Burkina Faso Popular Uprising


The riot shield war trophy was one of yesterday’s iconic images. There were many, of course. Parliament burning. The Rond Point des Nations Unies obscured by tear gas. Angry young men in the TV station. 24 hours later, the uprising already has its own Wikipedia entry: 2014 Burkinabé uprising.

It has been brewing for a long time, of course. Any president who hangs onto power for 27 years must expect to become increasingly unpopular.

Living in Burkina Faso on a tourist visa, a guest of the state, I always had to be very careful what I said about President Blaise Compaoré. My references to him in my books tended towards the cryptic. The powerhungry villain of SOPHIE AND THE PANCAKE PLOT was Alai Crepe-Sombo, an unsophisticated anagram. My last novel OUTLAW was dedicated to journalist and novelist Norbert Zongo, who was one of the President’s most courageous and outspoken critics.


There seemed to be some ‘mission creep’ going on yesterday. What started as an action to prevent Parliament from changing the constitution turned into an all-out demand for the President to resign with immediate effect. His refusal to do so has angered protesters, who are still occupying many of Ouagadougou’s most important landmarks. We shall see what today brings.

To my Ouagadougou friends and erstwhile neighbours, bon courage. Tomorrow we’ll discover what our God in Heaven has in store! One more dawn. One more day. One day more!

Update (Friday, 1330): A few minutes after I posted this, Blasie resigned as President, calling for a 90 day transition and then elections. This is a huge moment for West Africa. Blaise has defined an era, not just for Burkina Faso but further afield as well.

Burkina Faso Algeria rumour – a strange half hour in Ouagadougou

Last night Burkina Faso played Algeria in their last World Cup Qualifying match. If they had won or even drawn, they would have been sure of going to Brasil for their first ever World Cup. They lost.

This afternoon I went into a hardware shop to buy a mousetrap. The shopkeeper was not concentrating. He was looking over my shoulder at someone talking in the street outside.

‘I need a mousetrap,’ I repeated.

‘We’ve got it!’ he yelled.

I thought his excitement over having a mousetrap in stock was a little extreme.

A moment later, the shop was full of young men and women, punching the air and doing complicated ‘Ouagadougou finger-snap’ handshakes on each other.
‘Calm down,’ said the shopkeeper. ‘We need to check this on the internet.’
A moment later he made an announcement almost too good to be true. FIFA had held a post-match inquiry. Algeria’s goal had been disallowed. Therefore Burkina had qualified for Brazil 2014!

Twenty butchers in the abbatoir gave a massive cheer and started hugging each other and dancing. Two of them leaped onto the back of a third, and hared off down the street in a joyous double-piggyback. In the tailor’s workshop opposite, a massive amplifier was switched on and celebratory reggae filled the air. Women at their market-stalls started dancing behind their bananas and watermelons.

Ko jemma boni fu, weetan,’ remarked an old Fulani man, sitting cross-legged outside the mosque. Even if the night is bad, morning comes.

Spot on. Burkina Faso had passed a night of crushing disappointment, and that made the sudden good news all the sweeter.

Local radio stations were talking of nothing else, so it was not long before Ouagadougou’s heaving lanes of traffic had heard the news as well. Those in cars started beeping their horns. Those on motorbikes opened up their throttles and flew. Some weaved from side to side, some stood up on their footrests, some rode with their metal bikestands down, creating a fizz of sparks along the tarmac.

Half an hour later the joy subsided, as quickly as it had begun. People sat down in small streetside groups and listened with their heads in their hands as radio stations dispelled the rumours they had themselves begun.

Le Faso, c’est un pays qui aime les rumeurs,’ commented a university student wryly.

Burkina Faso is a country which likes rumours.

Gap Year good, Gap Yah bad

Gap Yah

Great ‘Viewpoint’ piece by Daniela Papi on the BBC website this morning, entitled Is ‘gap yah’ volunteering a bad thing? At the time of writing, Daniela’s piece is both the ‘Most Read’ and also the ‘Most Shared’ article on the BBC site. Her criticism of the gap year industry has clearly touched a nerve.

