Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Thomas Sankara and Blaise Compaoré: African Revolutionaries

Thomas Sankara
Blaise Compaoré

For those naive souls among us who find idealistic revolutionaries to be romantic figures (at least, in concept, if not in practice), Burkina Faso offers an attractive tale: the story of Thomas Sankara and Blaise Compaoré. These two men are the "fathers" of modern Burkina Faso.

Sankara and Compaoré each began his career in the military of the former French colony, Upper Volta (as Burkina Faso was formerly known). Both men were part of the post-World War II generation of Africans that were newly liberated from European governance, and were, therefore, anti-Imperialist in their attitudes toward government. They met in 1976 when they helped form a secret organization within the Voltaic military, known as the Regroupement des officiers communistes, or Communist Officers' Group.

Although Sankara rose in the Voltaic political hierarchy (serving as Secretary of State for Information in the military government in September 1981), his career was marked by disaffection with the ruling administrations under Colonel Saye Zerbo, and later under Major-Doctor Jean-Baptiste Ouédraogo due to what he perceived to be their anti-labor policies. Sankara was immensely popular with the Burkinabé, maintaining something of a "common man" image. He rode his bicycle to his first cabinet meeting and played guitar in a band.

Compaoré's rise in the political hierarchy is less clear. He apparently became a kingmaker. He reportedly played a major role in the coup d'état that unseated Zerbo and installed Ouédraogo. But his profile was less visible than Sankara's, sort of a man-behind the throne. In August, 1983, dissatisfied with the Ouédraogo administration, he organized the coup that installed Sankara as president. He served as Minister of Justice during Sankara's presidency.

The Sankara presidency was one of monumental reform. Sankara renamed the country to Burkina Faso on the first anniversary of his installation as president. He abolished the tradition of chiefs' privileges in Burkina (wherein tribal leaders received tribute from subjects). He promoted women's rights by including many women in his government, banning female circumcision, discouraging polygamy and advocating contraception. He refused any comforts of office, going so far as to decline air-conditioning in his office, and selling the government fleet of Mercedes cars in favor of the cheaper Renaults. He also seemed to maintain his humility, saying at a press conference shortly after taking power:
"It's really a pity that there are observers who view political events like comic strips. There has to be a Zorro, there has to be a star. No, the problem of Upper Volta is more serious than that. It was a grave mistake to have looked for a man, a star, at all costs, to the point of creating one, that is, to the point of attributing the ownership of the event to captain Sankara, who must have been the brains, etc."--Thomas Sankara
But it was not all sunshine. Sankara estranged France because of his diplomatic and political ties to Libya's Muammar Gaddafi. His Comités de Défense de la Révolution, which he used to enforce his reforms sometimes came to resemble little more than armed thugs roaming the countryside.

Nonetheless, Burkina Faso seemed to have a hopeful future.

Then came October 15, 1987.

That was the day that Sankara was overthrown in a bloody coup d'état organized by none other than his old friend Blaise Compaoré. Fighting broke out in Ouagadougou and, in the end, Thomas Sankara and twelve other officials were dead.

Compaoré cited deteriorating relations with neighboring countries as his motive for the coup, and claimed that Sankara's death was an accident. Others disputed this, vociferously. On the surface, the facts promote suspicion. Was the coup really motivated by concern for Burkina Faso, or was it a power grab by Compaoré? And what about Sankara's death? Was it murder?

Compaoré's professional history seems to indicate that he has learned to advance via quick, unexpected strikes. On the other hand, I spoke with one Burkinabé who suggested that Compaoré merely beat Sankara to the punch, that Sankara was planning a strike against Compaoré, whom he viewed as a political rival.

