Back To The Sahara

It’s getting seriously hot again here after two months of pleasant, though dusty, harmattan weather. For the last week or so, daytime highs topped out in the high 30s (high 90s – low 100s for the metrically-challenged). Today’s high was 39 (102). I had hoped that when the long-promised hot season arrived, it would at least mean the end of dusty harmattan winds and at least breathable air. But it was not to be. This is the view looking down the main street looking towards Ouaga 2000 and the embassy.

Siao road 2

For any of my Advanced Squad Leader playing friends who haven’t had the pleasure in real life, this is what Heat Haze and Light Dust look like. I estimate visibility at about 800 meters, or 20 ASL hexes, for buildings and moving vehicles. People fade out at about 500 or so. And your mouth is gritty and sort of metal-tasting. People here wear designer surgical masks to keep from having to inhale too much desert while out and about.

Siao road 1

Looking the other way up the street back towards my house.

My friends assure me, though, that we are just at the beginning of the hot season. In the coming weeks, the temperature will climb until daytime highs are normally in the low 40s, going up to 45 or more on hot days (113 F), and then the air might well be clear, at least some of the time, producing more of what I, in my North American experience, think of as desert summer weather. I sure hope so, at least. Heat, I can stand, as long as I am equipped with plenty of water. Today, I got cramps in my legs because I wasn’t paying enough attention to hydration and I had to stop in the shade and drink three liters of water to make them go away. But if you are careful all you do is sweat a lot. But this dust is really discouraging.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in front of this computer lately, though not writing blog posts. I have been assigned an online class and have been recording lectures. I’m going to put the whole thing on Moodle and then people will be able to listen to my riveting analysis as well as reading the texts and looking at website links I put up. Hopefully, they will be less confused after they listen to me. I sometimes wonder.

Teaching at the university here is going very well, I think. My rather small group of regular attenders at my US History lectures are a lively bunch and we get in some good discussions. I had a guy ask me about the influence of Jews in American society and culture, apparently affected to some degree by old-fashioned anti-Semitism, and I was able to set him straight without (hopefully) being offensive. We talked about Jewish immigration from eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the small Jewish communities that had come from western Europe earlier, the role of Jewish “peddlers” in frontier America, the creation of Reform and Conservative denominations and secular Jews, the role of education in Jewish tradition and the public school movement, and early US presence in the Middle East. All this in the middle of a lesson on the Progressive Era. I didn’t get to do my little biography of my grandfather that I usually do when I talk about the progressives, but I think the time was well-spent.

And I’m launching into a series of interviews to hopefully get me into my research project. Last night, I went to hear a panel discussion on terrorism and Burkina Faso, with a group of presenters including an AID official, a Muslim theologian, a Muslim woman who works with traditional Koranic educators, and a couple of film makers.

CVE Panel

All of the panelists were alumni of US Embassy exchange programs, either Fulbright or International Visitor. There was a lively discussion. The filmmakers had made a short movie (which I am trying to get a link to and will put up later) on the way traditional Koranic schools can exploit or mistreat young students, or Talibé, potentially leaving them open to recruitment into extremist movements. The woman discussed how her organization was working with the Muslim schools to incorporate some modern elements into their teaching and defeat the conservative argument that western education is forbidden for Muslims. One of the things she is doing is using the Arabic alphabet to write local languages and French, allowing at least a level of literacy for both the traditional educators and their students. AID is giving grants for educational development to try to reach underserved rural areas – in some parts of the country, Muslim schools are the only option for parents who want to get their kids some sort of education. The Muslim theologian talked about the things conservative Muslims get wrong about Islamic law, and also some misunderstandings that westerners might have about Islam. He is a leader in the national association of Muslim clergy that issued a very strong statement in the wake of the 1/15 terrorist attacks denying that there is any Islamic justification for terrorist violence. The statement had the support of an enormous number of imams including especially the leaders of the Wahabi center, the most conservative group. I don’t know if they are doing anything beyond making statements, but at least the statement was a doozy.

Next step is the policy analysis people at the embassy, on background, and then I will start trying to track down politicians. I also hope to get some useful information in the National Archives, at least on the background of the Sankara revolution. I don’t know what the final outcome of this work will be, but at least I know the question now: why is this country not like its neighbors? How have Burkinabè managed to escape (so far, at least) the curse of ethnic and religious conflict that has torn most other countries in the region apart, while at the same time creating a reasonably functional open society? In the Middle East, the choice seems to be between extremism and strongmen. In West Africa, strongmen alternate with violent civil wars. In Burkina Faso, what passed for strongmen, Sankara and his successor Blaise Compaoré, were pretty non-violent and consensus-building figures when compared with their regional neighbors. How does this work? Is the secret in the personality and policies of the leaders – let’s hope not, since Sankara is dead and Compaoré just got Cote d’Ivoire citizenship. Is there some aspect of the national character that makes Burkinabè uniquely effective politicians? Is it just good luck? Luck is useful too, but I wouldn’t want to think a whole country is depending on it.


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