Published in Pambazuka News 651 : SPECIAL ISSUE : Thomas Sankara and inventing Africa’s future : 26 years later 2013-10-25
Instead of a bust, a life-sized carving, a portrait, or a decent tomb with a headstone and his epitaph, Thomas Sankara’s remains are placed beneath dirt and unkempt surroundings overgrown by weeds. Not that he would have cared
With eyes filled with fear, the Burkinabe intellectual who offered to act as tour guide begged that his name not be mentioned in connection with Thomas Sankara. ‘It is forbidden to talk about him in this country,’ he emphasized repeatedly.
At the beginning of the journey to Thomas Sankara’s grave, the road was asphalted and clean, one of the few stretches of road in Ouagadougou and in Burkina Faso with a sprinkling of tar. A self-described poor country, the pockets of infrastructure that dot the landscape appear to be over two decades old.
‘That crafts village was built by Thomas Sankara,’ the tour guide points at an expansive modern market. A stop for a quick survey reveals an amazing display of top of the range, exquisite made-in-Burkina Faso paintings, carvings, leather work, batik, weaving, pottery, jewelry, beads, iron work and even high quality organic soap, lotions and oils made from shea butter and aloe vera. Such a rich wealth of creativity and excellent workmanship. Add that to the gold that is found in abundance underneath the soil of the country, and you can only struggle to understand how a people can be so rich and yet so poor.
‘That block of apartments was built by Sankara, also,’ continues the tour guide. ;And that building there; and that one too.’ He points to his left and then to his right, and to his left again.
Thomas Sankara did so much for Burkina Faso within the four years of his reign. The infrastructural legacy he left behind pales into insignificance when compared with the fact that by the fourth and final year of his reign, Burkina Faso had risen from a net importer of food to being self-sufficient in food production. Prior to that, Sankara had dislodged Burkina Faso from being the country with the highest rate of infant mortality globally, 280 deaths for every 1,000 births. Through massive immunization efforts during the first 18 months of his adminstration, infant mortality in Burkina Faso was sliced to 145 deaths per 1,000 births, a record achievement by any standard. Within the same period, Burkina Faso recorded increased school attendance from a low 12% to a modest 22%.
‘We are getting close to the graveyard,’ the tour guide says as he makes a detour from asphalted road to dust, mud and dirt.
Surely not. Or perhaps the journey will quickly lead back to an asphalted road lined with flags, signposts and other markers signaling the resting place of a global icon. And then to the cemetery, memorial or arcade where there will be flowers, plaques and more flags to show the greatness of service that Sankara represents.
‘We are looking for the cemetery,’ the tour guide asks two elderly Burkinabe men lounging under the shade of a tree, one of the ten million planted by Thomas Sankara, which now gives Ouagadougou an earthy, relaxed and welcoming feel, despite the scorching heat and dust.
‘If you want to see him, go straight and then make a right.’ the man replies.
The road narrows further. Goats trample on cow dung and bleat idly past the slow trudging vehicle. Children, half unclad, play with rolls of rags, brown from dust and age. A man carves wood inside an aluminum zinc shade.
The car climbs mounds of refuse, swims through a mini-swamp and is about to pass through a mini-forest when the way into the graveyard becomes visible. Stagnant water, semi-dried to mud by the desert heat and covered with blue-green algae, covers the entrance. Dry and wet animal dung, human excreta, dried sticks, leaves, trash and dust mount guard inside the security post. A red iron gate lies on the ground, either pushed down by the aggrieved spirits dwelling therein or prostrate before the greatness of the spirits it was built to enclose. Long, thick weeds form a forest of refuge for the partly visible tombstones. It cannot be here. It should not be here.
‘Are you here to see him?,’ a man, wrinkled with age, steps closer.
‘Yes. Do you know where he is?’
The party steps on weed and trash, through a small pathway, navigating dilapidated tombstones and at least one ritual site comprising of a traditional pot, pieces of cowrie shells and red and black materials disintegrated by moth.
‘That is him.’
Shock, anger and rage follow each other closely.
‘It looks a lot better now,’ the older man says. ‘It was touched up during the 23rd remembrance in 2010. You should have seen it before then.’
A white and black streaked goat grazes irreverently beside the tomb, scratching its hide on the shattered remnants of the headstone. ‘ankara’ is the only remaining epitaph.
‘Two days after the 23rd remembrance, someone came at night and broke the headstone,’ the older man explains, spreading his two hands in resignation. With a painful shaking of the head, he adds, ‘Who did it and for what, I cannot tell.’