Project Ouagadougou 2000
Today, 20 years later, there are no conclusive answers. But Compaoré remains in power, having modified Burkina's constitution to allow him to continue to serve. Many of the reforms that Sankara initiated have been continued, particularly with regard to women's rights. Burkina has experienced economic progress; Ouagadougou is undergoing a modernization effort (promoted as "Ouagadougou 2000") that will transfer the city's center from the haphazard collection of streets and alleys near the airport to a new site with a planned European-style layout. Compaoré's visage is common in Ouagadougou, on tee shirts and billboards, and he is popular among his people.

The truth, if there is any definitive truth, is probably lost forever, even to those who witnessed events firsthand. The romantic figure of Thomas Sankara, man of the people, revolutionary, idealist, is now etched in history. His fall seems tragic and unnecessary. But as a friend of mine who served in the Peace Corps in west Africa said, "It's the African way."

Votez Blaise! L'assurance du progress continu!

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Ciudadano del mundo

El templo en la selva
 Deme un pasaporte y zapatos con suelas gruesas
Mi espíritu anhela de andar
Quiero ver la iguana corre a las sombras
Y mirar los lobos que comen pez en el mercado

Présteme una sonrisa y una disposición agradable
Para que pueda dar la bienvenida
A los desafíos y las oportunidades
Que encontraré en el camino

He percibido la mezquita de mármol blanco
Y el templo escondido en la selva
Pero hay más en el horizonte
Y mi espíritu anhela de andar

(Perdóneme por favor para mi español malo.)

Monday, October 29, 2007

Dick Cheney: Mad like Ahab

Moby Dick as Unity
If you have read Herman Melville's classic, Moby Dick, you are aware of Captain Ahab. He is the monomaniacal captain of the Pequod who uses his charge to pursue Moby Dick, the Great White Whale. Ahab's quest is his own; the Pequod's owners and financial backers have underwritten the voyage with the understanding that Ahab will undertake to hunt whales for commercial trade. Little do they know that one-legged Ahab is obsessed with exacting revenge on the beast that maimed him: Moby Dick, the Great White Whale. The story tells of the eerie voyage of the Pequod, and the transitions that occur within each of her doomed crew, from mad Captain Ahab, to noble but impotent first mate Starbuck, to poor, hapless cabin boy Pip. In the end, the Pequod encounters Moby Dick and is destroyed.

Literary critics suggest that Melville used the Great White Whale as a device to represent the Universe: all powerful and utterly indifferent to the fate of mankind. And Starbuck's empassioned plea to Ahab on the last day of the chase confirms it:
"Oh! Ahab," cried Starbuck, "not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist. See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!"
But Ahab cannot desist. He cannot accept a Universe that is indifferent to his desires. The very concept has driven him insane. Ahab exhorts the crew onward, and leads them all, save Ishmael, the narrator, to a watery grave.

Today, Melville's genius is confirmed in the form of Vice President Richard B. Cheney. I contend that Cheney has become mad Ahab, and that the United States is the Pequod, which he steers forward in pursuit of his insane goals.

In order for this contention to have merit, let me point out the ways in which Cheney resembles Ahab:
  1. Maimed: Like Ahab, Cheney imagines that he has been wronged by the Universe. Cheney's career began, tellingly, in the Nixon adminstration. He rose through a variety of positions in the White House, ultimately becoming the Deputy Assistant to the President, under Gerald Ford. During this time, Cheney produced a memo to his lifelong partner in ambition, Donald Rumsfeld (at the time, Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity) suggesting that the Justice Department be used to exact retribution against reporters that had written embarrassing stories. (Note you well, how the ugly case of the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame jibes perfectly with said memo). Throughout his career, Cheney has advocated for a strong executive branch of government, at the expense of legislative oversight and judicial review. Now that he is at the helm of the Pequod, Cheney holds these other governmental branches in contempt, defying subpoenas, refusing to explain himself, expressing his scorn. One can only imagine that the fall and disgrace of Richard Nixon left Cheney feeling wronged and aggrieved... that is to say, maimed.

