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First Person: Of weddings and journeys


Our bus had two flat tires and after putting on the spares, the driver noticed that at least one of the spares had been cut in half and sewn back together at one point. This resulted in a 7 hour delay on the side of the road while we waited for a solution.

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January 30, 2009
- by Jeff Warkentin

Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso — The village is still the beating heart of Africa. I often forget this truth in the bustle of urban ministry in Burkina Faso. So it is that I find myself once again venturing out of the nation’s capital, Ouagadougou, into the Sahel, that famed transition territory between the Sahara to the north and the more fertile region to the south. My goal: to honour my friend and his family by accepting a personal invitation to his brother’s wedding. More than that, though, I intend to rediscover the family contexts of the university students with whom my wife Tany and I work.

The road had been awful the last time I’d ventured into this part of the country. This time the trip will be longer, so I’m prepared. I am on my way to David’s wedding. David is brother to Othniel – my friend, travel companion for this trip – and a young man who has been a faithful attender and budding leader in our new Mennonite Church in Ouagadougou.

The road to Doumbala – Othniel’s home village – is about 400 km from Ouagadougou where I live. The road has dramatically improved since my last visit. One hour of paved road makes the trip pleasant. Four hours of bumpy, unpaved road leaves me dusty and turning green but still in good shape. People laugh or sleep on the bus as we bounce along.

We encounter our first challenge some 100 km from our destination: a police officer stops our bus and instructs everyone to get off. I quickly check my visa. Phew! Still a month left before it expires. I chuckle nervously when 28 year-old Othniel shows me his identification card: the photo of a ten year old boy smiles back at me. Othniel’s identification papers expired years ago. Eyeing his grin, I am relieved to see he is in good humour, because the police officer is not.

The travelers are separated into two groups – those with valid identification and those without. I wonder about comparable experiences in places like Rwanda, where similar separations have occurred in more dire times. I am placed into the “valid I.D.” group. We are told to get on the bus and leave. Othniel remains outside, an in-valid. I start praying. The bus driver is still outside in conversation with police. Moments later, Othniel jumps gleefully back onto the bus and sits down beside me, a huge smile on his face. On peut aller! We can go. I am greatly relieved.


I am screaming down a dirt road on the back of a motorcycle, shivering. This is the coldest I’ve been after three years in Burkina. My jacket is zipped up over my head to protect me from the cold and dust, turning me into a headless horseman. I blindly balance myself on the back of the bike as we swerve, yet we seem to hit every hole along the way. The bag in my arms prevents me from holding on effectively. What if I fall? I am a hundred miles away from anywhere.

It is night when we arrive in Doumbala. We are about 10 km from the Mali border. This border literally slices right through some of the Bwaba people’s villages. What were the white colonialists thinking when the chopped up Africa? I am under a multitude of celestial Christmas lights in a blackened sky. I can’t look away. I stumble and tax my cramped neck as I walk.

For the next two days I am treated like the King of the Sahel. Bwaba hospitality is overwhelming. Though Othniel has not been home for over a year, he never leaves my side. I am his priority, even before his childhood friends whom he has not seen in a very long time. I think about western hospitality, about stories of missionaries leaving their African guests outside while they go in to eat. I learn and reflect a lot these two days.


Caption below
I was honoured to attend the wedding of Othniel’s brother, David, to Mariam. At a typical Burkinabé wedding, the bride and the groom are expected to show little emotion – almost to the point that they seem sad and wish they were somewhere else. I am told that this is expected of them. The whole day is in their honour and this is one way to show humility.

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The wedding ceremony reveals the high points of Bwaba culture. Most Burkinabé love to celebrate, but the music and dance here is exceptional. While the married couple traditionally must look reserved and even bored, the rest of the congregation is exuberant. Even at 5 am, dancers continue stirring the eternal cloud of dust in the courtyard by the church. The balaphone player who started at 8 pm the previous night continues to provide music.

We leave at dawn to catch our bus back to Ouagadougou. Othniel has an exam the next day – yet one more point of recent frustration with the university. Because of recent student strikes in protest of poor study conditions and decreasing financial aid, normal schedules have been disrupted and some students had only Christmas Day off before their exams continued. This shook up Othniel's entire Christmas and New Years plans – and a much needed and well-deserved week with his family in his home village was cut down to two days. Sidi, another Mennonite university student, joins us for the return trip.

Our bus breaks down thirty minutes after leaving the station in Dédougou. We wait almost seven hours on the side of the road for a fix. The seven superfluous hours turn into great conversation time. I gain valuable insights into the culture in which I live. My travel companions and I talk about the meaning of marriage and weddings in the Burkinabé context. This is such a crucial topic for the students with whom we work. We speak about what a servant-spouse looks like.

Burkinabé young adults are struggling with the ideologies of marriage: Do you have to follow the traditions of your culture when getting married? Do you need to be completely financially autonomous before taking the step? Do you marry a woman you know will be hard-working and serving, or does romance play a bigger role?

Young adult Christians in Burkina are pushing some of these boundaries and asking important questions while discerning what the Bible says about these themes. And we are listening and praying for ways to treat these issues respectfully in our young church context.

Finally, the bus is repaired and I am on my way back home, richer for the experience than if I had stayed home, trying to understand my Burkinabé friends from my urban context.

Jeff and Tany Warkentin and their three children are Mennonite Church Canada Witness workers in Burkina Faso. Visit the Warkentin blog at