Gian Piero de Bellis
Four weeks in Burkina Faso
February 21, Wednesday
It is a quarter past one at night, and I am at the St Clement’s bus stop in Oxford waiting for my coach to the Airport.
When it arrives, half an hour later, I discover that it is pretty full.
Where are all these people going?
Silly question. They could ask me the same thing.
Where am I going?
My reply would be: Luton - Paris - Ouagadougou.
It is 4.30 a.m. when I arrive at Luton airport.
The check-in at easyJet is a bit chaotic. Restrictions and controls have multiplied in recent months.
Is England on the road to becoming a police state? I think so.
Under the tutelage of the Prime Moron, the national socialist Tony Blair, this country has gone down a path of state violence abroad and state suffocation at home.
At 8.30 a.m. I land at Paris Charles De Gaulle airport.
There seem to be fewer controls. Maybe this other police state has improved compared to England (or rather England has deteriorated tremendously with respect to France). Or, perhaps, mine is just a superficial impression that might be undermined by spending more time in France.
My check-in is at terminal 2C.
While I am queuing, a black person with a bulky bag enters the line just in front of me. I say nothing. I have plenty of time before my flight.
If the person had been a white man, I would have stopped him and sent him to the back of the queue. Perhaps I am incubating the “pod” virus ("pity of the downtrodden"). It is a terrible virus: it belittles the person who receives and elevates the person who gives. It manifests itself when the person who receives is equal to you (no handicaps, no special needs) but obtains a favour out of craftily engendered compassion or sympathy (the poor black, the smiling woman, etc.).
While waiting for my flight (I will leave in the afternoon) I start reading Fishing in Africa by Andrew Buckoke. The revealing subtitle is: A guide to war and corruption.
11.40 a.m. I have a snack - a dish of vegetables and a cup of tea. They call it tea: hot water and a tea bag in a plastic cup.
12.45 a.m. I fancy some yoghurt. The girl at the counter is one of the many Europeans who hasn’t got a clue how to provide a decent service. First, she doesn’t give me the right change. Then, when I ask for a plastic teaspoon, she goes to fetch one and throws it on the counter. Hygiene: zero. Politeness: double zero.
Leaving Europe for 4 week is not a bad idea at all!
5.20 p.m. Take off with twenty minutes delay.
8.55 p.m. Arrival in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.
The first impression is the warmth of the evening air.
There is quite a bit of confusion at the airport. I notice the overwhelming police presence that reduces social life to an incredible slow pace. It seems that the true global reality is, nowadays, the ubiquitous presence of the police.
It takes a long time to get out of the airport.
My friend Marie is waiting outside to pick me up.
A not very long trip by car and we arrive at the place where I will be staying while in Ouagadougou.
I meet Marie’s husband and other people.
I am quite tired. I didn’t sleep properly the previous night.
After a short while they leave and allow me to go to bed.
Bureaucratic pain in the neck
To enter Burkina Faso you need a valid passport and a visa.
If you are in England I suggest you to visit http://www.traveldocs.com/bf/ or
The latter is the website of the Belgian embassy of Burkina Faso. Print two (or three) copies of the visa form, fill it in and stick a photo on each form. You can follow the instructions found in those websites or you can/could take the completed forms with you and hand them over on your arrival at Ouagadougou airport. You will be charged 10 (Ten) Euro = £7.50 pounds (this information to be checked before leaving).
My experience dealing with the British honorary consul of Burkina Faso was very disappointing, to say the least. He sent me an electronic form in a format my computer could not read, ignored all my requests for a new file to be sent to my e-mail address, charged me the extortionate price of £25 which, added to the postal order payment (£2.19) and the cost of the recorded delivery (£4.50 + £4.50) made the total cost for the visa £36.19.
February 22, Thursday
I was boiling hot.
Because of my fear of mosquitoes I kept the window closed, the door closed and I covered myself up to the neck with a light blanket. If to all that we add the fact that the air conditioning system in the plane had kept my body temperature quite low and the air in Ouagadougou is rather warm, you can understand why I was experiencing thermic shock. The hot season is fast approaching. March, they say, is one of the hottest months of the year. I hope I will survive the heat.
After a very long period I fall asleep due to sheer exhaustion.
In the morning I have a severe headache and I am still feeling very hot and very tired.
I am supposed to go to the place used as the information centre for the Festival of Pan-African Cinema (Fespaco) but I feel too weak.
So I say to the people in the house, who are the brothers of my host, that I won’t go. I put a chair outside, on the veranda, and I start reading Ayittey’s book, Africa Unchained.
After a while I close my eyes and I start dozing. I will spend the rest of the morning in this way.
Then my friend Marie rings. She says that I have to go at 3.00 p.m. to have some passport photos taken to put on a badge that will be my entrance pass to the Festival.
At 4.00 p.m. I finally decide to go out and do as she said. I can’t feel any sense of urgency in this weather and with my tiredness. Two nights in a row without proper sleep don’t inspire you to go rushing anywhere.
I get on S’s moped and then we go to the photographer. S. drives me to a large arterial road crammed with traffic and flanked by people selling everything. He haggles over the price of the photos.
After that, back on the saddle and on to the headquarters of Fespaco.
Jean, the husband of my friend Marie, is there. I give him the photos and he will make sure I receive the pass. After exchanging a few words he asks me a favour: to draw up the work schedule of 20 hostesses who will be serving at the bar inside Fespaco. I promise to do it on the computer the following morning. Then I leave, wanting to explore the space outside the Fespaco building. While I wander around, very soon somebody approaches me and we start talking about Africa. I guess there will be many chance encounters like this one during my stay in Burkina Faso.
In the evening, dinner at my friends' home: rice, meat, vegetables. I can’t eat much; I haven’t used up enough energy during the day. After dinner J. takes me back. We do a long tour of the town; he shows me the central district and the night’s attractions. At a certain place he stops and points out, in the far distance, the new (and not yet completed) presidential palace. Later on I will learn that it is a criminal offence to take a photo of it.
It has cost a fortune. The usual folly of the usual mad (state) power.
When I reach my place I am ready for a very good sleep. I need it.
If you are going to sub-Saharan Africa you need a series of vaccinations, for reasons of health (so they say) and also for peace of mind (as I believe).
These are the ones I had (and the current price in England - February 2007):
If we add the cost of the return flight, £524 (€756), which is high compared to other far away destinations within Europe or the States, it is no wonder that Africa is not a tourist destination for many people!
February 23, Friday
I have slept quite well. Window open, door open. Some mosquitoes, but far fewer than I expected. And their bites are less itchy than the ones you get in Italy during the summer. In the morning the electricity is down so I cannot prepare my cup of tea. I postpone tea and have yoghurt instead.
Then, after my usual ablutions and some light physical exercise, I set up to arrange the rota for the hostesses, as I had been asked to do the previous day.
Jean wants me to make two groups of ten girls, each girl doing morning and evening shifts. However, he doesn’t want the formation of two stable groups, that is, of girls working together all the time. May be he doesn’t want to create two opposing factions or two very compact groups, with conflicting loyalties. Perhaps he has got a point and I comply with his request. For the girls it is only a one-week job.
I have finished drawing up the timetable and I am doing some reading when my friend Marie arrives. We start chatting and then off we go by car to meet one of her brothers
Late in the afternoon you can see the same incredible traffic as earlier in the day and a suffocating level of pollution. The roads are a disaster, with a fine dust whirling in the air and entering the nostrils.
In the evening I have dinner in a restaurant with Jean and then I am ready for bed.
I am growing used to the warm air, which is pleasant after sunset.
If only they planted a few (= a lot) more trees!
Here are the contents of my safety or medical kit for Burkina Faso. Most of the things can be bought at Tesco or Boots. I put my comments in brackets.
Most of this stuff had been left behind after having explained the use of each product (as there were no instructions in French on the box).
For an interesting (albeit scary) read about health problems in Africa see: Lonely Planet Guide, Healthy Travel in Africa by Isabelle Young
Various supplies brought with me from Europe
February 24, Saturday
While I am sitting in front of a computer, preparing a leaflet for Jean about a documentary he is presenting at Fespaco, my friend Marie arrives. She is going to the town centre and I ask if I can join her when I have finished. Then out we go, amongst the chaotic, highly polluting traffic of cars and mopeds that characterize Ouagadougou.
We go visiting friends. One is watching TV. She has just bought some tablets for stress. They are made by the pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca and they cost a fortune. When I suggest that a cup of camomile could do the trick just as well, she doesn’t reply. Perhaps my remark has not gone down very well with her and was not appropriate.
