Princes
of the city

At the evening rush hour, a swarm of bikes and cars fills the streets of Niocsin the horse-riders’ district
Perched on his horse, a rider watches the races at the Hamdallaye racecourse
wa spends Sunday afternoons at Hamdallaye with champion riders and young boys who come to try their luck.
The charming and athletic Sogho a well-known figure among the streethorsemen and hero of the apprentice mechanics in his neighborhood garage.

R comme rien Un rien suffit, un reste, une ruine dans la lumière d’une fin de journée, pour faire surgir une rime et nourrir le rêve d’un temps réversible, à rebours de la réalité. On ne regrette rien, on se repaît de ce qui revient, repousse, comme l’herbe entre les pierres. C’est un regain qui ravit1.

1. À Naples, la Vigna di San Martino, un jardin au-dessus du port, où la végétation a poussé entre les ruines.

R as in remnant It takes nothing, just a remnant, a ruin in the waning light of day, to bring forth a rhyme and nourish the dream of reversible time, reality in reverse. One regrets nothing, one relishes what returns, regenerates, like grass between rocks. It’s a renewal that ravishes.1

1. In Naples, the Vigna di San Martino is a garden above the port with plants growing in-between the ruins.

O comme oser Oser voyager dans une ville inconnue sans jamais ouvrir la porte de la voiture qui vous transporte. Voir quotidiennement, selon un horaire invariable, le même décor derrière une vitre. Omettre le reste, sauf les noms.

O as in opting Opting boldly to travel through an unknown city without ever opening the car door. Seeing the same sights out the window, day in day out, at the same time of day. Omitting the rest, except the names.

At a three-hour trot from town, the riders reach a rocky hill, where they set up camp on the sacred stones.
Casa da Música by Rem Koolhaas, in the Boavista area.
Bare-chested in the stifling evening and wearing goggles to keep out the dust, Souley waits for trucks and carts to pass.
The regal Fanta, riding in a forest glade just outside Ouagadougou.

The dusty streets of Ouagadougou are a parade ground for young horseback riders, descendants of the Mossi royal guard that was disbanded more than a century ago.

Landlocked in the scorching heart of Africa, deprived of the life-giving waters of the Niger River, Ouagadougou lies immobile under the sky. The city is absolutely flat, like a drawing in the sand, designed according to a grid determined by the former administration. A ripe city like a piece of fruit that has been sliced open, abandoned under the white daylight, bleached by the heat that suspends time.

Ouagadougou is so level that only the horse riders rise above the horizon, so erect that they appear regally at the end of an avenue, perched aloft above the scooters and cars that brush past them on either side. The strips of tarmac float on the red earth. On this matrix of straight lines and geometrical forms swept by warm winds, the Burkinabe horses stand out against the sky, caught between past and present, like immutable statuettes from a magical tale.

Originally, Ouagadougou was called Kombemtinga, the “land of the princes.”

Crossing the urban grid

On this checkerboard devoid of skyscrapers and fortifications, the horse riders rekindle the magic of a former supremacy. The horse is the nation’s totemic animal; the riders, its princes, free to move among the vehicles, under the noses of traffic cops and policemen. They rule the road, earning admiration from passersby and appreciative glances from women. At a stoplight, they are surrounded by swarms of scooters, bicycles and donkeys yoked to carts piled with bundles of sticks, their tails flicking against bumpers. In the dying light of the day, the young riders emerge from the clouds of exhaust from tailpipes, dominating the feverish mob. They are first to bolt forward, their muscular torsos exposed, riding bareback on their horses that look emaciated from the lack of hay.

The first time I came to Ouagadougou, I was intrigued by this elegant quartet: two young men and two young women dressed as if for an urban ballet, haughty and modest, undaunted by the flow of the mechanical contraptions next to them, forming a very stylish gang, trotting on horseback to a beverage stall or a braised meat stand; or crossing the city, the paved streets and the little ocher earth roads, to meet up in front of late-night bars and terraces for dancing, hitching their reins to the gates, near the Toyotas and BMWs. Members of a trendy set who, rather than the gleaming scooters or Mini Coopers of Paris or London, instead chose a collection of black, white and bay horses.

