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It was my favorite trivia question: name the capital of Burkina Faso. I loved it for the lyrical nature of the answer: Ouagadougou. In just a couple short weeks, I’d be seeing it for myself. At the start of my journey, I had no idea of the wonders I would experience that would make the city itself seem like a minor bit of trivia.

My trip started on the Slave Coast of West Africa with a visit to Elmina Castle in Ghana. Built as a fort by the Portuguese in the 15th century to protect the rich gold trade, its stark white walls tower over the nearby beach. Within a century it had become a major shipping point on the Atlantic Slave route. The pain and anguish filled history was palpable as I walked through the courtyard and viewed the rooms that once held those fearfully awaiting their turn through the door of no return. Further east in Ouidah, Benin, I walked the same path trod by millions of people as they were herded to waiting boats and an unknown future. The trail is now marked by memorials and ends at the beach with a large monument arch called The Door of No Return. These visits were educational, sobering and very deeply moving and remain strong with me more than a decade later.

As we moved inland and northward, I learned of the origins of what we know as Voodoo, the merging of the local religion with the teaching of the Catholic Church brought to the new world by the captive slaves. I saw Vodun shrines and ceremonies where adepts danced and chanted to open themselves to be taken over bodily and transformed by the spirits they serve. Towards the end of my trip I would visit a ceremonial gathering in central Mali where I witnessed the spirit of a strong young man take over the body of an older female adept. So deep was her trance that her voice and entire demeanor changed from that of an older woman to that of a young warrior, proud and powerful. It was truly haunting to witness the strength of faith evident in these possessions. These experiences proved to be some of the most incredible and mind blowing spiritual experiences of my life.

I traveled northward to Burkina Faso for a quick overnight in Ouagadougou and a visit to a local market before continuing north towards Mali. From here the order of the stops on the itinerary has faded from mind but the individual experiences remain indelible in my mind. In the following days we visited multiple diverse ethnic groups, Gurunsi, Dogon, Bozo, Fulani, each with a unique architecture, culture and lifestyle.  All unbelievably welcoming to strangers. Children appear seemingly from nowhere to hold your hand and show you their homes. They have no fear of strangers, a refreshing change from the world we come from. I fondly recall one woman, whose daily diet was made up of tubers and millet, offering without hesitation to feed us when my guide told her we were hungry.

We spent two days motoring on the Niger River and camping in the desert before we reached the legendary city of Timbuktu. The city defies description, it is modern and ancient all at once. Modern hotels welcome international travelers with cell phones and digital cameras, children study the Koran at the feet of their teachers on the street corner, and there are the libraries. These libraries have been protected and managed by individual families for generations. They house hundreds of ancient scrolls and books containing centuries of knowledge in this city that was once a powerful center of education.

We continued north out of the city, camping in the Sahara enroute to the outpost of Araouane. This vital stop on the caravan route between the salt mines at Taudenni and Timbuktu still serves as a way-station for the caravans of camels carrying huge slabs of salt. While the trade has been modernized by the use of trucks, camels remain the most efficient method of transport and still travel the route. We were lucky to see a caravan pass by laden with the prized salt that was once valued as highly as gold.

My journey was extraordinary in so many ways and there are so many more, smaller experiences than can fit into a single telling.  The capital of Burkina Faso is still one of my favorite trivia questions but has now proved to be the key that opened a door to a series of life-changing experiences.

Debbie Driggers, Adventure Coordinator MT Sobek

MT Sobek Trip: Africa’s Golden Kingdoms: Ghana, Togo & Benin and Timbuktu & Beyond, 2005