Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Especially a journalist: Remembering Dieudonné Liermè Somé

The first time I met Liermè Somé, one of Burkina Faso’s most important journalists, it was at a nightclub about noon on a Saturday. We sat in the middle of the dance floor, and I could barely hear him due to the music blasting through the speakers. Liermè had chosen the venue, and when we all arrived, he chose our table. He glanced nervously at the waitresses sitting at the edge of the dance floor, scouring through shirts and intimate clothing a group of young boys were selling. Directly behind Liermè was a young man, who I later learned was police protection provided from the government of Burkina Faso.

Liermè ordered a beer for himself, a Coke for the bodyguard and briefly told us how he came to meet us in this disco. Not long before Liermè had written a story in the newspaper he ran, L’Indépdendant, about a local businessman who was illegally importing mopeds into the country without paying duties. The businessman in question fought back like any other bully: By allegedly sending a military officer – or at least someone wearing heavy boots – late one night to the office of the newspaper. Liermè was in the bathroom when the man in boots walked up, and while Liermè hid in a stall, the man spent the next few hours rummaging through things in his office, smoking quite a few cigarettes and loudly pacing the floor. He finally left in the early hours of the morning.

At the nightclub, Liermè patiently listened to two of us – me and this woman from a Canadian NGO – prattle on about securing funding to bolster his security. We spoke about hiring guards for his house and office. The Canadian offered to purchase a security camera for the building. For a man who often pushed the envelope of reform to his government – to force it to become more transparent, to compel it to care more about the people of Burkina Faso – he conducted his personal life with the utmost of tempered realism. He didn’t call us naive, or say he should have locked the door of his office when he’s there alone at night. Nor did he explain that’s how life can often be for crusading journalists in West Africa. He drank his beer and told us to let him know when we’d make a decision; he knew full well that decision would never come.

The mathematics of the truth
If we calculate the importance of journalists by tallying the number of times they’ve been threatened, the number of times they’ve been locked up for something they’ve written, the number of times they’ve appeared before a judge, there is no doubt of Liermé’s significance.

I remember driving out of town with him a few years afterward when an older policeman flagged my car over. He demanded to see all the paperwork, which Liermè respectfully handed him. The police officer then pointed out a typo in one of the permits, which could be rectified by paying a fine, he told me. I began to complain vehemently. I looked over to Liermè and he smiled and politely told the policeman I’ll have it checked out next week. The old cop seemed OK with that. We pulled away, and I tried to bait him into a diatribe against corruption. “He was just looking for a little money,” Liermè explained, as if saying: you can’t harm him for that.

For those in power, he rarely was so courteous. A little history is in order. Liermè was the third director of L'Indépdendant, which was founded in 1991 by a former schoolteacher named Norbert Zongo. In 1998, Zongo and four others were shot as they drove about 100 km south of Ouagadougou and their bodies were burned in the car. The killings came after Zongo’s nearly year-long investigation into the torture and death of a chauffer to Francois Compaoré, the brother and trusted advisor to the President of Burkina Faso.

Almost nine years to the day of that assassination, the case isn’t much closer to being solved. Liermè took over L'Indépdendant in 2002, and I remember interviewing him in his office regarding the fifth anniversary of the killings. This was just a few weeks after our first meeting in the bar, and despite everything he felt guardedly optimistic on the future of Burkinabé journalism.

When the topic came to Norbert Zongo, only then did the conversation darken. At one point, he looked at my tape recorder positioned on his cluttered desk and said slowly and deliberately: “Everybody knows who killed Norbert Zongo…Everybody,” before he started laughing, a laugh Burkinabé employ when there is a lot of tension in the air. He let silence fill the room for a few beats, as if daring me to print what he just said. I never did.

During that interview, Liermè got speaking about the murder and the difficulties carrying on after such an important national figure. He became most animated, however, when he spoke about the daily realities of running a newspaper, with funding a constant energy drain and the fierce competition for news between independent journalists. “I try to put out a paper every week, and that is one of my biggest worries,” he told me.

Back to the nightclub
A few months later, I met him at the same nightclub. He liked to go there, I guess, because he used to live in the neighborhood. He began building a house when he was named director of L'Indépdendant and eventually moved to a different part of town. But he knew that I could find the nightclub. Anyway, we were back there that afternoon because Liermè said he could help me talk to people who farm cotton for a story I was doing. Liermè grew up in a village near the Ghanaian border and spent many summers working the cotton fields. His young nephew who is a farmer was visiting and Liermè arranged our meeting. The nephew didn’t speak French, so Liermè translated, a job he was ill-suited for. I would ask the nephew questions and Liermè would often answer them himself, never even bothering with a translation. When the nephew did speak, Liermè would often punctuate his answers with a string of editorial comments.

