Next to my Masters thesis (due this month), this is one of the most difficult articles I’ve had to write. For the past five hours, I have been pacing up and down in this room, a blank white space glaring back at me: I know what I want to write about, yet the words just do not find themselves on screen. It is a kind of paralysis I always feel when writing about a topic I am heavily invested in – mentally, emotionally and physically. Not even John Coltrane’s I’m Old Fashioned playing – on repeat – in the background is helping.
“A lot of shit . . . a lot of shit goes through your mind when you’re quiet,” Miles Davis says. “You have a lot of thoughts. And they sometimes would be fighting each other, like a war.”
In the last three years, I have been at war with my thoughts, and my activism in particular. A central figure in this war has been Captain Thomas Sankara, the Burkina Faso revolutionary whose legacy has re-entered mainstream imagination 30 years after his 1987 assassination. It is no coincidence that many young people are now invoking Captain Sankara to make a case for the kind of leadership Africa desperately needs in present times. Most of these young people are my age, or even younger.
I was three-years-old when Captain Sankara was assassinated in 1987. It was not until 2005, that I first encountered him in a way that wildly provoked my mind, invigorated my imagination and – although I did not know it back then – shaped my approach to politics. Sankara had been 18 years dead and I did not know much about him. My only knowledge of Burkina Faso came through the extended interest I had in the Festival Panafricain du Cinéma et de la Télévision de Ouagadougou (Fespaco), which is a film and television festival of note.
Since 2005, the book, Thomas Sankara Speaks: The Burkina Faso Revolution 1983-1987 has become one of my most valued texts. Edited by Michel Prairie and published by Pathfinder Press, this is a collection of selected speeches and interviews given by Captain Sankara between 1983 and 1987. It is through these pages that I gained access to Sankara’s thought, and it was a beautiful revelation!
My mother turns 70 at the end of October. Ours was a township upbringing that, so many years later, I look back at with appreciation. It was here that, without even realising it, I got to learn a lot about feminism, socialism and Marxism. But, if you were to tell my mother, today, that she is a feminist – a radical one at that – she would probably stare back at you and wonder what you were on about. Yet, she has led a number of groundbreaking initiatives that have transformed the lives of hundreds of women in the community we grew up in. For her, it has always been about duty and service to humanity.
Needless to say, it was through her that values such as empathy and love became central to how I – and the rest of my family – interact with other human beings, animals and the environment. We are to love our neighbours, show respect to people, show kindness, forgive all wrongs and help everyone – especially strangers – whenever we can. We are, without doubt, to be empathetic. This means that we ought to always take the side of the downtrodden, marginalised and oppressed.
Despite the township upbringing, we were still quite a privileged family. Of course, this was to never be used to oppress other people and take advantage of the weak. Rather, our privilege was supposed to be used to help as many people as we could, all the time. It is also how we ended up with a home that was frequented by numerous visitors. To a young boy who does not really know much about the world and how it works, most of these things were a serious inconvenience, nay, annoyance. Visitors often meant that I would have to get off the Nintendo or VCR to allow adults to have their conversations, for example. It also meant that, sometimes, the church pastor would eat the best pieces of chicken. My younger sister and I would be left fighting for less inspiring pieces, such as the neck.
There was one particular visitor who used to annoy me greatly. Somehow, he always seemed to know when the family would be having breakfast and lunch. Those are the times at which he would show up. Calculative bastard! But, my mother, being mother, would always ensure that this visitor got his breakfast and lunch. On my part, aided by some of my childhood friends, I would mock the visitor, sneer at him and declare – to my mother – that I would never drink or eat from the same utensils that this visitor had used.
Meshach, the visitor in question, always took the fun we poked at him and the jeers that followed in his stride. He would return to us smiles and a few kind words for every insult we directed at him. At my mother’s house, he appeared to be completely at home. The moment he stepped outside the gate of our small yard, he would start running, often to a destination unbeknown to us. All we knew, of course, was that he would show up the following day. And we would have more insults ready for him.
Strangely, my mother never quite chided me or my friends for our behaviour. In practice, however, she showed Meshach love, welcomed him into our home every time he showed up, fed him and treated him with dignity. For both her and Meshach, that was enough, and no amount of insults or heckling by children like me would stop those powerful forces – love and dignity.
I don’t think my mother knows who Frantz Fanon is. She does not need to. Years later, in my adult life, I started reading about mental health. It is here that I began to understand mental illness and how the depression I was suffering from was almost a precursor to full blown mental illness. At the same time, I was reading more on Frantz Fanon, in particular, his work at Blida Hospital in Algeria, where he treated psychiatric patients. Fanon had introduced methods that were non-existent in medical books or journals; the basis of the therapy was treating patients with dignity, and the implications of this were huge, even revolutionary. At my mother’s house, just like at the hospital at Blida during Fanon’s time, mentally ill patients like Meshach could become “human”, because they were recognised as indeed “human”. They were enough.
After all, what is human dignity? It is a question that would afflict me for many years after reading Captain Sankara’s speeches and interviews. It still does.
