Wednesday, March 30, 2011

More Unrest in Burkina

Schools reopened on Monday across Burkina and students are back at school. However, unrest continues in the land of upright men. Not on the part of the students but on the part of the army. Military units in Fada, a city east of Ouaga, grabbed weapons and ammunition on Monday and, firing weapons and blocking streets along the way, went to free a comrade that had been imprisoned earlier this year for allegedly raping a 14-year old girl. Terrified citizens hid in their homes. The soldiers then made their way towards Ouaga, but then turned south towards Tenkodogo instead before returning to Fada.

Last night, army units in Gaoua in southwestern Burkina took to the streets, shooting and looting. There were also reports of shots fired in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina’s second largest city.

Soldiers in Ouaga fired automatic weapons at the house of the mayor of Ouagadougou last night and then roughed him up to the point where he had to go to a clinic for medical aid for his injuries. The home of a senior army official was also torched.

This evening (Thursday), the commanding officer of the Burkinabè army issued a curfew from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. Friday morning. The American, Canadian, and French embassies have all issued security alerts for their personnel and their citizens.

Other than that, all is peaceful here in Ouaga. Now if they would just stop these random power cuts! They're driving us nuts!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Just a Wee Bit of Excitement

“It was crazy! Stores and boutiques had been smashed and looted, and people were running all over the place trying to get away from the downtown area! I had a hard time getting out of there myself!” Waving his arms and hands to indicate how he had turned this way and that to find a way through, passing dozens of slower vehicles as he was able, our Services Manager described to me the scene he had encountered in downtown Ouaga when he had attempted to get a vehicle of one of our members serviced.

While we’ve not been going through some of the major upheavals that some of the North African countries have been experiencing over the past while, we have had our own bit of excitement recently. The past several weeks have seen student demonstrations throughout the country as a result of a fellow student’s death at the hands of police following several severe beatings. It didn’t help that the local authorities tried to say he had died of meningitis while his medical record indicated that he recently been vaccinated.

Protest marches organized by the students all over the country have often been characterized by tires burning in the streets, the torching of public buildings, and clashes between students and law enforcement personnel. Of course there are always bad elements that tend to attach themselves to these kinds of events and take advantage of them to go on a destructive rampage. As a result, the government has closed all public schools in the country, including the universities, something that has resulted in significant hardship for students (especially those from foreign countries) who have no place to go.

But the experience of our Services Manager was related to something different. It had begun on Tuesday evening near midnight when soldiers at two military camps in Ouaga started shooting off their weapons and demonstrating to express their displeasure at the sentencing of several of their comrades as a result of an incident between military personnel and civilians some time back. They took to the streets and began smashing stores and boutiques, gaining access to alcoholic beverages and making the situation even more unstable.

This morning, the International School of Ouagadougou and St. Exupery (the French school) both closed their doors and told their students and staff to stay home. The American, Canadian, and even French embassies issued security alerts, advising their personnel and citizens in Burkina to stay put, avoid unnecessary travel (especially in Ouaga), and take security precautions. The American embassy issued a dusk to dawn curfew for all its personnel. Around noon, rumours began to fly around that a curfew was going into effect immediately. We did some quick checking with the authorities and discovered that these were indeed just rumours. No curfew was being ordered. Nevertheless, numerous businesses and organizations closed their doors for the day and sent their personnel home. Things seemed to be calm at our end of the city, so we carried on with business as usual. Things are still calm this evening.

The President is out of the country at the moment, but we’re praying that those in authority will once more take charge and resolve the issues at hand so that peace and order will soon be restored. I’ll keep you posted.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Another Creative Income Generating Strategy

Ever get to the point where your fuel needle is pretty well on empty but you really don’t have time to stop and fill ‘er up? It can make for very stressful driving. Well, I thought I’d avoid that this time and fill up while I had the chance. It was a Saturday morning and Kathy & I were out cruising around in a part of town we’d been wanting to explore for a while. Suddenly I saw a gas station, remembered that I was running low on fuel, and pulled in to get the tank filled.

Several minutes and 35,000 FCFA (about $70 later), I pulled back onto the road and we continued our explorations. It was only after we’d already gone some distance that I realized the fuel needle was at just over the halfway mark. What? 35,000 FCFA should have put it up to the top! I stopped and shut off the engine, then restarted it, thinking that the gauge needed a fresh start. No difference.

Now I was puzzled. Where had all the fuel gone? Into my tank as far as I could remember because I was standing there watching the guy the whole time!

It wasn’t until we were nearly home again that a possible explanation occurred to me. When I’d first pulled into the gas station, the attendant had been filling another vehicle with that hose. I bet he then just turned the hose into my truck without resetting the pump, yakking away at me to distract my attention from the fact. Come to think of it, he did seem to fill the tank awfully fast. Normally it takes longer to put 35,000 worth of fuel in my truck.

And what makes me think this was deliberate? As the pump meter was approaching 35,000 FCFA, the attendant pulled back on the pump like you do when you’re trying to top off the tank, getting that last little bit in there without overflowing it. However, the tank was only half full at that point, so this must have just been for show. And he probably realized that if he filled it all the way up, the final charge would have been way over what I normally pay to fill my tank and I’d have wised up to the fact that he’d not reset the pump. But since 35,000 seemed reasonable to me, it aroused no suspicions. A pretty clever way to pocket some extra cash, don’t you think? And I can’t prove a thing.

