It didn’t take long for the red dust to coat the white Nissan Patrol 4WD like the sugar crust on a crème brulée. Thick. Crunchy. Slightly gritty.
“Look like we here,” Moussa, our Muslim driver, said, his Moré accent glossing the familiar English words.
The Land Rover turned off the long straight highway at Koudougou. Two weeks after arriving in-country, not yet used to 120 degree F heat pulsating like an overheated car’s exhaust pipe, we’re deep in the bush, 60 kilometers from home. The gas station on the edge of Koudougou was the first one we’d seen since we left the outskirts of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital.
Enigmatic Burkina Faso, landlocked, a back-of-the-beyond former French colony in Francophone West Africa, sits on the cusp of the Sahel, dry and hot, with scarce vegetation, redolent with the native religion of animism, tempered by Islam and Catholicism.
And, as we found out, it’s a unique manifestation of all three that we’re heading toward on this second anniversary of a revered chief’s death. Our destination is a memorial Mass and village feast in honor of our colleague Daniel’s father.
Once we left the asphalt, the tone of the day changed. Now we couldn’t flee back to Ouagadougou and the security of the foreigners’ relatively opulent residential zone. The rutted road ahead bore the scars of past rains, not unlike the fissures of ritual scarification running down the sides of the faces of Mossi tribespeople. But like a whirlwind in our wake, the dust rose higher and higher. And people trudged along the side of the road, drawing their flowing white robes around them, hoping to keep from breathing the choking dust swirling around them.
On and on we drove, past 40-foot-high baobab tree sentries lining the road, their swollen trunks giving birth to puny limbs. Small brown-and-white goats frolicked in scrubby fields as tiny child herdsmen chasing after them. The horizon and the sky merged together seamlessly into a vast crimson nothingness.
As we approached the outskirts of the village, undulating crowds of singing villagers flanked each side of the road. Dancing their way into the village, they stopped at a row of enormous terracotta cauldrons, each holding probably 5 gallons of red sorghum beer. Men and women both drink this frothy sourness, using dried gourds cut in half to make bowl-like drinking cups.
Nearly everyone in the village wore clothing cut from the same pink-robin’s egg blue-lime green cloth. Like the plaids of Scottish clans, this cloth identified people as part of an exclusive, significant, group, relatives of the dead chief. As one of that chief’s 25 sons, Daniel enjoyed plenty of company.
Moussa parked our Patrol alongside a Land Rover perched next to several donkey-drawn wooden carts. He pointed to the crowd and said, “You go that way.”
When Daniel invited us to the ceremony and explained the significance of the event, I’d pictured a traditional small European-style Catholic church, maybe with a steeple, men dressed in black suits and women wearing the wide-brimmed straw hats and flowery print dresses common in the French countryside. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Off toward the end of the village, the nearest family compounds about 100 yards away, stood the church. And it was unlike any church I’d ever seen. Round like one of the huts in the family compounds scattered around the village, topped with a thatched roof, the cement-walled church contained cement pews about a foot off the ground, only eight inches wide. These pews circled the altar. Two Belgian priests stood at the doorway, their tanned faces contrasting sharply with the whiteness of their vestments.
Intoxicated by the sounds and the dancing and a, well, lack of inhibition, my toes tapping the dirt floor, I whispered to myself, , “My goodness, it’s all I can do to keep from jumping up and dancing, too!”
Just then, an old woman naked from the waist up, and wearing nothing but a tattered gray pagne, darted into the church, yelling and moaning. The priests stopped the service and motioned for someone to be quick about getting the crazy woman out. Two men grabbed her and dragged her to the door, her withered breasts swinging like empty pastry bags. The priests resumed the Mass as if nothing had happened.
Daniel found us as we stood perplexed in the middle of the crowd leaving the church.
