Pardon me boy, is that the Ouagadougou choo-choo?

Ouagadougou, June 2010

I follow the dirt track along the railway, out of the town centre. I jostle with mopeds, bicycles, goats, chickens and the occasional horse and donkey, slapping on sun-cream, and stopping for a ginger juice over ice. I feel some trepidation- if I’d followed all the official advice, I’d barely have left the hotel.

People greet me, but do not pester. The only nuisance I encounter is at the guidebook-recommended ugly central market.

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Path out of town

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Track out of town

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BBQ time

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Mad dogs and I sit outside, while everyone else watches the match. Just like home.

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Bicycle repair shop

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Fishmonger-cum-laundrette

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Cattle and cattle trucks

As the town recedes, and mosques and houses are interspersed with grazing land, I realize that by following the railway I have adopted a different geography. Surfaced roads are lifelines, and there is always someone expecting a foreigner to buy something, or to want to be taken somewhere. Here I am met with curiosity, but no assumptions.

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Not the main road

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Haberdasher’s, ironmonger’s, cybercafé

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Foutou d’ignames, sauce aux grains, poisson fumé

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Stranger in town

The train arrives from Abidjan (Cote d’Ivoire) a day late, and is prepared for the return journey.

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Waiting room

My fellow passengers have spent at least one night at the station, while I was in the hotel pool with my colleagues, grumbling about the interlude between conference and flight home ticking away waiting for this train.

I still manage to travel as far as the first town, Koudougou. One fellow passenger assumes I must be travelling with the only other white people he’s seen today (too much of a coincidence, otherwise) and another insists I must enjoy the more “privileged atmosphere” of first class. The main difference seems to be air-con, and I prefer the breeze from an open window (if this train ever moves…)

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Inside second class

The reason it’s empty is that everyone knows it won’t go anywhere for hours yet.

I realize I am attracting spectators for my constant routine of applying suncream, spraying mosquito repellent, and chugging mineral water.

First stop is Bingo, where children congregate from miles around to sell us water, bananas and cashew nuts (no bingo cards).

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Next stop Koudougou- but it’s only 5 hours until my flight home, so I have to rush. Asking around in the station square, someone knows someone who has a motorbike. Eventually, I find a car, and after a bit more friendly negotiation, a driver, to take me back through the numerous roadblocks, and then along unsurfaced, unlit roads full of animals, until we reach the capital.

The airport, built in what were the outskirts in the 1970s, has now been swallowed up by the city. I collect my suitcase at the hotel and walk towards the city centre, stumbling across my Air France plane en route. There’s no business lounge- but looking for my passport, I find a stash of cashew nuts.

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