Sigh. My friend Madi took me to the little market around the corner from his stall this morning. I’ve been eating two or three meals a day at Madi’s stall and we’ve become friends about as much as you can without speaking to eachother.
The market had vegetables and boney, fatty meat. It had whole, frozen fish that the woman would hack into small filets. Then she’d trim away the small, sharp bones near the tail and put the pieces in a black plastic bag.
Madi knew most everyone at the market and said hello and showed me off, I thought. It was mostly women working there and I thought about how uncool it would be to shoot video but how good the video would be.
Madi said he was cooking rice for his customers at lunch but would make me a gelatinous pancake made of some other grain. He pushed me to get meat for it but I said the fish would be fine and anyway he was the cook.
I dropped Madi at his stand and walked to the gas station to get water before going home. It was then that a couple guys contemplated mugging me. One was a familiar face who had followed me around town now and again and given me a ride on his friend’s broken motorbike a couple days ago. I paid him more than a taxi would have been and he protested that I’m white and need to pay more.
Now he informed me he is a guide who took me to a cybercafe and Madi’s restaurant and must be rewarded. I went to Madi’s restaurant the day before I met you, I said.
It was around 11am and he and his older, pudgier friend smelled strongly of booze. They followed me into the grounds of the cathedral, which was a first, and clearly wanted me to stop to talk but I said they could come walk with me if they wanted. When we got close the convent they started elbowing me a little as we walked and when we got to the convent they said when I came back out at night they would mug me.
I don’t understand French so they pantomimed grabbing someone’s arm and punching them. There was an overmatched, under-interested guard a few feet away and I told him to regard these two men who said they would assault me.
There’s no problem, the bandits said. Anyway, I offered to take them to lunch at Madi’s at 1pm and they seemed appeased.
I came out of the convent a little before 1pm and my friends were waiting just outside to tell me Madi’s food was no good and we needed to go to this other place down an empty street. I said I’d be right back and walked back inside the convent and stayed there. I’d have to stand up Madi, and that’s what I felt worst about.
I packed my bag and hitched a ride out of Dodge in the Jeep of a woman who was teaching a training class just below my room. Then I took a taxi to a community theater where Julie works.
Julie is a French-Canadian volunteering at the theater for a few months. I met her in Bobo last week and she introduced me to Saly, the Burkinabe woman I followed yesterday for my documentary.
Julie was quick to blame the victim for the whole thing but I’m sure she meant no harm. Sometime later when I was settled into my new room at the theater we got to talking about what may be the real point of this story.
Julie hates how everyone calls after her when she walks around her neighborhood, here on the edge of Ouagadougou. They call her variations of “whitey” which she thinks must be racist, or something close to racist. She’s been here three months now but not even the Burkina sun can stop her from being white.
She wants to tell them, she said, “I’m not just a white girl. I have a name. Just call me Julie.”
I told Julie I thought we were bringing our western ideas of race-relations to a situation where they didn’t belong. The word “whitey” isn’t as historically loaded here as “blacky” would be in the U.S.
But Julie pointed out that even though this is a mono-racial society there is a history of white people being here and doing bad things. “When they call me ‘whitey’ I feel like they’re saying I’m one of the colonizers.”
The fact is we stand out here. But I’m also an obvious outsider on the streets of Bangkok, or for that matter Stockholm. And here in Africa I’ve been struck by how rarely I’m stared at; especially since on the one or two occasions each day I see another white person I give a good look.
But lunch today told you all you needed to know about my time in Burkina. In a foodstall on Avenue de la Cathedrale a guy sat waiting to serve a meal he’d prepared just for me. But I was blocked from going by a drunk bandit and his friend who resented my money and identified me by my skin.
At night I took a taxi back to the center to meet some partying Peace Corp volunteers at an air-conditioned wine bar. I had the taxi stop en route so I could say goodbye to Madi and take a picture of him and get his e-mail address. He seemed pretty sullen about my run-in with the bandits. At the wine bar one of the volunteers went outside and was mugged for his cellphone so everyone was careful getting home. I took a midnight taxi home and on the way found Avenue de la Cathedrale barren but for one man scrubbing pots under a streetlight in one of Africa’s safest capitals.