If The Star-Spangled Banner is running through your mind this
week, well, fine, but I'll tell you what these Olympics have
planted firmly in mine: certain passages from the Dogon-Peulh, a
seduction dance of Burkina Faso that, if writing could do it
justice, might be said to go sort of like this.
She: HEY! Watch my booty move, big boy, beyond your wildest
dreams, kapocketaboonk boonkboonkboonkboonkkapocketapocke taboonkapocketaboonkboonkboonkboonkboonk....
He: Yehhhh-heh-heh-heh boomalammaboomalamma, it is a right
good-moving booty. Heh-heh. Smells good, too. Baloomaloomaloom....
I'm happy the U.S. is winning a lot of medals. But my heart is
with the Burkinabe, which is what you call the people of Burkina
Faso, the West African country adopted by my hometown, Decatur,
Burkina Faso used to be a French colony and was then an
independent republic called Upper Volta. Its capital city is
Ouagadougou. None of its five Olympic athletes is likely to
appear on the victory stand, but thanks to its 35-member Olympic
delegation--in particular its percussion and dance troupe,
Bonog--I finally came to feel at home, this week, in the place
where I come from, where the Burkinabe are honored guests.
Before I explain, let me tell you a quick football story.
Back in the '60s, a professional wide receiver and his
quarterback were passing through the latter's hometown. They
were expected for a family dinner at the quarterback's parents'
house, the house where he had grown up. But these two famous
athletes got stoned (the '60s, remember), so stoned that when
they drove to the quarterback's neighborhood, he couldn't focus
on how to find his house. Here was their solution: They drove to
the quarterback's old high school, and the quarterback got out,
and the wide receiver drove slowly along behind as the
quarterback walked home from school.
Maybe that story isn't morally edifying. (I was told Burkina
Faso means "country of morally integrated people.") Neither,
maybe, is the story of how I found my own way home last week.
Maybe I am imposing a personal story upon the Olympics. But who
knows? Maybe, despite the promotional crassness in and around
Atlanta last week, genuine intercultural exchange was going on,
giving rise to many personal revelations. That's what's supposed
to happen at the Olympics, isn't it? It happened to me.
Decatur is part of metropolitan Atlanta. When I was growing up
there, it was kind of like Leave It to Beaver, only with lots of
black people tucked away in little ghettos with names like
Eskimo Heights. Decatur was desegregating, slowly and awkwardly,
when I moved away in 1968. My sister and only sibling, Susan,
left in 1971. My father died in 1974, my mother in 1981. My
But every so often my travels brought me to Atlanta, and I would
drive out to Decatur square, where the old courthouse stands. I
would stop to look at the bronze plaque that says ROY A. BLOUNT
PLAZA. DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF A GREAT BUILDER OF HOMES AND
SCHOOLS, AND THE RAPID TRANSIT SYSTEM WHICH LIES UNDER THIS
PLAZA. My father was chairman of the Decatur board of education
from 1962 to 1965, when the schools were integrating, and
chairman of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority in
1971 and 1972, when the MARTA subway and bus system was in the
making. He was president of Decatur Federal Savings and Loan
from 1960 to 1974, in which capacity he didn't get rich but did
make a name for himself as a community builder. He and I--that
old father-son thing--never communicated very well.
"You hear more stories around town about your dad," John Randall
told me last week. He is a native Decaturite, and his wife,
Linda Harris, is the daughter of my father's late friend Robin
Harris. Linda Harris stayed on in Decatur to become marketing
director of the Downtown Development Authority. Randall is
immediate past president of the Decatur Business Association,
which, along with the city government, has taken the Olympics as
an occasion for a 17-day festival in the courthouse square. The
Irish delegation, which has also been adopted by Decatur, has
installed a bar, made of green wood, in the old county
courtroom. When I was growing up, the whole county was, like my
prominently Methodist father, staunchly dry. And now the
courthouse is an Irish pub!
Budweiser, one of the festival's sponsors, has been sending
actors from its commercials out to make appearances. The "I love
you, man" guy from the Bud Light ads was, I regret to say, not a
hit. He brought a large entourage, reportedly resisted saying "I
love you, man," and did not want to be hugged. Can't blame him.
But the Burkinabe athletes--the two I met are Franck Zio, one of
the world's top-10 long jumpers, and Chantal Ouoba, an
up-and-coming triple jumper--have been highly popular around town.
The athletes stayed in a dormitory at Agnes Scott College in
Decatur before moving to the Olympic Village. Boxer Irissa
Kabore trained in nearby Doraville. Local coaches instructed
him, using Gary Gunderson, a Decatur resident who works for The
Carter Center in Atlanta, as their translator:
"Tell him to move his head, move his head, like this, like this."
