It is the day before Djibo’s weekly market. Usually its narrow streets would be thick with the fumes of twenty-ton lorries dropping off their wares, but today the town is eerily quiet and smoke-free.
Three miles south of the market, forty-two lorries are parked up along the red laterite road, bumper to bumper, hulking and impotent. The road itself is rutted and potholed; it is barely passable at the best of times but today it is an absolute no go. On a narrow bridge in front of the first lorry, a massive tree trunk lies, and nailed to the trunk is a neatly stencilled banner: La route du développement passe par le développement de la route.
On the Djibo side of the roadblock, a party is going on. A huge marquee straddles the road and in its shade sit a hundred or more teenage boys. There are chairs, table, a big music system and three microphones. Blasting from the amps is the song Dar es Salaam by Burkinabè rap duo Yeleen. The boy closest to the music system leans back on a metal chair and nods his head to the beat. Now and then he takes the cigarette out of his mouth so that he can rap along with Yeleen: Your palace is too far to hear the echoes of our grief, You don’t have to hear your people crying justice, hope and peace. The boy stabs the flat of his hand through the air in time to the rhythm and his lip curls in anger, or perhaps disdain, as he thinks of distant statesmen.
A tall good-looking boy wearing a baseball cap grabs one of the microphones and turns it on. He jumps at the deafening whine of feedback, steps away from the amplifiers and gestures to rapper boy to turn the music down, which he does.
‘Six years ago the President came to Djibo,’ shouts Baseball Cap in heavily accented French. ‘He saw that our road is not even fit for donkey carts. He promised us tarmac all the way to Ouagadougou. Today we shall hold him to account. Until we hear from him, not a single vehicle will enter or leave this town!’
The teenagers are clearly the vanguard of this protest, but the rest of the community is out in force as well. Shopkeepers loll on sleek motorbikes, relaying scraps of news on bluetooth headsets. Turbaned shepherds stand and gaze. Knots of older men sit in the shade of nearby acacia trees, chewing cola nuts and laughing often. Young women sashy among the crowd balancing plates of mangoes and yams on their tightly-plaited heads.
Morsels of gossip ripple among the protesters:
“The Haut Commissaire is refusing to come and see our roadblock. He’s afraid of a peaceful protest!”
“Adama Koudougou has donated five sacks of rice and two kilos of tea to the cause. We should put someone in charge of provisions. We don’t know how long we’re going to be here.”
“A truckful of gold miners are going to try and drive around the blockade. If they do, we must form a human chain to stop them.”
“We’re on the news! Radio France International is talking about the Djibo road demonstration. When has our little town ever been talked about in Paris?”
When indeed? And if the echoes of Djibo’s grief can resound in Versailles, perhaps even the marbled palaces of Ouagadougou are not entirely soundproof.
Update January 2016 – The Ouagadougou-Djibo road is in as bad a state as ever.