  2. Insane: There have been many exhibitions of Cheney's strange behavior of late. Consider the hunting "accident" with Harry Whittington. Or consider his refusal to admit that the alleged links between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda did not exist, despite the findings of the September 11th commission. Or, perhaps the most telling indication that the Vice-President is dangerously unbalanced, consider this creepy video.

Cheney, like Ahab, has been driven insane by the wrongs he imagines he has suffered at the hands of an indifferent universe. Now, hand on the helm of the Pequod, he exhorts the frightened and confused crew (that's us, the citizenry) in pursuit of his "justice." Like Ahab, Cheney is little concerned about the fate of his crew; we are merely the tools he has at his disposal as he strives to attain his goal of reddress. He is hell-bent on retaking the power that he imagines rightfully belongs to himself and other men of his "caliber," history's "leaders," who should be free to operate, unfettered by the petty concerns of the hoi polloi. The great John Huston adapted Melville's novel to the cinema screen in 1956. (Gregory Peck plays Ahab.) In the climactic scene, Ahab has been thrown from his whaleboat and is lashed by harpoon lines to the back of the great beast. The whale submerges with Ahab firmly affixed and stabbing his harpoon in a frenzy. When Moby Dick resurfaces, the crew espies Ahab, drowned, but still lashed to the beast's back. One arm, flopping lifelessly as the whale makes its way through the waves, seems to beckon the surviving crew on, exhorting them to continue the quest....

It doesn't end well...

"From hell's heart, I stab at thee!"

Friday, October 26, 2007

Come, comfort me, oblivion...

A friend of mine was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. It is my hope that he will find peace. Beyond that, I can only turn to the words of greater minds than mine.

Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing. --Richard II, Act 5, Scene 5

Peace begins with a smile. --Mother Teresa

Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe. --Saint Augustine

Death most resembles a prophet who is without honor in his own land or a poet who is a stranger among his people. --Kahlil Gibran

Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.--Arthur Miller

A dying man needs to die, as a sleepy man needs to sleep, and there comes a time when it is wrong, as well as useless, to resist. --Stewart Alsop

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Lessons from the Grizzly Man

Last year, Maty and I rented and watched a movie called "Grizzly Man." This is a documentary film directed by Werner Herzog that relates the life and death of one Timothy Treadwell.

Timothy Treadwell, the Grizzly Man

Treadwell was an amateur environmentalist and grizzly enthusiast who worked as a waiter in the winter, then went to camp amongst the grizzly bears in the Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska. Treadwell, a failed actor, spent 13 summers living in close proximity with the grizzlies, ostensibly to study them and protect them. During that time, he video-taped much of his experience, of which tapes Werner Herzog makes great use in his moving and bemusing film.

As the film progresses, one witnesses incredible scenes of Treadwell approaching and touching bears, tapping a bear cub on the nose while the sow watches warily in the background, confronting bears that approach him. As I watched these scenes, some primal instinct was triggered in me, something that made me nearly paralyzed with dread. Treadwell seems blithely unaffected by any concern for survival, seems almost brazen in his death-defying antics.

Ultimately, Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, are killed and eaten by one of the bears he so dearly loved. An audio recording of the attack survived, and, although it is not played during the film (thankfully) we learn that the attack lasted six eternal minutes and was as horrifying as one might imagine.
It is easy to dismiss Treadwell's death as the folly of a romantic fool, made all the more tragic because of the incidental death of Huguenard. (We learn from excerpts from Treadwell's diary that Huguenard expressed a fear of the bears and urged Treadwell to leave, at one point saying he was "hellbent on [his own] destruction.")

But, try as I might, I could not come to terms with Treadwell's death by writing him off as insane. He was certainly unbalanced, as any objective viewer will note from Treadwell's rants and his fairy-tale perception of nature. But there was a demon that haunted him. Huguenard's words ring true when Treadwell recounts his struggle with alcoholism and drug abuse.

