Field Notes

In Burkina Faso, Running Afoul of Mr. X

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 20, 2008; 6:25 PM

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso -- He came at us like a hound chasing a squirrel.

"No! No!" he shouted, waving his arms and his laminated government ID card at us.

As it turned out, he was the bureaucrat in charge of this street, the deputy assistant associate section head of something or other. The Man.

Let's call him Mr. X, since his name isn't the point. What Mr. X represents is universal -- he's every stubborn clerk at the DMV, every merciless parking ticket warden, every insurance company "customer service" agent who wakes up each morning with "no" in her heart.

On this particular morning in far-off Ouagadougou, in the West African nation of Burkina Faso, we felt like we had known Mr. X for a lifetime.

We, strangers in these parts, had done something that had worked him into a frenzy, which he tried to portray as indignation, but we recognized as something closer to pure joy.

We had committed an infraction.

And the government man was here to bust us, but good.

It was not yet 6:30 a.m., and Post photographer Michael Williamson and I, along with translator Joseph Ilboudo, had been on this downtown Ouagadougou street for two hours.

We were writing about how rising global food prices are hurting women in the developing world. The subject of our story, Fanta Lingani, had a job in the city's "Green Brigade," a program that pays poor women to sweep city streets.

So we rolled out of bed at 3 a.m. to come down here and watch her sweep dirt in the dark.

We were mainly dreaming of coffee, and maybe a donut, when Mr. X appeared in our faces, way too close, like a kid pressing his face up against a video camera's lens.

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