January 1, 2006: Headlines: COS - Burkina Faso: COS - Niger: Antioch Review: Niger RPCV William F. S. Miles writes: Letter from Ouagadougou

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Burkina Faso: Peace Corps Burkina Faso : The Peace Corps in Burkina Faso: January 1, 2006: Headlines: COS - Burkina Faso: COS - Niger: Antioch Review: Niger RPCV William F. S. Miles writes: Letter from Ouagadougou

By Admin1 (admin) (pool-151-196-25-123.balt.east.verizon.net - on Thursday, February 23, 2006 - 6:40 pm: Edit Post

Niger RPCV William F. S. Miles writes: Letter from Ouagadougou

Niger RPCV  William F. S. Miles writes:  Letter from Ouagadougou

"In Burkina Faso democracy may indeed be the new wave; however, it is a rather authoritarian democracy. When an article appeared in a local newspaper suggesting that President Compaor fed arrested political opponents to the lions roaming his residential grounds, the president didn't throw the journalist into jail just like that. That would be authoritarian. Comparore sued the journalist first, making sure that the courts would then legally chuck the reporter into prison. That's authoritarian democracy."

Niger RPCV William F. S. Miles writes: Letter from Ouagadougou

Letter from Ouagadougou

Jan 1, 2006

Antioch Review


"New Yorkers have everything, so nothing fascinates them."-

Tepilit Ole Saitoti, The Worlds of a Maasai Warrior.

Poring over the world atlas as boys, my brothers and I had chosen Ouagadougou, Upper Volta, as the weirdest-sounding, most exotic spot imaginable on earth. Although not that distant on the African map from Timbuktu, the usual emblem of the far out, for us Ouagadougou was by far the more intriguing. Perhaps it was the way we pronounced- or, rather, chanted-the mysterious city's name, over and over again: oo-goo-doo-goo-up-pa-vol-ta-oo-goo-doo-goo-up-pa-vol-ta-oo-goo-doo- goo-up-pa-vol-ta.... Such rhythm on our lips evoked drum beats within our hearts.

Not surprisingly, we had the pronunciation all wrong: the first two syllables are actually pronounced as ah, not oo, so that the city's short form and nickname sounds like Wahgah, not Oogoo. How could we know that in Upper Volta (and where, by the way, was Lower Volta?) they spoke French and that, just as the word for "yes" is spelled "oui" and not wee, so does oua make for wahl

Our chanting and mental images were laced with a juvenile condescension toward all things African common to most Americans growing up in the 1950s. Spear-wielding savages and all that. Tarzan's Africa. It took over thirty-five years but I finally corrected those unfortunate childhood images and sounds. For I have now returned from Ouagadougou. Upper Volta, however, exists no more.

Despite publicized meltdowns in Ivory Coast and Congo, democracy is fitfully making an appearance throughout Africa. In countries where military dictators have been the rule, which has generally been the case in French-speaking Africa, multi-party politics and elections are staging a comeback. But the results have been strange. In Benin, a sliver of land on the northwest coast, and on Madagascar, a gigantic island off the southeast coast, after an interlude of civilian leadership voters restored to power the very same general and admiral who ruled their country into the Afro- Marxist ground for close to two decades.

In Gabon and Chad the strong-arm rulers never left at all, going directly from commander to president by way of internationally observed elections. Togo's populace resisted when the son of Africa's longest-serving autocrat stepped into the shoes of his deceased father, but Gnassingb junior may yet fulfil his aspiration to leadership. And that leads us to Ouagadougou, where Biaise Campaor, having come to power through a coup d'tat and assassination of his friend and predecessor, Thomas Sankara, is not just head of state but elected president.

