Saturday, March 12.
These mornings in Ouagadougou are like a hungry dog dragging its tail through the streets. Nearly three weeks since I arrived from Accra – that inauspicious bus ride, a full day’s journey: my first impressions of Burkina Faso were bleak fields full of scrap metal and cinder blocks, spare tires and oil drums, little cement-block homes with tin roofs – and the heat is only getting worse. All week the temperature has been pushing 110. In the afternoon you see men sprawled out on pieces of cardboard in the shade. They sit Indian-style with battered pewter pots beside them, pouring out little cups of tea and watching the hours drag by. It’s impossible to accomplish anything. In the morning my hotel room is like a furnace. Count your blessings, wealthy foreigners who can shell out for climatisée! My thoughts have been fragmented, heat-tormented, scattered. I have three weeks to finish the biggest writing assignment of my life – a feature on African film for Harper’s – and instead I wander the city like a laptop refugee, searching for air-conditioning and free WiFi while I dream of temperate northern climes.
The week-long FESPACO film festival wrapped up last weekend. Goodbye to those carnival crowds, the masses of Burkinabé cinephiles, the French tourists, the Tuaregs selling knives and bangles, the Japanese cameramen, the German and Italian festival programmers in search of the next big thing, the young hopefuls from Nigeria and Mali and Kenya and Ethiopia and Congo, the foreign journalists muscling their way through FESPACO headquarters in search of lanyards and swag. Goodbye to Madame Lucie Aimee Tiendrebeogo, that husky liaison of the Departement Communication et Relations Publiques, with her stenciled eyebrows and wide-berth hips, who lowered her face like a portcullis at the sight of me approaching with my excusez-mois and s’il vous plaîts. Goodbye to starlit screenings at the Ciné Oubri and the Institut Français, to brochettes sizzling in their own fat on smoky grills, to Tuareg blues at the Jardin de l’Amitié, to more bottles of Flag than you dare remember. Goodbye to the fruit bats whirling over the pool at La Forêt while we ate brochettes de capitaine and fretted over the future of African cinema. Goodbye to the politics – you will not be missed. Goodbye to nights at the Hotel Independance, the tables littered with empty beer bottles and roasted peanuts and the occasional coup de grâce of a bottle of Jameson, and the talk passionate and distressed, those heart-wrenching hopes and fears of filmmakers who have spent their lifetimes building this marvelous cathedral that in the West we so tidily and summarily dismiss with air quotes and cocked eyebrows and low-brow questions on distribution and economics: we could write our stories on adding machines.
Goodbye to the maquises, the 5am whiskeys, the missed screenings, the missed calls, the technical difficulties, the applause, the long shoving lines outside the Ciné Burkina on nights when the theater was bursting at the seams. Goodbye to the actor who showed me pictures of his four-year-old son, who he wanted to be an actor, just like his father. Goodbye to coffees on the terrasses, lunches at L’Eau Vive. Goodbye to bowls of riz sauce we ate standing up, hustling to make our way from theater to theater. Goodbye to the plastic pennants strung from the streetlights, the fraying red carpets and velvet ropes, the opening and closing ceremonies with their fireworks and equestrian acrobatics. Goodbye to the spectacle, the kinetic energy, the restless need to be everywhere at once. Goodbye to nights turning into mornings turning into nights. Goodbye to the whole big dire dysfunctional pageant, the love-hate-love relationships, the urgency, the desire, the promises we made and broke and will try to make whole again in two years by the pool at the Independance.
But with FESPACO gone, and the heat still wrapped around your throat like a horse collar, and the days long and getting longer, there is still an urgency on the streets of Ouagadougou. These are turbulent times in Burkina Faso – a country which has, for more than 20 years, been under the thumb of Blaise Compaoré, who took power in 1987 after a bloody coup. Compaoré by then was an old hand in the coup business: four years before, he helped organize the putsch that brought Thomas Sankara, the energetic, idealistic revolutionary, into power. Sankara’s brief reign was memorable and full of promise. His vision was vigorously pan-Africanist: he sought to sever ties with the country’s former colonial rulers in France, to shake off foreign aid, to nationalize industries, to promote education and public health, to cut spending on bloated civil-service salaries, to raise the status of women, and to restore a sense of dignity and self-determination to a country that was still licking its colonial-era wounds. It was Sankara who dropped the country’s colonial name, Upper Volta, and replaced it with Burkina Faso – a name that means, in the native Moré language, “the land of upright men.”
Sankara’s programs made him a champion of the poor, but, not surprisingly, earned him powerful enemies among those who preferred to maintain close ties with France and their allies in Côte d’Ivoire (which, before its unraveling, was the powerhouse of the region). In 1987 he was murdered in a coup that was never fully investigated, though President Compaoré is widely considered to be the mastermind behind it. The repercussions of that coup – as well as the violent, unsolved murder in 1998 of the journalist Norbert Zongo, who was investigating another politically motivated killing – are still felt in Burkina today. In L’Indépendant newspaper this week – which Zongo himself founded – an editorial bemoaned the culture of impunity that has been allowed to poison the political climate for the past two decades.
It’s that same impunity which has led to the current unrest. Last month, a high school student, Justin Zongo, was taken into police custody in the city of Koudougou after an altercation with a female student who, as the story goes, comes from a family with close political ties. Days later, Zongo died while still in police custody – of meningitis, according to the official report, though Zongo’s family and friends believe that maltreatment from the police was to blame. The death sparked a series of student protests – in Koudougou and Fada N’Gourma, in Tougan and Sabou. Government offices were ransacked; police cars went up in flames. At least five people died during two days of protests just days before FESPACO was set to begin. When students at the University of Ouagadougou threatened to join in, the government took the drastic step of shutting down the entire school system. Student protests were bad enough; student protests during the country’s most high-profile event just couldn’t be tolerated.
The rumors throughout the week were that things were going to get worse, once the eyes of the international community had wandered elsewhere. “People are stocking up on food,” an Irishwoman told me. “They reckon things are about to kick off after the festival.” This week, after the schools were briefly reopened, there were massive protests across the country. Yesterday the riot police were using batons and tear gas to disperse protesters in Ouagadougou. In the press, connections to the uprisings across the Arab world are being made daily.
A headline in L’Indépendant this week read, “Le fleuve de la révolution coule du nord au sud.” The river of revolution flows from north to south.