A Colonial Façade

Addi seemed to be about as bad off as the rest of us — certainly no less alive — when we eventually found our way to the outdoor bar of a French-owned, jungle-style hotel in Ouaga where there was red wine, warm goat cheese salad and pastis to keep things civilized. We dined with a thirty-year-old, Doctors without Borders worker who considered West Africa the premier region on the continent for partying after long stints in war-torn countries like Burundi whence he'd just arrived. A stopover on a flight to Paris had brought him to Ouaga for a weekend of drinking and paid sex, after which he would decompress at home for a week, pick up his surfboard and return to West Africa for a new six-month mission in Liberia where the surf is reputed to be some of the "most killer" in Africa. Although he claimed the surf was what had ultimately drawn him into his sixth mission for the organization, it was clear his drink was doing the real talking. He stared far into space as he summoned the words to explain how each time he finishes a stint he assumes will be his last, someone in Paris calls and drops the name of yet another war-ravaged African country in his ear. "It is like a disease, you know." It was clear he was never going home again.

According to Frenchboy, in Ouaga prostitutes cost 5,000 CFA, or around ten dollars, for an entire night. This is, of course, best price, and must be bargained for. His own companion for the evening was a tall and urbane woman in an exceptionally fine red evening dress. She looked strangely fitting at a table among the T-shirts and unshaven faces of the male aid workers.

After I had decided to retire for the night I remembered having about seventy French francs in coin left from a stopover in Paris. Since Frenchboy was returning to Paris for a week the following day, I decided to give him the money. When I returned to the bar to offer it to him, he protested loudly and began to cry. I stressed that I would not be going back through Paris anytime soon and that he should have some fun before returning to Liberia. His emotional outpouring over a gift of what amounted to no more than twenty dollars perhaps stemmed from the heavy stress of a life witnessing human atrocities almost daily, dotted with sporadic urban pleasures like the hotel in Ouaga. In a fit of inspiration his eyes brightened and he asked me my plans for the evening. When I told him nothing much and that I was ready for bed, he offered his woman to me. "It will be my pleasure. We will drink and dance in the after-hours clubs." I thanked him no, finished my pastis, and retreated to the room where Balloonhat was snoring loudly, and the air smelled of ninety percent DEET.

Wading through this busy city to find the shortest way into Mali, the Balloonhat found numerous obstacles, the only direct road being a sand track through the long border zone, rendering any organized bus travel impossible. A high clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle was needed because no one could vouch for the existence of a continuous road, much less its traveling condition. There were now entire days devoted to figuring out where to find such a vehicle and how to afford it, and if it even remained possible to reach Timbuktu or any of the other ancient trading towns along the delta in an ever-shrinking window of time.

Sitting on the stoop of our hut almost a week after arrival, just when all energies had given way to isolated frustration — Charlie immersed in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and Addi studying the vascular parts of a rabbit from a stew he had decided not to eat — a random connection suddenly panned out. A colleague of a friend of a cousin of a man who had been amused by the balloon hats during a small market performance found it in his heart to secure our passage into Mali on a Mission Order with the Ouagadougou-based Association African Solidarite. The mission's purpose: to travel unhindered by politics, promoting AIDS awareness in the villages of the Niger River Delta of Mali. Apparently the balloon hats had reminded the Association's president enough of the potential festivity of condom use that he agreed to provide a jacked-up sedan of otherwise questionable mechanical condition for a trip through the Delta region and into the remote villages on the way.

Along with the car came a twenty-year-old driver named Noufou who seemed to owe some kind of favor to the Association. The trip would be rough-going, and it was apparent from the outset that Noufou would much rather have been sitting on a street corner in Ouaga than driving his first trip ever out of his country. In fact, Noufou turned out not to have any of the proper papers for such a job, and Balloonhat, far from being protected by the Mission Order from bribes and other border SNAFUs, was continually hit up for various sums of money because of Noufou's lack of credentials. And, in this case, lack of credentials merely meant no experience with the nuanced bribery of border crossings. Even at the first checkpoint just outside Ouaga, our man with the badge decided to levy a fine for all vehicles carrying hazardous materials such as gas and oil on the district's roadways. It was either pay him right then or be detained by romantic kerosene lamplight for hours, or even days. So much for international cooperation. In Africa, the American always travels with a large dollar sign pasted to his forehead, and if the African guiding him isn't savvy, all the extra money goes to the wrong man.

Frontiers without Games

Somewhere in the middle of the hot and dead border zone between Burkina and Mali, Noufou's post-apocalyptic driving habits gave way to the first blown-out tire of the journey. The sand track had suddenly become passable only on camelback and our old sedan had bogged down in the depth of a shifted dune. At the same moment, a young boy tending a few goats far across the dry scrub ran shouting and waving at the car, warning us of the danger we had already encountered. With his guidance we were able to push the hobbled sedan up unto the scrub and over to a small encampment where the car rolled to a stop among a dozen huts and fast became surrounded by every inhabitant within sight.

