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.

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2 responses to “The system is no good.

  1. Barbara Soloski Albin

    Glad to hear you are o.k (!). Friend of mine in Canada had heard about the “unrest” and wondered if you had written, so now I can forward your post to him. Take care. Leaving Africa in June? Going to keep writing I hope. Barbara

  2. Barbara Albin forwards your blogs to me. I admire the calmness and complete lack of panic in your writing. I would like to think that I would be the same in your situation, but know that that would not be true. As my English mother would say, “Keep your pecker up”. Bob L.

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