The other side of the coin: English blogs in Burkina Faso

As Burkinabé journalist Ramata Sore pointed out last month: “In Burkina Faso, blogging is more than a pastime. It is the eyes and ears of thousands of net users.”

She was writing about French-language blogs of this former French colony, a country known for its strange political hegemony of a ruler who recently celebrated 20 years in power. For Burkinabé journalists and citizens, she says, the blogsphere is a place to freely report and discuss topics the government would rather have left unsaid.

For the growing list of English-language bloggers in Burkina Faso, blogging is also more than a pastime. English bloggers of Burkina Faso do make passing references to political issues facing Burkina Faso, like the effects of U.S. cotton subsidies on Burkina’s farmers or the anniversary of Tomas Sankara’s death. Like expatriates everywhere, English bloggers in Burkina more often leverage their platform as a way to describe this country on the verge of fascinating cultural changes.

It’s true, English-language bloggers may hail from unique backgrounds – missionaries, high school students, businesswomen, freelance journalists – but what ties them together is they all have passed more than a few years in Burkina Faso. What Burkina’s English bloggers lack in numbers, they make up in breadth of knowledge.

The elder statesman of Burkina bloggers is Keith Smith, a missionary who has lived amongst the Fulani people since 1992, making a base in Gorom-Gorom in northern Burkina Faso. His blog, Under the Acacias, marries current events, deep local knowledge, curiosity with a well defined compassion.

Here’s a snippet of a typical post of Under the Acacias:

In the period after 9/11, [Osama bin Laden] t-shirts were to be seen everywhere, worn around Gorom-Gorom and sold at the market, with ObL in various heroic poses. Like the boy I met, many people who have no idea who ObL is, and who certainly would not support his cause, were trotting round Gorom with his face adorning their chests. If you have no money to buy new clothes, and someone offers you a free t-shirt, what will you say…?

I can only imagine that someone with a lot of money had them made and shipped in, and then distributed or sold very cheaply through the network of Wahhabiya Muslims there. This is the Islamic sect to which ObL belongs. It doesn't imply that the Wahhabiya in Gorom support ObL of course, anymore than the Gorom church receiving t-shirts for distribution with David Beckham on should be seen as England football supporters.

The Wahhabiya are a Sunni sect, a more conservative, and revivalist group than the other Muslim sects in Gorom. (We have 4 altogether, including the Tijaniyya, the Ahmadiyya, and the Qadiriyya). However, the Wahhabiya in Gorom are generally peaceable – certainly not extremist or terrorist. But they are fairly new arrivals in Gorom – in the last 10 years – and their particular form of Islam (traditional dress, rejection of the use of charms, way of praying etc) has set them apart and caused some tensions – even arguments – with the other sects.

They are not wealthy, but they do get money from somewhere – for example, to build their mosque (another cause for fall-out with the other Muslims, who claimed there should only be one “Friday mosque” in town). Maybe the same source provided the ObL t-shirts. Maybe they were surplus to requirement – after all, Wahhibiya Muslims don't generally wear t-shirts…

Beth is a self-described mother of four who has spent the past nine years in Burkina Faso. As the title points out, BurkinaMom’s Life in Africa, Beth’s blog is full of tales about family life (one entry is called “Spoiled Expat Brats in Ouaga”), her dealings with launching a local NGO and occasionally, the current events that intrude on the personal and professional aspects of her life. Her writing is infused with a mordant sense of humor and humility in the face of trying to keep a family together in a complicated country.

Her posts are also known for the unique perspective she brings, especially when she attempts to explain various cultural issues to her readers. Although she covers important topics, Beth doesn’t subscribe to the notion that her blog is “serious.” “I don't usually get so political in my blog,” she wrote in one piece. “I don't want to get emails from weirdoes and writing on politics is the best way to have that happen.”

Her writing works best when she mixes the serious and the strangely comical with attempts at domestic tranquility. Here is part of a running description of what took place during an inexplicable gun battle that erupted between the Burkina military and police forces in December 2006, where some of the worst fighting took place about six blocks from her house:

I will probably venture out, despite warnings to the contrary. I have [work] stuff to take care of. If I see anything interesting, I’ll be sure and post again today. If I get hit by a stray bullet, Ill get JP to post for me.

On a happier note, today is Severin’s 11th birthday! His grandparents sent him a Star Wars Lego set that must have cost over $100 and have over four billion pieces. He’ll probably have it assembled in less than an hour.

Beth's daughter, Valentine, has also joined the blogsphere. She’s a high school student and writes My So-Called Life in Africa. It’s not updated very often, but Valentine also shows a gift for description and narrative of life in Burkina. Most posts vary between life as a half-American teenager going to a French school (one post is called “Vampires ate my yearbook”) and Ouagadougou seen through the eyes of a very perceptive foreigner.

Here is a good taste of her writing style:

Yesterday when I was coming home from school on the bus, my friend Nadège pointed at the end of the street we were on. The sky was darker and looked dirty. Then we saw enormous clouds of dust coming our way. We turned left off the road on to a dirt one – big mistake!!! We closed all the windows just as a hard wind picked up. Enormous waves of sand from the Sahara Desert had come our way!! We could barely see 100 meters in front of us!! We could hear the grains of sand hit the bus. It started raining lightly, which calmed the sand storm, but not by much.