One of them, a well-kept young man wearing a clean white T-shirt, was deferred to as liaison for the practical reason that he was the only one present who could speak any French. Only up to ten percent of Mali's population actually speak this official language, and it is of course the citizens who've had the most contact with outsiders who make up that ten percent.

Whether the literal heat of the moment or some recent interaction in the city was to blame, "White Shirt" fast became interested only in what monetary advantage could be gained over the Balloonhat.

As Noufou attempted to use a broken jack to raise the car, Addi decided to tie his apron around his waist and blow up a few hats — take his mind off the quickly worsening problem of a break down in the middle of nowhere rather than panic his way through an afternoon. Charlie had no such luxury as good portrait photos require a more intimate connection to the subject in the viewfinder. Where Addi can disarm the potential enemy with the magic in his hand, Charlie must engage and win a person over through a sensitive and conciliatory demeanor designed to dissolve the metal barrier of the camera.

Noufou, cursing the broken jack and unaware of the rising tensions for money, asked fifteen villagers to lift the car so he could change the tire. White Shirt happened to be busy at the moment arguing angrily with Charlie over the price of a photo. The other villagers had become entranced by Addi's balloon-twisting and could not understand the hard feelings being generated by such an amusing situation. But White Shirt was relentless, bent on convincing the group not to be entertained by such opportunists stealing images of Africans. White Shirt's hostility toward the Balloonhat had fast come to the point where a "Plan B - quick escape" needed consideration. Charlie, simply by holding a camera, had become the embodiment of patronizing Western arrogance, and was being surrounded by ever more villagers as White Shirt continued his diatribe in the local language. At that moment, Noufou was just finishing with the tire and suddenly began to understand the urgency of the situation. He jumped behind the wheel and summoned the Balloonhat to get in quickly.

Strange to have an entire village fascinated by the absurd arrival of a beige Toyota being pushed by men with balloons, only to have the ad-hoc leader of the group take it for what it could only be in any cynic's mind: a financial opportunity. Of course this is just what the Balloonhat is banking on by traveling around the world on its shoestring budget — the eventual book deal and its potentially lucrative merchandising tie-ins. If only we could have sipped these pure and sweet ironies of the road like water, there would have been no need for the expensive Swiss filter, and no cause for all the parasites we received anyway.

What Façade?

Charlie and Addi sat in the back seat of the old Toyota, wondering why they had urged each other to come this far. The afternoon was already half over, and no one yet knew where we would be able to stop for the night. Noufou had effectively taken the project hostage and spoke only when asking for another cigarette. Only the bouncing of the ride could vent the rage toward him and all of Africa at that moment, whether misplaced or not, for having caused the situation at hand. A dark grey band of sky began to grow from the North looking like heavy rains coming to turn the red sand of the track to impassable mud. No one could have felt lower. Noufou gestured his head toward the sky. I nodded and looked back to Balloonhat stewing in the back seat and noticed that both Addi and Charlie had become transfixed by something out the opposite side of the car. We had been traveling now for an hour with the cliffs of the Bandiagara Escarpment on view out the right side. As the car approached the western end of this two-hundred-foot red wall, the Balloonhat spied three Tuareg shepherds walking their flock along the base of the ridge. They looked at each other when Charlie let out the low, open-mouthed laugh of amazement at what he was seeing, saying, "this is it," with only a smile opening his mouth even further. Noufou failed to notice the flock, concentrating instead on the middle of his cigarette and the holes of road ahead. After perhaps four attempts at saying "stop" to get him out of his road trance, he awoke and began to slow the car down.

"But why?" he asked, as Addi bounded out of the still-moving car and ran across the red dust a hundred yards with the denim apron of balloons in his hand. Charlie followed fast. Noufou sat at the wheel shaking his head with disdain.

"Those men are bearded men. It is not good. They do not want an intrusion. Dangerous. They use their knives to chase your friends away."

Addi was already in the middle of the first hat for the oldest in the group, a small man dressed in the rich blue tunic of the Sahel, when Noufou decided it was safe enough to get out of the car himself. The shepherd was staring at the balloons with a half-smile, happy to break up his day of herding with such a strange entertainment. Now and then he and the others would glance ahead to their flock receding in the distance, careful not to lose them from sight but far too intrigued with these strange fools in the middle of nowhere to leave the scene. No words were spoken between the two parties. None were needed. A connection had been made and the Balloonhat could not offer enough thanks to the shepherds for turning this miserable day to ecstasy. With thanks by way of handshakes, the shepherds took their leave, holding hands to hats as they ran to catch up to the flock, now almost a half mile down the ridge.

