How Chobbal the albino camel got his name

Fama is one of our neighbours here in Burkina Faso. She is eighteen and she makes a living from selling chobbal, which is porridge made from sour milk and millet. Every morning Fama gets up early and pounds millet in a wooden mortar until it is a fine flour. She mixes the flour with water and herbs and cooks it over a fire.

When the millet is cooked she leaves it to cool and forms it into balls (about the size of pool balls). She puts these millet balls in a calabash (a bowl made from the calabash fruit) and takes them from door to door. Each ball costs 50 African francs – that’s about 7 pence (10 cents). To make the chobbal, she simply mixes the millet balls with milk. She says it tastes better if you use yesterday’s milk rather than today’s.

Chobbal is delicious but it has a reputation for making you go to sleep. So don’t eat it at lunchtime if you’re working in the field or herding cows in the countryside.

I chose Chobbal as the name of the camel in Sophie and the Albino Camel. Like an albino camel, chobbal is an off-white colour – and very smelly!

Djibo Ouagadougou road protest

It is the day before Djibo’s weekly market. Usually its narrow streets would be thick with the fumes of twenty-ton lorries dropping off their wares, but today the town is eerily quiet and smoke-free.

Three miles south of the market, forty-two lorries are parked up along the red laterite road, bumper to bumper, hulking and impotent. The road itself is rutted and potholed; it is barely passable at the best of times but today it is an absolute no go. On a narrow bridge in front of the first lorry, a massive tree trunk lies, and nailed to the trunk is a neatly stencilled banner: La route du développement passe par le développement de la route.

On the Djibo side of the roadblock, a party is going on. A huge marquee straddles the road and in its shade sit a hundred or more teenage boys. There are chairs, table, a big music system and three microphones. Blasting from the amps is the song Dar es Salaam by Burkinabè rap duo Yeleen. The boy closest to the music system leans back on a metal chair and nods his head to the beat. Now and then he takes the cigarette out of his mouth so that he can rap along with Yeleen: Your palace is too far to hear the echoes of our grief, You don’t have to hear your people crying justice, hope and peace. The boy stabs the flat of his hand through the air in time to the rhythm and his lip curls in anger, or perhaps disdain, as he thinks of distant statesmen.

A tall good-looking boy wearing a baseball cap grabs one of the microphones and turns it on. He jumps at the deafening whine of feedback, steps away from the amplifiers and gestures to rapper boy to turn the music down, which he does.

‘Six years ago the President came to Djibo,’ shouts Baseball Cap in heavily accented French. ‘He saw that our road is not even fit for donkey carts. He promised us tarmac all the way to Ouagadougou. Today we shall hold him to account. Until we hear from him, not a single vehicle will enter or leave this town!’

The teenagers are clearly the vanguard of this protest, but the rest of the community is out in force as well. Shopkeepers loll on sleek motorbikes, relaying scraps of news on bluetooth headsets. Turbaned shepherds stand and gaze. Knots of older men sit in the shade of nearby acacia trees, chewing cola nuts and laughing often. Young women sashy among the crowd balancing plates of mangoes and yams on their tightly-plaited heads.

Morsels of gossip ripple among the protesters:

“The Haut Commissaire is refusing to come and see our roadblock. He’s afraid of a peaceful protest!”
“Adama Koudougou has donated five sacks of rice and two kilos of tea to the cause. We should put someone in charge of provisions. We don’t know how long we’re going to be here.”
“A truckful of gold miners are going to try and drive around the blockade. If they do, we must form a human chain to stop them.”
“We’re on the news! Radio France International is talking about the Djibo road demonstration. When has our little town ever been talked about in Paris?”

When indeed? And if the echoes of Djibo’s grief can resound in Versailles, perhaps even the marbled palaces of Ouagadougou are not entirely soundproof.

Update January 2016 – The Ouagadougou-Djibo road is in as bad a state as ever.

Welcome to Burkina Faso

A reggae musician on the streets of Ouagadougou

I met this lad in Ouagadougou (capital of Burkina Faso) a few weeks ago. We found ourselves sitting next to each other at a street-corner Nescafe kiosk and talked about this and that. He told me about his life as an aspiring reggae musician and about his encounter the previous day with rioting militia. He gave me a CD and I took his photo.

There was so much about the meeting which was typical of West Africa – the sickliness of the cafe au lait (made with half a bowl of sweetened condensed milk), the noise and bustle of street vendors and passing taxis, and the friendliness of strangers. Burkina Faso is an extraordinarily easy place to make new friends.

I am going to be posting a snapshot of my life in Burkina Faso every Monday and Thursday. Do check in from time to time and feel free to comment. Hopefully as I get used to doing this, my photography will get better. In the meantime, please bear with me.

