Burkina Faso: From Holy Catfish to Percusso Picassos

The Sacred Catfish

By David Rich

The Grand Mosque in Bobo-Dioulasso - photos by David Rich
The Grand Mosque in Bobo-Dioulasso – photos by David Rich

Typical Burkina Faso tourist conversation:

Gotta get three chickens.

Why? You miss KFC?

Nope. Gotta feed the Sacred Catfish.

So we were off from Bobo-Dioulasso, pilgrims crammed into a chartered mini-van the size of a phone booth, chickens hung off the back, squawking as if menaced by gigantic fish with foot-long whiskers.

The chicken viewpoint was obvious: sacred catfish be damned.

After ricocheting along a deeply eroded riverbed, abruptly ending at the precipitous edge of a dry waterfall, we piled out to find this was no tourist trap. The steep trail was littered with locals toting chickens and handmade hoes, no tourists except us, a bona fide pilgrimage to the pools of the sacred catfish.

Hey bro, what are the hoes for?

Plucking a chicken to feed the sacred catfish
Plucking a chicken to feed the sacred catfish

What the Hoe is For

We followed gaggles of children down the waterfall. The children were tugging on the thumbs of paterfamilias and better halves bedecked in everything from bib overalls to Sunday-go-to-meeting paraphernalia, hoes slung over shoulders.

At the bottom of red rock cliffs resembling Sedona country — feel the energy vortex — we found ourselves slipping and sliding on viscous red feathers, and also found out what the hoe were for; clunk, no more chicken squawk.

Oui, monsieur, you must take off your shoes and the hat. Ees sacred.

Walk barefoot over ratty chicken feathers spattered with blood: get real. But ees sacred. So we hauled off our shoes and gingerly tiptoed under giant shade trees set between sacred catfish pools, roasting three much quieter chickens.

Ever shucked a chicken? Fun is a chicken-plucker, made palatable by the relish of adding to inches of feathers covering an area the size of a football field.

Random Protuberances

But hey, don’t go there.

Red hot chili peppers
Red hot chili peppers

Halt for a skinny dipping lady with no fear of nipped off protuberances.

But don’t twitching tendrils tickle tender tushes?

Apparently not, so we ground to a halt, stymied on our drive to deliver lucky hearts and gizzards to hallowed and apparently hollow, catfish.

We were chomping-at-the-bit, anxious to solicit the luck of the sacred catfish blessing. After much thumb-twiddling on our part, the brave lady emerged, buffed herself dry, and leisurely dressed, eventually allowing us to push bravely forward and deliver the bounty to voracious bewhiskered fish, spoiled rotten and likely susceptible to some form of mad catfish disease.

The Lucky Blessed

After all, they’d devoured a protein species of ill repute. Cannibalism should likely be prohibited among all species whose names begin with C.

Like everyone else, we were among the lucky blessed. The sacred catfish, menacing and swirling in their enormousness, devoured every savory morsel. The pilgrimage insured our future fortune and happiness, which we immediately reaped at the music and film festivals in Ouagadougou (pronounced Waga-doo-goo), the capitol of Burkina Faso.

Walking the road to Ouagadougou
Walking the road to Ouagadougou

The Music Festival

Artists flock to Ouagadougou’s many festivals from all over the world, cramming the hotels with tourists and the city with money, still failing to spoil Burkinan hospitality.

Though I spoke little or no French I never failed to find genial locals to escort me blocks out of their way, spot-on to where I wanted to go.

Burkina Faso means country of honest men, which could be fudged into a cordial reception that includes a bevy of helpful Burkinan women.

The music festival opened with a bang-bong cacophony, a bewildering variety of instruments whammed and pummeled for hours on end: electrifying and like out of the Fifties. The electrifying part began with a list of exotically sculptured instruments pocked with a dozen gee-I-never-seen-that-before.

At the docks in Ouagadougou
At the docks in Ouagadougou

My favorite was the gourd shaker, a hand-sized gourd covered with a webbing enmeshed with dried fruit seeds, the vigorous shaking of which resulted in a BB pinging to tingle the spine.

Canary Yellow and Blue Velvet

Of course everyone knows the genres, from wooden clappers, complicated bells in wood and metal, dancers’ rattles, percussion sticks, and scrapers, to xylophones, adapted from Southeast Asia and described by West African visitors beginning in the 17th-century.

But nowhere did early West African travelers describe the Fifties costumes that ruled in 2007.

You’d have thought it was a line-up of Bill Haley & the Comets, The Chiffons, The Platters, Little Richard, and the usual Fifties suspects, decked out in matching suits of orange sherbet and cream, canary yellow and blue velvet, or emerald trimmed in burnt sienna, line dancing as they belted out the local favorites, heavy on the drums/djembe.

Hawkers in Ouagadougou
Hawkers in Ouagadougou

A Life Unto Itself

The continuing star of West African music is and always will be the djembe, a double-cone drum with a twelve-inch (30 cm) top. The djembe is a magnet drawing aficionados from every country on earth, also waylaying innumerable kids from local schools: for many their only education is the djembe, a life unto itself.

The djembe is the jazz instrument of the drum world, played with three rocket fast variations: on a bass drum with a regular throb, the tone with closed-hand, and the slap with an open piercing ricochet, all crisp and clear in a meld of Fifties, jazz and drumming.

So check out Burkino Faso yourself, a separate world begging for exploration, from holy catfish to percusso Picassos.

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