In my own life, I have encountered persons, some of them dear friends, who have turned to drugs or alcohol or anorexia or sexual promiscuity as a means of expressing the contempt they have for themselves. (In the darker eras of my life, I've even practiced some of these vices myself.) It is tragic and horrifying to watch a person willfully destroy himself (or herself).

What a way to go!
And, it seems to me that this is the demon that destroyed Treadwell: at his core, he was a deeply unhappy person, who despised himself as a failure. Using his sincere love of bears, he found a creative method of destruction: suicide by bear, if you will. The fact that Treadwell's death leads to the deaths of two grizzlies when a team is sent to recover his remains serves to confirm his perception of himself and cement his fate to that of a failed human being.

I imagine that Treadwell saw the grizzlies as possessing all those traits he found lacking in himself: purity, nobility, strength, innocence. Truly, he is a tragic figure. Like the innumerable others who are compelled to destroy themselves, in the end, Treadwell didn't get what he deserved, but, heart-breakingly, he got what he was asking for.

A haunting, unforgettable film....I recommend it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

In Burkina Faso, they can't see Damocles' sword

Dawn breaks for Damocles
 From Wikipedia:
Damocles was an excessively flattering courtier in the court of Dionysius II of Syracuse, a 4th Century BC tyrant of Syracuse, Italy. He exclaimed that, as a great man of power and authority, Dionysius was truly fortunate. Dionysius offered to switch places with him for a day, so he could taste first hand that fortune. In the evening a banquet was held, where Damocles very much enjoyed being waited upon like a king. Only at the end of the meal did he look up and notice a sharpened sword hanging by a single piece of horsehair directly above his head. Immediately, he lost all taste for the fine foods and beautiful boys and asked leave of the tyrant, saying he no longer wanted to be so fortunate.

The Sword of Damocles is an often-used allusion
to this tale, epitomizing the imminent and ever-present peril faced by those in positions of power. More generally, it is used to denote a precarious situation and sense of foreboding, especially one in which the onset of tragedy is restrained only by a delicate trigger or chance. It can also be seen as a lesson in the importance of understanding someone's experience.
Today, I hearken back to a conversation I had with Maty one day in Ouagadougou. We were at the airport, schlepping our luggage through customs. Well, we didn't get far before we were approached by a number of young men eager to help us. These helpful fellows took our bags to the waiting car and arranged them in the trunk, then stood by expectantly while Maty and I fished for money to tip them.

I was a little irritated, mostly because I was exhausted after 36 hours of air travel, but also because I had not asked for help and did not like feeling obligated to tip people for something I had not requested. "What's with these guys?" I asked Maty.

"They think we have a lot of money," Maty replied. "They know we are from America. They think life in America is easy." She said this in a tone that suggested that she knew better; that life in America is not easy.

Since then, that incident has come back to me from time to time. I thought, also, of similar experiences I had in India, where I was literally accosted by people providing me unsolicited services (opening doors, handing me towels, showing me places from which to take pictures) and then demanding tips.

This snake charmer in New Delhi waved me over and then demanded 300 rupees for watching him

It occurs to me that people in these impoverished nations have a different concept of America than the reality that Americans experience. In their eyes, even an average middle-class American is wealthy. We all have cars; we all have televisions; we have the money to travel around the world; we live in air-conditioned homes on paved streets.

And, of course, it is true that, by any material standard, we are rich. But there is another side to the story, isn't there? Maty told me at another point in our trip that life in Burkina Faso was easier than life in America. "In America, you have to work hard every day, with no one to help," she said.

In Burkina Faso, the extended family (including not only brothers and sisters, but aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, et alia) are intimately involved in each other's lives. For example, my sister-in-law, Mariatou, drops off her toddler daughter Awah at Grandma's house every day when she goes to work. My brother-in-law, Pape, is one of the few in the family to own a car and, therefore, is ascribed the duty of driving people, when necessary, to the hospital, to the airport, et cetera. The concept of saving money hasn't really taken root there, at least as far as I can tell. If one has money, one is obligated to spread it around to the other members of the family, with the full understanding and expectation that they will do the same when they come upon a windfall.

