Despite the great inconvenience, I am surprised at how quickly I am able to resolve the end of the visa process. I find it amazing because that's how things are always like in Africa: totally unpredictable. One day your existence is unexpectedly complicated, and the next, when you think everything will be even worse, things are resolved with unusual efficiency. Within 3 days, I travel back and forth by bus from Dori to Ouagadougou to finally be able to continue my journey through the heart of the Sahel. Now the challenge is another and it is to find a way to avoid the gendarmerie roadblocks to be able to head in the direction of Gorom-Gorom.
My absence in Dori for 3 days favours me because in the eyes of the gendarmerie I am no longer in town so they have nothing to worry about. After the officers informed me that I am in a red zone and they are currently on orange alert, I decided that I would take the time to travel to Ouagadougou, to evaluate as objectively as possible my original idea of continuing to cycle deeper into the Sahel.
There are critical moments in a trip of this nature. Moments in which we must walk the thin line between adventure and stupidity. Moments in which achieving objectivity is sometimes a constant struggle against the powerful force of the illusion of indestructibility, under which many of us, adventurers, fall blindly sometimes. Assessing the risks that one is willing to take, and more importantly, assessing with the greatest possible certainty what is the percentage of the real risk that one would be in, in case of undertaking a certain activity, is not an easy task and requires a lot of experience.
After thinking about it for 3 days in a row I decided that I would take the risk. It was a decision based on the one hand, on the reasoning that the terrorists and kidnappers who target Westerners, carry out their actions in places where there is indeed a high concentration of them. The region I am exploring is definitely not the case. There are no white people here, it is not a touristy place, nor are there any active NGOs. It could be argued that one can be served himself on a silver plate by going to the places where they live or hide, but that is not the case since this area is inhabited by nomadic Fulani shepherds. Nor will I be pedalling on main roads because I decided that I would stay away from them, going on trails on trails, or completely off-road most of the time. On the other hand, I have been very well informed by talking to the locals, who have confirmed to me who are the type of people that inhabit the region. Finally, I will wrap myself in a typical turban worn by locals to pass as unnoticed as possible, at least for when I am seen from a distance. While everything can happen and the risk does exist, I think that considering everything as a whole, it is quite low in this case.
When I leave the church early in the morning, I make sure to get off from the main street where the gendarmerie is and go through the small side streets. To be in a red zone on an orange alert, the ease with which I leave town without running into any security force is surprising. Soon I find myself already on my way to Gorom-Gorom, amazed at the ease with which I left, but as soon as 5 km out of town, in the middle of nowhere, I see a gendarmerie checkpoint in the distance set up under a dry tree, with a table made of sticks and a wooden board. There is no place to hide in a desert without undulations or thick vegetation 360 around me. In that sense, the Sahel is more efficient than the latest airport x-rays. I have no choice but to bite the bullet and go through the checkpoint.
When I arrive I slow down but I don't want to stop. The gendarme has an idle and boring face. He is busy checking the documents of two local motorcycles and does not seem very worried. I take the opportunity to pass slowly trying to avoid eye contact. I play the fool. Let's all of us believe that there is nothing more normal in the Sahel than a white man cycling through here. And miraculously, it works. It works! I keep pedalling and nothing happens. This leads me to conclude that if this is the seriousness with which this man takes the orange alert, then I must also be calm.
The terrain becomes rougher than ever. It's midday, it's hot. Today Harmattan is blowing harshly. The tangles of bushes fly through the air, the sky is incandescent white of dust particles. As it usually happens in these regions, they seem empty, but they are not, they never are. A Fulani man and his wife appear on the horizon. Their silhouettes are cut perfectly against it. He ducks his head holding his conical hat to help to prevent sand from entering his eyes. Dressed in colours and decorated with lots of beads, she sits on a wooden cart pulled by a donkey. It is impossible to determine where they come from and where they head to in this vast void of sand, rocks and shrubs. I pedal my way to meet them. They see me and they get surprised. They find it hard to work out what I am doing there, but this is not the place or time to ask questions because we do not speak the same language either. The only thing remaining is to look at each other, marvel at each other's curiosity, smile before each continues on their way.
