Simple happiness

My original intention to head directly to the heart of the Sahel once I entered Burkina Faso, was truncated by the unexpected condition imposed on Burkinese visas obtained at the country's borders. This condition requires me to report to the immigration office in Ouagadougou within 7 days of my entry into the country. Therefore, I am forced to reconfigure my plan. Fortunately, reconfiguring a plan does not mean undoing it or giving it up.

One of the positive sides of being exposed to fighting bureaucracies and absurd laws wherever we go is that it offers us the chance to think creatively outside our conventional parameters. Thinking out of the box, solving situations, generating solutions and doing so while on the road, sharpens our audacity, increases our ingenuity and our ability to respond to a wide range of unexpected contingencies. Therefore, to comply with the regulations, I decided to move on with my original route to the last large town of the Sahel within Burkina Faso. There I would first try to find a safe place to leave my bike for a few days. Once I would finnd it I could make the roundtrip to Ouagadougou by bus and thus regularize my visa in order to continue normally. This is how I leave the border post heading northeast following along the border line with Niger, towards Dori.

When it comes to large regions of the world, it is difficult to define the precise point at which one enters or leaves them. Although the invisible geographical boundary of the Sahel begins much further north, I have already been a few hundred kilometres coming from the south, in semi-arid climate. Surely the dry season also exacerbates aridity in regions that are originally greener during the rainy months, but the geographical change when crossing to Burkina Faso is clear and immediate. The landscape is desertified in a remarkable way. The soil turns orange like a tennis court and the surface of the ground is hard and rocky. The vegetation consists of dry spiky bushes that fly with the wind and dry trees whose branches twist so many times that it seems as though they wouldn’t want to go too high. The sky and the horizon remain a kind of mirage in which the dust and sand particles that Harmattan blows dissolve. Eternal and ethereal, they float suspended in the air, painting in grey tones this vast Sahelian landscape.

There is something on the road that leads me to Dori that not only does not change, but actually intensifies, and it’s the absolute simplicity of life. As the kilometres go by, everything becomes materially more basic and rudimentary. The extraction of water by means of sweat and hard work under the infallible sun, the mud and thatched roofs houses of the villages, the wooden carts pulled by donkeys for transportation, the small shops that provide no more than a handful of basic food products. Everything is simplicity and precariousness at its best.

Work is no exception. As I move through the cotton-producing south of the country I see men, women and children without distinction, working with their hands and no machinery. Mountains of small white flakes are stacked on the sides of the road giving the illusion of a snowy landscape in a place where this image is only contradicted by the people wearing light clothing and the temperature of the environment. There the trucks arrive to pick up the cheap cotton that will surely end thousands of kilometres away from here, in the great textile production centres of the world where the big brands of the materially rich countries manufacture their products.

In this region of Burkina Faso there seems to be neither cities nor towns, but one after another village, where minimalism is the rule. In this case, the term is far from being understood as an artistic movement but as an absolute reduction to the minimum and indispensable things needed for life. The villages consist of clusters of circular mud huts and thatched roofs, some animal pens, a few utensils for cooking and working the land, and not much else. In them people are so kind and affectionate that they always give me a reason or an excuse to stop and share my time with them.

Mohammed, a Burkinabe villager is glamorously dressed in his traditional electric blue suit, which stands out bright as his affable smile, contrasting with this environment of opaque and desaturated colors. Sitting on the floor working on his pumpkins sheltered under the shadow of a dry baobab, he beckons me to sit next to him. Delighted, I leave the bicycle aside and while we talk, he shows me how he transforms his pumpkins into containers that, among other things, will serve as bowls to eat and to conserve food. After a while he decides to stand up to show me his house, his few belongings and his mountain of pumpkins to work later.

While I enjoy his company, seeing him moving at a slow-motion pace, I try to decipher which are those qualities that make his face reflect so much peace in an environment that, by the standard of any average Westerner, would be the closest to absolute misery. Mohammed's smile is clearly not superficial, Mohammed is smiling inside. He has everything because it is what emanates from him. I know it because with his simple presence he is able to transmit that peace to me. It is that very presence, that slow, serene and gentle pace what gives me a lesson without the need for intellectual speeches or ideological and even spiritual approaches. Mohammed is being him, and sitting right next to him, I already feel better. That is good, that is magical.