It was Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary soldier, who in the 1980s changed his country's name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso. Upper Volta, the name given to the dusty, landlocked nation by the French imperialists, was too colonial for the head of the National Revolutionary Council. Burkina Faso, meaning "Land of the Upright Warriors," is more authentic, more African-sounding. Though few of his revolutionary initiatives have endured, the name that Sankara bequeathed his nation has endured, sometimes in abbreviated form, though I never could figure out when it was correct to say just Burkina, and when plain Faso would do.

Despite its ambiguity, the revolutionary motto also lives on: La Patrie ou la Mort, Nous Vaincronsl-"The Nation or Death, We Shall Conquer!"

In Burkina Faso democracy may indeed be the new wave; however, it is a rather authoritarian democracy. When an article appeared in a local newspaper suggesting that President Compaor fed arrested political opponents to the lions roaming his residential grounds, the president didn't throw the journalist into jail just like that. That would be authoritarian. Comparore sued the journalist first, making sure that the courts would then legally chuck the reporter into prison. That's authoritarian democracy.

For international donors a favorite way to promote democracy is to sponsor conferences. With the financial help of the American Embassy, the University of Ouagadougou was therefore organizing a seminar on democratic institutions in Burkina Faso. No expert on Burkina Faso, I was nevertheless invited to show the American academic flag and speak about the U.S. experience with democracy.

But there were a couple of problems. One was quite ironic, given that we were supposed to be marking the progress toward democracy. According to the program, the final conference session was to be devoted to the perspective of Burkina Faso's mayors, the first ones elected in close to three decades. But administrative regulations, well reflecting the hierarchical and centralized nature of African bureaucracy, prohibited the university faculty from directly inviting such government officials to the conference. Such invitations first had to be cleared and forwarded by the appropriate ministry. The invitations were sitting within the ministry dealing with territorial affairs and had not been sent out.
Result: we would never hear the elected mayors' perspectives on the new democracy arising in Burkina Faso.

The second problem was more serious: University of Ouagadougou students were on strike. Worse, their demonstrations were met with force by the military and four of their leaders were arrested. People were apprehensive about coming to the campus. Conference organizers wished to switch the venue to the American Cultural Center, but the government refused: it would be a blank admission that all was not under control in Ouaga. It was hardly an auspicious beginning for a conference on the institutionalization of democracy.

Students were striking for a number of reasons, but their primary complaint dealt with the campus cafeteria. As the authorities resisted the demands the strike grew, until even high school students joined the movement. The Minister for Higher Education, Scientific Research and secondary Schooling went on a media blitz, ridiculing the students for demanding appetizers, un plat de rsistance, and dessert with each meal. "Let us not forget that we are living in Burkina," he remarked in an "interview" that took up much of the evening radio and television newscasts and was broadcast for a couple of days running.

One could indeed ridicule aspects of the students actions. After all, they were not boycotting meals, only classes. It wasn't a hunger strike but a study stoppage. Among their concerns was learning what happened to a student and professor taken into military police custody during the last university unrest, who were never again seen alive.

My antennae went up when I was told the name of the Ouagadougou hotel at which I would be staying. In a landlocked, wind-swept, waterdeficient country, how could even the most elegant establishment in Burkina Faso (which mine was far from being) justify calling itself the Palm Beach hotel? The answer hit me when, early in the morning, I drew the curtains.

Below, to the left, was a family's dirt-brown, open-air courtyard. Women in colorful wraps and headscarves were already starting to prepare food in clay pots on wood fires. Children, shielding their eyes, slowly emerged from mud brick huts with tin roofs to meet the dry, sunbleached day. Beyond my neighbors stretched a vast residential quarter of similarly arranged mud- brown courtyards, separated from each other by walls of reinforced dried dirt. Above the courtyards, above the rising smoke, lazily glided the vultures.

But immediately below me on my right glistened incongruously the chlorinated, blue-green water from a completely filled, full-sized swimming pool. Three hotel employees were servicing the pool, scooping up surface detritus, checking the filter. Five mornings I awoke to that scene, to African workers diligently preparing the pool and rearranging the lounge chairs. But the Palm Beach patrons did not deliver. Not once did I see a single hotel guest in, around, or anywhere near the pool.

