Last weekend I happened to be in Ouagadougou for a GAD meeting, and it coincided perfectly with the opening of SIAO, so I decided to go and shop around and let you guys know what it was like. SIAO is the largest trade show in West Africa, held every two years in Ouagadougou. Vendors come from all over this part of the continent selling a variety of different artistic pieces, including sculptures, paintings, bags and accessories, clothing, jewelry, table decorations, kitchen materials, and more. There are also a number of co-operatives represented, many of which sell the aforementioned items and others who market food, such as dried mangoes, different-flavored honey, chips, and creams made from natural substances such as coconut or guava.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself, so I’ll back up. SIAO is held in a part of Ouagadougou called Bogodogo, but most people just refer to the area as SIAO after the giant pavilion built to host the trade show. The road is roped off several blocks before and after the actual entrance, and is lined with opportunistic Burkinabé trying to sell anything from hats to kebobs to water and sodas. For the equivalent of about $2 you can purchase an all-access pass at the entrance, which allows you entrance to all of the pavilions.
Once inside the arena, a small open square with bleachers arbitrarily placed along its edges leads up to a large stage with speakers. This is inhabited throughout the day and into the evening by performers rapping, dancing, and broadcasting their way into attendees’ hearts. If you duck off to the side, you will come across – yes, in West Africa – a lady selling cotton candy! In fact, the whole event exuded a very carnival-esque atmosphere. Now, as I’ve said, this is the largest trade show held in all of West Africa, so it’s huge. Four to five massive pavilions sit inside the arena, each packed full of small boutiques and shops set up to house the vendors. Two of these pavilions are air-conditioned and possess more of a Western, casual shopping environment, while the others preserve the feel of an African, open-air market (although covered and still much less stressful than if you hit, say, the Grande Marché in Ouagadougou).
Once inside, you’re free to browse, moving as slowly or as quickly as you like, looking at everything or searching for certain items in particular. All of the stands are labeled with the name of the shop, entrepreneur, or co-operative, and which country they hail from. Some of the items are labeled with prices, but most are not, and even those with a tag are often still up for discussion if you are persistent enough, giving entrants a chance to really flex their bargaining muscles and see how good (or not) they are. Some natural advantages also apply; for example, it can be harder to negotiate prices down during the first few days of the show, but by the last weekend vendors are much more flexible, as they are eager to sell everything they brought with them. Additionally, if you’re a bit cutthroat, I don’t recommend going back to the same boutique more than twice (and even that can be pushing it).
There are larger items for sale outside of the pavilions as well, including some beautiful tables, chairs, and lamps. Luckily, the entrances and exits to most of the exhibition areas are populated by locals selling drinks, a necessity when you’re spending hours walking, inspecting, discussing, and bargaining. This year, SIAO was sponsored by Japan, so the Japanese flag is featured on the SIAO fabric and bags produced just for the event; I was also told that there was a Japanese restaurant set up in the arena, although I did not visit it.
SIAO provides a great opportunity not just to view the different types of products fabricated in countries that sit so close to one another, but also to meet both Africans and ex-patriots living throughout West Africa. Surprisingly, I heard a lot of English being spoken, and discovered later that USAID (the U.S. government’s arm for funding development projects abroad) had sponsored a section of one pavilion, so a lot of co-operatives organized, trained, or funded by USAID or American ex-patriots were grouped near one another. After living in a French-speaking country for nearly a year and a half, it was also bizarre to hear announcements coming over a loudspeaker in both French and English (especially when they were messages such as, “the owner of the green Nissan car outside may choose to move his car…or we will take it”). The event also provided a great opportunity to converse with West Africans from neighboring countries, and I bought items that came from Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal, Chad (spelled “Tchad” here), Ghana, and Mali. In a place that’s known for its high levels of poverty, it was refreshing to see such a large number of people that had worked, trained, and invested to become highly skilled in a trade so as to make a livelihood for themselves, and to see the outpouring of people that turned out because they are interested in what these artisans have created.