Saturday, November 9, 2013

Running in the world’s best-named capital: Ouagadougou


OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso -- I have always dreamt of running here. Just to say I had.

What a name! Ouagadougou (pronounced Wa-ga-do-gu), and often shortened to Ouaga, was named by the Yonyonse tribe. It means the place "where people get honor and respect."

The mystery and remoteness about this place interested me. It’s the central African version of the Central African Republic, or the south Asian version of Bhutan, or the South American version of Paraguay.

All are landlocked. All are places with relatively few tourists, or even Western business people. But Burkina Faso’s capital had it on the competition in one respect: Its name. No other capital can beat Ouagadougou.

The trouble was I had just 18 hours here. Work took nearly all of it. We arrived at the airport at 7:30 p.m., and on the ride in, I looked out the bus window, seeing little. With a police escort and roads largely cleared, it seemed a deserted city.

First stop was a state dinner. At the presidential palace, we walked past guards dressed in red uniforms. They stood erect, not moving, not even allowing their eyes to take a sideways glance, holding swords so that the tip nearly touched their nose. I wondered what they were thinking.

We walked into a seating area with sofas and coffee tables, and there guarding the entrance was two stuffed cheetahs.

They looked ferocious. I walked slowly around them.

Others, like me, kept turning back for a glimpse. A few brave people walked over to them. I followed. Some took pictures. I thought, why not, without a picture I might later think I was making this up.

Two hours later, after a dinner that featured quail from the president’s farm, I was back in my hotel room, a few hours of work ahead of me. I went to bed at 2 a.m. Less than 12 hours left. I put my alarm on for 5:10 a.m. How could I not run in Ouagadougou?

At 5:30 a.m., I left the hotel and started heading up the highway. Our 12-story soulless hotel, built by Libyan construction companies during Muammar Ghadafi’s heyday (West Africa is dotted with Libyan hotels), sat in what must be one of Ouagadougou’s wealthier areas. In a country where 40 percent of the people live on less than $1.25 a day, all the houses nearby were nearly mansion sized.

Street lights provided pools of connecting light. The road was empty. Every so often a car would pass, or bicyclers, or the stray runner. I turned down a side dirt road and ran in front of houses with the flags of various countries – all personal resemblances of ambassadors, I was sure.

I turned back, crossed the highway, and started noticing small birds fly just in front of me, some darting close to my feet. I stopped and looked and several of the male birds had bright red heads and gray bodies. The birds were sparrow-sized, no bigger than my thumb. I marveled at their bright color. 


On the way home, I turned off the road again and could see an animal pulling a cart, dust in its wake. As it came closer, I could see it was a donkey, and the driver was a young woman wearing sunglasses. The sun was just coming up, a pink ribbon stretching along a half-moon of the horizon. She was prepared for the day, the sun, and the heat.

It was temperate now, though, the air dry. I had run for 40 minutes and barely had sweat. I showered and dressed, and at 7:40 a.m., my work began. We sped off in a motorcade, moving from one official event to the other. At 1:30 p.m., we were on a plane, headed for Paris.

I barely saw Ouaga. I could say I ran there. Along the way, I saw two stuffed cheetahs, scores of tiny red birds, and a donkey driven by a woman in sunglasses. Ouagadougou remained mysterious, more runs needed.

Next running blog: Paris.

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