Thursday, April 21, 2011

Easter Break in Burkina

“This tastes simply awful,” Kathy grimaced after putting another chunk of hamburger into her mouth. “Here, try it!”

I looked at her in amusement and disbelief. “Are you serious?” I asked. “You’re telling me something tastes like crap and then you want me to actually try it?!!!” I laughed and shook my head. “No way, José!”

Disappointed that we hadn’t been able to get a day off in Banfora like we’d planned, we decided to take a day off at a pool somewhere in Ouaga. You know, do some swimming to cool off, lounge around with some magazines and books, eat a good meal that required someone ELSE to slave over a hot stove in hot season. But we didn’t want to go to the pools downtown in case more trouble started there. And we didn’t want to go to the pools in the south end of the city because they were too close to an army base and the presidential palace, both of which had been scenes of unrest recently. The Silmandé in the north end had a nice pool, but the food prices were astronomical. So we settled on the Ricardo, just down the road from the Silmandé.

The owner told us to make sure our vehicle was locked up tight in the parking area. “Had soldiers in here the other day,” he informed us. “They shot their machine guns into the air and demanded the keys to the vehicles outside. Fortunately, I wasn’t here, so the staff just had a key to the utility truck. The soldiers grabbed the truck and took off.” We locked our truck up tight. And I told Kathy to take the vehicle’s papers out of the glove compartment and put them in her purse so we’d have proof of ownership if it somehow was taken.

Picking a poolside table, we first ordered breakfast: Nescafé, ham & cheese omelettes, bread, and orange juice. The coffee was drinkable, but the orange juice tasted diluted, and the omelettes weren’t cooked right through. The cheese in them was pretty sharp stuff. I told Kathy that they had better omelettes at the Koulouba. She agreed but pointed out that we were not having breakfast at the Koulouba.

After that, some expatriates sat down at the table next to us. They were loud and smoked. Guess which way the wind was blowing? We moved to another table as far upwind as we could.

Following several hours of swimming, talking, and reading, we ordered lunch.  I ordered a fish dish.  Kathy ordered the deluxe hamburger.  No bun.   Kathy had eaten one patty and was into the second when she came out with the comment at the beginning of this post. “It’s like chewing rubber and about as flavourful,” she continued. “There’s no seasoning, no spices, no marinade, nothing. A sad excuse for a hamburger if I ever saw one!” She lathered the remainder in ketchup but even so was not able to finish it. I offered her some of my excellent fish dish, but she declined. Those of you who know her know why :)

About 3 p.m., a whole crowd of young Burkinabè men and women arrived. We figured that some local university or college classes must have gotten out, and the young folks came here to cool off. Pretty soon, they were yelling, running, diving, and splashing up a storm. We waited long enough for the pages of my book to dry out a bit before deciding to call it a day.

I had just enough time left to change the oil in our generator back at the house before it got dark... and the power went out... again.

Pretty hard to beat that for an Easter break, eh? :P

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Unrest in Burkina

It’s been an interesting week in Burkina. Just as things seem to be moving towards a resolution of the situation in Côte d'Ivoire, unrest appears to be increasing in Burkina. It began over a month ago with the student demonstrations in various parts of the country following the death of a fellow student as the result of beatings by police, leading the government to close all schools for a couple of weeks. Then when some soldiers were sentenced to prison terms for crimes against civilians, their comrades in arms decided to show their displeasure and disagreement by marching through the streets of Ouagadougou, firing their weapons into the air, looting businesses along the way, and eventually liberating their imprisoned colleagues. The same actions subsequently spread to other military camps around the country before things quieted down again.

The latest round of unrest began late in the evening of last Thursday (April 14) when members of the presidential guard decided to also voice their complaints and began firing off their weapons, protesting unsatisfactory living conditions, inadequate pay, and unpaid allowances. Unfortunately, they decided to do some of their shooting in the presidential compound, prompting the president, Blaise Compaoré, and his family to temporarily move to another location in the middle of the night for security reasons. However, several hours later, on Friday morning, the president was back in Ouaga to hold scheduled meetings with various military groups.

