Strangers In The Night
written by: John H Paterson
Burkina Faso begged to be explored for its mineral resources when our company began working there in the late 1990s. The country’s only gold mine had recently closed. Political problems for the last few decades (one coupe d’état after another) had discouraged foreign investment, but things were stabilizing. Being one of the first companies to apply modern exploration techniques to this almost untouched region of West Africa was an exciting opportunity. We started aggressively with a countrywide diamond exploration program but, unfortunately, didn’t find any diamonds. Or kimberlite rocks, the type that normally host diamonds. Not even any trace minerals which might be associated with kimberlites as we sifted through the weathered sands. Zero. Such is the case with mineral exploration. However, this virgin territory did show us some of her secrets as we came across numerous interesting gold prospects in the process. So, we switched our focus and went for the gold.
I was fortunate enough to make several trips and travel around much of the country as part of the diamond program and later identifying and following up on the gold showings. Burkina is extremely poor, but from my first visit, I found the country captivating. And the people we met in the countryside were wonderful. Friendly and welcoming, they were eager to help us in any way they could. In fact, they were one of our most valuable exploration tools. When we told them we were searching for gold, they all seemed to have a cousin or an uncle who had an artisanal gold prospect they wanted to show us.
The rural population survives, largely, by growing corn. The corn is grown during the four-month rainy season from May through August. It is dried in the sun and stored in thatched silos on stilts. This staple feeds the people while they wait for the next rainy season. The men often leave their villages during the dry season to look for work elsewhere. A tough existence. We avoided working in Burkina during the rainy season as a precaution against damaging their precious crops.
It’s easy to imagine how vastly different the lives and values of these people were from ours. Especially the people inhabiting the far regions of the country. They live in tiny villages, or walled compounds, spread across the savanna, consisting of one or more families with one communal well and a corn silo. In the north, near the border with Mali, people still used camels to get around. They had very little contact with the outside and received almost no government support for education or health care. Burkina has one of the lowest literacy rates and highest infant mortality rates in the world. To complicate things, the official language of the country is French, but there are 69 other languages spoken and many people don’t speak anything but their own tribal dialect. I wouldn’t have been surprised if some were unable to tell me what country they lived in. Or really cared for that matter. Those kinds of details were low on their priority list. Somewhere way below food, water, and survival. But at the same time, it also gave these people a sense of innocence. Like an isolated tribe in the Amazon. An innocence that comes from being removed from the rest of the world. Perhaps it was this innocence that made them so likable. Things might be different now with smartphones and internet. Perhaps not.
One gold prospecting trip took us to the far eastern part of the country, bordering Benin and Niger, where we had the opportunity to spend the night in a game reserve. It was called a “reserve,” which I guess is a lot different than a “sanctuary” because people went there not only to see and photograph the wildlife, but I suspected that some went specifically to hunt game. Perhaps they were just permitted to hunt species which were overpopulated. My French wasn’t good enough to find out for sure, or perhaps our hosts were skirting around the issue to keep everyone happy. Most of the country consists of barren grassland or desert with the occasional gigantic baobab tree dominating the horizon, but the reserve was covered in the mature dry forest. The shade was a welcome change from the blazing sun which brought on temperatures above 40° C. And there were birds and animals everywhere. While driving from the perimeter of the reserve to the lodge, we encountered herds of buffalo, gazelles, and antelopes. There was a modest lodge and several small cabins made of corrugated steel for guest accommodation. Our group were the only visitors at the time.
We arrived late in the day, so we dropped our bags in our cabins, cleaned up a bit, and went for dinner in the lodge. We were hot and tired from our long drive from Ouagadougou (the capital) early that morning with a couple of prospecting stops along the way. The meal washed down with the local beer, featured what I think was wild buffalo meat, rice and some kind of corn dumpling. Again, either language was the barrier, or our hosts didn’t want to share the details of the entrée’s origin. But whatever it was, it was delicious. We ate at the long wooden table in a dining room whose walls were adorned with the heads of the animals that inhabited the reserve (and we were probably eating). After dinner, we went back to our individual cabins which, fortunately, were air-conditioned, as the heat was almost intolerable. A motor hummed in the distance which I assumed was a generator as there was no electrical grid in this part of the country.
I awoke around midnight and all was silent. The generator had stopped and so had the air conditioner.
“Perhaps the generator broke down,” I thought. “Or perhaps they just shut it off after everyone goes to bed.”