Outlaw blog tour

How many guest posts constitutes a ‘blog tour’? Two? Three? I think my tour takes in three. Still, it’s been enjoyable and (cue elderly-man-being-discharged-from-hospital voice) everyone has been most kind.

First was the inimitable Bookwitch, who wants to run around town waving a copy of Outlaw at every potential reader she can think of. (Go on – I dare you!) She kindly allowed me a guest slot yesterday for some recent Ouagadougou news. If you are even remotely interested in children’s or YA books, Bookwitch is definitely one to bookmark.

Second stop on the tour was BookZone4Boys, which I have been reading ever since it first started. It has grown a lot since then and its author Mr H (a deputy head at a secondary school) is now being deluged with review copies of boys’ action adventures. So I was glad he was able to make time to read Outlaw – and even gladder that he liked it. Here are the links to the BookZone4Boys review of Outlaw and today’s follow-up interview, where we talk about MacGuyver, Robin Hood and running up walls.

Third up, either today or tomorrow, is a guest post on I Want to Read That. Its author Sammee works in a bookshop and knows more about YA (young adult) lit than most people alive. I’ll post the link as soon as it’s up. Update: it’s here: Stephen Davies guest post at I Want To Read That

Since blog touring is such fun, I am happy to extend the tour for a couple more days. If you have a dazzlingly well-followed blog, do get in touch.

Gretel the Gecko

Here’s a poem I wrote a while back. It makes me laugh – hope it does you too.

Gretel the Gecko was hanging about
In a grass hut in Guinea Bissau.
‘What’s that sound?’ Gretel said. ‘Is it just in my head?
Did somebody somewhere say MIAOW?’

Oh no! Who is that? It’s Zoro the Cat
On the prowl for a gecko to eat,
‘Prepare,’ Zoro growled, ‘to be disembowelled,
I do like a bit of raw meat.’

Gretel the Gecko zoomed high up the wall
And chanted a victory chant:
‘It’s easy to see, you will never catch me,
For geckos climb walls and cats can’t.’

‘Don’t be so sure,’ said Zoro the cat,
‘It depends on how peckish I’m feeling.’
With razor-sharp claws he scaled the wall –
but his prey scuttled onto the ceiling.

‘I am great, I am green, I’m an African Queen.
I’m a bigwig in Guinea-Bissau,
I gobble up flies without blinking an eye
and say ‘click’ without moving my mouth.’

‘You win,’ said the cat, jumping down to the floor.
‘You are pretty and witty and wise.
You are graceful and strong and your tongue is so long
It can reach all the way to your eyes.

You can climb, you can click,
Upside-down you still stick,
And you have a most gogglesome stare
But isn’t being sticky a bit of a drag?
Don’t you wish you could jump in the air?’

‘Jump?’ replied Gretel, ‘I jump all the time,
I bounce and I boing and I bound.
Not even a flea is as jumpy as me,
I’m the springiest creature around.

‘Show me,’ said Zoro and up Gretel jumped,
She forgot she was high off the ground.
If you hang by your toes you should never let go
Because upwards is actually down.

Gretel cried ‘CLICK! I fell for his trick.
I’m a goner in Guinea Bissau!’
She stammered and stared as she fell through the air
And landed in Zoro’s big mouth.

Gobbling flies is very unwise,
And licking your eyeballs is gross.
But here is the lesson most crucial of all:
If you walk on the ceiling don’t boast.

Severe Unrest in Ouagadougou

So it seems I have chosen a bad time to visit Ouagadougou. On Thursday there were huge demonstrations against rising food prices – “la vie chère”.

On Friday the military ran amok, shooting in the air, looting and carjacking.

On Saturday, shopkeepers were on the streets, demonstrating against the pillaging and the collapse of their businesses. Hotels were ransacked and shot to pieces, including two of the biggies: Hotel Independence and Hotel Excellence. There have been injuries and deaths, including deaths from stray bullets (bullets fired into the air but coming down through people’s roofs). Many people have been kept awake by overnight firing. Lots of people are afraid and hiding in their houses. A city-wide curfew has been imposed – 7 at night to 6 in the morning.

I thought it worthwhile to translate into English some of the Burkinabe comments appearing on, because they give a good picture of people’s reactions to this mess, and also give some idea of the complexity of this situation. What we are seeing cannot be understood in a vacuum, nor can it be explained away as a ‘copycat revolution’ with reference to Egypt et al. No, the roots are long and tangled, as you will see…

15 April 03:03 by Peace

Give us some news, we are not sleeping. Give us some information.

