Wednesday, March 26, 2008
The Rote Man of Bobo-Dioulasso
In the center of Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso there’s a dense, busy market with food and cloth and auto parts. The market is ringed by hundreds of motorbikes and more vendors and I was walking along one of those streets when a young guy came up to me and offered me something in French which I of course didn’t understand. I finally shook his hand, thanked him for stopping by, and went on my way.
I kept walking towards where I hoped the Grand Mosque was as the sun sank behind the market. There was the noise of motorbikes and vendors and friends along the very busy street and it took me quite a while, I think, to realize the Rote Man of Bobo-Dioulasso was walking along side me.
When I finally glanced to my left I saw him walking step for step with me, speaking French I didn’t understand. I must have betrayed myself somehow because after a glance and a grunt the Rote Man began speaking English.
“The first day of 1987 is Thursday, January 1. The last day of January is Saturday, January 31, 1987. There are 31 days in January.”
He continued to outline some facets of a 21-year-old calendar before switching to an exploration of regional travel.
“Regina leaves Bamako at 3pm on Thursday and arrives in Ouagadougou on Friday. Jeremy leaves one hour later from Dakar…”
I thought there would be multiple-choice options at the end but the Rote Man forged on with something else.
“Do you want to take a break?” I finally asked him after he had followed me down a small alley towards what I hoped was the mosque.
“No,” he said and kept going.
The Rote Man was an asset of sorts because he appeared to be guiding me around the mosque, which helped keep the other potential “guides” at bay.
After a couple months in countries where you don’t speak the language you get very good at non-verbal communication but I couldn’t pick up any more meaning from the rest of the Rote Man than I could from his empty words. His eyes were glassy and expressionless, his walk steady, his body a bit rigid or nervous.
His catalogue seemed well-known and sometimes a passing countryman would mouth a sentence of the monologue as we passed, like joining a nursery rhyme. It was amazing how much he had memorized, it went on for more than 15 minutes with no sign of exhaustion.
I paused to take a couple pictures of the mosque and waited for the Rote Man to pause between stories for a few fractions of a second.
“Stop,” I said. “Can you understand English or only speak it?”
“I can understand.”
“Why do you speak like this?”
“We need the white people to practice speaking. I study for third years.”
“Yes, but to practice you must speak to me, not just say these things.”
“What is your name?”
“My name is Brook, what is your name?”
He told me his name, which I don’t remember, and smiled as he extended his hand.
“Thank you, Mr. Brook,” he said, and walked away having offered little and asked for less.
Posted by Brook Silva-Braga