[Three months in Réo, Burkina Faso.]
Take the second left off the main road and bump through the dirt track. Follow it down until you almost hit the slab of stone in the middle. Look up and you’ll see there are few lights around: a red one in the corner, the glow of the house behind and the luminous suggestion of the village further away. Tonight the dust has made the dark above hazy.
Some nights we pick out the brightest star as we eat. Sometimes it stays the same and sometimes it leaps about. Some nights we eat with a torch. Sometimes it’s light enough to eat without one and sometimes we just sit in the darkness.
Two chickens and three chicks cluck about hoping for grains to fall. A kitten lies by the foot of the chair and a dog rests close by, waiting to be summoned for uneaten scraps or fish bones.
Tonight the moon is full and it turns out “werewolf” is hard to say with a French tongue.
On the side of the road a man holds a guineafowl upside down in his left hand. The claws poke out between his fingers. In his right hand is an old brick phone. The sun is glinting so he lifts the guineafowl and holds his hands together, the feathers shading the screen from the light.
iii. Tropical juice
The power cut has lasted all night and all morning. I am dreaming of swimming pools. None of us have slept well. We go over our script in French. Slow. Slower. Clearer. Repeat. Someone’s gone to get drinks. My mind’s drifting. We keep reading and my mouth is grasping the “g”s and “r”s of the French more easily now but it’s so hot my tongue is dry. My aunt texts me to say she’s been swimming in the sea and my back is soaked and the shop has run out of everything but warm water.
A woman cycles ahead, turning right out of the market onto the main road. A flash of a bike light coming towards us frames her silhouette. Her right hand is on the handlebars. Her left stretches up, her posture perfect. Her hand holds onto a barrel, a fill-up-with-beer-at-a-house-party, could-fit-a-person-in-and-roll-down-a-hill, take-to-the-water-pump-and-struggle-to-carry-home kind of barrel. She rides slowly, never wobbling. The bike ahead passes and her silhouette is swallowed by darkness.
v. In class
86 girls lounge. Arms and heads lull, draped over each other. The room is large but it’s overfilled, with three girls to a bench. Some have their knees up, perched on desk corners. The classroom’s cement-square windows are empty of glass and they’re letting a breeze in. The heads of two curious young boys bob up and down.
The crispy green outside is sparsely dotted with shade. Only bikes risk the midday heat, piles of them thrust under trees to save the seats from sizzling when they’re picked back up.
A question is asked to grab the girls’ attention. The room grows by three feet as they leap up to answer and the clicks of their fingers make it sound like the rainy season has come early.
The door is propped to the left, held in place with a stone. To the right is the doorframe. With the darkness outside it’s created the effect of a lightbox, or a one-sided window in a police investigation.
A young woman stands in the light licking her fingers. Her shoulders are strong and she is midway through eating dinner. She looks around for something inside and disappears. Later she is framed in her towel as she stands by the table, clearing something away. She grabs a bucket. On her way back from her shower she douses her feet in the leftover water, clearing off the gravel before she steps back inside.
At night the chain is drawn from the inside to the outside, leaving enough space to draw an arm back in before pulling it shut. The other night there was a sand storm. The door flung open and it sounded like someone was chucking rocks at the house in a non-romantic way.
At midday, productivity slows. The designated chefs each day pour out of the little kitchen looking like they could speed down a slip-n-slide. Work for the rest of us halts gradually, as internet connection flails and phones and laptops begin burning internally to stop us from typing. The power cuts again and the fan stops.
Drinkable water comes in plastic sachets. Buy two cold sachets before bed, switch one into the bottle that actually keeps things cool and lie with the other on your belly. It’s too hot for clothes. Tuck the mosquito net around the fan, switch it onto power 3 and face it towards you. The air goes above your head when you lie down but you get a whoosh of it every so often. If you can’t sleep outside on the hottest nights, have a bucket by your bed with a flannel and a teapot ready to dribble water over yourself when it’s too much, or for when the power cuts out in the night and you wake up soaked.
Three children run alongside my bike. They’re almost as fast. I slow down a little as I turn left into work. They grab the bike and run with me, pushing me faster. “La blanche, la blanche,” they yell. I go up the slight bump to cross through the gate and they let go and slow down to a walk, still yelling after me.
Two metal benches and an ice box hold ten of us on the back of a small pick-up truck. We travel 50km. In the middle of one long road there’s a border. There are two gendarmes with tight fitting uniforms, protective gear heavily packed around their chests, large guns in their hands. We’re flagged down. They walk around us slowly and ask for our passports, though we don’t all have them on us. The taller one inspects two copies and waves us on. It’s too hot to check them all. The engine restarts.
