I heard on the radio the other day that one of the restaurants attacked by the terrorists on January 15th, Taxi Brousse, had re-opened, so I decided to show solidarity by stopping by for dinner, thus combining three of my favorite activities, eating, drinking, and politics. It is really more of a club, with an eating area out front and a dance floor back inside. I didn’t bother with the dance area, especially since I arrived about 7:00 p.m. (the time the terrorist attacks started two weeks ago) and the dancing doesn’t get started here until after 10:00 (when I’m usually already in bed). So I parked my bike in front of the sign, featuring revolutionary heroes,
(from left to right: Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba)
And ordered food and drink. The menu is basic Burkinabè street food. I had beef kebabs and fried plantains and also shared some attieke (a sort of couscous made with manioc) and fish with another diner. The prices, though, are more like those in an expat restaurant, so my whole meal and drinks cost me 10,000 CFA, or about US$ 15.00; in a more normal, not on the main drag, street food place it would probably have been half as much or less. Anyway, the food was at least well-prepared; I especially liked the attieke (one of my favorite kinds of African food). They used a fish that wasn’t the normal sort of bony mess you get here but instead something that came out of an actual river or ocean not too long ago. It was nicely cooked on a grill and well-spiced. The pepper sauce that came with my kebabs was also excellent.
This is the sort of place where there is an enormous superfluity of waitresses who want to sit at your table with you and have you buy them a drink (and perhaps negotiate other services, I didn’t enquire). My waitress was Adama, a dignified lady of a certain age who is a member of a Pentecostal church and whose cell phone ring tone was some sort of hymn. Just for a little cognitive dissonance. Anyway, I bought her a beer and she told me her story.
She was at work the night of the terrorist attack. Here is a photo of the Splendid Hotel taken from my table, so you can see that they were right in the cross-hairs of the attackers.
She said she saw the young attackers next to a car parked up the street, that is, near the Cappuccino, which is to the right of the picture. They were talking loudly to each other and seemed agitated. Then, they got guns out of the car and began to shoot at people sitting in front of the Cappuccino. They also lit their car and some other cars on fire. One ran towards Taxi Brousse. There were only a couple of people eating in the restaurant at that time, but the workers were mostly there already. The workers all ran back into the dance floor area with the clients and locked the door, except one of the cooks who tried to hide behind the food counter. The attacker ran around behind the counter and shot the cook, then shot the lock off the dance floor door. The people inside ran upstairs. The attacker then fired several times into the dance floor area, then rejoined his companions who were coming out of Cappuccino having murdered more than a dozen people there, including two children. The employees and customers hid in an upstairs corridor for a couple of hours, trapped because the attackers were across the street in the hotel and shooting at anything that moved on the street. Finally, the police broke through the back wall of the dance floor area and escorted them to safety. While hiding out, they managed to call other workers and regular customers who had not yet arrived and tell them to stay away, though she said the cell phone system was worse than usual that night.
I commiserated with her, gave my condolences on the death of her co-worker, and expressed my support for Burkina and for local business. It appears as if both the Splendid and Cappuccino will re-open soon. I asked her a question which has been preoccupying me more and more as I think about a potential book on the recent history of Burkina Faso. Why is it that Burkina Faso has largely avoided this sort of thing? The reason this attack has had such a spectacular effect on Burkinabè morale is because, like 9/11 in the US, it is the first time any such thing has happened here. Whereas in the neighboring countries, Ghana and to some extent Benin excepted, this has become a sad reality. In Freetown, a whole series of beachfront bars beloved of Peace Corps volunteers in my day were quite intentionally shot up by the Sierra Leone rebels in the 1990s civil war. All sorts of atrocities marked Ivory Coast’s two civil wars in 2002 and 2010-11. Liberia, of course, became a byword for atrocious behavior by rebel groups, who in turn exported their conflict to Sierra Leone and, to some extent, Guinea. Mali and Niger are the scenes of terrible conflicts with violent attacks on innocent civilians entirely banal today. In West Africa’s economic heartland, Nigeria, the Boko Haram group attacked a village just last week only a few kilometers from the regional capital of Maiduguri and killed dozens of people for no particular reason. Yet Burkinabè have avoided slaughtering each other over politics and religion. Even in this case, the attackers weren’t Burkinabè but instead Malians, who took advantage of the porous borders in the region to sneak down here. People get killed over politics here – there are the famous cases of Thomas Sankara and Norbert Zongo, killed by servants of the Compaoré government, and maybe a dozen or so other, less famous victims. As I noted during the coup of last September, and as was also the case during the uprising in 2014 that kicked out Compaoré, even when ordered, Burkinabè soldiers would not turn their guns on their own people, or at least not effectively. Lots of shots were fired, but almost all in the air or intentionally wide of their targets. The killings during the Compaoré administration were retail affairs, of individuals who might pose a political threat, and generally condemned by the public. To this day, Compaoré and his henchmen deny involvement in any of these killings and the government even prosecuted some low-level folks for the killing of Zongo. As my father always used to say, “hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.” In Burkina Faso, not killing your political enemies is still considered a virtue. Encouraging anyway, if they can keep that sentiment.
While I was eating, I could hear the call to prayer at the Wahabi mosque right behind the Splendid Hotel. Hopefully not a sign of the times.