Imperialism Is In The Food You Eat

’Where is imperialism?’Look at your plates when you eat. These imported grains of rice, corn, and millet – that is imperialism.

Thomas Sankara

“He would come on a bicycle. You could see him cycling down the main street, dressed in uniform, arriving to inspect the work.” Salvador Sylvan beams as me tells me this. Sankara’s decision to do away with all symbols of power, and all material markers of his ‘high office’, were much appreciated, and still remembered, by most Burkinabé who spoke about him. I had read about Sankara’s determination to remove signs of wealth, privilege and prestige from those occupying political office. It was part of his transformation of the newly named nation of Burkina Faso. There is a video of him and his entourage arriving in the cheap Renault vehicles that he insisted all government ministers had to use–the more expensive German cars previously used were sold off. His overt acts of ‘humility’ rubbed most all other African leaders the wrong way. Sankara was reminding them of how far removed from the lives of their communities they were, and how little in touch with the realities and struggles of the very nations they claimed to represent. 

“I was a member of Sankara’s ‘Pioneers of the Revolution’” Salvador tells me as he gives me a tour the facilities of the local Le Balai Citoyen clubhouse. The Pioneers of the Revolution were a youth organisation created by Sankara–much like youth organisations in other Communist countries. to directly engage and involve the younger Burkinabé in his new state-building project. It was modelled on a classic communist model of grassroots engagement. According to Wikipedia;

…the pioneer movements typically operated by communist parties, such as the contemporary Pioneers of EnverJosé Martí Pioneer Organisation and Agostinho Neto Pioneer Organisation. The Pioneers of the Revolution organised children of all ages. Much like many other young pioneer movements, such as the Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organisation and the Young Pioneers of China, the most distinct sign of the Pioneers were their red scarves, joined by rudimentary uniforms and yellow berets.

“We had uniforms, and we were part of Sankara’s team.” His voice echoes across the main meeting and assembly hall of the club house. “It was a great honour.” The club house consists of two rooms, with a dozen plastic chairs, a blackboard, and a couple of cabinets for files and some books pushed up against a wall. There is a small kitchen, with a few pots and cups for tea and coffee. I get the impression that this used to be a part of Salvador’s family home, and was partitioned to serve as a meeting place for local LBC activists and members. Election posters, and pamphlets are strewn everywhere.

I have come to meet with Salvador a day or so after the successful complete of the first democratic elections since the fall of Blaise Campaoré. LBC members and supporters were present at all polling stations in the country keeping and eye on the proceedings and prepared to report any irregularities and illegal activities. I was curious to learn more about the local clubs, and how the movement had organised, trained and motivated youth in the communities. “The club members played a critical role in ensuring a transparent and clean election.” Salvador interjects, as if reading my thoughts. “All our members were dispatched to different polling stations and asked to report on how things were being conducted.” He shows me a photo-copy of a training manual that was used to educate the members about how to engage people in the community and get them to the polls. “We got people out to the polling stations, reminding them that our job was as yet not done.”

Salvador invites me into his house for a coffee. He met us dressed in a beautiful faso dan fani shirt. It was the sartorial choice of a proud nationalist, and a Sankarist, and a reflection of a person’s commitment to Sankara’s call for self-reliance and independence.

In all the villages of Burkina Faso, we know how to grow cotton. In all villages, women know how to spin cotton, men know how to weave it into cloth, and other men know how to sew those threads into clothes…

Faso san dani–which means ‘cloth of the homeland’ and is considered a national symbol. Statues of celebrated Burkinabé politicians are often dressed in faso san dani clothing as a reminder to the people of Burkina Faso’s proud tradition of hand woven cotton cloth. Perhaps Salvador wore his for just this meeting, to prove a point?

Image Information: Statues of political leaders on the streets of Ouagadougou, dressed in faso san dani traditional cloth. Image by Asim Rafiqui Copyright @ Asim Rafiqui 2015.

