4 December 2014

Burkina Faso's Revolution. Or the day mama jumped in the pool fully clothed.

I'm afraid this might be a long one. Adam has warned me that no one likes long blog posts. Sorry, Adam and other people who do not like long blog posts...

It's taken us a bit of time to process Burkina Faso's recent uprising, or revolution, or coup, or junta, or whatever you want to call it. Granted we're not Burkinabé nor were we anywhere near the front lines, but our expat lives were a bit shaken up. I mean, we're not in Congo anymore so life should be easy peasy for goodness sake.

In short, Blaise Compaoré, Burkina Faso's longtime president of 27 years, decided he wanted to change the constitution to extend term limits. But folks had another idea. As in, on the day of the vote thousands of people mobilized to stop it.


Downtown Ouagadougou. October 30.


On that morning, we planned to introduce the director of our organization (who was visiting from the States - perfect timing) to participants we work with at the prison. No big deal, Adam would take him in the morning before the vote results were announced. I'd stay back in the office and hold down the fort. Of course no one else was dumb enough to come to work that day. So there I sat alone while they headed off to the prison.

About the time they arrived at the prison, the city exploded. Tens of thousands of people protested and then attacked the parliament building setting it on fire. There was gunfire, then helicopters dropped tear gas. I spent the morning pacing up and down the office hallway. Convincing myself my eyes were burning from really intense dust and not tear gas. I also sent messages to Jill because how can this be happening and I have no one to talk to?!

I won't mention how many paces it took me to remember my children playing outside a few blocks away. But I did eventually call Anastasie and ask her to take the girls inside and close the windows. Clearly she had already done this. Because tear gas.

Meanwhile at the prison, a mob had gathered outside and began banging on the doors, so needless to say, Adam and our director were stuck inside. I'll keep this exciting part about Adam short due to his issue with reading long posts and all: Prison guards quickly change into military uniforms. Everyone running. Adam stuck inside. Me thinking it's slightly funny he's got himself and our director trapped in a prison during a coup. Me waiting a long time, not thinking it's so funny anymore. Crowds getting bigger. Me making lots of phone calls and driving back and forth through protestors to attempt to free them from prison. They eventually escape with zero help from me. 30 minutes later factory across from the prison is looted and burned. Revolt later that day in the prison and 3 people killed. Us breathing sigh of relief.


Parliament. The day after. (Photo Credit: MCC Service Worker Loralee Williams who was smart enough to not consult us before venturing downtown.)


Cars in parliament parking lot. Photo Credit: Loralee.

The stuck in prison situation is the kind of experience I'm happy to have had when it's over. It was equal parts tense and exciting and it makes for a good story. All's well that ends well. We are safe and sound at home. Boy was that crazy! So glad this whole revolution thing is over. I put up a semi-clever post on Facebook with a synopsis of the day. We're proud of ourselves for distracting our children from the gunfire. They didn't even notice! We're so cool. Goodnight.

Compaoré resigned the next morning and left the country in a heavily armored motorcade. A general in the military was then named interim leader. Turns out this guy was not so popular and the city erupted once again. Oh wait, this revolution thing isn't over yet?

A tactic that proved quite effective the day before was the burning and looting of former Compaoré government official's houses along with those of his relatives and friends. A house a few blocks in front of our's was burned as well as another house behind us. We got word that our next door neighbor's house, with whom we share a wall, was next on the loot and burn list. A mob was on its way. Our neighbor on the other side yelled for us to quick get out of our house.


Destruction at the Azalai hotel, next door to parliament where some members were staying the night before the vote. Photo credit: Loralee Williams.


It's safe to say this was not my calmest moment in motherhood. I went into full panic mode and ushered my children next door - to the safe neighbor's house. We've been down this leave-the-house-and-all-of-your-belongings road before in Congo, so I grabbed their growth chart off the wall, the baby quilt and the princess dresses. Because I can hide from our children the fact that our house has been burned to the ground, but they're definitely going to notice if their princess dresses are missing.

We took shelter next door. And again the pacing sets in. At this point we crossed a line we had never crossed before. Our children were scared and crying and asking what was going on. Guards were gathered in the road. And everyone was just waiting for the inevitable to happen. It didn't ease our minds that a document had been looted from the president's brother's house, photocopied in mass and distributed throughout the city listing the addresses of houses that the president had bought for his friends. Our neighbor's house number was #2 on the list.

I kind of just wanted the looters and burners to show up so it could just happen and be over. Someone suggested I call the embassy. After 6 years in Congo, I have their emergency number on speed dial. I don't know how many times in Kinshasa I had to call an annoyed 18-year-old Marine and explain how we got our car booted in the middle of the road again.

Here in Ouagadougou it's a kind woman named Kristin, who bless her heart, must have been a 911 operator or worked at a suicide prevention hotline in a previous life. She was so sweet and encouraging and for the first time since this whole ordeal began, I was talking with someone to whom I didn't need to show a brave face. I started to tear up, so I took myself into my neighbor's garage and had a good cry with dear, sweet Kristin. (Kristin, I hope you never read this. I would like to remain the anonymous, unstable expat caller.)

For whatever reason the mob had yet to come and it's clear that pacing at our neighbor's house all day was not a good plan for anyone. So we scurried across the street to distract our children and let them swim at the pool of our neighborhood French compound.