I arrive early to the dusty lost town of Gorom-Gorom. Streets of sand, rudimentary wooden constructions, men with mysterious looks and hidden faces under the turbans, loose goats. This is Gorom-Gorom, which could probably be called the "capital" of the Burkinese Sahel. As I know that this is a point where my security could be more compromised, I try to keep a low profile. I enter a precarious food stall to rest and at the same time to be less exposed to people who come and go through the town. From there, I go straight to a fabric shop in the market to make myself a turban. The friendly Burkinabé owners, who speak a little French, have fun teaching me how to put it together. By the time I leave I am happy, wrapped in my gleaming electric-blue turban just like any other inhabitant of the Sahel. I feel protected underneath it and so I leave Gorom-Gorom, back to the middle of nowhere, looking for Fulanis settlements.
After Gorom-Gorom, I decided to go off-road, dodging stones and spiky bushes, using the sun as a reference and the indications of some locals so as not to get lost. I pedal feeling the adrenaline flowing like a spring inside my body. It is a feeling of electricity running through my veins. It is so stimulating that it can become addictive and even worse, dangerous. I cycle northeast towards the triple border between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. My worst fear now is actually not feeling fear at all, because it is at this point that we adventurers become so blind that we sincerely believe ourselves indestructible. I don't want to feel fear, but I also know that fear regulates my common sense and keeps me alert, and as such it has saved me from dozens of problems in the past. I worry about the possibility of getting lost being off-road, but not of being in a so-called "red zone" and the alleged presence of jihadists in the region. It might be because I despise Media so much for trying so hard to have us all live in fear, but It’s just that I don't buy it. I don’t think that I will run into terrorists who will kidnap me. I can't trust something that in total honesty I don't believe in my heart. I know that I run the risk of being naive but it is a risk that it is too late for me to stop running.
At the end of the afternoon, I find a Fulani settlement in this vast ocean of dust and sand both in heaven and on earth. A group of huts, goat pens made with sticks, and not much else. I feel that my appearance there is for them the closest thing to a supernatural encounter. Despite their incomprehension, they welcome me warmly, because a nomad never denies hospitality to another nomad, especially in a place as inhospitable as this. While there, I once again prove the golden rule that the harsher a place is, the greater the hospitality of its people.
Unlike my previous experiences in Fulanis villages in slightly more accessible regions, here I can see that the harshness of the environment is directly reflected in people's bodies and features. The marks are visible on the face, on the hands and feet, on the skin punished by the harsh weather. However, it is in the eyes and in the health of people where it is perceived even more. Children, in particular, are visibly not well nourished and many of them are clearly ill. They cough ceaselessly, with cold and mucus. They have their bellies inflated and they are dirty. During the nights and early in the morning their mothers and grandmothers wrap them under their robes to protect them from the cold, but it doesn’t seem to be enough.
The precariousness is absolute, from the absence of any type of material comfort to the food. The daily menu in this region consists of a modest sorghum dough, accompanied by a green liquid of viscous consistency made from baobab leaves, which gives grass flavor to the dough that has no taste at all. This dish is repeated again and again during the night and in the early morning, if there's any room for two meals a day that is. It is no surprise that life expectancy in the Sahel is only 49 years. The food has hardly any nutrients and on the days I crossed this region, on no occasion have I seen the Fulani eat any type of food that serves as a source of protein.
Here the milk, on the other hand, is drunk directly after being milked without even being boiled for pasteurization, unlike for example the Mongol and Tibetan nomads who do it rigorously every day. Perhaps the hardest moment for me was to refuse to drink it for this very reason. Freshly milked milk in a nomadic settlement is one of the most delicious milks I tried in the world, whether in Tibet, Mongolia, Tanzania or Kyrgyzstan, but here the risk of contracting diseases such as brucellosis is too high. I practically never refuse an offer to share food, no matter how much I dislike what they offer me, but in this case, I had to put my health above my habits. Fortunately, the Fulanis are never offended by this and I try to compensate through gestures and signal the joy of eating the other food they offer me.
Although the daily temperature of the Sahelian winter can exceed 30 degrees during the day, the nights can be very cold. In each settlement, they allow me to camp, and even in one of them, the men take the goats out of a pen that has a roof on it so that I can sleep there protected during the night. Not only do they bring me a rolling mat of bright blue colours so that I don't have to lie on the floor, but they deploy a kind of screen made of straw around the diameter of the pen forming walls to protect me from the wind
Before sleeping, in the gloom broken by the light of some small lanterns and the embers of a handful of coals lit, one of the men prepares a delicious sweet tea, the only flavour that stimulates my papillae in several days. The silence of the emptiness in these dark and silent Sahelian nights is broken by the goats bleating in the distance and the frequent coughs of the children inside the huts. The stars shine up in the sky and down here I feel that I am living a dream that I don't know if I want to wake up from.