A Revolution of Thought in West Africa

The Thomas Sankara Center, founded by Inem Richardson ’20, educates residents of Burkina Faso on the country’s anti-colonial origins and more

By Kat Braz

A classroom in West Africa with a teacher and a dozen children

Across the Atlantic Ocean and nearly 5,000 miles from Barnard, in the landlocked West African country of Burkina Faso, a new Pan-African lending library and political education center located in an unassuming house has become a vital learning hub for the local community.

Founded by Inem Richardson ’20, the Thomas Sankara Center for African Liberation and Unity opened its doors in the Cissin neighborhood of the capital city, Ouagadougou, in October 2021. Its library houses classic texts on African history, feminism in the Global South, and global anti-colonial struggles, including the works of Sankara, who led the August 1983 coup d’état in the Republic of Upper Volta (and changed the country’s name to Burkina Faso), and other revolutionary leaders. Many of these books cannot be easily found in stores or are unaffordable for the average family.

In addition to its lending library, the Sankara Center has hosted community events, including film screenings and a celebration for African Liberation Day that showcased local artists, musicians, and traditional storytellers. This spring, the Sankara Center launched an afterschool program for 8- to 12-year-olds to learn about the history of the continent and the African diaspora.

“I’m inspired by the country’s history,” Richardson says. “Burkina Faso has a revolutionary history of people who have resisted colonialism and various forms of domination over the years. Within West Africa, Burkina Faso has a reputation for the way the people have stood up.”

At Barnard, Richardson majored in Africana studies and comparative literature and studied abroad in both Senegal and Ghana. She also participated in a Critical Language Scholarship summer program in Brazil. She came to Barnard speaking only English and left speaking three languages — English, Portuguese, and French.

 

I saw the world when I was at Barnard... I took advantage of all the international opportunities I could. Both comparative literature and the Department of Africana Studies put a huge emphasis on international education. These really unique experiences transformed my life.

Richardson also received a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship grant to visit Burkina Faso during her senior year at Barnard. During this trip, she began to develop the idea of establishing the center. The contrast between her educational experience and the lack of access to education for the women and youth of Burkina Faso motivated her to establish the center.

“As an Africana studies student at Barnard, I had an awareness of the canonical texts in the field. You have access to so much, it feels infinite,” says Richardson. “You can’t possibly go through every single academic resource — all of the materials in the library and archival documents — in four years. Even the most basic texts we read in Africana studies are very hard to come by in most of the countries I’ve visited in West Africa.”

A California native, Richardson grew up in San Jose, where she was surrounded by immigrants from Nigeria — her mother is Nigerian — and other African countries. These interactions sparked an early interest in the African continent. Barnard’s pedigree of influential women, particularly poet and activist June Jordan and author and feminist Grace Lee Boggs ’35, led Richardson to move across the country for her education.

“What really stands out to me about June Jordan and Grace Lee Boggs is that their education wasn’t specifically for personal upward mobility, but it really was a tool they used to create larger change, whether in their communities or in the world,” Richardson says. “That’s the reflective spirit of Barnard. I had a really cosmopolitan experience at Barnard. I was very connected to the whole world.”

Richardson compares the mission of the Sankara Center to that of the Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW), a nexus of feminist thought, activism, and collaboration for scholars and activists. The Sankara Center’s pursuits are both academic and intellectual, but Richard also hopes to inspire others to embrace advocacy.

“We want to spread Pan-African political education,” Richardson says. “But we also want to empower people to make political changes in their community, their country, and in the world at large. That’s something I got from Barnard as well. I attended many BCRW events. It’s not just for politicians to be politically involved or aware of creating change but everybody in every field.”

Initial funding for the center came from a Davis Projects for Peace grant that Richardson received as an undergraduate. The center is staffed by five other Ouagadougou residents in addition to Richardson. She plans to remain in Burkina Faso to continue to expand the center and has started a new project, funded by a 2020 Fulbright scholarship, in which she conducts oral history interviews about the 1980s revolution in which Sankara emerged as an iconic figure.

Sankara, the country’s president from 1983 to his assassination in 1987, implemented programs that reduced the infant mortality rate, dramatically increased literacy rates, and vaccinated more than 2 million children against measles, meningitis, and yellow fever. Millions of trees were planted to combat desertification, and practices such as female genital mutilation were outlawed.

The intersection of the oral history project and the work being done through the Sankara Center solidifies Richardson’s goals for her time in West Africa. “With the Fulbright, I’ve been doing more historical research,” she says. “The Sankara Center is very grounded in the present. By learning about the country’s history and analyzing what’s happening in the present, we can then work together to explore what alternatives could be possible for the future.”  

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