A Gallup World Survey rates Burkina Faso as having the most optimistic people in the world. 95% of its inhabitants rate their future lives better than their present ones. This, opines the author of the report gloomily, ‘may simply be because people can not imagine that their lives could get any worse’. Nonsense.
A Burkinabè policeman once told me the following story. A boy climbed a tree to pick mangoes, whilst his friend stayed on the ground to catch the fruit and put it in a basket. When the boy in the tree got to the top branch, a boa constrictor slithered up his arm and began to entwine itself around his body. ‘Au secours!’ (Help!) yelled the boy. And his friend on the ground shouted back in wonderful Burkinabè French, ‘Ca va aller!’ (It’ll be all right!).
My policeman friend was poking fun at the unfailing positivity of his Burkinabe compatriots, who are always determined to declare peace where there is no peace. Peace is laafi in the local Moré language, ani in Jula and jam in Fulfuldé. How did you sleep? Peace only, we chant. How is your wife? Peace only. How is your health? Peace only. How is the security situation in the Sahel? Peace only.
Peace only. Clean-shaven Frenchmen parachuted into Mali, did they not, and drove those naughty Islamists up into the Ifoghas mountains, where now they languish with their scrawny goats and their spent rocket launchers. The women of Timbuktu cast off their veils and danced for the TV cameras on every street corner. Crates of hastily buried beer were dug up and cracked open. Libraries of hastily hidden ancient manuscripts were discovered safe and sound.
Peace only. Our Horizons teams were efficiently evacuated from their places of ministry to their respective capital cities. They swapped mud huts and paraffin lamps for airy villas with ceiling fans. Cotton pickers became city slickers, and plunged headlong into exciting urban projects: hairdressing, literacy, dentistry, radio work and business. While some grieved for what they’d left behind, others felt (secretly) relieved.
Peace only. For as long as I can remember there have been good interfaith relations in the Sahel, and generally speaking there still are. The Sahel is not a hotbed of extremism. Its religious leaders are moderate Sufi marabouts, like the one who famously invited a Horizons missionary to come and preach in his mosque. It was poverty rather than idealogy which attracted a minority to the black flag of jihadism, and most right-thinking Sahelians want nothing to do with it. A twenty-one year old Quranic student in Djibo recently prayed in public that Al Qaeda would invade the north of Burkina Faso and impose Sharia law. His listeners reacted strongly. They told the student that Allah hates all violent expressions of Islam (although, ironically, they then proceeded to beat him up).
Peace only. In January a group of forty prominent Malian musicians recorded a song of peace for Mali. ‘Notre Mali, sèche tes larmes, nous t’aimons!’ they sang. Our Mali, dry your tears, we love you. ‘On veut la paix, la paix. En Afrique la paix ! Dans le monde entier la paix !’ We want peace, peace. In Africa, peace ! In all the world, peace !
Peace only – and yet, in the words of Nicolas Sarkozy, nowhere in the Sahel can now be considered safe. Guerrilla warfare and occasional suicide bombings continue in Mali’s northern towns. Fifty thousand displaced Tuaregs are frightened to return to their homeland for fear of reprisals. And with the Dark Side’s coffers so depleted by the war, further kidnapping of Europeans is a likely prospect.
How are we to respond to this uneasy, fragile peace that is not quite peace? At the West Africa conference in February, our speakers encouraged us not to depend on BBC news in our decision-making, or even on grassroots gossip, but to seek God’s commentary as well – ‘les infos prophetiques’. Maguy prayed for ‘les intercesseurs qui ont le Mali dans leurs entrailles’, intercessors with Mali in their guts. We have some already; we need more.
Pray also for peace in the Sahel. Not the fake peace of the boa constrictor victim but the unfathomable peace of those who do not fear death. Not the trite peace of swaying celebrities but the pained peace of difficult forgiveness. Not the imposed peace of parachuting Frenchmen, but the kingdom peace of God’s Not Yet parachuting into Africa’s Here and Now.