At the end of our tour we go back to the Fespaco headquarters and have something to eat and drink: Orange Fanta plus French fries and fried slices of banana.
Today the Festival starts with an opening ceremony at the 4th of August Stadium. I must be there at least 2 hours in advance to find a reasonable seat.
The ceremony starts on time at 6.00 p.m. with the arrival of President Blaise Compaoré.
When his entrance is announced, everybody (locals and foreigners) stands up out of tradition, habit, respect, fear, or I don’t know what. I remain seated.
This is the man who arranged for the killing of his friend Thomas Sankara and has been president of Burkina Faso for the last 20 years; the same one who has just built himself a grandiose palace with the money from ordinary people’s pockets.
That is why I must remain seated. This is not a person to celebrate or pay respect to.
Nevertheless, to remain seated is not easy. We humans are hard-wired to conform, to delegate to the anonymous majority (which seldom thinks) the effort of deciding what to do and how to behave. Then we follow the decisions of the majority because this is the easiest and most comfortable option.
While I am seated it occurs to me to think: maybe Thomas Sankara could have become, in due course, a terrible despot and Blaise Compaoré could be seen as the lesser evil. Anyway, the power of one human being over other human beings is, in itself, something evil and I would remain seated in front of whoever occupies a position of state power.
Only the foolish can believe in benevolent political power.
After speeches from some officials there is a brief presentation of the films entered in the competition. At the end of it many people start leaving. It’s a pity, because they miss the best part of the evening marked by a superb light show, horses, songs and, finally, fireworks.
I get back soon after 9.00 p.m.
Some bread with soft cheese and I am ready for bed.
From Upper Volta to Burkina Faso
Upper Volta was part of the French Empire as Afrique Occidentale Française (French West Africa).
In 1960 it achieved independence.On the 4th of August 1983, Captain Thomas Sankara, Premier from January 10 to May 17, 1983, ousted the head of state, Major Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo. On August 24 a new government was formed but the situation remained tense. On October 28, Sankara finally installed himself fully in power, claiming the need to defend the young revolution.
The following year, on August 4th, 1984, celebrating one year of power, Capt. Thomas Sankara changed the country’s name from Upper Volta (Haute Volta) to Burkina Faso (the country of honest men - le pays des hommes intègres).
February 25, Sunday
My friend Marie arrives while I am engrossed in Ayittey’s book Africa Unchained.
It is chilling to read about the abysmal immorality of so many African leaders, and also of so many African citizens who have allowed themselves to be governed by these bandits.
My friend is with a colleague and we all end up again at the Fespaco headquarters to eat something.
Today I start my week as a film viewer at the African Film Festival.
It takes me more than one hour to reach the part of town where they are going to show the films I want to see. I can’t find the hall. Finally, tired of walking, I catch a taxi.
I watch 2 pictures: Il va pleuvoir sur Conakry by Cheick Fatamady Camara (Guinea) and Africa Paradis by Sylvestre Amoussou (Benin)
I am quite struck by their courage in tackling controversial themes such as religious obscurantism and racism towards immigrants, and by the good technical standards of the films.
While I’m walking back towards Fespaco, two young men on a moped approach me. They have recognized me as the one staying at Jean's place. One of them will give me a lift home. We will meet inside Fespaco.
Once there, my first move is to buy a beer. I desperately need something to drink.
Fespaco (Festival Panafricain de Cinema de Ouagadougou)
The year 2007 sees the celebration of the 20th Fespaco (the Ouagadougou Festival of Pan-African Cinema) with a series of films exploring the theme: African cinema and cultural diversity. Fespaco started in 1969 as the “Semaine du Cinema Africain” following the impetus given by a small group of cinema professionals and amateurs. That beginning saw the participation of moviemakers from 5 countries: Senegal, Ivory Coast, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Niger and Cameroon.
It is only with the third festival held in 1972 that the event took its present name (Fespaco) and started awarding the First Prize of the competition, l’Étalon de Yennenga (Stallion of Yennenga), a reference to a 12th century story dating from the period of the Mossi Empire.
Now the festival has extended its reach to filmmakers from many more African countries and also to those living elsewhere (Europe, United States) who are part of the so-called African diaspora. In 1983 with the setting up of MICA (Marché International du Cinéma et de la Télévision Africaine) new areas have been included.
For more information see the Fespaco website at:
February 26, Monday
I spend almost all day at home, reading the Ayittey book. It makes your blood boil to learn about the incredible level of corruption of so many people in Africa.
The state dominance of the last 100 years has been the worst period of human history, the most brutal and heinous. It is only technological progress that has masked all this, giving a patina of social advancement to what is moral perversion and decadence.
My friend Marie arrives around 6.00 p.m. while I am talking to the young man who gave me a lift the previous evening. I was suggesting to him that he should produce a better Film Festival catalogue than the one that circulates officially. He says that those in charge will not allow it. Then he elaborates a bit on the political situation: how the state rulers create shortages and then intervene in order to show that they are the only ones capable of solving the problem. I suggest he should write about it and I will publish his account on my web site as letters from Burkina Faso, with a false name in order not to cause him any trouble.
He says he will think about it.
The period when Burkina Faso was dominated by the presence of Thomas Sankara is still remembered with fondness by many Burkinabé. Whatever the merits or demerits of his policies, Sankara gave the people a certain pride in being independent human beings and a hope that those in power could do something other than just amassing huge fortunes.
It was probably this fight against corruption, whose existence was permitted thanks to the support of corrupt politicians by the French state, which led to his downfall in October 1987.
The year before (February 1986) during his visit to Paris, Sankara had castigated the policies of the French state towards Burkina Faso. President Mitterrand and his entourage certainly did not forget it when they decided to back Capt. Blaise Compaoré against Thomas Sankara.
On October the 15th, 1987, Captain Thomas Sankara was seized by a group of military on the orders of his friend and ally Captain Blaise Compaoré, taken to an open field and shot dead.With the death of Sankara an end was put to the anti-corruption drive inspired by the revolution, and a new period of state theft and extravagance ("la grande bouffe") was inaugurated.
February 27, Tuesday
I am out to buy some food and bottles of water. I walk along a wide dusty road. There are single storey houses on both sides. A lot of cleaning and some painting and planting could transform this area into something much better. General standards do exist; we cannot just accept everything on the pretext of cultural relativism.
Selling vegetables in the shade, under a tree, is better than standing in the scorching sun.
There are no two ways about it.
And this is valid for any person living on the earth (with the possible exception of mad dogs and Englishmen).
The market I explore is full of all sorts of objects/food/tools. If only they were presented in a better way and in a cleaner environment!
After almost one week in Ouagadougou I got the feeling that three things are missing here:
Instead of these necessary aspects of personal and social life we have pollution, confusion and noise. Thinking then becomes a difficult exercise and it is avoided, or, at least, so it seems to me. However, without thinking, examining, pondering, assessing, comparing and so on and so forth, the same mistakes are repeated over and over again, resulting in a thoroughly unappealing quality of life.
The difference between Europe and Africa (taken overall as homogeneous realities) can be summarized with reference to the presence or absence of a few individuals and their influence on many other individuals in terms of methods of reasoning and experimenting: Galileo, Bacon, Descartes.
Unless similar individuals emerge here, in black Africa, and are appreciated and celebrated and emulated, there is nothing that can be done other than carry on as usual.
In the afternoon, choking in the pollution emitted by the cars, I was walking towards the Centre Culturel Français to take part in another film séance when another feeling overcame me. I thought: nature will prevail, in the long run. At some point in the distant future Ouagadougou, this monstrous polluted city, must die for the people in the villages to be free of this sucking vampire.
In Africa there is nothing worse than being
- a man
- living in the capital
- working for the state.
This situation is the pinnacle of parasitism and obscurantism.
Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, is a sprawling urban monster inhabited by around a million people. One of the main attractions used to be the Grand Market which burned down in 2003 and is supposed to reopen sometime in 2007. The most common form of transport within the city is the many taxis that you thumb down on the main arterial roads. Tell the driver where you want to go and negotiate the price (which is higher during Fespaco because in that week taxis are more in demand). Usually you share the taxi with passengers going towards similar destinations.
To get out of the city there are coaches belonging to different companies. Avoid the cheapest ones (because of the unreliability of the coach engines) and book in advance. Coaches are generally quite full because the railway, that could cater for far more passengers, is in a very poor state, more expensive and providing a worse service.
While I am at the French Cultural Centre a young man approaches me. He sells necklaces. We end up talking and talking. He too wants to leave Burkina for Europe.
