Tag Archives: burkina faso

It is too beautiful to me.

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.”

Two days.

Ça fait deux jours.

If you have spent any significant length of time in Burkina Faso, it’s likely that you’ve come across this phrase – translated literally as, more or less, “It’s been two days.” Any encounter with a long-lost acquaintance, an old friend – or, in my case, the white guy who used to buy your apples before finding someone’s better apples – will begin with, “Ça fait deux jours!” This is invariably accompanied by an exclamation – an emphatic “Eh!”, not unlike the sound you would make as the family physician probes your throat with a tongue depressor, and a cry that often sounds like one of great pain or dismay. Reader, do not misinterpret that cry! These chance reunions, which seem to spite the bad fortune and inexplicable calamities that plague most African lives with striking frequency, are a cause for great happiness and hand-clasping and head-butting. More often than not your acquaintance will take a dramatic step back before commencing with the clasping of hands and butting of heads – a chance to appraise you from top to bottom, as if to say, “Who is this ghost from the distant past who has emerged through the mists of memory to greet me thusly?”

I interrogated a man once with the hope of discovering this useful expression’s provenance – useful, in the sense that I disappear with startling frequency from people’s lives in Ouagadougou, and so am constantly remarking upon the two days it’s been since our paths crossed last. If you have seen someone yesterday, the man explained, then it has only been one day since you last met. But if it was before yesterday…well, ça fait deux jours. He stood there with an expression of complete self-satisfaction on his face. This explanation was brilliant in its tautological simplicity. In America, after all, we might remark that it “felt like only yesterday” that two old friends met. Why not the day before yesterday, then?

Often I will greet someone after a long time apart with, “Ça fait trois jours!” You will not find a Burkinabé alive who fails to find this remarkably funny. Three days! Who had ever heard of such a thing!

To the regular readers of this blog, then, I say, with sincere and humble apologies: Ça fait deux jours. Life, as so often happens in the blogosphere, has gotten in the way of my best intentions; my writing – or, at least, my blogging – has suffered as a result. This is not to say I have spent these deux jours idly without you. After much hand-wringing, hair-pulling and self-flagellation, the finishing touches were finally put on my Harper’s story last month; it’s likely to appear on a newsstand near you sometime in the next week. This has brought me no small number of soundly slept nights, though the final verdict on my first magazine feature can perhaps best be described as death by paper cut: 10,000 little nicks and slices which seem harmless individually, but which, when taken together, have the capacity to bleed you dry.

It’s hard to say I’m disappointed with the story that dominated the past three months of my life, but the depression I felt upon its completion felt deeper – more fine-tuned, more specific – than the post-partum kind. What I had hoped would be the high point of my young career – a chance to flex my narrative muscle on one of American letters’ grandest stages – felt more like a war of stylistic attrition. With each successive edit, with each cut and compromise, the story seemed less and less my own. In the end, I’m not entirely sure I can boast about the story I wrote for Harper’s; I can, however, honestly say that there’s a story in Harper’s with my name attached to it.

Fortunately, there was a paycheck with my name attached to it, too. After the existential struggles and literary angst of the writing itself, this very banal reward – likely to be blown long before I screw my first editorial assistant on the strength of my Harper’s byline – has proven to be surprisingly satisfactory. It’s been a very long time since my bank balance had a comma in it; that comma thrills me. For the first time since I set foot on African soil nearly four years ago, the future – the immediate future, and whatever follows closely on its heels – doesn’t look all that terrifying. It almost looks a little bit rosy.

Pragmatist that I am, I’ve proceeded to go on what passes for a bender in my life of otherwise monastic restraint. I have eaten often and well these past few weeks, realizing in the mean time that you really do just need to trust the French guy at the table when it comes to ordering the wine. I have finally come around to the charms of French girls: they are, indeed, charming. I have had some very long nights in some very disreputable clubs, and have also discovered a heretofore unknown species of African wildlife: the German cougar. No, readers, these past deux jours have not been entirely wasted. After some difficult months, Ouagadougou has finally worked its way – wholly, unabashedly – into my affections.

It goes without saying, then, that I’m getting ready to leave it all behind. Much of my balls-out celebratory mood these past few weeks has owed less to an upwardly mobile bank balance than relief at my imminent departure. Having fought my way through the language barrier, the unending days of withering heat (115 degrees? really?), long spells of loneliness and depression, a lingering heat rash, and an encounter between the ceiling fan and my (now bandaged) hand that’s just too ridiculous to explain, I realized that Francophone West Africa and me just weren’t meant to be. And so after a farewell tour that will, with any luck, take me to Accra by way of Abidjan, I’ll be on my way back to South Africa – where, after another farewell tour, I’ll be collecting the odds, ends and assorted books I left behind, and decamping to Zanzibar for the foreseeable future.

On the surface, whether or not to bunk down in a tropical paradise for six months or more might not seem like the most difficult decision to make. (“What’s that? More fellatio? I couldn’t possibly!”) But I’ve entertained a number of entertaining possibilities on how best to blow my Harper’s payload in the months ahead: overlanding it from Casablanca to Cape Town, perhaps, or screwing my way across the former Soviet bloc. Both are no doubt worthy pursuits in their own right, but something would be missing in the end. What’s largely been a life of constant traveling for most of the past six years has, in one narrow sense, run its course. It’s time to hang up my backpack and get down to some serious writing. While this blog – a labor of love, often more labor than love – has been its own reward, it’s hardly enough to fulfill my literary pretensi–er, ambitions. If I’m going to write a book about my travels – my raison d’être for at least the past three years – I suspect now’s as good a time as any to do it. It would be a fitting punctuation mark at the end of this long, shambling, blessedly unexpected African chapter of my life, before getting down to the uncertain business of writing the next chapter.

The rains have finally arrived in Ouagadougou – not the torrential rains forecast daily by the sidewalk meteorologists, but enough to break the heat now and then, to bring the temperature down a few degrees at night. You can feel it in the air: the sudden changing of the seasons.

The system is no good.

Nights of relative calm in Ouagadougou – this after soldiers again took to the streets last Thursday, shooting off their rifles, looting shops, and sparking another two-day period of unrest in the Burkinabé capital.

These were terrible days chez moi – not because of the fear or uncertainty, but because of the crippling boredom. Gounghin – the busy little quartier where I’d spent nearly two months since arriving in Ouagadougou – had been dealing with eight- and ten- and twelve-hour power cuts all week; on Thursday night, our Internet connection – sluggish at the best of times – ground to a halt. For your average Burkinabé, this is no catastrophe: news, when it’s not traveling by SMS or word of mouth, arrives on the thousands of radios you hear crackling in the darkness at night, in courtyards and living rooms, outside of kiosques where a half-dozen men will sit quietly gathered around the latest reports. No, there are no mysteries on the streets of Ouagadougou. It is only the hapless foreigners – the American journalist with his phrasebook French, the Japanese tourist marooned in Ouaga for weeks – who rely on the Internet to beam the news from the English-speaking world onto their cellphones and portables.

On Thursday there were loud reports around Gounghin, bursts of automatic weapons; at times, it sounded like they were on the streets around Napam Beogo, shooting outside my window. I could hear the guns popping, the raucous energy of some mischief-making crowds – it sounded like someone had scored a late goal at the Stade 4 Aout. Was it possible that these midnight revelers, these cheering packs of men, were the ones holding the city hostage? It was a terrible night; the power came in fits and starts; every time my ceiling fan died, I woke up with my back stuck to the sheet. At half-past three I went into the courtyard to get some fresh air. There was Momoko, the poor Japanese tourist, sitting like a ghostly apparition in the moonlight, fussing with her iPod.

