Tag Archives: ouagadougou

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.

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This night is gun-shooting night.

The Ethiopian owner of the restaurant – a short, husky woman speaking flawless French – came up to us with a worried look on her face. The restaurant was closing, she said, tout de suite. She had just gotten a call from a friend – there was more trouble in the city, manifestations, most likely, by the same disgruntled students who had been protesting across Burkina Faso for the past month. The waitress got up from the charcoal fire where she was roasting coffee beans and smoothed her skirt. We could hear gunshots pop-popping in the distance. The owner said she would call us a cab.

We settled our bill. Already the nervous waiters were clearing the glassware off the tables, gathering the forks and knives. More gunshots – if the students were demonstrating in Ouagadougou tonight, I didn’t like their chances. The last of the other patrons, a young man in his twenties, had vanished just minutes before: he had gotten a call from his family, said the woman, telling him to come home.

A car drove up as we wished the owner bon courage. The driver had not heard anything about demonstrations, he said, offering to take us to Gounghin for a not unreasonable price. Driving through the darkened streets, things seemed as normal as you would expect at 10:30 on a Tuesday night. There were crowds outside the more popular maquis on Kwame Nkrumah, groups of men sitting with tall bottles of beer and pretty young girls. I sent a few text messages to friends. No one had heard much of anything. If it weren’t for the sporadic sound of shots firing in the distance, I might not have believed it myself.

At a traffic light the chauffeur conferred with another driver. Yes, he had heard the gunshots – more problems, he said, between the police and the student protesters. Soon I got a text message from Steve, a foreign journalist who I’d met a few weeks ago. He had heard the same news of manifestations downtown. He called a few high-level contacts close to the president, and the situation seemed pas grave.

“If it were a coup,” he said, “the power and the phones would be out by now.”

We drove on. Music poured from the maquis; men turned brochettes over on smoky grills. As we approached Gounghin, the usual signs of street life – listless youths on street corners; girls on mopeds; solitary children running barefoot on the side of the road – suggested another normal night in Ouagadougou. I got a phone call from Steve – he was busy working the phones, trying to dig up more dirt. I told him we would be home in ten minutes. He said he would be in touch if he had any more news.

Suddenly, gunshots outside the window – they couldn’t have been more than 10 feet away. Everyone on the street was running. The driver floored the gas pedal. Steve was still on the phone, shouting into my ear. “Get your heads down,” he said. We got into crash positions. I poked my head up to look out the rear window – I could still see bodies darting through the shadows, tall and slender and panicky silhouettes, until everything was swallowed by darkness.

The driver’s face was tight as a drum. We barreled down the dirt road, bicycles and mopeds lurching from our path. I was waiting for stray bullets to shatter the windows. Then, as if on cue, the car slowed; the driver’s face relaxed: the danger, it seemed, was behind us. We turned down two, then three back alleys until we reached Shivani’s house. There was a small crowd outside. They had all heard the gunshots – Gounghin was like a battlefield by now – but no one could say what was going on.

The house was called the Jungle; it was a commune for itinerant musicians who were either living in or passing through Ouagadougou. The walls were lavishly painted with murals, the bookshelves cluttered with dusty old LPs. On the floor was a French guidebook for “Afrique Noir.” Thin, stiff mattresses were scattered everywhere. The place had an air of transience, of entropy, of youthful chaos: jungle, indeed. In the backyard, a jam session was well underway. Bullets might be flying over Ouaga, but they were here to make music, and there’s no reason why something as fleeting as a mutiny should spoil the mood.

A young man with a soft, feminine voice was playing the kora and singing a song. A Frenchman strummed a guitar. Someone else kept the rhythm on a drum.

Pop. Pop. Pop. The shots tore across the sky.

Shivani beat her drum.

Pop. Pop.

Eeeeee-yaaaaay, said the singer.

Pop. Pop. Brrrraat-a-tat.

