One Saturday afternoon last month, I was invited to a going-away party for a young Frenchwoman who had been working as an assistant to my friend Lasso at Napam Beogo. It was Fanny’s fourth visit to Burkina Faso, and she was staying, as she had on previous trips, with a Burkinabé family in a small compound of cement-block rooms in a crowded quartier nearby. The day was characteristically hot; when I arrived, family and neighbors had already arranged themselves on rickety wooden benches in the shade of two tall mango trees in the yard. Fanny, who was bringing back to Paris three bulging bags of locally produced dresses and handbags – one of the many fair-trade businesses Lasso ran out of Napam – was still busy arranging and rearranging her things. Her forehead was knit with cares. Earlier that morning, an Air France saleswoman had told her she could only check 25 kg. worth of baggage for the flight to Paris – 5 kg. less than she’d been promised on her email confirmation the week before. Now she had to find an Internet café so she could print out her e-ticket, in case there were problems at the airport. She still hadn’t finished packing. And then all those goodbyes!
While she bustled about the yard, I sat with two young neighbors, Francois and Benoit, quiet, slender youths who spoke to me in the halting English they were learning in secondary school. Francois told me had dreams to visit America: to see Miami and Las Vegas, places he had known from American movies and TV shows. Las Vegas had a special attraction for him. “I see it on TV, and it is too beautiful to me,” he said. Sitting in the drowsy afternoon heat, with the flies buzzing in our ears and a string of listless days stretched out before him, it was easy to see why the neon-lit Strip, the carnival bustle of Sin City, might seem like a beautiful thing to Francois.
The women of the house came and went, carrying pots, gathering children, emptying bottles of ginger juice into big plastic washbasins filled with chunks of ice. On the table were an assortment of oversized pots that looked like they would have been perfectly suitable in an army canteen or police mess hall. The men sat and fidgeted. Soon plates were handed out; two pots – one of spaghetti, the other with a sort of vegetable ghoulash – were placed on the ground in front of a well-dressed man, a schoolteacher. He heaped a great pile of food onto his plate, then passed the pots to the man beside him. In that way, moving clockwise, the spaghetti and sauce made their way around the circle. We sat hunched forward, elbows out, eating quickly. The women were still inside. Someone told a lewd joke which I didn’t entirely follow (punchline: “Do you want to speak French, or do you want to eat meat?”). I had brought a bottle of wine, which posed certain problems since there were more drums at the party (1) than corkscrews (0). A succession of sharp instruments were brought out and used with varying degrees of success, until the cork was finally pried from the neck of the bottle. The wine was already lukewarm. We drank it from enamel bowls and plastic cups. Gradually, a rasta began tapping a beat onto his djembe. The rhythm gathered pace, until the children started dancing, flinging their bare, dirty limbs every which way, stomping up clouds of dust. When the rasta finished, a few of us applauded. Then he passed the drum to his left, and another man – less practiced, but no less confident in the rhythm he began beating out – took up the tune where the rasta had left off.
Watching Fanny as she moved between members of her surrogate family, laughing, choking up, wrapping her arms around them with an easy grace, I thought about how much was missing from my life in Ouagadougou. Fanny seemed entirely at home here, in a way that I – that most expats, here and elsewhere in Africa – never would. During the crisis in April, when bullets were flying all around us in Gounghin, she told me that she just wanted to be back at the house with her family; her voice strained with emotion. Her love was generous, genuine, and entirely reciprocated: the whole damn place was full of devotion. I could never really bring myself, despite my best efforts, to give so wholly of my heart in foreign lands. Finishing my spaghetti and room-temperature wine, walking along the road in search of a taxi, I wondered if it was my stingy temperament more than my whiteness that would always make me a foreigner in Africa.
This irreconcilable contradiction – the need to love and be loved, pulling against an equally strong need to be my own cranky self – has brought both many anxious nights and many opportunities for redemption. Often I’ve thought, as I doled out small acts of goodwill, here and elsewhere, whether my charity had less to do with its subjects than with a need to stir up some long-buried, almost-lost emotion – to remind myself that I am capable of goodness and compassion, too. (Often I’ve thought, too, that the act of giving itself should be morally neutral: that for the recipients who have paid their hospital bills or their child’s school fees or simply felt their faith in mankind redeemed, whether or not I felt ethically squared with the whole transaction was beside the point.) Last week, on my way home from the gym, walking along Ave. Charles de Gaulle at dusk, I was approached by two young men, English speakers, raggedly dressed, talking with the lilt and inflections of West African pidgin. They were Gambians; they had been here two days and needed help. They spoke no French – they smiled sheepishly at this admission, as if it were a terrible secret. The older and bolder of the two, Emmanuel, explained that they had left Banjul on a bus bound for Libya; they were trying to make it to Europe; they got side-tracked in Niamey, and somehow ended up in Ouagadougou instead. It was a story so improbable, so implausible, that all the false notes seemed to ring with authenticity. Surely it was too tall a tale to be made up! Why would two Gambian conmen be working their hustle in Ouagadougou, of all places? And besides, what African migrant didn’t have an incredible story to tell? (My friend Denis Mvogo, a Cameroonian, had been living in Morocco for more than two years when he suddenly felt compelled to leave in search of better fortunes. He was a writer; he had heard that Ouagadougou was a supportive place for budding artists. He left for Algeria but was twice detained at the border. In Algiers, he spent months hustling for cash to pay his way to Burkina. He ran out of money again in northern Niger: he was stuck in a barren town where the emaciated cows chewed on cigarette butts. Finally, he was able to contact a sister in Cameroon; she sent him money through Western Union – enough to make it to Niamey, and then, Ouaga. If he had approached me with this story on the street, looking for some small charity, what would I have said?) I was tired – I’d had a long work-out – but I wanted desperately to believe them. They needed some money for food and cellphone credit. If they could only reach their mother in Gambia, she could arrange to send them money through Western Union. Still wary, I offered them my phone. A call was made, and then another. Their mother was in the village, they couldn’t reach her. They would have to try again the next day. I offered them a small bit of money – CFA 2000, about $4.50. It was, I knew, my way of hedging my bets: of giving just enough to feel like I was helping, but not enough to feel like I was being duped. I had been in the same position on this continent countless times before. Someday, I’ll offer a class in higher mathematics on the White Man’s Calculus in Africa.
