At the end of the day yesterday, we had our regular Wednesday faculty meeting. There are elections scheduled in Burkina Faso for the middle of October, and a big part of our local PD is to get ready for the unexpected. Last year, in November, President Compaore decided that he wanted to extend his 27-year rule, and proposed a change in the constitution to allow him to stay in power. The people wanted nothing to do with it, and there were mass protests that turned violent, with the Parliament building being torched, the brother of the President being killed and his house trashed, and about 24 protesters being killed by the Presidential Guard, who fought to suppress the opposition.
Some of those protests were right in the neighborhood of the school, so school was cancelled and lots of families evacuated. We went to ‘online school’, using Moodle as our platform, but as it was newly rolled-out, deployment was not really as seamless or proficient as it could have been. However, we survived the bumps and this year are off to a good start, although enrollments are down about 20% from what we expected before the uprisings.
Since then, the country has been run by an Interim President and cabinet, whose primary responsibility has been to set up a free and fair election in October. So we have been doing a lot of PD to get teachers more proficient with using Moodle as their regular Student Learning System, so if we had to close in October, it would be as seamless as possible.
Just as the faculty meeting started, Sean, the Head of School, came in and announced that he had heard through his sources (he has very good sources) that the Presidential Guard had seized the government offices and taken the Interim President, VP and some cabinet members hostage. No one was sure what their agenda was, but a big news announcement had come out earlier this week saying that the Interim Leadership had decided to disband the Presidential Guard (earlier, it had been announced that the party of the ousted President Campaore was ineligible to run in the election), so the guess was that they were fighting back against their disbanding. The report had said that they had become ‘an army within an army’ and that they maintained a very high level of support for the exiled President.
Anyway, we all left after the PD with instructions to keep our phones handy and be ready to close school for Thursday on a moment’s notice, as things developed. We had a full PD day for Friday scheduled, so that would not affect the kids.
About an hour after getting home, I got a call from Sean telling me that the word was that the military was going to disband the government and that a full-fledge coup was starting to take place and that there were reports of gunfire in the region of town where the Government residences and some offices are (Ouaga 2000), so school was cancelled. We used our phone tree to contact all the students and teachers and got the word out, and of course I started monitoring the news and social media pages (FB mostly) for any news. I also emptied out my backpack and set up my ‘go bag’, a quick-grab item with several days’ worth of clothes, my passport, cash, and my phone and computer charger and adaptor.
At about 9pm, right after I read a report that the largest local Radio station had been burned down and that the Guard was firing shots over the heads of protestors who were gathering at the government offices, my internet went out.
That was a little alarming, as my feed comes directly on a line-of-sight signal from the school. We get our signal at school from our own dedicated 2 meter satellite dish right outside my office….the only way we can have interrupted service (other than my router at home going down) would be if someone had gotten on campus and sabotaged our satellite feed.
I called Sean and said I needed to go to school and check out the satellite…our minds were soaring with the different possibilities. We had heard what sounded like small arms fire from over near where the school was, but I’m pretty familiar with the sound of gunfire (having lived through two coups in Congo), and this didn’t really sound like it. I was thinking they were bottle rockets or big firecrackers or something….but the loss of satellite was disconcerting. Sean agreed that we needed connectivity, so he drove over to get me (he didn’t want me walking over alone) and we dashed over to the school in his car. I checked the server and satellite feed….all was well, but there was a strange thing in the filter that had disabled the feed to the residences. It only took a second to fix, and we scooted back home again. The streets were entirely empty…no one in any type of vehicle except us, and very few people walking around. Very calm, actually.
After another hour or so sitting at home, monitoring the internet, the power suddenly went down. Power outages are very common here…almost daily, so the school installed a big generator at my house that automatically kicks in when the power goes out. However, last week it failed to start, so I told our head of Maintenance to check it out. Unfortunately, it became obvious that he had not fixed it because when the power went out last night, generators all around me started kicking in, but mine did not.
My guard and I started checking it out, but I had gone through all that last week and was unable to find out the problem, so it seemed a bit hopeless. We tried starting it manually (electric start) many times, changed settings, tried poking the flywheel with a stick to get it to turn over (lol), even hit the starter solenoid with a rock a few times…nothing.
Finally, it dawned on me that this was pretty much just like a car engine, and I know how to jump start a car from the battery terminals. Getting a screwdriver from the guard’s motor scooter, I had him turn the starter key to kick the solenoid in so that the pinion gear engaged the flywheel, and I jammed the screwdriver across the two terminals behind the bendix. Suddenly, the bendix screamed to life, the starter cranked out at high speed, sparks were flying and noises were everywhere, and the generator kicked to life!!
Lights came on, and with high-fives, the guard and I went back to our stations…him at the front gate, and me at my computer.
A few hours later, the news got pretty consistent: there were reports of sporadic gunfire over the heads of crowds in Ouaga2000, people were reporting gunfire in other neighborhoods (even mine, but I was still certain that they were bottle rockets as I had seen them shooting skywards while we were working on the generator), and no one knew any more about the whereabouts or well-being of the interim President, VP or cabinet ministers. So with nothing to do, I went to bed.