To make a fire you need a ring of stones and thicker twigs than we have readily available. The sticks we collect are dry and it burns fast. We start dancing salsa and it turns into a class which Burkinabe hips are made for. We dance around the burnt out fire until we have to speed back for curfew.
We stop off at a medical centre. The floors are cracked and the walls peeling. There are two women with a baby sitting on a bench. One of the women wears a green and orange paigne and her face is dusted in white. On the right, a man lies on a thin mattress on the ground. He has a drip in his arm. Two men look on. There are posters dotted on the walls for malaria, meningitis and contraception. There’s a photo of a malnourished child and a list of the populations of local villages.
xiii. Donkey i
Under the mango trees, eyes closed. Look up and there are three young boys on donkeys in a row. They’re staring at me and one has a stick in his hand with three twigs poking off it. It looks like they got lost from a Nativity scene.
My friend asks me to take a picture of him with the donkey. He climbs on and he’s too big for it but he poses and I take a photo.
He gets off the donkey and the original boy clambers back on. They laugh and start slicing into the donkey’s back with the stick. I didn’t know that donkeys could rear their hind legs. One boy swings off a tree and kicks as another thwacks the stick.
On a bike, the distance between the bar and my home is sixteen minutes, or thirteen if you’re speedy. The night before a man followed me and asked repeatedly if he could accompany me home, so tonight I ride faster. Just before I reach my turning two men on a motorbike come up behind me and one runs his hand from my bum to my knee. He looks back, laughs and yells at me. They zoom off. I cycle the last thirty seconds to my house and tell my friend what happened. “I told you to avoid being alone at night.” I don’t know the words for “it’s not my fault” in French and I only speak to him in my own language when I’m angry. I spit the words in English and storm inside.
It is an oven inside. Bodies heave to the music and there is no air at all. Walk in and immediately your hair is plastered to your face and your head is lost in it’s own private swimming pool. I can’t bend my knees properly because the sweat is making my clothes stick to my skin. Outside is a little cooler, though still barely below 40, so we dance on the patio. We have to leave too soon so we dance hard and fast and we are drenched and it is brilliant.
xvi. Donkey ii
A man rides with a large basket attached to the back of his bike. In the basket is a donkey, impossibly folded. Its head bends back to face its tail and its body seems half the size it should be. When he goes over a bump the donkey’s head bobs up and down, like a sleeping child’s gently knocking against a seatbelt.
If a human and a cockroach could maintain eye contact I think I would have learnt the knack by now. Directing vomit through a not-generous hole-in-the-ground is itself a skill, but seeing the twitching beetles below, the earth rimmed with splattered piss and excrement – that’s something else entirely.
There are no cool tiles to sit on when you’re empty, only the hot, dusty earth. No ceiling or door to muffle the sounds. And behind the wall is a very open courtyard with a very many members of the family for you to walk past, yellow-cheeked and sour-breathed.
He tries to outrun us but he’s outnumbered. Seven buckets of water are chucked over his head before he can make it away from us. Everyone is drenched and everyone is screaming. It’s a birthday tradition, though usually the water is mixed with milk, and usually it happens at midnight not midday. More buckets as they chase him and he’s dragged down by the water. Dirt is sprinkled on top, the light dusting of icing sugar. Everyone’s in stitches. Someone hands him a towel and another two buckets are thrown.
My friend is smoking at a party. Why are you doing that? one of the host brothers asks. He’s doing it too, my friend says. But you’re a girl, he replies. The phrase “men are superior to women” is used unironically. It’s a dialogue so cliched it’s barely worth repeating but for the fact that it continues to be shocking every time. I take the cigarette from her hand, inhale then breathe out slowly. He lists the reasons we shouldn’t do it (we’re women). We list the reasons we should (it’s our choice). We go round in circles. I tell him what the word feminist means and he laughs.We take a gentler approach and explain what it’s like elsewhere, in places he wants to visit one day. Maybe it will change in the future, he conceeds eventually. You’re the one who can change it, we say. But I’m happy with how it is now, he says.
xx. The rains
The first harmattan kicks in five minutes after arriving home. We start to eat dinner outside but the dust swirls and we can taste grit so we move the small metal table indoors. Soon the dust is pouring through the door. You have to look away so it doesn’t catch in your eyes. He clatters the plates away when the clanging starts and dives out the door to his bedroom, a separate building outside the main house. The ceiling is dripping so I go to my room and the metal roof sounds like something outside really wants to climb inside. There’s a drip on my back so I climb inside my mosquito net, as if that would save me were the metal sheets to be ripped apart and the water to flood in. Someone sends Toto’s Africa to our WhatsApp group.
