West Africa, 2010
In these parts of the world, where “restaurants” are dirty shacks and they serve your food on cracked plates with dusty hands, my emergency food has become my regular one. It is condensed, nutritious, easy to prepare, and of course, always clean: Cerelac, otherwise known as baby food.
It is said that you become the food you eat. Yet in our case, I eat the Cerelac, and Jane has turned into the baby! Although she is an experienced traveler, one of the very few who have managed to go through such difficult terrains as Burma, India, Nepal, Tibet, and Uzbekistan in one single go – and come out unscathed – West Africa has proven too much for her. The relentless heat, the roughness of some of the locals, the ever-present dust and filth, and above all, the trillion mosquitoes that show preferential love for her juicy milk-white skin have led her to a meltdown. It’s a curious type of meltdown, for it rather resembles a kind of regression to childhood: She simply cries with every irritating misfortune that befalls us – which happens a few times a day.
So, I eat the Cerelac, and baby-Jane cries. That’s how we move in packed buses and decrepit taxis, wade through the mud and sewage streams, and reshuffle our vertebrae on motorcycles in West Africa.
It is said that when you enter upon a theme as you travel, slowly-slowly all your surrounding elements start to harmonize with your tune. What more befitting, then, for the couple that travels with Cerelac cans and a constant cry (the four c’s) to finally end up somewhere that embodies its latest theme: Ouaaa, Ouaaa…
No, this is not West Africa’s cry – although it could be. It is not Jane’s – although it sounds just like that. It is not an African baby crying either: Babies here are tough and never cry – they only stare at you with those huge eyes and an expressionless face. Ouaaa is our latest nesting corner: Ouaa…gadougou – the capital city of Burkina Faso. And it is exactly what its sound suggests: Oua-ga-dou-gou – a cry with the accompaniment of an African drum.
Very few of you may have heard of either the country or its capital. Burkina Faso is an isolated, recently formed, and artificial country – as most African countries are, because their borders were drawn on maps by European colonialists. It also happens to be one of the poorest and most unfortunate on the planet. Its only claim to fame is to have created the Mossi Empire a few centuries ago: a Stone Age “empire” of mud-thatched huts and a lot of sweet potatoes, yams, and taro (kolokassi). Well, since it had some extension in space and time, they labeled it an empire, so that it sounds great and impressive and mysterious.
But there is no mystery. Nor greatness. Neither then, nor now. Ouagadougou is but yet another unfortunate pebble on the West African necklace of poverty, chaos, and disintegration – a cry with the accompaniment of an African drum.
There are not many things one can do here. (Although there’s an old movie theater behind our lodge, and Jane, who like all crybabies mixes fantasy with reality, has been egging me all day to take her “to the movies”!) Well, maybe there is just one: Find the largest store in town, renew my stock of Cerelac cans, and leave as soon as possible from here – before Jane’s nonstop cries become even more unbearable.