Standing beside the dilapidation that is Captain Thomas Sankara’s grave, eyes, heart and mind search for answers. Is this really where lies Thomas Noel Isidore Sankara? The president who insisted on riding a bicycle to work for a long time and who would not even use the air conditioner in his office because it was only a few of his countrymen who could afford it?
In opposition to foreign aid, he told his country that ‘he who feeds you, controls you.’ Thomas Sankara dared the feudal landlords of his country by redistributing land to peasants and in less than two years, production of wheat jumped from 1700 kg per hectare to 3800 kg, launching Burkina Faso into food self-sufficiency.
He refused the much-cherished hanging of presidential portraits in establishments and offices in Burkina Faso because there are ‘eleven million Thomas Sankaras’ out there. Thomas Sankara, as president, wore only made-in-Burkina-Faso cotton sewn clothes and lived in a small brick house. After four years of being the president of a mineral-rich country, Captain Sankara, in death, had only about $400 in cash to his name, three guitars, four bikes, a fridge and a broken down freezer as his most valuable assets.
Indeed, instead of a bust, a life-sized carving, a portrait, or in the least a decent tomb with a headstone and a quote of his as epitaph, Thomas Sankara’s remains are placed beneath dirt and unkempt surroundings overgrown by weeds. Not that he would have cared. Were he to have had a say during his interment, Thomas Sankara would probably have insisted that his remains be put in the cheapest casket available and buried in an unmarked grave. But the self-sacrificial life he lived and the way he laid down his life for the upliftment of his people demands otherwise. Thomas Sankara deserves a physical memorial, of the best kind possible. Not in the sense of a post-mortem imposition of the glory and honour he staunchly evaded in his lifetime, but for the edification of the living, who need to be constantly reminded that such a man lived, and in no less a place and an era than the Africa of the late 20th century.
The negligence that is Thomas Sankara’s resting place today makes the heart bleed for younger Africans in search of role models. Little wonder they have been having a hard time finding any who come in their colour and creed. Not because none exist, but because the role models are uncelebrated. Africans have collectively lost hope in themselves because for many, the idea that an African like Thomas Sankara lived and walked the continent of Africa in recent times has never been introduced to them. We look at ourselves and wonder what is wrong with us, because we do not know that we had at one time produced a Thomas Sankara. And that if we did it before, then we can do it again. Africa’s school children learn of the heroes of nations in Europe and other places but hardly of Africa’s heroes.
The mind defaults at trying to make sense of this neglect, of this disregard, no, disdain, for progress and progressives; of this lack of appreciation for who we are as a people, and what we have achieved; of the unending search for inspiration from outside of ourselves and outside of our own kind. Africa’s heroes, living and dead lie among weeds and goats. Under the cemetery, in the villages, in the ghettos and margins of society, greatness thrives in Africa, but few are accounted for. Robbed of role models, the African imbibes self-loathing and a constant, if unvoiced, questioning of the black man’s DNA.
Thomas Sankara was one of the few French-speaking African leaders to stand up to France. Some have said that that was his undoing; a weak nobody fighting a powerful, age old establishment with full frontal force. Thomas Sankara should have fought to live, in order to keep fighting, many say. When he spoke, during the OAU summit, urging fellow African leaders to shun debt and dependency and negotiate with the West as equals, he thumb-printed his assassination declaration. Like DR Congo’s Patrice Lumumba did with the speech during Congo’s independence ceremony.
Sankara should have been more tactful and diplomatic; his people needed him to be, they needed him alive, many opine. But who dares to judge history except him who has lived it? In his day and time, what chances did Thomas Sankara have to fight tactfully without being accused of being a traitor? During the Cold War, the world was even more black and white than it is today. You were either in or out. Thomas Sankara chose to be completely out. He was most likely constrained, considering the times he lived in, to take the fight to the doorsteps of the oppressors with their full knowledge. He achieved so much within such a short period of time, and paid with his life.
In Thomas Sankara abound many lessons for Africans today. He showed that there is immense hope for Africa, that change is possible in Africa by Africans. By a single-minded pursuit of change and progress, Thomas Sankara transformed Burkina Faso. He showed that great potentials abound within each and every African to change the continent, starting with his or her own sphere of influence. Being a head of state is not what it entails. Sankara’s greatness began to be made manifest years before he became president. One can be a teacher, a writer, a seamstress, a designer, a scientist, a farmer, an activist, whatever and wherever, the desire to produce change and the single minded pursuit of the same always yields results. Within Africa lies the seed for the transformation of the continent, and not anywhere else.
Until Burkina Faso gathers itself together to celebrate this icon, every African capital city, academic curriculum, campaign speech and media house should not fail to uphold the nobility of Captain Thomas Noel Isidore Sankara.