The whistle blows and the speakers are bursting. As we wait for a serve, our bodies dance. There’s a one point difference in the first set, two in the second. It doesn’t matter. I can’t stop smiling. We yell and we laugh and we graze knees as we dive as much as gravel will let us and I’ve missed it. It’s the final point. We scream and fall to the ground. It’s the best game of volleyball I’ve ever lost.
The woman dips her hand into the large metal bowl behind her and dribbles the batter into the fizzing pan. It wobbles on a red drum, a hole cut out to let it breathe. The gloop starts to crisp. A queue grows. A donkey gets in line and a dog lies under a bike wheel. The woman scoops out the little chunks, slides them into a plastic bag and sprinkles sugar for a few seconds longer than necessary. Keeping the bag tied, we break a hole in the side and pluck them out one by one, hot and sweet and greasy.
He sits on the floor of my room, his back against the peeling blue wall. He’s been to a baptism with my friends while I’ve been to the medical centre with malaria. I ask if he danced and he says yes and I say can you show me and he says but there’s no music so I sing and he dances. He listens as I tell him how our friend sang me a lullaby, laughs when I say a man tried to hit on me while I was being diagnosed, and sits patiently as I take occasional breaks to throw up. He lays the mosquito net over me, cleans the bucket and makes me tea.
The rains have come. As dusk falls, the bugs follow. We’re cycling home side by side when they start hitting us on the face and neck. The car ahead illuminates a whole host of them, scattered dust across the road. A motorcycle lights up a section as we turn onto our path and then it whizzes by, leaving us to wade into the mass blindly.
At home the doorway is flooded. I take a leap with eyes and mouth closed to get through. Try not to look under my feet at how many I’ve squished. They flap about, half broken. Our beaming six year old girl leaps about and tries to catch them. We’re going to eat them, she explains, as she picks one up, folds back its wings and points towards the meat of its body.
The next night, the bugs are fried. They are hollow; crispy with a dry aftertaste. We watch Prison Break and reach for the salted bodies like popcorn.
There’s an official meeting where our progress is monitored. Our team has broken somewhat, not unfixably so, but enough that when certain questions are asked, the silence leans back awkwardly and looks away. The official solutions to our largely-gender-focused issues have rarely proven helpful, but they are repetitive and full of buzzwords, so as we attempt to unpick the troubles around the table, we play bingo underneath it.
I’ve only crossed off two when she says it, and they’re not even next to each other. She does it so smoothly, you almost wouldn’t notice. He says something vague. Bingo, she says, looking directly at him with her finger pointed, as though his statement is the key to all our errors. Her eye wavers over to me and her lips crack open at one side. She does so well not to laugh.
The official seems tired by us and takes a break. We keep talking. Five minutes later our problems look on the road to being solved. Someone climbs onto someone else’s back. Another person plucks a flower and puts it in their neighbour’s hair. Several people apologise. Bingo is still being applauded. Perhaps the meeting helped after all.
I trip over the tree stumps that we cycle over every day. I fall to the right, my bag flips me over and the bike collapses on top. A woman with a baby on her back comes to see if I’m okay and she offers a hand up. I’m fine but the chain’s broken. A young boy pops his head round from the football match behind the school. He takes a hold of the handlebars, leans over and deftly laces the metal back into the frame. We cycle off, glowing from the generosity and cackling from the fall.
We’re looking up at the stars after eating gâteaux, trying to make room for dinner and waiting for the power cut to end. I ask if he knows the story of the man in the moon and try to point out the smile and the eye. I say that when I left, my grandma said she loved me more than all the stars in the sky. He says that when he left, his brother told him he loved him like the light of the sun. I ask if he knows you are my sunshine. I sing it and he repeats after me. Afterwards he sings it by himself in full.
At the bar our friend tells us a story. He’s translating from Spanish so adds on the little details he forgot at the end. Legend has it that a boy and a girl called Orinoco and Caroni fell in love, but their neighbouring families were rivals. In order to be together they decided to walk away from each other to each edge of the coast. From there they would follow the coastal path round until they met in the middle. Their families found out their plan and chased them to the shore, reaching them just as they caught sight of one another. The young lovers were stuck. They couldn’t go forwards as their families blocked them from the sand, and they couldn’t go back for fear of being lost to the sea. They fell on their knees and begged the gods to let them be together. The sea behind them parted and as one, they fell back into it.