Nadège has to walk 15 minutes to get to her house from the bus stop. As we arrived on the road of my stop, we felt sorry for the people on bicycles and women trying to save their fancy hairstyles. I opened the bus door and a wave of sand came over me!! It scraped my skin and got in my eyes. I ran to our car and jumped in, covered in sand. There had never been a worse sand storm than this!!

I found out today that after I got off, the bus driver drove Nadège right up to the front of her house. Lucky her

Stephen Davies has spent the previous four years in Burkina Faso. He works in the same mission as Keith, but resides in a different northern Burkina city, Djibo.

Stephen is a published author, writing children’s books, newspaper articles, travel pieces. (As Keith recently pointed out to me, one of Stephen’s books, the Yellow Cake Conspiracy, was written as pure fiction, but is now taking on a life of its own in Niger.)

Stephen’s blog, Voice in the Desert, feels like a combination of his various writing projects. Like other expats, Stephen infuses lot of local color and knowledge to his writing – along with a wry sense of humor. He can focus on intensely local issues – or rather, courtyard issues – or he can analyze how larger international events affect Burkina Faso. What separates Voice in the Desert is that Stephen’s posts often have a polished literary feel, like you’re reading a short story or well crafted essay.

Like this piece he wrote about the Burkina Faso census:

Samba Normé and Idrissa Cisse came round this afternoon and argued with each other. Samba Normé is a Fulani man who scrapes a living in the bush by selling wood and dodging forestry rangers. Idrissa Cisse is a townie, currently working as a door-to-door inquisitor for the nationwide census. We sat outside in my yard making tea on a small charcoal stove.

It was Samba who started the argument. He downed his shot-glass of tea (traditionally ‘bitter like death’) and turned to Idi. ‘Onon yimbe resonsmon mbooda,’ he declared. ‘You census people are evil.’
Idrissa looked hurt. ‘Why do you say that?’

‘You come and tire us out with hundreds of questions and you don’t give us anything in return. You ask us lots of impolite questions like how many cows and goats and sheep we have in our herds. And you ask us if we own a mobile phone when you can see full well that we don’t even own shoelaces.’

The census-taker shook his head. ‘You bush folk are the ones who tire us out,’ he said. ‘You lie about everything. You even lie about how many children you have, because you think that if the desert djinns overhear they might come and steal one.’
‘I told the truth about my children,’ said Samba haughtily.
‘What about employment?’ said Idrissa. ‘Did you tell your census-taker what you do for a living?’

‘And have the forest rangers knocking on my door in the middle of the night? Of course I didn’t. I said cultivateur. Everybody knows that cultivateurs get left in peace.’

‘There!’ cried Idrissa. ‘Liars, all of you! Burayma Gorel in Jawjaw told me to write him down for two cows, and when I got up to leave, his cows came home. I counted thirty-five.’
‘That’s because Burayma Gorel knows what you people are like! You’ll come back next year and announce that the government is introducing a special bovine tax: a thousand francs per cow.’

‘We’re census-takers,’ said Idrissa. ‘You can trust us.’

‘Oh really?’ Samba wagged his index finger in front of the census-taker’s nose. ‘You obviously didn’t hear about Al Haji Abdulsalam.’

‘What about him?’

‘His census-taker asked him to give three examples of what he says to his wife when they are making love at night.’

Amusement and professional solemnity chased each other across Idrissa’s face. ‘He shouldn’t have asked that,’ he said at last. ‘That wasn’t in the questionnaire.’

Samba took the second shot-glass (traditionally ‘sweet like love’) and downed it in three indignant slurps. ‘Anyway,’ he said, ‘it doesn’t matter what you ask, does it? When you go home in the evening, you make up all your results.’

I expected Idrissa to deny this accusation hotly, but he did not. He drained his glass of tea and shrugged his shoulders. ‘Have you seen how long those questionnaires are? If we filled out one for each family in the bush we would still be doing the census when Isa calls Muusa.’ (Fulani slang for ‘a very long time’).

‘So Samba’s right,’ I said. ‘You fake the results.’

‘Not all of them. Every day we do the first three or four properly, then for the rest we just write the head of household’s name and whether he looks rich or poor or very poor. We can pad it out later.’

For a long time no one speaks. The teapot hisses on its charcoal stove. It is Idrissa who finally breaks the silence. ‘You’re not going to tell anyone, are you?’

Stephen’s wife, Charlie Davies, has also recently begun blogging under the title Blooming Desert.

Finally, my blog, Africa Flak, tries to keep up with various current events facing Burkina and the rest of West Africa while giving readers a sense of context (and levity) often not found in the international press. I am a freelance journalist who has spent the past few years in Ouagadougou attempting to find a home for my narrative journalism on Burkinabé.

Burkina Faso also hosts a passel of blogs by Peace Corps volunteers, young Americans who spend a few years out in the countryside, living in villages and small towns. I’ll try to cover some of their blogs in my next post.


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