In the morning I found Lasso lurching across the yard. He wore a thick orthopedic shoe and walked with a pronounced limp, but he accomplished this with a certain style, a swagger. This is no small feat in Africa; a handicap here is a reason to be cast-off, shunned. But no, Lasso sent his bum leg thrusting forward like a declaration, a challenge. You could not imagine him sulking over his handicap: he was an artist, he ran a fair-trade company, he owned the auberge. He had seen London, Paris, Tokyo, New York. Worldly Lasso sat with his cup of Nescafe, his bald head fretted, the sweat already beading on his brow. He was complaining about the night’s troubles in French, a cascade of verbiage that I struggled to follow. The military had done something; the government had responded by doing something else. It was no better than trying to tune into the news on RFI. Finally, laughing his great, full-bodied, maniacal laugh, tipping forward in his chair, he said to me in English, “The system is no good.”

Maybe we’d forgotten, after a peaceful fortnight, that the system is no good – that nothing in Burkina Faso had really changed. Two weeks ago, after an anxious week of unrest and looting over the convictions of five soldiers in a sexual assault case, the military went to President Compaoré with their grievances. No doubt there were some token payouts – bags of rice for the barracks, more political posturing and promises – and everyone, in a state of dumb self-congratulation, hoped things would get back to normal. But there were two problems with this governance-by-triage: first, it failed to address the fundamental flaws in Burkina Faso’s repressive, one-party state; second, it taught the mutineers the invaluable lesson that if they wanted their grievances to be heard, their stomachs to be filled, all it took was a little late-night rampage on the streets of Ouagadougou to get the president’s ear. (As one soldier told The Associated Press: “The only way to be heard is to shoot bullets.”)

On Friday morning, there was more sporadic gunfire on the streets. The centreville was off-limits; the soldiers had been looting throughout the night. This posed no small problem for yours truly. Earlier in the week, I’d checked out a house in Wamtenga, on the opposite end of town – a cheerful little maison that, after nearly two months in the auberge, I was looking forward to calling home. I had finally conceded that it was time to settle into my Ouagalaise life – time to force my way into the ex-pat scene, time to hang my clothes in a closet, time to reacquaint myself with the simple pleasure of getting shit-faced on cheap white wine while I burned something on the stove. Yes, it was time to move from my state of permanent impermanence at Napam Beogo and have something like a life again.

All that was put on hold. In Gounghin, the word had already spread by midday Friday: the military was imposing a curfew, effective immediately. There was a listless sort of energy that accompanied this announcement – no panicky flights for safety, no stockpiling of bottled water and essentials. The little ruffians on my street corner were playing soccer and rough-housing as always; the marginally employed youths of Gounghin – the doers of odd jobs, the sellers of single cigarettes and hard-boiled eggs – were sitting on their customary benches, joking, passing the time. Only if you looked carefully did you notice a wary sort of movement, an inching toward home. The woman next door – a stocky, cheerful lady who braided hair under a zinc awning – shepherded the day’s clientele to her small front yard. The women cooking rice and in large vats down the street were now tending their fires in front of their houses. When a soldier on a motorbike drove by and fired his pistol into the air, everyone jumped, scattered. A cloud of smoke hung in the air. Then everyone was back out on the street.

It seemed that I, as the resident American, was the only one at Napam Beogo schooled in the ways of emergency preparedness. If no one else seemed all that inclined to plunder the local shops for bottled water and batteries, I was determined to do my country proud. We stocked up on water, spaghetti and canned sardines, determined to ride out the couvre-feu for however long it might last. (Afterward, having moved on to the lesser essentials, I began hoarding Nescafe and Brakina.) The only thing missing at the auberge was a radio – perhaps the only address in Ouagadougou without one – which cast us curiously adrift from the events going on around us. Only with the arrival of some surprise, daredevil guest throughout the afternoon would we get tidings from town: that the soldiers had been looting shops again around the grande marché; that they had pillaged the Lebanese-owned Marina Market; that they had stripped bare a number of electronics shops and Internet cafés; that they had set up road blocks around town, and were robbing passersby of their motorbikes and 4WDs.

Later we learned of the cause and the extent of the unrest: that it was no less than Blaise Compaoré’s presidential guard that had gone on the rampage, protesting over unpaid wages and housing allowances. The president himself took panicky flight on Thursday – there were shootouts that night inside the presidential compound – only to return on Friday and, in an attempt to quell the unrest, dissolve the government. Gone were the prime minister, the cabinet, the army chief. Again, promises were made to disgruntled soldiers, threats to hold all accountable under what these days amounted to a rather flimsy Burkinabé law. That night the couvre-feu continued – there was no way for me to reach Wamtenga. I exchanged texts full of longing with my soon-to-be housemates – I dreaded another lonely night in the darkness at Napam. On top of everything, I was sick; I had picked up a cold and a stomach bug, was coughing and sneezing and shitting my brains out. Thus I passed the second night of the curfew in my room, watching The Big Lebowski, eating a wretched plate of canned sardines and petit pois, and wallowing in my own self-pity like countless white men in Africa before me.

The protests continued on Saturday, but had taken a new turn: this time it wasn’t the soldiers, but the disgruntled commerçants – the city merchants – who angrily took to the streets. They were upset with the soldiers who had ransacked their shops, upset with the government that had offered no protection, no promises of reimbursement. Their anger was great, multiplying; they moved through the city by the thousands, torching the ruling party’s headquarters, the national assembly, the ministries. What terrible, aimless, spiteful violence lurks in the human heart! The commerçants had had their shops looted; now they would take down the government, burn the city, to show their outrage. The day passed quietly in Gounghin; the curfew had been lifted. The soldiers were perhaps busying themselves with the cellphones and laptops they had stolen. But in the city center, things still raged. I called Issaka, my taxi driver, to see if there was any way to get to Wamtenga. The city was pas tranquille, he said. We would wait till evening and see if things had calmed by then.

I took a walk around the quartier with my friend Madi, a long-haul truck driver who had just returned to Ouagadougou from Togo. His timing, I suspected, couldn’t have been much worse. We went to inspect the damage at Marina Market – you could see where they had broken the wall to take the door off its hinges – and did a lazy circuit of Gounghin’s dusty roads. The mood was subdued, but life went on. Men were drinking in the maquis; women were crouched over their cooking pots on the side of the road. In the salons de coiffure, there was a great buzzing of electric razors and braiding of hair. We sat with two of Madi’s friend and drank cold bottles of Coke. I could picture the hysterical descriptions of the recent unrest in the Western press; perhaps things would get worse. But this was life in Ouagadougou right now: a group of men in shirts with frayed collars and soiled cuffs, drinking soda, passing the time.

Later in the afternoon I was lying in bed – the power had come back; the ceiling fan was like a gift from God – when there was a knock on the door. It was Bani, the young, slight-framed, hard-toiling handyman of Napam Beogo, rumbling something in his basso profundo. They had called a taxi to take me to Wamtenga, he said; but I had to go tout de suite – before the 7pm curfew. This was no problem – my bags had been packed for two days. Just minutes before, I had been dreading another night under curfew at Napam; now, suddenly, there was the miraculous prospect of a boozy night at chez blancs, unpacking my bags, bitching about white things, settling into life as I would know it for the next two months.

Outside it was not a taxi but Lasso himself, grim as a fighter pilot before some perilous sortie, who lurched from the driver’s seat of his battered old truck to help with my bags. I asked if the city was calm, and he shrugged. We would drive slowly, he said, and do reconnaissance. At the first sign of trouble – he pantomimed soldiers firing into the air – we would turn back. He laughed his crazed-man’s laugh – at least we weren’t driving a new 4WD; in his disreputable old rust bucket, we would probably be safe.

He started the engine; Bani shouted something. Momoko looked doleful and waved. And then we were leaving Gounghin.