Well, they say you’ve got to pay for your education. Haha, I certainly did that! But you can bet I’ll be watching the pump a little more closely from now on! Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me! :)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Another Friday Night

It’s been one of those weekends, and it’s not over yet. Last night being Friday night, Kathy & I had planned to go out for dinner at a new place we saw a few weeks back in the Ouaga 2000 area of town. For some reason that now escapes us, we thought it would be a Mexican restaurant and I was really looking forward to it. As we drove up to it and had a closer look, we realized that it wasn’t. But since we were here, we thought we might as well check it out anyway.

The hot season has started here in Burkina, so when we walked into the first large room inside the front doors and saw that all they had were a few ceiling fans to blow the hot air around, we were not impressed. However, the server quickly showed us to another room that had air-conditioning, which he immediately turned on. So far so good.

The menu featured a lot of African dishes, so I thought I’d try one of those. I ordered half a grilled chicken with tô (a stiff starchy porridge made of corn flour, a village staple in Burkina). The server asked me what I’d like for an accompaniment (in most Burkina restaurants, things like potatoes and other vegetables like beans, peas, or carrots that we would consider part of the meal are extra). I looked at him with puzzlement. “Doesn’t it already come with tô like it says in the menu?” I asked? “Yes,” he replied, “but what would you like for an accompaniment?” I didn’t argue with him. I just ordered some green beans.

After half an hour or so, the meal finally came. I received a dish of chicken pieces in a tomato and onion sauce, and a small plate of green beans. Then Kathy got her meal. I waited, expecting the tô to arrive at any minute. It didn’t. So I finally started eating. The tô never did arrive. And I didn’t pursue the issue because at that point, if they had to prepare the missing tô, the chicken would be cold by the time I got it. So what happened? Did someone on the restaurant staff intercept it and eat it before it got to me? Did they forget it? Did they think that I had ordered green beans instead of tô? Who knows. And while the chicken and sauce were good, I thought I had ordered grilled chicken...

Then came the bill. Yup, you guessed it. I got charged for grilled chicken and tô. But by then, haha, Kathy & I were laughing so hard about the whole thing that we just paid up. I’m not sure I could have eaten all that tô anyway (it’s a pretty heavy food). And we did get a good story out of the experience :)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Burkina's Joking Relationships

One afternoon last week, one of my Burkinabè colleagues entered a government building, walked into an office and said to the secretary (whom he did not know), “Hello! I’m your boss and I want you to drop everything else right now and get me a document that I need.” She looked at him with an expression of distinct annoyance, ready to retort and put him in his place. Who did he think he was ordering her around like that?!!!

But then she hesitated... “Are you a Samo?” she asked. “I don’t know about that,” he replied, “but I do know that I’m your superior and you need to do what I tell you immediately!” Smiling broadly, she set aside her work and went to find my colleague the document that he had requested!

Ever since we first came to Burkina in the late 90s, we’ve been aware of the special joking relationships that exist between various ethnic groups in the country. The Mossi and the Samo, the Bissa and the Gurunsi, etc., etc. It seems that these relationships developed between ethnic groups in close geographical proximity as a way of diffusing the tensions and strife that occur. The joking often takes the form of an insult or an attitude of superiority, with a member of one group calling a member of the other group his “slave” and ordering him to do some menial task.

Interestingly, it works! The tensest of situations can be easily diffused if the protagonists realize that they are members of ethnic groups that have a joking relationship. Once the insults begin, people begin laughing and the situation eases.

Of course, a joking relationship isn’t just useful in situations of tension or conflict. It’s also useful in everyday life, especially if one needs to deal with the personnel of government ministries that are not normally known for their efficiency or attitude of customer service. Thus my colleague, being a Samo, noticed that the name of the secretary was Ouédraogo. She was obviously a Mossi, with whom the Samo have a joking relationship. So he immediately adopted an arrogant superior attitude and proceeded with his request in the manner described above. And he got his document. In record time too :)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Student Demonstrations

On Wednesday, I drove a colleague down to the Ghanaian border. She had to be there at 10 a.m. to meet someone who was going to take her on to Tamale. Knowing that there was road construction happening along that route, I said that we’d better leave a little earlier than normal. So at 7 a.m. we were on our way out of Ouaga and headed south.

We were nearly an hour late arriving at the border. About two thirds of the way down, at a town called Noberé, we ran into a huge crowd of students marching along the road. They were protesting the recent death of a fellow student in Koudougou, another town northwest of Ouaga. The student apparently died after being repeatedly beaten by local police. We found ourselves in the middle of several hundred students who walked slowly, often directly in front of our vehicle, and stopped occasionally to chant the name of their deceased colleague. A number of them carried rocks in their hands and eyed us with hostility. So we began smiling and waving and even rolling down the window to talk with several of them. Nearly everyone smiled and waved back. I drove slowly and ever so carefully so as not to hit anyone and provoke an incident.

About a kilometre (and half an hour) later, several of the students with whom we had been talking began to encourage the ones ahead of us to move aside and let us pass through. Thus we were eventually able to get past the demonstration and continue on our way. I wished I had a picture to show you, but didn't dare pull out my camera at the time!

Not all the student marches have been so peaceful. A march in a town further north (Ouahigouya) turned violent, resulting in numerous public buildings, including police headquarters, being set on fire and burned. The government has suspended all school classes in the entire country for the time being.

A march in downtown Ouaga today turned nasty, with students burning tires and destroying property. Riot police pursued them into local neighbourhoods, firing tear gas. We’ve been advised to not go anywhere near the downtown area today. Well, maybe I’ll finally catch up on my e-mails at the office!