Papi argues that gap year volunteering is designed to make gappers feel good about themselves, that the opportunities to serve are contrived, and that we are encouraging unskilled, inexperienced, clueless volunteers to dabble in development work, with results that are at best neutral and at worst damaging. We are setting ourselves up for monumental failure.

The article is well argued, a devastating critique of the ‘gap yah’ abroad. As a one-time ‘serial volunteer’ herself, Papi does not doubt the good intentions of those volunteering. But she thinks it could be done better if the emphasis were on learning to serve rather than on serving. “It’s a small change in vocabulary,” she writes, “but it can have a big impact on our futures.”

Here are a few disjointed comments by way of response. I write as someone who took a ‘gap yah’ myself, and now as a long-term crosscultural worker in West Africa who regularly receives and mentors ‘gappers’.

  • I once talked to a lad who grew up in Mexico. He said he dreaded the arrival of gap year volunteers. When they left, he and his friends would have to tear down the wall the gappers had built and build it again – properly this time!
  • British nationality – or any other kind – does not qualify us to save the world. Being an influence for good is more about your heart than your passport or your education.
  • Cross-cultural exchange is valuable in and of itself.
  • I like receiving gappers. They bring energy, inspiration and fresh perspectives. Nothing keeps me on my toes like continually being asked ‘Why did you just do that?’
  • My friends and neighbours in Djibo like receiving gappers. It’s true. Koyngal woni endam (lit. The foot is fellowship – Being visited is honouring).
  • The best gappers have been those who helped with the washing up and played tag with kids in the yard and asked millions of questions, many of which I couldn’t answer.
  • All the long-termers I have met in Burkina Faso started out as short-termers. Clued-up-ness grows from cluelessness.
  • Effectiveness is born out of uselessness.
  • Gappers who come humble leave wise. Those who come wise leave jaded.
  • As Daniela says, training is essential. Often this means learning how to learn. The World Horizons training programme (brief plug!) is excellent for ‘learning how to learn’ language and culture.
  • I question those in the comments section below the BBC article who say ‘Stay home and donate your gap yah funds directly to charity’ – it seems like wisdom, but it is monochrome, reductionist, armchair wisdom of the worst sort.
  • A woman once anointed Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume, and Judas (of all people) got upset and said ‘That perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor.’
  • Perhaps we need to develop a theology of waste. Perhaps we should we smile a little less knowingly and talk a little less condescendingly about those bright-eyed young things washing cars to raise money for their plane tickets.
  • Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up (1 Cor.8:1). ‘How will it look on my CV?’ puffs up. ‘How can I stay involved?’ builds up.
  • Not one of our gappers have ever said ‘And then I chundered everywhere’. Yet.

Leaving the Sahel

At the dedication of the Fulfulde New Testament in Ouagadougou
At the dedication of the Fulfulde New Testament in Ouagadougou

We have been back in Africa for nearly two months now. The troubles in nearby Mali made us decide to leave Djibo, so we have moved to a town in the south of Burkina Faso.

We never intended to live in Djibo the rest of our lives – we probably would have relocated sometime this year war or no war – but I’m missing it all the same. I miss the sand and the cows and the rounded grass houses. I miss our friends and neighbours. Most of all, I miss being able to understand what people around me are saying.

For the time being I am still working as West Africa coordinator of Christian mission movement World Horizons. And I’m still writing. Currently working on two adventure books – one set in Dakar and one in Victorian London. Very excited about both of these projects.

Meanwhile my wife Charlie is working hard finding wonderful bags and jewellery for Jam Shop – take a look.

Would you buy this film?

This is the back-cover blurb of a DVD I saw on the streets of Ouagadougou a few years ago. Can anyone guess the film?

Bonus points if you can come up with a theory of how the translator arrived at ‘red Buddhist nun’.