Here in America, the idea of an intimate extended family is becoming increasingly foreign. Households here are insular. Although we love our families every bit as much as Africans do their own, relying on them too much begins to seem an imposition or discourtesy. And the subject of money, even between close family members, is extremely touchy.

Our "self-reliance" has become a badge of dignity and honor. We are programmed to "stand on our own two feet," and "be responsible for ourselves." This mentality puts us in the precarious position of maintaining our lifestyle, our outward image, at the cost of our emotional and physical health.

And the Sword of Damocles hangs over us all. Every day we press on, fingers crossed, hoping that this will not be the day that we lose our job, that we are diagnosed with cancer, that the auto insurance doesn't come due.

The young men in the Ouagadougou airport can't see the sword that is hanging over our American heads. But Maty can. In spite of it all, she likes life in America. But there are things about life in Burkina that she misses. Don't get me wrong, either. I enjoy my creature comforts. But maybe someday, if enough people like Maty help us see, we can find a way to strike a balance, to reemphasize the importance of community and family, and to de-emphasize the plasma television, the BMW, the 2 karat diamond.

Until then, the sword dangles...

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

World War III: The Pot is Starting to Boil

Hang on to your hats, folks! The glorious little war that Junior Bush and his neo-conservative bantam cocks started as their own geo-political mega-Viagra is on the verge of spreading. If it all plays out, the conflict could dwarf the global war that raged from 1937 to 1945. As much as the term is overused nowadays, "perfect storm" seems to apply here. Consider:

Kurdish territory is spread across many different Middle East nations
The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), who have a long-running feud with the Turkish government, have allegedly been attacking locations in Turkey from Kurdish territory in Iraq. The Bush administration, in its latest hypocrisy, has urged Turkey not to violate Iraq's borders, even though the Turks are being attacked militarily. The ineffectual Iraqi government has vowed to crack down on these separatists in an attempt to forestall a threatened Turkish invasion of Iraqi territory.

"I am not satisfied that an alliance whose members have over 2 million soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen cannot find the modest additional resources that have been committed for Afghanistan." --Robert Gates, October 22, 2007
In Afghanistan, the Bush-installed Karzai regime has no power beyond the confines of Kabul, while the war continues against a resurgent Taliban. The Europeans and Canadians, although suspicious of the Bush administration, have previously committed themselves to that conflict when, shortly after 911, they invoked the NATO mutual defense clause. Now, they are stuck, like a child with his fingers in a Chinese finger trap, unable to get out and subjected to humiliating admonishments from US Defense Secretary Robert Gates for not doing enough.
They love to party in Karachi
The perpetually unstable (and nuclear-armed) Pakistan seems to be a lot more wobbly of late. Pervez Musharraf, Bush's favorite military strongman, is like an acrobat on a tightrope, teetering in a gust of wind. Radical elements recently tried to assassinate former prime minister, and western-friendly, Benazir Bhutto in a horrifying suicide bomb attack that killed over 130 people.

And just to keep things interesting, Israel recently conducted an air raid against targets in Syria with the tacit approval of the Bush administration. This was supposedly in response to a joint North Korean-Syrian "project" to which Likud party leader Binyamin Netanyahu and former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton attested. (As if that were enough.)

What do you see in his eyes now, Junior?
Lastly, and most interestingly, speculation continues about the intentions of the Bush administration regarding Iran. The drumbeat against Iran sounds eerily familiar to that used against Saddam Hussein pre-invasion: allegations of ties to terrorists, nuclear weapons programs. Vladimir Putin, the former KGB agent and current President of Russia, has been pretty chummy with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lately, much to Junior's chagrin. This is undoubtedly in retaliation for the Bush administration's plans to implement a "missile defense shield" in Eastern Europe, which Putin says cannot be tolerated.

