Tag Archives: blaise compaore

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.

The city today is bizarre.

At 2 o’clock Thursday afternoon, I officially sent the first draft of my fancy-pants African film story to Harper’s, ending a month’s worth of writing, fretting and hyperventilating – at least, until the second round of bloodletti–editing begins next week.

This was no small cause for celebration. For the first time in weeks, I left the auberge sans sac, sans portable and sans programme. I was, in effect, a free man. There would be no long days at the Independance, backside plastered to my seat while grave, chain-smoking Frenchmen watched the scrolling headlines on France24. There would be no mid-afternoon siesta at the CCF, trying to restore my frayed sanity. There would be no late-night fact-checking at the auberge, hoping to coax the sluggish Internet connection into a higher, faster state of being.

Instead, I walked. I walked with the hot wind blowing dust into my face; I walked with the motorbikes pin-balling across the road; I walked with the convoy trucks of soldiers and gendarmerie nationale doing their wary patrols of the city; I walked and walked and walked. Past the Fast Food Pizzeria Le Kaemead, where the tables were empty and a waiter slumped over the counter; past the Meuble Royal, an army of sofas and armchairs and dinette sets sitting on the street outside, covered in dust; past Tout Pour La Couture, its Caucasian mannequins painted an unconvincing shade of black; past something called Pressing VIP; past Ideal Coiffure, and Top Visage (“Coiffure Mixte, Pedicure, Manicure”), and Elegance Coiffure, and Eugene Coiffure, and New Style Coiffure (“Ici bon coiffeur”), and Divine Coiffure, and Eid Coiffure; past a white wall with the word “Garage.com” painted on it in big blue letters; past shops promising vente de produits divers and vente de liquers; past the Telecentre God Bless; past dozens of cafés and bar-restos and maquis and kiosques: little lunch counters with skinny men hunched over plates of riz sauce or soupe de poisson, bamboo blinds drawn to keep back the beating sun. I walked without a hope or care of where I might end up, feeling what David Foster Wallace described as the “second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive.”

The wind filled the trees. A man passed with a sewing machine on his shoulder, rapping a pair of scissors in rhythmic notes on the side.

“To exist on the earth,” wrote Czeslaw Milosz, “is beyond any power to name.”

In the centreville, my feet sore, my back achy, I stopped for a Nescafe at a small kiosque. A young man – good-natured, gap-toothed, handsome and shy – approached me, selling magazines. His name was Oumar; he was 21. He wore a loose shirt unbuttoned down his bare, flat chest. He had been selling magazines since he was 11 years old, he told me; in Burkina Faso, as in the rest of Africa, most families couldn’t find the money to keep their children in school. Even if there were no school fees, there was the high cost of a uniform, of pens and pencils, of books. Oumar, the third of six children, would get the rest of his schooling like this, learning life’s hard lessons on the streets of Ouagadougou.

I asked if he had ever left Burkina. Yes, he had visited family once in Bamako, had been to Côte d’Ivoire. He had family in the north of the country, and he had been once, too, to Abidjan. It was a few years ago, during qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup. Côte d’Ivoire had trounced Les Etalons 5-0. Oumar said it with a deprecating laugh – against the mighty Éléphants (“Tu connais Drogba?”), Burkina never stood a chance. Oumar thought the life was good in Côte d’Ivoire. People did not have to work to enjoy themselves. There, for CFA 50 (about 10 American cents), you could buy a whole bunch of bananas. But in Burkina? You could only buy a single one. Oumar shook his head. Burkina was not a good country. There was no work, there was nothing to eat. He said he wanted to go to America – he knew it from the movies. “C’est bonne la ba,” he said. It is good there. He wanted to get a passport, but it was too expensive: CFA 70,000 – more than $150 – an impossible amount for a young Burkinabé. In 2006, he said, it only cost CFA 25,000. What happened? I asked. He shrugged. How could anyone know such things? It was enough to know that that was the case, that he was selling copies of Jeune Afrique and Les Afriques to French tourists and employees of the Belgian embassy. And if he got to America, I asked, what would he do? He would sell newspapers and magazines on the street, just as he did here.

I left Oumar and was halfway down the street when I heard someone whistling at me. It was the boy from the kiosque; I’d forgotten to pay for my Nescafe. I was fishing some change out of my pocket when Oumar approached and waved me off. It was okay, he said. I was a guest in his country and he wanted to pay for me.

