Today is International Women’s Day. I don’t blame those of you who are reading this from the US for not knowing this; I had no idea that March 8th had any significance until I got here. But in Burkina Faso, it is a big deal. So, in honor of the three women in my immediate family, I thought I’d celebrate a bit.
Here they are, the King family women, first Anne Mills King, my dear mother
In a photo taken in 1943 as she was ready to go off to the Second World War in the Women’s Army Corps. She is still living but I’d figure she prefers this image of herself even if a bit dated.
Second, my beautiful wife Kadijatou Sherif King
In a photo from 2012, I think on Christmas Day,
and third, my brilliant wonderful daughter Jeneba Diane King,
The image on top from summer before last and the lower from Christmas Day 2014, where she played the role of God in the church Christmas pageant.
I think the celebration of the holiday owes a good deal to the influence of Chantal Compaoré, the former First Lady here, who was a big advocate for women’s rights, opposed female genital mutilation, encouraged state institutions to hire women, encouraged her husband to have women in important political roles, and so on. I don’t have a basis for comparison in other African countries today, but I can tell you that women in Burkina Faso today have a lot more recognition and a greater role in politics than in Guinea or Togo 30 years ago.
Women’s Day here in Burkina Faso is kind of a cross between a day for politicians to recognize and support advancement in women’s rights and Valentine’s Day, where you take your sweetie out for dinner and dancing. There are parties at all the restaurants and nightclubs, a concert at the art institute near my house featuring every female musician in Burkina Faso, apparently, and all sorts of people in nice new outfits made for the occasion with specially-printed cloth with the logo and slogans of the occasion.
I noted particularly the tisseuses (artisanal fabric workers) as there has been a big dialogue recently about protecting domestic fabric production. Burkina Faso grows an enormous amount of cotton. Used to be, before the 2000s, much of this cotton was spun, died, and woven into traditional cloth here in the country. The emblematic clothing of Burkina Faso is made out of this cloth, died typically in shades of blue or purple using locally-grown indigo. From the 1980s, when I was in Togo, there were already large quantities of cheap Chinese-made woven cloth, printed with an enormous variety of colors, but for festive wear people still preferred the traditional cloth. Well, in the last couple of years, Chinese manufacturers have figured out how to duplicate the traditional look and undersell local producers. Calls for protectionism ensued.
The purple people also marched past
This is a group of volunteer traffic cops. You see them around the city, with their lavender uniforms and little lighted wands, directing traffic at the numerous uncontrolled intersections or places where the traffic lights are out. Every now and then, one will be circulating among the cars with a hat soliciting donations. I always give, I figure if I’m going to die here, it’s most likely in a traffic accident and these folks are doing their best to keep me and everybody else alive. They are, unfortunately, often ignored by the extremely undisciplined Burkinabè drivers, unless there is a real cop around to actually hand out tickets. Lately, the real cops have taken to hanging out just down the street behind a sign or something, busting people, and confiscating their motorcycles until the fines are paid. I’m very careful.
Another important civic association is the Green Brigade. These are women with, as you can see, reflective green uniforms, who are out in the streets in the early morning hours sweeping up. They were prominent during the old regime, disappeared after the rebellion that toppled President Compaoré, and are now back. They got a big round of applause as they marched through. This city is enormously messy, but compared with other third world cities I have seen, less bad than most. Accra and Lagos, the biggest cities in Ghana and Nigeria respectively, are notorious for being half-buried in trash. Ouagadougou is much more pleasant, in part thanks to these folks (and also the fact that Ouaga is smaller and poorer than those cities).
And no parade would be complete without soldiers. I believe the entire female membership of the Burkina Faso armed forces marched past. This gendarme appeared to be enjoying herself
The cops and firefighters got to march too.
Not surprisingly, the national police (above) were much smarter marchers than the firefighters (below). I think it is a point of pride that firefighters don’t march very well. “We’re not soldiers or cops,” they are saying, “our business is not to look good, our business is to get the job done and protect you.” Burkina Faso’s firefighters have been working hard the last month or two: a series of fires has erupted in marketplaces throughout the country but especially here in Ouaga. The official investigations have attributed some of the fires to electrical installation problems – plugging enormous amounts of stuff into multi-plug outlets that are probably made in China of sub-standard components – but several fires have been human-caused. There is considerable suspicion, not to say paranoia, that these fires are being set by political activists, either former RSP or Jihadists or, in the most extreme paranoid suspicions, the two working together. My bike mechanic Karim, who as regular readers will remember has an open-air stand at the bike and moto market, is part of a community self-defense group who patrol the market, along with a hired security guard, to protect their inventory.
So that’s International Women’s Day here in Burkina. I’m going out this evening to dinner at a restaurant with my Fulbright colleagues, so I’ll have some insight on the partying in a future post.