Women and the revolution in Burkina Faso

The “Sankara Generation,” the young people taking on Burkina Faso's dictator, wants radical change. Does it include a better future for the country's women?

Photo: Carsten ten Brink, via Flickr CC.

They are being called the “Génération Sankara”: a legion of young Burkinabè men and women dissatisfied with the neoliberal regime of Blaise Compaoré, which drew to a close last fall. The protestors who brought down the regime were almost exclusively youths. Other than the government leaders, older people have been conspicuously absent from the activism and the conversation. As they are often are, older, uneducated women’s voices are noticeably silent. In the summer before Compaoré was pushed out, I spent three months performing an ethnographic study of market women in the Dassasgho neighborhood of Ouagadougou. They were, for the most part, the mothers of the Sankara Generation, but they — perhaps even more deeply than their children — felt the injustices that led to the revolution last October.

Sankara remains particularly beloved by women in Burkina Faso, largely because of his rhetorical and political commitment to their social and economic betterment. He saw women as a symbol of the Third World. In a 1987 speech given to a women’s rally outside Ouagadougou, he claimed that “Socially, [women] are relegated to third place, after the man and the child — just like the Third World, arbitrarily held back, the better to be dominated and exploited.” Sankara believed that Burkinabè socialism could thereby particularly help women: he started trade cooperatives in the cities, production cooperatives in the villages, and even created a new government job — street sweeper — reserved exclusively for the poorest women. After his murder, however, Compaoré rejected this sort of government-led development, in favor of opening the country to aggressive foreign NGOs, especially of the capitalist variety. According to a recent study, Burkina Faso is now one of the most microfinance-penetrated countries in Africa. As a result, the economy is almost entirely dependent on the western NGO industry itself, causing massive unemployment. Unlike Sankara’s push to promote native Burkinabè industry (especially at the expense of Western powers), Compaoré’s shift back to the West has stifled Burkina Faso’s production capabilities.

There was deep dissatisfaction with the results of this shift. Occasionally, during my interviews, talk would shift to the political climate in Ouagadougou, which was becoming increasingly tense after a series of anti-government protests in January and a long, hot summer. Some women decried the shift towards anti-Compaoré sentiment: my primary informant, Aminata*, told me in hushed tones about the beating a woman she knew had received for painting a pro-Compaoré slogan on her wall. It was sometimes hard to understand why, exactly, people continued to support Compaoré. Rumor had it that on the eve of elections, he sent supporters into communities with threatening messages: largely that, should they fail to reelect him, the resulting unrest would allow Côte d’Ivoire’s violence to spread over the border.

Even so, they spoke wistfully of Sankara, especially of the cooperatives that he helped set up in the markets. Only a few of my interviewees were a part of these, and the others spoke enviously of their luck. Farida*, one of the cooperative members, was one of the few who did not complain of the long hours and little profit to be eked out of market work. “Everything is easy for us if we make money when we work. We can work, we can do everything,” she told me. A friend of hers responded to this statement with a grunt. With a wave of her hand, she explained that Farida could say this only “since she is not alone. She has an association.”

The main sentiment that these market women exuded was dissatisfaction: dissatisfaction with their children’s continuing dependence, with the market, and importantly, with the government. These were women who hungered for change. They wanted a system in which they could work and care for their families in a way that was supported by the government, not just by the vagaries of Western NGOs. For them, Sankara loomed large, a figure of the last time it seemed, at least, that their president was someone truly concerned with the fate of the Burkinabè poor. Aminata’s portrayed the current class lines in Burkina Faso as rigid and uncompromising; she, like many other Burkinabè, would love to see those class lines eroded away.

The issues that the Sankara Generation push for so unrelentingly are as important to their mothers as they are to the youths themselves. Children are the primary form of social security for elderly Burkinabè; the lack of employment for young people often means that old women, especially, must work far beyond the time that their mothers or grandmothers did. One of my interviewees, Béatrice, is a retired hospital worker, who now works in the market in order to support her family. At the time of our interview, she was 68 — life expectancy in Burkina Faso is only 56. However, she is responsible for the care of three children and six grandchildren; only one of her sons has semi-regular work. Béatrice, like the majority of the women I interviewed, has worked her entire life to assure a secure retirement under the care of her children, but the economic climate and the redoubling of class distinctions have rendered this impossible. “I am so tired,” Aminata told me, “but I cannot die — for then, who will take care of my children?”

It is as yet unclear what the future of the Sankara Generation will hold, and what parts of his teachings the men in power (and those in power are, with few exceptions, men) will hold dear. Their interest is unmistakable: the push for an exhumation of Sankara’s body is proof enough of that. Is this renewed interest indicative of a revived interest in socialism, or simply the grasping of a people looking for a leader after the end of a political era? Sankara may simply stay the Che Guevara of Burkina Faso, in death representing an image of Burkinabè anti-colonial discontent that need not be compatible with the actions or ideology of the people who put his image on their shirts and walls. Should the revolution come, however, it is clear that many of the market women of Dassasgho will welcome it with open arms: after all, as Sankara extolled in his 1987 speech, “the revolution cannot triumph without the emancipation of women.”

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