It’s fair to say that Ouagadougou (pronounced Waa-Gaa-Doo-Goo), Burkina Faso’s capital, isn’t at the top of the average tourist’s bucket list. In fairness, that’s probably not without good reason. At the time of writing, the vast majority of the country north and east of Ouagadougou is out of bounds due to fears of terrorist kidnappings; and Ouagadougou itself falls under the category of “advise against all but essential travel” on most western government’s travel advisory websites (including the UK Foreign Commonwealth Office and the US State Department). Yet here I was, after a protracted discussion with my insurance provider, arriving at Ouagadougou Airport on the very day that the country’s entire parliament and Prime Minister had resigned over a rise in the number of kidnappings and jihadist attacks.
But was Ouagadougou the menacing capital city that reports would have me believe? After 3 days exploring the capital I’d say not (although that doesn’t mean a trip shouldn’t be carefully researched and planned to avoid potential dangers). Instead I found a city rich in culture, art and music and residents willing to go out of their way to make you feel welcome in their home. Read on to learn more about what to expect and some of Ouagadougou’s top attractions.
Ouagadougou Top Tips
Thomas Sankara International Airport Ouagadougou is pretty much slap bang in the middle of town, making it one of the most convenient, if not the most convenient, international airports I’ve ever visited. Despite its close proximity, and bearing in mind the aforementioned detailed discussions I’d had with my insurance provider, I was slightly perturbed when I arrived in the dark and had no clue as to why my organized hotel transfer hadn’t turned up. After waiting around in naïve hope for about 25 minutes I finally gave in and, in my best high school French, attempted to negotiate a taxi fare to my hotel (whilst simultaneously trying to explain that I didn’t actually have the money and that the driver would have to come in to my hotel with me to get it from reception). After a lot of confusion (for both parties) I worriedly climbed into a green bush taxi with only half a windscreen. Whilst this may not have been the greatest start to my trip I did at least learn a valuable tip; that you can indeed rely on grabbing a cheap taxi upon arrival (something which has always, until recently, been much tougher in neighboring Benin, for example). Of course, I’m still going to recommend that you take the ‘safe’ (it didn’t turn out to be as safe for me) option of arranging a hotel shuttle transfer if available.
Typically, and despite the fact I took one directly from the airport to my hotel, Ouagadougou’s green taxi fleet are shared taxis that ply specific routes throughout the city on a fixed fare basis (almost like a private shuttle bus system). The center of most green taxi routes appeared to be the Central Market (based purely on how many I saw in that area). If you plan on using a green taxi then you’ll likely want to speak fluent French – unless you want to end up in the middle of nowhere (I nearly found this out the hard way). If you’re looking for private taxis then they are yellow and need to be booked in advance (don’t rely on flagging yellow taxis down on the street). There are three main companies that operate yellow taxis; Allo Taxi, Chic Taxi and City Cab. Your hotel will be able to book these for you. Being private, yellow taxis are far less stressful when you aren’t a fluent French speaker. This is mostly down to the fact that if there are any words you can’t remember you have time to google them (unlike green taxis where other passengers might get impatient). The final option is what my hotel called a ‘chauffeured taxi’. This is basically like negotiating a car and driver and can be done by the hour.
Ouagadougou is a bit of a West African hub when it comes to the arts and it plays host to a whole number of different arts and cultural festivals throughout the year. These include FESPACO (the Pan African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou), SIAO (International Art and Craft Fair), FESPAM (Pan-African Music Festival), FITMO (International Theatre and Marionette Festival) and FESTIVO. Make sure you check online before you visit to see if your trip happens to coincide with any of these – I was told that SIAO in particular is well worth visiting if you have the chance.
Before you arrive in Ouagadougou make sure you watch this You Tube video of Black Lace performing ‘Agadoo’. In absolutely no way is this tip helpful, but it will save me from being the only person who sings Ouagadougou to this song (in case you’re wondering I add an extra ‘goo’ to make sure that the number syllables matches the song). I hope you enjoy this small slice of British novelty pop culture from the 80’s. You’re very welcome.
Grand Marche (Central Market): In my opinion nothing better reflects a place than its public market; and Ouagadougou’s Grand Marche is a hectic, sprawling cacophony of sights, sounds and smells. Rebuilt after a fire in 2003, the market is predominantly designed (as well it should be) to cater for locals to do their regular shopping. This section of the market is ideal for the photographers amongst you (just make sure to ask permission before you start photographing stall holders). There’s also a small section of the market dedicated to what I’ll call ‘tourist wares’; so if you don’t plan on making your way out to the Ouagadougou Artisanal Village (see below) then the Central Market also offers ample opportunity to pick up some trinkets for Grandma. After all, what Grandma doesn’t want a West African tribal mask hanging pride of place above her fireplace?
