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.