Ignorance. Indifference. Apathy. In December, these are the words I would have used to describe how Burkinabes felt about politics. An election was held in November to which everyone knew the outcome before the campaign even started. The news of tensions rising in the Ivory Coast was far more interesting, far more relevant, far more important to the average Burkinabe than their own politics. Here, nothing was going to change; nothing could change.
The first hint came on my second day back in Burkina Faso, an unheeded passing remark by a colleague at the Ministry of Agriculture: “Blaise needs to be careful. The new generation has given him a pass for the last time. At the next election, he has to go. No more bending the rules.” I was surprised. People kid around about the 23 years President Compaoré has been in power, about the not-so-convincing reports of progress, about the not-so-true fact that Burkina Faso is an emerging country. But that’s just the way it is; people go with the flow. So it seemed.
Then Tunisia happened. And Egypt. And Yemen. And Libya… And then things escalated in the Ivory Coast. As I sat in the shade in Dédougou on a calm, sunny, lazy day in Burkina, preparing for my meeting with my new partners, it was difficult to imagine the same thing happening here. Yet, my first meeting with the Directors at the agricultural college (Centre Agricole Polyvalent de Matourkou, or CAP/M) had a surprise in store for me.
“So I see my placement in three parts: working with administrators to support some management issues, working with teachers on curriculum change and working directly with students on leadership development.” After seeing the energy of students at EWB’s 10th and biggest national conference ever, it was that third point which had me truly inspired – creating a movement of student empowerment, positive change and hope, right in Burkina. “Sounds okay, here are a few points: 1) We don’t want you to focus too much on the administrative stuff, 2) here are the teachers you should probably work with for curriculum enhancement and 3) we don’t want you meeting the students without supervision – we don’t want any movements, like the rest of Northern Africa.” My reaction: “Are you serious!?” My answer: “Of course, no movements. Just leadership development.” I thought they were nuts.
On February 20th, a student died in Koudougou. There is still doubt on the complete truth, but his death by meningitis seems to have been related to actions taken by police officers. Whatever the cause, the lack of transparency made students strike back. Reactions soon moved from unrest in Koudougou, to general student discontentment with the government’s handling of the situation, to nationalized student strikes, to violently repressed protests in several major cities, to vandalism and destruction of government buildings across the country. By the end, at least five were dead. Fearing further escalation, universities, high schools and even elementary schools were shut down all over Burkina for close to a month. With students and the government in a standoff, education came to a standstill.*
It’s around this time that Catherine heard from one of her Professors, from Benin, that though Burkina looks really calm on the surface, all that’s needed is a match for it to blow. My host father, Mr Konate, said that these events aren’t a first: every year, close to the anniversary of Norbert Zongo’s death, tempers flare as people remember the truth being tucked away, the government lying to its people – though this time reactions are worse. I think I still didn’t realize that this was real even when my friend Ibrahim at the agricultural college shared a realization: “These strikes, these riots. I’ve understood something. This isn’t just about losing a fellow student. The youth, it is fed up with Blaise.”
To be continued…
*Because of its professional nature, its belonging to the Ministry of Agriculture rather than education and its relative remoteness, the students at the CAP/M did not go on strike and my work there continued more or less unhindered.
p.s. Sorry for not posting in so long. I had a slump followed by a high point that was also extremely busy. I’ll try to be better!