Hurdling language barriers

Intrepid Wander Woman Marie Javins finally meets someone who speaks her language and enjoys the undeniable pleasure of being understood

4 mins

"Un billet pour Kumasi pour demain, s'il vous plaît," I said painstakingly to the young woman at the TCV bus ticket counter in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

She shook her head. Was I wrong about the schedule? Did I screw up my French? I'd looked it up on Google Translate and written the words down.

I showed her my handwritten cheat sheet of the phrase I'd just uttered.

"Finis," she said. She motioned at a roster of names and numbers. At the top? The word Kumasi. Ah, the bus from Burkina Faso to Ghana was sold out.

Uh-oh. This wasn't in my plan, my grand scheme to whiz down the west coast of Africa over four months as part of my journey around the world.

"Ou est la..." Why did I take five secondary school years of German instead of French? "...autre bus pour Ghana?"

She thought a minute and then slowly shook her head. She showed me the roster for the next bus to Ghana, leaving on Thursday.

Eep! Today was Saturday. I wanted to be on tomorrow's bus. I wanted to cross into Nigeria on a Sunday, a week from today. Because – I admit it – I'm scared of Lagos and I figured it would be least-terrifying on a Sunday morning. Nigeria was between me and the southern half of Africa, which was where I needed to be to end up in Cape Town in a few months. The next leg – to Madagascar – of my round-the-world ticket left out of Cape Town.

At this rate, I'd end up in Lagos on a weekday. Probably at rush hour. That wasn't part of my plan.

I'd just have to go on a bus to the border, cross on foot, then find another bus south.

I backed away from the counter – I do a lot of backing away from things when wearing a large backpack – and went outside to get a taxi to my guesthouse.

Regroup. That was the plan.

The French owner of the Case d'Hôtes guesthouse offered to help me with my quest for a bus ticket. Or whatever it was that I needed. He wasn't sure at first, given our language barrier.

"Wait," he said. He led me to his PC, loaded up Google Translate, and told me to type my question.


He opened up a scrapbook he'd made, full of tourism info on Ouagadougou. He picked up the phone and started making calls.

And that's how he learned what I already suspected. There is no other reputable company going from Ouagadougou to Kumasi, Ghana.

But maybe there were some disreputable ones. That's what I was hoping he'd find by making his phone calls.

He didn't find one, but he did want to make sure I had my facts straight. He called TCV and asked about tomorrow's bus. He paused, listened, talked quickly, and got excited.

He hung up and turned to me.

"Un billet! You must hurry! Go back to TCV!"

Baffled, I agreed. The French man walked me out to the taxi-catching spot, hailed a taxi, told me the exact fare, and sent me off through the congested traffic of Ouagadougou. Again, I wished I had more French. I wanted to communicate, to understand what was happening, to negotiate with my own taxi driver, to be able to take care of myself.

At the bus terminal, I went back to the ticket window, to the same woman I'd spoken to earlier. She had one ticket set aside, with someone else's name on it.

"It was returned," she explained.

Delighted, I paid for the ticket. Now what? I walked out of the bus terminal in the direction I thought I'd come in the taxi. I wanted to go to the supermarket that I'd seen on the way over.

I took a wrong turn and ended up lost in the back alleys of Ouagadougou, in the brutal afternoon sun, walking down sandy lanes full of playing children. The sun didn't phase them as they kicked footballs outside their parents small homes.

"Bonjour! Ca va?" The kids were delightful. I smiled and waved. In our own languages, we were limited to greeting each other.

The next morning, I sat alone in the dark at 5am, gnawing on a baguette that the guesthouse owner had left for me. He'd also thought to provide a Thermos of hot water and some Nescafé.

I heard the taxi pull up outside the gate and I was halfway out the door before the security guard could even stand up. On to Ghana!

But first, there was madness at the normally organised TCV bus terminal. Several buses were leaving at the same time, so passengers milled about in confusion. I watched the boardings with interest – all the male customers were patted down, while the females cruised right onto the bus. I got my turn when it was time to board my bus, but no one checked me for weapons.

The bus steward handed out little TCV-branded gateaus to everyone (any bus that gives out free cake has my loyalty for life), and we were off.

The guy whose ticket I had re-purchased had a seat in the front row. I liked that I could see what was happening as we drove along and that our bus travelled under the protection of a stuffed dog.

I thought back to the last time I'd had this precise seat on a long-distance bus. Late 2005, en route from Lusaka, Zambia, to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. Back then, I'd have done anything to avoid two long days on the TAZARA train again – which I'd taken in 2001 – including sitting on a coach for 30+ hours. From my front bus seat, I'd seen accidents on the road, a fire, and men carrying a limp body into a makeshift ambulance. Eek.

This was different, though, because we were travelling by day – mostly, though we were scheduled to arrive at ten –  and because we were on the wonderful cake-bus where the worst inconvenience was the Nigerian movies were too loud. Also, what made this journey smooth was the excellent condition of the roads. First, the Burkina Faso roads were decent, but then, when we crossed into Ghana--wow! I marvelled at the shoulders, the streetlights, the lines painted down the center of the road. Ghana, I adore you.

And then there were rest stops, with actual toilets instead of the troughs I'd been seeing for the last few weeks. Sure, the troughs were there as well – these were free and were considered urinals. But for a small fee, just ten cents, you could have a flushing toilet and a sink with running water.

As I was handing over my coins to the toilet attendant, a male passenger from my bus walked up.

"Is there a fee?"

"Number one or number two?"

The passenger looked surprised – and a little embarrassed – then paid rather than answer the question. The attendant held out toilet paper, and the passenger visibly recoiled.

He motioned to the tea kettle of water he was carrying and turned down the paper. Ghana is a loo-paper country, but the passenger was from a kettle-of-water region.

As the hours aboard the coach went on, we pulled over many times to confer with officials. I had long-since lost the ability to tell the difference between a toll and a bribe so couldn't understand what was going on. What was required of us and what was just suggested? I'd once thought that we tourists were hit up for bribes because we are assumed to be carrying money. But we pay little compared to the locals, who pay often and with distressing regularity. What would happen, suggested a friend, if one day everyone in Africa decided not to pay?

At dusk, the bus steward – who was sitting next to me – had an animated argument with the relief driver and the courier.

I didn't understand what they were arguing about, but I did understand this much.

Wyclef Jean.

Finally, to prove his point, the steward turned to me and spoke in English.

"Isn't it true that Wyclef Jean is the President of Haiti?

Poor thing. He was so deflated when I gently told him it wasn't true, that Wyclef Jean hadn't been eligible to run after all. I felt bad enough for him that the next time his head started to roll onto my shoulder, I let him sleep for a bit before nudging him off.

We arrived late into Kumasi, after nightfall. Taxi drivers leapt at me in the bus terminal.

"Taxi? You want a taxi? Your hotel is very far away, very expensive ride."

Grinning, I jumped into the fray. English! Ghanaians speak English and I could hold my own now. I could battle it out over the fare.

I'd missed this.

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