Unassuming aristocrats

These hard-up young people, who live off odd jobs, have been trained since childhood in horseback riding and take part in equestrian shows. They are virtuoso riders who perform fantasias for marriages and local festivities, earning a little here and there and gaining well-deserved recognition for their amazing feats. They are Sahelian gypsies, who live from one day to the next with makeshift solutions and vague dreams, dressed simply, ennobled by the loftiness of their horses.

After spending a few days drinking strong tea under the canopy in the Niocsin neighborhood, I came to understand that they are nearly all close or distant descendants of the male and female horse riders of the royal cavalry defeated during the French conquest a century earlier. Alice, the impassive queen of this quartet, had a distant ancestor who was one of the feared Amazons of the king’s guard. Positioned near the mounted archers protected by shields of animal hides, the warriors were young virgins who surged forward bare-chested, talismans slung over their shoulders, sowing terror among the enemy ranks, petrifying them with their nakedness, slashing with short lances.

A founding myth

The dry, flat country of Burkina Faso“land of men of integrity”is situated in the center of West Africa, on a plateau devoid of hills or mountains, between Mali, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Niger. Here the relentless sun and energy-sapping harmattan wind reign. The horse is the only natural resource, the enduring sign of nobility. In the former Upper Volta, the horse does more than define rank and prestige. It signifies an affiliation to history. It marks out the country. It is the founding myth. It adorns its coat of arms. This poor rural land isolated from the world was home to the most famous and feared African cavalry, the Mossi horsemen. Young Burkinabes have forgotten the episodes of colonization and independence, but like the elders, they have kept in their hearts the splendor of the Mossi empire that stretched from Ghana to Mali eight centuries earlier and echoed with the clatter of a cavalry of 10,000 horses.

The Niocsin bastion

In the courtyard of the Dermé family, the master horsemen of Burkina, a blacksmith pours bubbling bronze into a clay mold. Impressed by their iron-working skills and horseback riding prowess, a former ruler had given the Dermé the entire neighborhood. This house-cum-stable, an informal yet prestigious center of dressage, is run by Madi Dermé, a muscular man of around 40, son of the founder and of Alizeta, an ageless woman, a queen horsewoman and descendant of Mogho Naba, the traditional Mossi king. A battered freight container adjoining a mudbrick wall, repainted and decorated with a portrait of Che Guevara, provides some shade for the horse. The children play and shout. A blackboard under an acacia awaits the teacher paid by the families in the narrow street to hold outdoor classes. Other steeds await in the mud stalls, under a canopy of woven leaves. Near the blacksmith’s feet, drops of bronze form a constellation on the earth blackened by metal residue.

Here, the horse does more than define rank and prestige. It signifies an affiliation to history. . . . It is the founding myth.

With the aid of the cavalry provided by its noblemen, the Mogho Naba defied the neighboring kingdoms, venturing as far as Timbuktu in their raids. The empire survived, only really collapsing in 1896 when it was attacked by French troops. Fearing the totemic importance of the horse and the horse rider’s political radiance and mystique, the French soldiers destroyed the cavalry, the bows, the clothing and the tack. Families hid vestigesstirrups, shields and lance and arrow tips. The country’s independence did not reinstate its equestrian power. It was thanks to the efforts of local historians, of Madi Dermé and his father, that the outfits and the aura of the royal cavalry were recreated and presented in shows for new generations, reviving the memory.

