Monthly Archives: September 2015


Last night my landlord got a call at 18h30, and said he had to go out immediately to deal with an emergency.  He started backing his car out of the compound, and then thought better of it, parked, and asked if he could take my motorcycle instead.  At night people build roadblocks of cinderblocks and burning tires to keep the RSP patrols from proceeding easily along major roads, and a motorcycle can get through the streets much more quickly and inconspicuously than a car can.  I wasn’t crazy about the idea of giving up my transport half an hour before curfew fell, but I know how emergencies work, so I went and got the keys and he rode off into the night.

It was the tensest night I’ve had in Ouaga 2000.  I had seen the columns of smoke coming up from the roadblocks as dusk fell, and at night I heard staccato gunfire coming from the intersections a few kilometers away from me.  My neighbors run a small store across the street that the neighborhood guys gather around at night, and as I made dinner I could hear the crinkle of static and muffled voices from their radios as they remotely followed the movements in town.  At around 19h30 I heard automatic fire from Pascal Zagré, the boulevard that runs 200 yards north of my house, and all of the men across the street scattered instantly—radios squawking, chairs tipped over.  I turned off the gas on the stove and turned off all the lights in the apartment.  After ten minutes the dogs began barking again and the guys came back to the boutique, and I went back to business.  My building has thick walls, I was far from the road, I’ve never had any indication that RSP patrols turned off the main roads, and even if I had the motorcycle I wouldn’t have left, but still, I was shook.

My landlord came back at around 23h, exhausted.  He told me that he got a call from a rich cousin who lives in the northern part of Ouaga, who said that a mob was gathering in front of his home and preparing to burn it.  My landlord made moves through the city calling people to his cousin’s house, and eventually the group left the house unsinged.  I told him about the shots on Zagré, and he speculated that it was an RSP patrol firing in the air to move young hooligans out of the road.

This morning I decided to make a move.  I was running out of canned food in my apartment, I didn’t have friends in my neighborhood, roadblocks made it increasingly difficult to plot good routes to move through the city, and I didn’t like hearing shots that close to the house.  I packed a backpack with clothes for three days, or a week if it comes to that, cash, passport, and other essentials.  The rest I locked in my apartment, gave the food in my fridge to the gardien, and got on the motorcycle to head to another neighborhood.  I rode the 10 kilometers to Zone du Bois on high alert, but the streets were mostly empty.  You could see traces of last night—scorches on the pavement and broken glass—but I had no trouble making it up here.  A fellow at an NGO that I know very generously lent me his apartment while he stays with friends, so I’m now temporarily installed in a new place in a much calmer neighborhood.  I’ll be here until I figure out my next move.  My office is still closed and although the land and air borders are open, the airport workers are all on strike until Thursday and scheduled flights didn’t arrive today.

I have a dangerous habit of not fully appreciating the consequences of my decisions, particularly when I do risky things and I end up fine.  It’s hard to imagine the counterfactual to your actual life.  This week I left my apartment, and as I drove through the city I felt like I left at the right moment.  The roadblocks weren’t too tight or numerous to get past, but I can see how they could be tomorrow.  I’m going to think about my next move carefully, and be ready to adapt to any obstacles that come my way.  My new location is much less of a hotspot than my normal apartment.  I’m grateful to have a network of friends and contacts in the city who can help me when I need it, and I think it would be safe to stay here for another week.  If you like looking at maps, you can find me on Google Maps in an area south of the Bangr Weeogo forest.

I don’t post these updates to make people worry about me.  The thing about maintaining a blog is that it’s only the most fascinating, unusual, and extreme moments that I write about.  For the most part a coup d’état is dull: I might spend 22 hours a day in my compound reading news, watching badly dubbed movies, sleeping, working, and exercising.  I spent 25 minutes riding a motorcycle from my apartment to a new neighborhood, and since then my day has been tranquil and easy.  Other people have been struggling and suffering much more than I have over the last week.  I don’t want to give a false impression of how dangerous things are here, just a realistic one.  I’m calm and thinking carefully about the safest and smartest thing to do.  I’m still secure, happy, well fed, and ready to take the next step.


Lying Low

First and foremost, many thanks to my family and friends for thinking of me and checking in on me.  I’m very lucky to have so many people who are following the situation here, and it’s reassuring to know that I can call home and get help following news sites and checking on coverage of events in Burkina Faso.  I’m still doing well and taking care of myself, and I hope that this situation gets peacefully resolved quickly.

My day has been tense and boring in equal measure.  Except for recon trips to see the streets and buy water or phone credit, I’ve been in my compound since Wednesday afternoon.  I packed a bag of essentials to take with me if I need to move and I follow all protest news on Facebook, but otherwise I’m just reading, eating, and waiting.  There’s no chance of getting lulled into a false sense of security: this morning I heard cracking gunshots coming from the northwest, and this afternoon the horizon to the north of me was smudged by the black smoke of burning tires (N.B. tires burn with black smoke, brushfires burn with white smoke).  I sometimes take walks through the neighborhood to move around and see how the main roads look.  My future next door neighbor must be the richest man in Burkina, because today he had a crew of six guys putting the roof on his new house in the middle of a coup d’état.  There are still goats, cows and horses grazing in the streets, oblivious to the turmoil.  My can opener broke on the first can I tried to open after curfew, and so I’ve been punching my lunch and dinner tins open with a Leatherman.

