Tag Archives: thomas sankara

It is too beautiful to me.

One Saturday afternoon last month, I was invited to a going-away party for a young Frenchwoman who had been working as an assistant to my friend Lasso at Napam Beogo. It was Fanny’s fourth visit to Burkina Faso, and she was staying, as she had on previous trips, with a Burkinabé family in a small compound of cement-block rooms in a crowded quartier nearby. The day was characteristically hot; when I arrived, family and neighbors had already arranged themselves on rickety wooden benches in the shade of two tall mango trees in the yard. Fanny, who was bringing back to Paris three bulging bags of locally produced dresses and handbags – one of the many fair-trade businesses Lasso ran out of Napam – was still busy arranging and rearranging her things. Her forehead was knit with cares. Earlier that morning, an Air France saleswoman had told her she could only check 25 kg. worth of baggage for the flight to Paris – 5 kg. less than she’d been promised on her email confirmation the week before. Now she had to find an Internet café so she could print out her e-ticket, in case there were problems at the airport. She still hadn’t finished packing. And then all those goodbyes!

While she bustled about the yard, I sat with two young neighbors, Francois and Benoit, quiet, slender youths who spoke to me in the halting English they were learning in secondary school. Francois told me had dreams to visit America: to see Miami and Las Vegas, places he had known from American movies and TV shows. Las Vegas had a special attraction for him. “I see it on TV, and it is too beautiful to me,” he said. Sitting in the drowsy afternoon heat, with the flies buzzing in our ears and a string of listless days stretched out before him, it was easy to see why the neon-lit Strip, the carnival bustle of Sin City, might seem like a beautiful thing to Francois.

The women of the house came and went, carrying pots, gathering children, emptying bottles of ginger juice into big plastic washbasins filled with chunks of ice. On the table were an assortment of oversized pots that looked like they would have been perfectly suitable in an army canteen or police mess hall. The men sat and fidgeted. Soon plates were handed out; two pots – one of spaghetti, the other with a sort of vegetable ghoulash – were placed on the ground in front of a well-dressed man, a schoolteacher. He heaped a great pile of food onto his plate, then passed the pots to the man beside him. In that way, moving clockwise, the spaghetti and sauce made their way around the circle. We sat hunched forward, elbows out, eating quickly. The women were still inside. Someone told a lewd joke which I didn’t entirely follow (punchline: “Do you want to speak French, or do you want to eat meat?”). I had brought a bottle of wine, which posed certain problems since there were more drums at the party (1) than corkscrews (0). A succession of sharp instruments were brought out and used with varying degrees of success, until the cork was finally pried from the neck of the bottle. The wine was already lukewarm. We drank it from enamel bowls and plastic cups. Gradually, a rasta began tapping a beat onto his djembe. The rhythm gathered pace, until the children started dancing, flinging their bare, dirty limbs every which way, stomping up clouds of dust. When the rasta finished, a few of us applauded. Then he passed the drum to his left, and another man – less practiced, but no less confident in the rhythm he began beating out – took up the tune where the rasta had left off.

Watching Fanny as she moved between members of her surrogate family, laughing, choking up, wrapping her arms around them with an easy grace, I thought about how much was missing from my life in Ouagadougou. Fanny seemed entirely at home here, in a way that I – that most expats, here and elsewhere in Africa – never would. During the crisis in April, when bullets were flying all around us in Gounghin, she told me that she just wanted to be back at the house with her family; her voice strained with emotion. Her love was generous, genuine, and entirely reciprocated: the whole damn place was full of devotion. I could never really bring myself, despite my best efforts, to give so wholly of my heart in foreign lands. Finishing my spaghetti and room-temperature wine, walking along the road in search of a taxi, I wondered if it was my stingy temperament more than my whiteness that would always make me a foreigner in Africa.

This irreconcilable contradiction – the need to love and be loved, pulling against an equally strong need to be my own cranky self – has brought both many anxious nights and many opportunities for redemption. Often I’ve thought, as I doled out small acts of goodwill, here and elsewhere, whether my charity had less to do with its subjects than with a need to stir up some long-buried, almost-lost emotion – to remind myself that I am capable of goodness and compassion, too. (Often I’ve thought, too, that the act of giving itself should be morally neutral: that for the recipients who have paid their hospital bills or their child’s school fees or simply felt their faith in mankind redeemed, whether or not I felt ethically squared with the whole transaction was beside the point.) Last week, on my way home from the gym, walking along Ave. Charles de Gaulle at dusk, I was approached by two young men, English speakers, raggedly dressed, talking with the lilt and inflections of West African pidgin. They were Gambians; they had been here two days and needed help. They spoke no French – they smiled sheepishly at this admission, as if it were a terrible secret. The older and bolder of the two, Emmanuel, explained that they had left Banjul on a bus bound for Libya; they were trying to make it to Europe; they got side-tracked in Niamey, and somehow ended up in Ouagadougou instead. It was a story so improbable, so implausible, that all the false notes seemed to ring with authenticity. Surely it was too tall a tale to be made up! Why would two Gambian conmen be working their hustle in Ouagadougou, of all places? And besides, what African migrant didn’t have an incredible story to tell? (My friend Denis Mvogo, a Cameroonian, had been living in Morocco for more than two years when he suddenly felt compelled to leave in search of better fortunes. He was a writer; he had heard that Ouagadougou was a supportive place for budding artists. He left for Algeria but was twice detained at the border. In Algiers, he spent months hustling for cash to pay his way to Burkina. He ran out of money again in northern Niger: he was stuck in a barren town where the emaciated cows chewed on cigarette butts. Finally, he was able to contact a sister in Cameroon; she sent him money through Western Union – enough to make it to Niamey, and then, Ouaga. If he had approached me with this story on the street, looking for some small charity, what would I have said?) I was tired – I’d had a long work-out – but I wanted desperately to believe them. They needed some money for food and cellphone credit. If they could only reach their mother in Gambia, she could arrange to send them money through Western Union. Still wary, I offered them my phone. A call was made, and then another. Their mother was in the village, they couldn’t reach her. They would have to try again the next day. I offered them a small bit of money – CFA 2000, about $4.50. It was, I knew, my way of hedging my bets: of giving just enough to feel like I was helping, but not enough to feel like I was being duped. I had been in the same position on this continent countless times before. Someday, I’ll offer a class in higher mathematics on the White Man’s Calculus in Africa.