And folks, I kid you not. Those Frenchies were smoking and drinking and having a grand old time behind their wall, not 20 feet away from our panic attack across the street.

Our girls soon forgot their trauma and swam and joined in the carefree French time. Meanwhile, Adam and I were poolside sending emails and making hurried phone calls to our organization's headquarters in the States, all the while keeping an ear out for approaching angry mobs.

At this point, as if our world had not stopped already, I glanced in the pool and Ani was bobbing and gasping for air in the deep end. So naturally, I jump in the pool, in front of all those relaxed French folk - fully clothed, leather clogs and all - to pull that poor girl out.

I swear to you, at this moment another military plane buzzed overhead and after the near-burning of our house and the near-drowning of my child, I took a moment to tread water and have a mini breakdown right there in the pool. I'll never forget Adam and our director looking down at me, offering hands to help me out. But I just stayed. And treaded water. And cried.

And then my loving husband said, "That was crazy. It was kind of embarrassing that you had to jump in the pool like that to save her, but none of these French people even noticed. No one turned their heads. How are they so cool about everything?!"

I spent the rest of the day sitting by the pool. Sopping wet. You know, because of no spare clothes due to being evacuated from my house and all. Then after the curfew set in (which is announced in the curious way of police going through the streets and shooting in the air) our house was still standing and it was deemed safe to go home.

Our neighbors in question had rallied their burliest male relatives to set up camp outside their house to protect it. We managed to fall asleep that night, but it's practically impossible to distinguish between the noises of a mob of men guarding a house and a mob of men attacking a house.    

We debriefed with the girls and asked them how they felt when we had to leave our house and run next door. Because afterall, they were upset and scared and I don't want that coming back at us in adolescence.

They didn't really seem to remember it, so we didn't press it. They were too distracted and confused about why mama jumped and cried in the pool. "No really, why were you crying in the pool?" they asked, "And why didn't you put on your bathing suit first?" A full month later, they are still talking about this. "Hey! Remember that time mama jumped in the pool with her clothes on?!"

Thank the lord they're not asking, "Remember that time we ran screaming from our house because we thought it was going to burn down?"


"Blaise Get Out." Walking around our neighborhood for the first time.


For a while after that terrible day I didn't want to talk about it or even more remarkably, joke about it. I have no interest in ever seeing my children that scared again.
  
But after it's all said and done we're proud to live in a country that organized such a relatively peaceful and respectful revolution. Amazing things happened here.

Parliament was torched, but small shops beside it were untouched. I drove through crowds that day and as riled up and angry as everyone was, not a single person bothered me. They actually moved aside to let me through. Good people, these Burkinabé.  

One of the main groups that organized the demonstrations, Le Balai Citoyen (or Citizen's Broom) used a broom as their symbol. After the revolution they issued a statement saying that now that they had used their brooms to "clean up" the government, they needed to use their brooms to clean up the mess they made in the streets. So men, women and children came out to clean the city. Remarkable.


Clean up photo by Loralee.


From Burkina 24.


The transition has had some bumps, but folks are proud of themselves. The uprising wasn't a youth thing, or a Muslim thing, or a Christian thing. It was an everybody thing. For a country that had one president for 27 years, they had 3 in the course of 24 hours and are now on their 4th one.

I honestly cannot imagine another country pulling this off.

I am still thankful for my new best friend at the American embassy, Kristin who called me back later that night and again the next morning to make sure we were okay.

We got to be friends with our neighbor's extended family/protective mob as they stayed for the rest of the week in front of our houses. Lots of tea and laughs were shared over the experience.

I now have a Bonnie Raitt shock of gray hair that did not exist on the morning of October 30. I call it my souvenir de la révolution.

And lastly, my house was not burned down and my daughter did not drown. We're going to be alright.



14 comments:

  1. Consular Officers rock! And I think they ALL work evening jobs at suicide prevention hotlines and 911 call centers.

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  2. I'm glad that you are all safe and that the main takeaway for your girls is that you jumped in the pool, fully clothed. And I really don't mind long blog posts.

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  3. Phooey to Adam. Long posts rock.

    Your ability to write about horror with a side of humor is a gift.

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    1. I have been intentionally avoiding your blog because I was afraid it would inspire me to write. But I wasn't quite at the point where any of this felt funny yet. I'm ready to take myself off suspension now.

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  4. sheesh... I am stressing just reading this. Pauvre mama! Glad you are ok (and here I was wondering why you're not posting so much, but since you've only survived a revolution and are busy keeping young ones alive - well then, at least it's a long one!)

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  5. I am really glad to hear you're ok. wow...you're a brave woman.

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  6. Holy Moses! So glad for happy endings!

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  7. Incredible story - well told! So happy to hear everyone's okay.

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  8. Thank goodness you are okay! I remember reading about this in the news--and the first thing I thought of was you and your family. Glad you are all okay--and at least you got some great stories out of the situation.

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  9. What an experience! Props to you for taking the positives out of it. If only more protesters would clean up their mess afterward ;) Stay safe!

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  10. I must admit, that is the first time I've visited the blog since you moved. What a story! I don't know if I could be calm enough just to CRY!

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