Good for Europe with its very low birth-rate, but bad for Africa unless he comes back with new ideas and new energies. This might be the way to turn things around.
The film I see late in the afternoon is awful.
Back in my room, I notice a leaflet stuck on the wall with this written on it:
… et le seigneur regarda notre travail.
Cela lui plu beaucoup.
Il demanda à voir notre salaire,se retourna et se mit à pleurer.
… and God saw our work
and He was content with it.
Then he asked to know our wages,after that He started crying
February 28, Wednesday
Deux films très emouvants de cineastes du Chad.
I started writing in French and then I realized I was using a different language.
As a matter of fact, reality does not possess fixed borders and certainly not cultural walls in our brain.
We humans have generated or have accepted boundaries, separations, and these have worked very well for those in power. The most terrible and senseless boundaries are those concerning territories. The marking of territories and their assignation to or appropriation by a master is called feudalism. This is the system we still live under now.
It might be called, more appropriately, macro-feudalism or statism because it is based on a very large, central, feudal power, known as a state or nation state.
Anyway, the pattern is the same as classic feudalism.
So, forget about some ideological inventions called capitalism or socialism or liberalism or similar myths. We are all deep into feudalism and nothing but feudalism.
Before the start of the films (Tartina City by Serge Issa Coelo and Daratt by Mahamat Saleh Haroun) I again meet the young man of the day before, the one selling necklaces. We start talking and I suggest that he should put some photos of his wares on my web site by way of publicity. I don’t know what will come of it but it’s better than nothing.
I will see, before I leave, if he is capable of providing me with the relevant information.
Micro-help, micro-assistance, circulation of micro information; may be there is a future in it through the Web.
March 1, Thursday
Today I am back at the Centre Culturel Français to check my mail. I find more than 250 message, most of them spam.
In and around the Centre Culturel there are always a lot of people. The Burkinabé, like many French-speaking Africans, have a love-hate relationship with the French. It is the same relationship one might have with a disliked but nevertheless envied master, one who repels and appeals at the same time.
For all the anti-capitalistic or anti-imperialistic jargon that intellectuals use when discussing Africa, here in Burkina Faso, or at least, as I can see for myself, in Ouagadougou, you find plenty of people who are money-oriented and very keen on trading with everybody. If they were left free to operate without the suffocating control and strictures of the state, they would transform Africa into the most capitalistic of the continents. Clearly by ‘capitalism’ should here be intended “free enterprise” and certainly not the rigged market we have in the West or the corrupt kleptocracy they currently have in Africa.
In Africa, much more than elsewhere, the state is a terrible scourge and the people seem unable to get rid of it. The desire to get rich quickly makes too many enterprising individuals accept the state as the surest and fastest road to riches, hoping only to be part of the profiteering clan.
It is a mixture of illusions, cynicism and sheer madness.
The state in Ouagadougou is visible everywhere. Even here, inside the Cultural Centre, there are quite a few soldiers and policemen. There is no need, in my view, for this sort of protection, other than, perhaps, to please the ex-colonizers. As a matter of fact, there is more reason to be afraid or just suspicious of these forces of ‘law and order’ than of the ordinary man in the street.
On leaving the Centre in order to reach a place known as “Cenasa” I have the silly idea of asking a person in uniform for directions. He sends me the wrong way. Probably he didn’t know where the “Cenasa” was, but still felt obliged to give me some kind of answer.
At the “Cenasa” they show two documentaries. One, “Requiem pour la revolution” by Jihan El-Tahri (Egypt) is about the intervention of the Cubans in Angola during the '70s and 80's. The other, “El ejido, la loi du profit” by Rhalib Jawad (Morocco) is about the pitiful conditions of Moroccan labourers in Andalusia (Spain), working in huge greenhouses to produce vegetables for export all over Europe.
The cinema is a modern building with many large air conditioners. Probably there was no need for them, because inside a building with decent insulation it is not hot. Nevertheless, a false sense of modernity, or alluring contracts and bribes, required them to be installed. It is madness Western-style, engineered by Africans in Africa. If anybody thinks that pollution and waste are just European or North American problems, he/she should think again.
March 2, Friday
The Film Festival is approaching its end.
Today there are two American films I am going to watch with M. They are not in the competition.
One is “Blood Diamond” by Edward Zwick, about the diamond trade in Sierra Leone and the terrible fight for its control. In one sequence from the film an old man living in a village says: We are lucky that there is no petrol here, otherwise we would all be lost.
This is the tragedy when one has material resources but not the moral and mental capability to use them to benefit humanity. Development requires wisdom and decency. In fact, we could say that development is wisdom and decency. Money is not at all the decisive factor that most economists want us to believe.
It is a pity that the existence of an economist revolves around money as the subject matter of his/her study and as a way of earning a living. Maybe it is because of this that they come to think that everything depends on money.
The political economist is the bane of our times as the rapacious priest was at the time of Church dominance.
"[But] why are economists so different? Two possible explanations suggest themselves. One is that economics students are just like others, but have been influenced by economic theory to think that they should always try for maximum material gain. Materialist theories have a compelling logic, after all, and sustained exposure to them can be seductive.
Another possibility is that economists are a distinctive personality type to begin with. If some people in the population are, by nature, much more materialistic, much less given to emotion, than others, it is easy to imagine many of them being attracted by the teaching of economics.
My own impression is that both factors play a role."
In the evening Marie and I go back to the Fespaco headquarters and the guards at the entrance let us in so that we can park the car inside. Marie says that it is because there is a white man (me) in the car. I don’t know. She is probably right.
Here people are very friendly with foreigners without being intrusive. There is nothing of the pestering I encountered in India at the end of the eighties when, sometimes, you couldn’t walk without being insistently approached over and over again.
To be a foreign journalist here would be quite easy because people talk quite freely about their situation. I don’t know why it is so difficult to read an interesting article about ordinary people in Africa and their lives. Journalists write only about extreme crises. Moreover, most journalists are so immersed in stereotypes about Africa that original, critical reporting of daily existence is nowhere to be found.
March 3, Saturday
The closing ceremony of the Festival is held at the 4th of August Stadium.
Plenty of music and, at some length, the announcement of the various awards for the best fiction film, documentary, best sound, photography, and other artistic and technical aspects. My bet for the major prize was on the first film I had seen, Il va plevoir sur Conakry, but it gets only the Prix du Publique. The jury chooses a Nigerian director Newton Aduaka and his film Ezra.
During the ceremony there is the usual general standing up for the arrival of the president Blaise Compaoré. It is unbelievable how pliant and imitative people are. This is a characteristic of human nature that makes for a conflict-free social life. However, in a society consisting of servile clones there is no one who will come forward to advance original ideas and more satisfying ways of life.
Once out of the stadium, as I am considering how to get home, a French couple invites me to share a taxi. As soon as we start we discover a problem. The road to the Fespaco headquarters where I want to go is closed, because the president is to drive down it with his retinue of so-called dignitaries.
So the main arterial road is blocked for ages, just because Mr President has to go home.
Because of the blockade the driver take us on an incredible tour of the city and, in the end, I have to get off at a spot that is even farther away from Fespaco than the one I started from.
This is life under regimes and rulers who use the territory as their own personal property.
Walking towards the Fespaco I notice once again that the traffic is horrendous and the pollution can not only be smelt but can even be seen.
I get into another taxi and I can't help expressing my feelings to the driver. I say: in ten years, if things continue to get worse, with more cars and more mopeds, the circulation will stop and the polluting substances will attack your lungs. At that point nature will start taking its course, and people will die from respiratory or other related illnesses.
Ouagadougou is an urban mess. More money arriving by way of aid will compromise the situation even more. Here it is totally obvious that political economists working for the state have engineered a colossal disaster. They should be held accountable for it.
In a perverse dream, I imagine the forceful implementation of three simple but quite brutal rules. (This is all the more outrageous on my part as I am not keen on imposing rules and, basically, I am in favour of non-violence). Anyway, the rules are:
1. No political economist can have any saying in development programmes.
2. If he doesn’t abide by rule 1, he should be put in a mental hospital.
3. If he rebels against rules 1 and 2, he should just be shot dead.
(Nobody should worry about this; it is just a mental divertissement).
These three simple rules would greatly benefit African people in general. They should then be extended to other categories of meddler, first of all to those who wield political power.
Baise Compaoré installed himself in power in 1987, as the head of the new junta, after the assassination of Thomas Sankara. One of the first acts of the new government was to raise the salaries of government officials.
