Reveillon in Ouagadougou.

Yesterday a barbaric and cowardly act of terrorism in Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso, claimed the lives of 28 innocent people many of them foreigners including 6 from Quebec Canada. A 65-year-old professor, his wife, their son, 37-year-old daughter, and two friends.

These Good Samaritans have been in the country for three weeks for a humanitarian mission, had just completed the renovation of a rural school, and were back in Ouagadougou to fly back home. What a tragedy to say the least after such a noble mission.

Burkina Faso is a poor land-locked country in West Africa that gained its independence from French Colonial Administration in 1960 without any violence. The official language is French. Since independence, the country has been governed mostly by authoritarian military men. So far it is reported that the cowardly and barbaric terrorist act is not motivated by local politics, and it is the work of religious fanatics as if it matters for the innocent victims.

In 1961 while working in Ghana, I paid a visit to Ouagadougou, with my coworker and friend Avedis. It was Avedis’s idea. Avedis was from Egypt and had a French Catholic Education and even spoke Armenian and English with a French accent. He loved french literature and his dream was to go live in Paris as soon as he had made enough money.

Avedis said nobody could celebrate “Reveillon” (New Year’s Eve), like the French does, and convinced me to go to Ouagadougou which was the closest major city with French traditions. (In Beirut where I lived the previous 10 years “Reveillon” was also used for the New Year celebration). It turned out that, the long trip became rather an educational trip than a celebration of the “Reveillon” at least the way Avedis expected it to be.

It took us over twelve hours through mostly unpaved roads to get there. As soon as we entered the hotel lobby, we were pleasantly surprised and shocked to witness the colonial lifestyle difference between the English and French cultures. Although tired and covered with road dust, we felt very comfortable seeing so many french and local workers doing the same kind of work from the reception desk to the waiters and cleaning ladies.  In Ghana, a British Colony, and at the time an independent country with a similar history as Upper Volta, color separation was much more noticeable.

You seldom saw white “Batoory” English men in Ghana doing any manual work. They were mostly senior civil servants or the administrators of the import, export, and big distribution companies that controlled that whole industry in Ghana. All the small businesses were left to be owned and managed by mostly Lebanese and Syrian nationals refer to all as “Syrian people”. You never saw a British white lady even doing shopping other than at the “Kingsway” department store, a replica of a British department store.

In total contrast to Ghana, Ouagadougou looked and functioned like a cosmopolitan city of black and white people so at ease with each other that, you even did not notice the color difference. We saw French white ladies on bicycles in the local marketplace, doing shopping and haggling with vendors for better prices. It was so common to see men and women of both races in restaurants and bars, engaged in hot social and political talk while sipping Pernau. (A French drink similar to “arak” or “oozo” but a bit yellowish color that I first time tested and loved).

To our surprise, the hotel even did not have a Reveillon planned for New Year’s Eve. We booked a table at a beautiful restaurant that we have been to before and drove there around 10. pm. The place was almost empty. When we inquired, they said everyone is at church and will come after the church service is over. We drove to the church which was packed. We squeezed into the back of the beautiful church and Avedis enjoyed every minute of it while murmuring the hymns, till the end of the Mass. My boredom was mitigated by watching Avedis’s facial expressions that were beaming with Joy.

After the church service was over, we went back to the restaurant, and families dressed in colorful local dresses, especially the children, filled the place. The band played the local dance music, and everyone, especially the children dancing and beaming with joy, turned the place magical. Wild bore barbecued ham steak, with  Pernau to wash it down, we got the best Ouagadougou Reveillon we could have ever wished for. That was my last Reveillon with Avedis. He left Ghana soon after for Egypt and then for Paris.

The sad reality is that I remembered all this, when I read about this savage and barbaric act, against innocent people in Ouagadougou.

Zohrab Bebo Sarkissian


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