There are few experiences in Burkina Faso as bizarre or as simply dangerous as public transportation. Getting from point A to point B on a bus, bush taxi, flatbed truck, or any other improvised means is always sure to confuse or terrify and is rarely ever uneventful. It’s absolutely true that the greatest risk to my life here in West Africa is transportation, and once I came to terms with this, my trips became a lot less hair-raising and a lot more fascinating. This comfortable relationship with the macabre is an absolute necessity for volunteers here in Burkina. Those that can’t get their heads around it usually ET (see glossary).
That being said, while on dilapidated buses and bush taxis, I have had the distinct pleasure of witnessing just about everything peculiar this world has to offer. A great deal of it is disgusting. Some of it reflects the true depths of human sadness. However, all of it is in some sense hysterical. Below I have compiled some examples that I have experienced (with some other volunteers’ experiences thrown in). They are divided into three categories: mechanical failures and accidents, animals, and bodily functions. Enjoy:
Mechanical Failures and Accidents
- In the middle of nowhere in Northern Burkina, my bus’ transmission goes. We stop and get out. I look to see what they’re doing and their two tools are an old rag and a machete. Naturally, that solution got us only 10 km before breaking down in a town about 50 km from Ouahigouya. All hope was not lost, however, because there was a man by the road selling watermelon. This made it all tolerable.
- Window falls out of place and crashes on school children. It was a bumpy road, what do you expect?
- PCV Elijah’s bus caught fire one evening. The windows were used as exits.
- The front axle breaks. It is replaced by planks of wood, hammered into place with a crowbar. Surprisingly, this actually worked.
- Bush taxi leaves Tougan, makes it 30 km down the road to Yako and has to turn back. In all, we broke down 17 times.
- It’s raining, the bus is flying down the road and goes into the opposing lane to pass a broken-down truck, only to be heading straight for a passenger car. The bus swerves off the road, clips a tree, and crashes into a house. Miraculously, nobody is hurt.
- Bush taxis and buses are notorious for flipping over since they pile cargo too high on their roofs. This danger is heightened during the rainy season when the roads are basically impassible. While I haven’t been in any of these accidents (yet), there have been a couple PCVs who have been in them. Scary stuff. In fact, 10 people just died when a truck flipped over right outside my provincial capital.
- The day after Tabaski 2011, I took the bus to Ouaga. The overhead areas were completely filled with roosters and chickens. They spent the ride flapping around wildly and defecating on people’s heads.
- One time on a bus from Koudougou to Ouaga, I felt something warm. It was a sick chicken that had shit all over my foot. It was diarrhea. Thankfully I was wearing my rubber flip-flops and was able to hose the whole situation down a few hours later.
- I saw an open-air truck flying down a dirt road one day. It was FILLED with massive longhorn cattle. Suspended on wires above the bed below was a Tuareg relaxing in a hammock, swaying violently above the longhorns below. Epic.
- We are sitting on a bus heading to Bobo. All of a sudden PCV Bilin starts getting wet. He is sitting by the window and notices that the animals on top are peeing. It is coming in through the window and getting all over his face. Naturally sore by this, he gets up and moves to the center of the bus.
- Quite possibly the greatest scene in all of Burkina transport, PCV Eric is taking a bush taxi. When he looks up, he notices that on top is a live cow strapped to a headless dead cow. The blood from the dead cow was leaking through rust holes in the ceiling and started pooling above the cloth of the canopy. This saturated the cloth and blood began dripping on a lady’s head. She was mildly annoyed. After some time of this, another passenger took a t-shirt and held it to the cloth, effectively plugging the leak. The ordeal was not over. As PCV Eric was fixated on the blood, the all-forgotten live cow (in a jealous rage, I assume) reminded everyone of his presence by forcibly urinating through he window and all over PCV Brandon. They hadn’t been in country for 20 days.
- Goats and sheep often are thrown underneath the bus. One time I got off the bus and found a goat chewing off the handlebar of my bike.
- Usually animals will get out of the way, but sometimes they don’t. When this happens, I can only imagine the village has a party and eats some meat and the child that was supposed to be watching the flock gets beaten. My bus incinerated a bird that flew into the front grille once. The same bus also unceremoniously ran over a goat. Another bus killed 11 cows and 4 sheep all in one massive accident. I can only imagine that village ate very, very well that night, and that some child was beaten very, very thoroughly.
- Don’t think for one second that PCVs do not add to the beautiful dysfunction. For instance, PCV Rachel is on the bus with me and gets sick. It happens. She leans her head out the window to vomit but the bus is moving too fast. Thus her vomit gets sprayed all over the windows and passengers behind her. What’s truly telling is the fact that they didn’t really mind.
- I once spent eight hours on a bus next to two children vomiting. I have no idea how they had so much vomit but they just kept going. I was fascinated.
- I once sat next to a woman breast feeding her child. This happens all the time, but this one was different because the child kept spitting out her nipple and it kept flopping over onto my arm. After far too long of this, I complained to her. She switched breasts.
- PCV Bilin is on the bus. A man has to urinate and the driver won’t stop. Naturally he pulls out a bottle and starts trying to pee into it. Unfortunately the road is bumpy and he ends up spraying everywhere and all over the women he’s sitting with. They make fun of him for the rest of the ride.
- One morning a baby defecated on my feet. I didn’t feel too bad because he shit more on his mom.
- Chain reaction of vomit: One old lady is vomiting, some kids see it and start vomiting, then another woman sees that and starts vomiting. Down the line it went in epic fashion. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
These are just samplings of some of the varied experiences I can have while on public transportation. In fact, they might not even be the weirdest; they’re just what come to mind as I’m writing this. The majority of these come from experiences on the bus that takes me from the Sourou Valley to Ouaga. This company is known by its appellation: STAF. Volunteers like to joke that it means Shitty Transport Always and Forever, or So That’s Africa, Fuck. It is notorious for having the worst buses, for being the most dangerous, and for having the worst service. While this is all true, it’s my only option. I can’t fault it too much, though, because it’s given me some of the most incredible experiences that I couldn’t have picked up anywhere else. In fact, I’ve recounted all of these experiences above with a smile on my face. I know, most of them are profoundly disgusting, but as I mentioned before, once you come to terms with this, it all just becomes an interesting story. And while it’s impossible to forget the unparalleled danger in riding on these death traps over nonexistent roads, we develop a cavalier attitude to help us through the situation. Then, through that lens, we can witness the wonders (or horrors?) of the modern world in all their splendor.