With Salif Keita’s popular song “Mandjou” playing in the background, East Bay Burkinabes got together Sunday at the Faso Braidy braiding shop on Webster and 19th Street to discuss the political situation back home and what lies ahead for their country after its September coup.
For these former residents of Burkina Faso, the conversation was largely about what they can really do to positively contribute to the political situation back home. Many of them “are confronted with a frustration that is almost paralyzing because [they] can’t physically engage, being so far away,” as Serge Ouedraogo, a Burkinabe living in Berkeley, put it. “The only tools of engagement that you have are Facebook, texting, news sites and phone calls. So you’re always asking yourself whether you’re comfortable simply sharing posts on Facebook and how that really helps.”
On September 16, military guards in Burkina Faso took over the airwaves, announcing that they were now in charge. Soldiers led by General Gilbert Diendere abducted interim President Michel Kafando and Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida, holding them hostage in the capital of Ouagadougou, according to news reports. This marked the beginning of a week of unrest and violent protests in Ouagadougou that left at least 10 people dead and more than 100 others injured, according to a report by Amnesty International. President Kafando was reinstated on September 23rd after several West African leaders mediated to help resolve the crisis, although his term as interim president is drawing to an end, an election to replace him is expected later this fall.
Inside the braiding shop, which was decorated with hand-held fans made out of sisal and woodcarvings of African women with children strapped to their backs, five people sat in salon chairs, forming a close semicircle around a small wooden table at the edge of the room. Some wore clothes made of traditional African fabric, featuring a fusion of bright colors and intricate patterns and shapes. They drank coffee and fruit juice, and shared in a bag of tortilla chips that one of the attendees brought with him. When they spoke, their voices were full of a delicate mix of passion, determination and vigor, and yet belied an underlying frustration.
It was an intimate and organic discussion, with no formalities. Occasionally, people got carried away with passion and began speaking in French, which is the official language of Burkina Faso. When the moment passed, they would switch back to English. The session seemed almost therapeutic— as the event invitation said: “Come vent your frustration about the recent turmoil in Burkina Faso.”
Some speakers pointed out that opportunities to engage with their country’s politics are limited because of the lack of a Burkina Faso embassy in the West Coast. “When the coup happened, my friends in D.C. were able to organize, go to the embassy and put pressure on the leaders there. But what do you do here where we have no embassy?” said Ibrahim Dabo, a Burkinabe living in Oakland.
But others said it was encouraging to see the citizenry at home being increasingly involved and vocal about local politics, especially in a country that has a long history of electing military officials rather than civilians. Looking back on last year’s mass protests that led to the end of former President’s Blaise Compaoré’s 27-year rule, Oakland resident Soumaila Diarra said, “It was like God sent a message to people. It was powerful. Everybody in the entire country got out and kicked out Compaoré.” This kind of political awakening will continue to take the country forward, he said.
Other Burkinabes said they are skeptical about whether political change can translate into economic progress. Ouedraogo said he felt the entrepreneurial drive and the foundation that would encourage young people to be innovative is lacking in Burkina Faso. “There is this mentality of sitting back and waiting for things to be given to us and that needs to change. That mentality doesn’t simply go away because the political system is changing,” he said.
But changes in the political system will inevitably contribute to the country’s economy in the long run, if the incoming government is able to root out corruption, Diarra said. “I know there’s big things ahead for Burkina Faso if the new government takes office and deals with it [corruption] because people are willing to work,” he said.
While Burkinabes in diaspora try to make financial investments back home that can help drive the economy, corruption remains a major challenge for them. Diarra used to run a business in Burkina Faso that branded clothing and backpacks for schools and corporate firms, but he said he had to terminate the business because “people always demanded bribes.”
“I had to stop because of the corrupt system,” he said. “So I took my money out and shut down the company.”
Ouedraogo also started a non-profit, Tutoring Africa, which employs university students in Burkina Faso to tutor elementary school children after school. “We had to pull out of some of the schools we work with because people were explicitly demanding bribes,” he said.
Burkinabes in diaspora make notable contributions to their country’s economy. According to a 2011 report report by the World Bank, Burkinabes in diaspora send about $2 million per month for businesses or to support their families. These remittances contribute to the national economy by “significantly improving household living conditions and reducing the headcount poverty of rural and urban households,” according to the report.
The Burkinabes at this weekend’s meeting say that they can also do more by collaborating with each other to make joint investments back home. “Unfortunately, we don’t collaborate enough,” Ouedraogo said. “Everybody has an idea but they don’t reach out to see who can help them make it a reality, so they remain in that idea stage forever and that’s where we fail.”
Rassidatou Konate, a Burkinabe living in Berkeley so she can go to college there, said the “most meaningful” contribution young Burkinabes can make to build their country is to go back home and implement the skills and knowledge they have gained while away. “If I have an impact in the world, I want to have it my country,” she said.