Free spirits

Under the canopy, near the sleeping sheep, opposite the truck drivers with their oil-streaked faces, the four gather around the boiling tea. Awa, with her enormous hairdo; Alice, the distant princess; Sogho, the rasta; and the sardonic Souley. Sogho is slender and striking, his hair in Jamaican braids worked African-style. He comes from the street and knows only this bastion of the horsemen. Souleymane, known as Souley, stockier and more mischievous, is descended from a lineage. His family all rode horses, except for his father, who broke with tradition and forced his son to study. But Souley rejected school, preferring horses. His father punished him, to no avail. The family consulted an old clairvoyant, who concluded that his horse-riding grandfather was living again in him. That is how Souley ended up joining Sogho’s troupe. Ten years earlier, both of them played the horses at the dusty racecourse in the Hamdallaye neighborhood. But those days are gone, and the tiercé races are no more. Alice, proud and sensual, with her sleek, straight hair, walks in front of the boys, like a nonchalant Tina Turner. She rode as a child, and did acrobatics, combining regal slowness with powerful acrobatic moves. Wearing a lamé dress, like one of James Brown’s dancers, she displays the indifference and pride of the legendary Amazons. She worked in a gold mine, then for a rich American expat, but she holds herself like a queen. As for Awa, under her shock of braids that are more plantlike than human, she has no royal lineage and has to work harder than the others to earn her place in the group.

Echo of the past

One hundred years later, the riders of the rutted streets in Niocsin have brought the aristocratic past back to life. Tired of soccer and riding motorbikes, they have revived the lost art of their ancestors. They hold their cellphone in one hand, the bridle in the other: they have become visitors from another world, contemporary ghosts, the joyous shades of the cavalrymen buried in people’s hearts. A country that loses its emblem has an emptiness within, feels unjustified: the Burkinabe riders are not ready to relinquish their defining strength. The ordinary necessities of globalization do not prevent the survival of a seminal principle and the virtues of excellence that are bearing and courage, perfect technique. And the use of small donkeys essential for transporting firewood does not preclude the presence of horses sporting finely decorated saddles and tack.

A place to write

Every day, under the smoldering hot sheet-metal canopy in the Niocsin neighborhood, at an intersection between rain- pitted earth roads, I waited until the heat abated and the horses were taken out of their stalls. Leaning on the bar of an empty freight container converted into a drinks stand, I sipped my coke and took notes for the novel I was working on, Cœur-Volant, lulled by the talk of the horsemen lounging next to me on mats between dogs and sheep, raising their arm to take a proffered glass of black tea. The boys teased the girls. The teenagers drifted away, sensing that the conversation didn’t concern them. No one knew that right then, in the middle of Ouagadougou, I was writing about Paris and working on my ode to a woman I met at the age of 20, exasperated by the flies and the sugar that was making my fingers sticky.

Princess’ Yenenga lodge

Located near the city center in a leafy residential quarter, not far from the French Embassy, the Princess’ Yenenga Lodge is a single-story house set in a tropical garden. Done in soothing African colors, it is a peaceful, welcoming place with some 15 rooms, popular with diplomats and businesspeople. Relax among the plants and birds in the garden on one of the mist-cooled terraces or by the pool.

Princess’ Yenenga

lodge 651, avenue de la Grande-Chancellerie, Ouagadougou. Tél. +226 25 30 63 16 ou +226 70 21 63 15.

www.princessyenengalodge.com

Next

Scotland,
the lie and
the line of
the land

Carnet d’adresses

Princess’ Yenenga

lodge 651, avenue de la Grande-Chancellerie, Ouagadougou. Tél. +226 25 30 63 16 ou +226 70 21 63 15.

www.princessyenengalodge.com
Address Book

Going There

www.airfrance.com

Flight frequency

Air France has five weekly flights to Ouagadougou from Paris-CDG..

Arrival airport

Aéroport international de Ouagadougou.
En centre-ville.
Tél. +226 50 30 65 15 et +226 50 30 78 48.

Air France offices

A l'aéroport.

Bookings

— Depuis la France : tél. 3654.
— Depuis l’étranger :
Tél. +33 (0) 892 70 26 54.

Exhibition

During the Paris Photo show at the Grand Palais, Philippe Bordas is exhibiting his horseman photographs at the Galerie Renos Xippas stand. Grand Palais, avenue Winston-Churchill.
www.parisphoto.com
www.xippas.com

Further reading

Philippe Bordas est notamment l’auteur de
L’Afrique à poings nus (Le Seuil) et des romans Forcenés, Chant furieux et Cœur-Volant (Gallimard).

Burkina Faso
Olizane, coll. Guides Olizane Découverte.

© Parko Polo / Central Illustration Agency. Map for illustration purpose only.