15 April 04:56

Hey, Peace, peace eh, Burkina needs peace

15 April 07:06

Recruited to protect the people, [the military] is instead terrorizing them. Who trained these soldiers? If it’s because of money that they are sowing fear among the people and preventing them from sleeping, it means that getting rich is more important to them than the safety of those they are sworn to protect. If it’s another goal they are after, they should say so clearly, but they should pursue [this goal] without putting the people in danger. If you no longer want the President, why didn’t you say so when you met with him [referring to recent talks between the president and the military]? What is behind all that? Those who wave their sabres end up doing themselves an injury. Please give peace to the people and not fear and insecurity.

15 April by the patriot

Burkina no longer has a President. When a president is there to serve himself and not his people, you have to say that he is completely useless. Ever since the first alteration to Article 37 [allowing the President to stay on for more than two terms] I knew we could not count on him.

15 April 08:17 by Windsongda

You [the military] have another problem to solve. Your wish is to replace those currently in power, but you don’t care about normal citizens. It would be better to conduct your fight in other ways than in this shooting and looting which disturbs the peace and security of honest citizens. May God save the Faso!

15 April 08:41 by idlemessi

Tell us, have our soldiers become little delinquents? Every time there are problems, they attack the shops of our poor citizens.

15 April 09:18 by homa

Today I hear people saying that we should fight without taking up arms. That’s all very well but we first need everybody to commit to fighting truly and solidly. Each of us must ask the question: what have I myself done to install true democracy in my country? Once everyone has been able to answer this question honestly and conscientiously we will be able to move onto our struggle without recourse to arms – even though those in power have taught us that everything is solved by arms, for example in Ivory Coast. It’s not too late to avoid this recourse to arms which is not at all good for us Africans.

15 April 09:27 by gwandba

What I don’t understand is people’s unwillingness to see reality. How many of us can afford to pay for medicines, food, rent, education without it costing us the eyes in our heads? There is a widening abyss between the extreme poverty of many and the insulting riches of others…everyone at his or her own level should take the responsibility to try and change the things that make us stagnate in misery and darkness.

15 April 09:47

Having an army is like having a dog. You can set it on your enemies if you feed it well. However, the day you don’t feed it, it will turn on you.

15 April 09:49

In place of empty words, is there a specialist here who can tell us how we can protect ourselves from stray bullets? [there has been so much shooting in the air that bullets have been raining down on peoples houses and through the roof, causing injury or occasionally death] Is there a part of the house where the risks are lower? Thank you in advance.

15 April 10:04 by SLY

It’s interesting to see all these people commenting on the peace that is so precious to us. Yes, we want peace; yes, peace is priceless and we understand that so much better when we look at the Ivory Coast drama. All that is true. But various people are forgetting that no lasting peace can be built on foundations of injustice, impunity and social, political and economic exclusion. All those who are so concerned about the peace in our fine country should fight for human rights and for justice. And today, when elements of the RSP (the perpetrators of the evils of this regime,) are using arms for their vengeance, it’s an unmistakeable sign that Mr Comparé [sic] has lost control of his herd. Logic dictates that he who trains a crocodile to eat others will end up getting eaten himself. Take the high ground and let us fight for the genesis of true democracy, the only guarantee of peace and stability.

15 April 10:29 by CaVaMal

We recruit, we recruit, as if there weren’t already enough soldiers in Faso! We don’t need all these people in uniform. Most of them are wasters, it would be better to have an army of quality than an army of quantity. They let their kalashnikovs do the talking and behave like thugs. Think of the majority of civilians here who have been reduced to powerless silence [by the events of recent days]. There is too much inequality and injustice…it’s the same small minority who gobble everything up, and it’s been going on for a very long time. Enough is enough.

15 April 10:31 by parf

But where is the Burkina of Upright Men?

[the name Burkina Faso means Land of Upright Men – upright as in incorruptible]

15 April 10:31 by FREEDOM FIGHTER

I don’t think the problem is purely a financial one. Another complaint is to be found elsewhere: Some eat, whilst others do the work. I really think people are tired of the current regime. Why did the mutineers attack the house of their Chief of Staff? There is too much injustice in this country and it’s time to be done with it, but not by means of arms.

15 April 10:44 by kon yara

It’s truly frightening what is happening in Burkina. If we have to wake up in the middle of the night because of the sound of bullets in our yards and in front of our gates, we have cause to be annoyed at the behaviour of those in uniform. We are the victims of this situation. May God protect us! I picked up many [spent bullets] this morning in my yard.