Either way, it was starting to get hot. As the temperature rose, the cabin creaked and groaned with the expansion of the steel. Pitch black dark with no flashlight, I lit a match to make my way to the bathroom, careful not to step on any creatures. I awoke about an hour later and could feel a tickling, like bugs crawling on my skin. It turned out to be beads of sweat running down my sides. The temperature inside the cabin continued to rise as I lay there soaking wet wondering what the story was with the generator. I was not having a good night. Then it got worse. I started hearing a series of low, “grunting” sounds. There would be three or more in rapid succession followed by a brief silence. Then the grunting would start again.
At first, I thought it might be someone trying to start the generator, perhaps with a hand crank, and either the motor or the person doing the cranking was making this guttural noise. But the engine didn’t fire. And the sound went on and on. Then, my imagination took a walk on the wild side…
“What else makes a noise like that? Could it be the sound of someone engaged in passionate sex? What direction was it coming from? It didn’t seem far away. Could it be coming from the next cabin where the geologist was staying?” I couldn’t imagine he’d met a woman out here. And it had been going on much too long by my estimation. “What if a bunch of natives came out of the jungle and were having their way with him?” I peeked out my window but all I could see was total darkness. Scenes from the movie Deliverance started flashing in my head. I reminded myself that we were a long way from the backwoods of Georgia, still, I couldn’t imagine what in God’s name was making that noise. I hoped my fondness for the people of Burkina wasn’t about to change.
Putting these crazy notions out of my head, I tried to get back to sleep (after making certain my door was locked). Drifting off from time to time, only to be reawakened by the “grunting” and the sweat running off my chest and down my sides. Finally, a little before five o’clock, dawn started breaking. I rolled off the bed and went to the window. Cautiously pulling back the curtain to peak out, I saw strange dark shapes moving slowly through the grey mist just outside my cabin. At first the figures were unrecognizable but as it got lighter, the strangers took shape. The central area of the compound had been occupied by a troop of big hairy baboons. They were walking around the yard, and presumably communicating with each other, by making “grunting” sounds.
This was my first encounter with baboons in the wild. Their almost human-like features and actions were fascinating. The males seemed to be the noisiest, apparently telling each other what to do, while the females, several with babies clinging to their backs, moved around on the ground and in the trees. I would have guessed that the adults weighed around 50 to 75 pounds. I couldn’t wait to get a closer look at them, so I quickly pulled on my jeans, grabbed my camera and went out into the yard. I moved slowly so I wouldn’t scare them, but they didn’t seem afraid of me. A couple came up close to me to “check me out.” I grunted at one and he responded with three quick grunts then returned to what he’d been doing. There were probably at least twenty of them. Their protruding faces were shaped like dog muzzles, with long canine teeth they flashed at each other from time to time. Olive coloured hair covered their bodies except for their butts which were bare. I quickly used my entire roll of film photographing them in the amber light of the dawn. I probably should have taken more time to get better quality photos, but I was afraid they might leave at any minute. This incredible experience made me forget all about my “night from hell” and left me feeling foolish for thinking the thoughts I’d had.
I was disappointed that no one else in our party was there to share the experience. Their rooms were farther away and they hadn’t been woken by the baboons’ conversations. After a while, I returned to my cabin to shower and get ready for breakfast. When I came back out, the baboons were gone. Later, as we gathered for breakfast, I was happy to see the geologist looking well and unharmed. I told him, and the others, what I’d seen (though I didn’t mention what I’d been thinking during those long hours of the night). They were shocked when they heard I’d gone outside and walked among the visitors. I was advised to be careful around baboons as they can be unpredictable and dangerous.
“Whatever you do, don’t smile at them,” the lodge manager told me. “They think you are showing your teeth as a sign of aggression and are liable to attack you. Their jaws are incredibly strong, and their sharp teeth can break bones!”
A little piece of knowledge, although passed on too late to help me this time, I locked away in my memory for the next occasion I wake up surrounded by a group of “grunting” baboons.
We never did find any gold occurrences that proved to be of economic interest in Burkina, but other companies did. Today, twenty years later, gold is the country’s top export commodity and Burkina is one of the largest gold producers in Africa. Unfortunately, the political situation has deteriorated and gone back to military coupes instead of elections. There have also been a rash of terrorist attacks, kidnappings, and murders that make it unsafe to travel around the country. I hope, for the sake of the people of Burkina, that these problems don’t drive away the much needed foreign investment. And I’m happy that I was able to experience the country and meet some of the people, as well as my hairy “grunting” friends, during that era of relative peacefulness.
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