In 1991 Mr Compaoré decided that democracy should also be introduced into Burkina Faso (The totalitarian Soviet Union had recently disappeared). So he held presidential elections. The fact is that he was the only candidate and, what is even more remarkable, 72% of the people of Burkina Faso abstained from voting. This shows the trust they had in former Captain Blaise Compaoré.
President Compaoré and his presidential guard are alleged to have been implicated in the death of journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998. This was in addition to the general intimidation of the media, as pointed out by the international organization Reporters without Borders.
In the year 2000 a constitutional amendment similar to the one introduced in France limited the presidential tenure to two terms of five years each. Nevertheless, in 2007 Blaise Compaoré is still there, President of Burkina Faso from 1991 until … the day people manage to get rid of him.
March 4, Sunday
Dimanche. The Film Festival is now over. Today will be a very quiet day.
I get up a bit late; I have my usual breakfast and carry on reading my book on Africa. The author presents some interesting ideas that I should summarize in my diary.
In the afternoon, while I am reading a quite scary booklet about possible health problems for travellers in Africa (a Lonely Planet guide) my friend Marie arrives. We start talking about various topics, especially families, relationships, children and what are called inter-racial marriages. She is a bit worried about her daughter who lives in Paris and who could end up marrying a “blanc”. I say to her that what counts, above all, for a lasting relationship is civility. With this, I am repeating what my father told me once, and I still believe it.
Two individuals from different cultural worlds, but both brought up to prize honesty and consideration, can live very well together and prosper and enjoy life to the utmost.
More than 2000 years after Epictetus and the Stoics, we are still far from achieving the cosmopolitan outlook they advocated. What we are still lacking is a human being who is neither English nor French, neither Black nor White, neither Catholic nor Muslim, but, first of all, human, and only secondarily, whatever he likes to be or actually is from the point of view of the colour of his skin or of the faith he professes. All this to be accompanied by mutual respect for whatever other human beings want to be.
This is not asking too much. It’s just plain common sense and civility.
March 5, Monday
I take a taxi to go and see Marie at the IRD (Institut de Recherche sur le Développement) where she works. The taxi picks up several people one after the other, and we are now a small crowd of four plus the driver. On a previous occasion I was sharing the front seat with another person, making a total number of six passengers.
At the IRD I start reading a book on Burkina Faso. I want to know more about the history of the country.
In the afternoon I am introduced to a French young woman who has been working here at the Institute for the last two years. When she asks for my impressions about Ouagadougou, I mention first of all la poussière (the dust) and then the lack of trees and vegetation. For her this is inevitable due to the dry climate.
This might be true. However, it is true also that beyond the perimeter wall of certain houses, probably lodging rather well-off people, or beyond the gates of banks and international institutions, you can see plenty of trees and green lawns. The lack of trees has more to do with the actions of human beings than with geographical conditions and natural constraints.
It is a pity that many Europeans constantly fall into this trap of justifying almost everything done by Africans, even if it is cutting down trees and creating a desert. The ‘political correctness’ of self-proclaimed progressive people has clouded their rational judgment. It is also true that many local people acquiesce in being treated as ‘minors’, and this quite conveniently lets them off the hook of personal responsibility. The result is that their capabilities remain very limited and their personal initiative almost non-existent.
Later on I say to Marie that, sometime before leaving Ouagadougou, I would like to visit the National Library. So, at the end of the day, she decides to take me there.
We drive into a compound containing a small single storey construction. The first room is a small reading room with a few magazines, less than what you find in a barber shop in some places in Europe. There are a couple of readers and some librarians. Marie asks for the director. The technical director of the library is there but the general director has gone out. As we are leaving, he arrives in a car driven by a chauffeur. He greets Marie and invites us into his office, which is next to the so-called reading room.
Suddenly realization dawns. That’s it. This is the National Library of Burkina Faso. Practically no books, almost no readers, some staff doing little or nothing.
This is squandering money African-style. Those in charge have set up an empty shell, giving it the name "National Library", just because national libraries exist in practically all other states on earth - no matter that the shell is devoid of any content and performs no other function than paying salaries to people who have nothing to do.
When we leave and I tell Marie about my impressions and my conclusions she bursts into laughter. She knew it all along and she just wanted to see my reaction considering that, together we had seen some of the finest libraries in Europe, such as that of Geneva.
L’état, quel dégât!
March 6, Tuesday
I have started reading a book taken from the library at the IRD. It is by Marc Aicardi de Saint-Paul, De la Haute Volta au Burkina Faso. On page 71 I read:
"Comme pour un bon nombre d’états du tiers-monde, la santé de son économie dépend en grand partie de facteurs qui lui sont étrangers." ["As for a large number of states of the Third World, the health of its economy depends in large measure on factors that are outside its control."]
Here we have the usual exonerating nonsense that has dominated the attitudes of western intellectuals towards Africa and the so-called underdeveloped countries. It is a patronizing and disastrous view if we consider the enormous responsibility of most African rulers in messing up their economies, squandering vast sums of money and destroying all sorts of resources since independence. Ayittey’s book Africa Unchained is a serious and well-documented indictment of this type of wishy-washy reasoning.
For an example of the cover-up of state rulers’ responsibilities made by even a worthwhile organization like Greenpeace, read the following statement which appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of their magazine Connect:
"Meanwhile, taxes which the logging companies are supposed to pay to help build social infrastructure like local schools and hospitals are not filtering down to local communities."
Today Marie’s younger children are being vaccinated against meningitis. This is done at the IRD free of charge. The state does not cover it. This would be fair enough if people did not pay taxes. On the contrary, here we have an appalling state that gives back almost nothing of what it takes. Considering just the taxes on petrol, it makes a nice pot of money for the ruling elite.
I read that in the not too distant past (1982) 40% of the Burkina Faso state budget consisted of aid from the French state. Rulers have always helped each other, exchanging favours, but this has almost never resulted in anything good for the people. In Africa corrupt rulers have succeeded in maintaining power, sometimes for decades, relying on the money coming from Western states or from the ex-Soviet Union.
It is really hypocritical to talk about development and democracy and, at the same time, allocate money to bandits like most of those who are in power in Africa.
Perhaps it will only be with the bankruptcy and liquidation of the state in the Western world that the Africans will, in their turn, be free of their Mafia states that will by then have lost their nasty godfathers.
The count down for the disappearance of the state has already started with the fall of the Berlin wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Now it’s time to carry on the work to its completion.
March 7, Wednesday
A quiet day at the IRD, spent reading articles and talking to people.
Coming back from lunch with Marie, I remain standing outside the IRD because I have been told that the president will pass with his cortege. I want to see how many cars and people this autocrat mobilizes just to go from one place to the other.
I wait for a while but nothing happens. He must have taken another route.
While I am outside, the person who works at the reception desk approaches me and we start talking. He is a well spoken man with very clear ideas about the situation in Burkina Faso. If there are many people like him, the current political superstructure might need just a well-applied push and the entire castle of state power will collapse.
The state is not at all powerful. It just relies on the myth of its necessity and indispensability. Once the myth disappears and the people realize that they can very well live and prosper without the state, the state itself will disappear, at least as a compulsory monopolistic institution.
Today I have finished reading Ayittey’s book.
I advise you to read it with an empty stomach because it makes you feel like vomiting with its account of the amount of looting these African rulers have carried out since independence. Nowadays, according to Ayittey, many African countries are in a worse condition than in the time of white colonization and imperialism. This datum is the most terrible indictment of almost 50 years of indigenous rule based on the state organization that black Africans have inherited from white Europeans.
The state is an entity that is alien to African societies. For this reason, in Africa, more than anywhere else, it is state rule that is the problem. Not white rule, or black rule, or the rule of whatever colour. The problem is state rule, full stop.
The black man's burden
"If the postcolonial nation-state had become a shackle on progress, as more and more critics in Africa seemed to agree by the end of the 1980s, the prime reason could appear in little doubt. The state was not liberating and protective of its citizens, no matter what its propaganda claimed: on the contrary, its gross effect was constricting and exploitative, or else it simply failed to operate in any social sense at all."
(Basil Davidson, The Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State, James Curry, Oxford, 1992)
March 8, Thursday
Today, International Women’s Day, is a national holiday here in Burkina Faso.
In the morning Marie and I board a coach and leave Ouagadougou with all its dust and noise. Direction: Bobo-Dioulasso and then a village near Banfora.
I am quite excited about going to the countryside.
I have the impression that the further we get from Ouagadougou, the more vegetation we encounter. So, it’s not all desert.
I am quite pleased about this. The greening of Africa should be one of the priorities of the Africans.
From time to time we reach toll barriers. They are a way of extracting revenues from the peasants who use the road to bring their products to the market.