His translations aside, I learned a lot about journalism from Liermè. Not only about African journalism, but the international practice of gathering information, analyzing it and placing it in context for your readers. No matter how many colleagues you may have, every office undoubtedly has a few perfectionists like Liermè masquerading as journalists, forever stuck on the outside looking in. These people, he taught me, are the most dogged journalists of all, and for them the world can be a lonely place. I remember stumbling into Liermè’s office one day while he was reading proofs that he very unsubtly put in a drawer out of my eyesight. Or, the time I came to say goodbye to him after doing a bit of research in his office and startling him out of his chair as he was on the Internet reading newspapers.

He didn’t speak a lot about his work to me. But what he said allowed me to fill in those thoughts I had of crusading African journalists facing physical threats and government intimidation. It’s not so simple, he’d like to say. He could pick up the phone and get any minister on the other line in a matter of minutes. Reporting and gathering the information is painstaking, exacting work; but they’re too scared to lock you out at the top. The important thing to remember is what you do with the information, how you present it to the public. Be fair and consistent; but never pull any punches. That’s what I learned from Liermè Somé.

One of the last occasions I got to spend a lot of time with Liermè was when we went to hear a music festival in Koudougou, a city about an hour outside Ouagadougou. For a change, he was loose, happy and effusive. We ate and joked and drank a bit and talked a lot. We eventually made our way to the undersized stadium, all crammed in waiting to hear Meiway, an Ivorian tidal wave of music and dance. As act after act went by, Liermè tired of sitting with the boisterous crowd, so he moved up on the stage, camera in hand. He pointedly ignored the pleas of the security guards, telling them he was a journalist and needed to get photos taken. Every once in awhile, he would look back at us and give us a cocky grin – as if he knew no one dared crossing him.

Time to sharpen our pens
Liermé Somé passed away quietly last week after years of fighting off a terrible, painful disease that became a continuous presence in his life. Like his life, his death offered very little fanfare. In fact, I didn’t know about it until I opened up today’s L'Indépdendant, and there it was right on the cover. (In true Somé fashion, the newspaper only devotes a few pages of this edition to his life and death. The news must go on.)

“He was modest, sometimes taciturn, but only because he was often at work,” wrote Basile Baloum, a writer for La Pays, and now L'Indépdendant interim publisher. “For the number of visitors who often assailed him in his office, we can say that the man had the capacity of listening many would envy. He was always willing, ready to defend any cause, the well off causes as well as the poor.”

“He worked with all his heart, all his soul until the final breath, [sometimes] at the risk of his life…” wrote Sana Guy.

“In the journalistic milieu, you were a symbol of boldness, of courage and determination,” Shérif Sy, a newspaper editor himself, wrote of Somé. “Dieudonné Liermé Somé, you have left us in the prime of your life at time when a number of younger colleagues need your experience to sharpen their pens.”

As is often the case when hearing of the death of a friend through the news of others, a lot of feelings rush through you: Guilt, for not seeing him enough; for not being there when he most needed company. Then sadness sets in. Especially for his daughter, who in the span of a decade has lost a mother and a father. For his colleagues and his family, of course. For the other people who made up his personal life.

This will eventually give way to melancholy remembrances. The rice and sauce we ate at the little restaurant tucked away in the Ministry of Tourism. The beers we had in front of his office. The sparkle in his voice when he figured out who is on the other end of his phone; the drive he put in his work; the willingness to send a reporter to follow up on any cockamamie rumor anyone heard.

When I first met him at that nightclub, I was overtaken. I was just a few months in Burkina Faso, a few more months out of journalism school. This was a real, live battle-hardened African journalist. (One who liked dingy bars, also.) He had been jailed, threatened, seen his colleague assassinated and chosen to replace him. This was the kind of guy I read about in school. From the first moment, Liermè did much to tear down that lofty perch I built for him – no one person could be a model for perfection, especially a journalist. If Liermè taught me anything it was to be content with merely being human: Messy, imperfect and yet always striving to make something better for yourself, your family and your world. In the end, we only leave legacies. That’s not a bad one Liermè Somé left for the rest of us.

No comments: