Reggae Prophets And Revolution

I am a Rastaman from a fairyland

They steal and empty the safes

In absolute impunity

Their children show off money in bars

and wash their shoes with champagne

Rasta from a country where everything is fine

They build roads, bridges, schools

that stand for just 2 months and fall apart

In the meantime our children are dying

under the cailcedrat trees which serve as hospitals

Rasta from a country where everything is fine

by Sams’K le Jah.

On 4 March, 2011, in front of a large crowd gathered to watch him in concert, Sams’K le Jah sang what has now become the anthem of the people’s movement against Blaise Campaoré.

“Ce président là….ce président là…

il faut qu’il parte…et il partira..”

Thousands would sing this refrain at protest marches and even as they burned the parliament building in Ouagadougou during the uprising. Smockey, one of the founders of Le Balai Citoyen, called it one of the most important songs of the decade, explaining that:

We sung it on concerts before the cassette was released and people joined in. It needed no promotion, because the chorus is very simple to remember…This song is important because a lot of people knew this song in the process of revolution. Everybody knew it and everybody was signing along.“

There is a recording of that moment in March, when a rapper’s songs became a nation’s voice.

I meet Sams’K Le Jah at his family home. He looks different from photos of him. He looks at me and smiles when I point this out to him. Caressing his dreadlocks, he adds. “I am back to looking like a Rastaman.” And breaks out into laughter. For a man who has been given the task of representing and speaking for an entire uprising, Sams’K Le Jah carries himself with a casual ease and a devil-may-care attitude.

The interior of the house–quite large by Burkina Faso standards, is sparsely decorated. A couple of large arm-chairs and a sofa sit in the immaculately clean living room. The floor sparkles as if still laid out in a showroom. Two acoustic guitars are thrown on the sofa. There is a picture of Thomas Sankara on the wall–the only wall decoration in the entire house. I had seen this before–a single photograph or painting of Thomas Sankara, in the homes of other members of the Le Balai Citoyen. It was like a talisman–a source of good luck and of course, rememberance. As we enter and make small talk, I ask him about the photograph. “You have to remember that my family left my country which was then called Upper Volta, and I returned I returned to a new country called Burkina Faso.” He has settled himself in one of the arm-chairs and grabs one of the guitars and presses it to himself. “The Ivory Coast was the El Dorado of the region,” he tells me. “My father left Burkina Faso to make his fortune there. It is the Burkinabé story you will hear everywhere.” The history of migration between the two countries is a long and complex one, tracing its links to French colonialism, plantation economies and the uses of itinerant labour. A 2003 piece in the New York Times described the meaning of Ivory Coast for the Burkinabé;

For millions of Africans, this place [Ivory Coast] had long represented something close to hope. A penniless man from Burkina Faso could ride a bush taxi from Ouagadougou to come pick cocoa. People from as far as Mali, Niger and Nigeria could sell cassava on the side of the road here in the country’s largest city, drive a taxi, guard the villas of its quiet, leafy suburbs.

But the welcome did not last long, especially when the Ivory Coast economy faltered and what was once social prejudice, turned into a legal and political one. As Kahn points out in a piece written in 2003:

There were once millions of immigrants from Burkina Faso here. For decades, they were welcomed by the Ivory Coast’s long-serving president, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, because they provided cheap labor for the country’s numerous coffee, cocoa, and rubber plantations. Over the years, many earned enough money to buy their own farms, which in turn employed thousands more immigrants as well as many Ivorians. But as Ivorian economic growth faltered, anti-immigrant sentiment grew. In the mid-1990s, Houphouet-Boigny’s successor, Henri Konan Bedié, instituted laws barring second-generation Burkinabe from inheriting land from their parents. And the recent civil war has unleashed a frenzy of hostility against the Burkinabe, because government loyalists believe that Burkina Faso provided support for the rebellion. Burkinabe immigrants were singled out for attack by Ivorian militias and many were driven from their land.

Sams’K’s family story is the story of these many thousands. “Many Burkinabé migrated to work in plantations in Ivory Coast–coffee, cocoa plantations. My father was one such person. He met my mother there.” But there were different kinds of migrations. Sams’K’s father moved from a poor country to another poor country, but there were Burkinabé elite who migrated to Europe, and formed a wave of academic and intellectual migrants to countries like France.

