To set the scene, as they say, I’m sat writing this outside my little house, surrounded by children and chickens. We’ve just had a heavy and rather unexpected shower of rain, which sent every woman (including me) running to rescue her washing- it all felt rather British. Now the world is at rest, sleeping off the excitement of Eid. All could not be more tranquil.
Three weeks ago, on 13th August, three gunmen walked into a restaurant in central Ouagadougou and opened fire. 19 people were killed including locals, tourists, and migrant workers. It is believed that this particular restaurant was targeted for its popularity with westerners, but it was also much loved by Burkinabé- members of my team have eaten there in the past. Yet again, civilians have lost their lives simply for being in a place they had every right to be in, killed by complete strangers to make a political point.
You may or may not have seen this on international news. Predictably, it didn’t receive a tenth of the coverage of a terrorist attack in Europe. I certainly didn’t see anyone change their profile picture or #prayforouaga. But the impact on people here is exactly the same, if not greater; with conflict in Mali to the North and the rise of AQIM, terrorism is a worry for everybody.
The response from the charity I work for was swift and, though reasonable, felt frustrating. We were unable to leave our homes for two days, and bars and restaurants were a no-go for much of August. We also had a communications ban which has only just been lifted: no blogging, no posts identifying our location, no group photos.
My first reaction was frustration. During my last month in the UK we withstood three terror attacks, and none of them made me want to alter my lifestyle for a moment. The day after the Manchester bombing I flew from Manchester airport; it never crossed my mind that I would change my plans in any way. I subscribe to the belief that carrying on is the equivalent to sticking up the middle finger to terrorism and its anticipated impact. I wanted to go to work, be seen, say to people “we’re still here, we believe in what we’re doing, and we’re not frightened”.
It was only after we were allowed back to work that I realised how different this is. The first time I cycled through the village was a strange experience. Everything was the same, but I felt out of place. The shouts of “Nasara” and “La Blanche” still sounded friendly but I felt singled out and vulnerable. I wanted to be inconspicuous but, as usual, I stuck out like a (ridiculously pale) sore thumb. I wasn’t surprised when some volunteers told me how frightened they’d been on the day of the attack. Like me, they felt like they had neon signs over their heads saying “European”. But they were determined to stick it out; after demanding to go to work on Wednesday, they marked the previous two days on the calendar “off for terror” and got back into it without missing a step. I’m privileged to work with such a selfless group of young people.
We spent a couple of weeks socialising in people’s houses, eating in the office, avoiding the market. But gradually, as always, life returned to usual. It’s just not possible to exist indefinitely in a state of high alert. Our lessons are back to normal and we’re planning a big community event to celebrate the work of our partner organisation. We’re also publishing a sex-ed book in French with some of the most brilliantly only-just-suggestive illustrations I’ve seen.
The team are back to enjoying village life: weddings, evenings out, trips to the tailor. We even found somewhere to buy pizza (with actual cheese), which was easily the best thing for team morale so far. With less than two weeks to go we’ve got a lot of work to catch up on, but enthusiasm is high. Because the only response to the violence that feels appropriate is to remember why we’re here in the first place: to share in this nation’s hope in whatever way we can, however small that way might be.