This afternoon I made a recon trip out to buy water, see if the roads were open, and to hear the news.  I made my first visit to the Laico Hotel, a five star hotel in my neighborhood and a magnet for expats and businessmen.  As I sat in the dining room eating a 13 dollar sandwich, a convoy with an armed pickup truck, motorcycle escorts, and a blacked out SUV pulled up and delivered several commanding officers of the RSP.  Thirty minutes later a motorcade flying Senegalese flags came in with Senegalese president Macky Sall, who had flown into Ouaga this morning.  I learned that the RSP had been negotiating at the hotel with the US and French ambassadors, as well as the presidents of neighboring countries.  No conclusions have been reached, although the RSP has agreed to release the (ex?) interim president and will consider opening the airport.

From there I rode in the direction of town to see if the roads were passable.  The arteries of Ouaga are completely open, and except for odd patrols, diplomatic vehicles, and people on motos, there are very few people moving around.  On my way back south to my neighborhood I came across a protestor roadblock.  Cinderblocks were pulled across the street to make a barricade, and 30 yards back people milled around a few stacks of burning tires.  I pulled a quick turn into the rutted back streets, and exited back on the main road 100 yards south of the barricade.  I saw one open kiosk and stopped there to buy a battery powered radio.  The man told me that he was having a special on radios due to the coup, and would sell me one for 6000 francs.  “That’s not a special,” I said, “that’s three times what that should normally cost.”  “That’s exactly right,” he said, stone faced.  That’s economics for you.

I found an open boutique and bought water, mosquito coils, and more food.  I made it back to the compound well before curfew, and now I’m back on my deck.  Tonight is very different from my typical Friday night in Ouaga, and it’s amazing how quickly things have changed.  The city is locked down right now, but the few people who are in the streets are watchful and moving with purpose.  People here well organized and sharing information through Facebook and phones.  I’m well informed, I’m lying low, and I forgot to get a can opener when I went to the store.

The Coup

Ouaga is getting hotter.  My neighborhood is a ghost town right now; the main road is COMPLETELY empty and most of the local shops and kiosks are boarded up.  RSP soldiers are at both of the major intersections near me, but no soldiers or protestors have started moving in the streets of the neighborhood.  Clashes between the military and protestors continued through the night, and this morning I’ve heard reports that there are tanks in the Place de la Revolution.  The borders are sealed, there are no more civilian flights from the airport, and a curfew will be in effect tonight.  Leaders of some opposition groups like Le Balai Populaire have been arrested, and last night the Omega radio station was stormed and burned.

At some point this morning the RSP officially announced that this was a coup d’état.  The President and Prime Minister have resigned, and the transitional parliament has been dissolved.  The military announced the formation of the Conseil National de la Democratie headed by General Gilbert Diendéré, an ally of the president whose 27 year rule ended in a revolution last year.  Chérif Sy, the leader of parliament, has been exhorting all Burkinabé to mobilize in the streets.  Journalists are being arrested and radio is locked down, so I’m getting news from Facebook.  A lot of what I see are shared images telling people where to go to join protests, and some disturbing pictures of the aftermath of confrontations with the RSP.

I’ve received one text from the US Embassy but no other news from them.  I’m currently at home and trying to follow the protests carefully, because I need to know if people start moving towards the presidential palace.  For those interested in following the situation, check out these sites  (FR, detailed timeline of events)

Mobilisation et lutte

Details are scarce, but three hours ago there was a coup in Burkina Faso.  This afternoon the interim President, Michael Kafando, Prime Minister, Isaac Zida, and acting cabinet were all arrested by the Régiment de Securité Presidentiel (RSP), an elite military unit.  On 29th October 2014 the president of 27 years, Blaise Compaoré, was ousted in a mass revolution, and Kafando and company are a civilian government who were to govern until the elections that are scheduled to take place on October 11th, 2015.  According to what I’ve heard on the radio Kafando’s government was preparing to dissolve the RSP and integrate them into the larger military, which is a policy the guard resisted.  Large demonstrations are anticipated.  The increasingly powerful Burkinabé civil society will try to force the military to release the civilian government so that elections can take place.

At 16h my office shut down and everyone went home.  I live one kilometer from Kosyam, the presidential palace, and about the same distance from the US embassy.  I was able to buy gas, water, charcoal, phone credit and food, and made it home before the neighborhood got locked down.  I’ve seen troops moving by pickup, motorcycle, and Ural truck.  A storm is moving in from the north which may keep protestors quiet tonight.  I’ll put up updates as I receive them.

Last year’s coup:

FR update:

Citizens mobilizing on FB:

EN update:

On the road, then on the road

Today I passed three thousand kilometers on my motorcycle.  And then I crashed.