At about 3 AM I woke up from a very strange dream. I had dreamt that I had woken up from sleeping, and had heard noises in my front room. So I got up and checked it out, and a stranger was standing in my kitchen. He saw me, sort of shrugged his shoulders (in a ‘oh, there’s someone here’ way) and strolled out the front door. I looked out the front door and first noticed that there were lots of people walking around. They weren’t in a panic, but they were just moving around, checking out houses for supplies, and non-violently just making their way through. Then I realized that I could see the street….that the wall around my house had been entirely disassembled and removed, as were the walls around all the other houses in my neighborhood.
I’m not sure what this dream meant, but I had a feeling about it. It sort of had echoes of knowing that the Burkinabe people aren’t violent by nature, and are friendly to foreigners. And that the walls around my house sort of make me separated from the locals, and that its better to actually be friendly and know the locals instead of trying to hide from them. It also made me think about supplies, and running out in case this coup disrupted life.
With that thought, I was suddenly wide awake. It was the coolest part of the evening, and my generator was still running so the power was still out. I realized that if I ran out of diesel, then I’d be without power, and worst of all, without AC during the day. And with no idea how long the power outage would last, I had better conserve fuel.
So I got up and got dressed, and went out to the generator. The guard saw me coming, got up and checked to see what I was doing. I told him I wanted to shut down the generator to save fuel, and he agreed that it was a good idea, so we hit the kill switch. The silence was deafening, and I realized that everyone else around me had already done this. We went outside my gate and looked, and as far as the eye could see, Ouagadougou was in total blackness and silence. So I went back to bed to get what sleep I could.
At about 8 am, as I was laying in bed just thinking and wondering if the fuel stations would be open today, if I could even get the generator started again, and if I would need the generator to run the ACs today, the power suddenly switched back on. With relief, I got out of bed, fired up the air conditioners, got dressed and went out to the yard. I discovered that I had a jerrycan of diesel fuel, so I topped off the generator (from the volume loss, I estimate that I have about 18 hours of generator time with low electric usage), then I filled my water filter, gathered together all the water bottles around the house, put new batteries in my flashlight, and then made myself some bacon and eggs for breakfast. Some folks on FB said that a local market was open, although most shops were closed, so I emptied out my go-bag, grabbed my car keys and went out to the street to look around.
There were NO cars on the street anywhere, although there were a few scooters and people walking around. It was very calm, no uprisings or unrest, but I didn’t want to be the only car on the road so I locked the gate behind me and started off to the local market on foot. I figured if I did run into any trouble, it would be easier to slip out of sight and get away on foot rather than make myself a target by driving up in a big truck.
The walk to the market was pleasant enough…no traffic, and lots of guards in front of houses just chatting and listening to the radio. Just as I was leaving the house, apparently the Presidential Guard had issued a statement saying that they had disbanded the government and taken control, in order to ensure a fair and inclusive election in October. What that really means, most agree, is that they did not like that the exiled president and his party were banned from participating in the elections, or that they were slated to be disbanded, so they took control to allow the ex-president to either run, or to return and seize power. In either case, it would be very ugly, but for now things were very quiet.
I got to the store, and it really felt like ‘business as usual’. No panic, no big crowds, people feeling a bit easy. I’m sure that everyone, just like me, is sitting on edge wondering what this will play out like. But in the meantime, I loaded up with the essentials….extra paper towels, some beer, earbuds, pringles, a can of tuna fish, and some dried nuts. Funny thing is; once I got to the store, I realized that I really don’t need anything, but I just wanted a chance to be prepared.
On the walk home, I heard more popping noises from over near my house. I asked a guard what that was, and he said it was bottle rockets. He was not sure if the military was using them to cow people into staying inside, or if it was stupid kids just trying to rile people up, but in any case it didn’t seem that things had gone bad. However, we did see distant smoke from what we assumed were burning tires, so of course the situation is very much in flux right now.
So now I’m back home, watching the internet and running up my electric bill. My car is fully fueled, as is my generator. I have my go-bag, I have food and water and beer, internet access, things are calm and quiet, and we’ll see where this leads. The word on social media is that the military is rapidly choosing sides, at all military stations nationwide. The new regime has closed all the borders and the airport, and declared a 7pm-7am curfew.
I’m not in ANY danger…they aren’t targeting westerners and things here tend to blow over quickly. The real danger to me is that power would go out for a very long time (days) and I would not have electricity or AC. Or that I would run out of food or water…neither is likely at all. And I also live very close (2 houses in one case, and at most 3 blocks) from friends so if it really got ugly, say as ugly as it got in Congo when were all grabbed our go-bags and hid inside the gym for a day as the riots circled the campus, then I could just get with friends and lay low.
Again…I’m in no personal danger, however my guess is that this might get a bit uncomfortable in the near future. I have no doubts that there will be violence…the news has reported that the homes of the new leaders have already been torched, and that a popular uprising is already getting organized. I’m not going to go exploring to see some action….I never did that in Jerusalem, and I won’t do it here. This is just “keep your head down and surf the net time” for me…for the next few days. I’m not being flippant….don’t worry!!
Stay tuned. Africa, what a hoot.