Monthly Archives: October 2015

In the heat of the night

Don’t you know bad boys move in silence and violence?  -The Notorious B.I.G.

There’s been a crime wave in Ouaga over the last month.  The epicenter is in the Patte d’Oie neighborhood, a few kilometers north of my house.  It all started in the aftermath of the coup d’état of September 16th: in an attempt to control street protests (or to give themselves a pretext to shoot unarmed people), the military imposed a strict curfew at 19h every night.  The military government was deposed after a week, but the curfew remained in place.  At first people accepted the deadline without a problem.  Boredom is a price that people are willing to pay for stability, and everyone knew that after 19h, in the cover of darkness, the police were cleaning up traces of the RSP in Ouaga.  Heavy trucks rolled through the night carrying munitions, RSP prisoners, coup leaders…no one knew what was in the trucks, and no one wanted to know.

But now it’s more than a month after the violence, and the curfew is still in place.  The deadline to be home rolled back progressively, from 19h to 23h, and now the deadline is set at one in the morning.  I haven’t heard about plans to lift the curfew anytime soon.  People can still go out on the weekends, but all the bars and clubs close earlier, and last call is shortly after midnight.

Somewhere in the snarled backroads of La Patte d’Oie, an extremely clever gang of thieves is taking full advantage of the situation.  Many of my friends who live in the neighborhood have told me of preposterously bold crimes and breakins carried out during the witching hours while the military patrols the main avenues.  A police officer’s house was broken into, and he awoke the next morning to find his motorcycle gone, his service weapon missing, and his phone had been taken from his bedside table.  The cop had to take a taxi to the commissariat to explain that he was late because thieves stole his moto, and also he would need to be issued another sidearm.  Another night an entire family woke to find their house cleaned out like Whoville on Christmas Eve.  Phones and computers disappeared, cash that had been squirrelled away was pulled out, and their refrigerator had been unplugged and carried down to the courtyard before the bandits apparently decided it was too much trouble and abandoned it.  My friend Mamadou got hit as well, and woke one morning to find that the thieves had taken a motorcycle and a fully-grown sheep from his courtyard.

Pause for a moment and think about what it would take to climb a six foot wall into a courtyard in the dead of night, fully aware that the entire family was in the house, and make off with a sheep and a moto.  Thieves who are caught in the act in Burkina Faso rarely make it to the police station.  If a thief has the astounding gall to walk into a policeman’s bedroom at night, by the time he gets back into the street with his booty he’s basically home free.  The police patrol the main roads but don’t go into the narrow unpaved backstreets, and so a group of hoodlums can easily move around the neighborhood after curfew without anyone asking where they might me taking a sheep and a TV.

I’ve heard a lot of theories of how they pull off these master crimes.  One friend is sure that they have canisters of soporific gas that they spray into bedrooms to allow them to move about undetected.  Another possibility is witchcraft: if they have the right amulets and strong magic, there’s nothing you can do to stop them.  Another possibility is that they are very very quiet.

This crime wave will continue until the curfew is lifted.  Whatever method they’re using, it’s working really well.  Community surveillance is what keeps the streets safe during the day, and if everyone is forced to stay inside at night…then it’s time to start padlocking your sheep.

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Field Trip

I took my first trip to the field in two months last week.  This year the six week rainy season was followed by a coup d’état, and therefore the rural areas where we work have been inaccessible since July.  My organization works with three partner associations, each based in different villages, and it’s a whirlwind trip to check in with all three of them in two days.  To me field trips have a kind of Brothers Grimm fairytale quality: I wake up at the crack of dawn and head to the north on a quest to visit three partner organizations, watching mile markers on the side of the road fall away as Ouaga gets farther behind and the Malian border gets closer.  Fairytales are centered on threes: Goldilocks and three bowls of porridge, three little piggies with their ersatz construction materials, three nights to guess Rumpelstiltskin’s name, and for me three partners to meet and evaluate as we move progressively north.

