The University of Ouagadougou is no more. As of this morning, by proclamation of His Excellency President of the Transition Michel Kafondo, it is the Université Professeur Joseph Ki-Zerbo. I was there with my colleagues from the History Department to grace the event with our presence. Hundreds of folks with their academic robes flocked around, there were a number of speeches, not too long-winded, the band played, the honor guard saluted with their swords, and the Transitional President, in one of his last official acts before his elected successor is sworn in next week, unveiled a plaque to this effect.
There’s the honor guard as the convoy of SUVs pulls up with the big guy.
Joseph Ki-Zerbo, who died in 2006, was a long-time professor in the History Department of UO. He was the first Burkinabè to get an advanced doctorate from a French university, the famous Sorbonne in Paris. He also studied at Sciences Po, the alma mater of French politicians. Born in 1922, during the period of French colonial rule, he was among the first “indigènes” to be permitted to study in France. When he returned to Burkina Faso (then Upper Volta), there were only a few hundred high school students in the country, and he was one of their teachers. When the newly-independent country formed a university in 1974, he was one of its first professors. He was an internationally-renowned scholar of African history, and he edited two volumes of the magisterial UNESCO General History of Africa. He was best known for his intellectual debate with Cheikh Anta Diop, the Senegalese historian, over the African roots of Ancient Egypt. Diop was a principal proponent of the “out of Africa” thesis, that Egyptian culture was principally influenced by African cultural values and then exported those values to the Mediterranean world, including Greece and Rome. Ki-Zerbo, on the other hand, argued that Egyptian civilization was polyglot, with influences from up the Nile, yes, but also from Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean regions. My old grad school African history teacher, Philip Curtin, supported Ki-Zerbo’s position. So it is only reasonable that now that the Senegalese have named their national university after Diop, the Burkinabè are following suit with Ki-Zerbo.
Ki-Zerbo was also important in politics. He was an opponent of the plan by France to create a French Union in which the African colonies would have semi-independent status within a larger body dominated by France. He called for a “no” vote on the referendum in 1957, but the Burkinabè voted “yes”. Ki-Zerbo moved to the only Francophone country to vote “no”, Sékou Touré’s Guinea, where he was a high school teacher for several years. He returned to Burkina in 1961 to work for complete independence, and formed a Socialist opposition party. He was kicked out again in 1984 by “Africa’s Che Guevara”, Thomas Sankara, who found him insufficiently young and cool, one assumes. He came back after Sankara was killed in the coup that brought Blaise Compaoré to power, but this did not make him a friend of Compaoré’s. He continued in opposition, especially vocal after the murder of opposition journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998. Here’s a picture of him from the 1970s:
This is basically a ceremonial act, but the political message of honoring an important opposition figure just a few days before the inauguration of a new president who was an important member of the old regime has got to be intentional.
Here are my colleagues in their academic robes – too bad I left mine home in the office at Mount Angel; they would have contrasted well with the burgundy and pink colors of UO (excuse me, UPJK)
That’s my boss, Professor Thiombiano Ilboudo, trying to get her little tie attached.
After the ceremony was over, I went back to my office, shed my suit, and went for a bike ride. And during the bike ride, of all things, a man tried to pick me up. This was a truly odd experience – one hears a lot about how repressed gay people are in Africa and how the “love that dare not speak its name” sure as hell dares not here. And yet, there I was, riding pell-mell down the Boulevard Muhammar Kaddafi towards the Monument aux Martyrs. I was actually getting ready to play Ingress, which for those of you who don’t know it, is a game sort of like geocaching, using your cell phone with GPS capability to go to different locations on the earth’s surface and do stuff to gain points for your team. It involves a lot of walking, or in my case riding, around and then a lot of fiddling with the cell phone. So, I’m riding along, heading for a key location here in Ouaga for the game. I’m going fairly quickly, about 35 kph or so, and I notice that I’m about to pass a motorcycle. This happens sometimes, usually older underpowered or heavily loaded rigs on a downslope, but this one looked new. As I passed, the guy speeded up and tried to strike up a conversation. He introduced himself, greeted me, all at speed. I was sort of wondering if he was trying to sell me something, as of course he was, but unprepared to just freeze him out. At the next stoplight, he said he was looking to be “my friend”. I responded that I wasn’t really looking for friends but just on a bike ride. He got more direct. I’ve had these sorts of conversations with women on a few occasions. Semi-pros who ride about on motorcycles picking up clients/sugar daddies – my friend Salif calls them the “brigade mobile“, the mounted brigade. But with girls, the conversations usually go quickly: (girl) “Good evening, how are you” (me) “Good evening, fine, thank you, yourself?” (girl) “Fine thanks, nice night” (every conversation in Burkina starts with at least two greetings) (me) “Yes, how are you?” (girl) “Very well, thank you, do you want any company tonight? (me) “No, thank you for the offer” (girl) “OK, safe travels”. I gave the guy a “bon route, au revoir,” and turned off towards my objective. He turned alongside me. I said again “bon route” and turned again, and once again he followed. It was about this time that he suggested that I needed a boyfriend. I explained that I wasn’t really interested in that and that if he was going to follow me about he was going to be disappointed and bored and probably perplexed. And then I began to fiddle with my phone. After a couple of minutes he finally got the idea and zipped off on his moto. I don’t know if I was in the secret cruisy spot for Burkina Faso, or if I was giving some sort of secret sign, or if he was just very desperate or very clueless. There is a scene in the film Milk where Harvey Milk meets the guy who is going to become his long-time companion in the New York subway. The guy comes on to Harvey and Harvey is like “you idiot, don’t you know the Vice Squad is staking out these sorts of places looking for people like us?” That was then in New York (the 60s), but today in Africa it is even worse than a humiliating arrest by New York’s finest and a “promoting public immorality” conviction on your record.
So after I got rid of my importunate suitor, I played a bit of Ingress and found my way to a Golden Tulip hotel, the Hotel Silmande, that had been recommended to me as having a very good restaurant. Security was impressive. A couple of cops armed with AKs at the entrance to the parking lot wanted to see my ID and inside my bag. and then at the entrance to the building a private security guy wanded me. I guess the attack on the hotel in Mali has everybody scared. Anyway, after all that hassle, I’m happy to report the meal was excellent. Lamb chops, cooked just right, a beautiful salad, steamed potatoes not overcooked, and fresh green beans ditto. On the way back from the restaurant, I passed through the forest park that I have often mentioned. Long-time readers may remember my making fun of the “don’t throw rocks at our crocodiles” sign in that park a couple of months ago:
Well, as I passed that very spot this afternoon, lo and behold, what did I see but five crocodiles. Here’s the one I got the closest to (nice telephoto lens on my camera)
And that was my day. One of the fullest so far. Happy Boxing Day to all.