“If you can’t go straight ahead, you go around the corner.” Cher
PagaBags has been a REAL obstacle course. Undertaking recycling plastic bags in Africa was a bit crazy, as was creating a fashion business, a field I knew nothing about! Then there was the plastic bags ban in Burkina, which meant, “back to the drawing board” to reorganize our team and rethink design taking into account the new situation: 100% cotton. In 2015 & 2016 there were two coup d’états, which fortunately resulted in the holding of democratic elections and a new president for the country. It just so happened that I was there during both events. Despite the challenges, I always felt, “OK, I can dealwith this. WE can dealwith this!” But when in January 2016, a jihadist group attacked the Splendid Hotel in the center of Ouagadougou, Burkina’s capital, for the first time since I had endeavored in the PagaBags project, I felt worried. The terrorist faction responsible for the attack was, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQUIM), a wealthy and feared militant group that makes its money from kidnapping Westerners and trafficking arms and drugs.
Since the attack on the Splendid Hotel, terrorist attacks in Burkina have soared, fomenting violence and disarray. Recent attacks have tended to increase the number of victims and to include more and more civilians, especially women. It would be too long to explain the intricacies of the geopolitical forces present, let me just say that Terror has had a devastating impacts on the local economy increasing poverty and hunger: More than 1.2 million people short of food; that Panic has caused massive migrations to the capital: 560,000 people displaced to date and that Insecurity has affected a funding shift from development to emergency aid.
There has been a perceptible change in the recent couple of years. No longer do I enjoy meeting NGO consultants on the terrace in the auberge Chez Giuliana to listen to their to stories from the field about building schools, digging wells, water management,…. The projects have either been totally shut down, or are being run by local project managers. No longer do I get to hear tourists share their travel stories and recount how much the Burkinabé people impress them. There are no tourists. No longer can I stroll into my hotel. The front door is doubly locked. There is a security guard is on duty.
Interestingly, at late as last October, the local friends and even my colleagues, when discussing the situation, would say, “c’est pas chez nous, ça se passé dans le Nord”. (It doesn’t involve us; it is taking place in the North). I thought to myself, this is probably what people in Lyon said in 1940 when talking about German occupation in Paris! But with the overcrowded refugee camps at the outskirts of Ouaga, repeated attacks creeping towards the city’s limits, surely no one today will deny it is happening to all of Burkina. The problem, at least one of the problems is the abstractness of the terrorist presence. They are simply Intangible, until they strike.
Red: no go zone; Orange: formally discouraged zone; Yellow: Vigilance zone
The most recent attack took place last Monday, causing the death of 36 civilians. In Burkina, as in all Sahel countries, jihadism feeds off of poverty, corruption, banditism and the absence of local authorities or police in many areas of the vast territory. According to the Agency France Press, “the government, unable to provide protection to the thousands of villages throughout the country, will be seeking volunteers, 18 or older, who, once recruited, will undergo a 14-day training in surveillance and armed defense”. No comment.
So now what? As I prepare my trip next week to Ouaga, I am not too worried about my own security. But, I am keenly aware that the given uncertain future, I had better take measures allowing me to continue my work with local women associations and artisans in Burkina, should it become too dangerous for me,… should terrorism take root and spread, God forbid! My plan is to work hard in creating new easy to sew models, not like my current bags and backpacks, which are complex to sew and require high quality control. My idea is to launch a collection of small bags for a variety of uses. Bags for books, for shoes, for laundry, for veggies… tote bags and market bags,… I’ll know more when I get there. I will also be working on new prints in natural dyes using my hand-woven cotton material, Bogolan and Batik prints mainly. I will try to send pictures with the latest news from the field! Until then, wish Burkina luck! Cause Burkina matters !