Around 3.00 p.m. we reach Bobo-Dioulasso. The city, the second largest in Burkina Faso, seems at first sight better organized than Ouagadougou, and less parasitic.
At 3.30 p.m. we board another coach: direction Banfora. The coach is, as usual, full up, and I guess this might be a quite common occurrence. Some have to wait for the next departure. I don’t know why it is so difficult to organize a decent system of transport, especially when there is an unsatisfied demand, which means people are ready to pay for the service.
By the way, the fact that the railways don’t work effectively is, in my view, a scandal. A train could carry hundreds of passengers, at a regular speed, more comfortably seated, and with a reduced amount of pollution.
A bit before 5.00 p.m. we reach the village of Takaledougou. It is a nice place, with some stalls along the main road for selling goods and, behind them, the huts where people live.
Marie was worried about my staying in the village because there is no electricity, no running water, and no proper toilet. I reassured her by saying that this is not a problem; it would be like going camping.
Immediately after touring the village I can’t stop thinking about what needs to be improved. I suppose this has to do with the fact that the scientific method (of problem-finding and problem-solving) has been deeply implanted in the way of thinking of many westerners. So, if we see something that is not up to standard, that thing is taken as a problem to be solved by searching for a possible remedy in the nearest repository of data, in this case the brain.
Certainly the people who live here are so accustomed to this environment that they don’t see any problem and so do not look for a solution.
In the evening, accompanied by the children of the village, I go to see people dancing, celebrating International Women’s Day. The music is very loud, and the dancers are mostly men.
When I go to bed in my hut, the music follows me and I take quite a while before falling asleep.
March 9, Friday
In the morning I am woken by the cocks with their loud crowing, repeated over and over again. Mentally, I give myself permission to strangle each one of them.
Later on, I discover that people in the village are so used to it that they do not even notice. It is like the noise of motorcars in a city. We are not bothered by it because it has become part of our auditory environment.
I have my shower, consisting of a bucket of hot water to sprinkle and pour all over my body. The evening before, when I had my first shower, I was so anxious not to waste water that I left the bucket half full. So, at the end, my friend Marie asked if I had really washed myself. The fact is that it is incredible how little water is needed if only one is very careful with it.
What I can't do, at least not yet, is adapt to the toilet. The so-called toilet is an enclosed space with a corrugated roof and, inside, a hole in the ground; you cannot even stand up for a proper piss because there is not enough height to accommodate you.
Today the programme is to go to Banfora by motorbike to see the site where Marie and I hope to build a school if we can find the money to finance the project. I discover that it is in a lovely spot on the outskirts of the town, with a nice view of the river flanked by a row of trees. I sincerely hope that we will be able to transform our idea into reality.
The road from the village to Banfora has sugar-cane fields on both sides. Nearby there is a factory producing sugar that employs around 3000 people. The daily wages to cut the cane, I am told, are 600 CFA (less than 1 euro). A bottle of beer here can cost from 350 CFA upwards.
I am also told that some of what the "independent" peasants produce goes to the state that then pays them. Here it seems that they are still waiting to receive the money for the last harvest.
So, the rural workers either receive a pittance or have to wait ages before being paid.
Peasants here, as in the rest of Africa, are the most exploited group. Ayittey, in his books, calls them the atingas. But absolute exploitation is endured by the women who work the fields. Most of them are, usually, doubly exploited: by the state rulers (the politicians) who belittle them and by their domestic rulers (their husbands) who rely on them for most of the work outside and inside the house.
That is why so-called progressive westerners, such as Bob Geldof or Bono, who channel money to African governments and associate themselves with western leaders, are misguided morons whose actions are in fact helping to maintain this disgraceful state of affairs.
In the afternoon we return to the village after having bought a ball in the market. I had promised it the day before to the children. Before evening we all play volleyball. The children emit loud cries every time someone hits the ball and keeps it in the air. It takes very little to make us joyful.
When I see Marie later on she tells me that, during our absence, in the afternoon, the old woman who is the mother of Jean (Marie's husband) and was the wife of the chef of the village has been sitting in front of the door of my hut because I didn't lock it and she was afraid somebody might enter and steal something. What a caring thought!
It makes you wonder if we really need the police always and everywhere.
As a matter of fact, there is no police in the village other than those, on the main road, who stop the peasants charging them for the right to move from one place to the other. More state bandits than providers of security.
When it is dark, after dinner under a mango tree, the children come again to sing and dance for Marie and me.
Then it is time to go to bed.
March 10, Saturday
Today, finally, I am ready to overcome my toilet-shyness (let's put it this way).
It is all a question of habit. Anyway, a civilized person should be flexible enough to adapt to all customs, apart from those which are inhuman and completely irrational.
The programme for the day is to go and visit "les cascades." Meanwhile, waiting for the car that will take us (Marie, two brothers of Marie's husband and me) there, we sit under the mango tree and we start chatting. The conversation centres mainly on relationships between the sexes. I discover that, in Burkina Faso also, there are more than a few sexual betrayals and affairs. Then the subject moves to witchcraft which, here, is taken very seriously and accepted as a matter of fact. I advance my doubts and that's all I can do. We talk also about the local economy and one of J's brothers says he would like to set up a pig house (porcherie) if it were not for lack of resources. I ask him how much he would need to start the project. After a short pause, he answers: 1 million CFA. I do the calculations: it amounts to 1500 euro.
Then I ask: Will you be able to give this sum back within a certain number of years if somebody lends it to you? Almost immediately he replies: Yes.
In that case, I add, I will give you the money.
It is my first experience of micro-credit.
Soon afterwards, we start our short journey towards the cascades.
The area is unbelievably beautiful. It is a series of waterfalls, both big and small, all surrounded by magnificent natural scenery.
There are quite a few westerners camping or just visiting for the day. It is really a place worth coming to. I have never seen anything like it.
After that we drive to Lake Tengréla, our road running alongside well-cultivated, irrigated fields. There are plenty of rice and maize and sugar-cane fields, and mango trees everywhere. It could be mistaken for Europe at its best as far as agriculture is concerned. So, why those ridiculously low wages and the lack of basic utilities and facilities? Then you connect this situation with the palace that the president is building in Ouagadougou (and all the palaces and extravagances of his entourage) and you realize where the money goes.
The nature of the problem in Africa is not economic but political (too much of it) and ethical (too little of it).
The only answer: a peasants' revolution.
In the evening, while taking my shower, the idea occurs to me once again that the (metaphorical) suppression of all intellectuals and politicians is the indispensable condition for the Africans, especially those living in the countryside, to enjoy the fruits of their work.
After darkness falls, under the mango tree in front of my hut, the children come to sing as they had done the previous evening. It is a nice way to end the day.
March 11, Sunday
This is my last day in the village.
I have arranged with the children to go for a walk to a nearby pond.
We leave in a group at about 10.30 a.m.
The vegetation all around us is luxuriant. There is still the impression of extreme dryness because of the red colour of the soil, but then you start noticing small allotment gardens full of all sorts of vegetables and you realize how fertile the land is. If you add to it the ready availability of sun and water, you know that you are in the presence of an extraordinary combination.
Once we reach the pond some of the children jump into it. The water is a repulsive dark, uninviting colour, especially after reading stories of infected bathers in my Lonely Planet health booklet.
After a short break, we continue our walk to reach a high plateau from which we have a fine view of the village.
Remaining in the shadow of a tree, we start talking about the many things that could be done in the village. I suggest to one of them who is a mechanic that he should start a taxi service between the village and Banfora, the closest town. The service, in my view, should follow a regular timetable and the taxi should leave even if there are no passengers at one point because they could be waiting at the other end of the journey.
On the spur of the moment, I suggest to others careers such as agronomist or water engineer.
One of the boys in the group is perplexed by what I say. He has previously told me that he wants to be the chief of the village. Now it seems almost that he feels that, if everybody becomes independent and plays an active role, there will be no room left for the role of chief.
In the afternoon, while sitting having tea with my friend Marie and some of her brothers-in-law, it occurs to me that they could start a project of eco-tourism or discovery-tourism. Individuals from abroad could come to the village and be accommodated in one of the huts. Food could be prepared for them at a very reasonable price and the travellers (just a few in number) could be helped to discover the place (the stunning waterfalls, the lake, the rocks of Sindou) and to experience the life of a Burkinabé village: no electricity, no running water, no comfortable toilet but good simple food and plenty of sympathy and warmth.
For most westerners living in big towns it would be a salutary shock. For the people in the village too it would be a fruitful shock, especially if the "guests" pushed them and, perhaps, showed them how to provide increasingly better services. What Africans do not need are the charitable and politically correct white morons who justify bad conditions with the excuse of previous awful exploitation or present poor environment.