“Local LBC clubs are named after famous African figures, ” He informs me as we settle down in his living room to conduct a short interview. “Like Lumumba, Nkrumah, Anta Diop and other famous revolutionaries.” Photographs of his family and children line the walls of the living room. He is dressed in typical western wear in all of them and looks distinctly different than the man sittingn across from me in traditional Burkinabé wear. “I chose to give my club the name of the neighbourhood because Sankara had helped build this neighbourhood.” Salvador is an engineer by training and has done well in his life. Unable to attend university, he nevertheless received a certificate in topographic engineering, and worked on construction and engineering projects in the city. “I had no interest in politics. After Sankara’s assassination, I went into my work life and was disgusted by all the faux-Sankarist parties that came onto the scene.”

With the elections done, there is a quiet in the neighbourhood. I sense that there is one within Salvador too. The last few weeks have been a whirl-wind of activities and it is obvious that he is tired. “I first met people who would go onto form LBC in 2008. It was at protests against rising prices of food and other essential commodities.” It was there, on the streets, that he met Smockey and Sams’K and others, and found that they too were Sankarists, and had a plan for how to change things. “I engaged with them more seriously after the uprising.” Prior to joining Le Balai Citoyen Salvador had remained aloof and apart from all political parties and groups. “I was of course part of the street protests and street action, but always individually.”

For a city so over crowded, and its streets packed with motor scooters and cars, Ouagadougou can be surprisingly quiet in the evenings. I am reminded of this as we walk out from Salvador’s house and into the lovely evening light that is painting everything in its path with gold. “The club connects the movement to the community–the local offices are the roots of the movement.” Oddly there are very few people out on the streets–something that surprises me. Ouagadougou has a rich street life, with people coming out after office hours to sit at local open-air cafes and drink beer and talk. “We also do a lot of work in the community, to ensure that the people see and feel our relevance. We want them to know that we are of the community.”

Earlier, when giving a tour of the club building, Salvador had been in a more formal mood and had outlined the range of programs the club offered. “We give classes and education about health, about hygiene, schooling, caring for the environment and pollution.” His voice had echoed off the walls of the club room. “We organise people to carry out tasks in the community–garbage pickup and cleaning, beautification and planting of trees. We also volunteer at the health centre.” I felt as if I was a NGO representative and Salvador giving me a progress report. “We are speaking to the local fire service at the moment to see if we can give first aid training to the community.” He pointed at a blackboard which had a list of items crossed off. “We distribute soap and sometimes food as well. We also periodically do fund raising by going door-to-door–we are doing it now to raise funds to install solar panels at the clinic.”

He appears more relaxed now and has lost his formal, presentation air. Perhaps he has realised that I am not here to report on his progress, or even produce a journalistic piece. Many people have been confused by the nature of my project, and my intentions. I have had to admit that quite often even I have not been sure what I have come here to find. I just know that I want to know more about what happened here in Burkina Faso, and how it had managed to come about. “We are not naïve.” I hear him say. What do you mean?  I ask. “We know that the overthrow of the government may not change anything.” His words remind me of Chouli’s warning about how so many of the people who appeared for the election, and who re-cast themselves as members of the revolutionary moment, had links and histories to the Campaoré regime itself:

Michel Kafando, who presents himself as a former diplomat, has been at the service of military regimes, including that of Blaise Compaore ́ (as Ambassador to the UN). He was the army’s candidate for the presidency of the Transition. A convinced liberal – openly hostile at the time to the direction of Thomas Sankara – he was appointed by a board of 23 members including the ‘military, clerical and customary authorities’ and ‘with the quiet approval of Addis Ababa, Abuja, Paris and Washington, who seek to preserve the country, the base for French and American special forces, from any danger . . . ’.3 On the other hand, Prime Minister Zida, who is defence minister as well, has three other colonels with him in the government, including Auguste Denise Barry in Territorial Administration, Decentralisation and Security and Boubacar Ba at the strategic Ministry of Mines and Energy (the country has experienced a ‘mining boom’ in recent years). In the Conseil national de transition (National Council of the Transition, CNT) of 90 members, this at least led by a civilian, defence and security forces have 25 members, as many as the civil society representatives, nearly a third of the parliamentary body [Chouli, 2015].

They will try to destroy Le Balai Citoyen.” He adds. “They have seen what it can do. And they used it. But they will now try to destroy it.” He greets the owner of the cafe that we enter, and orders us some beers. “We have to remain alert to the dangers. Our eyes and ears open.”