From October, 1985 to July, 1987, I taught at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso as a Senior Fulbright Fellow in American Studies and Literature. It was an interesting–and sometimes frightening–time. Two years before I arrived, a leftist firebrand from the Upper Volta (the name of the country at the time) military named Thomas Sankara, seconded by Blaise Compaore (another from the military), had seized power. They immediately set about to reconfigure the society, doing things like establishing Committees for the Defense of the Revolution that ensured authoritarian control (they forced all traffic, foot and otherwise, to stop for the raising and lowering of the flag, morning and evening, for example, as a reminder of their power). Most of the CDR members were quite young, some hardly into their teens.
A year into their rule, they changed the name of the country to Burkina Faso, a conflation of words from two of the languages spoken there meaning, approximately, “the land of upright people.” By the time I arrived, the Burkinabe, though they still loved Sankara for his youth, flair, and willingness to stand tall against old colonial influences, were thoroughly cowed by the government. Still, there were things they liked, including the almost total eradication of corruption and emphasis on education.
An incredible amount of silliness went on while I was there. Visitors like Muammar Gaddafi and Yasser Arafat were feted, all traffic in Ouaga screeching to a halt so that their cars (escorted by the military) could flash by. Sale of imported tires was prohibited in favor of the poor-quality local ones–leading to people arriving at the borders with tires of all sorts draped over them, looking like African versions of the Michelin Man. Bellicose, the country managed to embroil itself in a short war over desert acreage with the much larger and stronger Mali (a war I got caught in the middle of), something ridiculous for one of the poorest countries on earth. The U.S. State Department rated Ouaga as the 9th most dangerous post in the world.
The students at the university were willing and quite bright (they were, after all, the only college students in the whole country) but the school had few books. Fortunately, the American Cultural Center, which had its own library, was nearby. Though their tasks were not easy, given the situation, some of them did well enough to follow the common dream of continuing their education in France or England. Though threadbare, there was a sense of possibility permeating the campus.
A few months after I left, Compaore organized a successful putsch against Sankara who, in a final act of real bravery, walked to those who had come for him saying, “I’m the one you want. Spare the others.” They did, killing him alone (as far as I understand). He was buried about 100 meters from where I had lived in a grave so shallow that people could reach down and come up with dirt stained with his blood.
Though Sankara’s government wasn’t well liked, he was. Burkinabe I’ve met since still look back on him with nostalgia. He gave them hope, after all, and a vision of a brighter future. Compaore, on the other hand, mended fences with France and the United States and the country began accepting their money again. The economy got better but, from everything I’ve been told, there was a gloom over the country: the ‘golden boy’ had been sacrificed.
Recently, after 27 years, Compaore was forced to flee the country. The people finally had had enough of corruption and a constrained future. Writing in The New York Times today, Pierre Englebert, who teaches African politics and development at Pomona College and who recently visited Ouaga, said he “was stunned by their [the country’s young people] despair and simmering anger. Some spend eight years in school to obtain a B.A., simply because of the lack of classes, instructors or facilities. And at the end there are no jobs.”
That’s quite a descent for a country whose economy, by Western reports, is doing so much better than it was before Sankara was killed. Then, at least, there was hope and ambition.
A country unwilling to put real resources into educating its youth can never sustain itself, not in the contemporary world. Instead of cutting back on education, every country, including the United States, should be looking for ways to augment it, to put more into schools and universities instead of less. The alternative is growing frustration and anger, and the diminution of possibility.
And, as Compaore found this fall, regime change.