The act of giving, I also knew, on my last days in Ouagadougou, was a way of compensating for the fact that I could not be a better person, a better friend – for the fact that, going back to the story I opened this post with, I could never be Fanny. Leaving a country, disappointed with the meagerness of my accomplishments, I always feel something of the spirit of Dr. Colin in Graham Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case, who, turning his back one afternoon on the lepers at his hospital, “felt some of the shame of a deserter as he walked away from his tiny segment of the world’s battlefield.” I have occupied this small corner of Ouagadougou for the past four months, fighting my minor skirmishes. Now I am packing up my things and, like a true soldier of fortune, setting off for another front line.
A few weekends ago, my friend Davy Ouandaogo took me to the house of Valentine Sankara – the brother of the late revolutionary leader, Thomas. Valentine and his family lived in a modest compound not far from Davy’s home: a mango tree in the yard, some furniture arranged on the tiled patio, two unmarked plots where the bodies of the grand-mère and grand-père were buried. (Davy himself had a connection to the Sankara family, through the mother of his son.) We sat there in stiff armchairs while Valentine – a tall, somber man – reclined in a white tank top and cotton shorts, watching coverage of some parliamentary meeting on RTB. At the appointed hour, his young daughter duly came into the room and switched the channel to her favorite Indian telenovela. Valentine sighed and showed me around the house. In the living room there was an antique clock, a wall calendar from the Christian Children’s Fund of Canada, gilt-framed portraits of some ancient grandmother and paterfamilias. He showed me pictures of his brother, a young, handsome man in military fatigues staring bravely into the camera, as if already bracing for whatever treachery the future had in store.
The next weekend, Davy took me to see Thomas’ grave. It was in a shabby cemetery buried deep in Wemtenga; a sprawling landfill had grown beside it, and scraps of paper and plastic bags blew across the graves. Davy wound between the plots on his moto until we reached the former president’s tombstone: a big block of cement on which the white paint had flaked off, with the words “President de Faso…Chef de L’Etat…Camarade Capitaine” barely legible. It was a sad tribute to the man who had, perhaps more than any other, once carried the nation’s hopes on his shoulders. Two mangos had been laid atop the burial plot in offering; beside them was a small plastic sack filled with dirt, a dry branch poking out like a skeletal finger. Flanking Sankara’s were the graves of a dozen other soldiers who had died beside him during the coup that brought President Blaise Compaoré to power. Davy walked somberly around the faded tombstone, as if aware of everything its disrepair signified. But he was hopeful, too; he believed in the spirit of the protests of recent months, and knew there was a generation of young Sankaristas who would follow the example of their departed leader.
Yesterday, I met with Davy for our final afternoon together; his text messages, with their memorable “yo frèro” salutations, will be sorely missed. Late in the day, after the worst of the afternoon’s heat was behind us, he took me to see the small kiosque near his house that I was helping him rent – a business that he hoped to have up and running in the next few weeks. He laid out his designs for me: here he would arrange some chairs and tables on the street where his clients could enjoy their beers, there he would plant a small jardin of flowering plants, here he could grill brochettes in the evening. It was a modest place for his modest hopes. (My mind was called back, for some reason, to the wooden board hanging from a tree outside his home, with the Biblical “proverbes du jour” scrawled across it in chalk.) Describing his plans, Davy said he didn’t want to be like his friends – young men of meager means who had nothing to provide for their children. (The landlord, young and slightly disheveled, grinned and scratched his ass in the yard, explaining to me, “Moi, je bois trop!”) “Je combate,” Davy said. “Je lutte, je cherche.” He was searching for a better life – not for himself, but for Nicolas Dieudonne, the four-year-old son living with his mother in the far-off village Davy only visited every few months. He knew his kiosque would be a success: driving down the city’s dusty backroads on his moto, the whole world seemed to cry out to him, embrace him with their greetings.
“J’aime tout le monde,” he said. “Je travaille pour tout le monde.”