The thick grey wall in the sky was coming closer as the car climbed up the switchbacks over the ridge. At the top was an encampment of no more than five or six stone huts. This time Noufou stopped the car without asking, and everybody piled out without discussion.

First, the bearded one — white skull cap, the elder. The grey wall was almost to the bottom of the ridge, rolling in at gale force. Not much time then, everyone could see — maybe time for one or two more hats. With a glance to the horizon, the elder chose the smallest boy, the only completely naked person in the group, to receive the last hat. The little boy was dazed at the sight and thought of what had just entered his life. And then for the test, the all-important photo, he covered his penis with shrewd modesty, only to be cajoled to uncover for the camera by the fifteen men around him. He complied slowly, as everyone else let out hearty laughs. And then the first gust arrived, setting us all on edge. It turned out not to be rain, but dust — the harmattan from the north come late for its season, and the storm was just beginning. Running for shelter and the car, both groups had only enough time then to wave. There was a truth in that moment though — a simple, wordless connection between two disparate peoples and the realization that all was suddenly and ultimately under nature's serious command.

For the next hour, driving through the 100-foot-deep canyon that is the roadbed to Somadougou, a Tuareg hitchhiker was squeezed into the back seat with the Balloonhat. Charlie stared dumbfounded as the nomad winked and lifted his long blue sleeve to reveal an identical wristwatch to the one Charlie was wearing. Addi was also silent, having just experienced the entire reason for leaving the comfort of his room at home. Noufou, for the first time in his life, was gaping at the major rock formations surrounding him. He had forgotten he was driving and — with only the Tuareg's urgent yell as warning — had barely managed to swerve the car around a place where half the road had fallen away into the bottom of the canyon. Nervous laughter was all the gall anyone could give him. It was too close for anything else.

That night under the stars on the roof of Sofara's mosque, a crescent moon, the Pleiades, and Comet Hale-Bopp, arranged themselves in a triangle. The comet seemed to shift from red to blue and back to red again. The Balloonhat felt life, and sleep was very sweet on old straw mattresses.

Ignorance is not Bliss

The feeling did not last long. The next afternoon, in Djenne, another ancient trading town wrecked (I don't mean to generalize too much, because there are a lot of PC efforts that have done good things, in terms of whatever good we're talking about, but this is another story) by a comprehensive Peace Corps effort, we sat half-comatose in a hundred-ten-degree mud hut on another roof, wondering how much worse the road conditions might get further into the desert. Our jacked-up sedan had barely gotten us this far, and the only other vehicles seen since the border had been donkeys, camels, and the occasional fully-geared Land Rover.

Strains of a short wave radio broadcast wafted up from the courtyard below where Allaye, our host, boiled down the afternoon tea over his small coal fire. Hearing the word "Timbuktu," Balloonhat stumbled down the steps leading off the roof to catch the tail end of a report that three French travelers had been shot by Tuareg separatists on the track just outside the town. Noufou's initial fear of the shepherds at the escarpment came to mind. Would the Tuaregs act any differently toward Americans pulling balloons out of thin air? We sat silent, hot, and wondering until the next morning when it was decided that the decision could be put off even longer by embarking on a short backtrack to visit one or two of the unmapped villages we'd missed toward the end of the escarpment.

About 6 clicks back in on the red dirt track, the Toyota's already woefully-patched radiator began steaming badly. A lift of the hood revealed that the fan had also stopped working. We all stood around the engine gaping at the pile of junk that had actually brought us this far. Mechanical failure. Good thing too, because nobody here — not even Noufou — could be blamed for this one. The lingering question of the previous afternoon had ceased to matter. Balloonhat would not reach the end of the earth. Any attempt to continue north into the desert at this point would have proven beyond mere artistic insanity full into the realm of stupidity.

Brown Acid

Nothing to do next but send Noufou with the car back to the nearest town for some jury-rigging to get us back to Ouagadougou. Agreeing to meet him at a crossroads before sunset, Balloonhat decided to search the track for a nearby settlement to visit — try to make some sense of an afternoon that had brought the failure of an entire trip down to bear on the collective conscience.

A few steps around the first bend in the road, there was a stone wall. Twenty steps later, a gaze through the slats of a closed wooden gate in the wall revealed a village full of small dried mud huts on piled stone foundations. The huts wound all the way up a steep, rocky hillside cut with narrow switchback paths. No people were visible.

"Is this it? Where is everybody?" Charlie asked.

"This looks like the place, probably the only place around anyway," Addi said, pulling out a pineapple he'd carried all the way from Ouaga. 

We sat down on the roadside and began cutting the pineapple into slices, discouraged and wondering how to make balloon hats for an empty village. Ten minutes later a lone figure became visible down the road, and slowly enlarged to a small man on a donkey returning to the village from some long errand. He stopped his ass in front of us and stared down silently. Charlie offered him some pineapple while Addi pulled out the balloons and started in on a hat. Within another two minutes, fifteen villagers had appeared out of nowhere to surround the Balloonhat just as Addi was crowning "Donkeyman." The man seemed to take this as some kind of sign and immediately ordered the gate opened for our entrance. No words were spoken and there were no smiles forthcoming, so it was impossible to tell exactly what his intentions might have been.