We heard very little of all this in our suburb of Ouaga, but a Burkinabè colleague that lives near a main road told me that he didn’t get much sleep Thursday night. Sometime after midnight, a truckload of soldiers pulled up on the road not far from his place and began firing their machine guns into the air for about 20 minutes (after which they probably ran out of ammunition). My colleague and his family lay on the floor of their house during the whole time. While firing weapons into the air is better than shooting horizontally at buildings or people, the problem is that bullets that go up must eventually come down. Just recently, a 14-year old girl died as a result of being hit by a spent bullet that pierced the roof and ceiling of her house while she slept in bed. In another case, a spent bullet struck a gas bottle, sparking a fire that destroyed a local business.

At work on Friday, we heard of unrest downtown and gunfire in various parts of the city, some of it close to our centre, so we decided to allow all staff to go home early. I was scheduled to take a colleague to the airport (which is in the downtown area) in late afternoon and, not having heard of any more incidents, loaded up the truck and headed off. Instead of the usual rush-hour jams, traffic was unusually light since schools and most businesses had closed for the day. The trip was uneventful, but when I arrived at the airport, I received a message forwarded from the French embassy on my phone warning people to avoid travelling in 4X4 vehicles since soldiers around the city were stopping and stealing them. This was obviously not the best time to tell me this! But I headed home again with my eyes peeled and arrived without incident. Life along the streets appeared to be going on as normal.

On Friday night, the president dissolved the civil government and replaced the heads of the army and the presidential guard. The general sense was one of relief that the president was still in charge and was making an effort to bring things back under control. There was also news that the grievances of the presidential guard were being addressed. However, that night, there was more shooting and looting on the part of the military. So on Saturday, hundreds of aggrieved merchants took to the streets of downtown Ouaga to protest the looting and destruction of their businesses. They torched the headquarters of the leading political party, attacked the Ministry of Commerce and torched vehicles nearby, and attacked the National Assembly building of the civil government, causing extensive damage.

In response, a 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew was imposed on the city. Things seem to be calm today, except in a military camp in the south of the country where soldiers were reportedly shooting and looting in the nearby town of Pô.

Do we feel in any danger? Not at all. But we take precautions by not doing any unnecessary travelling, avoiding the downtown area, and keeping our eyes open as to what’s going on around us wherever we go. Unfortunately, Kathy & I had planned to take advantage of Easter Break this week at the school where Kathy is teaching a health class to sneak in a few days of R&R and visiting language teams down in the southwest area of Burkina. Guess we’ll have to postpone that for another time :( However, we did go to a wedding yesterday! It’s nice to find things to celebrate, especially in such times as these :)

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

San vs. Mossi 2-0

It’s Sunday evening and my friend Adama heads out from his house on his way to a meeting. He’s all dressed up in a nice West African boubou. A few hundred metres down the road, he sees a group of his neighbours sitting outside someone’s courtyard talking, so he stops to greet them.

“Hey, Adama!” one of them shouts out. “Now you’re properly dressed to play the role of the San chief!” Adama is a San and his neighbours are Mossi, with whom the San have a joking relationship. By saying this, they are not only making fun of him (implying that as an ordinary San man he has pretensions to be the leader of his people) but also of the San people (any ordinary Tom, Dick or Harry could be the leader of such a people!).

“Ah, no!” replies Adama. “You’re mistaken. I’m on my way to take the place of the Moro Naba!” The Moro Naba is the supreme chief of the Mossi people, the ethnic group that conquered all of eastern Burkina several centuries ago and subjected all the neighbouring people, including the San.

“You’d better hurry to get to the Naba’s palace,” continued Adama, “and be ready to welcome me in appropriate style. It just wouldn’t be right if I as your new leader arrived there ahead of you!”

And before they could think of a suitable rejoinder, he jumped in his truck and drove off.