“Sorry, sorry, I had to help my mother for a minute,” he said as he led us to a thatched lean-to, where we sat for a while, watching people drinking the sorghum beer and shooting off an old musket that looked like an illustration in an old history book. At the entrance to one of the huts behind us, set into a red-mud wall, a picture of the dead chief stared at our backs, flanked on one side by a bas-relief crocodile and on the other by a snake. Sacred crocodiles, we found out later.
“I’m starving,” I thought, just as several women dressed in the pink-lime green plaid clan cloth dragged in crates of soda and beer. Following them came more women carrying huge dented aluminum pots filled with rice and chunks of meat, seasoned with fermented locust-bean seeds — an acquired taste to be sure; cucumber and tomato salad; and millet/cowpeas/greens dumplings soaking in an oily, but delicious, peanut sauce.
“What do you think?” I asked the Frenchman sitting next to me, “Do you like it?”
“Not bad, but I’m worried about eating the salad,” he said, pushing the salad off to one side under a slice of baguette.
“Well, we have to eat everything, or they’ll be insulted,” piped up John, another colleague and a former Peace volunteer who’d served in Burkina.
So we ate. And wiped the plates clean with the bread.
And then came the time to greet the new chief, Daniel’s oldest brother.
“This way,” Daniel said, as he walked beside us toward the hut with the photo of his dead father.
Approximately 60 years old, his collarbones angling out from the base of his neck, the new chief stretched out on a shocking-pink lounge chair. His kaftan, made from the clan plaid, hung from his shoulders. A high-brimmed crocheted hat sat on his scalp, an unlikely crown, incongruous in the heat.
Seating us in the circle of people around the chief, Daniel motioned for a young girl to bring a gourd filled with sorghum beer. We each sipped the sour yeasty froth and passed the gourd to the person on our left. One by one, we rose and greeted the chef by semi-kneeling, a sort of half-hearted genuflection. Then people from the village came in, and paid homage by crouching, kneeling, or even prostrating themselves, on the ground in front of him. The whole scene reminded me of writer Isak Dinessen aka Baroness von Blixen meeting the Kikuyu chief in the film, “Out of Africa.”
The Belgian priests disappeared, nowhere to be seen.
As we left the chief’s compound, the sun sat low on the horizon. It was time to start back to Ouagadougou.
Walking through the village in the dusk, seeing all the people chatting happily, at first we didn’t notice the wrinkled old man wearing a goat-skin cape, carrying a long ridged gourd nor the younger man riding on a donkey behind him, playing the traditional three-stringed instrument. We stopped to let them by, wondering who they were. As they passed us, the old man turned to face us, running a long stick over the ridges on the gourd. Making a loud rasping noise, staring at us with wide-opened eyes, both men cried out in unison. As we hurried away, their eerie screech faded, but raised goose pimples like small hard pellets all over my body.
Moussa waited patiently for us by the Nissan.
“Moussa, what on earth was that all about?” I asked.
“Oh, he witch doctor. Not want us here,” Moussa said in his soft, velvety voice.
We climbed into the Nissan. Through the dark and silent African night, Moussa drove us home to our house in the foreigners’ zone.
Rice with Meat
2 pounds tenderized beef, cut in 12 pieces
1 t. salt
1/2 cup peanut oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves
2 large tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 1/2 – 3 teaspoons crushed red pepper
1 cup rice
Salt the meat and brown it in 1/4 cup hot oil. Remove from pan and keep warm.
Add 1/2 of the chopped onion and the garlic to the oil, cook until softened; stir in 1/2 the chopped tomato, 1 T. tomato paste, crushed red pepper, and 2 cups of water. Simmer until water is almost evaporated. Add browned meat to tomato mixture and simmer gently until stew is thick.
Cook rice with 1 t. salt in 2 cups of water for 15 minutes. Add the remaining chopped onion and tomato. Stir in the remaining tomato paste. Cover pan and simmer for another 10 minutes or until rice is tender.
Serve meat with rice. Sprinkle with chopped green herbs of your choice. Sop up the oil and sauce with bread.
© 2009 C. Bertelsen