We’re All Revolutionaries Here

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While waiting to buy some mangoes at the fruit stand down the street from my house, I noticed this collection of images on the wall behind the fruit seller’s table. Counter-clockwise from upper left we have Fidel Castro, Martin Luther King, Che Guevara, Patrice Lumumba (prime minister of Congo in the 1960s, killed by the CIA’s man in Kinshasa, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu), Thomas Sankara, Muammar Gaddafi, Norbert Zongo and another unidentified (by me) Burkinabè politician presumably killed by the former government, and then, top center, the newly-elected president of Burkina, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. Strange bedfellows indeed; Kaboré is very centrist, favored by international development agencies, lenders, and foreign business interests, and generally pro-western. What’s his image doing up there with all these revolutionaries?

Long ago, long before I came to Burkina, a Burkinabè political figure of my acquaintance told me that everybody is a revolutionary here. The idea of pan-Africanism, pushed hard by Sankara during his time in power but around even under the first president, Maurice Yaméogo, is revolutionary. Burkinabè get around a lot – this place was the reservoir of labor under French colonial rule for the rest of West Africa. Burkinabè farmers built Ivory Coast’s coffee boom in the 1960s. Burkinabè construction workers built the fancy hotels of Abidjan and Dakar, and the irrigation canals of the Office du Niger project in Mali. Today, Burkinabè go farther afield, to Gabon (where there’s a oil boom), to Italy (where’s that coming from?) and, of course, Texas. Migration helps people see themselves as part of a larger whole, both as Burkinabè (instead of Mossi or Peuhl or Bobo) and as Africans. This means that they are instinctively against the isolating tribal politics found in most places in Africa.

The first generation of African leaders included people, like Lumumba in Congo, Sékou Touré in Guinea, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, and Yaméogo here in Burkina, who wanted African unity. They created the Organization of African Unity to push for their ideals. But when ideals met actual behavior, most Africans followed the lead of people like Houphouet-Boigny in Ivory Coast or Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya – African unity in words but jealous nationalism in actions. Additionally, the former colonial masters were none too happy with unification efforts, especially if they were to be led by leftist bomb-throwers like Touré and Nkrumah. So Africa remains a continent with 50-some countries, few of them really big enough for self-sufficiency, and some weak regional associations like the West African Economic Community (ECOWAS) that notably failed to end the Liberian and Sierra Leone civil wars in the 1990s. So to be a pan-Africanist is to be a revolutionary

Moreover, Burkina is innovative. A few weeks ago, I talked about my colleague Jessie Luna, who is studying the (so-far catastrophic) introduction of Monsanto’s BT cotton strain here. She’s back in Ouaga this week attending a national conference on cotton production in a fancy downtown hotel (only steps from the Splendid Hotel, target of the terrorist attack in January). The place is apparently full of chemical company reps (now they need to buy pesticide again because they can’t use GM cotton), fertilizer company reps, Monsanto reps, international development assistance people, cotton producers from several regional countries, and assorted hangers-on. They’ve all come to Burkina because this place is at the cutting edge; the first country to implement BT and now the first country to back away from it. Parenthetically, in the conference, the Burkinabè government representative managed to get a whole presentation in about last year’s crop without talking about the problems with BT. The other delegates were not amused, but of course everybody already knows about the issue.

So it’s not surprising to see the very centrist and stability-minded Kaboré in the same lineup with Castro, Sankara, and so on. Being a revolutionary is prized here, like being a conservative is back home. In America, even if you’re not conservative, you want people to think you are, so you couch even dramatic changes in the language of continuity, caution, evolution, tradition. In Burkina, everyone is a revolutionary, so cautious evolutionary policies, like those of Kaboré, get a revolutionary paint job. We recently came to the 100-day mark of Kaboré’s presidency. It’s a symbolic moment, and as a matter of fact a lot of Kaboré’s time in the last couple of months has no doubt been taken up with thinking about security after the terrorist attack that took place when he had been in office less than three weeks. But he’s still talking about shaking things up. He announced that he and his ministers would not accept their salaries until the government’s arrears in paying bills had been taken care of – shades of Sankara’s very public personal austerity. My instant thought when I heard it, though, was “if they aren’t drawing a salary, how are they keeping their families fed?” The obvious answer would appear to contradict the ideals of good government that Kaboré keeps talking about. Kaboré also said he was reducing the presidential office phone budget, again shades of Sankarist austerity. Except that the president really does have to talk to people, a lot. I can just see him interrupting a conversation with Obama or Hollande and asking them to call him back since he was about out of minutes on his phone plan…

In other news, I have an addition to my household menagerie: cats. There is a grey female cat who hangs out next door at a food stand where they sell attieke (an Ivoirian dish commonly served with fish). The cat recently had kittens and she has stashed the kittens in my yard. They have fun chasing each other around and occasionally they get a saucer of something or other from me. Last night, they killed a pigeon and we found feathers all over the place in the morning. So a good environment for them. Here’s a picture of one of the kittens stalking her brother in the hedge:

Kitty 1 640

I don’t let them inside though they have mysteriously wandered through a couple of times. I’m not nearly as allergic to cats as I used to be, but why take chances? Nice to have them around, though. They’ll keep down on the rats, hopefully.

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