, “Is he (she) your true cousin or an African cousin?” In Burkina Faso, coming from the same village or school is enough reason to see a family link. This community spirit makes everyone on friendly terms, ready to help each other out in times of need.

Burkina Faso stands as the world’s fourth-poorest country, yet what is wealth – having a television or car? Poverty tends to be measured according to western economic standards, but wealth is defined differently in different societies. The pastoralists of the northern Burkina Faso assess their wealth according to the number of cows they possess. Each cow is worth up to CFA250,000, the equivalent of £250, and many people have vast herds. The women also spend a lot on their appearance, but not on throwaway fashions items like in the west, out of date in a year. Thick, heavy silver bracelets are worn and colourful glass pieces plaited into the hair, each costing a substantial amount. They are not as poor as we label them to be: their values are just dissimilar ours or, for that matter, from Burkinabés living in the towns.

Burkina Faso is not scene after scene of poverty as people may believe; instead, it is full of richness. Market day is a perfect time to witness this. It’s an opportunity to meet up with family and friends: long distances are travelled and best clothes are worn. As we arrived in Oursi market, whole villages were riding in on donkeys and camels, dragging carts behind, piled high with wares. The colours of the dresses were vivid and flamboyant, and the men wore turbans, conker brown eyes piercing through a gap in the cloth. As the burning sun sank over Oursi village that evening, all the men gathered together for the Maghrib prayer, the last-but-one prayer of the day. Life here has a strong focus and religious practices are ardently followed.

After spending time in Burkina Faso I began to adjust my priorities. Walking in the stillness of the Sahel, the only sounds were the warm wind and cricket song. Shadows fell from the acacia trees, their branches spreading like upturned umbrellas, thorns like silver slender icicles piercing the wide cobalt-blue sky. The atmosphere is relaxed in Burkina Faso, it is a stable country, a place where Muslims and Christians live peacefully together. Daouda, a practising Muslim, explains: “My Christian friends invite me to eat with them on Christmas day, and I ask them to share meals during Muslim festivals.”

Standing at the airport, the last call to board the plane rang out, and Daouda continued with another popular proverb: “Only mountains don’t meet, people can always meet again.” I certainly hope I’ll be back soon.
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