Politics and Street Food

The elections are coming up in a little more than a month. People are starting to pay attention. Sunday afternoon, I went down to Djibi’s house in Patte d’Oie and hung out with him and a couple of his friends for a long spell of tea-drinking and a nice lunch courtesy of Mariatou. At the table were Siaka, who is the younger brother of the King of Bobo-Diolassou, and Eric, who sells insurance. Their debate had a lot of elements quite reminiscent of American politics.

Siaka thinks that traditional leaders should have a greater constitutional role as the “moral centers” of their community, remarking on the role played by the various regional chieftains in rallying the population to resist the recent coup and especially the intervention of the Mogho Naaba of Ouagadougou. That doesn’t come from anywhere in American politics, of course. But aside from that, he could have been an American Democrat – people are principally responsible for themselves, but taking into account the inequality in society, the weakened ability of the state to address social problems, and the legacy of 27 years of corrupt rule, the first priority for the government should be to strengthen state institutions. Fighting corruption has to be key; no government project can succeed if public employees see everything as a way to line their pockets. Enforcement is clearly a part of this but another part is to make sure that state salaries keep up with the true cost of living. It is ridiculous that the starting salary for a public school teacher is 100,000 CFA a month – that is the salary of a janitor or at most a lower technical worker like an electrician. Moreover, that amount of money doesn’t allow someone to truly support a family even at a basic level in the cities; the teacher has to take kickbacks from students, sell places at the school, steal school property, and so on. The state needs more resources to do its job, and many Burkinabé don’t pay enough taxes. Look at all the people rolling around in expensive SUVs and living in billion-franc mansions down in Ouaga 2000.

Eric responded that the key is personal responsibility: teachers who steal or take bribes should be fired, and the state has plenty of resources if only it could manage them properly. Make public employees responsible for their behavior and then you will have the resources to increase expenses if necessary. If people got rich from corruption, then taking away their property is just returning it to its proper owner, while merely taxing them in some ways legitimizes their ill-gotten gains. However, if people got rich legitimately, taxing them excessively will just drive them to other countries. During the revolution (of Thomas Sankara), the bourgeoisie of Burkina moved to Côte d’Ivoire.

Interestingly, to me, neither one of them mentioned foreign assistance. With a nod to me, Djibi’s older brother Amadou mentioned the role Ambassador Mushingi played in stopping the coup. He said the French had done little or nothing, not even deploring the coup in its early hours, while Mushingi went right on the radio the same evening to condemn the coup and demand the immediate liberation of the hostages. But nobody was calling for increased monetary assistance to the country. Everybody seems to have internalized Sankara’s advice about foreign assistance: “he who feeds you, owns you”.

Speaking of feeding, on the way down to Djibi’s house, we stopped in a street food stand for some mutton brochettes. Here’s the stand

Street Food

Those guys are chopping up a sheep up there, and roasting it over an open fire. They encourage the fire by tossing in slices of mutton fat – helps make the food taste better too, I’m sure. Sure smelled nice. There were a lot of flies around. There were also a few discarded double-edge razor blades on the ground near where we were sitting. But the food was excellent and it has been at least 24 hours and I’m having no digestive symptoms. So worth the stop. Street meat is almost always fine, unless it has been sitting around for a long time and had lots of chances to get re-infected by dust, flies, etc. This stuff came right off the grill.

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