The road into town was empty – just slow-moving bicycles and the occasional taxi, freighted with furniture and bicycles and big sacks of things. The gas stations, said Lasso, had been closed since Thursday. Why was this such a problem? Because in Burkina Faso, as in most of Africa, there is no such thing as a full tank of gas. The taxi drivers topped off their tanks in 1,000- and 2,000-franc increments; the moto drivers, perhaps, just CFA 500 at a time. It is not unlikely for a driver to make three or four trips to the Shell or OiLibya each day. So if the gas stations close on Thursday night, it means that most vehicles will be off the road by Friday afternoon. Lasso said there was a single filling station on the outskirts of town that was still open – it was selling petrol for CFA 2,000 – more than $4 – a liter. Lasso laughed and shook his head. His dinosaur took diesel; and besides, he had been planning a trip to Ghana this week. Of all the things that could go wrong in the days ahead, running out of fuel wasn’t one of them.

We reached town; Lasso took the back roads. Better to avoid the Place de les Nations Unies – a flashpoint in recent demonstrations – and the row of ministries behind it. We bumped along, the streets were quiet – groups of men playing checkers in the shade; a woman braiding a young girl’s hair. It looked for all the world like a typical Sunday afternoon. Only outside the electronics and cellphone shops were there conspicuous signs of looting – empty boxes, plastic packaging, Styrofoam snowdrifts. No, this wasn’t random chaos unleashed upon the streets of Ouagadougou. Just as the attacks of last month had specific targets – the houses of the mayor, the army’s chief of staff, and the Minister of Security – the soldiers this week knew just what they were after: food from the supermarkets, clothes from a few select boutiques, and portable electronics.

Twenty minutes later we were outside my house in Wamtenga, honking the horn. Sebastian, a young German, opened the gate with Aus, the house dog, barking at his heels. Lucia and Jana were sitting at the table on the patio, hunched over their laptops, already hunkered down for the impending curfew. The electricity was thrumming, the WiFi was high-speed – yes, I was moving on up in the world from Gounghin. Lasso, with a last parting laugh and wave, climbed back into his truck for the nervous drive back to Napam Beogo. Baba, the night watchman, approached, old and rumpled, offering his clasped hands in greeting. The daylight was dwindling; the heat was still terrific. I dropped my dusty bags in my room, gave the place a quick appraisal – there was a single, narrow bed, three wooden shelves, and a small table that barely reached my shins – and decided to head to the nearest maquis to stock the fridge with Brakinas before the couvre-feu kicked in.

It was what I needed all along – beer, companionship, reams of English. How different from those lonely nights in Gounghin! We talked about the deteriorating security situation, offered half-baked hypotheses based on the no available evidence at hand. Were the soldiers pacified? Would things only get worse? Already the mutinies had spread to Pô, in the south (on Sunday, they would reach Tenkodogo, just east of Ouagadougou, and Kaya, in the north). What was the endgame for the mutineers? After the government buckled and their housing allowances were finally paid – then what? It was clear there was so much going on beneath the surface, long-simmering enmities within the army, internal politics we would never, with our Twitter feeds and wire-service reports, be able to comprehend. Impossible to imagine what backroom deals were being cut, what promises of advancement made to junior officers and barracks instigators. Compaoré was playing all his cards, buying time, but how could he possibly survive this uprising? First, it was the students protesting across the country; then the soldiers; earlier this month, a coalition of more than 10,000 Burkinabés – students, women’s associations, labor unions – protested the rising cost of living on the streets of Ouagadougou. Everyone seemed to agree that it was time for Blaise to go. How could he survive when the whole country was against him? Even if he managed to quell this round of unrest, as he did two weeks ago, how long before the emboldened army was on the streets again?

And if things got worse? We talked about contingencies, escape plans. Worried relatives were already offering to float Lucia the cost of a plane ticket – she was from the small Caribbean island of St. Lucia; when the coup hit the fan, there would be no Embassy in Ouagadougou to swoop to her rescue. Sebastian was being pragmatic, German: his company had already promised to repatriate its foreign employees if the situation grew dire; until then, he would be reporting to work on Monday morning. Jana – the third German in the haus; there was also Timo, who had gone home for a short holiday – had never been to Africa before; she had arrived less than three weeks ago. This was all so new, so dizzying, so unpredictable – hardly the trip she had in mind. For now, she was putting on a brave face. We talked about plans for a weekend getaway – a trip to a game park in the south with Sebastian and Frederika, a pretty German girl that was working at the Goethe Institute in town.

And me? I had no idea. After two months in Ouagadougou, I hadn’t so much as registered at the American Embassy (something I would rectify Monday morning). I was going to wait and see; then, I would wait a little longer. In June, I would be on my way to Spain; until then, I was hoping to make a go of my new home in Wamtenga. I had already built a cozy little daydream that evening of the life that lay ahead for me: morning coffees and writing on the patio; afternoons at the Super Gym Club; evenings at the neighborhood maquis. It felt like something in my soul needed this routine, this predictable homeliness – coups and couvre-feus be damned. No, things would have to get much worse before I hopped on the bus to Bamako.

It was a quiet night. The beers went down easy. We joked and drank and reassured each other that things would be fine, just fine. We sat around the table on our laptops – I rechristened the patio the War Room – and sent stoic emails to our families halfway across the globe. On Twitter, we followed the panicky dispatches of a hysterical white girl in Ouaga 2000 (“Ouaga deux milles”), a posh expat enclave on the far fringes of the city, who seemed to be tweeting from under her bed. “Note from UN security,” she wrote. “Things are calm in ouaga you can get out and get groceries… Thank god… I have been eating cereal for 3 days!” Clearly, Ouaga 2000 – a sprawling, soulless quartier of embassies, government buildings, and expat villas with swimming pools – was under siege. In Wamtenga, meanwhile, we were eating brochettes and mouton and watching the bloodsport of the geckos on the wall. It was the best couvre-feu I’d had in weeks.

On Sunday, I was invited to lunch with the family of my friend, Davy Renaud Ouandaogo. On the taxi ride into town, I saw the results of Saturday’s protests by the disgruntled commerçants: broken windows at the National Assembly, blackened walls where the Ministry of Commerce had been set aflame, shattered windshields, the burnt-out carcass of a bus in the middle of the street. There was a strange detachment to the scene on a quiet Sunday afternoon; it was like stepping through a carefully curated museum exhibition on African uprisings. The city – for today, at least – was tranquille. I bought a bagful of fruit for Davy’s family and switched taxis at the Place de les Nations Unies. The sun was high; the temperature had probably passed 100 by early morning. April, I’d been told, is the worst time to be in Ouagadougou. This prediction was proving to be true on a number of levels.

I waited for Davy outside the Pharmacie de la Trypano, under a tattered awning with a teenage boy who sat on a folding chair, keeping an eye on the motorbikes parked out front. When someone pulled up he jumped to his feet, waved them into a spot perpendicular to the storefront, and draped a piece of cardboard over the seat to protect it from the sun. In a country like Burkina Faso, there is no limit to the small, ingenious ways one will find to make a living. A sturdy young soldier arrived in combat fatigues; then a portly man in a Kaunda suit; then a handsome, middle-aged man in a fedora. The boy draped his cardboard then sat in the chair with his feet crossed, waiting. As soon as the pharmacy door swung open he was back on his feet, eager, deferential, clasping his hands and giving a perfunctory wipe of the seat before the drivers scooted off. I went through my shopping bag and gave him an orange, which he took gratefully and then sat there, peeling. It was nearly half an hour before Davy arrived, shouting, “Christof! Christof!” and waving his arm from across the street.