Addi went first, as the hat can precede any explanation, and was quickly swallowed up by a crowd of villagers ushering him up one of the mazelike paths. There were now swarms of people around Charlie also, curious to get a close-up look at a person with blond hair and blue eyes. The camera had suddenly turned back on him in the form of some fifty eyes, and he could only imagine what strangeness could be held behind the gate. With mounting concern he passed through, calling Addi's name while the crowd looked on, trying to decipher his urgent entreaties.

"Oh no, I think they're beating him to death!" Charlie shouted, looking up the hill to a group of villagers violently thrashing something unseen on the ground with large wooden clubs.

Although it was most certainly a ritual we had seen in other villages in the region, at the moment, anything did seem feasible in the sudden chaos that had enveloped us. So we climbed fast up one of the paths to get a better look, and continued shouting after Addi.

With bemused expressions, the crowd ushered us ever further up the paths past old women in the shade preparing food and young men in the sun doing nothing, until we had reached the elders' hut on top of the cliff with half the village in tow. Addi appeared from another path followed by the rest of the village, and the two crowds merged here to form one giant mob of elated, spontaneous celebration. There was relative peace inside the elders' hut where seven bearded men lay on goatskin rugs and received us warmly with offers of tea and bread. It was only a matter of minutes, though, before twenty villagers had forced themselves into the room, beyond the bounds of village propriety, with a single urgent demand for balloon hats. The chief continued to be amused, but when the chaos had proven too much for the small space, he ordered everyone outside with his big stick and his highest voice.

The celebration rose to new heights on the cliff where Charlie began shooting a small boy in balloon hat performing a smallboy dance for what had now become the entire village. Seeing the immense joy Balloonhat had brought to his people, and realizing then that the only way to avoid a large-scale riot would be to take the heat off himself by pressing Balloonhat's hand, the chief spoke up smiling and said, "Certainly you will sleep here with us, yes?"

The villagers cheered in agreement.

"Uh, er... we have to get back to our car in Somadougou before dark. Our driver is fixing it there." Addi said, shifting his eyes back and forth with what could only have been noted as... confusion. The chief of course could not understand a word he was saying, so he smiled some more as more balloons were pulled out in a futile attempt to control some of the chaos. At that moment Addi looked down at Charlie, content behind his camera, and around at the hundred people clamoring for his attentions. Charlie turned then for no known reason and shouted, "I think we accidentally took the brown acid today!" before just as quickly returning to the boy in his viewfinder.

"How do we get out? Too chaotic, " Addi stuttered into the din of the crowd. Charlie could not hear him.

Time stopped briefly then as Addi held a hand to his head, and it became abundantly clear that with Donkeyman's invitation to pass through the well-guarded gate of the village, Balloonhat had indeed passed through a kind of shortcut portal to a another civilization, a place without Coca-Cola, a culture that had held fast to its original way by shunning the tourism that had invaded the rest of the region.

At that moment Timbuktu had ceased to matter. After all the heat, sickness, and dust of the road, the Balloon Hat Experience was melding, albeit chaotically, with some imperial explorer's idyllic vision of Africa, and the goods had been delivered. Balloonhat could only hope that the laughter and unity it had inspired here would be the only lasting effect of its visit after all the balloon hats had popped or deflated. But, having come back through many of the same towns on our way back to the coast and hearing tales from other travelers about the Balloonhat, one does wonder whether the next random traveler who happens upon this place or any of the other unmapped settlements off the track from Bandiagara to Somadougou will be presented with a wilted crown of balloons to make whole again, and what he will do in response. Rather like in the continuing aftermath of the colonial presences in West Africa, another one of the numerous aid groups appears to fill some perceived vacuum of need with a specific mission of its own, and instead finds itself being repeatedly asked for biscuits or soccer balls.

As even a Western-educated Ouagadougou professor asked us rhetorically: "What could be good about some European standing on the side of a road urging you to come have a needle put into your arm? We are born in Africa, we live our entire lives in Africa, and we will die here. What else matters?"

Back in Accra, Balloonhat sat under shade on a street corner, unshaven and gaunt, eating fried plantains. A couple of white Europeans passed by walking tall in the midday sun, carrying brand new daypacks and water bottles on their hips. The Balloonhat looked at itself, shaking heads and smiling. It might just as well have been looking in the mirror five weeks before.

< previous page

What is this Movie?
A Little Background
Watch Some Clips
Check for Screenings
Stories from the Road
Your Thoughts
Read Press

Get DVD/Contact Us