Elephants, time and trains

 


I’ve told you, dear reader, that we were headed to the train station to depart on the one train that goes from Bobo-Dioulasso to Niangoloko. I haven’t mentioned what time that train was supposed to depart though. That wasn’t an oversight.

Matt, the friend we were visiting in Niangoloko, had been told by a railroad employee there that the train leaves Bobo at 3 p.m. A railroad employee in Bobo had told Rebecca that the train was scheduled to depart at 4, while a sign posted in the same lobby said the train would depart at 5:30. Later in the afternoon, we noticed that someone had erased the 7 in the chalk timetable, changing 17h30m (military time being de rigueur) to 18h30m: 6:30 p.m. It was easy to notice, the #12 to Abidjan being the only train on the board.

This is how time works in Burkina. Nothing is certain except for the fact that there is no rush. Resistance to West African International Time (W.A.I.T.) is futile, and relaxing an American sense of hyperpunctuality was a critical part of our integration as Peace Corps Volunteers.


Yes, there were days when I hated the chronic lateness of all things in Burkina. At the outset, I was basing my schedule on arbitrary numbers 3:45 or 11:00, say, while my neighbors were basing their days on a series of encounters that could take any amount of time.

Before you saw him, how could you know how long you should visit with the baker, my neighbors would ask me. What happens to your “routine” if your friend sees you on your way to market and invites you in for tea?

For the Burkinabe, relationships mean more than some imaginary numbers in the sky: if the dollo lady wants to tell you a story, or the postal worker wants to hear about your job, you shouldn’t brush them off just to make it “on time” to some appointment. Visiting is a flexible thing that requires flexible time, and that means that things usually don’t start at a certain pre-ordained moment.

Now, working in a job with hard deadlines, where minutes are precious and my heart rate reaches crisis level each week as the hours ‘till press tick down, I miss this view of time. Rushing and fully appreciating the community you live in often seem at ends to me anymore, and America’s obsession with measurement and timeliness strikes me as a peculiarly cold kind of fetish (though one that is pleasantly less prevalent here in the Valley).

All this is to say we had played it safe and showed up at the earliest of the four times we’d been told the train might leave, but we knew some waiting was probably in order. Deprived of smartphone interactivity, we were forced to engage each other conversationally–like animals.

Around 4 p.m. we sat at the trackside beer garden, ordered standard 660 milliliter Sobebras (none of this 355 milliliter weaksauce here) and started swapping stories.

Barry had a gem for us.

Apparently, about a month prior, the train we were about to board had hit an elephant. Now, to me, this was a fairly mind-boggling scenario. Train collides with world’s largest land animal = FREAKING AWESOME! I don’t mean that I count a dead elephant as a positive thing, but it still constitutes a riveting and salient news item in my world.

Oddly enough, Barry didn’t seem to treat it as such, casually tossing it into the conversation the way you’d mention a parking ticket or a trip to the dentist. Barry’s not the world’s most animated story-teller, but it did strike me as weird that we’d been planning this trip for two months and this was only coming up now.

Eager for details, we pumped him for info, and a bizarre and uniquely West African story started to take shape. From what “the Bear” (Barry) had heard, the train wasn’t going very fast, maybe 50 kilmoters per hour (kph), but, it being a train, it still killed the elephant. The impact had derailed the first two engine cars, but aside from a few employee injuries (no workmen’s comp for those poor bastards, I’m sure) everybody was OK.

In Burkina, the essential question is: what do you do with such a windfall of free elephant meat? As Barry told it, the people in the village where this happened all wanted to have a huge feast and divvy up the leftovers.

The chief, however, had other plans. He claimed the town had some outstanding debt from some public projects, and he sold all the meat in a dead-of-night transaction to meet those obligations, enraging the party-ready townsfolk.

Was he lining his own pockets at the village’s expense or prudently resisting frivolous expenditures to pay the bills? None of us could say with any authority, but it must be said that anybody with access to the purse strings here generally takes their cut.

The temptation is just too great: I mean, a sizable percentage of your constituency has trouble with basic addition and subtraction, bookkeeping (when it happens) is in the stone age, the treasurer is probably your drinking buddy and the government in charge of paying your salary may or may not stiff you from month to month.

What would you do? Good governance questions aside, one must concede that they missed out on one hell of a barbecue.

 

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