"To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth" - Voltaire

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Book Review: When Everything Has Fallen – Nathalia Zongo

wheneverythinghasfallen%20cover On October 15, 1987 a military coup d'état took place in Burkina Faso and the president Thomas Sankara was assassinated.  Sankara himself had gained power in 1983 when he had toppled the Ouédraogo regime in a coup d'état that was organized by Blaise Compaoré and supported by Libya.  In an ironic twist of events, it was Blaise Compaoré that went on to lead the subsequent coup d'état in 1987. 

Although he was only in power for four years, Thomas Sankara had become an incredibly popular leader.  He had declined foreign aid and adopted an anti-imperialist foreign policy.  His domestic policy centered around poverty reduction; agrarian self-sufficiency land reform; public health and the vaccination of 2.5 million children; literacy and a commitment to women’s rights that saw him outlaw female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy.  His radical and progressive policies seemingly required greater control of his society though and Sankara became increasingly authoritarian in his governance of Burkina Faso, banning unions, free press and anything else that he saw to stand in his way. 

ThomasSankara Sankara’s popularity rose to dizzying heights amongst the poorest and most vulnerable of his citizens but his policies and authoritarian practices began to alienate some very powerful people, including the Burkinabè middle class, tribal leaders and those with foreign trade ties to France (Sankara had maintained strong ties with Libya and Ghana).  France backed Blaise Compaoré in leading the 1987 coup d'état in which Sankara was assassinated.

Air Force Lieutenant Etienne Zongo was President Sankara’s chief military officer and had served at his side since October 1983.  He went missing on the day that Sankara was assassinated and for several agonizing days, his family thought that he had been killed in the coup d'état, only to discover that his name was not on the list of the dead.  When Everything Has Fallen is an autobiographical account of these events written by Etienne Zongo’s daughter Nathalia Zongo.  This is a deeply personal memoir that follows the immediate aftermath of the coup d'état and the family’s struggles to pick up the pieces in the following years.  The book details military raids on the family household as soldiers searched relentlessly for Lt. Zongo and his release into custody that was negotiated by the Ambassador of Cuba and the Embassy of Ghana.  Lt. Zongo had his passport confiscated and was then interrogated, tortured and held under house arrest before being detained without trial for two years.  Released in August 1989, Lt. Zongo fled to neighboring Ghana in fear of his life and disappeared from his family for seven years.

In When Everything Has Fallen, Nathalia Zongo details how the family were once again subject to military raids upon the household after Lt. Zongo had left for Ghana and how they were ostracized by the school and the greater community.  Already struggling to make ends meet, the family suffered devastating damage to their house due to a fire and did not hear a single word from Lt. Zongo until a brief reunion in 1994.   Nathalia describes the struggles that beset the family and how one of her brothers Jonathan lost all interest and dropped out of school before graduating.  Nathalia moved to America when she was 21 to study and work to support herself.  She describes a precarious existence where employers felt able to terminate her contracts with little or no reason or notice and her own brother felt unable to support her or house her in his apartment.

There is no doubt that the Zongo family lead a harrowing and troubled existence in the years after the coup d'état, during Lt. Zongo’s imprisonment and subsequent exile, and following the departure of Nathalia and older brother Jean-Martin to America.  However, When Everything Has Fallen is set against the backdrop of a major political event and I expected the book to go into more detail about the history of Burkina Faso and the policies and practices that ultimately lead to Thomas Sankara’s death.  The author described what Sankara meant to her on a personal level but did not provide sufficient context for her admiration of the man.

Similarly, the author described what happened to her father in very brief detail although she went into greater detail about how the events impacted on her and her family.  I expect that readers of a political biography such as this might want to know more about the practice of detainment without trial and the moral and political implications of such a practice.  Lt. Zongo was interrogated and tortured by the government and had previously spoken out about his experiences to Africa International in 1991.  As the author had re-established contact with her father by the end of the book, it would make sense that some insight be provided into his experiences (or at least an opinion offered if he felt unable to talk about those experiences).  There is also little insight in the book as to why Lt. Zongo failed to make contact with his family for seven years and the reader is left wondering whether this was negligence or the fact that the family remained in a rural setting.  All that the author does mention in this regard is the unwavering and frankly irrational faith maintained by her mother that he would eventually return to the family (he never did). 

Nathalia Zongo The press release for the book does approach this and states that although set against a political backdrop, When Everything Has Fallen is an autobiography by a child “without the encroachment of hindsight or adult values”.  I find this problematic as the book is not targeted towards readers of ‘tragic life stories’ but is firmly presented as a political and historical memoir.  The book would greatly benefit from a foreword explaining the historical and political aspects of the story together with a detailed account of Lt. Zongo’s experiences as a detainee plus perhaps an afterword explaining Lt. Zongo’s subsequent actions and continuing absence from his family.  As it stands at the moment, When Everything Has Fallen simply leaves too many questions unanswered.

You can purchase When Everything Has Fallen at Amazon.co.uk ¦ Amazon.com or you can click on the “Recommended Reading” link below for more book reviews.

Article written by me and first published as Book Review: When Everything Has Fallen by Nathalia Zongo on Blogcritics. This review contains affiliate links.

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