I left Koumbara on the morning of 13 June with the intention of going to Tougan. A few kilometers up the road near the turnoff for Yayokoura, I came upon a Fulani family camping out on a raised clearing of the bush. They motioned for me to come over and since I was early for catching the bus anyway, I pulled off to greet them. I was certain they weren’t from around this area.
Upon saying good morning with the usual back and forth, I asked them where they were from: aw bi bo jamana juma na? Their reply: Mali.
Currently there are about 80,000 Malian refugees (Bambara, Fulani, Tuareg, etc.) living in Burkina. They have set themselves up in urban centers, they’ve found themselves living in refugee camps further up north, or they’ve simply been camping out as this family was. With a weak harvest last year here in Burkina and with this added stress on the already delicate food system, much of the country will be feeling a significant strain in the next couple months (see Burkina’s medium-term outlook here). Ironically, those living in the northern refugee camps actually eat better than their neighboring Burkinabè because with the status of “refugee” they receive food aid trucked in to the camp, passing the impoverished Burkinabè on their way. While that remains an interesting aside, it’s not why I’m writing this.
I’m writing this because for so long I’ve been living in this poor yet peaceful little pocket of Burkina without having a face-to-face interaction with those whose lives have regrettably intersected with armed conflict. While I knew of refugees in Di, 30 km up the road from me, I never go to Di. There are refugees in Tougan but I don’t know who they are. There is an ethnic conflict raging not far from me up in Mali but I don’t see it.
As the family motioned for me to come sit and eat with them, I felt extremely odd. There I was standing with a backpack full of expensive electronics that needed charging while a family directly in front of me didn’t even have anything to shelter them from the approaching rains. I quickly and decisively dropped my bag in the mud and sat down. The family was optimistic since they were finally on their way back to Mali after being displaced by the Tuareg rebellion and military coup back in March.
What I found so unbelievable was the fact that this family with nothing was offering me food and drink and a place to sit. They saw my clothes, they saw my bike, and they knew that I was living comfortably. Yet they still were willing to share with me what little they had. And those are the people who get the short straw every time. Since the African independence boom of the 1950’s and 60’s, basically every country on this continent has had its share of coups, wars, genocides, and awkward-at-best transfers of power. In West Africa alone—quite possibly the most destitute region on the planet—there have been more assassinations, military coups, civilian revolutions, ethnic strife, and civil wars than one can count. You can cite the civil wars in Côte d’Ivoire, the stadium massacre and subsequent conflict in Guinea, the flare up of the fifty-year-old Tuareg rebellion in Mali, the genocides in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and the rather directionless coups in Guinea-Bissau and Mali; with the exception of Liberia and Sierra Leone, we haven’t even gone further back than 2000. All these terrible incidents involve those fighting for an ideal. But what is that ideal? What is an ideal that involves—at best—the poorest citizens fleeing and—at worst—genocide?
Let’s take the latest conflict in Mali into consideration with due reference to this Fulani family. How has it failed them? Lack of infrastructure, lack of schooling, lack of policing, lack of governmental representation, lack of respect for their beliefs, and lack of respect for their property are a few to start. They’re just another family caught in the crosshairs of those with an ideal. They’re an unfortunate number, a sad statistic. Yet they’re not that to me anymore! They’re not distant abstractions, but living, breathing human beings! They’re not pictures on a sleek website cajoling you into helping charity cases. They’re the ones who smiled at me, wished me well, and invited me to share their breakfast.
Right now I’m writing this on my expensive computer in my solid mud house with a metal roof and concrete floor. Three kilometers away, a family is sleeping outside in the mud amongst their animals, bracing the driving rain while cocooned in deafening claps of thunder. They endure this as they slowly try to make their way back home. Is this what those renegade soldiers who initiated the coup back in March were thinking about when they greedily stole power from a state that was comfortably and stably democratic? Is this who the Tuareg imagine when they burn down UNESCO World Heritage sites in Timbuktu and shoot up small villages all across their tiresome state of Azaouad? Did this family sleeping in the mud ever ask for a military coup or a civil war? Probably not.
So when you read this, look around. Look at that shiny computer in front of you. Look at that comfortable chair you’re sitting on. Feel the climate control that’s set at just the right temperature. Next time you go to Whole Foods (or any supermarket for that matter) think about that family sitting in the mud whose food is local and organic not by ethical choice but because they have no other option. When you drive your car, think about those children set on the run who are missing an education through no fault of their own. I tell you this not to push a canned and unfair comparison. I’m well aware that people are born into different situations in this world and that you shouldn’t feel sorry for having that computer or car or organic produce. And you certainly shouldn’t beat yourself up because I’m telling you a sob story that doesn’t affect your life at all. However, what I ask is that when you go about your life noticing what you truly have, try to think about what you would do if you woke up one morning with no choice but to leave it all but the bare necessities. If you lost it all through no action of your own, would you be so willing to give your last to a complete stranger? How about a stranger whom you know doesn’t need it and didn’t even ask for it?
This family did not even hesitate before simply offering me what there was to offer. Through the simplicity of their actions, it was clear that their only demand was mutual respect. And for that, although displaced due to situations out of their control, they showed themselves to be the eye of the storm in a region that has known too well the tempests of conflict and discord.
For that reason alone, I bought a sack of mangoes in Tougan. Biking back in the evening on that same stretch of road, I handed it to the family for their trip home. Pausing as storm clouds gradually shrouded us in a thick, cerulean blanket, I simply wished them well on their return: Allah k’aw nyuman segi.