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Festivals Are a Form of Defiance for West African Cities Facing Terror

In a region where culture is central to identity, organizers have continued with festivals like Fespaco in Burkina Faso despite the security risks. 

Virtually every other year since 1969, Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, has put on a film festival, culminating in an award ceremony sometimes described as Africa’s own Oscars. Not even war has stood in its way.

Despite a surge in jihadist attacks that has displaced about 2 million people in the West African country the Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, better known as Fespaco, took place this year in the dusty capital at the southern fringe of the Sahara Desert, drawing more than 15,000 filmmakers, movie stars, artists and industry players.

Ouaga, as locals fondly call it, isn’t the only city clinging to its cultural identity. In neighboring Mali, another terrorist hot spot, the Segou’Art Festival on River Niger was headlined by Salif Keita, known globally as the “Golden Voice,” in January, under a heavy security presence. Earlier that month, in the fabled city of Timbuktu, the Festival Vivre Ensemble (French for Living Together) showcased local culture in northern Mali. 

It’s not just terrorists threatening these festivities. There have also been coups d’etat, the Covid-19 pandemic and a trade embargo, said Manny Ansar, organizer of the once-famous Festival in the Desert, which had to move away from the dunes of Timbuktu for security reasons, to become a traveling event under a new name. 

“We continue to resist and exist,” said Ansar, who was the first manager of the Grammy award-winning Tuareg band Tinariwen. “People celebrate birthdays, they get married, there are concerts with dancing and singing.” These festivals “remind us that this is our country, who we are, and that we continue to live,” he said.

Members of the Malian delegation walk with flags during the opening ceremony of the 28th Fespaco.Photographer: Olympia De Maismont/AFP

Festivals have been central to West African cultures since pre-colonial times, when centuries-old empires, kingdoms and caliphates still stood strong. While some of the surviving traditional festivals have taken on a more Western aesthetic, new ones have also emerged to celebrate evolving identities. 

At Fespaco, born less than a decade after Burkina Faso’s independence from France, cinema luminaries such as the country’s own Idrissa Ouedraogo or Senegal’s Ousmane Sembene have paved the way for a new generation of filmmakers to depict unifying images of the continent.

“In Africa, culture is the gateway to society,” said Fatoumata Diawara, the two-time Grammy Award nominee from Mali. “Without music and films, or festivals like Fespaco, how are we then supposed to reconcile?” she asked in Ouagadougou on the sidelines of the storied event.

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Cine NeerwayaPhotographer: Katarina Hoije

Cine Neerwaya, a 1,000-seat cinema house commissioned in the 1980s by Burkina Faso’s revolutionary leader, Thomas Sankara,holds a prized place in Fespaco’s five-decade history. On a balmy Tuesday evening in February, moviegoers snaked around the block to access the sand-colored building. Strips of pink LED lights hung over its tiled facade for the African premiere of Sira. The film, which tells the story of a woman who fights for her life after being kidnapped by terrorists, was a top contender for the coveted Golden Stallion of Yennenga, African film’s top honor, but ultimately won the Silver Stallion instead. 

This latest Fespaco was held against the backdrop of a Feb. 17 jihadist ambush that left at least 51 soldiers dead in the province of Oudalan, about 330 kilometers (about 200 miles) northeast of Ouagadougou. Burkina Faso is now the epicenter of jihadist violence in West Africa after Islamist insurgents started to form ties with al-Qaeda linked groups from Mali. The government’s failure to curb attacks was blamed for two military coups last year. Promises to restore order and reclaim territory held by militants have so far seen little result. 

Nearly 5,000 civilians have been killed since 2015, according to the Washington-based Armed Conflict Location and Data Project.

Read More: How Jihadists Are Creating Turmoil Across West Africa

The attacks have been less frequent in the capital, where many people displaced by the violence have sought refuge. Army pickups mounted with machine guns and checkpoints in Ouagadougou provide a daily reminder of the jihadist threat, while murals urge the population to share information with the military. The festival, too, was a high-security event. 

“The Burkinabe are proud of the festival,” said Fespaco Director Alex Moussa Sawadogo. “To cancel at a time like this would’ve been a blow, not only to Fespaco, but to them.” 

Instead, organizers opted for a low-key opening ceremony around the theme of peace and settled for a smaller influx of Western audiences.

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Burkina Faso military ruler Col. Ibrahim Traore, who came to power following a Sept. 30 coup, presents the Golden Stallion to the winning movie, Ashkal, by Tunisian filmmaker Youssef Chebbi (not pictured).Source: Fespaco

Before spreading to Burkina Faso, jihadists first seized control of swaths of northern Mali, imposing a strict version of sharia law. Timbuktu fell under occupation in 2012. Its historic mausoleums were desecrated to prevent locals from worshiping saints. Ancient manuscripts were destroyed. The door of the 15th century Sidi Yahia mosque was damaged and pulled out — a door meant to remain closed until the end of time. 2012 was also the last year that Ansar’s Festival in the Desert, on the outskirts of the city, was held before invaders banned music.

Source : Bloomberg