The act of giving, I also knew, on my last days in Ouagadougou, was a way of compensating for the fact that I could not be a better person, a better friend – for the fact that, going back to the story I opened this post with, I could never be Fanny. Leaving a country, disappointed with the meagerness of my accomplishments, I always feel something of the spirit of Dr. Colin in Graham Greene’s A Burnt-Out Case, who, turning his back one afternoon on the lepers at his hospital, “felt some of the shame of a deserter as he walked away from his tiny segment of the world’s battlefield.” I have occupied this small corner of Ouagadougou for the past four months, fighting my minor skirmishes. Now I am packing up my things and, like a true soldier of fortune, setting off for another front line.

A few weekends ago, my friend Davy Ouandaogo took me to the house of Valentine Sankara – the brother of the late revolutionary leader, Thomas. Valentine and his family lived in a modest compound not far from Davy’s home: a mango tree in the yard, some furniture arranged on the tiled patio, two unmarked plots where the bodies of the grand-mère and grand-père were buried. (Davy himself had a connection to the Sankara family, through the mother of his son.) We sat there in stiff armchairs while Valentine – a tall, somber man – reclined in a white tank top and cotton shorts, watching coverage of some parliamentary meeting on RTB. At the appointed hour, his young daughter duly came into the room and switched the channel to her favorite Indian telenovela. Valentine sighed and showed me around the house. In the living room there was an antique clock, a wall calendar from the Christian Children’s Fund of Canada, gilt-framed portraits of some ancient grandmother and paterfamilias. He showed me pictures of his brother, a young, handsome man in military fatigues staring bravely into the camera, as if already bracing for whatever treachery the future had in store.

The next weekend, Davy took me to see Thomas’ grave. It was in a shabby cemetery buried deep in Wemtenga; a sprawling landfill had grown beside it, and scraps of paper and plastic bags blew across the graves. Davy wound between the plots on his moto until we reached the former president’s tombstone: a big block of cement on which the white paint had flaked off, with the words “President de Faso…Chef de L’Etat…Camarade Capitaine” barely legible. It was a sad tribute to the man who had, perhaps more than any other, once carried the nation’s hopes on his shoulders. Two mangos had been laid atop the burial plot in offering; beside them was a small plastic sack filled with dirt, a dry branch poking out like a skeletal finger. Flanking Sankara’s were the graves of a dozen other soldiers who had died beside him during the coup that brought President Blaise Compaoré to power. Davy walked somberly around the faded tombstone, as if aware of everything its disrepair signified. But he was hopeful, too; he believed in the spirit of the protests of recent months, and knew there was a generation of young Sankaristas who would follow the example of their departed leader.

Yesterday, I met with Davy for our final afternoon together; his text messages, with their memorable “yo frèro” salutations, will be sorely missed. Late in the day, after the worst of the afternoon’s heat was behind us, he took me to see the small kiosque near his house that I was helping him rent – a business that he hoped to have up and running in the next few weeks. He laid out his designs for me: here he would arrange some chairs and tables on the street where his clients could enjoy their beers, there he would plant a small jardin of flowering plants, here he could grill brochettes in the evening. It was a modest place for his modest hopes. (My mind was called back, for some reason, to the wooden board hanging from a tree outside his home, with the Biblical “proverbes du jour” scrawled across it in chalk.) Describing his plans, Davy said he didn’t want to be like his friends – young men of meager means who had nothing to provide for their children. (The landlord, young and slightly disheveled, grinned and scratched his ass in the yard, explaining to me, “Moi, je bois trop!”) “Je combate,” Davy said. “Je lutte, je cherche.” He was searching for a better life – not for himself, but for Nicolas Dieudonne, the four-year-old son living with his mother in the far-off village Davy only visited every few months. He knew his kiosque would be a success: driving down the city’s dusty backroads on his moto, the whole world seemed to cry out to him, embrace him with their greetings.

J’aime tout le monde,” he said. “Je travaille pour tout le monde.”

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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.