An Indomitable Faith From The Most Inhospitable Space

“My father was a hero of the revolution that bought Thomas Sankara to power.” Ousmane gingerly hands me his father’s commemorative medal, given to him by Thomas Sankara himself, in recognition of his contribution to the struggle. “I am proud of his legacy, and his sacrifices and proud to continue the struggle in my own small way.” We are sitting in the terrace of Ousmane’s small, three room house on the outskirts of Ouagadougou. We had been greeted by his wife who had met us at the gate and invited us to sit on armchairs laid out on a small but pleasant terrace. Potted plants were set along the edges, and an aged Neem try bathed it with shadow. Ousmane–a large man with a gentle demeanour and measure movements, had joined us a few minutes later.

It is a simple house. The front yard is mud and sand. Shrubs and weeds decorate its edges. A low mud wall surrounds the yard, protecting it from the prying eyes of the neighbouring homes that crowd into this locality.  A small metal gate opens out to the dust covered alleyway. I had seen a beautiful, elegantly simple mud mosque on the way in, its ochre walls glowing in the afternoon sunlight, tempting you like velvet and inviting you to touch them. Ousmane’s house is some 30 minute drive from the centre of Ouagadougou. This is an illegal community made up of make-shift houses on occupied land. Ousmane’s parents were peasant farmers, and at the very bottom of Burkinabé society–one already considered among the poorest in the world.

As I sit in his neat, sparkly clean verandah, his wife and children honouring me with cold soda and their silence as I speak to Ousmane, I am left wondering where this imagination and courage to strive for change comes from. Where does one find the courage to believe that direct action will extract you from this place? The divide between the powerful and the poor is incomprehensible. As I look at Ousmane, I see something that I wish I could see in myself…an optimism, a self-regard, an awareness of the world and a connection to it that allows him to believe that he is an actor in it. I may possess more resources, more education, more knowledge, more means, and yet I cannot do or be as Ousmane has done and is.

He had been eager to talk and to prove himself a good host. His two children–curious and peeking out from behind the curtain that protected the inside of the house from prying eyes, were shooed away so that we could talk. “I was alive when Sankara was in power,” he says with pride. “I was young, but I remember him. I even heard him give the speech that he gave on the 4th anniversary of the revolution in 1987.”

“The world was changing around us.” Ousmane speaks animatedly, excited to retell these stories,  sitting up from his armchair as if completely carried away in the history. “Sankara wasn’t just a man of words, but he was fundamentally transforming the very nature of the society.” Ousmane looks deep into my eyes–as if trying to press this fact into me, as if concerned I will not understand the import of this intent. In fact, Ousmane was right. Thomas Sankara had today become a near mythic figure–young, handsome, charismatic, self-confident, and brave. His speeches, his arrogant rebuttals to the patronising words of the colonial establishment, his frequent celebration of Marxist ideals and socialist imaginations, his easy and self-effacing style of speaking, were all legend. Every young man in Burkina Faso wanted to be like him. 

But few spoke about his actual work and actions, particularly those that he undertook in the brief period he was in power. Rhetoric was easy, and there were plenty of famous anti-colonial leaders in Africa, South Asia and elsewhere who had made glorious promises, but in reality had delivered very little. Sankara had been different. He created what he promised. He did what he said. Thomas Sankara had been in power, as the leader of the newly named nation called Burkina Faso, for just three years before he was assassinated. What had he done?

“Direct action.” I hear Ousmane say. “We were members of Sankara’s citizen committees, and we learned to work in our communities, and make decisions about what was needed.” The direct involvement–from providing social services, to care and maintenance of communities facilities and more, had a powerful impact on people’s ideas of belonging and accountability. These committees and the obligations to the public interest they were meant to foster, left their mark. They were also the cornerstone of Sankara’s conception of the state, the place and role of the citizen, and the ways the two interacted. When I researched Sankara’s policies, I found that he had tried to dismantle the entire existing structures and institutions of the neo-colonial state, and re-design them towards the provision and service of the weakest and most marginal members of the community. As Bruno Joffré pointed out;

Projects abounded, and the president often imposed impossible deadlines for feasibility studies. For Sankara, the revolution meant practical improvement of living conditions. It was a break with the past in all areas: transformation of the administration; redistribution of wealth; women’s liberation; abolition of the powers of the tribal chiefs, who were held responsible for rural backwardness; the attempt to turn the peasantry into a revolutionary social class; transformation of the army, which was placed at the service of the people and assigned production tasks; decentralisation and the introduction of direct democracy via local Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR). They all combined with the fight against corruption. On 4 August 1984 Upper Volta was renamed Burkina Faso, “land of the righteous”.

“I became a militant at an early age.” He leans back. I can’t see or imagine him as a militant. His gentle demeanour, his polite conversation, his languid gestures. He seemed more an intellectual, or an academic than a militant. “I wanted to act. To change things,” he continues. “But, for a long time, I could not find a group that thought the same way.” Charities were many. In the absence of state intervention and policies, private charities–international and domestic, moved in to fill the gap. “But charities can never be enough–they are not there to transform the situation, merely to allay it.” Ousmane scoffs with disdain as he says this. “ Le Balai Citoyen was different–it was aiming to change things.”

We sit together for a while longer. I feel at ease here in his home. Soon his wife and children join us as the interview moves to become more of a conversation. We talk about other things–cameras, Sweden, immigration to Europe, food, beer and Islam. We talk about his children, about my daughter, about the dreams that we can hope for them and can imagine giving them. By the time I leave, it is quite late in the night. I apologise for not staying for dinner, despite his wife insisting that I do. I feel I cannot burden them more. Ousmane escorts me to the car, insisting that I will lose my way in the small streets. He is probably right.

It is a moonless, starless night. As I walk out towards the waiting car, I see the mosque again. Its wall no longer glow and I can only make out its silhouette against the night sky. Some men sit leaning against its walls smoking cigarettes. I see their faces glow as they inhale.