I never thought I would ever get to sleep on a military bed under the stars in the middle of rural Africa. I never dreamt of being invited to attend a film festival in the presidential tribute no less. I didn’t expect to get cold in 25+°C temperatures. I didn’t think I’d ever have a discussion about how many animals would be a suitable offering from any suitor wanting to marry me. Or that I would have to explain in great details that living in a developed country didn’t automatically make me rich.
In the winter of 2007, I took the plane for the very first time together with a team of students from my high school. We were on our way to the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, and from there to a rural area an hour’s drive away, where we would stay for two weeks on a rural development mission.
Unlike what many would expect from a ‘once in a lifetime’ story, it wasn’t a glamourous experience. It was boiling hot (45+°C when the sun was at its highest), there was no running water, no electricty, no phone connection.
Every task was more complicated than it should have been.
No running water means we had to arrange from water from the nearby lake to be delivered every two days, and then treat it with many filters and chemicals to ensure it was drinkable. For two weeks, water tasted like bleach. There were also no showers, and the toilets were of the dry (and smelly, because 45°C temperatures tend to have that effect on things) kind (and home to a family of scorpio).
No electricty meant waking up early to make the most of daylight as there was only very limited lighting after sunset (our generator would only provide for about 4h of it). We cooked over an open fire and had to get groceries every day since we had no ways to stock them. We all got sick from the heat, dehydration, poor sanitation or a combination of all of the above.
Cultural gaps made for many a fascinating discussion.
We fought with the local welders, who wouldn’t explain why there were getting so behind on fulfilling orders. We later found out it was because if they had made enough money to sustain themselves for the week by say Thursday, they would simply stop working until the next week.
We talked with local students, who asked us how it was to live in France and ‘be rich’. Followed a 3 hour passionate debate on why we weren’t actually rich and how standards and costs of living somewhere affects disposable income.
A few of us were proposed to against various amounts of chickens, goats and even cows. The prospective husbands fully expected us to be thrilled. And to be able to pay for a plane ticket to France and a few electronic gadgets for them.
We sang and drew with school kids. We helped our guard to carry a used mattress he was very excited about having bought (and pretended not to hear him and his lady friends making good use of it the following nights). We lost every football game we played again the village’s teenagers.
We ate strawberries in February and the sweetest mango I’ve ever had. We slept outdoors, staring at the upside-down moon and counting the stars late into the night.
We took bet on how many of us it’d take to go around the village’s biggest baobab (12!!).
We fought over who’d get the limited strawberry flavour Fanta at the local bar. It was horrific and nobody liked it but still, every day, we fought for it.
My bag almost got stollen but my then-boyfriend jumped off our running car and catch up with the thief. My parents’ camera, who was never meant to have to face 40+°C temperatures, died after a week.
We were invited to the African Film Festival opening ceremony, where we fully humilited ourselves by wearing terrible clothes amongst the crème-de-la-crème of the continent cultural icons.
We came back from our African adventures tired but wiser, covered in orange dust but with new perspectives on life and the world. And with a brand new appreciation for the little every day thing we wouldn’t even have noticed otherwise (oh, the life-changing magic of a light switch after 2 wekks without electricity!).
Coming back was hard, finding the words to explain what it was like was even harder. 11 years after, I still struggle with it.
It was surreal and a true, once in a lifetime experience. It wasn’t one bit glamourous, and I hardly have any photo of it, but it was the sort of things money can’t buy, which makes it even more precious.
This blog post has been written as part of this month’s #travellinkup, which theme was ‘once in a lifetime travel experiences’. If you’re a travel-addict, make sure you join the monthly #travellinkup, hosted by Adventures of a London Kiwi, SilverSpoon London and Follow Your Sunshine. Every month, there’s a new fun travel brief to share stories of your adventures!