The Houses of Tiébélé and Greed
I soon realize all the major roads in Burkina Faso lead to the capital, Quagadougo (pronounced waga-do-go and commonly called Quaga), in kind of a star pattern. I’m moving from West to East, which means I’m on much smaller roads through little villages. My planned route has me passing close to Nazinga National Park, where there is a chance of seeing elephants. While on a half-decent road I see a sign to the park, and a local enthusiastically points me in that direction, obviously working on the assumption that all white people in 4x4s in this area are looking for the park. Good assumption.
I make the turn, and soon find myself on a tiny track, barely big enough for the Jeep. Sunset is quickly approaching, so I pull off and camp for the night, and am treated to one of the best sunsets yet. In the morning I continue on the track which gets smaller and smaller, and after an hour or so I decide to bail on my plan and take a fork which should lead me back to a road. Another hour later I finally ask some boys on a motorbike for directions, and after still smaller tracks, sand patches, river crossings and lots and lots of pinstripes on the Jeep, I finally pop out on the road I turned off from the afternoon before.
After all that, I didn’t see any elephants!
I brace myself as I drive into Tiébélé – a major tourist spot in Burkina. I know what’s coming, and am not disappointed when a man almost throws himself under the tires of the Jeep on the main street in an attempt to flag me down. He’s an official guide, he says, and I must follow him. It’s mandatory.
Sigh. Here we go.
After driving over to a compound, Bernard introduces himself, and we go through the deal. He’s a local guide, and actually lives in the compound. The local association will charge me $3USD and his guiding fee is $8, which is very expensive for this part of the world. I’m too tired to haggle much because I spent two days on nasty roads specifically to get to this place, kind of expecting all this crap.
I confirm with Bernard three separate times that I will pay $11 dollars, and not a cent more, to enter and see everything. No extra fees, nothing hidden.
Each time he wholeheartedly agrees. “Rein Plus” (nothing more).
Bernard explains he himself has 22 children to four different wives, and I note his two large touch-screen phones that he constantly talks on. I buy the “entry” ticket for $3, and Bernard shows me around the whole compound over about 20 minutes, which is fascinating and beautiful. It’s very old and traditional and I actually forget the details thanks to what happens next.
During the tour some men come up with a big visitors ledger for me to sign, and explain the money is “For The Children”. “For Schoolbooks and things”. Oh, how nice.
I sign and pay the extra $8, and all is said and done.
Nearby at the Jeep I say a big thanks to Bernard and am just about to eat some food when he asks for his money.
But I gave that money to the men with the ledger, I say.
Oh, that money was a donation “For The Children”.
It was not his guiding fee. I misunderstood.
OK, no problem, I say, we will get that money back, and I will give it to him. He protests that it’s not possible to get the money back, though it’s extremely obvious he wants his guiding fee, and he wants it now. Anything less will not do.
Bernard races off and eventually brings back the two men with the big ledger and explains the situation to them. Things get heated very, very fast, and Bernard is first yelling angrily at them, then at me. I’m doing all this in French, and quickly I’m yelling back too, totally out of character for me. Eventually I explain that this is a lot of money for me, and Bernard assured me on three separate occasions that I would pay $11 and not a cent more, so that’s what I want to stick to.
All of them simply stare at me and say “But it’s for The Children”. “For schoolbooks and things”. “For The Children”.
It occurs to me Bernard is earning $8USD for about 20 minutes of work, or around $24USD/hour – a HUGE sum of money in this part of the world, and in fact a lot more than many people earn in the US per hour.
I usually don’t bite, though this time I’m tired and sick of this BS that has been happening for months, so I do. I tell Bernard I can not personally afford to have two children, let alone 22. I also tell him my $20 phone cost at least ten times less than either of his, and it’s not my job to give him money to support all of his habits. If he doesn’t have enough money for 22 children, he should have less children, not corner people like me into giving him money after we have agreed on a price.
Bernard readily agrees he told me three times I would not pay more than $11. Then immediately again asks for more money – “For The Children”. We go around and around like this for at least ten minutes, each time with me getting Bernard and the guys everyone to agree I am not going to pay more, then them immediately asking for more “For The Children”. It’s maddening beyond words. They agree with me, then ask for more. I explain I can’t, and Bernard said I wouldn’t pay more, they agree, then ask for more. Round and round, agree and ask, round and round.
I really hate these scenarios, and they make me feel crap, so I finally agree to donate $3 “For The Children”, and the other money ($8) goes to Bernard.
I really just want this to be over.
I want to leave.
This really sucks.
After I hand over the money, and Bernard snatches his $8 from the men with the ledger, everyone nods and agrees when I say I was told I would only pay $11, and that I have now paid $14, and that this is not a good thing, and that it’s not right to pay more than I agreed to pay. It’s obvious I am angry and upset about this situation.
Yes, they say. It is not right.
“Give us more”. “For The Children”.
Now I’m completely fed up, shake hands all round, say thanks and turn to leave.
I can’t take this anymore. I need to leave – Now.
Just then Bernard says “Give me a present” and I spin around expecting a smile, thinking he is joking because of all the tension and raised voices.
No, he is completely serious.
After all the yelling and bad feelings and after him agreeing multiple times that I have already paid more than we agreed I would – after all of that – he STILL has the nerve to ask for a gift.
The man has 22 children, two large touch screen phones, and makes more money per hour than lots of people in the US, and here he is looking me in the face asking for a gift. “A pen or something”, he says.
Now I’m really close to losing it, so I get in the Jeep and drive away without another word.
I can not recommend a visit to Tiébélé. It’s not worth it.
I’m trying hard not to let this cloud my thoughts about people from Burkina Faso as a whole, who have been amazing, other than this one place. I have really enjoyed Burkina and highly recommend a visit.
This experience is very similar to those I have had since my first day in Morocco, though I have had a very hard time writing about them. It’s difficult to explain the tension and stress some people put me under, constantly hounding me to give more. It has not been bad in Burkina at all, I think I just finally hit my limit and so I am writing about it now.
Something is very, very wrong on this continent, and it’s taking me a long time to get to the bottom of it. Generations of white people giving things for free has had a very detrimental impact, and now in many places people hell out “White man, give me something”, as a greeting. It is funny for a while, but gets old very, very fast.
NOTE 1: I bumped into another traveller soon after, who had an identical experience to mine, and also hates the place. What a shame.
NOTE 2: All prices were in the local currency of West African Francs (CFA), I converted it all to dollars to make it easier to read.