He lived just nearby – as soon as we turned the corner, I recognized the dusty road with its small kiosque and mango trees. His brother Joel was outside, bent over a basin of soapy water, washing his sneakers. Inside the compound there was a domestic clatter of pots and pans, a few curious sets of children’s eyes poking from behind a curtain. Davy took me to meet his sister, Auberge, who was busy preparing our meal in the sitting room of her small, two-room apartment. The room had blue cement walls and a zinc roof and colorful posters of the Virgin Mary and a beatific Jesus in a garden, gently smiling. Auberge – a tall, handsome, amply pear-shaped woman – was standing over an assortment of pots and basins, something bubbling on the charcoal fire at her feet. Behind her there was a wooden bench and a small wooden table and a single plastic chair. “Comme chez toi,” said Davy, offering me a seat. He wanted to go shower before we ate. Auberge, her feet bare, bent over the pot and shifted her heavy haunches, stirring the sauce. A radio crackled in the other room – a news presenter speaking in quick, urgent French, no doubt sharing with her listeners the latest crisis to hit one of the country’s former colonies.

The food was ready, but we waited for Davy and Joel to join us. Auberge sat heavily in the plastic chair, draped a leg over the arm, and started playing with her phone. I could only guess how long she had been preparing the meal over that single charcoal brazier. The room was hot, stifling – there was no fan, no breeze coming through the open doorway or the narrow wooden slats of the window. Auberge sat there, her face puckered and shining with sweat, and stared dreamily out the window. Maybe she was waiting for a phone call or a text from some prospect she met at church, or an old sweetheart from school. I asked if she was married and she laughed – a loud, haughty laugh, rumbling up from her stomach. “L’homme ici, il n’est pas bon,” she said. The men here were no good. They were full of talk, flatterie, they didn’t speak the truth. “Il dit pas la verité,” she said. She pointed to the ceiling and said she was waiting for God to bring her a good man.

She paused a significant beat before inquiring about my life in America.

The others soon joined us, and Auberge laid out the food: a large, communal tray of rice, over which she poured a tomato sauce thick with onions and sardines. Davy and Joel ate skillfully with their hands, balling the rice between their fingers; I, with Auberge’s blessing, chose to eat with a spoon, pantomiming the mess I usually made when I tried to eat without cutlery. The others laughed, they were forgiving. It was a good meal, and there was far too much food for the four of us. Afterward, perhaps feeling it her duty as my host, Auberge carved up one of the mangos I brought for the house. We talked about the current crisis, which had been dragging on for nearly a month. “C’est pas bien,” said Auberge. People had to feed their families. Joel, who washed cars in a dirt lot down the road, complained about the closing of the petrol stations, and the nightly curfews. If there were no cars on the road, there were no cars getting dirty, and no cars for him to wash. It was a very simple arithmetic. Over and over, as I talked about the crisis with Burkinabés, it was this point that they kept coming back to: not that they feared the soldiers, with their sporadic bursts of gunfire and looting, but the effects of going day after day without work, at a time when the cost of living was only increasing.

Before I left, Davy told me about his dream to see Europe. He didn’t want to stay there – Burkina Faso, he said, was his home. As always, whenever he chose to speak with feeling, he did it in his threadbare English. “I go see Europe, to come back, I’m sitting,” he said. “My house, Africa.”

My African house, meanwhile, soon suffered its first casualty. Jana, the sweet, petite Bavarian girl who had come to Burkina on an internship program through her German university, lost her proverbial scheisse on Monday afternoon: stressed by weeks of unrest, alarmed by a rumor recklessly spread on Twitter that the soldiers would be amassing in Wamtenga that night, she decided to book a Tuesday-morning plane ticket to Paris. It was impulsive, she knew; probably she would regret it later. But for the first time since the crisis began to escalate last week, she was at peace.

On Tuesday, the army issued a formal apology on state TV, saying it was sorry about the whole looting/raping/rampaging thing. They had had productive talks with the government, they said; the unrest was over. From now on, they promised to stop acting like a bunch of fucking Visigoths. By then, Jana had already boarded her flight to Paris, leaving a small hole and empty bedroom in our Wamtenga home.

Burkina loves to party.

A year ago I woke up, cotton-mouthed and dry-heaving, after ringing in my 32nd birthday in eastern Congo. It’s hard to top that fete for sheer dramatics, however superficial. (I had dinner at a swank Belgian restaurant and drank my face off at a lakeside villa; Heart of Darkness this was not.) But there’s something to be said for celebrating your anniversaire in a place called Ouagadougou.

It has been, as regular readers of this blog already know, a trying week in Burkina Faso, with military unrest sweeping across the country and a 9pm curfew in effect since Wednesday night. It would hardly seem like the time for anniversaires – the very word gets stuck on the tongue, impeded by the lowered portcullis of the couvre-feu. Yet yesterday, miraculously, the curfew was lifted – an unlikely gift from the Compaoré regime, not known for its bonhomie or benevolence.

The day was off to a sluggish start, the crippling effect of Saturday’s workout at the impeccably named Super Gym Club in town. It has been more than a year since I gave my much-neglected chest and triceps a healthy going-over, and on Sunday I felt each press and reverse-curl – every last huffing second on that rundown treadmill – like grains of sand sifting through the hourglass of time. Old! My body felt like one of the banged-up Peugeot taxis you see on the streets of Ouaga, the windshield veined with cracks, the passenger door jerry-rigged with wires and cords and oily rags to creak open but not, magically, full off its hinges with an overzealous tug.

It was a two-cup-of-coffee kind of morning. By midday, though, I felt refreshed, revived, downright spry. There was a fresh breeze blowing on the streets; it was a Sunday; I’d put off my work for another day. Happy birthday, old dog! I made plans to meet a friend, a local actor, Davy Renaud Ouandaogo, in town for lunch. My spirits were high, my mood celebratory. Brochettes de capitaine at La Forêt? Champagne at the Independance? This was no day for meager bowls of riz sauce and water sachets. For one day, if one day only, I would live like a citizen of the First World, a New Yorker. “Pas de problème!” I would tell Davy, as he nervously eyed the prices on the menu. “J’ai t’invitée. My treat, buddy.” In the back of the taxi, flush with the high color of my birthday budget, I soared. Life! Life! Life! It was a valedictory, world-beating sort of mood. Only when I got to the Place de la Nation and saw Davy on the side of the road, shifty and hard-contoured, his face fretted with cares, did I come tumbling down to earth, back to the grumbling realities of my African life.

I had met Davy during FESPACO – he’d attached himself to me outside the festival siege on day one, offering his ambiguous assistance in arranging rendezvous with obscure members of the Burkinabé film community. I was wary from the start: his narrow eyes seemed especially cunning, engaged in the sort of poor-man’s calculus that would no doubt yield some financial reckoning when the final tally was made. What was he after? It was the question that troubled me each time I saw his eager eyes singling me out from across a crowded room, or received one of his thrice-daily text messages: “Yo frèro,” he began, before inquiring about my news, my health, my spirits. He was poor, he had a four-year-old son, his bag-of-bones body barely filled out the handsome goloban tunic he wore like some long-deposed prince. He said he wanted to take me to the north of the country when the festival was over – to show me the sun rising and setting over the sand dunes, the desert landscapes dipped in gold.

We hardly crossed paths during the week of the festival. I was putting him off, making excuses. I was wrapped up in my own dramas. Only after the festival ended did we set aside a day for lunch.

He came to pick me up on his battered old Peugeot motorbike: it cost him CFA 400,000 – about 840 US bucks – when he bought it five years ago. The bike, with its patchwork frame cobbled together by the hands of countless mechanics, seemed to me like a metaphor for Davy himself: somehow, in spite of the hard life in Burkina, the fickle rewards of his career as an actor, through odd jobs picked up here and there, he persevered. He took me to lunch at a maquis near his house – he refused to take my money for the riz sauce; blows almost ensued. Then we went on a driving tour of the quartier, waving to friends and passersby, to the many fans who recognized Davy’s almost-famous face from such films as Sur la Drougue or Samira la Belle. “Tranquille! Tranquille!” he called out to them. We met the Minister of Health, who greeted Davy with vigor: Davy had once starred in a Ministry-financed film about circumcision. We stopped often – to greet a friend or cousin, to bum a cigarette, to engage in some shifty side-racket in which small rumpled bills changed hands. The young men we met were uniformly skinny, they sat in wise-cracking packs in the shade: the sellers of single cigarettes and phone credit and hard-boiled eggs, hustlers in ill-fitting clothes always 100 francs shy of their next meal.

