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Burkina Faso: Thomas Sankara Tomb

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Thomas Sankara Tomb | Burkina Faso | Africa

[Visited: May 2013]

While on our way to the cemetery of Danoen, in the eastern outskirts of Ouagadougou, the taxi driver was negotiating bad, bumpy roads, and we passed a garbage dump. I knew the roads would be bad, and wondered what the last resting place of Thomas Sankara would look like. In the 1980s, he had risen to power in what was then Upper Volta in a military coup; he was president by the age of 33. He brought drastic change to the country, which he renamed to Burkina Faso, or the Land of the Upright Men, or the Men of Integrity. He lived a simple life as a president, unlike many of his colleague-heads of state, vaccinated the youth against diseases like yellow fever, nationalized the natural wealth resources of the country, made it self-sufficient, and rejected foreign aid, among many things.

Picture of Thomas Sankara Tomb (Burkina Faso): The simple grave of the former president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara

A supporter of Che Guevara, Thomas Sankara was a charismatic leader, and for obvious reasons, popular with a large part of the population. Even outside the small West African country, his policies set an example of the way Africa could develop. But inevitably, his idealistic and a-typical approach of the presidency also made hi enemies, and he was killed in a coup d'état in 1987 by his best friend Blaise Compaoré - who has been president ever since. The story had always intrigued me: how could someone who was so close to him and with whom he had gained power, betray him in such a way? Going to the cemetery would not provide me with the answers, but I still wanted to go, just to see what the last resting place of the former president would look like.

Picture of Thomas Sankara Tomb (Burkina Faso): Row of tombs for the comrades of Thomas Sankara, with the former president in the middle

The door to the cemetery was closed, and the taxi driver opened it by sliding it open. We squeezed ourselves through the narrow opening, and walked into an open space. The smell of the garbage dump just around the corner was in the air, and even here, I saw plastic bags fly over the cemetery. The driver directly guided me to the grave, and for a second, it left me puzzled. I saw a simple tomb, just befitting for the modest president, with his birth date, but instead of the year of his assassination, it said 2010: the 23 year memorial. The grave looked simple, and it appeared to be crumbling away. Behind him, a row of graves of his comrades, killed together with him. When I took out my camera, the driver got nervous: he warned me that taking pictures could get me into trouble. It was only when we drove away, that he started to speak out, and share his views. He seemed always more undignified; he told me about how Compaoré's parents had died when he was young, and how Sankara's parents had accepted him as a son, how Sankara had asked him to take power if he wanted to, how the current president had moved palace from the city centre, where Sankara lived, to the outskirts of the city. Sankara clearly had been a son of the nation, while his friend and killer has managed to stay in power ever since, up to this very day, but lacking the popularity and charisma of his predecessor. I had come to see his grave and to find answers; I managed to do the first, but failed at the second task.

Picture of Thomas Sankara Tomb (Burkina Faso): The Danoen cemetery on the eastern outskirts of Ouagadougou, where the tomb of Thomas Sankara can be found

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