"Mobilisez votre tete, comme ca, comme ca."
The team doctor, Liliou Francis, was concerned that Kabore was
eating too heartily, and sure enough, he failed to make his
125-pound weight limit, had to fight as a lightweight instead of
a featherweight and was trounced by a Czech. But the Burkinabe
minister of sport, Joseph Tiendrebeogo, assured me, perhaps
diplomatically, that Kabore had brought the extra weight with
him from home.
Last Friday, high jumper Olivier Sanou went out in the
qualifying round. Zio and Ouoba met the same fate in their
events on Sunday and Monday, respectively. (High jumper Irene
Tiendrebeogo--no relation to Joseph--was scheduled to compete in
qualifying on Thursday.) Zio, the team captain, has been living
in Paris since 1990 and "could go right to Hollywood," says
Linda Harris, and indeed, he speaks English and has a great deal
"One of [the Burkinabe] asked me to marry him," says Melissa
Kirby, who works at the Decatur Recreation Center, headquarters
for the Burkinabe delegation. "He made me shake his hand. I may
be married to him."
All over Decatur people are trying to master the Burkinabe
handshake--you raise your right hand high as if to swear an
oath, then you sweep your palm down across your partner's, and
the two of you finish by coming off each other's fingertips into
a finger snap. The shake comes from a time when Africans were
capturing and selling one another into slavery: Slaves' fingers
were broken, so the snap proved you were free.
Besides learning Burkinabe customs, a fine diversity of visitors
to the square has responded with enthusiasm to food, drink,
music (country, blues, gospel, Irish, African) and
storytelling--stories told formally to audiences and also
stories told informally among the congregants.
"You hear about little kindnesses," Randall told me, "little
nudges of the levers of power, things that people like your dad
and Linda's did for all sorts of people, black and white, that
nobody knew anything about at the time. It makes you feel like
you can't do enough."
How would you like to grow up with a father who makes you feel
like that? (Come to think of it, the man who brought these Games
to Atlanta, Billy Payne, did.) Especially if nobody had ever
told you about little kindnesses, and maybe there were nudges
you didn't appreciate.
Whereas who could fail to appreciate "screams of rejoicings" and
"grace, strength, finesse and virility showcased through the
charming contest between young men and women as they challenge
each other by way of dance," to quote the program for Bonogo's
appearance? (The group will be performing in other Georgia
cities, as it has performed all over Africa, South America and
How did Decatur hook up with Burkina Faso? In 1985 Gunderson
returned from a visit to that country and wrote in the Atlanta
Journal-Constitution about how struck he had been by the
public-spiritedness and family values that prevailed among the
Burkinabe in the face of severe drought, disease and poverty.
Mike Mears, who was then mayor of Decatur, saw a television news
report based on the column and got the notion that Decatur and
Burkina Faso should get together.
Not so arbitrary a notion as it may sound. Mears, a white
Southerner, says he recognizes that "much of who I am, for
better or worse, comes from what people from Africa brought
over." And the student body of Decatur High School--all white
when I went there in the '50s--is now 63% African-American.
Certainly Decatur is more prosperous than Burkina Faso, but it
faces analogous challenges. Elizabeth Wilson, an
African-American, is the current mayor of Decatur. I got the
impression from her that she and my father communicated very
well. On her visit to Burkina Faso in 1985, she said in a speech
to some Burkinabe, "What strikes me here is the unity of
families, and so many people who could make other choices but
choose to stay here because they're going to make things better.
I wish I could bottle that spirit up and take it home."
Just before Mears got his notion, there had been a Burkinabe
living 60 miles from Decatur. "It helps," says Gunderson, "that
the first Burkinabe to come into this relationship was smarter
than all of the Americans involved put together." Mouhoussine
Nacro was a visiting biochemist at the University of Georgia in
Athens. He was looking for ways to produce energy from the
bacteria in a soil sample he had brought from home--it resembled
red dirt like north Georgia's, only drier, lighter and less
stable because his country lacks north Georgia's moisture.
The summer heat in Georgia, the Burkinabe say, is about like
that at home, but they've had a little trouble adjusting to the
humidity. They also find certain contemporary Georgia customs
strange. The extensiveness of body piercing, for instance. Nose
and ears, O.K., they say. But navels?