So, just outlining all of this, we have conflict involving Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, NATO, Pakistan, Syria, Israel, Iran, and Russia. Of course, there are other factors and interests that have yet to be weighed: Anything that involves an unstable Pakistan concerns India, which is also nuclear-armed. The Chinese, to this point, have been relatively silent, but one can be sure that they are watching. The Saudis, no doubt, are lobbying their sympathizers in the administration to be sure that their wealth is protected.

In short, the potential for a global conflict is there. The trigger might be a spectacular attack by fanatics, a Turkish incursion into Iraq, or more Israeli cowboy diplomacy. But we are balanced on the tip of the needle.

She's gonna save us?
One can hope for the best: Perhaps Congress and the Judiciary will finally find the stones to pin down the Bush administration on its myriad impeachable offenses and remove it from power. Or, although I believe most of the American public (indeed most of the world) is beyond hoping that the Bush administration has the wit and capability to find a way out, I suppose there is still some faint possibility it can avoid or at least stall the onset of global war until a more responsible party replaces it. But that hope is faint when you consider these 5 words: Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.

No. I think our best and only hope, at this point, is that the sanity of normal, everyday people will win out. Perhaps Americans have had enough war now, after 4 fruitless years in Iraq, and will forestall any further madness. Remember the days before the Iraq war, when the people took to the streets in huge numbers? Some of the protests involved millions. Well, at some point, if this conflict is to be avoided, it's going to take an even bigger and more sustained effort. It's going to take people getting out in the street and staying there; clogging transportation, shutting down the infrastructure, demanding change.

The time is coming. Figure out where you stand and be ready.

Monday, October 22, 2007

A Doxycyline-induced conversation about America

Freshly back from Africa, and still dosed up on Doxycyline (an anti-malaria medicine), my dreams have been especially vivid, and often nightmarish. An example of a nocturnal reverie between myself and some of that 29% of the American public that still approves of Junior Bush's job performance:

I'm seated on a jet liner, coach class, of course, in the middle seat. The man in the seat to my left, is a hulking mass of humanity. His hair is cropped close and he's dressed in blue jeans and a loose fitting tee shirt. His baseball cap sports an image of Old Glory with the words "Try burning this one" stitched underneath. The man to my right has a lap-top computer on top of the table tray at his seat. His business-casual clothing, pommaded hair, and the expensive watch on his wrist, would seem to indicate that he is a business executive. When I steal a quick glance at his laptop, he shoots me an irritated look, and shifts the computer to hide the screen from my eyes.

[Serious Businessman] That's the problem with flying coach. No privacy.

[Dade] Sorry, man. Not a lot of room here.

[Hulking Patriot] Plenty of room. We've got it great.

[SB] I'm trying to work here. Do you mind?

[Dade] You were playing Tetris...

[SB] God! How did I get stuck flying coach? I deserve first class as much as those assholes in marketing!

[Pilot's voice, over the intercom] Ladies and gentlemen, due to increased security measures, we ask that you refrain from gathering at the front of the aircraft. We also ask that you remain in your seat as much as possible, with your seatbelt fastened and visible.

[HP] All because of the terrorists.

[Dade] Terrorists?

[HP] Don't you watch Fox News? The Iranians! It's because of them that we have to live like this. I'm just glad that President Bush has the guts to stand up to them.

[Dade] Bush? He's not...

[SB (frantically pushing the service button)] Ma'am? Ma'am? Can I get my seat changed?

[HP] You watch. Bush is gonna bomb Iran. Just ask Saddam Hussein what happens when you threaten us.

[Dade] But Hussein didn't threaten us...

[HP] Pfft! Whatever! You ever heard of a little thing called 911?

[Dade] Huh?

[SB (to himself)] Whoever booked me in coach is going to get an earful when I get back.

[HP] The terrorists hate us for our freedom.