Release on parole out still that not until 24 hours, red Buddhist nun is planning him and next one has planned from the prison. There are three rules: Anyone is not injured. Any person who should not suffer this destiny is not stolen. To do as if you it doesn’t matter can lose. The criminal of this sly and has glamour begins the most complicated meticulous gambling house robs in the history. He has called together 11 experts between one night and includes the playing cards past master, and top level thief and one blows up expert. Their this dimension of plan from pulls adds this three gambling houses and robs away 1 5 thousand thousand dollars. This Buddhist nun’s enlighten gram that the boss of these three gambling houses is elegant and merciless, the former wife of his by chance red Buddhist nun of appointment liver mosses silks. Robbing understanding is in progress at the same time with fiery boxing match. Pulls this dimension adds this does not sleep that the night is obviously more brilliant.

Walking with a Fulani cattle drive

I enjoyed writing the Fulani cattle drive scenes in my latest novel Outlaw. As I mentioned in the Afterword to the book, those scenes are based on a real journey that I took a few years ago, accompanying 4 Fulani herders and 96 cows on a loooong walk (nine days and nights, of which I managed four). We ate on the move, slept on the ground and had to keep a very sharp eye on those recalcitrant cows.

My main memories of the Fulani cattle drive are of the choking dust kicked up by 384 hooves, the sun’s blistering heat between 11am and 4pm, and the hilarious banter between Idrissa and his fellow herders. For the full story, have a read of this travel feature which I wrote for the Sunday Times.

Welcome to Burkina Faso

A reggae musician on the streets of Ouagadougou

I met this lad in Ouagadougou (capital of Burkina Faso) a few weeks ago. We found ourselves sitting next to each other at a street-corner Nescafe kiosk and talked about this and that. He told me about his life as an aspiring reggae musician and about his encounter the previous day with rioting militia. He gave me a CD and I took his photo.

There was so much about the meeting which was typical of West Africa – the sickliness of the cafe au lait (made with half a bowl of sweetened condensed milk), the noise and bustle of street vendors and passing taxis, and the friendliness of strangers. Burkina Faso is an extraordinarily easy place to make new friends.

I am going to be posting a snapshot of my life in Burkina Faso every Monday and Thursday. Do check in from time to time and feel free to comment. Hopefully as I get used to doing this, my photography will get better. In the meantime, please bear with me.

Severe Unrest in Ouagadougou

So it seems I have chosen a bad time to visit Ouagadougou. On Thursday there were huge demonstrations against rising food prices – “la vie chère”.

On Friday the military ran amok, shooting in the air, looting and carjacking.

On Saturday, shopkeepers were on the streets, demonstrating against the pillaging and the collapse of their businesses. Hotels were ransacked and shot to pieces, including two of the biggies: Hotel Independence and Hotel Excellence. There have been injuries and deaths, including deaths from stray bullets (bullets fired into the air but coming down through people’s roofs). Many people have been kept awake by overnight firing. Lots of people are afraid and hiding in their houses. A city-wide curfew has been imposed – 7 at night to 6 in the morning.

I thought it worthwhile to translate into English some of the Burkinabe comments appearing on Lefaso.net, because they give a good picture of people’s reactions to this mess, and also give some idea of the complexity of this situation. What we are seeing cannot be understood in a vacuum, nor can it be explained away as a ‘copycat revolution’ with reference to Egypt et al. No, the roots are long and tangled, as you will see…

15 April 03:03 by Peace

Give us some news, we are not sleeping. Give us some information.

15 April 04:56

Hey, Peace, peace eh, Burkina needs peace

15 April 07:06

Recruited to protect the people, [the military] is instead terrorizing them. Who trained these soldiers? If it’s because of money that they are sowing fear among the people and preventing them from sleeping, it means that getting rich is more important to them than the safety of those they are sworn to protect. If it’s another goal they are after, they should say so clearly, but they should pursue [this goal] without putting the people in danger. If you no longer want the President, why didn’t you say so when you met with him [referring to recent talks between the president and the military]? What is behind all that? Those who wave their sabres end up doing themselves an injury. Please give peace to the people and not fear and insecurity.

15 April by the patriot

Burkina no longer has a President. When a president is there to serve himself and not his people, you have to say that he is completely useless. Ever since the first alteration to Article 37 [allowing the President to stay on for more than two terms] I knew we could not count on him.

15 April 08:17 by Windsongda

You [the military] have another problem to solve. Your wish is to replace those currently in power, but you don’t care about normal citizens. It would be better to conduct your fight in other ways than in this shooting and looting which disturbs the peace and security of honest citizens. May God save the Faso!