Encounters with people like him do not only end but actually multiply. Each one is more fascinating than the previous one. Two villages further north, already in the surroundings of the town of Fada N’Gourma, I find myself in a Gourma or Gourmatché village, as they are also known. The Gourma are a small ethnic group within the vast Sahel, with a population of less than two million, it is very small compared to the Fula that total about 40 million. When I decide to stop the bicycle to enter the village, the reception is overwhelming. Children, teenagers, women and men run happily to meet me. No more than a few minutes pass until a lovely woman who wears a beautiful coloured bandana arrives smiling with a chicken that she is holding by its legs. It is a gift for me, she tells me and tries to hang it on my bicycle. Flattered but embarrassed at the same time by such a treat, I try to explain that I cannot take it on the bike and that they'd rather keep it. She kindly insists I am her guest today, and they want to treat me, but still, as moved as I am, I decline her generous offer. Without grudges, people take me through their village. Women dressed in colours, children running around, sweet looks, naive laughs. I can't get over my astonishment because I confirm again and again that simplicity is a path intimately connected to happiness.

Since I can't let myself stay too long because of my bureaucratic complication; I must leave relatively quickly from each village to continue moving towards Dori. However, when I arrive at the first fula village I decide to spend a few days there, because the Fula, Fulbe, Fulani or Peul according to their different denominations, are one of the main reasons why I have been dreaming of exploring this region of the world for years. My first contact with them had already arrived a few months ago, in the northeast of Cameroon, when I visited a refugee camp of the UNHCR of Fulanis displaced by the civil war in the Central African Republic. The encounters in the north of Benin and Togo of the previous weeks followed and now finally here in the Sahel, their place of ancestral origin, where they have lived since the beginning of time.

I have no plans for the rest of the day until I get up to go back to the bicycle and see the reason why the woman had not insisted. Standing on my bicycle, tied to the handlebar by a thread was the chicken, waiting to continue travelling with me. One of my premises when travelling around the world is to minimize my impact on the cultures I visit. The reason why I so stubbornly refuse to accept the chicken as a gift is not so much because of the impossibility of carrying it on the bicycle, let alone sacrificing it with my own hands to eat it, but because I know that for them an animal is the most valuable possession they have as a means of subsistence in this harsh environment. Given that they are clearly determined to give it to me, I decide the following after a few minutes of thinking about it. I tell them that I will gladly accept the chicken but with only one condition, which is to share it with all of them. Surprised but with great joy for the gesture, they accepted. That is how I ended up staying in their village for two more days in which I have intimate access to the traditional way of life of the Fulani. Soon after staying there, they already treated me as someone from their own family.

Here, as in the rest of the region, simplicity manifests itself in all aspects of daily life but that does not necessarily translate as an easy life. Life is hard and sacrificed, especially for women, who spend practically all day, working only for tasks related to food, getting water and looking after their children. Since dawn, when the sun begins to rise over the horizon, they are already up undertaking the tasks of the day. Some milk the cows, others bathe their children. Later they go to the pump to collect water for the day. Others bring the grains from previous crops, usually corn, stored in large thatched containers and immediately get to work on them. Two women per pestle, they take turns to grind the grains with a long wooden stick until they are reduced to dust. Wearing colorful outfits, made up with tattoos on their faces and with braided hair in different shapes, they talk, laugh and gossip. The girls help their mothers and sisters, who after the grinding of grains begin to cook food for everyone. On the other hand, men and boys spend much of the day taking care of the grazing of their animals in the arid surroundings of the village and drinking tea.

The only ones exempt from work are the few elderly people who survive beyond 50 years of age, in a region of the world where life expectancy is 49 years. In this village, I get to know a woman who they tell me she is 80 years old. Judging by the fragility of her body, reflected in her fine and long bones and her skin thickened and wrinkled by the harshness of the inhospitable climate, she might as well be 105. She spends the day sitting on the ground, by the door of her house under the shadow of a tree. She moves slowly and cleans herself at sunset, pouring, on one hand, short spurts of water from an old kettle that she holds with her other hand. When sitting, she gazes into the distance, contemplating. I wonder what she she is thinking, whether she reflects on something in particular or maybe she is alredy senile. I will probably never know but just by looking at her body, I am convinced that she has seen everything, and has experienced the thousand and one forms of suffering in this life.

