[Loving Africa 5] Burkina Faso –a country of bonne arrivée* and negotiations

*  “Welcome” in French.

“So how long do you intend to stay in Burkia Faso?” the immigration officer asks.

“I am here for tourism and I will stay for a few days.” I replied.

“This will be 94,000 CFA (approx. $200 USA) for any stay up to 90 days.”

“This can’t be possible! Can you please show me the price list?”

I exclaimed with my poor French language being reminded of African corruption sat the back of my mind.

“Yes yes madam.” he says as he points to a piece of old rugged paper pinned to the wall.

“Oh la la, but I don’t have that much money…Do you have visa for a shorter period of time?” I said with my sweetest voice possible pointing to the line on the paper which reads“transit visa for 1-3 days of duration with a cost of 24,000 CFA”.

“But this is our policy. Transit is only for travelling onwards to Mali. Unless you have a visa going to Mali?” he questions.

“I am going to Ghana next, is that a transit too?” I begged emphasising that I will not be an illegal migrant to Burkina Faso.“But crossing to Ghana is not a transit…”

I could only remain silent as I had no better bargaining words.

“It is such a shame because I have wanted to see the beautiful country side of Burkina Faso. You cannot do anything for a poor student like me?” I said quietly.

In their local language, the officers discussed. I could see from their expressions that perhaps he was finally convinced and there was a glimpse of hope in getting a “transit visa”.

My taxi driver came into the room to tell me that the bus which runs daily for Ouagadougou was leaving any minute and I need to hurry up. This time, the officer finally gave in.

“You must not stay in Burkina Faso for more than 3 days…” he says.

This was my first negotiation in Burkina Faso.

I was perhaps the only tourist who had walked through the border of Sinkasse between Togo and Burkina Faso that day. Obtaining visas in West Africa is no doubt a challenge and expensive pain for travellers. They are rarely issued at land borders and only occasionally at airports. The visa policy also appears to ever change so often with almost no information available online. I could only be glad and thankful that I got the chance to witness the warm welcome of Burkina be giving thanks to the kind officer at the border.

Through the connections of my host in Togo, I had the opportunity to visit some of our clients based in Ouagadougou, Burkina’s capital city. I had sent an email to my West African actuarial friend Renata confirming my safety and arrival at Ouagadougou at almost mid-night of my first day there. She responded almost straight away (as I believe she was very worried about my safety) and offered me the opportunity to visit some of her friends there in the insurance industry.

The following day, at 9am I came knocking at the door of some of the largest insurance companies in Burkina Faso. Despite not having an appointment, the managing director of one of the largest insurer greeted me with warm welcome and even invited me to join him for the New Year fête and to take me around the country over the weekend. Indeed, as Lonely Planet describes – tourism infrastructure in Burkina Faso is very limited, “with not many big-ticket attractions”. Yet the friendly and charming Burkinabe invariable wins the hearts of travellers – wherever one goes you’ll be greeted with a memorable “bonne arrivée*”.

My other long memorable negotiation process occurred in the heart of the hectic Ouagadougo. I wanted to visit the Village Artisanal de Ouaga which is 15-minute car ride from the centre of the city where I stayed. I was told that shared taxis – beaten-up old green cars – cost a flat CFA300 and had come to the gares routieres (an old Shell petrol station) to flag them down. Being a “white” Chinese girl, I was obviously an easy target for mischievous taxi drivers of West Africa – whom no doubt one should be leery of. They all came “welcoming” me to the station offering a price of 2,000 CFA for the luxury service of a chartered taxi. I kindly rejected their offer and mentioned that I would only like a “taxi collective” and I wouldn’t mind seating with other passengers where the taxi would follow a set route. Obviously deceitful, taxi drivers continued to hassle me advising that a chartered taxi is the only means to get to my destination. I could not believe their dishonesty and their persistence of making a margin of a more than six folds in the face of my basic knowledge about the transport system in Burkina. Despite standing under the hot-sun, I did not give in to those devious taxi drivers. I tried anything and everything to flag down the numerous taxi which passed by offering 500 CFA for picking me up. Yet, no taxi drivers would accept a foreigner’s offer. Being an actuary, this story could only end with a financial solution. I finally got a seat in the taxi by paying 200 CFA to the local boy next to me in exchange for getting me a place in the taxi at the local price of 300 CFA.

One may ask, why be so foolish spending more than double the time trying to save only a few trivial dollars and torturing yourself under the strong heat? I believe this is an example of the principles of fairness and equality. If I am taking “public transport”, why should I be treated any differently to local people receiving exactly the same service in the same car? Behind this negotiation is the African culture of “the white should give to the poor”. Many Africans will not perceive such incident as being “rip-off”, rather it is simply rebalancing the wealth distribution. Towards this, I can only feel disappointed and saddened that the tourism of such friendly country will not grow if such mentality continues.