"The very first Saturday I spent in Athens," says Nacro, who is
now the Burkinabe ambassador to Canada but is ensconced in
Decatur for the Olympics, "I walked onto the campus to go to the
lab, and on my way I noticed that most of the people were
wearing red-and-black shirts. The closer I got to the lab, the
more I thought, People in this country very much like
red-and-black shirts. I went to the lab and worked, and when I
opened the door to leave, the campus was full of people in red
and black! What's happening? I thought. I didn't feel exactly
threatened, but on Monday I asked, 'Was this something
traditional, a tribal thing?'
"No, I was told, it was a game! A home game of Georgia
football!" Nacro became a Bulldogs fan. In 1984 he returned to
Burkina Faso; the next year another Georgia professor, a close
friend, contacted him on behalf of the Burkinabe-fan
Decaturites. (Decatur High's teams, incidentally, are also the
With Nacro clearing the way, a delegation from Decatur traveled
to Burkina Faso and established a sister-city relationship with
Bousse, a town whose population is roughly equivalent to
Decatur's 17,300. "Thanks to money and assistance from Decatur,"
says Nacro, "Bousse was able to build a tower, drill a well and
have tap water for the first time." Before, they only had
surface water, which they might have to walk four miles to get
to and which was often infested with microscopic guinea worms,
which would grow within people's bodies until they burst out
horribly through the skin. "Now people can get water in the
center of the village, and it is clean water," Nacro says.
"There are clinics, so that people can have doctors and nurses.
There is a new school building."
And thanks to Burkina Faso there are, as Linda Harris puts it,
"fertility dances--and no doubt about it, either: those
movements--on Decatur square!" Maybe that wouldn't seem
remarkable on your town's square. But if you'd grown up in
Decatur! (Leave It to Beaver, remember, with ghettos.) All kinds
of people enjoying an internationally known African dance troupe
together for free in the middle of Decatur!
The biggest blowout is yet to come. August 3 will be Burkina
Faso Night, and you can bet Linda and I will be there. My sister
is coming in from Houston.
The official language of Burkina Faso is French. (Decatur has a
cop now who speaks French. The other day he was interpreting
back and forth between his fellow officers and Ouoba, the triple
jumper. When I was growing up in Decatur, I'm not sure we had
cops who spoke English.) Emily Hanna-Vergara, a historian of
African art and the president of Decatur's sister-city
committee, translated as I spoke with the dance troupe's
director, Jean Ouedraogo, and with Lambert Ouedraogo (no
relation), vice president of Bousse's sister-city program. Jean
was wearing a shirt hung with horsehair tufts and goat-horn
danglers. "A shirt worn by priests," he explained through Emily.
"Priests that outsiders typically call sorcerers. The priest
acts as a liaison between the world of the living and the
invisible world of ancestors and spirits."
It occurred to me to suggest that we step over to the ROY A.
BLOUNT PLAZA PLAQUE.
Emily translated the inscription for the Burkinabe. "My father
would be honored," I said, "that you are here." In fact, if you
had told me before this week that there would be an African
seduction dance on my father's plaza, I might have said he would
be turning over in his grave. But he was a genial man, even I
know that. And maybe people in the grave like to turn over.
The two Burkinabe gave me looks that communicated very well.
"They are very touched," Emily said. "They say that for them,
your dad has not gone, he is here with us speaking your name to
them. When they dance again, the first dance will be in honor of
It would be appropriate in this situation, Jean said, for me to
make an offering to my father of a chicken or some beer.
"Unless he's changed his habits in the other world," I told John
Randall later, "I think he'd appreciate the chicken more."
"Should it be a live chicken?" Randall asked. That opened up all
sorts of theological and practical questions that hadn't
occurred to me when the Burkinabe were telling me my father was
there, with us, speaking my name, at his plaque. Because I was
I love you, man.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL EPPRIDGE Sedate Decatur had never seen anything resembling Bonogo's libidinous seduction dances. [Members of Bonogo dance troupe dancing]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL EPPRIDGE Basking in hospitality, Ouoba (left) and Zio took no offense that their nation's capital was misspelled. [Chantal Ouoba, Franck Zio and other Burkinabe]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL EPPRIDGE A plaque helped the Burkinabe make contact with the departed. [Plaque reading "ROY A. BLOUNT PLAZA DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF A GREAT BUILDER OF HOMES AND SCHOOLS, AND THE RAPID TRANSIT SYSTEM WHICH LIES UNDER THIS PLAZA. ROY A. BLOUNT 1913-1974"]
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Sanou, Burkina Faso's hope in the men's high jump, fell to earth quickly last Friday, failing to qualify for the final. [Olivier Sanou high jumping]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL EPPRIDGE The sister cities' friendship is unflagging. [American flag beside flag of Burkina Faso]