The Ethiopian owner of the restaurant – a short, husky woman speaking flawless French – came up to us with a worried look on her face. The restaurant was closing, she said, tout de suite. She had just gotten a call from a friend – there was more trouble in the city, manifestations, most likely, by the same disgruntled students who had been protesting across Burkina Faso for the past month. The waitress got up from the charcoal fire where she was roasting coffee beans and smoothed her skirt. We could hear gunshots pop-popping in the distance. The owner said she would call us a cab.
We settled our bill. Already the nervous waiters were clearing the glassware off the tables, gathering the forks and knives. More gunshots – if the students were demonstrating in Ouagadougou tonight, I didn’t like their chances. The last of the other patrons, a young man in his twenties, had vanished just minutes before: he had gotten a call from his family, said the woman, telling him to come home.
A car drove up as we wished the owner bon courage. The driver had not heard anything about demonstrations, he said, offering to take us to Gounghin for a not unreasonable price. Driving through the darkened streets, things seemed as normal as you would expect at 10:30 on a Tuesday night. There were crowds outside the more popular maquis on Kwame Nkrumah, groups of men sitting with tall bottles of beer and pretty young girls. I sent a few text messages to friends. No one had heard much of anything. If it weren’t for the sporadic sound of shots firing in the distance, I might not have believed it myself.
At a traffic light the chauffeur conferred with another driver. Yes, he had heard the gunshots – more problems, he said, between the police and the student protesters. Soon I got a text message from Steve, a foreign journalist who I’d met a few weeks ago. He had heard the same news of manifestations downtown. He called a few high-level contacts close to the president, and the situation seemed pas grave.
“If it were a coup,” he said, “the power and the phones would be out by now.”
We drove on. Music poured from the maquis; men turned brochettes over on smoky grills. As we approached Gounghin, the usual signs of street life – listless youths on street corners; girls on mopeds; solitary children running barefoot on the side of the road – suggested another normal night in Ouagadougou. I got a phone call from Steve – he was busy working the phones, trying to dig up more dirt. I told him we would be home in ten minutes. He said he would be in touch if he had any more news.
Suddenly, gunshots outside the window – they couldn’t have been more than 10 feet away. Everyone on the street was running. The driver floored the gas pedal. Steve was still on the phone, shouting into my ear. “Get your heads down,” he said. We got into crash positions. I poked my head up to look out the rear window – I could still see bodies darting through the shadows, tall and slender and panicky silhouettes, until everything was swallowed by darkness.
The driver’s face was tight as a drum. We barreled down the dirt road, bicycles and mopeds lurching from our path. I was waiting for stray bullets to shatter the windows. Then, as if on cue, the car slowed; the driver’s face relaxed: the danger, it seemed, was behind us. We turned down two, then three back alleys until we reached Shivani’s house. There was a small crowd outside. They had all heard the gunshots – Gounghin was like a battlefield by now – but no one could say what was going on.
The house was called the Jungle; it was a commune for itinerant musicians who were either living in or passing through Ouagadougou. The walls were lavishly painted with murals, the bookshelves cluttered with dusty old LPs. On the floor was a French guidebook for “Afrique Noir.” Thin, stiff mattresses were scattered everywhere. The place had an air of transience, of entropy, of youthful chaos: jungle, indeed. In the backyard, a jam session was well underway. Bullets might be flying over Ouaga, but they were here to make music, and there’s no reason why something as fleeting as a mutiny should spoil the mood.
A young man with a soft, feminine voice was playing the kora and singing a song. A Frenchman strummed a guitar. Someone else kept the rhythm on a drum.
Pop. Pop. Pop. The shots tore across the sky.
Shivani beat her drum.
Eeeeee-yaaaaay, said the singer.
Pop. Pop. Brrrraat-a-tat.
Steve was on the phone again. He had just spoken with his contacts in the government. It was entre militaire, he said – in-fighting between different factions of the military. Two years ago, a similar battle had taken place between government soldiers and fighters allied with a renegade general. It was too early to say what was the cause tonight. Steve’s voice was taut, grim, but I could see he took a certain pleasure in all of this: he was in full battle mode. I could picture the color high in his cheeks; I could picture him, too, showing up at our door in army fatigues, a bandolier across his chest, a cigar clamped between his teeth. He had to get to the bottom of things, he said. He was going out on a motorbike to investigate.