[Dade] But that doesn't make any sen...

[HP] Why do you hate America?

[Dade] But, I...

The plane begins to bounce violently.

[Pilot's voice, over the intercom] Ladies and gentlemen, we are experiencing severe turbulence. We ask that you remain in your seats with your seatbelts secured for the remainder of our flight.

[SB] Unbelievable! I shouldn't have to put up with this. I'm not like these people.

[Dade] Uh, I think I smell smoke...

[HP] If people like you had stood behind Bush, we wouldn't be in this mess right now.

[Dade] Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee...

It is at this point that I start awake, sweating and panicked. But it's only a dream...only a dream.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Ramadan feast and farewell to Burkina Faso


Well, the blessed month of Ramadan has ended and people are partying here in Burkina Faso. The end of Ramadan also coincides with the 20th anniversary of "Independance Day" when President Blaise Compaore seized power in a coup d'etat. I will defer commentary on the latter event until another time (perhaps when I am safely back in the United States).

Monument commemorating the revolution

On the morning of the day that ended Ramadan, we arrived at La Maison Diop shortly after the lamb had been slaughtered.

Some gotta win, some gotta lose

The butchers hung the lamb and went to work on the carcass, while the men of the household sat on the patio and talked and the women went to work in the kitchen. (Yes, I know...equitable division of labor, and all that...)

Hanging the lamb for skinning
The Brothers Diop
Dicing onions
Throughout the day, family, friends, and neighbors dropped by to pay their respects, and sit for a while on the patio. There was a certain ritual involved with the guests, wherein they would enter the courtyard, then approach each person on the patio, starting with Papa Diop, and working their way around. The greeting consisted of a handshake and a bent knee and sometimes the mock kisses on alternate cheeks, or the bowing of the head in reverence. Everyone was extremely polite.

Hangin' with the peeps

The butchering and cooking continued throughout the morning. When the lamb carcass had been prepared, the women washed the meat and set about the final preparations for the feast.

Butchering, African style

Mom takes a turn at grinding pepper
Washing the meat
When everything was prepared, the food was distributed in big platters which were shared by 3 to 4 people each. Each plate was placed on a carpet around which we sat cross-legged while we ate. The meal consisted of very spicy, peppered lamb, french-fried potatoes, bread, rice cakes, vermicelli with onion sauce, and mint water. I thought the lamb was delicious, but others complained that it was too tough.

Dinner is served

After the meal, everyone relaxed for a while, and then the Diop men set out to make their rounds to the houses of friends and relatives, to pay their respects.

Well, I begin my journey back to the United States on the day after tomorrow, so this will be my last blog from Africa. (Maty will be staying another 3 weeks). I hope you've enjoyed reading about my journey, and I look forward to seeing many of you when I get home.

Until then...
Night falls on Burkina Faso

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

More art from the cradle of humanity

Replica of a traditional home in Burkina Faso
Yesterday we visited Le Musee Nationale here in Ouagadougou and were treated to some artifacts and art from Burkina's past. The above image is a replica of what was a typical home in Burkina's past. Note the tree/post in front. This was used to convey not only the name of the family living in the dwelling, but also the presence or absence of fertile women therein, the number of children, men, et cetera*

*Note that all information presented here is distilled from an imperfect translation process, and therefore possibly inaccurate. Our guide spoke no English.

Ceremonial mask
The people of Burkina Faso, like some Native American tribes, revered totem animals. This mask represents the bantam cock. If memory and imperfect understanding serves, it was used to inspire warriors before battle.

Fertility goddess
This sculpture represents a pregnant woman, with its distended belly and laden breasts.

Shaman's ceremonial costume
This costume was used by the village shaman during religious ceremonies.

Traditional garb of the King
These dyed cloak, scepter, and wand were symbols of power, wielded by the king, back in the days of the Bantu empire. Alas, I know very little about this empire other than that its heyday was before the appearance of the Europeans in sub-Saharan Africa.

