Arrived after three rather long flights in the airport in Ouagadougou. The flight down from Charles de Gaulle in Paris was enriched by my seat mates….on the left was a young French girl on her way down to the southern part of Burkina Faso for some volunteer missionary work, and on the right was a Burkinabe man returning home. Neither one spoke any english, so all our conversation had to be in French. Even though my language skills are weak, we all conversed easily, laughed, talked about our travel plans and generally had a great time. The best part was that my self-assurance for conversing in French grew by orders of magnitude, and both my seat mates assured me that I would have no problem making myself understood.
The plane landed and we all disembarked onto a bus to get transferred to the entrance hall. I was very happily surprised to see that the temperatures were not so bad (at 8:30 PM it was only about 85°F (30°C) and maybe 80% humidity….quite manageable). The entrance hall reminded me of Congo….a bland cement building with tons of people jostling for position to go through security. While there were a couple of VIP protocols (receptionists) waiting at the foot of the stairway off the plane, for the most part there were no people interfering with our disembarkation, unlike Congo where there would be soldiers with AK47s, police, protocols, and many other unnamed people scanning and redirecting the crowd.
Passport control was a bit hectic….we first had to go through a hand wash station (to prevent the spread of Ebola) and fill in a health form. Then get a quick health inspection that consisted of a cursory staredown by a woman in a dirty nurses uniform. Then, despite that a planeload of people had just arrived, the customs agents took their coffee break for 15 minutes and left the line of 200 passengers waiting. When they returned, it went fairly quickly: glance over the passport, look at the yellow fever vaccination card, stand for a photo, place your fingers on the fingerprint scanner (one hand then the other), place your thumb (both hands), ‘ka-stamp!’ and you’re on your way.
Baggage claim was a nightmare. I don’t know why people rush the carousel with their carts in tow, effectively making two layers of interference between the rest of the crowd and the carousel. While the inner ring of people waited for their bags to come around, the carousel got jammed full with bags for the outer people who could not get through the ring of carts, and the whole process crept along at a snail’s pace. After about 45 minutes, all the bags had finally come through and been claimed, which was too bad because two of my four had not arrived.
I went to baggage claim, and the woman took my tickets, boarding pass and passport, and she filled out an incident form and placed everything into a folder. Then she handed the whole folder back to me and told me to come back tomorrow. Apparently they don’t process anything, but just give you all the records and hope the bags arrive later anyway. With trepidation, I passed through the exit gate with my two bags that did arrive.
I made my way out to the parking lot and met the other three admin; Sean (Head of School), Paul (US Principal) and Michael (LS Principal). It was handshakes and hellos, then we loaded up into Sean’s car and drove out to my house.
As we left the dirt parking lot and got onto the main street jammed with bicycles, scooters, pedestrians, cars, donkey carts and vans, I got a powerful sense of deja-vu: it all appeared so much like Kinshasa. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but my spirits sank a little with the growing reality that I was back in third-world Africa again after my successful escape to the bright lights of Hong Kong. As we drove through town, I could only see darkness, squalor, disorganization and confusion. It wasn’t a nice feeling, and the thought of two full years here was suddenly a little depressing. Sean talked about the concern for political unrest in the next few months when the Presidential elections take place, and how there was gunfire and riots in the streets only a few blocks from the school in October when the most recent coup happened. Yikes…he never mentioned that during the interview.
After a brief drive on the main road, with Sean pointing out landmarks and features like the burned out Presidential Palace with overturned torched cars in the driveway, we arrived at the neighborhood where the school was. We turned off the paved main road onto a secondary road: it was dirt, with monster potholes, piles of debris and rocks, and no streetlights.
After crawling along a few blocks, we pulled up in front of a large dusty white wall on a street corner, with concertina wire along the top and a big, solid, metal gate. “We’re home. This is your place” said Sean, cheerfully. I was less than excited at the Fort Knox vibe.
A Burkinabe man came out the front gate with a smile and handed me a set of keys. “This is your guard” said Sean. “He will sit outside your door or gate from 6pm to 6am every night in case anything happens.” Oh great.
We came inside and unlocked the front door. The house was dark and warm, and after a little fumbling, we found the light switch and turned on the AC. “We’ve never rented this house before” said Sean, “so we don’t know what issues there might be with switches, etc. Take notes of anything you find wrong and we’ll get the landlord to fix it.”
The entranceway came into a large room with pale yellow walls and a tile floor that looked like something out of a truck stop bathroom. There was a ceiling fan whirring above, and some rather interesting looking furniture (chairs, coffee table, and dining table). Next to that, through some doors that look like they should open up into the back yard, was a larger room with an attached basic bathroom. The rooms had the feel of old military offices, or maybe a warehouse…certainly not very warm or inviting. Actually, kind of depressing.
“First thing you need to do is get some curtains…make this place more homey” said Sean. Good idea. And some plants, and more furniture. And a stereo. And a TV.
We explored the rest of the house. Three small bedrooms, all of them looking basic and dilapidated with the same bathroom-floor tiling. The kitchen looked like something out of a college slum, but with a brand new fridge and gas stove (yay for gas), but very little counter space. There was a shower in the hallway and another en suite to one of the bedrooms, and a toilet in a small closet-sized room in the hallway. Then we went out the back door, and in the back yard was under a patio cover, with (get this) a big pizza oven and sink.
Strange place, all cement and drab yellow paint. The rooms all felt barren and lifeless, and the power sockets, light switches, fan controls and TV hookups were randomly distributed in surprising places.
All in all, it was a bit underwhelming and unwelcoming. But it was home, the rent is paid, and I knew that over time I would be able to set it up to be kinda nice, and probably a bit funky.
I went to bed and laid there for a few hours, feeling the weariness of travel slip away. It got a bit clammy under the mosquito netting, but I did not know if it was safe to push it aside, so I laid there with my thoughts for several hours until I drifted off.
My mind spiraled around the reality that this is my new home. Dark, dusty and drab, with the potential for danger lurking just around the corner. I remembered how happy I was to escape Congo ten years ago, with its gunfire in the streets, insecurity and armed police and military men everywhere, crappy infrastructure and lack of luxury. Hong Kong had spoiled me…sushi dinners, massages in exotic spas, super modern skyscrapers, dim sum, cool travel to exotic islands, Sunday brunches and fantastic culture. But now I was back in the broken bowels of the earth, on my own and facing two years of isolation and desperation. What had I done?