Davy took me to his home, a cramped, stuffy room that he shared with his brother in a concrete barracks on the outskirts of town. The place was Spartan: a small wooden bench, a pile of sneakers and blue jeans, an FC Barcelona poster, yellowed Polaroids, an old blazer hanging from a rusty nail on the wall. A bedsheet hung across the doorway. Joel, 32, five years Davy’s senior, was sleeping on a thin foam mattress on the floor. He got up, groggy and smiling, pleased and confused to meet me. A friend came to join us, holding a pot of oily rice and beans that he ate quickly, greedily, scooping with his hand. Davy introduced me as his “bon ami.” We sat there for some time, laughing, talking. Davy told me about his son, Nicholas Dieudonne, who lived in a village some miles from Ouagadougou with his mother. Davy and the boy’s mother had split up; sometimes he called her on the phone, just to talk to the son who he hoped would some day grow to be an actor, just like him.

Joel sat up on the mattress and laced his sneakers. He was on his way to work; he washed cars in a dirt lot down the road. He made 300, 400 francs – less than a dollar – to run a soapy rag over someone else’s voiture. Sometimes, he went a full day without washing a single car. He showed me the palms of his hands, hard and calloused; he cinched his belt tight across his waist, the leather frayed and shot through with countless holes, each one a testament to another luckless day of work.

I was wrong about Davy – neither the first nor last time, as a white guy in Africa, that I’ve had to admit as much. I warmed to him, his solicitudes, his yo-frèro messages that arrived like clockwork every morning, afternoon, and night. We made plans for lunch on Sunday, another afternoon I expected to spend being hustled from one relation to the next, offering greetings and well-wishes, Davy already gunning the engine of his motorbike to take me to our next appointment.

But when I saw him standing next to a taxi on the side of the road, he looked anxious, his whole body sagged. His motorbike had had another small breakdown, he said; it was at a garage just up the street. Dreams of brochettes by the pool at La Forêt vanished into the exhaust-choked air; it would be an afternoon of hustling, of small favors, of deciding which repairs would have to wait for another day. We walked along the avenue, the listless Sunday-afternoon traffic dragging by, the families shuttling to the weddings or birthdays or funerals of some distant relations. I could tell Davy was stressed; no doubt he had planned some grande programme for the afternoon. Now everything was unraveling. He arranged for a friend to take me to a maquis in his neighborhood; he would meet me there as soon as his bike was ready. It took close to an hour for him to finally turn up – not on his own bike, but on one he borrowed from a friend. His shoulders hung heavily over his mug of Lipton tea; he ate his riz sauce in quick, sullen bites. It wasn’t until we hit the road and felt the wind on our faces that his spirits were revived.

We were on the road now leading out of town, the endless sprawl of dry-goods shops and fruit stalls and quincalleries cluttered with hubcaps and spare parts. Davy wanted to greet his uncle, who lived on the outskirts of the city, in the romantically named secteur 24. It was a very long ride. The motorbike Davy had borrowed was an old Peugeot with the deceptively bad-ass name “Ninja” stenciled on the side. It was a low-rent model; to jump-start the engine, Davy had to work the pedals like an exercise bike. I sat on the back, gripping the frame with white knuckles, while we bumped and jostled through a labyrinth of wide dirt alleys. Children scattered like marbles from our path. Old men, having seen just about everything in their day, seemed startled by the sight of a white guy wagging his hands in greeting. By the time we arrived, all the pains of Saturday’s workout had grown exponentially. I couldn’t feel my ass, though there is plenty there to feel.

The family lived in a large, walled compound surrounded by shade trees; Davy rapped his knuckles against a rusted gate and pushed his way inside. Two girls in their early-teens sat under a mango tree, one braiding the other’s hair. Somewhere there was the sound of an infant wailing. A husky woman, just out of the shower, came to us with an embarrassed smile, holding a towel to her bosom. Davy’s uncle, she said, was in the office. She led us through the cluttered yard and gestured inside the room, where a short, genial man was sitting behind an ancient PC, pinching a cigarette stub between his fingertips. He wore an oversized polo shirt that had faded, after countless washings and dryings under the Sahel’s fierce sun, from a vibrant green to something vaguely institutional. His hair had gone gray, his beard was threaded with silver; he regarded me with no uncertain pleasure, his eyes bright and mischievous. Yes, there was no doubt this was the sort of uncle who would make off-color remarks at the Easter dinner table, who would grab Aunt Sally’s ass in her Sunday dress, who would make obscure sexual allusions that sent the pre-pubescents within earshot rushing to the Webster’s dictionary. I warmed to him instantly.

Davy explained that his uncle, Joseph, used to work in some government ministry, but had since shifted into private enterprise. He sold agricultural machinery, the spare parts of which we had picked our way through in the yard. Joseph was finishing up a print job – the printer, an old HP model covered in a layer of brown dust, wobbled on the table with each pass of the ink cartridge – and offered to show us some of his inventory. He led us to his workshop next door, which was part junkyard and part mad scientist’s Third World laboratory. There were pumps and generators and drills and vices, sheets of scrap metal, pipes, rods, rolls of chicken wire, empty paint cans, cords, cables, blades, mixers, gears, cranks, chains, ropes, plugs, wires: all the detritus of his love affair with spare parts, the inner workings of things, the nuts and bolts of life. Joseph went into elaborate, French descriptions of some of the machinery in the yard, the specifics of which were almost entirely lost on me. Davy nodded and gestured, goading his uncle on; his tone was eager and expansive, as if, with a little bit of convincing, I might just be picking up a grain mill on my way out the door.

Before I left Joseph gave me a color print-out of his stock: a collection of smashing, grinding, plowing machines with names like la pompe, l’extracteur, l’egreneuse, la batteuse de fonio, le crible rotatie. They sounded like the sorts of things you did to disreputable girls in cheap hotel rooms. I thanked him graciously as he showed us out; he pompe’d my hand enthusiastically. Davy beamed – the visit had been a success all-around.

It was late in the afternoon; the temperature had dropped; there were the stirrings of life in secteur 24. Davy wanted to find a quiet place for a drink – somewhere we could sit and discuter before he brought me back to Gounghin. We drove back toward town, past the men hammering and sawing and lacquering furniture on the side of the road, past the old Muslims who sat in the shade of mudbrick walls, their richly colored boubous gathered about their legs. We passed an abandoned taxi which sat in tall grass, like some pre-Colombian ruin, and two goats nosing for scraps outside a restaurant specializing in Senegalese and Togolese dishes. The motorbike thrummed and surged – I could picture Davy pressing his heels into its flanks, goading it on.

We found ourselves at a manguier – a famous gathering place in Ouagadougou, where people came to picnic and drink bottles of Fanta and Flag in the shade of tall, leafy mango trees. It was a beautiful, tranquil spot, full of families and young couples enjoying the late-afternoon breeze. After six o’clock, said Davy, the place would be packed. Already there were dozens of tables and lawn chairs spaced apart, young boys hustling between them, selling water sachets and phone credit and DVDs and soft drinks. Before we’d even picked a place to reposer, two boys came bustling over, setting up a table for us. Packs of kids were everywhere, working for small change, or else trying to knock mangos from the trees with long poles tied together end to end. We drank orange Fantas and listened to the wind in the trees. Davy asked if I had any special plans for the night. Birthdays, he said, were a big deal in Burkina Faso. Either you would have an elaborate dinner at home with your family and friends, or you would all go out to a favorite maquis and spend the night drinking and dancing. Last year, for his 27th birthday, he invited everyone he knew. “Mon frère, ma sere, mon ami, mon cousine, ma baby girl, mon ami, mon ami,” he said, as if ticking them off a checklist.