That's all for now. I'm coming back to America in about 6 days. I may post before then, but if not, see you when I get back.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Stepping outside of Ouagadougou


Yesterday, we finally ventured outside of Ouagadougou to the small village of Ziniarè. Ziniarè is the home of Burkina's president, Blaise Compaoré. (Votez Blaise! L'assurance du progress continu!) This visit quickly shook my assumptions about life in Burkina to their foundations. Life out there in the country is very different from here in Ouagadougou. If Ouagadougou lacks some of the creature comforts to which we are accustomed in America, rural Burkina lacks them all. Electricity and plumbing are rare commodities. This was the Africa I had envisioned, with children tending cattle, people gathered around the village well, and women buying their foodstuffs from the open air market.

Market near Ziniarè

 We went to Ziniarè to visit the wildlife preserve/zoo that President Compaoré has established. Here's a few pictures.

Colonel Sanders beware!


We were informed that the giraffe population in Burkina Faso, which once thrived, is now depleted due to habitat loss.


Staring into the maw
 Hippos are Africa's most dangerous creature, killing hundreds every year. You can see from their size and those nasty tusks that they are indeed formidable.

Cape buffalo

Although it appears docile, the Cape buffalo is one of the most aggressive and dangerous of Africa's fauna.

That's all for now.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

More from Ouagadougou


Well, I've been doing a little sight-seeing, a lot of meeting and greeting, and even more ineffectual stuttering and stammering while trying to communicate.

I have no French language skills worth mentioning, but I have managed to master "bonjour" (good day, or hello), "bon soir" (good afternoon), "tout a l'heures" (see you soon), and "au revoir" (see you later). Bonjour or bon soir are often followed by "comment ca va?" which means "How are you?" The quick, courteous response is "Ca va," which means "fine."

In Burkina, when you greet someone you haven't seen in quite some time, you shake hands, with the right hand, and deliver 4 mock kisses, alternating each cheek. Variations on this greeting are legion throughout Europe and Africa.

Monolithic sculpture, downtown Ouagadougou
Ouaga has many sights to see. There is a large Catholic presence in the city. I have seen portraits of Pope Benedict (and even more of the universally-revered Jean Paul II). Maty was educated in a Catholic school, despite being Muslim.

I was treated to the sight of a goat being butchered for a wedding the other day. Not for the squeamish. The carcass was delivered to la maison Diop for Mama Diop to prepare for the next day.

Party goat
The wedding was a big party. Lots of drums and music.

Wedding drums
Guests arriving for the wedding
Maty and I went hiking with my brother-in-law Mor the other day. Hiking in Burkina is more like strolling in Oregon. The heat is powerful, and everything just slows down. Even a leisurely pace will have your shirt pasted to your body in no time at all.

African flora
Anyway, I was taking a few shots of the landscape when we happened upon a scenic view of swampy wetland. We were in a park very close to Ouaga and I imagined that we would be safe from any threatening African beasts. I edged my way close to the tall grasses that grew in the water in order to get the best camera angle I could. Just as I snapped my shot, Mor and Maty began pointing excitedly and insisting that they had just seen a crocodile! (Yes, they have crocodiles in Burkina.)

Was it a crocodile? I don't know. But I was convinced that the prudent course for me would be to put some distance between myself and the water rather than be mistaken for a tasty meat snack by some reptilian behemoth. I scrambled back up to the path, post haste.

Whatever it was, it never moved while I was watching. It may well have been a sodden log, or a rock. Here's the picture. Take a look and see what you think.

Harmless log, or wily gator?
We also saw an iguana, or something similar. And a couple huge termite palaces.

Big lizard
Termite colony
This trip is an experience I'll never forget. There are challenges: communication and climatization being the two primaries. My understanding of Africa has, of course, changed immensely.
Anyway, that's all for now. At some point, I might try to take a stab at the socio-economic realities here. We'll see...