“…I am not Thomas Sankara, nor Jerry Rawlings. I am Assimi Goita. Remember me as a reformer not a revolutionary. Remember me as the bearer of hope to the people, the one who came when your blood was shed for your desire for change. I will go to the end of my mission.
I will never betray your trust. Death does not scare me, I saw it every day on the battlefield. It’s failure that scares me. If death marries me on the way to our target, do not mourn me. Don’t make my grave a sanctuary. I did what I thought was right for my country. I did it for my country. I did it for me, but I did it for you too. I am Assimi, the man who smiles every day with death.”
But even in the most beautiful poems, there is often something unforgivingly heartbreaking. That’s what I thought when I read the poem by Assimi Goita, of Mali. It was shared with me shortly following our departure from Burkina Faso. I could not help but wonder if the incoming president, a military official himself, shared similar sentiments, about change, and the sense of ownership in the process which would change Burkina. I thought, there is something so beautiful about constantly reimagining yourself, and hoping, against brokenness, for a country that will one day, complete its renovations. There is something fragile and real, in realising that the current way is not always the right way and that sometimes, it’s wiser to make space for change. Perhaps that is what the Burkinabe thought, as the winds of change swept through their nation.
I read the poem, over and over again. Great leaders often know how to eloquently put words together in ways that are appealing to their audience. He knew exactly what to say. More than that, it was clear that the people – now his people – trusted him and his army. On the days that followed the coup, even with borders closed, we were to watch as life went on for the locals. On a drive to the airport, when we attempted to plead with the soldiers to let us board a flight out, citing our ‘foreigner-ness’ as the basis for our need, we were met with disdainful glances. It was clear that the Burkinabe people were happier...or at least more hopeful. The streets were abuzz with women and men in cars and women in their colourful Ankara cloths, flapping as the wind hit them, on their motorbikes. Younger men sat around tables at local restaurants. The market was packed with vendors trying to sell at least one more thing, to afford that night’s dinner, or maybe something more.
Looking back, I must echo that from the parts I saw, I am inclined to believe that Burkina Faso, like much of Africa, is a nation under construction, constructing, as Sankara envisioned, the land of the upright people. I have repeatedly read that Sankara was a visionary born well before his time, a charismatic pan-African leader. He inspired unwavering allegiance and complete devotion, in his followers and supporters. His vision was to make his country economically self-sufficient, promoting local industry, and food security. He redistributed land from the wealthy to those who, daily, used the land. He advanced gender equality, in ways many have failed. He was apparently radical in the most electrifying ways.
In 56 years, Botswana has had no change in its power dynamics. That is the Setswana way. Power – and absolute power, in that sense, is never questioned, challenged, or reformed. I hear it sometimes when the leadership of the opposition parties speak – that their language is often the same as that of the incumbent. You don’t question authority, here. You aspire to it. Even when you differ from it. But travel teaches us something we would never otherwise know.
I honestly feel like the coup was none of my business. In Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers, almost halfway through the book, she introduces a tension in which the protagonist’s wife, now working for the wealthy family in the text, finds herself having to intervene in an otherwise uncomfortable situation.
The first person she contacts is her husband and he tells her to mind her own business. Of course, she doesn’t, and that is why the book goes on for longer, although she is not at the core of it. That is what the coup felt like – like we had walked in on a fight between elders and the air was thick and abrasive. It was a fight that was not ours, even though it affected us.
But even without it being my business, I felt I owned it. I could relate. It would be a fight I would always remember. It was a moment in which change seemed possible, I could not help but locate myself in the hope, even when I shuddered and wept, in the deepest fear I have ever felt.
Sankara once said: “Our struggle is a call for building. But our demand is not to build a world for blacks alone and against other men. As black people, we want to teach other people how to love each other.”
We are, all of us, under construction. Even when we pretend we are whole. All our nations are reeling from something or some things in the past. Our collective recovery will determine how we rebuild ourselves. History is going to judge us all. I shudder to think how harshly.