15 April 11:31 by Arch

I don’t want to encourage the military but it’s obvious that they’re not firing for the fun of it. This is the same phenomenon as the civil demonstrations of 8 April, with the only difference being that [these protestors] are armed and can easily lose control. Who can prove that if civilians were armed they wouldn’t be using their arms in the same way right now? We saw the vandalism that was perpetrated during the protests by schoolchildren and students. Why can’t people understand that? It’s very frustrating and discouraging when you don’t get your pay at the end of the month and have to sleep on an empty stomach.

15 April 11:46 by kabor

There is a nice line in the film ‘Mobutu, King of Zaire’ which always challenges me in my choices, both big and small: ‘You can fool all the people some of the time; you can fool some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all the people all of the time.’ This is true in the system of governance and also in interpersonal relations. It makes you despair, the implications of these expressions of anger in our country, every time we come to this. If we are believers we should not stop praying. But I firmly believe that the most important thing is for each of us to try to cultivate truth and good faith in all that we undertake…it is excellent when we defend Truth and it is sad when we play at deaf-dumb-blind.

15 April 12:18

Dear brothers and sisters, I respect the opinions and standpoints of everyone and I am a partisan and an artisan [lit: craftsman] of peace. I wish for Peace in Faso. I am sorry to disillusion some of you, but this peace we are used to in Burkina is what I call ‘THE PEACE OF THE GRAVEYARD’. We should not content ourselves with everything seeming calm. We might have calm, but JUSTICE AND PEACE should go together. We know that our country’s resources will not assure everyone’s wellbeing but we could still be doing more towards achieving social justice. Lets go beyond the shooting and the aggressive demonstrations in order to understand the roots of the country’s malaise. Revolution is necessary and sometimes painful, and if we have to experience it, we will experience it, not to be copycats but in order to survive. AFTER 20 YEARS IN POWER: BALANCE SHEET. The message is clear, we need a change (of regime and not just of one person).

15 April 12:19

I deplore what is happening right now in our fine country. I had a bullet come through the roof of my house and land next to me in my living room. May there be an end to it.

15 April 12:35 by Snake

Some eat, others watch them! That’s how revolutions are born.

15 April 12:46

I don’t understand those who seem to be rejoicing in this situation. Is wanting peace in Burkina Faso the same as being pro-Blaise [the president]? When a women loses her child, do you believe here pain would be different depending on whether she was a supporter of the government or the opposition? We want peace, full-stop, that’s all. These soldiers who are behaving like juvenile delinquents should be treated as such.

And to those who live outside this country and advocate their pseudo-rebellion: Come back here and stage your revolution yourselves!

15 April 13:38 by Ham.bou.

You are right! These revolution should not be happening. As has already been said, revolution is not a ‘fashion’.
Merde! Stop believing that a revolt would be good for our people. If we topple Blaiso, who will we get in his place? A soldier? Some faithless lawless opposition bloke? Whatever we get, it will be worse!!!!
Let’s leave Blaise in power until 2015! This country is not a perfect democracy, okay! But we are making progress each year on every level! And this comment is the proof that freedom of expression does have a place in this country (thanks to, by the way) Long live Faso!

15 April 13:12

We see this present disorder in Burkina, but who is to blame? There are lots of people who are discontent in Burkina? Who is to blame? Personally, I am not interested in tomorrow, what interests me is my debts, my salary and the rising prices of fuel and food. Any change which sorts these things out will be very welcome. We understand and support the demonstrations of civilians (non-violent, so far as is possible) and above all we follow the development of the situation with interest. We call for peace in Burkina and true democratic governance.

15 April 13:59 by floaikass

They [the military] must all be punished, such behaviour is deplorable, but what is behind it?

15 avril 14:04 by Citoyendumonde

Those who support or even try to justify this shameful behaviour [on the part of the military] have surely not lost a loved one during these protests. We still remember young Madina, killed in the flush of youth! [Madina is a girl who was killed by a stray bullet] Excuse the term, but her death was ‘cadeau’ [a gift]. She didn’t die defending a cause, she was not assassinated by anyone who will be pursued and brought to justice; no one will pay for this crime. Do you think this is what we would wish for our country? Someone will surely call this ‘collateral damage’ – but isn’t that a phrase invented by Westerners for crimes that should never have happened?

15 April 15:59 by ZM

It is shameful that these soulless faceless soldiers, words desert me, are putting their pockets before their patriotism. If they are strong and they really need the money, I want to let them know that Kadhafi needs good soldiers are he pays cashhhhhhhh.

15 April 16:27 by kibaré

I agree with you. We’re fed up of these soldiers without conscience or scruples. Their actions are unspeakable. Vous nous cassez sérieusement les bonbons. [You are seriously breaking our nuts].