When I get ready to leave, I find it hard to say goodbye to them, who gather around my bicycle to say goodbye with a warm smile. This is my first intimate encounter with the fulani of many others that I am sure will follow. I am fascinated with them, with their culture, with their peaceful way of being, their simplicity and warmth. I leave there deeply moved, as usual, after spending time with people who teach me so much about the eternal and unwavering gratitude with which I must live my own life. I am sure that they do not have the slightest idea of how much I'm learning from them, but from my end, I try to do everything possible to convey the love and affection they arise in me.

On the way to Dori, I make a last stop in Bani, a small town where 7 controversial mud mosques were built about 30 years ago, by a young local Muslim devotee whose history seems to be a mixture between myth and reality. The central mosque built in adobe has the style, though not the exquisiteness, of the famous Djenne mosque in Mali. However, what it does not have in refinement it has it in the greatness of its austerity. The mosque is the epicenter of this small desert town of about 4000 people who are clearly proud of it. There they congregate throughout the day, coming and going, creating movement in a town where time seems to have stopped. My arrival by bicycle surprises everyone there and as usual, as soon as I stop, I am surrounded by dozens of curious children and young people.

At nightfall when I am entering Dori, everything is dark and silent. I don't really know where to sleep, that's why I decide to go in search of some of the usual places where I usually spend the night: fire stations or police, churches, mosques, whatever. But everything is closed and there are no people on the street. It's almost like a ghost town. I know that I am officially in an officially labeled "red zone" due to danger of terrorism and that intimidates me a little. I wander the streets until a man on a motorcycle approaches me. I don't understand what he's looking for, but he doesn't smile either, and that's never a good sign. I do greet him with a smile and ask him where the church is in order to break the ice. He replies with seriousness and suspicion but he tells me to follow him. I don't really know whether to trust him or not but I decide to follow him. We turn again and again in different corners until we come out to a wide, open street with no traffic and follow it until we finally end up at the only lit place with people in it: the gendarmerie. As it had happened to me in Nigeria, history repeats itself. This man considered me a terrorist threat and took me straight to the doors of law enforcement. I do not have time to get mad at him and since there seems to be no one awake in this town at 8:00 pm, I think it is even probable that I can spend the night in the gendarmerie.

I greet all the gendarmes with a smile, I tell them where I come from and I also explain that I have no idea why that man had led me to them because I was trying to find the village church. The gendarmes, stern but polite, invite me to come into the office, where they ask for my passport and start asking me a series of questions about the reason for my presence and my next destination. Alarmed by my answer, they explain to me that I cannot continue cycling towards Gorom-Gorom and beyond as I had planned. They tell me that I am in a “red zone” and that they are currently on orange alert of jihadist activity and potential kidnappings. They stress that there is no way I can continue my journey across the Sahel. Surprised by the news, I answer that I understand the situation and I thank them for informing me. I also tell them that I need to find the church to spend the night and that my plan is to continue to Ouagadougou the morning after. I obviously omit that I actually plan to leave my bicycle here in Dori to return a few days later and continue to cycle to the region where they don't want me to go.

One of the gendarmes escorts me to the doors of the church where there were still people gathered. Soon after I arrive, the Father not only confirms that they have a place where I can sleep but kindly offers to look after my bicycle during my trip to Ouagadougou. Everything goes better than I imagined. Lying in bed, as I begin to process everything I have experienced during my first week in the Sahel, I realise that I spent more time in the villages and talking to people than cycling. First it was the Burkinabé, then the Gourmatché and finally the Fulani. One after another ethnic group has left the beautiful feeling that a simpler life is in many ways a happier life. I am amazed so far. This exceeds all my expectations. Now I only have to make this fleeting trip to the capital of Bureaucracy Folly and return to continue on this incredible journey.