On evaluation trips we typically start by meeting partner staff in their offices to discuss their progress over the last trimester, difficulties they’ve encountered, and their plans going forward.  The first thing people do when they sit down around the table is to take all of their cellphones out of their pockets and stack them in front of them, to show how well connected and important they are.  My boss typically holds his own in these face-offs, building a tidy pyramid of two smartphones and a Nokia brick phone, but was outmatched at our stop with the very first partner.  This field coordinator, not one to bring a knife to a gun fight, had a tablet, two smart phones, and two brick phones, an unbeatable hand.  His victory was compounded by the fact that he was wearing a spotless white shirt, proof that he got around by car rather than bumping along the dusty roads on a motorcycle.  At these meetings the only phone that I can put out is my third-hand Samsung brick phone, and therefore everyone knows that I am trifling and inconsequential.  Everybody introduces themselves, but once the phones are on the table you basically know where you stand.

After discussing with partners in the offices, we head out to the field to meet with our participants and see how the savings groups are doing.  During the rainy season roads are swamps of gluey mud, and things aren’t much better immediately afterwards.  The sudden heat hardens the treadmarks and tracks in the road, and instead of being dusty the roads are crenellated and harder than ceramic.  We went out in our colossal 4×4 and the car swayed and lurched all the way out to the village.  If you’d like to simulate the field trip experience for yourself it’s pretty easy to do: get in your car, turn the heat on full blast, and then drive it down a flight of stairs.  I love these trips off the beaten path, and they remind me that isolation is more a question of geography than proximity.  None of these villages are more than a few hundred miles from Ouaga, which by American standards is not far at all, but the rough terrain makes them isolated and hard to access.  Of course, these are villages that you CAN access—there are hundreds of thousands of people in this country who live in areas only accessible by foot or donkey.

One of our partners is based in Yako, the hometown of General Gilbert Diendéré, who orchestrated the coup in September.  Within an hour of when he went on the radio and announced himself the new president of Burkina Faso a mob descended on his opulent house and set it on fire.  We drove past his compound and it was toasted: the gate was hanging off its hinges, someone had knocked chunks out of the perimeter wall with a sledgehammer, and even the grass in the yard was scorched.  The house was just beams and rubble.  We were traveling with a field agent based in Yako, and when I pointed out how comprehensively burned the house was, she gave a sly grin and said, “Actually, we burned it twice.”  “Twice?!?” I said.  She explained that everyone had gathered after the announcement went out on the radio, and then they burned the house AGAIN when the military in Ouaga started shooting unarmed protestors.  “So then you were here when they burned it?  What was that like?” I asked.  “Oh no,” she said, turning to look out the other window.  “I never said we burned it, I said they burned it.  The mob.  I was never there.  I was somewhere else, busy doing other things.”  I left it at that.

I spent the night in Ouahigouya, a town about 20 miles from Mali.  Ouahigouya is a city of stars and ditches, and as I walk through the street I try to keep an eye on both.  There are four foot deep open canals next to every road to facilitate drainage, but you can see them clearly despite the lack of streetlights because the stars are shockingly plentiful and scintillatingly bright.  There had been a grasshopper hatch recently and the air was filled with two inch long locusts sawing their legs and rattling their exoskeletons.  People take advantage of the cool night to stay outside, and families cook next to the road, congregate in front of the mosques, or snooze on mats a few feet from the edge of the road that radiates heat long into the night.  I’ve spent a few nights in Ouahigouya and it always feels surreal to me: it’s hard to imagine being any farther from home, and it’s a place that inspires you to think about the steps you took in your life that brought you there.   It’s a beautiful town, and I can wholeheartedly recommend all three of the restaurants.

Security is still tight after the coup, and in two days of travel the car was stopped at five different police checkpoints—and waved through many others.  Work has definitely increased in intensity, but it’s good to be moving around the field again and feeling closer to our activities on the ground.  Thanks again to everyone who checked in with me during and after the coup.  I’m happy that things are calmer now, and everything is going to be alright.