Burkina aime la fête,” he said. Burkina loves to party.

Later that night, my own plans for a small birthday fête were coming undone. Two friends had just gotten in from out of town and were too tired to leave the house; another was laid up in bed, not sure if he was in the early stages of malaria. I had dinner instead with Lassané – Lasso, as he’s known in Ouaga, the owner of Napam Beogo and a regular man about town. We sat in the breezy garden of Le Verdoyant, an Italian restaurant and expat haunt, eating their highly overrated pizza. Waiters bustled about with thin-crust pizzas on silver serving trays. There were white people everywhere. I felt too good about my day to get the usual stirrings, the longings, the pangs of disappointment. Still, there was something there. It hadn’t been easy for me in Ouaga, I confessed to Lasso. My work had gone well, but I’d failed so far to make a life for myself in the six weeks I’d been here. Friendships were slow to form; the language barrier made it hard for me to approach a stranger at a bar, to flirt and banter and dispense the sort of low-rent small-talk on which many a relationship is built. These French had put me off, moving about in their small, shifty packs, like some Mesozoic tribe of chain-smoking hunter-gatherers. I doubted I would ever get admitted into the club, earn the ritual scars and markings that would make my life in Ouagadougou feel so much less lonely. I sulked and sighed and downed my quart of vin blanc. It was only later in the night that I realized I’d poured my heart out elaborately, feelingly, and almost entirely in French.

On the way home we had a small dust-up with a taxi outside the FESPACO siege. The driver got out and stood gravely surveying the damage, of which there was none. Soon the passengers joined him. If I were to say the word “skinny,” you could not imagine such meagerness of flesh and bone as came shuffling forward, like the ghosts of breakfasts past: one, a tall, limber young man in a Burkina Faso soccer jersey, and the other, a short spindle in track pants and sandals, wearing Chelsea blue. They approached the accident scene like they’d been called in to file a report. There was a great commotion of gesticulating and reenactment – maybe they were calculating trajectories, force of impact, rates of collision. Suddenly, in a country that ranks below Haiti, Suriname and Papua New Guinea on the UNDP’s Human Development Index, everyone was a fucking forensics expert. In the Chelsea jersey, CSI: Ouagadougou wanted to call our attention to a scratch above Lasso’s rear tire. What was he getting at? Did he want to run some paint chips by the lab? Lasso laughed, shook his head, shrugged, and laughed again. He made an expansive gesture which took in his entire vehicle – an old, dented pick-up with a broken windshield and an air of having seen better époques. Exactly which dent or scratch were they trying to use as evidence, anyway?

Behind the wheel, driving back to Gounghin, Lasso was laughing madly. He had worked himself into a state. Most likely the driver was looking for some small payout; the passengers would take a cut. As soon as Lasso had offered to call the police, they got back into their car.

C’est afrique,” he said, laughing, shaking his head.

The city today is bizarre.

At 2 o’clock Thursday afternoon, I officially sent the first draft of my fancy-pants African film story to Harper’s, ending a month’s worth of writing, fretting and hyperventilating – at least, until the second round of bloodletti–editing begins next week.

This was no small cause for celebration. For the first time in weeks, I left the auberge sans sac, sans portable and sans programme. I was, in effect, a free man. There would be no long days at the Independance, backside plastered to my seat while grave, chain-smoking Frenchmen watched the scrolling headlines on France24. There would be no mid-afternoon siesta at the CCF, trying to restore my frayed sanity. There would be no late-night fact-checking at the auberge, hoping to coax the sluggish Internet connection into a higher, faster state of being.

Instead, I walked. I walked with the hot wind blowing dust into my face; I walked with the motorbikes pin-balling across the road; I walked with the convoy trucks of soldiers and gendarmerie nationale doing their wary patrols of the city; I walked and walked and walked. Past the Fast Food Pizzeria Le Kaemead, where the tables were empty and a waiter slumped over the counter; past the Meuble Royal, an army of sofas and armchairs and dinette sets sitting on the street outside, covered in dust; past Tout Pour La Couture, its Caucasian mannequins painted an unconvincing shade of black; past something called Pressing VIP; past Ideal Coiffure, and Top Visage (“Coiffure Mixte, Pedicure, Manicure”), and Elegance Coiffure, and Eugene Coiffure, and New Style Coiffure (“Ici bon coiffeur”), and Divine Coiffure, and Eid Coiffure; past a white wall with the word “Garage.com” painted on it in big blue letters; past shops promising vente de produits divers and vente de liquers; past the Telecentre God Bless; past dozens of cafés and bar-restos and maquis and kiosques: little lunch counters with skinny men hunched over plates of riz sauce or soupe de poisson, bamboo blinds drawn to keep back the beating sun. I walked without a hope or care of where I might end up, feeling what David Foster Wallace described as the “second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive.”

The wind filled the trees. A man passed with a sewing machine on his shoulder, rapping a pair of scissors in rhythmic notes on the side.

“To exist on the earth,” wrote Czeslaw Milosz, “is beyond any power to name.”

In the centreville, my feet sore, my back achy, I stopped for a Nescafe at a small kiosque. A young man – good-natured, gap-toothed, handsome and shy – approached me, selling magazines. His name was Oumar; he was 21. He wore a loose shirt unbuttoned down his bare, flat chest. He had been selling magazines since he was 11 years old, he told me; in Burkina Faso, as in the rest of Africa, most families couldn’t find the money to keep their children in school. Even if there were no school fees, there was the high cost of a uniform, of pens and pencils, of books. Oumar, the third of six children, would get the rest of his schooling like this, learning life’s hard lessons on the streets of Ouagadougou.

I asked if he had ever left Burkina. Yes, he had visited family once in Bamako, had been to Côte d’Ivoire. He had family in the north of the country, and he had been once, too, to Abidjan. It was a few years ago, during qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup. Côte d’Ivoire had trounced Les Etalons 5-0. Oumar said it with a deprecating laugh – against the mighty Éléphants (“Tu connais Drogba?”), Burkina never stood a chance. Oumar thought the life was good in Côte d’Ivoire. People did not have to work to enjoy themselves. There, for CFA 50 (about 10 American cents), you could buy a whole bunch of bananas. But in Burkina? You could only buy a single one. Oumar shook his head. Burkina was not a good country. There was no work, there was nothing to eat. He said he wanted to go to America – he knew it from the movies. “C’est bonne la ba,” he said. It is good there. He wanted to get a passport, but it was too expensive: CFA 70,000 – more than $150 – an impossible amount for a young Burkinabé. In 2006, he said, it only cost CFA 25,000. What happened? I asked. He shrugged. How could anyone know such things? It was enough to know that that was the case, that he was selling copies of Jeune Afrique and Les Afriques to French tourists and employees of the Belgian embassy. And if he got to America, I asked, what would he do? He would sell newspapers and magazines on the street, just as he did here.

I left Oumar and was halfway down the street when I heard someone whistling at me. It was the boy from the kiosque; I’d forgotten to pay for my Nescafe. I was fishing some change out of my pocket when Oumar approached and waved me off. It was okay, he said. I was a guest in his country and he wanted to pay for me.

The heat had a beating intensity to it; there was something chastening about the feel of it on your face. Walking under this Sahel sun was like some ancient Navajo rite, a burning purification of the spirit. A trial by fire. By the time I finished my rounds of the city – three rambling hours, a healthy little walk-about – my mind was, depending on how you look at it, either half-full or half-empty. I had a good burning ache in my legs. My skin was warm to the touch. I felt happily spent.