Steve was on the phone again. He had just spoken with his contacts in the government. It was entre militaire, he said – in-fighting between different factions of the military. Two years ago, a similar battle had taken place between government soldiers and fighters allied with a renegade general. It was too early to say what was the cause tonight. Steve’s voice was taut, grim, but I could see he took a certain pleasure in all of this: he was in full battle mode. I could picture the color high in his cheeks; I could picture him, too, showing up at our door in army fatigues, a bandolier across his chest, a cigar clamped between his teeth. He had to get to the bottom of things, he said. He was going out on a motorbike to investigate.

We were feeling less bold, huddled in our bohemian compound. The jam session jammed. The writer wrote. Shivani – a pretty Indian-American girl, who was living in Guinea-Bissau during that country’s recent successful and failed coups – got a text message from a friend: “This night is gun-shooting night.” Shivani had lived through this sort of thing before: she remembered walking through the ravaged house of the former head of the military after he had been killed in an attack by disgruntled soldiers. She had a rule of thumb: when the bullets started flying, it was time to leave town. She was making plans to go to Dakar for a business trip, a convenient excuse to get out of Ouaga for a few days until the dust settled.

A few of us went out onto the street. It was quiet and still; the moon hung over the stadium. More shots tore across the sky. They were coming from every direction now: from here in Gounghin, where the fighting seemed especially intense at the military base; and from the direction of downtown; and from the dusty nettle of streets just behind our compound. One of the Frenchmen said he’d been walking by the stadium earlier in the evening; the maquis, as usual, were packed. Then a military truck came driving down the road, crammed with soldiers. In a matter of minutes, the maquis had emptied.

Another Frenchman pointed his Flip cam into the darkness, recording the distant pops of rifles and bursts from automatic weapons.

The headlight of a motorbike approached us. We were laughing and then we were laughing nervously and then we crept inside and shut the gate and waited for it to pass. Far away we could hear men’s voices cheering. Had some decisive battle been won? It was impossible to tell. You could hear the same cheers coming from a football game.

Steve again was on the phone. The fighting, it seemed, was tied to Justin Zongo, the high school student whose suspicious death in Koudougou last month kicked off weeks of protests. A number of soldiers had been charged with complicity in his death and sentenced to prison terms. Now some of their colleagues, it seemed, were protesting the ruling with automatic weaponry.

We tuned into Radio France International to listen for news. There was no mention of Ouagadougou. The presenter read the latest news broadcast from Abidjan. A break as French pop music played. Then the presenter was back on the air, taking a call from Niger. How much water do you drink each day in Niamey? she asked. Pop. Pop. Pop. Hydration was important here in the Sahel. Then automatic gunfire, so close that we ducked our heads.

Slowly the music from the yard petered out. The jam session was breaking up, everyone getting onto their motorbikes to make their uncertain way home. I sat with Shivani and the two Frenchmen on the porch, listening to the gunshots and watching a pair of geckos scuttling across the wall. It was late, and we were tired. The nervous energy of the first few hours had passed. I wanted to stay up until there had been some definite news, or we had reached some point of crisis, but I knew it was useless: this would probably go on all night.

I dragged a spare mattress into Shivani’s room. The air was hot and still and we lay there, listening to the slow mechanical turns of the ceiling fan and the distant burst of gunfire.

Pop. Pop. Pop.

We stared at the ceiling. My phone beeped with messages from friends. Steve was doing his perilous reconnaissance mission downtown. Sleep came uneasily. After an hour we were woken again – shots so loud, they could’ve been fired outside our window. It was a restless night. I dreamed of mutinies and coups – that a military council had seized control and was making an important announcement in the morning.

Suddenly, daylight. It was after eight. Outside I could hear the clatter of pots and pans, the domestic clamor of an African morning. Women’s voices, strong and clear, calling out to children, to each other. I got up and got dressed and squeezed a dab of toothpaste on my fingertip. My back was sore and my contacts were stuck to my eyes. It was a difficult night. But already I was restless, eager for news. I sent Steve a message – were there any developments in the night? Then I was out on the street, the sun already high and bright, trying to find my way home.

The streets were busy, the kiosques crowded with young men no doubt exchanging the latest gossip. Women dumped basins of water onto the street. A group of young boys played a game, flicking a small marble toward a hole in the ground. Outside a grand mosque, old men sat on prayer rugs with their battered tea pots, asking for alms.