Instead, what can make a valid contribution, at least in my opinion, are critical and rational human beings with whom to exchange interesting ideas and useful suggestions. It will then be up to the locals to use, modify, adapt or refuse what emerges from this cultural interchange.At around 4.00 p.m. Marie and I say good-bye to everybody and we board an over-crowded minibus heading for Bobo-Dioulasso.
March 12, Monday
Bobo-Dioulasso is the second largest town in terms of number of inhabitants but it is superior to Ouagadougou (or at least so it seems to me) in all the rest: less dusty, less chaotic, less noisy, less parasitic. It is, in fact, an agro-industrial centre with a colourful vibrant market.
My friend Marie has gone back to Ouagadougou for a few days so I remain in the house that belonged to her parents and where one of Marie's sisters now stays. She will look after me. The building has got an internal courtyard with entrances to other families’ accommodation and is the area where cooking and washing take place.
In the afternoon, after a brief rest, I start exploring the town. The road leading to the city centre is lined, on both sides, with shops and workshops.
I reach a roundabout with a statue honouring the peasants. Less celebration and more facts is my immediate mental reaction.
I continue walking and I arrive at a place where all sorts of vegetables are piled up for sale. The sheer quantity and the vivacity of colour of the goods are extraordinary.
I carry on until I reach a sign indicating the way to the market.
The Central Market of Bobo-Dioulasso is an amazing place. Forget Marrakesh or other celebrated markets that have become just tourist showcases or traps for tourists. It is time to discover new places and Bobo-Dioulasso Central Market might be one of them.
Here you can find almost everything produced on earth.
I enter by the side where rolls of cloth are displayed, and they are not only sold but also cut to size and sewn.
I am immediately so taken by the atmosphere that I decide that this market needs to be made known to a larger public. So I start collecting information from some of the vendors and I ask for their business cards. I list some of them here:
Nouroudine Diallo, vendeur de Basin (a ribbed damask cloth) Brodé (a rich embroidered cloth) de toute qualité - hangar 2334, Entrée Diaradougou
Kante Chekul, Batiques (checkkan at(@) yahoo.fr)
Sore Boukary - Secteur E, Hangar 317 (sorebouka at(@) yahoo.fr)
Papa Tranquille, vente des objects d'arts Bogolan, Batiques, Bronze - Hangar 1390, Secteur E4
I hope very soon each one of them will open a website showing their goods to the world.
After leaving the market I walk towards a large edifice which I discover to be the cathedral of Bobo, but it is closed. Then my curiosity is attracted by another big white building that is the railway station. A waste of a building, in my opinion, considering that the railway service is appallingly bad.
There I am approached by a young man and we start chatting. He is from Banfora and now lives in Bobo doing odd jobs, sometimes acting as a guide to tourists. Then it occurs to me that he should be involved in my publicity effort to bring curious tourists to this city. So here is his e-mail address (hemamanul at(@) yahoo.fr). You can get in touch with him if you are visiting the town and he could be of some assistance.
You can also contact, for info and assistance, a very nice woman, Mariam Koné, who wants to become a guide for tourists visiting the town. Her e-mail address is: konemariam2008 at(@) yahoo.fr
I decide to invite the young man for a beer and we start talking about the many opportunities that Africa offers, too many to count if it were not for the lack of self-confidence and the absence of will power of many locals. This is what I say to him and he is surprised by my words. He says that he has never heard such things said by a European. By now I know this well. To express critical ideas and to encourage people to take up entrepreneurial activities and improve their living conditions is now something well beyond the mindset of the average European, who has lived for decades under the nanny state.
In the evening, in front of another beer, I talk about all my casual meetings of that afternoon to the brother-in-law of my friend Marie.
It has been a long day.
I am really enjoying my time in Africa.
March 13, Tuesday
Today, after my usual writing and reading in the morning, I did some keep fit exercises, outside under the porch, facing the outer wall. After a while I realized that, behind me, two children were copying my movements. It is amazing to see the process of learning by imitation in action.
For lunch Marie’s sister prepares couscous with fish, dressed with fish sauce. It is a delicious dish. Then I have French fries and I end the meal with an orange and a papaya. I bet that if I stayed here in Burkina Faso for a few months I would put on weight. As a matter of fact you don't see malnourished people here. They are just in the reports of journalists and as a result of civil wars.
(By the way, to call a war "civil" is a silly invention of silly historians who are more used to making up stories than researching deeply and presenting the real events critically).
In the afternoon I go out again to explore the town.
I reach a particular point and am rather unsure as to the direction for the Grand Mosque. A boy approaches me and very soon, in a timid manner, asks for money, 100 CFA, the equivalent of 10p in England. I explain that there is no reason for me to give him any money, not having received anything from him. It wouldn't be a proper exchange. Somebody (i.e. I) would be the net loser.
I then ask for directions to the Grand Mosque and he offers to take me there. We pass through the old town, along an almost dry river bed where, here and there, piles and piles of garbage have been and still continue to be dumped. People’s neglect of the environment where they live makes my heart bleed. A bit of care wouldn't cost very much and it would make a lot of difference.
While we are walking through the old town somebody approaches us demanding payment. According to him we are supposed to buy a ticket to enter that area. He is just a thug, a bloody nuisance. Probably, in due time he will become a state official and he will charge and exploit people under cover of the law.
These sorts of things are the curse of Africa.
I will never become tired of repeating that it is not what the Europeans have taken away from Africa in terms of resources that has generated its backwardness, but what they have left, namely the apparatus of the state, the ideology of statism, the petty bureaucracy, the invented borders. Moreover, the financial assistance bestowed on the state rulers since independence has strengthened and enlarged the state structure and its rapacious power. The Mafia State dominates in most parts of Africa with the collusion and support of its godfathers and mentors, the European States.
It is an alliance made in hell and presented to the gullible public as "aid for development."
On the contrary, it has been, for decades, the road to permanent underdevelopment and backwardness.
March 14, Wednesday
The day I visited the Central Market I saw a batik I liked very much, so I am back to buy it.
The market is an incredible maze of stalls and lanes and I succeed in finding the seller (Kante Chekul) only with the help of a young man.
That is why, when I arrive at my destination, I suggest to the traders that I had met previously that they produce a simple map of the market for future tourists, helping them to find their way.
I eventually buy what I had intended: a fantastic, very large hand-dyed batik showing a fish eating a fish eating a fish …. . Price: 12000 CFA (around 30 euro or 20 pounds).
When I leave the area the young man who had shown me the way is still around so I ask him what he sells. He deals in hand-painted T-shirts so I buy one for my niece.
On my way back home I have another two encounters: first with a boy who sells nice school uniforms, and then with a young man who approaches me. He wants to show me what his friends are doing in a small hut on one side of the road. One of them is reconditioning dressing gowns by pounding them with a large club on a piece of wood. The cotton fabric he is working on is called le bazin. In the hut there are another five young men, and I sit down with them and we start talking. The topic that is quite common amongst them is: how to change one’s life by moving to another place, that is, by going to Europe or America.
I tell them that Africa is now the true America if only they are capable of seeing it and willing to capture the wealth of existing opportunities.
From my wanderings around town I notice that there are many run-down or abandoned houses in a prime location. At the same time new homes are being built on the periphery, which means that there is an effective demand for housing. So I suggest to them that they could form a team involved in restoring houses in central areas and selling them at a profit.
They say they haven't got the initial capital. I reply that if they draw up a good plan and publicize their idea, the small capital (5-6 thousand euro) to buy the first home will certainly materialize.
As usual they ask me for my e-mail address and that of my web sites. What they want, for now, is a link, a window on the outside world. We will see in the months to come if anything will come from this casual encounter.
In the evening I exchange some words with the young brother of my friend Marie. He has just arrived with his lorry as he transports goods from the coast to the interior. We talk about democracy and liberty. I say to him that liberty and the process of liberalization are much more important than democracy, which is a phoney word used to manipulate people for the exclusive benefit of a small organized clique.
He retorts that liberalization could increase inequality.
From his reply I discover that the fallacies of western intellectuals have also reached this part of the world. For most European intellectuals liberty is a risky business; better to leave things as they are, under the paternalistic dominion of the state, lest somebody might suffer by introducing "too much" freedom of choice and movement. To them it doesn't matter that millions could improve their situation if only left free to do so and that it is part of their legitimate aspirations to be left free to do so!I sincerely hope that a popular slogan for this beginning of a new millennium will be something like:
INTELLECTUALS OF THE WORLD, GET LOST
Fourth Week (15 - 21 March 2007)
March 15, Thursday
For today I have planned a visit to the Museum of Bobo-Dioulasso.