One  might  add  that  migration  not  only  played  a  key  role  in  accessing  power,  but  also    in    constituting    political    alliances.  Thomas Sankara, during his further military education in Morocco, met Blaise Compaore. Their common stay in Morocco consolidated the  future  group  of  revolutionary  military   leaders consisting of Thomas Sankara, Blaise Compaore  and  Jean-Baptiste  Lingani  and Henri Zongo. In Bordeaux, he joined Fidèle Toé   when   he   reached   out   to   Burkinabe students,  and  in  Paris  he  met  Valère  Some  who  frequented  the  anti-imperialist  circles  with  among  other  Touré  Soumane.  When  Sankara  entered  the  government  of  Colonel  Saye  Zerbo  as  Minister  of  Information,  he  chose Fidèle Toé as cabinet chief and included Serge Theophile Balima in their team. Balima later  became  Minister  of  Information  in  the  Sankara   government   and   Ambassador   to France. [Olsen, 2014]

He pushes his hair out of his face, and says. “No one has written the essential book about the time of Thomas Sankara.” Leaning back, and crossing his legs, as if about to tell me a long story, he adds. “We were living in a dream world. I was living in a dream world.” Born in 1971, Sams’K returned to the new country of Burkina Faso in 1985. It was the time of Sankara’s revolution. “I saw him with my own eyes. I heard him with my own ears.” He leans forward on the armchair, waving his hands to emphasise the significance of the moment. “People want to know the roots of the revolution, and why Sankara means so much to us.” He sounds impatient, “But you only have to understand the humiliation and prejudice in which the Burkinabé is born and grows up in, and you will understand why we still love Sankara so much.” His hands move over the frame of the guitar, as if restless to play it. “Sankara made us proud to be Burkinabé. He gave us dignity.”

Dignity. Many Burkinabé I have spoken to, repeat this word–dignité. Migrants from Burkina Faso living and working in the Ivory Coast were considered barbaric and backward. They were mocked and called ‘bushmen’ for their unfamiliarity with urban ways, and their simple rural habits. “People thought that we lived in trees,” he says incredulously. “They would ask us if we had electricity and running water or if we lived in houses.” He grimaces as he things back. “We were slaves to them–worth nothing more that the two hands with which we served them.” Thomas Sankara changed that. Sankara himself would again and again stress this point.

I think the most important thing is to bring the people to a point where they have self-confidence, and understand that they can, at last be the authors of their own wellbeing [Quoted by Dembele, 2008]

“To understand our anger, and to understand our commitment to change, you have to understand our quest for respect and for dignity.” I have been asking Sams’K to explain to me what made him into a revolutionary, and what gave him the strength to carry the ideas of the uprising. But Sams’K Le Jah is a spiritual man, and he refuses explanations that appeal to science or progressive interpretations. “Prophets can be guides–and we are guided by all of them” He answers, carefully choosing his words. “I am not saying that Sankara was  prophet like Jesus or Mohammad (pbuh)–both of whom by the way, were revolutionaries.” His eyes turn towards the floor as he thinks about how best to explain himself. “Sankara was a living man, not a god–I saw and heard him with my own eyes, but he was a guide.” He takes a deep breath. “He lived and walked among us, and showed us what was possible.” Sams’K was a member of Sankara’s Pioneer’s of the Revolution–a youth movement that was modelled on similar youth movements in other Communist countries. It engaged school children from a young age to work on creating a self-reliant community and encouraged them to participate in the work of cleaning up, and organising at the community level. “We believed that anything was possible. Sankara made us feel that we could change the world.”

Sams’K is on his way to France the following day. He needs to complete errands and is impatient to finish our interview session. With the uprising now all over global news, and Le Balai Citoyen famous across the Francophone world, both he and Smockey are celebrities and travel frequently in the region and to Europe to perform, and speak about the revolution.

Before I lose his attention, I ask him why it took him, and others, so many years to react to Sankara’s assassination. He looks at me quizzically, as if I have accused him of negligence. “It took me three years to accept what had happened.” He is referring to Sankara’s assassination. “It took the country far longer to wake up from that shock.” We walk out of the house and towards my waiting car parked in the small alleyway. “Of course, we were young and did not understand the world–we did not know about ideologies and behind-the-scene conflicts.” He has placed his right hand on my shoulder as we walk towards the car. A group of people have now joined us, bought towards us at the sight of Sam’s K. I am reminded that I am standing with Burkinabé royalty. “We were left stunned when it happened. It took the nation many years to even accept that Sankara could be dead.” He is shaking people’s hands, as they touch him and pat him on the back. I have the impression that he avoids coming out onto the streets too often. “When a brother murders a brother,” He says, referring to Campaoré’s betrayal of his close friend and comrade Sankara, “You not only kill a family member, you kill the very values that made us a family in the first place.”