The heat had a beating intensity to it; there was something chastening about the feel of it on your face. Walking under this Sahel sun was like some ancient Navajo rite, a burning purification of the spirit. A trial by fire. By the time I finished my rounds of the city – three rambling hours, a healthy little walk-about – my mind was, depending on how you look at it, either half-full or half-empty. I had a good burning ache in my legs. My skin was warm to the touch. I felt happily spent.

At the CCF I saw my friend Steve, the foreign journalist who, by special request, will remain incognito in these pages. We had a drink and talked about the security situation in Ouaga – a situation which, in the past 48 hours, after the attacks on the houses of eminent personages here in the city, had suddenly grown more dire. It could go one of two ways, said Steve: either the unrest would grow and spread, it would be malignant, cancerous, eating away at the morale in the barracks, spreading from one military camp to the next, breeding more unrest, more violence, closing the shops, sending people into panicky flights, turning Ouagadougou into a city under siege – a city of blackouts and curfews, of shortages, a wartime city where you lived in fear of roadblocks and checkpoints and midnight knocks at the door.


Or the president would meet with the military, would hear their grievances, address their concerns, make some conciliatory pay-outs, and things would get back to normal. No doubt the government was trying that path now: Steve had seen a convoy truck passing earlier in the day, a group of happy soldiers sitting high up atop sacks and sacks of rice. The president had announced in his speech on Wednesday that he would be meeting with different factions of the armed forces Thursday morning, calculating what it would cost to quell the growing unrest. It was money, no doubt, that was at the root of everything. The military was poorly paid; most likely the rank-and-file had little room for advancement, the way was blocked by corruption, patronage – a loyal soldier getting passed over for promotion in favor of some general’s nephew. If some grand conciliatory gesture wasn’t made soon, the violence would escalate. But there was still room to maneuver. “If he pays the soldiers in poulet there could be a big fete tomorrow nite,” Steve wrote me in a text message the next day.

He had a sense that this was another act in the decades-long drama that began in 1983, with the coup that brought Thomas Sankara into power. Four years later, Compaoré orchestrated Sankara’s murder – the killing of a man who was like a brother to Compaoré. From the beginning, said Steve, he was seen as illegitimate by the Burkinabés – a power-hungry, blood-thirsty leader who had betrayed the fraternal bonds that tied him to Sankara. No one trusted Compaoré; a decade later, with the murder of Norbert Zongo – a journalist who was investigating the suspicious death of the chauffeur of the president’s brother – the bankrupt principles of the Compaoré regime were exposed. It was the moment, said Steve, when everyone realized that the Emperor had no clothes. Since then, the list of suspicious deaths had continued to grow. A political opponent poisoned. Another found in a flaming car wreck on the side of the road. “This is the sort of country where accidents happen,” said Steve.

Now the army was rebelling against the president; the students were calling for justice on the streets; the much-reviled mayor – a corrupt figurehead of the ruling Congress for Democracy and Progress – was laying in the hospital after the assault on his home. It was possible, said Steve, that this was the final chapter in Compaoré’s story – that the lies and injustices, the empty promises, the betrayals, had pushed Burkina to a breaking point.

We finished our drinks. The air was restless. A couvre-feu had been announced again for 9pm. Plans to celebrate the completion of my story would have to be put on hold – for another day? Another week? It was still impossible to say. A glum procession filed out of CCF: wispy French girls and anemic French boys strapping on their helmets and kick-starting their motorbikes. On the streets there was a nervous flight for home, market women wrapping their bundles, young men on bicycles pedaling with bean-post legs.


Yesterday, it seemed the impasse had been broken. Talks between the president and the military had gone well; more trucks full of rice had no doubt made their way to the barracks. The situation was calm, tranquille. The military assured the country they were again the pillars of “dignité,” “discipline,” and “courage” that they’d been before they started looting shops and raping women. “Rassurez-vous, les manifestations sont finies,” said a military spokesman. It looked like life might be getting back to normal.

And then, in the evening, a curfew was announced again. It seemed like an April Fool’s prank – the city was calm, the soldiers had been pacified. What was the point of another couvre-feu? A rumor circulated that the curfew would be in place until next week, that we would all have to wait until the president addressed the nation on Monday.

Outside the Place de la Nation, it took nearly 20 minutes to find a cab. The driver was a thin, agitated young man who was anxious to get home. I would be, he said, the last fare of the night.

La ville aujourd’hui c’est bizarre,” he said.

The soldier in the night.

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.

The river of revolution flows from north to south.

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.