Right now I’m in Ouagadougou (pronounced: Wah Ga Doo Goo), which is the capital of Burkina Faso. You may remember Burkina Faso as the country formerly known as The Republic of The Upper Volta… ring any bells? No?
I’m here to cover a World Health Conference. I left Dakar on Monday, and thanks to a lovely flight from Air Burkina (also called Air Senegal AND Air Mali, thus I was just a tad confused), I spent quality time on runways in four countries during one five-hour flight. Thus, my introduction to inter-continental air travel in Africa was born.
At the moment I’m safe and sound in BF and reporting/photographing/filming constantly. It’s basically a photographer’s dream, because this place has a weird, 70’s kind of vibe, with burnt oranges and reds everywhere from the dirt to the clothes to the buildings. It’s like everything has rusted into a functional antiquity. But the best part is that the primary mode of transportation is the motorbike.
My favorite aspect of this motorbike popularity is the prevalence of women on the bikes. It’s kind of surreal to see all these women in traditional, African long skirts zooming along on their mopeds with babies attached to their backs.
There’s a fabulously congenial stringer for VOA here in Ouaga (his name is Zoumana), and he’s been showing me around and helping me find stories and sources while I’m not at the conference. We’ve been going out to dig up some stories during the night, and we take his motorbike and tour the town. Oh, and Kari lent me her old video camera, so I’m taking video, too. Basically, I’m loving the whole thing.
I don’t know how much play this issue is getting in the US press, but there’s a food crisis over here. The price of rice exports has literally doubled, which here in West Africa means people are paying much higher prices for their staple food—in Kinshasa a 25kg bag that went for $15 in November now goes for $25. And most of these people live off of dollars (if that) a day.
I could give you all the stats and such and broader news, because we’ve been following the issue closely, but the better insight that I have comes from my Senegalese family. Mama’s been telling me for the past few months how much more she is paying for everything—not just rice—and she’ll often go over the prices of all the veggies and rice and other food after dinner. She’ll tell me what she used to pay and what she pays now. She feeds about a dozen people a day, and these price complaints are often followed by a dubious assessment of Senegal’s current president, Abdoulaye Wade.
Wade’s getting a lot of flack from Senegalese lately, and the favorite phrase I hear uttered often by a taxi driver or a booth vendor is, “La vie est cher.” (Life is expensive).
As a response to this food crisis, Wade announced a new plan that involves Senegal growing more of its own food and becoming increasingly agriculturally independent (right now, they grow rice, but it’s long rice, and it’s more expensive and it’s exported to Europe and other parts of the world where people can afford to pay more. This means Senegal imports a majority of its rice—the broken rice that comes from Thailand. I also recently talked to a fisherman who said they export most of their best fish from Senegal to Thailand. I’m no economic/trading expert, but this system doesn’t seem to be the most efficient to me…).
But I digress. The point here is that Wade held a rally last Friday to show ‘support’ of his new plan, though many Senegalese seem to be weary of whether it will work or not.
Uma and I went to cover the rally, which we were told would start at 4 pm. By 6:30 there was still no Wade. There were however, more than 7,000 Senegalese youth gathered in a huge stadium in what I can only describe as something that reminded me of a high school basketball pep rally.…with national police and Mbalax dancing of course.
So I’m back on goats today, because yesterday while I was doing some work I heard a screaming that sounded like someone was torturing a child. Startled (obviously), I ran into the driveway to see what was up.
It was the guards here.. they had a goat. And they were getting ready to kill said goat for a meal. The goat cost only 14,000 CFA (ummm.. about 30 bucks.. but with the dollar doing some fun little spirals into the depths of an economic abyss, that might be 300 bucks by the time you read this).
But I digress. Here’s what happened… They had the goat tied up, then they slit its throat to kill it. Then they put it on a fire to better skin it. Then they made soup out of its intestines, and dispersed of the remainder of the meat amongst each other to take home.
They were trying to get me to eat the soup. The soup looked like this…
Obviously, I was less than enthused about this, which the guards thought was hilarious. Finally one of the guards told me the soup was spicy, so I decided to consider tasting it, but I wanted to know a little more first.
Me (picking up a piece of white, coarse meat in the soup): What’s this?
Guard: That’s stomach!
Me (picking up a piece of long, tube-like meat in the soup): And what’s this?
Guard: That’s intestines!
Me (Look of bewilderment, trying to hide disgust): Ahh!
Guard: Don’t worry—we pushed everything out first.
Me: Oh, well then… ok. (hint of sarcasm)
But no fear, right? So I tried it. It was spicy. And chewy. Guess those goats won’t be eating my homework anymore.
I’m tired. It’s been a long (but good) day. And thus, all I can give you at the moment are goats. I’m gonna go ahead and apologize in advance for this post.