The museum consists of two large rooms displaying local crafts, with themes such as fertility or power.
There are also objects from daily life, such as chairs.
The collection is quite small, with explanations only in French, handwritten on old paper, and the ink has faded almost to invisibility. They could and should do much better.
Outside, within the compound, there are two full-size models of huts: one built of red mud and the other made of straw. To me, they are the best part of the exhibition.
Within the museum there is also a shop selling masks and musical instruments. The person running the shop is Kalifa Dembele.
He introduces himself as: fabricant d'instruments traditionels au Musée provincial du Houet (maker of traditional musical instruments at the Museum of Houet).
He also sells hand-dyed fabric (tablecloths and napkins).
From the list he photocopied for me at my request I see that he sells, in the way of musical instruments, Balafon (a wooden, keyed percussion idiophone like a xylophone) and Djembes (a skin-covered hand drum). The prices for the Balafon vary according to the number of wooden keys. The one with 11 keys is priced at 6000 CFA (less than10 euro or around 6 pounds) and the professional one with 25 keys is priced at 95000 CFA (around 150 euro or 100 pounds).
For the Djembes the price is related to the circumference. For the very small one, the price is 15000 CFA (25 euro) and it reaches 30000 CFA (50 euro) for the large one.
If you want information about the current price of these musical instruments email him at: kalifa_dembele at(@)yahoo.fr
In the afternoon my friend Marie has organized a talk on AIDS (SIDA) on behalf of the IRD. It is held in a secondary school that here are most privately set up and run.
There are about 50 students in a large classroom and when the lecturer enters they all stand up. I am quite surprised by this. I am no longer used to this kind of respectful behaviour. Generally speaking I have the impression that youngsters in Europe don’t have the faintest idea that such politeness could exist anywhere.
The conference is very interesting, with plenty of questions from the audience. Here, access to information about AIDS and to free medical tests seems to be a matter of fact. Condoms are readily available in pharmacies and at a reasonable price (3 condoms for the equivalent of less than 1 euro). Also the medicines to fight the virus are available at a dramatically reduced cost (5000 CFA per month, which is the equivalent of 8 euro or around 5 pounds). For children up to 15 years of age medicine against AIDS is free.
The thoughtfulness and care of some organizations active in this area has produced good results.
When the talk is over I go outside to explore the school grounds. The school caters for more than 2000 students. The buildings have two storeys and are made of red brick. There is plenty of space for playing football and practising other sports. What is missing, from my point of view, is better organization of the different spaces and a touch of colour that could be provided by planting flowers.I repeat here what I have already said many times: Africa could and should become a garden, an orchard, an agricultural paradise. The cleaning and greening of Africa - that should be the overall aim.
March 16, Friday
Today there is another presentation to a different group of students. The topic is: eau douce, eau rare (fresh water, scarce water). Unfortunately the lecturer fell ill at the last moment. There will be a replacement, but the new person will only be able to comment on the large posters that introduce the subject. The rest will be left to the debate, hoping that the questions will not be too technical.
The talk is held in another secondary school and, to my surprise, here too participation is very high. The debate is a success. The number of questions is so overwhelming that, after 2 hours of very interesting and lively discussion, at 7.00 p.m., when it is getting dark, the moderator decides it is time to go home.
Here the students, from what I’ve seen of them, offer a totally different impression from those in Europe. In them there is not a hint of arrogance, boredom or disrespect. As a matter of fact they might perhaps appear too deferential.
I sincerely hope that none of them will enter la fonction publique; that is, become civil servants in the Mafia state.
Before the talk starts I ask a student sitting next to me how many years study he has before finishing secondary school and he replies that next year he will get his baccalaureate.
I then enquire what his future will be like after that.
He wants to go to the capital to study economics at university.
My first reaction is to say: forget the dusty, noisy, polluted Ouagadougou and stay in Bobo, a much more liveable city. And then I add, referring to his choice of studying economics: do you know that economics is marred by a terrible crisis? It is a so-called science that has no scientific foundations but is based only on the political exigencies of the ruling class. That is why it is also called political economy.
My stay in Africa has reinforced my conviction that the political economists of the Western world have done nothing other than promote dependency and corruption, ensconced in their air-conditioned hotels and driving through countries in their air-conditioned 4x4 cars, oblivious of local reality and only interested in being well paid for promoting gigantic, worthless projects, useful only to the ruling élites. They are one of the most despicable groups of charlatans that ever appeared on the face of the earth. I hope my interlocutor will not become one of them.I do express all these feelings to my young acquaintance, albeit in a softer tone, and my ideas do not seem weird to him. At the end we exchange our names and e-mail addresses. Perhaps we will keep in touch. The Internet is really a practical, powerful tool for exchange and change.
March 17, Saturday
Today my friend Marie and her two sisters, the eldest and the youngest, will meet to discuss the arrangements for the wedding of their little brother (the one who transports goods with his lorry). The wedding will take place at the end of May.
The three sisters have different characters, but all rather strong.
The eldest has got a lively personality; she is divorced, with 5 children.
The youngest has 4 children and, at the moment, is having problems with her husband.
In the middle there is my friend Marie, a mother of 4, she too with an independent personality.
The conversation starts, half in French and half in their native mother tongue, which is why I do not understand everything they are saying. I notice only that the tone of voice is rising to a high pitch in the exchanges between the eldest and the youngest sisters.
Nevertheless, I am not prepared for the small drama that unfolds in front of me when the eldest, in whose house we presently are, asks the youngest to leave.
I can't believe it. I can't believe what I hear.
Then the youngest stands up and moves away as if to go.
I have to act immediately I can't remain a passive spectator while this sort of thing happens. So I find myself, suddenly, in the difficult, unlooked-for, role of mediator.
First I go to talk to the youngest and I beg her not to leave. Then I go to the hostess and I ask her to make peace with her sister. I say that it is the eldest that has to make the first move, whatever has happened.
The air is tense. No one wants to start the process of reconciliation.
Finally the eldest says that she will apologize for having told her sister to go.
But now it is the turn of the youngest to be stubborn and refuse to make up.
We could be in ancient Greece or in Chekhov’s Russia or, as happens in this case, in 21st century Burkina Faso, with the eternal drama of family tensions coming out into the open from time to time.
Eventually, she also retreats from her position and we have a cathartic moment with gestures of mutual reconciliation.
Then the reunion can restart and it will be a good one, conducted in a calm atmosphere and fruitful, given the series of decisions they will take.
People here are not much different from the other billions of individuals that populate this small planet.
As remarked by Henry Murray and Clyde Kluckhohn towards the middle of last century, we are, in certain respects:
a. like all other people,
b. like some other people,
c. like no other person.
Anyway, if there are no substantial differences in human nature between the people of the earth, there is something that is typical of the places I have visited in Burkina Faso and it is like a scar on its face. Maybe, if I lived here long enough, I would in the end not notice it anymore.
The name of this scar?
rubbish, garbage, ordures, spazzatura, immondizia, basura, abfall.
You find piles of it everywhere, and now you also have the black plastic bags that people use for carrying goods, dumped everywhere, sometimes flying through the air.
My friend Marie and I go for a walk around her neighbourhood, we enter various courtyards and everywhere I see uncollected rubbish and stagnant water.
In a courtyard I am offered a glass of the local beer. The place is like an open-air brasserie with people sitting on one side drinking, while nearby pigs are rooting in a pig-sty surrounded by dung and mud.
Flies are circulating around my glass of beer, eager to share it with me.
How can people live like this? How can it be that all this disgusting rubbish doesn’t bother them? The fact is that it is part of human nature to get used to everything, the bad and awful as much as the good and beautiful.Anyway, what strikes me is that in Europe we keep talking about economic development when the number one priority should be to dispose of all the rubbish in an appropriate and methodical way, in order to live in a clean and healthy environment. The rest will follow.
March 18, Sunday
Today it is time to leave Bobo-Dioulasso and go back to Ouagadougou.
I will remember with a tinge of nostalgia the days spent in Bobo.
In the morning, breakfast with tea and local pancakes under the porch, then the walks around town and the casual encounters. In the evening we used to have green salad and tomatoes and avocadoes and sometimes couscous with fish and fried bananas. I have made everybody forget about red meat and become a bit vegetarian. People here are so kind that they do everything to please you, even changing their eating habits.
Almost all of the neighbours come to say good-bye to us when we get into the taxi to go to the coach station.