Today the water in that place is separated, blue on one side and light brown on the other. The bodies of water touch, but their different densities mean they never merge. One river is called Orinoco, the other Caroni.
The next morning I repeat it as best I can in French and it hasn’t lost any of its beauty from the night before. I learn the French word for foam.
We’ve forgotten to go and collect the water. My host mama sends me and her six year old. I know we can’t lift it by ourselves. It’s dark but there are outlines of people scattered near the road. I stop a group of boys about to climb on a motorbike and ask for their help. Three of them hop off and over to the pump. They swiftly pick up the six year old and place her into the wheelbarrow along with the water. I say thanks and try to take it – I can’t lift the bin full of water but I can carry it once it’s on wheels – but they’re already rolling off to my house, water splashing and six year old guiding the way with the torch on my phone. They drop us off, say hello to mama and head back to their bikes, their help immediate and unexpectant.
The sexism gets to us. The male entitlement, the micro-aggressions, the over sensitivity and the double standards.
The attempt to control our behaviour and expectation to comply with theirs. We change how we act, what we wear, eat and say, and yet our behaviour is still nit-picked in a way that feels passive aggressive rather than constructive. And it is constant. We joke about the programme’s mottos of adaptability and flexibility because sometimes it feels like we’ve become tightrope walkers and gymnasts, only to leap and crash against brick walls.
There are aspects of this country and our new friends that I can’t wait to leave behind. I’m excited to go back to a country where sexist jokes are told largely just to rile me up, not because they’re believed; where I can go home at night safe in the knowledge that I probably won’t be followed; where I can go out by myself and not be swarmed by strangers; where chores are shared and where little girls are allowed to play; where equality may not have been achieved but at least is being reached for more fervently.
Fighting it daily in a language I still find tricky is exhausting. But it’s harder knowing it carries on when we get on the plane and leave it all behind.
One weekend near the end, the rain scatters to a halt and there’s a generous breeze. We take chairs down through the mud to the edge of the water. Last month we lay here under the mango trees. Now they’re submerged, cut in half by the newly formed lake. We sit and read and skim stones, the uneven ground we walked on a few weeks ago invisible under the water’s ripples. He gets up to go and charge his phone back at the house. He asks if I want anything. I pause. Pizza? He laughs and says no problem.
He returns a few minutes later and hands me a scrumpled brown envelope, round and just a bit bigger and heavier than a tennis ball. On the envelope is the word “pizza”, with a little doodle of a flower. I unwrap it and a mango rolls out.
It’s the final night. My host mama is speaking to my mum on video call. Mama is leaning into the phone, her face taking up the whole screen. Mum is sitting in the kitchen and I can see the paintings I’ve grown up with behind her. On opposite sides of the world both women are beaming.
It’s funny, the language that has become normal to us now. There’s French, still fairly rough in our throats but far more natural than those first days of stuttered hellos. Then there’s Lyélé, the local dialect we can speak only in greetings but that immediately summons smiles in the markets. And there’s the other words that sound foreign, those in our own language but so distant from our lives a few months ago. Talk of scorpions and mosquito nets and donkeys holding up a queue, of illnesses and bites, of food we’d never tasted, of attiéké and tôt and dolo.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve talked about what we miss and will miss. From home, there are lists of food- primarily cheese – and people, of running water and a cooler climate. From here, the women, the colours of the fabric, the juiciness of the mangoes and the willingness and ability to dance as soon as music is played. But I’ll also miss the delight of having a conversation and catching yourself, thinking how mad and wonderful it is that you’re here and having this conversation at all, that these words which seemed so unusual now feel like they belong on your tongue.
I know my memory will fail and fade. I don’t want to rose tint it but neither do I want to do it a disservice. There is so much I haven’t written and I don’t know how to hoover it all into words. The way all handshakes back home will feel limp because they don’t end with a click. How everyone can cycle two bikes at once without wobbling. How people stare. How similar the cry of a goat is to that of a human. How they burn rubbish along the streets and how the smell of plastic lingers. How I feel both useful and utterly not. How when I collapsed my friend sat next to me, picked up my book and started reading aloud. How I love this but I can’t wait to go home. How much I will miss my team. How comfortable I feel. How cared for. How I don’t know how to answer the question “how was Africa?”.
It’s two weeks from the end. We’re on the rattling old bus that’s fraying at every seam. It’s 6am and we’ve woken to the dark, had delightfully cold bucket showers and foregone our morning tea for a chunk of bread on the bus. We’re dotted around the interior, limbs scattered, chatting about the night before- the bar, the food, the scorpion. I think how lucky I am to be here, with them.