And the rationale for the name "Palm Beach"? It was a colorful fresco of swaying palm trees and other imagined seashore scenes. The opening ceremony and panel were formal in ways that clearly bore the stamp of French imperium. When the head of protocol entered the seminar hall and clapped twice, we were expected to rise and ostentatiously shake hands with the very dignitaries whom we had met in closed chambers a few minutes earlier. Stilted speeches were followed by highly theoretical papers delivered la Sorbonne. Close to forty years after independence, mental colonialism is alive and well.

About the Author

William F. S. Miles is professor of political science at Northeastern University and adjunct research professor at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Author of six books on West Africa, the West Indies, South Asia, and the South Pacific, he has had essays published in Midstream, Transition, Worldview, Contemporary Review, and The Wilson Quarterly. Miles has worked in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, State Department intern, Fulbright scholar, and U.S.A.I.D. consultant.

Copyright Antioch Review, Incorporated Winter 2006

When this story was posted in February 2006, this was on the front page of PCOL:

Contact PCOLBulletin BoardRegisterSearch PCOLWhat's New?

Peace Corps Online The Independent News Forum serving Returned Peace Corps Volunteers
Top Stories and Breaking News PCOL Magazine Peace Corps Library RPCV Directory Sign Up

Top Stories: February 2, 2006 Date: February 4 2006 No: 783 Top Stories: February 2, 2006
Al Kamen writes: Rice to redeploy diplomats 20 Jan
Peace Corps mourns the Loss of Volunteer Tessa Horan 1 Feb
RPCV pursues dreams in America's Heartland 1 Feb
Sargent Shriver documentary to be shown in LA 30 Jan
W. Frank Fountain is new board chairman of Africare 27 Jan
Abbey Brown writes about acid attacks in Bangladesh 26 Jan
Christopher Hill Sees Ray of Hope in N.Korea Standoff 26 Jan
Jeffrey Smit writes on one man diplomatic outposts 25 Jan
Joe Blatchford's ACCION and microfinance 24 Jan
James Rupert writes: A calculated risk in Pakistan 23 Jan
Sam Farr rips conservative immigration bill 21 Jan
Americans campaign for PC to return to Sierra Leone 20 Jan
Kinky Friedman supports Gay Marriage 20 Jan
Margaret Krome writes on Women leaders 18 Jan
James Walsh leads bipartisan US delegation to Ireland 17 Jan
Mark Schneider writes on Elections and Beyond in Haiti 16 Jan
Robert Blackwill on a "serious setback" in US-India relations 13 Jan
Kevin Quigley writes on PC and U.S. Image Abroad 13 Jan
Emily Metzloff rides bicycle 3,100 miles from Honduras 9 Jan
Charles Brennick starts operation InterConnection 9 Jan
Lee Fisher tells story of Pablo Morillo 7 Jan
Nancy Wallace writes: Was PC a CIA front after all? 4 Jan

RPCV admits to abuse while in Peace Corps Date: February 3 2006 No: 780 RPCV admits to abuse while in Peace Corps
Timothy Ronald Obert has pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a minor in Costa Rica while serving there as a Peace Corps volunteer. "The Peace Corps has a zero tolerance policy for misconduct that violates the law or standards of conduct established by the Peace Corps," said Peace Corps Director Gaddi H. Vasquez. Could inadequate screening have been partly to blame? Mr. Obert's resume, which he had submitted to the Peace Corps in support of his application to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, showed that he had repeatedly sought and obtained positions working with underprivileged children. Read what RPCVs have to say about this case.

