A needle in the African Haystack by Kevin Cheeseman

“It looks like I am now the African and you the European” he says, arms folded over a dishevelled white t-shirt, shoulders perched against a Karite (Shea) tree. The butter fromwhich soothes the calloused palms of African drummers. Fabrice steps in as translator for a group of bewildered ladies who throw words at me in Djoula, a Burkinabe dilect.  They are confused. I look like them, I am built like the men they know, but I do not speak their language. “Anglais”, The French man gestures, before continuing with them in Djoula.

I was born in a country 500km from where we stood. Twenty-seven years later, I find myself agitated and embarrassed amidst my kin in Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso.

To explain how this moment came to be, let me first take you 11,000km across the Indian Ocean to Varanasi, India. There I am, atop a rusty boneshaker of a rickshaw. I am being paraded at walking pace through one of the oldest inhabited cities of the world. Rickshaws, cows, what passes for cars, trucks and a million motorcycles joust for the same piece of what was once tarmac. An entire family straddle a single bike dressed with the colours of the rainbow. Horns aplenty pierce eardrums along with the rumble of 2-stroke motors that whine like angry bees. The air is heavy with the mid-day sun and a heat haze casts peculiar shadows on the road. Exhaust fumes fill the air, embroiled with the scent of deep frying, cardamom and the odour of cremation; carried through the air by floating ashes from funeral pyres.

South African! African, black man! Bob Marley! These words fly through the air at me. Heads turn with disbelief and scrutinising faces gather to point bewildered fingers at the sight of an African in Varanasi. A million moustached faces gather as we stop in traffic. Saying nothing to me, they point, they laugh and they chatter amongst themselves. Kali! One shouts, referring to the Hindu Goddess of destruction whose form is depicted in purest black.

Driven by a wrenching discomfort, I decide to head across to the African continent where everyone looks like me.

And so I found myself at the borders of the Sahara desert, in Bobo Dioulasso, in search of comfort and soothing drums under the sacred baobab tree. In this ancient town 360km west of Ougadougou, where the roads are yellowed by arid sands from the Sahara, live the poorest of the poor of Africa. It was here, where the folk are blessed with melanin that I found Fabrice the French man.

There’s not much in Bobo; an ancient mosque and a train station is about it. But you don’t go to Bobo Dioulasso for her historic architecture. You go for the music.  Here live the ancestors of the Griot, musicians who played for the Nubian royalty of Lost Africa. Here dwell clan whose names are Kieta and Diabate. These are the names of dynasties where once death befell those who dared lay hands upon their instruments without permission.

Among these names sits Fabrice from morning until dusk each Sunday. They play ancestral music for the tribes of Burkina, Mali, Ghana, Guinea and Senegal. He sits front centre, right leg stretched across his balafon. To his left sits Moussa Diabate, a blind maestro, poised against his balafon. Behind them the boys from Baragnouma; masters and artisans of West African instruments. They play, they drink, they chat and they laugh. Dancers come and go throughout the day, but the band remains until the sun walks down below the horizon.

Fabrice moved from France to Bobo Dioulasso over 20 years ago, learnt the language married his Burkinabe sweetheart. Bobo is his life now. He walks among locals not as a stranger but as their kin. His tribe is ‘Baragnouma’; a Burkinabe community who sculpt Djembes, balafons and koras from the sacred wood and hides of West Africa.

White folk in this region are greeted with ‘Toubabou’, an affectionate expression for white Europeans. Not Fabrice. He is greeted with blessings and benedictions reserved for natives of Bobo Dioulasso. They say “Allah-qa Baraka” meaning God bless you, and he responds “Ameena”, Amen.


BIO: Kevin wrote, I am a nomadic poet and a philosopher at heart. I curate a website where my wife and I share our writings are shared with the world; www.wejustlive.wordpress.com. I’ve written contributions for The Guardian, The Vegetarian Society and The Big Issue Magazine.


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