A Short, Hot Journey Into The Desert

Burkina Faso


They say it’s 107° south of here in Ouagadougou, so I’m guessing it’s hotter now in Dori, being closer to the Niger border and the Sahara Desert. In Ouaga they at least have trees to soften the sand-blasting furnace, though when I got off the plane from Paris Monday night my “runway experience” was a gulp of thick haze weighted by smoke and heat — weirdly like the worst of California wild fires- though this is not a fluke. The water flows hot from the cold tap as you wash the red clay off your face, and the towels themselves feel strangely hot. This is standard spring fare for West African desert cities.

A Tuareg man is the first person to greet me.

I am at Goudouba Refugee Camp shooting for the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees) and RefugePoint, a US-based refugee organization that helps refugees move into approved refugee spots for immigration to countries like the US. This camp is one of two in Burkina Faso, established in 2012 to address the families fleeing jihadi violence in Mali. Two years ago the international community chased the terrorists out of Timbuktu and into the desert, but the threat of violence simmers with the heat. This is the smaller of the refugee camps with 10,000 people, mostly nomads and shepherds- the Tuaregs who are tall, heavily turbaned, light-skinned, and brightly dressed and the Peul, who are dark- skinned, and smaller, wearing glittering jewelry and carefully cover their mouth when they smile.

A Peul woman being interviewed for possible resettlement, and children at play with push toys.

The refugees here are peripatetic desert-dwellers, so picking up home and moving has been practiced for thousands of years, and they are not particularly interested in settling down in a foreign land like the US. Their dream is to go home, to Mali. They’re willing to wait out the violence, as long as they are able to simply raise their families in peace. The bonus is the school access, especially for the girls, and nutrition supplements for the babies; these kids will be forever changed.

The heat doesn’t bother them at all.

The kids showing me the things they play with, from old motorcycle tires to shoes which are used to replace balls in a game very like Botchi.

Because I’m American, they intensify the security convoy for our “Mission”. We bounce along the red-earth road in a white UNHCR SUV under a bright blue sky eating the dust of the pickup truck we’re following with six guys in camouflage with AK47s. I’m glad they are there, at first. Then I understand that they will follow me around the refugee camp as I photograph the refugee experience through the eyes of the children and their play, making it pretty hard for me to lay low. Wonderfully, the refugees themselves seem open to all kinds of experiences, and simply ask to be photographed more.


I met Diallo who, at 15 years old, has a face decoratively scarred in the Peul tradition; whose eyes light up when she tells me how exciting it is to learn to write computations. As a nomad in Mali, she never had exposure to education.

I met a beautiful young woman from Italy who works for RefugePoint, who at 29 years old could be doing anything, but she chooses to work with vulnerable populations in remote desert regions, trying to help them access new opportunities. I am hugely inspired, and realize that it’s time to stop complaining about the heat.

A Tuareg woman and man, not related, except by nationality and style.

Meanwhile, I become obsessed with two things- “aircon” spaces, like the UNHCR SUV which patiently idles with the air conditioner blasting as I move in and out of various tents, and water, which I hoard zealously, only at the end giving away my precious plastic water bottles to kids who re-imagine them as pull toys. I quickly discover that the coolest place, both physically and socially, is sitting under a tent on thick carpets, kicking my shoes off to drink hot, heavily sugared, mint tea while goats, chicks and small children move in and out the raised flaps following the breeze off the boiling landscape. Ah, the “oasis-effect” dawns on me as completely logical, though it is ancient wisdom for everyone around me. A lot of things begin to make sense.

Along with the sweat and the dry lips, I try to hold these experiences lightly on my skin, grateful for the window into a very different world, and mindful of the intimacy and trust that is offered as people invite you into their tents, and into their families. They let you photograph their kids, and laugh easily as we communicate through two or three translators (English to French to Tuareg). With mutual curiousity we try to discover what kind of person we are meeting; so different, so strange. Not everyone is open, but most are, just like anywhere, everywhere in the world.

The magnificent baobab trees of Burkina Faso