15 April 08:41 by idlemessi

Tell us, have our soldiers become little delinquents? Every time there are problems, they attack the shops of our poor citizens.

15 April 09:18 by homa

Today I hear people saying that we should fight without taking up arms. That’s all very well but we first need everybody to commit to fighting truly and solidly. Each of us must ask the question: what have I myself done to install true democracy in my country? Once everyone has been able to answer this question honestly and conscientiously we will be able to move onto our struggle without recourse to arms – even though those in power have taught us that everything is solved by arms, for example in Ivory Coast. It’s not too late to avoid this recourse to arms which is not at all good for us Africans.

15 April 09:27 by gwandba

What I don’t understand is people’s unwillingness to see reality. How many of us can afford to pay for medicines, food, rent, education without it costing us the eyes in our heads? There is a widening abyss between the extreme poverty of many and the insulting riches of others…everyone at his or her own level should take the responsibility to try and change the things that make us stagnate in misery and darkness.

15 April 09:47

Having an army is like having a dog. You can set it on your enemies if you feed it well. However, the day you don’t feed it, it will turn on you.

15 April 09:49

In place of empty words, is there a specialist here who can tell us how we can protect ourselves from stray bullets? [there has been so much shooting in the air that bullets have been raining down on peoples houses and through the roof, causing injury or occasionally death] Is there a part of the house where the risks are lower? Thank you in advance.

15 April 10:04 by SLY

It’s interesting to see all these people commenting on the peace that is so precious to us. Yes, we want peace; yes, peace is priceless and we understand that so much better when we look at the Ivory Coast drama. All that is true. But various people are forgetting that no lasting peace can be built on foundations of injustice, impunity and social, political and economic exclusion. All those who are so concerned about the peace in our fine country should fight for human rights and for justice. And today, when elements of the RSP (the perpetrators of the evils of this regime,) are using arms for their vengeance, it’s an unmistakeable sign that Mr Comparé [sic] has lost control of his herd. Logic dictates that he who trains a crocodile to eat others will end up getting eaten himself. Take the high ground and let us fight for the genesis of true democracy, the only guarantee of peace and stability.

15 April 10:29 by CaVaMal

We recruit, we recruit, as if there weren’t already enough soldiers in Faso! We don’t need all these people in uniform. Most of them are wasters, it would be better to have an army of quality than an army of quantity. They let their kalashnikovs do the talking and behave like thugs. Think of the majority of civilians here who have been reduced to powerless silence [by the events of recent days]. There is too much inequality and injustice…it’s the same small minority who gobble everything up, and it’s been going on for a very long time. Enough is enough.

15 April 10:31 by parf

But where is the Burkina of Upright Men?

[the name Burkina Faso means Land of Upright Men – upright as in incorruptible]

15 April 10:31 by FREEDOM FIGHTER

I don’t think the problem is purely a financial one. Another complaint is to be found elsewhere: Some eat, whilst others do the work. I really think people are tired of the current regime. Why did the mutineers attack the house of their Chief of Staff? There is too much injustice in this country and it’s time to be done with it, but not by means of arms.

15 April 10:44 by kon yara

It’s truly frightening what is happening in Burkina. If we have to wake up in the middle of the night because of the sound of bullets in our yards and in front of our gates, we have cause to be annoyed at the behaviour of those in uniform. We are the victims of this situation. May God protect us! I picked up many [spent bullets] this morning in my yard.

15 April 11:31 by Arch

I don’t want to encourage the military but it’s obvious that they’re not firing for the fun of it. This is the same phenomenon as the civil demonstrations of 8 April, with the only difference being that [these protestors] are armed and can easily lose control. Who can prove that if civilians were armed they wouldn’t be using their arms in the same way right now? We saw the vandalism that was perpetrated during the protests by schoolchildren and students. Why can’t people understand that? It’s very frustrating and discouraging when you don’t get your pay at the end of the month and have to sleep on an empty stomach.

