Of Drumming and Lightning in the Faso

It wasn’t the drumming that woke me.  This was, after all, “funeral season” in Burkina Faso.  A period well after the harvest that this west African country of mostly subsistence farmers has the time and money to mourn the death – and celebrate the life – of those who passed away in the last year with all night drumming and dancing sessions.  Having lived in this village in southeast Burkina as a Peace Corps volunteer for the past 20 months, I was used to going to bed to the rhythm of the drums.  What made this time different is that the drumming started suddenly in the middle of the night.  Two-thirty a.m. my watch said.  Next I heard the neighbors I share my courtyard with gathering their plastic mats hurriedly and running inside.  Everyone (myself included) had begun sleeping outside in an attempt to escape the heat.  Still half asleep I rolled over on my back and opened my eyes.  Through the dome of my screen tent I saw very dark clouds rapidly covering what was once a brightly star-lit sky.  The wind was picking up too.  “What the hell is going on?” I thought, “The rains aren’t supposed to begin for another three months”.  A thought suddenly crossed my mind and I sat up so quickly my head hit the top of the tent: lightning!

For the past two weeks the big topic of discussion amongst everyone here had been the theft of the solar panels that powered two of the largest water pumps in the village.  My guess is that a good third of the village got their water from the two pumps.  Now everyone is forced to use the manual pumps and wells scattered across town.  At all times of the day there are long lines of women and children with their water barrels on wheels and on the back of donkey carts waiting for their turn at the pump.  What will happen then if the pumps break from overuse?  Everyone posed the question; no one seemed to have a good answer.

The solar panels had been a gift from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  A big metal sign stating this in French, English, German and Arabic still hung from a pole by were the plaques had been.  Many theories were posed as to how they could have been stolen without anyone noticing.  They were after all very heavy and guarded by a chain link fence.  Any group stealing them would have to have had a big truck, knowledge of how to disassemble the plaques without breaking them and the ability to do all this without waking any of the many near by residents.  One theory held that it was the Saudis themselves who stole them since they would have the technical expertise.  But this didn’t explain how they would have known to escape through the small paths in the bush.  This being a border town, the paved road is blocked on each end for road tax collection and police checks.  Because of this the thieves had escaped via the bush (border police, by the way, had been informed the morning after the theft but unfortunately their car was out of gas at the time).  The thieves' knowledge of the area implied local involvement.  More obviously, I was told, the fact that none of the near by residents had been awoken by the commotion of the truck proved involvement of local sorcerers.  They had put a spell on the neighborhood causing the people to sleep so deeply that night that they did not notice the theft until the next morning.

This wasn’t the first time that I had come across widespread belief in supernatural powers.  Officially, over half the Burkinabé subscribe to an organized religion but even they hold on to many traditional beliefs.  Fellow volunteers visiting me sometimes remarked that this seems to be even more of a factor in my village.  Maybe this was because we are only 20 miles from Benin, the voodoo capital of West Africa.  Mysticism plays a role in almost all aspects of life here.  The nightmare you had last night means that someone was testing your strength in order to decide whether to “attack you”.  A baby dying of malaria means that the neighbors were jealous.  Sorcery even plays a role in international soccer!  France’s dismal performance in the 2002 world cup, I was told, had been caused by the failure of their players of west African origin to pay proper respects to the witch doctors after wining the previous world and European cups.  They had become too European and begun to think that their athletic skills had been the only reason they had played well.

After the theft of the plaques the chief of the village had held a meeting of village elders and a decision was made.  The thieves would have a two-week grace period in which to return the plaques, if they did not they would be struck dead by lightning wherever they may be.  The announcement of the decision was made by the official town crier, riding around the village on his bike holding on to the handlebars with one hand and a megaphone with the other.  Through conversations with my friends and colleagues I came to realize that I was the only one not convinced that this would work.  I had expected this from my neighbors and other villagers that still lived purely off the land.  They are uneducated and living a traditional lifestyle.  But they were not the only ones who thought that the chef’s solution was the right one.  The fellow teachers at the high school I teach at, all college educated, also expressed their satisfaction with the chef’s decision.  Even the local catholic pastor who had spent the last ten years with French missionaries wanted to change the subject as I tried to get him to admit that he thought the entire thing was foolish.

All of this was going through my head as I hurried to break down my tent before the first drops of rain fell.  Knowing that tomorrow there would be news of people having been struck by lighting, maybe near by maybe as far away as a neighboring country; and that I would be the only skeptical one asking for evidence of the deaths.  And finally beginning to understand, after almost two years here, that the comfort my Burkinabé friends would receive from their belief that the right persons where struck is not too different from the comfort I take as an American from my belief in due process.


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“Sunset at the Railroad” by PCV Nicholas Baylor Hall. Namibia, 2011.