On the bus, during our journey, a casual remark from my friend Marie is like a bolt from the blue, as if, by chance, I had perhaps found an explanation to a problem that has been at the back of my mind for weeks.
I was telling her that, contrary to what I expected, there are not many mosquitoes in Burkina Faso. You can be bitten more severely in some places in Italy during the summer, with worse pain and itching. She replies that there are more mosquitoes during the rainy season. Then she adds a precious bit of information: the rain falling on piles of rubbish creates pools of standing water where insects and mosquitoes proliferate.
Bang! It is like an illumination. Rubbish favours the presence and multiplication of mosquitoes that bite humans, injecting the disease of malaria (paludisme). Dispose of the garbage and you would dramatically reduce, if not eradicate, malaria (a disease which should be called after its preferred bad habitat - malhabitat - rather than from bad air - malaria).
We are back to the problem of cleanliness of the environment.
If the above is true, then we do not need astronomically expensive anti-malaria tablets, we do not need a vaccine against malaria. In any case, who wants to be vaccinated in order to continue living safely amid excrement and garbage?
In Ouagadougou I have seen people having a drink sitting a few steps from an open-air drain full of rubbish. Imagine when it rains, and mosquitoes make their homes on top of all of that, and people crowd around it. It is like asking for the chance to have your injection of malaria every time you go and sit in such a bar.
To my knowledge, I have never read, clear and loud, of this connection between dirt and malaria. Perhaps it is politically incorrect to point it out.
We reach Ouagadougou, which is engulfed in a cloud of hot dusty air. Frankly, I do not like this city. Fortunately I only have to remain here a few more days.
In the evening I have an interesting discussion with two young people sent by Marie to bring me a lemon for my sore throat. As usual the conversation turns to the corruption of the state and the lack of freedom (liberalization in today's parlance).
Later on, after they have left, it dawns on me that there are three big "villains" in this third-world development business:
- Political economists (the intellectuals: the manipulative mind)
- Political rulers (the state: the voracious belly)
- Providers of aid (the NGOs, non governmental organizations which are, quite often, simply not good organizations: the soporific soul).
With these actors, each one justifying and covering up for the other, it is unlikely that the Africans will emerge as protagonists of their own lives. So we should put all three of them out of business as a way to begin anew the history of Africa.
“You must have a genius for charity, as well as for any thing else. As for Doing-good, that is one of the professions which are full.
Often the poor man is not so cold and hungry as he is dirty and ragged and gross. It is partly his taste, and not merely his misfortune. If you give him money, he will perhaps buy more rags with it.
There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve."
"Philanthropy is almost the only virtue which is sufficiently appreciated by mankind. Nay, it is greatly overrated; and it is our selfishness which overrates it."
Do not stay to be an overseer of the poor, but endeavor to become one of the worthies of the world."
(Henry David Thoreau, Walden. 1854)
March 19, Monday
Soon after my return to Ouagadougou I noticed that the sky is no longer the blue sky of some weeks ago and the sun is a bit hazy. We are reaching the hottest time of the year and the pollution increases the sensation of a lack of air.
I came here from England immunized against almost every possible disease, with tablets for malaria and diarrhoea, and plenty of anti-mosquito cream and spray, but the only thing I should really have brought but didn't due to my ignorance and lack of medical advice is a breathing mask.
For this reason I will go back to Europe with a sore throat and a bit of a cough, as if I had smoked a pack of cigarettes every day. So, my advice if you plan to stay in a large city in Africa and do lots of exploration on foot, is to add to your luggage some protective masks: they don't occupy much space and it may be more useful than one imagines.
In the whole of Ouagadougou, to my knowledge, there is not a single instrument recording the daily level of pollution. Nobody knows, nobody takes action, nobody perhaps gives a damn.
Once, my friend Marie explained to me that the power system relies on cooptation. If an opponent emerges and begins to gain support, he is immediately rewarded by the current regime and accommodated amongst the ruling clique. In this way he ceases to be a contender and becomes a supporter.
That is why nothing new should be expected from politics. It is the least likely channel for changing the present situation.
Towards one o' clock Marie and I go for lunch in a nearby cafeteria.
Once again I notice the incredible slowness of the service and the fact that the waitresses seem almost incapable of any initiative. They cannot cope with a request that is just slightly different from what is written on the list. If you ask to have rice without the sauce they are completely lost. The flexible, accommodating mind, appears to be a luxury for many people, even in Europe, but in this place it shows a degree of absence I have rarely witnessed elsewhere.
March 20, Tuesday
Today I am again at the IRD searching for books about the élevage du porc (pig-keeping). When I promised to lend some money for the pig farm I also said that I would look for relevant information on how to set up and organize a porcherie. In this way I hope that Jean's brother, who will be managing this venture, will not put the pigs too close to the huts and will keep them healthy and clean.
Here I have become so obsessed with the problem of environmental cleanliness that I am starting to think that this is the real core of the matter. I acknowledge that talking of socio-economic development seems nobler and far more impressive than discussing rubbish and its proper collection and disposal. But it shouldn't be.
The fact that it is not lack of money (financial resources) that represents the main obstacle to development is brought home to me once again by what I learn about the ceremonies for weddings or funerals.
On these occasions people are willing to fritter away a quantity of resources that to most of us would appear incredible.
For the funeral of a chief of a small village (a very special occasion, admittedly) the locals killed more than 30 cows. Considering that a cow costs, in Burkina Faso, the equivalent of around 150 euro, that means that no less than 4500 euro were spent for a farewell ceremony, without counting other expenses related to the event (rice, beer, chickens, etc.). Enough capital to start a cooperative enterprise in the village.
During the lunch break Marie wants to show me the National Museum of Burkina Faso. The museum is situated in extensive grounds, and consists of four not particularly big buildings: two for the exhibitions, one for the administration and the other one used as a shop for visitors.
We arrive at 2:00pm and are the only visitors.
At the entrance to the administrative building Marie asks for somebody she knows who is in charge of the Museum (the current director is away).
We are led to a large room where, stretched out on a huge table, the person we are looking for is asleep. There are other people dozing in the room. The porter knocks on the table to awake her. I am a bit embarrassed by our intrusion into this sort of ‘workplace dormitory'.
Anyway, after the exchange of a few words between Marie and the woman, our visit starts.
It is immediately apparent to me that, under the grandiose title of Musée National du Burkina Faso, there isn't very much in the collection. There is a room with some masks and another one about the daily life of an ethnic group of the region. According to Marie they have the same objects as at the time of the inauguration of the Museum, a few years ago, with no additions or improvements whatsoever.
I am also amazed by the fact that the Museum is situated within a large enclosed space and no one has thought of transforming the area into a garden full of vegetation and flowers. There is only one tree left and under its shade the Museum staff park their cars. For the rest, it is like being in a desert under a scorching sun. It is a physical desert that reveals also the presence of a mental and moral desert.
In the evening I am invited with Marie to visit her brother and his wife. They are an interesting couple and the discussion is very lively. I am a bit surprised and disappointed that they still believe, quite firmly, in the role of the state as the engine of development and the producer of organization. Anyway, I should not be too surprised because this is what many still believe in Europe (and is the main reason for the steady decline of Europe). Maybe when the French, Italian or British states fall to pieces in the years to come, the myth of the state will suddenly collapse as happened in the case of the Soviet Union.
At that moment Africans will be liberated from an oppressive mental and material dead weight.
March 21, Wednesday
Tonight I leave black Africa, Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou.
I am flying to Paris to get my connection for Milan, back to so-called western civilization.
I will find the usual amount of chaotic so-called progress, the self-congratulatory complacency of so many blind people, unaware of living in an old society which seems to have nothing more to offer in terms of ideas and actions.
Europe is a dead ossified body, an ‘ancien régime’ from which we would do better to distance ourselves. I did not feel Italian, certainly, and now, I do not even feel European.
Let all these ideas of flags and roots and national sovereignty and belonging, which leave one feeling half-asphyxiated, go to hell where they deserve to be.
My Air France flight arrives with a delay of almost one and a half hours. The baggage handlers take all the time in the world to deliver our suitcases. I miss my connection. The people at Air France are as unhelpful as ever. I have to spend a day in Paris. There is an incredible queue just to buy a train ticket to the centre. And then the noise, the chaos!
This old continent, where so many people are still attached to obsolete ideas of national identities, border controls and the state as the benevolent master; this old rotten Europe which has given the world totalitarian ideologies and homicidal rulers, is in visible, continuous decline.
Will it mean a bright future for people living in Africa, free from all masters and dead notions?
I hope so.