Walking about Dano, in Burkina Faso, I noticed how often the women walked in groups with each other, how the men sat in groups under the trees and how the children went everywhere together. As they made their way home from school, dressed in green uniforms, they would rush up to shake my hand and say hello. Up on the hill, outside the school, they shared with me the fruit they had been picking from the tree.
I remember that evening down by the Total garage, when a group of us went to look for some dege, a millet pudding made with fermented goat’s milk. Quite a few of us had got a taste for it, and we had cleaned them out at the garage shop within days.
’Come back at six ‘o’clock,’ said the cashier. So here we were. The woman smiled broadly at us and pointed to the empty shelf in the fridge. ‘Wait for a bit, as I’m expecting a delivery,’ she said.
We waited outside the shop as catchy music played on speakers. A family of pigs rooted about amongst the rubbish and savvy goats crossed the road with confidence. Women walked tall, carrying wood, fruit, grain and all kind of bundles upon their heads. The smell of roasting meat wafted down the road from where men were barbecuing pork in old oil drums. People stopped to tank up their bikes, babies strapped to their mothers’ backs. Many of the bikes were piled up with goods; boxes of fruit, an upended table, a goat folded into a basket with feet tied together, .
And then suddenly there was a bunch of children in front of us, smiling and moving to the music. One minute there were five of them, the next ten, then twenty. There were little ones of about four years old and boys and girls as old as about twelve or so. Sarah, a bright young woman from Seattle, immediately started to engage with them, joining in with their dancing and calling out ‘hello!’ ‘Hello’ the children said back. They were quite used to doing call and response. I joined them too and within seconds there we were, pointing our fingers up at the stars. ‘Les etoiles,’ I called out. ‘Les etoiles,’ they called back, their eyes bright and their faces wide with enthusiasm. ‘La lune!’ We pointed up at the moon.
’I love you,’ called out Sarah. ‘I love you,’ came back thirty fold. Such a wave of love.
It seemed we were in a real live flash mob or else life had turned into the best kind of musical, where everybody just breaks out into song and dance.
Soon Sarah was leading them pied piper fashion, circling up the steps and down again. A boy of about eight wanted to dance with both his hands in mine. I was torn between wanting to do this with him endlessly and wanting to include the others in our dance.
At a certain point, I noticed a small girl sitting on the bench. She was about five or six years old and she seemed to have a different light about her, where that of the other children was sunny, hers was a cool blue. I’ve wondered since whether she would have stood out so much had we been in London or anywhere else in the West. But there on the garage forecourt, in Dano, in Burkina Faso, amongst all those smiling children whose faces were as open and bright as the full moon, she sat apart. There was something terribly alone about her, broken. Sometimes a child would reach out a hand to her, but she kept her own hands to herself and stayed on the bench. She seemed to just want to look and look at this dancing troupe.
As we followed our pied piper twisting past the bench, my boy dancer’s hand in my right hand, I put out my left hand for her, and magically she caught it and now we were all snaking around the forecourt together. Her face remained serious and she didn’t want to talk. I was honoured to feel her small warm hand in mine. She made my heart ache.
The conga broke up and then a twelve year old boy started to dance. His friends pushed him forward and he was breathtaking, isolating his body parts, moving with captivating elegance. We cheered him on. We cheered ourselves on. And then it was time to go home.
The next evening, as we were hanging out in the hotel dining area, Sarah and I noticed an array of small black heads popping up from behind the wall. We went over to let them in. It was the amazing dancer with four younger ones. He said they were his brothers and sisters.
Sarah, Hazel and I decided to walk them back into town, and on the way I asked Amadou if his mother knew where he was. ‘She is deceased,’ he told me matter of factly. ‘And your father?’ ‘He is also deceased.’ They were orphans.
This landed like a stone in my stomach. I knew that being one of the poorest countries in the world, Burkina Faso has many children orphaned by AIDS. But knowing that is quite different to meeting some.
Amadou balanced along the kerb as we walked and told me that they lived with his elder brother. I didn’t have the heart to ask how his parents had died, but it seemed it was only last year. His little brother held my hand and Sarah walked ahead with another brother and sister. The youngest sister was walking behind us, her hand in Hazel’s. ‘Is she tired?’ I asked Amadou, looking back at his little sister, who was walking slowly. ‘She’s hungry,’ he said.
I didn’t want that walk to end. I didn’t want to let go of the small hand in mine. I wondered whether the big brother would be waiting for them. At the Total garage, I brought them dege pudding, yogurts, sesame biscuits, packets of crackers and a box of cheese. As we got stepped outside the shop, a lady on a bike seemed to know the children, and they gathered about her. As I handed Amadou the food, I told him, ‘you are a true dancer. Never stop dancing.’ He nodded at me. ‘I know,’ and he took the bag of food.
Dano, Burkina Faso
Dano, Burkina Faso
Market day in Dano
Women making bean flour fritters, Dano.