By this morning the cause of Tuesday night’s minor mutiny was clear: a sizable faction of the country’s armed forces were protesting the imprisonment of five soldiers over the death of high-school student Justin Zongo last month. The Zongo killing, as I’ve already written, was the catalyst for large-scale student protests that have swept across Burkina Faso in recent weeks; now, it seems, the army was pushing back, refusing to allow its comrades to be scapegoats in a case whose details (and repercussions) are still so uncertain.
It’s not clear if the soldiers who were sentenced were directly responsible for Zongo’s death, but that didn’t matter for long: the sentences that were handed out on Tuesday, prompting the uprising, have already been overturned; yesterday morning, the soldiers were released.
News in Africa travels quickly by Radio Trottoir – “sidewalk radio,” as it’s called in Kinshasa. On the streets of Ouagadougou Wednesday morning, there was already a sense of relief. News of the soldiers’ release had no doubt spread by then; despite rumors of an army protest in town that afternoon, life had resumed a familiar shape, its well-defined contours were visible, people busied themselves about the normal task of earning their daily bread.
The afternoon passed quietly. In the evening, there was a nervous calm on the streets. A sense of uncertainty prevailed – nightfall in Africa is always a time of fear and superstition – and the maquis around Gounghin weren’t their usual jubilant selves. Having napped away the afternoon, I had a Nescafe at a small kiosque near my hotel to revive myself. Behind the counter, a boy sat listening to a staticky radio broadcasting the day’s news; on the benches out front, a small group of men were debating in low voices. Two of them were tuning into radio stations on their cellphones, listening intently.
I passed by the house of a friend, Jean Christophe, to offer my greetings and well-wishes. Jean Christophe was a genial, portly man; I had met him three weeks ago, on the eve of FESPACO, sitting in front of his small home with his shirt unbuttoned down to the navel. His big belly was exposed, dark and round as an eightball, and he was drinking thirstily from a large, purple, plastic cup. He wagged his hand to me on the street – an effete little greeting that made it hard not to warm to him instantly.
I found Jean Christophe again sitting outside, exchanging news with the neighbors. They offered me a place on the bench – I wondered if there were some sort of pecking order, an internal hierarchy, to how they were arranged. We talked about the gunshots the night before – what else was there to talk about? – and I recounted my harrowing taxi ride from town, playing up the danger for maximum effect. There was much appreciative gasping and laughter. A curvy young woman approached selling vegetables – an indigenous species of aubergine, shaped like little green pumpkins – which we bought and ate raw. Motorcycles sped down the road, clouds of dust haloed in their headlights. Nearby a group of schoolchildren were kicking around a soccer ball, their voices circling like swallows in the dusk.
On the way back to my hotel I bumped into Madi, a friend of Jean Christophe’s, walking his small daughter along the road’s shoulder. He was happy to see me – he was afraid I’d already left for Mali. His daughter, pretty and docile in her little white dress, stared at me with dark, curious eyes. We walked the length of the road then walked back, a pleasant evening promenade, as if we were strolling by the sea. Madi was anxious about his plans to go to America – he had been waiting for nine months, and still no word from the Embassy on his visa application. He had saved money for a plane ticket, had saved enough to cover all his expenses, but still he waited for the paperwork to be processed, for the little joyful stamp to fill a page in his passport. How could he ever get to America? he wondered. And if not America, where?
The night passed quietly. In the morning, as if it had shaken off the last of its doubts, the city was alive, full-throated, vigorous. The streets were congested, the shopkeepers busily setting up their impromptu displays on the side of the road: propane tanks, refrigerators, fans, gas ranges, brooms, pots, prayer rugs, plastic flowers. A man lined up portraits in gaudy gold frames on the sidewalk: Compaoré, Compaoré, Obama, Compaoré, Obama, Obama, Compaoré, Compaoré. We circled the market, already humming with energy. A boy stooped toward my window, selling phone credit. Another held up newspapers – L’Indépendant, L’Observateur – rustling the front page to attract passersby. “La soldatesque dans la nuit” – “The soldier in the night” – read one headline. It had the sound of a dream or fairy tale, a bedtime story you told children while you waited for the morning light to come.