I took a beautiful trip today.  With three friends I rode twenty five kilometers to the Gonse Forest, which is a 500 hectare park east of Ouaga, and then left the paved road to follow a dirt track miles into the woods.  It’s hard to describe it as anything but a sensual experience.  In marshy parts the forest smells pleasantly rotten and animalistic, a little bit like a freshwater aquarium, and we passed through open plains with a chalky rime of salt crusted on the ground and leafy glens where the temperature dropped ten degrees as soon as you rode into the shade.  Angular birds that looked like kites swooped over the path and the landscape was punctuated by termite mounds, some of which came up to my waist.  One of the guys I was traveling with had just completed a Master’s degree in forestry and written his thesis on conservation efforts in Gonse, and he was the first to point out that the forest was a mystical place.  “When I was doing research,” he said “I would work deep in the forest tagging trees and surveying.  I never saw a soul and loved the solitude of it, but as I left at the end of the day I would stop and chat with the villagers who live around the forest.  They always knew exactly where in the forest I had been, and what I’d been doing there.  You won’t see them, but people are watching you here.”

Eventually we came to the Messili river, which flowed directly across the path we were following.  We rode the motorcycles through and on the other side came across a group of guys from Ouaga out fishing with rods and worms.  I loved that—I think it’s great to know that in every country I’ve ever lived in, on Sunday afternoons gentlemen young and old leave the city to go fishing in the rivers.  I’ve been finding a lot of great day trips outside of the city, where an hour long ride can put you in a wild place: a reservoir full of crocodiles, a farm and eco-lodge, a house built to resemble a Scottish castle next to a lake, or in the middle of a hot and watchful forest.  At some point during the day my odometer clicked past 3000 kilometers; if I was on a roadtrip, I would be more than halfway across the United States.  We ate at a roadside maquis at around 16h on the way back, and then everyone broke off to go their separate ways.

So this is where it all went sideways.  I live about ten kilometers from where we all split up, and I rode home on my own.  It was still daylight, I knew the route well, I was moving at moderate speed in the flow of traffic, and then an old man stepped into the road in front of me.  I can replay the crash in four distinct moments.  He stepped off the curb ten feet in front of me and then looked up with a surprised expression.  I swerved, braked, clipped his arm, and my right handlebar was wrenched from my hand.  I went over the handlebars and was in the air, and rolled to the right because I could see the bike sliding to the pavement on my left.  And then I was on the ground, my arm burned, I could hear my pulse, and my motorcycle tire was still turning next to me.

I stood right up and I felt fine.  My first thought was to pull my bike upright, but I turned around and walked past it to where the man was lying on the ground.  There was a large crowd around him, and I was nervous.  I’m a stranger in a strange land, and I just hit an old man…but people were yelling at him, not me.  He was lying on his back with his eyes open, and he was wearing that same surprised, flustered expression that I saw when he stepped off the curb into traffic in front of me.  He spoke no French and people checked on him in Mooré, and a witness explained that he was crazy, had been drinking, and was clearly disoriented and not in his right mind.  First and foremost I was concerned, but I was also angry.  I had come out of a green light, was in the middle of traffic, and out of nowhere this man stepped in front of me and stood still: I would have hit him head on if I hadn’t swerved, but instead I caught his arm on a handlebar, twisted, and flew.  People helped him out of the flow of traffic and moved him to the side of the road, brushing him off, checking to see if he was injured, but mostly yelling at him for walking into the road like that.  I was worried someone would accuse me of recklessness or blame me for hitting him, but most of the crowd were people who had seen him step off the curb in front of me.  I stood by the man and told him all at once that I was sorry, I couldn’t avoid him, why did you walk in front of me, is there anyone with you, you made me fly over the handlebars, etc.  I was coursing with adrenaline, and at one point I ran my hands along my arms, legs and head to see if I had an injury I hadn’t felt yet.  The man looked at me, surprised—and then stepped right back into traffic.

The crowd grabbed him by the arm and pulled him back, remonstrating with twice as much vigor, but the man was in his own world.  He absentmindedly brushed his supporters off and tried to cross again.  People, myself included, held him until a red light, and then he shuffled across, gave me a small bow, and walked away unscathed.

Sometimes things just don’t go your way.  It was daylight, I was sober, I was riding at a moderate speed on a road I knew well, and I was wearing jeans, leather boots, and a full face helmet.  My motorcycle got scraped up, but nothing a mechanic can’t fix, and I would rather that the whole bike be totaled than to go over the handlebars again.  My only damage was a wicked scrape down my right arm.  I feel exhilarated that I am so miraculously and completely OK, and also upset that I was riding well, taking all precautions, and still crashed.  The old man left before I could say more to him, although he was uninjured, thank god.

I saw both ends of the spectrum of motorcycle ownership.  I was able to take a gorgeous trip out of the city through a natural paradise, and also ended the day next to my bike on the pavement.  When I bought the motorcycle I had a vision of both of those outcomes: I could imagine how liberating and how dangerous it could be, and the last few months have increased my appreciation of both of those things.  Ten minutes after the crash I lifted the motorcycle up myself and rode home.  I know a mechanic who can straighten the bike out for less than a dollar and for the rest of my time in Burkina Faso, with my boots and helmet, I’ll be riding safely.