15 April 11:46 by kabor

There is a nice line in the film ‘Mobutu, King of Zaire’ which always challenges me in my choices, both big and small: ‘You can fool all the people some of the time; you can fool some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all the people all of the time.’ This is true in the system of governance and also in interpersonal relations. It makes you despair, the implications of these expressions of anger in our country, every time we come to this. If we are believers we should not stop praying. But I firmly believe that the most important thing is for each of us to try to cultivate truth and good faith in all that we undertake…it is excellent when we defend Truth and it is sad when we play at deaf-dumb-blind.

15 April 12:18

Dear brothers and sisters, I respect the opinions and standpoints of everyone and I am a partisan and an artisan [lit: craftsman] of peace. I wish for Peace in Faso. I am sorry to disillusion some of you, but this peace we are used to in Burkina is what I call ‘THE PEACE OF THE GRAVEYARD’. We should not content ourselves with everything seeming calm. We might have calm, but JUSTICE AND PEACE should go together. We know that our country’s resources will not assure everyone’s wellbeing but we could still be doing more towards achieving social justice. Lets go beyond the shooting and the aggressive demonstrations in order to understand the roots of the country’s malaise. Revolution is necessary and sometimes painful, and if we have to experience it, we will experience it, not to be copycats but in order to survive. AFTER 20 YEARS IN POWER: BALANCE SHEET. The message is clear, we need a change (of regime and not just of one person).

15 April 12:19

I deplore what is happening right now in our fine country. I had a bullet come through the roof of my house and land next to me in my living room. May there be an end to it.

15 April 12:35 by Snake

Some eat, others watch them! That’s how revolutions are born.

15 April 12:46

I don’t understand those who seem to be rejoicing in this situation. Is wanting peace in Burkina Faso the same as being pro-Blaise [the president]? When a women loses her child, do you believe here pain would be different depending on whether she was a supporter of the government or the opposition? We want peace, full-stop, that’s all. These soldiers who are behaving like juvenile delinquents should be treated as such.

And to those who live outside this country and advocate their pseudo-rebellion: Come back here and stage your revolution yourselves!

15 April 13:38 by Ham.bou.

You are right! These revolution should not be happening. As has already been said, revolution is not a ‘fashion’.
Merde! Stop believing that a revolt would be good for our people. If we topple Blaiso, who will we get in his place? A soldier? Some faithless lawless opposition bloke? Whatever we get, it will be worse!!!!
Let’s leave Blaise in power until 2015! This country is not a perfect democracy, okay! But we are making progress each year on every level! And this comment is the proof that freedom of expression does have a place in this country (thanks to Lefaso.net, by the way) Long live Faso!

15 April 13:12

We see this present disorder in Burkina, but who is to blame? There are lots of people who are discontent in Burkina? Who is to blame? Personally, I am not interested in tomorrow, what interests me is my debts, my salary and the rising prices of fuel and food. Any change which sorts these things out will be very welcome. We understand and support the demonstrations of civilians (non-violent, so far as is possible) and above all we follow the development of the situation with interest. We call for peace in Burkina and true democratic governance.

15 April 13:59 by floaikass

They [the military] must all be punished, such behaviour is deplorable, but what is behind it?

15 avril 14:04 by Citoyendumonde

Those who support or even try to justify this shameful behaviour [on the part of the military] have surely not lost a loved one during these protests. We still remember young Madina, killed in the flush of youth! [Madina is a girl who was killed by a stray bullet] Excuse the term, but her death was ‘cadeau’ [a gift]. She didn’t die defending a cause, she was not assassinated by anyone who will be pursued and brought to justice; no one will pay for this crime. Do you think this is what we would wish for our country? Someone will surely call this ‘collateral damage’ – but isn’t that a phrase invented by Westerners for crimes that should never have happened?

15 April 15:59 by ZM

It is shameful that these soulless faceless soldiers, words desert me, are putting their pockets before their patriotism. If they are strong and they really need the money, I want to let them know that Kadhafi needs good soldiers are he pays cashhhhhhhh.

15 April 16:27 by kibaré

I agree with you. We’re fed up of these soldiers without conscience or scruples. Their actions are unspeakable. Vous nous cassez sérieusement les bonbons. [You are seriously breaking our nuts].