Ouagadougou Artisanal Village: I’ve visited a lot of artisan villages across Africa and I genuinely think this is one of the most impressive I’ve ever been to. The Village Artisanal de Ouagadougou is home to over 500 extremely talented artisans producing everything from bronze sculptures and wooden children’s toys to jewelry and leather products. Having arrived thinking it would be a fairly small affair and that I’d be done after twenty minutes I told my taxi to wait for me. Two hours later I emerged to a considerably more pricey taxi fare than I had anticipated. Divided into sectors of 25 different trades and 50 workshops (meaning you can watch the artists in action) the village is set around a central bar where you can quench your thirst after a few hours of shopping. If you’re lucky enough to visit Ougadougou in early November then make sure you also try to plan your visit around the biannual SIAO International Arts and Handicrafts Trade Show. The show is a mixture of exhibitions, sales and cultural events bringing African Handicraft artists from across the continent to Burkina Faso.
The Hall of Martyrs: Also known as the Monument of National heroes or the Pantheon of the Martyrs of the Revolution, the Hall of Martyrs is a unique public monument located in an equally unique location. Imagine a spaceship landing in a derelict field and you’ll begin to understand what it looks like. Located at the end of boulevard Muammar Gaddafi (no need to say what you’re thinking) the monument honors the losses attributed to the revolution that brought Thomas Sankara to power. The four sections of the 55m tall monument represent Independence, the Republic, the Revolution and the Democracy.
The Grand Mosque: Unfortunately, Ouagadougou’s Grand or Central Mosque is nowhere near as visually stunning as the Sudano-Sahelian mosque located in Bobo-Dioulasso, but given that Burkina Faso is a predominantly Muslim country it’s well worth visiting to get a better sense of everyday religious life in the country (just in case you want to visit the Bobo-Dioulasso Grand Mosque it’s located a 5-hour drive, or 50 minute internal flight from Ouagadougou). So, back to Ouagadougou Grand Mosque. I’ll be honest, it isn’t the most visually appealing mosque I’ve ever visited (massive understatement), but the serenity of the mosque when compared to its hectic immediate surroundings provide an interesting contrast (and a great photo opportunity). Worth a 30-minute visit for sure.
Museums: Ouagadougou has two museums worth a visit. In my opinion the better of the two is the Musée de la Musique (Music Museum). The Music Museum is an absolute must if you wish to summon your inner child by jamming away on some native instruments whilst drawing the weirdly approving glare of museum staff. In addition to the instrument room the museum fee includes a guided tour. If, like me, your French-speaking abilities are severely limited then the tour is somewhat difficult to follow (as it’s conducted in French). Nonetheless the museum is still well worth a couple of hours of your time. Slightly further outside of town (4km east on Avenue Charles De Gaulle to be precise) is the Musée Nationale (National Museum). The displays on national costumes and masks was the most visually appealing part of the museum for me. If you’re looking to save some pennies then you’ll be pleased to know that green taxi routes extend as far out at the museum.
Park Urbain Bangr-Weoogo: If you’re looking to escape the dusty, oppressive, heat of the city for a while then Bangr Weoogo Park is the place to do it. Home to plenty of joggers, a small zoo and forested trails, the park is also the one place you’re likely to see any wildlife during your stay in Ouagadougou (unless you head hours outside of the city – to Nazinga, for example). That wildlife takes the form of peacocks, turtles, plenty of birding opportunities, and crocodiles. The latter can mostly be found in a small lake in the center of the park that is unfenced. So just make sure you approach with plenty of caution. Be aware that there’s a small fee to enter so make sure that you arrive with some spare change.
Ouagadougou Cathedral: Built in the 1930’s the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of Ouagadougou is a Roman Catholic church built in a rather unusual style that almost makes it look like the construction team stopped work before it was actually finished. It’s also the largest church in Burkina Faso and most of its visual appeal centers on the fact that it was built using mud-brick; which gives it an unusual orange colour.
Moro-Naba Palace: The first thing to note about the Moro-Naba Palace is that, considering it’s called a palace, the physical building is nothing special. In fact, in and of itself, I wouldn’t bother visiting. The exception to that statement comes once a week on Fridays at 7am (yes, 7am) when a 15 minute Moro-Naba ceremony takes place. In case you were wondering, the Moro-Naba is the king of the Mossi Empire and the most powerful traditional leader in the country. Each and every Friday he arrives on a horse dressed in the symbolic red garments of war where he is greeted by the Mossi chiefs. The Mossi chiefs proceed by pledging their allegiance to the King who then disappears for quick costume change (like a Taylor Swift concert) and returns in all-white to symbolize peace. The event portrays a historic event when the Mossi Chiefs persuaded the King of that time to avert war. If you’re interested in learning more about the Mossi Empire before you visit then I suggest you take a read of this helpful primer. Please note that photography is not permitted during the ceremony.
Ouagadougou Artisan Village Website: http://www.villageartisanal-ouaga.com/