Between 1983 and 1987, Burkina Faso demonstrated what could be achieved in Africa if there was sufficient political will from leaders who are empathetic and show commitment towards realising the aspirations of the poor, dispossessed and marginalised. Under Captain Sankara’s leadership, the country transformed from being one of the world’s poorest to achieving food self-sufficiency while rolling out broad health and infrastructure developments. This secured popular support for Captain Sankara, who attributed the developments to Burkina Faso’s independence and its fierce fight against imperialism and domination.
The country was also able to offer practical transnational solidarity to oppressed people around the world, especially to countries where the struggle for freedom was being waged. In so doing, Burkina Faso also demonstrated an unprecedented commitment to Internationalism, evidenced by both speech and action.
Although brief, the results achieved – and possibilities created between 1983 and 1987 – captured the vision and aspirations of an Africa imagined during the struggle against colonialism, a commitment to total independence, democracy, self-reliance, innovation, prosperity and internationalism. Sankara’s tenure as president can be understood as a radical and unapologetic pursuit of these aspirations, motivated by the quest for liberation through the negation of colonial and neo-colonial practices that undermine and betray the struggle for self-determination and dignity for African people.
In March 1983, Sankara attended the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in India and met – for the very first time – with presidents Fidel Castro (Cuba), Samora Machel (Mozambique) and fellow prime minister, Maurice Bishop (Grenada). He would later speak about all three, with great affection. In September 1984, he received the Order of José Marti, Cuba’s highest honour, awarded by Castro himself. In the same year, he spoke about his pain at the assassination of Bishop and expressed regret at not having sent a letter he had written to him.
In October 1986, he delivered an impassioned speech on the occasion of Samora Machel’s assassination in Mozambique. “Samora Machel was a great friend of our revolution, a great backer of our revolution. He said so everywhere and demonstrated it in his attitude towards Burkinabe delegations. We made contact with him for the first time through his writings on revolution. We studied Machel’s works and we were intellectually close to him.”
A year later, in October 1987, and a week before he was assassinated himself, Captain Sankara paid tribute to slain revolutionary, and his muse, Che Guevara, on the latter’s death anniversary by inaugurating – in Ouagadougou – an exhibition in Che’s honour. Said Sankara: “Bold young people – young people thirsting for dignity, thirsting for courage, thirsting also for ideas and for the vitality he symbolised in Africa – sought out Che Guevara in order to drink from the source, the invigorating source represented in the world by this revolutionary captain . . .Che is Burkinabé. He is Burkinabé because he participates in our struggle. He is Burkinabé because his ideas inspire us and are inscribed in our Political Orientation Speech. He is Burkinabé because his star is stamped on our banner. He is Burkinabé because some of his ideas live in each of us in the daily struggle we wage.”
At the beginning of 2017, I decided to quit my non-governmental-organisation job and go back to university to complete a Master’s degree I had abandoned. This is also the year I was going to turn 33 and had begun to think deeply about resolving the political questions circulating in my head – the shit that was going through my mind in the apparent quiet of the violence that is suffered everyday by young Africans who dare to dream; who dare to invent the future.
So, here I am at the University Currently Known As Rhodes (UCKAR), writing an MA thesis on Captain Thomas Sankara. I have also been privileged to contribute a chapter in an edited book on Sankara that comes out this month. This work seems suddenly timely. Many young people are now invoking Captain Sankara to make a case for the kind of leadership Africa desperately needs in present times. Most of these young people are my age, or even younger. They make up the bulk of the people in most African countries. In a period of great uncertainty and anxiety, a period in which leaders care only for themselves and their cronies, it is inevitable that young Africans will refuse to be robbed of both their dignity and destiny.
In a way, this is already happening, given the rise of a political youth quake in South African politics, including open rebellion by impoverished people and students as well as the establishment of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in 2013, the Namibian Economic Freedom Fighters (NEFF) in 2014, Génération Cheikh Anta Diop also known as the Mouvement des Sans Voix (‘The Voiceless’) in Burkina Faso, which emerged as a network of youth, partly influenced by the los indignados movement in Spain and two years later Le Balai Citoyen (the Citizens’ Broom) was formed as a grassroots movement which brought together youth activists across the country. These Burkina Faso movements played a central role in the 2014 October Uprising where president Blaise Compaoré – Sankara’s assassin and successor – was toppled. In Senegal the Y’en A Marre (We are Fed Up) movement has also played a significant role in disrupting the status quo and it is credited with helping to mobilise Senegal’s youth vote that ousted president Abdoulaye Wade.
These youth-led movements present possibilities for the deepening of revolutionary struggles across sub-Saharan Africa. Thirty years after his assassination, Captain Thomas Sankara is increasingly becoming an inspiration to many young people across Africa. This is proof that another world is possible for the continent.
As disillusioned young people like myself continue to take to the streets for political, social and economic emancipation, there is also a need for academic interest to be devoted to these changes and pave way for theorising new approaches to emancipation in Africa.
Long live Captain Thomas Sankara, Long Live!
Photo: Thomas Sankara — Creative Commons