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.