We were feeling less bold, huddled in our bohemian compound. The jam session jammed. The writer wrote. Shivani – a pretty Indian-American girl, who was living in Guinea-Bissau during that country’s recent successful and failed coups – got a text message from a friend: “This night is gun-shooting night.” Shivani had lived through this sort of thing before: she remembered walking through the ravaged house of the former head of the military after he had been killed in an attack by disgruntled soldiers. She had a rule of thumb: when the bullets started flying, it was time to leave town. She was making plans to go to Dakar for a business trip, a convenient excuse to get out of Ouaga for a few days until the dust settled.
A few of us went out onto the street. It was quiet and still; the moon hung over the stadium. More shots tore across the sky. They were coming from every direction now: from here in Gounghin, where the fighting seemed especially intense at the military base; and from the direction of downtown; and from the dusty nettle of streets just behind our compound. One of the Frenchmen said he’d been walking by the stadium earlier in the evening; the maquis, as usual, were packed. Then a military truck came driving down the road, crammed with soldiers. In a matter of minutes, the maquis had emptied.
Another Frenchman pointed his Flip cam into the darkness, recording the distant pops of rifles and bursts from automatic weapons.
The headlight of a motorbike approached us. We were laughing and then we were laughing nervously and then we crept inside and shut the gate and waited for it to pass. Far away we could hear men’s voices cheering. Had some decisive battle been won? It was impossible to tell. You could hear the same cheers coming from a football game.
Steve again was on the phone. The fighting, it seemed, was tied to Justin Zongo, the high school student whose suspicious death in Koudougou last month kicked off weeks of protests. A number of soldiers had been charged with complicity in his death and sentenced to prison terms. Now some of their colleagues, it seemed, were protesting the ruling with automatic weaponry.
We tuned into Radio France International to listen for news. There was no mention of Ouagadougou. The presenter read the latest news broadcast from Abidjan. A break as French pop music played. Then the presenter was back on the air, taking a call from Niger. How much water do you drink each day in Niamey? she asked. Pop. Pop. Pop. Hydration was important here in the Sahel. Then automatic gunfire, so close that we ducked our heads.
Slowly the music from the yard petered out. The jam session was breaking up, everyone getting onto their motorbikes to make their uncertain way home. I sat with Shivani and the two Frenchmen on the porch, listening to the gunshots and watching a pair of geckos scuttling across the wall. It was late, and we were tired. The nervous energy of the first few hours had passed. I wanted to stay up until there had been some definite news, or we had reached some point of crisis, but I knew it was useless: this would probably go on all night.
I dragged a spare mattress into Shivani’s room. The air was hot and still and we lay there, listening to the slow mechanical turns of the ceiling fan and the distant burst of gunfire.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
We stared at the ceiling. My phone beeped with messages from friends. Steve was doing his perilous reconnaissance mission downtown. Sleep came uneasily. After an hour we were woken again – shots so loud, they could’ve been fired outside our window. It was a restless night. I dreamed of mutinies and coups – that a military council had seized control and was making an important announcement in the morning.
Suddenly, daylight. It was after eight. Outside I could hear the clatter of pots and pans, the domestic clamor of an African morning. Women’s voices, strong and clear, calling out to children, to each other. I got up and got dressed and squeezed a dab of toothpaste on my fingertip. My back was sore and my contacts were stuck to my eyes. It was a difficult night. But already I was restless, eager for news. I sent Steve a message – were there any developments in the night? Then I was out on the street, the sun already high and bright, trying to find my way home.
The streets were busy, the kiosques crowded with young men no doubt exchanging the latest gossip. Women dumped basins of water onto the street. A group of young boys played a game, flicking a small marble toward a hole in the ground. Outside a grand mosque, old men sat on prayer rugs with their battered tea pots, asking for alms.
Another day of life had begun.