Military Option sparks concerns Date: January 3 2006 No: 773 Military Option sparks concerns
The U.S. military, struggling to fill its voluntary ranks, is allowing recruits to meet part of their reserve military obligations after active duty by serving in the Peace Corps. Read why there is opposition to the program among RPCVs. Director Vasquez says the agency has a long history of accepting qualified applicants who are in inactive military status. John Coyne says "Not only no, but hell no!" and RPCV Chris Matthews leads the debate on "Hardball." Avi Spiegel says Peace Corps is not the place for soldiers while Coleman McCarthy says to Welcome Soldiers to the Peace Corps. Read our poll results. Latest: Congress passed a bill on December 22 including language to remove Peace Corps from the National Call to Service (NCS) military recruitment program

Why blurring the lines puts PCVs in danger Date: October 22 2005 No: 738 Why blurring the lines puts PCVs in danger
When the National Call to Service legislation was amended to include Peace Corps in December of 2002, this country had not yet invaded Iraq and was not in prolonged military engagement in the Middle East, as it is now. Read the story of how one volunteer spent three years in captivity from 1976 to 1980 as the hostage of a insurrection group in Colombia in Joanne Marie Roll's op-ed on why this legislation may put soldier/PCVs in the same kind of danger. Latest: Read the ongoing dialog on the subject.

PC establishes awards for top Volunteers Date: November 9 2005 No: 749 PC establishes awards for top Volunteers
Gaddi H. Vasquez has established the Kennedy Service Awards to honor the hard work and service of two current Peace Corps Volunteers, two returned Peace Corps Volunteers, and two Peace Corps staff members. The award to currently serving volunteers will be based on a demonstration of impact, sustainability, creativity, and catalytic effect. Submit your nominations by December 9.

Robert F. Kennedy - 80th anniversary of his birth Date: November 26 2005 No: 757 Robert F. Kennedy - 80th anniversary of his birth
"Few men are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change the world which yields most painfully to change."

Peace Corps at highest Census in 30 years Date: October 22 2005 No: 745 Peace Corps at highest Census in 30 years
Congratulations to the Peace Corps for the highest number of volunteers in 30 years with 7,810 volunteers serving in 71 posts across the globe. Of course, the President's proposal to double the Peace Corps to 15,000 volunteers made in his State of the Union Address in 2002 is now a long forgotten dream. With deficits in federal spending stretching far off into the future, any substantive increase in the number of volunteers will have to wait for new approaches to funding and for a new administration. Choose your candidate and start working for him or her now.

The Peace Corps Library Date: March 27 2005 No: 536 The Peace Corps Library
Peace Corps Online is proud to announce that the Peace Corps Library is now available online. With over 30,000 index entries in 500 categories, this is the largest collection of Peace Corps related stories in the world. From Acting to Zucchini, you can find hundreds of stories about what RPCVs with your same interests or from your Country of Service are doing today. If you have a web site, support the "Peace Corps Library" and link to it today.

Friends of the Peace Corps 170,000  strong Date: April 2 2005 No: 543 Friends of the Peace Corps 170,000 strong
170,000 is a very special number for the RPCV community - it's the number of Volunteers who have served in the Peace Corps since 1961. It's also a number that is very special to us because March is the first month since our founding in January, 2001 that our readership has exceeded 170,000. And while we know that not everyone who comes to this site is an RPCV, they are all "Friends of the Peace Corps." Thanks everybody for making PCOL your source of news for the Returned Volunteer community.

Read the stories and leave your comments.

Some postings on Peace Corps Online are provided to the individual members of this group without permission of the copyright owner for the non-profit purposes of criticism, comment, education, scholarship, and research under the "Fair Use" provisions of U.S. Government copyright laws and they may not be distributed further without permission of the copyright owner. Peace Corps Online does not vouch for the accuracy of the content of the postings, which is the sole responsibility of the copyright holder.

Story Source: Antioch Review

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Burkina Faso; COS - Niger


Add a Message

This is a public posting area. Enter your username and password if you have an account. Otherwise, enter your full name as your username and leave the password blank. Your e-mail address is optional.