Burkina Faso // Footnotes


I forgot my camera. Here are some snapshots.


i. Nighttime

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 aout 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.


ii. Guineafowl

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.


iv. Barrel

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.

vi. Lightbox

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.

vii. Lunch

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.

viii. Sleep

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.


iv. Whiteness

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.

x. Drive

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.


xi. Marshmallows

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.

xii. Medicine

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.


xiv. Motorbike

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.


xv. Club

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.


xvii. Vomit

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.


xviii. Birthday

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.


xix. Cigarette

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.


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