I like to call this one “My goat ate my homework.” I also like to be obvious.
And this one is called “Honking horns.”
If you are interested, here’s the radio piece I did today.
Most of the time, it’s hard to photograph people here in Dakar. When you whip out a camera, you get “tsked.” This proves difficult for people like me, who are, um.. photographers.
But every once and a while someone will see me shooting and actually ask me to take their picture. Before I came to Senegal, I must admit I didn’t really like it when people ASKED me to take their picture while I was shooting, because I like to make that decision. It’s part of my whole “self-determination” thing I guess.
But like so many other things about life here, I often have to surrender to the current and take what I can get. And when people ask, I am grateful for the permission.
Yeah, so as I took photos of my friends, one guy tapped my arm and asked me to snap a picture. Thus, I did, and as usual, the unexpected turned out to be one of the best photos of the night…(ps: I didn’t perform any color correction or editing on either of these photos… it was just a really cool strobe at the rundown bar. I think it was called “Chez Wendy’s.” I enjoy that.)
Before work every day, Ibrahima trudges through a crowded sandy neighborhood to visit his Ma.
They were talking in Wolof, because his mother doesn’t speak French, but he later told me that they discuss the children, how work is going, etc. Ibrahima is the oldest of his mother’s children, so he takes his duty seriously and makes sure everything back at the large home is going smoothly.
After the short visit, he then marches uphill and around the corner to the boutique where he sells cosmetic products. The store is run by a handicap organization in Dakar, so everyone who works there faces many of the challenges Ibrahima does.
Saturday the Dakar championships for handicapped basketball begin, so I’ll be going to shoot (and probably secretly root for) Ibrahima’s team.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that I interviewed a leader in exile who lives near Madrid while I was there. Well, I was going to produce a radio piece on the leader, who is from Equatorial Guinea, around their May 4 elections. But this week, that leader (Severo Moto) was arrested for allegedly Trafficking War Weapons. Thus, my hour spent with Moto was pretty newsworthy, and I made this radio piece yesterday. (You can see the piece online here).
Also yesterday, the D.C. office called and wanted a follow-up to Tuesday’s plane crash in the DRC, and then later in the day another plane crashed in Equatorial Guinea. It was just me and one other journo in the office (the very intelligent and helpful Uma Ramiah), so it was a busy day.
Voicing radio pieces is fun, but initially my voice was a little too perky—think informative cheerleader. Unfortunately, most of the news that comes out of the region relates to NOT PERKY topics (poverty, rebels, etc. – “Give me An …A! R! M! S! is just SO not appropriate).
Thus, I’m working on making my voice more solemn. Sometimes this leads me to sound like a caretaker. So, yeah… my current goal is to get my voice somewhere on a nice middle ground between a cheerleader and caretaker.
On Saturday, I photographed this artist:
His name is Ibrahima, and he specializes in the type of art where they paint backwards on a piece of glass.. I’m still not sure I understand this concept, but I needed to today. Because, you see, today is my grandfather (AKA: My favorite person in the world)’s birthday.
Now, my grandfather is basically the smartest, nicest, gentlest and most patient person in THE WORLD. So I wanted to take a photo of me with a Happy Birthday sign. After an unsuccessful attempt, I realized my Mac built-in camera could in fact NOT be relied on to magically reconfigure the words from forwards to backwards.
So I was going to have to write the sign backwards…. After 20 minutes (in which I probably should have been doing more productive things) I finally managed to make a passable sign for Gramps). So Grandpa—Happy Birthday: You are one of the most amazing people I’ve ever known.
Saturday a few of us went to hear Omar Pene play at Just 4 You—an outdoor club/restaurant/bar. At the advice of one Nico Columbant, I’m starting a “Dakar Nights” series, which will encompass the silhouette photos, too.
I blame the plant. It was probably mad I was standing on it.
If you’ve ever been around me while I’m shooting, you know I’m usually either standing on something or laying on the ground. Most of the time, as I climb onto the nearest chair or railing, whoever I’m photographing will nervously warn me, “Be Careful!”
This time, at the Baobab Center, there was so much dancing going on, no one really noticed that I’d wedged myself in a corner and balanced my feet shoulder width apart—one foot on each side of a plant holder, about one and a half feet off the ground. Luckily, it was one of the shorter distances that I had decided to ahem, plant myself, to shoot the scene below.
As the beautiful Mbalax dancing (this time with fire!) went on, I snapped and snapped. The male dancer got closer and closer to the fire. Then, just as he was about to bend his body in irregular contortions to stealthily and gracefully slip below a flaming bar—I completely wiped out.
I’m not sure what happened, but my legs flew out from under me as the potted plant toppled sideways. I clutched my camera to my stomach, and landed on my back, scraping my legs along the concrete pot as I fell.