Another day of life had begun.

You can’t get away from yourself.

Yesterday I decided to pull myself – to force myself – from the morass of self-doubt and -loathing that is my fancy pants African film story. This was easier said than done. One of the nasty side-effects of three-plus years as an itinerant freelancer, belt-cinching from paycheck to paycheck, is that I don’t really get the concept of “down-time.” I mean, sure, I get it in the abstract: down-time is when bald, middle-aged Frenchman drink cold-beaded bottles of Flag with their 18-year-old escorts by the pool at the Hotel Independance. It’s hard to disagree with this on principal; it looks like everyone’s having such fun. The Frenchman chortle. The Burkinabé girls flash their marvelous, toothy smiles. Would that I could take up one of the girls in gaudy heels who scoots up to me on her motorbike at night, offering a massage! Who doesn’t love massages? What’s the harm in taking it easy?

I left the hotel in high spirits. There was a slight breeze stirring – enough of a respite from the crippling, 110-degree heat to make the day seem downright temperate. My backpack – and the portable I usually tote inside it – were both back at Chez Moi. I had a bottle of water and a damn good book – Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun – and a mandate to Take It Easy that I would inflict upon myself by whatever brutal, alcohol-induced means necessary. It was a Sunday, after all. Everyone needs a breather.

Lunch was a bowl of riz sauce I ate hunched over in a neighborhood maquis, sweaty forearms stuck to my shorts. Afternoons in the maquis – usually my first meal of the day – I eat like a longshoreman. Afterward I called my friend Issaka, a taxi driver I’d inherited during FESPACO from Marion Berger – the French programmer of the Tarifa African film festival – who had herself inherited him from the great Egyptian documentarian, Jihan el-Tahri. Issaka was happy to be passed around between us. He is a good-humored, gregarious, relentlessly punctual man who always arrives in his little green Peugeot, sunglasses donned, a single woolen glove warming his right hand.

Issaka was born in Cote d’Ivoire and has a fiancée in France, who he is planning to join later this year. On our first afternoon together he wanted my advice on whether or not to finish his degree in biology in Ouagadougou. When he got to France, couldn’t he find work as a driver, or some sort of casual laborer? I disagreed. He wasn’t one of the young, desperate fortune-seekers who set off on perilous seaborne journeys each day from Senegal, Morocco or Mauritania. He was educated and had a loving Frenchwoman waiting for him; he would be arriving not illegally by sea in a rickety fishing boat, but with a passport by Royal Air Maroc, via Casablanca. He should be joining the professional classes, I said, riding the Metro, reading Le Monde over cafés au lait and croissants on Saturday mornings in Montmarte. (Imagining, maybe, my own hypothetical French life.) Why set the bar so low? What would his fiancée want for him? Issaka nodded, yes, yes, taking it all in. He seemed unperturbed by the seismic upheaval that awaited him in just a few months’ time. He talked to his fiancée on the phone every week. They made plans. He was reading How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, hoping to win friends and influence people when he arrived in Paris in June.

He arrived, on the dot as always, and took me into town. The streets were listless with Sunday-afternoon traffic – no doubt the Burkinabés were at the weddings and funerals of distant relations, filling the air with song and ululations. The white people were nowhere to be found. I made a pass through the American Rec Center, its foosball table looking forlorn in its solitude. Nearby I had coffee at the Café de Vienne. It had turned into a beautiful afternoon, the wind stirring the treetops and sending the flowers tumbling onto the pavement. How much of my African life is tied to memories of bougainvillea? Close my eyes and I see a riot of blossoms spilling over the high walls in Lamu, or shaking with the rainy-season winds in Goma, or laying a carpet of pink and white and orange petals across the sand on Lake Malawi. It is an invasive species, as foreign to Africa as whites; but like whites, you will find it everywhere.

Even as I sat with my book, though, the old restlessness was creeping in. Thoughts on African cinema – thoughts which have dominated my waking hours for the past month – started to stir. The story was a beautiful mess. Had I said enough about funding? About distribution? Would it all make sense to someone without a background in African film? Had I said enough about the films themselves?