At the CCF I saw my friend Steve, the foreign journalist who, by special request, will remain incognito in these pages. We had a drink and talked about the security situation in Ouaga – a situation which, in the past 48 hours, after the attacks on the houses of eminent personages here in the city, had suddenly grown more dire. It could go one of two ways, said Steve: either the unrest would grow and spread, it would be malignant, cancerous, eating away at the morale in the barracks, spreading from one military camp to the next, breeding more unrest, more violence, closing the shops, sending people into panicky flights, turning Ouagadougou into a city under siege – a city of blackouts and curfews, of shortages, a wartime city where you lived in fear of roadblocks and checkpoints and midnight knocks at the door.

Or?

Or the president would meet with the military, would hear their grievances, address their concerns, make some conciliatory pay-outs, and things would get back to normal. No doubt the government was trying that path now: Steve had seen a convoy truck passing earlier in the day, a group of happy soldiers sitting high up atop sacks and sacks of rice. The president had announced in his speech on Wednesday that he would be meeting with different factions of the armed forces Thursday morning, calculating what it would cost to quell the growing unrest. It was money, no doubt, that was at the root of everything. The military was poorly paid; most likely the rank-and-file had little room for advancement, the way was blocked by corruption, patronage – a loyal soldier getting passed over for promotion in favor of some general’s nephew. If some grand conciliatory gesture wasn’t made soon, the violence would escalate. But there was still room to maneuver. “If he pays the soldiers in poulet there could be a big fete tomorrow nite,” Steve wrote me in a text message the next day.

He had a sense that this was another act in the decades-long drama that began in 1983, with the coup that brought Thomas Sankara into power. Four years later, Compaoré orchestrated Sankara’s murder – the killing of a man who was like a brother to Compaoré. From the beginning, said Steve, he was seen as illegitimate by the Burkinabés – a power-hungry, blood-thirsty leader who had betrayed the fraternal bonds that tied him to Sankara. No one trusted Compaoré; a decade later, with the murder of Norbert Zongo – a journalist who was investigating the suspicious death of the chauffeur of the president’s brother – the bankrupt principles of the Compaoré regime were exposed. It was the moment, said Steve, when everyone realized that the Emperor had no clothes. Since then, the list of suspicious deaths had continued to grow. A political opponent poisoned. Another found in a flaming car wreck on the side of the road. “This is the sort of country where accidents happen,” said Steve.

Now the army was rebelling against the president; the students were calling for justice on the streets; the much-reviled mayor – a corrupt figurehead of the ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress – was laying in the hospital after the assault on his home. It was possible, said Steve, that this was the final chapter in Compaoré’s story – that the lies and injustices, the empty promises, the betrayals, had pushed Burkina to a breaking point.

We finished our drinks. The air was restless. A couvre-feu had been announced again for 9pm. Plans to celebrate the completion of my story would have to be put on hold – for another day? Another week? It was still impossible to say. A glum procession filed out of CCF: wispy French girls and anemic French boys strapping on their helmets and kick-starting their motorbikes. On the streets there was a nervous flight for home, market women wrapping their bundles, young men on bicycles pedaling with bean-post legs.

************************************

Yesterday, it seemed the impasse had been broken. Talks between the president and the military had gone well; more trucks full of rice had no doubt made their way to the barracks. The situation was calm, tranquille. The military assured the country they were again the pillars of “dignité,” “discipline,” and “courage” that they’d been before they started looting shops and raping women. “Rassurez-vous, les manifestations sont finies,” said a military spokesman. It looked like life might be getting back to normal.

And then, in the evening, a curfew was announced again. It seemed like an April Fool’s prank – the city was calm, the soldiers had been pacified. What was the point of another couvre-feu? A rumor circulated that the curfew would be in place until next week, that we would all have to wait until the president addressed the nation on Monday.

Outside the Place de la Nation, it took nearly 20 minutes to find a cab. The driver was a thin, agitated young man who was anxious to get home. I would be, he said, the last fare of the night.

La ville aujourd’hui c’est bizarre,” he said.

Dignity. Discipline. Courage.

President Blaise Compaoré addressed the nation this afternoon, hoping to calm with stoic platitudes the countless Burkinabés troubled by the country’s recent unrest. Words like “dignité,” “discipline,” “courage” and “les principes sacrés” were much invoked by the president, though he seemed to side-step, with presidential aplomb, the many questions that have surrounded nearly six weeks of turbulence in an otherwise stable and peaceful nation.

The military has been on the rampage for much of the past week – looting shops around the central market, assaulting civilians, raping women, and serenading the sleeping city each night with the rampant sound of gunfire. The president alluded to the military’s misdeeds in his address – expressing his “condoléances,” “compassion” and “profonde solidarité” with the families of the victims – but there was still little indication of why, a week after five soldiers convicted on sexual assault charges were released from prison, their colleagues across the country were still in a state of permanent protest. The president pledged to meet with disgruntled factions of the military tomorrow. But what would they discuss? What was really going on?

Last night’s unrest, which I largely slept through, was the worst yet. Gunshots riddled the houses of the mayor of Ouagadougou, the army’s chief of staff, and, ironically, the Minister of Security. The mayor, Simon Compaoré – the third highest-ranking official in the ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress – was hospitalized with injuries suffered during the attack; his house was reportedly ransacked. This evening, a 9pm curfew was announced across the country, as more shots rang out over Ouaga, and the city braced for another night of uncertainty.

On Tuesday soldiers fired a rocket at a courthouse in Fada N’Gourma, 130 miles east of Ouagadougou; they’d sealed off the city with tanks. Today, during the president’s address, shots were being fired in Bobo Dioulasso, the country’s second city.

I’ve felt hamstrung here with my inadequate French, unable to pick out the signals from the white noise of conversation that hums all around me. What are people talking about in the taxis, at the maquis? Life, I suspect, carries on in spite of such uncertainties, but surely there are rumors, theories, heated debates being spun over lukewarm bottles of Castel and Flag. Man is a political beast, but African man is a political beast with lots of time on his hands. What elaborate intrigues might I discover, what deep ore of discontent would I mine, if only I could get past my Il faut chauds and Hotel Independance, s’il vous plaîts?

Tonight I had planned to see a concert at the national stadium – the closing act of this month’s reggae festival, headlined by the Jamaican singer Max Romeo. I had admittedly been drawn less by the prospect of a night of low-rent rasta small-talk – respect! – than the potential for some worthy first-hand reportage. Not normally the ambulance-chasing type, I’ve felt compelled, this past week in Ouagadougou, to hover on the fringes, to draw as close as I can to the heat of conflict without getting burned. I am not a brave man, by any stretch, but if there’s any value in what I do (a question I ask myself daily), it should at least be on display, in whatever small measure, this week in Burkina Faso.

The streets were busy with evening traffic: a pack of children chasing after a soccer ball; neatly dressed men sitting at a sidewalk maquis, nursing their beers. In the distance, the stadium lights glowed like something extraterrestrial – an unnatural brightness when half of the city seems perennially plunged in darkness. I stopped to greet my friend, Jean Christophe – one of the neighborhood’s worthiest fresh-air inspectors, keeping tabs on Gounghin’s goings-on from his narrow, splintered bench. I told him I was on my way to the stadium for a concert, and he invited me to pass by the house afterward. “Vingt-deux heures, vingt-trois heures, je suis ici,” he said. In all likelihood he would be sitting outside all night.

It was just after eight by the time I reached the stadium. A cocoon of light hung over the field; the parking lot and the streets outside were dark. Rolling blackouts have been crippling Ouagadougou for weeks, and it was hard to say how much of the city’s juice was being squeezed by the sound system of Msr. Max Romeo. The show was already well behind schedule – they had only just finished the sound check – so I bought a Nescafe from a man selling drinks on the side of the road. A few other men were sitting around a picnic table, quietly sipping their drinks. Motorbikes buzzed by, bicycles steered by grave, stiff-backed men.

