Perhaps I should have sought the services of a medium in my quest for Thomas Sankara’s spirit on my inaugural visit to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s hot, dusty and quaint capital.
This is not to say that I have occult tendencies. The draw of the vast array of cinematic treats at the 23rd Fespaco, the biennial pan-African Film Festival, brought with it a desire to at least squeeze some Sankara homage time during my weeklong stay.
That turned out to be wishful thinking because 26 years after his assassination, Sankara’s memory has all but been banished from the Burkinabe’s collective memory.
An encounter with an aggressive vendor who tried to sell me a dusty booklet bearing Sankara’s smiley face was all I garnered. That is the same portrait of Sankara sporting a red beret I am currently using as my Facebook profile; the very same that had my social media friends asking who the apparent youthful soldier was. Never mind that that particular picture was probably taken a couple of years before his death at only 38.
I remember the 1986 visit Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni made to Burkina Faso (just a year before Sankara’s assassination) to foster the revolutionary solidarity between the two countries.
Back then, the 10-point programme and its attendant fundamental change rhetoric still had the goodwill of most Ugandans. It sat well with Sankara’s own ideals of a new autonomy and rebirth that included anti-imperialism, preventing famine with agrarian self-sufficiency and land reform, prioritising education with a nation-wide literacy campaign, and promoting public health by mass vaccination coupled with building a medical dispensary in every village.
Little wonder both beacons of the African revolutionary movement “clicked”.
Perhaps if the 10 million trees Sankara had planned on planting to halt the growing desertification of the Sahel were present, visitors would not have to bear searing 40ºC heat upon stepping onto the airport tarmac in Ouagadougou.
His desire to empower women would probably have provided a blueprint for modern African states that are grappling with gender issues. Sankara is remembered for his commitment to women’s rights, which led him to outlaw female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy, while appointing women to high governmental positions and encouraging them to work outside the home and stay in school even if pregnant.
Sankara’s only enduring legacy is in the name change he effected from French colonial Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, loosely translated as “land of upright men”.
We saw that on display recently at the 2013 Afcon tournament in South Africa when the Burkinabe football team Les Etalons (The Stallions) held steady in the wake of dodgy refereeing that attempted to deny them a booking in the final during their semi-final clash with Ghana.
The Burkinabe triumphed regardless, seemingly riding on the honesty streak Sankara had bequeathed them, despite succumbing to Nigeria in the highly-billed final of Africa’s biggest soccer showpiece. No wonder a telecom company has the national team on its billboard advertising material complete with a screaming “Respeeeect” tagline.
I benefited from Burkinabe uprightness when after misplacing my camera pouch and worrying about how I would download my photos sans a card reader, it showed up at reception with apologies from the airport taxi driver in whose car I’d carelessly left it while taking random snaps on the drive to our hotel.
A word of caution, honesty is not quite the best policy for everyone. Three days into my stay at Ran Hotel Somketa, a nagging water problem had me not acting very cordial to the guest relations staff with their empty “We are fixing the problem” promises. Much of the ire came from being lost in translation owing to my patchy French that reduced me to communicating via Google Translate if and when the equally patchy Internet permitted.
That aside, Fespaco turned out to be “the” cultural event! The city dresses up in cinematic garb to the hilt with a week of revelry that goes beyond the principal screening venues Cine Burkina (they had a red carpet here), Cine Neerwaya, Institute Francais and Salle du Cenasa.
It was refreshing being in a country where the cinemas, despite being in a semi-dilapidated state, had not morphed into Pentecostal churches. They may have had a colonial feel about them but a sprucing up by way of cushioned seats and portable air-conditioning units made watching the movies in that harmattan heat bearable.
Even the din of motorbikes (forget the notion that Kampala is the sub-Saharan “boda boda” capital) sounds like a movie score. There must be a motorbike for every city resident as there are Mercedes Benz 190E cars for every driver. The compact retro German car is a darling for taxi drivers and comes in all manner of conditions sleek clean ones and jalopies that should be the delight of any Daimler Benz collector.
Perhaps this makes Sankara smile from the underworld, the convergence of people who believe in telling the African story cinematically even with the ever present reminder that the architect of his demise makes a cosmetic appearance to hand out the top prize.
And in furthering the pan-African cause in getting as many people as possible to Ouagadougou for Fespaco, Sankara would probably have done away with the ridiculous requirement that Africans travelling to Francophone countries on the continent apply for their visas at the French embassy complete with 60 visa fees, the same requirement for those travelling to France as well.
And maybe during Fespaco season, he would have made criss-crossing the continent from east to west a breeze and a far cry from the aero-trek that is flying from Entebbe to Kigali to Addis Ababa and then to Ouagadougou, racking up 14 hours of jet lag.
If there is anything for East Africa to learn, then it is to take its cinema industry seriously. The seven or so films on show; The Captain of Nakara (Kenya), Imbabazi: The Pardon (Rwanda), Grey Matter (Rwanda), The Ugandan (Uganda), Taharuki (Kenya), The Cut (Kenya) and Zamora (Tanzania) were just a blip on the Fespaco radar.
It had nothing to do with low numbers, rather having one’s cinematic industry credentials felt via bold moves like Gabon, which made a splash at MICA (the Fespaco film and television market) because it provides its daring generation of new filmmakers halfway with requisite funding. But then again for most East African countries, the running of the creative economy has been outsourced to donor cultural institutions.
Yet evidence to the fact that Nollywood, Nigeria’s cinematic industry is the second biggest employer in Nigeria after farming should have those EAC talk-shoppers of Arusha engaging in a major rethink. That Zamora jostled its way to clinching the Best Digital Fiction Feature Film is testament to the region’s cinematic potential.