The day’s limitless horizon drew closer; suddenly, the afternoon had grown claustrophobic. Why had I left the house without my laptop, anyway? I paid my bill and hoped to walk off my worries – a trick I’ve employed so many times before. On the street a young man passed me, a dozen pairs of blue jeans and trousers slung across his shoulder. He was holding a pair of khaki slacks up high, as if in offering. Who could say what potential client might come traipsing out the door of the Café de Vienne, looking for a pair of pants? The street was hot, now that I’d left the shade of the café’s porch behind. I could feel the sun pressing on my face and neck, the color deepening, my arms browning like a chicken in a skillet.

There is nothing like the loneliness of a Sunday afternoon in a foreign city. I had hoped my melancholy of the past week could be shaken off by a couple of hours with a good book, but instead my anxieties seemed to multiply: the struggles with my story, with my French, the old cares about money, the news from New York of a dear, dying friend. Nothing seemed to be going right, though I had expected this month – the spectacular good fortune of this story – to be some sort of celebration or coronation: the crowning achievement that would justify all these years of confusion and disappointment and frustration and solitude.

Africa has not been easy, though in some ways – in many ways – I could not have chosen a better life for myself than the one I’ve had. I’d come here nearly four years ago to write, and write I have: my career more or less started when I took my first steps on African terra firma. But I was reminded, too, of a few lines of Hemingway’s from The Sun Also Rises, which I picked up again last week: “Going to another country doesn’t make any difference….You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another.”

Tired, bummed, dragging my feet and cradling a little metaphorical cup of sorrow to my chest, I walked up and down along the length of Avenue Kwame Nkrumah. A young man, an artist, with little flippers for arms, shuffled up to me and asked if I wanted to buy a postcard or a batik. Then another, tall and emaciated, holding out a little gecko sculpture, hoping for some small sale: he hadn’t eaten in two days. The sun scoured the pavement; my heart felt drained. I had given up so much of my life for this?

I kept walking, for three hours I walked under the terrible heat of the sun, hoping, maybe, for some sort of rebirth by fire. It was the words that plagued me – the words I couldn’t find to write my story, the words I couldn’t find, in French, to draw me into the world around me. Ouagadougou had, in those first few days, charmed me with its weaving bicycles and mopeds, its kiosques and maquis, its colorful, dusty tumult. But in the month since I arrived, I hadn’t gotten anywhere. My days were slavishly devoted to writing. For all the progress I’d made with my French, I couldn’t simply walk into a bar, pull up a stool, and bullshit with the guy sitting next to me.

On the street a young man called out to me. His name was Suleiman; he was sitting on a bench, a narrow plank of splintered wood, with three of his friends, huddled in the few scraps of shade they could find. He asked me how long I’d been in Burkina, and how long I would be staying – these much-asked questions, at least, I could handle. We stood there for five minutes, grappling, fighting our way through a conversation that we both seemed determined, for our own reasons, to have. Suleiman gestured to a sign on the wall behind us: it read Entrepreneurs du Monde, a French NGO, he said, doing something I couldn’t entirely understand. He asked if I wanted to go inside – was it his office? His uncle’s? A friend’s? I had no idea, but we went inside the office, where a young Frenchman, much bemused, was sitting behind a desk. We shook hands, and I wasted no time in switching to English. Just what did Entrepreneurs du Monde do, anyway? I asked. They were a microcredit organization, he said; they provided microloans to small businesses in the developing world. Suleiman, feeling left out, handed me a sachet of something – whether water purification pills, or oral rehydration salts, or some sort of fertilizer, I couldn’t really say. Theo, the Frenchman, explained that each sachet cost CFA 550 – more than a single US buck. We both agreed that this was an extraordinary price for your average Burkinabé to pay for whatever it was they were selling. Theo said they were working on a program to reduce the costs, and I wished him luck with that. We shook hands amiably, and then me and Suleiman went back outside. It felt like something had blossomed inside my chest, that I had taken it and nurtured it into being. It felt like some small battle had been won.

Suleiman gave me his number. He said to call sometime if I wanted to take a Nescafe with him.

I told him I would like that, I really would.

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.