At half-past eight a few small crowds began filing out of the parking lot; so, too, did a line of cars. It seemed odd for a concert that was about to start – everyone was moving in the wrong direction. I had the feeling, as I so often do in Africa, that news was happening, with or without me. Almost on cue, the man sitting beside me gestured to the stadium. There was no concert, he said, because of the “couvre-feu” – the curfew, which had either just been announced, or had been announced hours ago, days ago: one of those timeless species of knowledge that is so startling to the white man but seems ingrained in African bones.

It was approaching nine, and suddenly the couvre-feu was like an electric charge in the air. There was a briskness, an urgency, to everybody’s movements on the street. Motorbikes hurtled through the darkness; young men jogged past, gripping their cellphones to their chests. Behind me, the drink-seller had already cleared away the glasses, Thermoses and cans of Nescafe, and was hastily soaping down the table.

The road had quickly emptied – no coincidence, since the Gounghin military camp is just near the stadium. Where a cheerful maquis had, just minutes before, been arranged with small tables and plastic chairs on the side of the road, there were now just barren patches of dirt. The hang-abouts who had congregated on the corners had vanished. A man stood in the doorway of his shop, the gate padlocked, his eyes warily watching the road.

There was a strange, nervous energy on the streets as I double-timed it back to my hotel. Everyone had gathered in small groups – men outside a kiosque, women and their countless broods by a neighbor’s doorway – as if reluctant to give up the shared pleasures of the evening until the bullets started to fly. I asked a couple of young guys outside a maquis why they didn’t seem worried about the couvre-feu, but they gestured casually over their shoulders: their houses were just here, they would be behind closed doors at the first sign of trouble.

This was the waiting game being played in Gounghin, as the first gunshots began popping somewhere in the direction of the centreville. The whole quartier was out on the street, watching, waiting. At any moment, I expected a military convoy truck to come barreling down the road, guns trained on bystanders. Everyone called out to me, concerned for my well-being, wondering why I hadn’t hurried home already. If they see a white man, someone explained, they’ll start to shoot. Pop pop pop pop. He fired his imaginary gun into the air. At the auberge the night watchman was happy to see me, hustling me inside before throwing the bolt on the door.

Because of the war.

I am on my way to lunch in the centreville when a young man, an artist, stops me. I’ve met him before – at the CCF, most likely, selling bracelets and postcards – and expect him to make some sales pitch. But no, he wants to warn me – the army is on the rampage again. They are looting shops around the central marché. “Tout le monde a sorti,” he says. Everybody has left.

There is a peristaltic push of people down the avenue – street vendors and hang-abouts, mostly, young men on motorbikes. They come in waves: a dozen youths in track pants and soccer jerseys ambling along, looking nervously over their shoulders; then a surge of people moving more quickly, more intently; then more listless traffic, men pausing in the shade, looking back in the direction of the marketplace – and again, more running.

Mamadou, the artist, is walking quickly in the direction of the Jardin de l’Amitie. All the little shops and kiosques along the avenue have closed – the soldiers were here two days ago, says Mamadou, stealing from the shops. We are poor people, he says. “C’est pas bonne.” The youths have been chanting “militaires voleurs” – military thieves – to warn others that the looting soldiers are on the way. We begin walking more quickly, following the nervous rhythm of the people on the street.

If Tuesday’s protests were sparked by the sentencing of five soldiers for the death of the student Justin Zongo, as has widely been reported, then perhaps some deeper vein of discord in the army has been tapped. How else to explain the looting on Tuesday night? Or the fact that the soldiers are back in the centreville today, terrorizing shopkeepers around the market? No doubt there are other long-simmering grievances in the military – inequalities between the lower ranks and their commanding officers, disputes over promotions and pay. Enlistment in the army in much of Africa is often just the least unpalatable option for a young man with no other prospects. If not the military, what? Often he’ll simply join the swollen ranks of Africa’s jobless youths – the same masses in soiled jerseys and second-hand t-shirts and frayed belts now jogging down the Avenue de l’Independance, clutching onto their cellphones and glancing worriedly over their shoulders.

I part with Mamadou at the Place de les Nations Unies, wishing him bon courage. I’ve decided, qua blanc, to wait out the unrest in the air-conditioned bar at the Hotel Independance. But soon curiosity gets the better of me. The situation on the street is hard to gauge. Still there is this herky-jerk flow of people out of the city center, but no sustained, panicked rush. If things were getting bad – if the soldiers were opening fire on passersby – then the exodus would be swift and certain. I linger on the avenue. Cars and motorbikes whiz by, some honking their horns, arms waving out the window to hasten our flight. Almost everyone is waiting, watching – looking back toward the marketplace for signs that the merde has officially hit the fan. A few people duck into the ministries of science and commerce and sport – whatever their grievances, they wager, the soldiers are unlikely to take it out on the head of the football federation.

Anywhere there is shade a crowd gathers. Some local expert has the stage, offering theories or eyewitness reports. Then someone else arrives with some fresh intelligence to share. Now he has the floor. A man has just come from the market, or spoken to a cousin who owns a shop, etc. There is much debating and head-shaking and anger directed at the soldiers that have waged their selfish battle on the poor masses. How many shops have had to close this afternoon? How much business is being lost? Everyone is standing on the road’s shoulder, hands shielding their eyes from the sun, trying to see if things in town are getting better or worse.

“When the elephants tussle,” says the old African saying, “it is the grass that gets trampled.”

After some minutes I start moving cautiously back down the avenue. I am far from the action, and I reason that panic will ripple out and reach me long before trouble does. Fleet-footed I am not, but the façade of the Independance is still well within view. In just a few minutes, I can be sitting at the bar, drinking a café au lait and watching footage from Libya on France24.

I reach a small shaded garden. Everyone is standing, watching, waiting. A woman, her hair wrapped in a sequined headscarf, walks by, holding two small children by the wrists. Feeling bolder, I cross the avenue. A nervous sort of calm has settled. People have begun to open their shops. Two Muslim men are unrolling the prayer carpets they had hastily bundled up at the first signs of trouble. Everyone is cautiously inching back into their routines.

I stop to chat with a small group of men in front of the Alimentation Cobodim, the gates of the supermarket still down and heavily padlocked. They tell me that the soldiers had attacked someone across the road – either they had hit them with their hands, or a rock, or a machete, I can’t tell. There was blood everywhere, they say, pointing. I ask if it’s okay for me to continue on my way, and they start laughing and protesting loudly. Either it’s not a problem, because I’m white, or it is a problem, because I’m white. It is times like these that my French feels wholly inadequate.

The gates are still down on all of the shops: Zongo Telecom, Faso Babouche Sac & Valise, Moumoula Mobile Trading, Boulevard des Stars.

A truck drives by full of riot police, outfitted for battle.

I stand in the shade and wipe the sweat from my face and neck: it is 39 degrees, about 102 Fahrenheit – a mild day, by recent standards. The women have returned to the street, selling their blackened bananas and arranging strawberries in little baskets. “Fraises, fraises,” they call out to me, smiling seductively.

I stop to talk with my friend Ibrahim, a bookseller who has promised to find me livres anglais. He solemnly lays them out on his bench, one after the other: a book by James Patterson, another from the Twilight trilogy, an EU guide to cultural institutions in West Africa. “Not today,” I say apologetically.

On the street a motorbike pulls up to me. It is Mamadou, another Mamadou – another artist with his rucksack full of bracelets and postcards. I tell him I have no money for postcards today. He says he just wants to make a small sale. It is three days he hasn’t worked “parce que la guerre” – because of the war.