Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso — Take one step into the raucous, dusty, motor-scooter-filled, radio-blaring central market here in this remote West African state, and you are instantly besieged by women pressing upon you glossy tomatoes, cucumbers, pineapples, carrots, radishes, and parsley dripping with water to make them shine. One woman in a long skirt removes a plastic envelope tucked into her hair, extracts from it some salad leaves and urges them upon me. Others jockey for position with wide straw baskets and a jocular line of sales talk.
The Mossi tribe around the capital of Ouagadougou in a nation many remember as Upper Volta, are farmers, and this market is their shop window. It is the women who do most of the work. They fetch and carry, plant and harvest, cook, and bear children.
Yet, as elsewhere across the third world, they lack status and respect. The female illiteracy rate here is 97 percent. For men it is 89 percent. A village girl grows up unable to read or write. As soon as she is big enough she carries a baby strapped to her back: At 13 she is married off. She has an average of six to seven children and a life of hard work while men make the decisions.
The United Nations is focusing new attention on the plight of third-world women this summer at a major conference in Nairobi, Kenya.
Meanwhile, here in this small country, the tall, young, charismatic Army captain who seized power in a coup two years ago has come up with some ideas of his own.
Last October, to the mirth and puzzlement of many of his fellow men, Thomas Sankara decreed that on one designated Saturday, no women would be allowed to shop in the markets.
Men would have to bargain and buy. Sankara said: ``You men will see just how hard your women have to work.''
``We all turned out,'' one government official told me, shaking his head at the memory. ``There was music. . . . It was like a party.'' Sankara himself appeared in his local market to buy food for his wife and children.
``Anyone who has ever watched his own mother cannot avoid looking at the position of women,'' President Sankara commented earlier this year. ``The women . . . do most of the work . . . but they never counted.''
Sankara has appointed several women to his Cabinet as well. He is said to believe that, in general, male-dominated ways block his country's progress.
Once the women's one-day vacation last October was over, however, women returned to their usual chores.
Sankara continually stresses a populist sense of working together and of independence -- in a country one of the most dependent on outside assistance in the world.
Caught between the Atlantic coast and the encroaching desert to the north, Burkina Faso has little industry. It exists mainly on foreign aid: Total aid from all sources this year will be about $230 million in contrast with a government budget of $140 million.
Some 2.5 million of its roughly 7 million people are affected by drought. The country is still today, as it was under the French, a source of unskilled labor. Each year it receives millions of dollars remitted by between 1 million and 1.5 million of its people working on plantations and in menial industrial jobs in Ivory Coast.
Sankara sees no alternative but to instill some kind of pride in his people. He works hard at a populist image. At the same time, he remains an authoritarian ruler. There is no talk of returning to any form of democracy.
A four-hour curfew that begins at 1 a.m. remains in force around the country two years after the coup. Machine-gun nests guard the road to the presidential palace.
When he seized power in August 1983, Sankara had cash and guns from Libya, and Westerners feared he would turn out to be a pro- Qaddafi radical.
But Burkina Faso's relations with Libya have cooled, while ties with the United States have improved steadily. ``We are not the pawns of Qaddafi,'' he said recently.
Why? ``Because he sees that Libya is simply not interested in the kind of sustained, long-term development aid that Burkina Faso must have to survive,'' says one informed Westerner. ``Nor is the Soviet Union.''
The Soviets have an embassy and 30 teachers here, but their diplomats reportedly complain a great deal and long to return home.
Meanwhile, as well as pouring in 53,000 tons of food aid this year (twice last year's figure and half of this country's emergency food aid from all sources), the US this year has spent some $210,000 on helping finance primary schools, dispensaries, and maternity clinics.
In a small, poor, illiterate country with a high birthrate, these projects are highly visible and much needed.
``Sankara also has a sense of style,'' says another Westerner. Recently, as giant Nigeria (population 90 million) was abruptly expelling hundreds of thousands of Ghanaians and other migrant workers, Sankara ordered every Nigerian in this country to report to a camp one Saturday.
As the day approached, the Nigerian Embassy grew alarmed.
From the Nigerian capital of Lagos came a government announcement that it would send in planes to fly its people out if necessary. The day came. The Nigerians showed up -- to be told that, provided their papers were in order, they were welcome in Burkina Faso.
``It was deliberately done to show Nigeria how Sankara thinks Africans should treat other Africans,'' one source said.
``It had class.''