George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Thursday 13 September 2007
No.137: Burkina Faso
Owen Powell - 13th September
For me, the last few days haven’t been all that successful. I lost my diary over the weekend, which made me feel even more incapable than losing my phone (July), my computer memory stick (June) or house keys (yesterday, but I found them again). Somehow, not knowing what I was supposed to be doing in the days and weeks to come made the whole world appear like a terrifying blank canvas. I took to scribbling things down on receipts and in notebooks, but I was losing control. I bought a new diary.
I also haven’t had much luck with the world in one city quest. We’re at the sharp end now, only 50-odd countries to find, and it’s getting tougher. Gone are the days of waltzing into a café and expecting to find a chef, waitress and a couple of customers from several different continents, from nations we had never met before. Now, it’s a case of dedicated internet research, and long bus journeys.
Yesterday morning, I phoned the Nicaraguan embassy. (I wasn’t cheating). The lady who answered the phone said something in Spanish. I did my usual Hugh Grant thing and spluttered my way through an opening sentence in pretty unintelligible English. She asked me to slow down and try again. I took a deep breath. “I notice that it’s Nicaraguan Independence Day on Saturday,” I said. “Do you know of any events that are happening in London to celebrate it?” She thought for a while. “No,” she said. “Thankyou,” I said, and put the phone down.
Then I called the Hackney Caribbean Elderly Organisation. I’d seen several of them photographed for an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery back in June, and had meant to contact them before now. No-one picked up. “Ah well,” I thought. “They’re elderly. Maybe they don’t answer the phone.” I jumped on a bus.
An hour and a half later, I was standing outside the HCEO, ringing the bell. No-one answered. I was hoping to meet people from Dominica and Barbados. In their photos at the NPG they looked happy, smiling and laughing. Some of them were over ninety years old. None of them were in the HCEO this afternoon. It was locked up.
I got on a different bus, and went back to the Community Centre for Refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, where we’d been in July (finding it locked). It was locked again. Never mind. I also had a lead for someone from Laos who might work as a chef in a Thai restaurant near Victoria. I got on two buses. It took nearly an hour. The restaurant was open for lunch and dinner, but not at half past three in the afternoon, which it now was. I was defeated. I went to a hardware shop and bought a massive drill bit, then went home and spent the evening drilling holes in my bedroom wall.
This morning, after a photo session for a German magazine where a German photographer got Alex and I to throw six kilograms of German confetti onto each other, I decided to go to Acton. Not entirely on a whim – I’d met an oyster-seller in Borough Market called Jason who was sort-of Samoan (Samoan parents, but born in New Zealand), and he said that the Redback Tavern, in Acton, was where all Australasian people go. Some of the bouncers in particular, he said, would be islanders. “Islanders” to me now conjures up magical names: Palau, Nauru, Tuvalu. These are going to be some of the hardest places to find representatives from (Tuvalu is the smallest country, by population, in the world) so any lead was a real godsend. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover the Redback Tavern didn’t open until 6pm, but I still felt a bit cursed. I was stuck in Acton. I wanted to go home and do more drilling. I didn’t care how I got there, so I got on the first bus that arrived outside the pub, and rode it to the end of the line, at Shepherd’s Bush.
Standing on the pavement as I got off the bus, deep in conversation, was a man wearing a bright red and green T-shirt with the words ‘Burkina Faso’ emblazoned across it. Oho, I thought. My luck is starting to change.
Then the doubts set in. The conversation went on quite a long time. By this stage, I was leaning against a wall, pretending to read a newspaper (Yes! Like a spy would!). I was pretty sure that I’d lost the ability to go up to someone in the street – even someone advertising their homeland so openly – and ask them to talk to me about their life. What would Horne do, I wondered. Horne wouldn’t be so cowardly. He’d just bloody well go up there and say hello. The two men shook hands. Now’s my chance, I thought. But then they realised they were going the same way (always a fun bit of street theatre to watch), so set off away from me, still chatting. I tailed them. The feeling-like-a-spy part of my brain was giving me extra confidence. They stopped at a bus stop. Oh no! I thought. What if he gets on a bus? Do I get on as well? Isn’t that a bit weird?
His friend got on a bus. The man in the shirt turned back down the street and started walking towards me. I gripped my atlas.
“Hello?” I said. “Are you from Burkina Faso?”
It was fine. He laughed when I told him I was a writer. “This is a day of writers, for me. You’re the third writer I’ve met. I’m looking for someone to help write my biography.” I explained that I was very interested in his biography. We went into an internet café and I bought him a hot chocolate.
Doundosy came to London about six years ago, to study English. He’d done an English A-Level, and was pretty confident reading and writing, but needed to improve in order to get accepted onto a Law degree. “I was really keen to study Human Rights Law, in particular,” he said. “It’s a good thing to do, I think, to try to help people who are in trouble.” But then, as so often happens in the stories that we hear, events intervened. “I met my wife,” says Doundosy, and his eyes light up. “It was a shock! We got married in 2004, a posh wedding in Fulham Town Hall, and now we live in West Kensington. I think my plans have changed, and I’ll be staying here now.”
But Doundosy is now going back to something he used to do in Burkina Faso – music. “In 2001 I had a hit in Burkina Faso. I’m a singer and songwriter, and wrote a song called ‘Etrangers’ – I was inspired by watching lots of news on the television about the abuse by citizens of one country against the foreigners who live there. Particularly in France – we speak French in Burkina Faso, and lots of people I heard about who were in France were treated really badly. They were called sans papiers, ‘without documents’, and were imprisoned. There were lots of people struggling and I wanted to say something about it. Even here, you look around you and you think that this country was built up by foreigners. This café is owned by an Indian, foreigners have done so much, so why attack them?”
Thankfully, though, Doundosy has found London fairly welcoming. “Yes, it is a good place to stay and learn, I’ve met nice people. If you don’t like somewhere, you don’t stay, and I haven’t been home in six years, so it must be a nice place. I have a new lifestyle here, and now I have a wife, so I think I will be staying. And I would recommend it as well, if you are ambitious and focussed, London has all to give to you. You can get your future sorted, but you have to be strong and willing to achieve it.”
Doundosy has certainly been busy. As well as spending time in the studio recording his new album (“I use an instrument called a sikassaka – it’s like a round maraca, a percussion instrument”) he’s been working as a translator in the local police station, putting his new-found confidence in English, his French, and a number of African languages to good use. He’s also worked in security and as a ticket collector, but music is where his heart is. He’s currently in the middle of creating his own website (keep checking back as he plans to finish it in October), and you can even see him performing one of his songs on YouTube here. If there’s a live show soon, I’ll be in the front row.