Reflections on being in Sidi Bouzid

By Nate Stickney 

Prior to this trip, none of us can recall being in some place so relevant to such a huge historical shift.  Landon has spent time in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union and disintegration of Yugoslavia; C’pher spent time in Thailand during one of their coups, and Pete had been about everywhere.  But being in a specific spot, the place where it began, is a new experience for all of us.  Naturally, we are on high alert.

In December of 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after government officials took his scale.  He sold fruit from a cart, and the scale was critical to him doing business.  The previous day, he had taken out a loan for $200 to pay for more produce, and was ready to begin selling.  Police came, took his scales, slap ped him, and spit in his face.  After attempting to have his case be heard at the governor’s office, he set himself aflame, questioning how he was expected to make a living.

The rest, as they say, is history.  Within a month, President Ben Ali had fled to Saudi Arabia.  Uprisings were occurring across North Africa, and I watched Al Jazeera's streaming feed in awe as conflict happened outside my former apartment in Egypt.  The Arab Spring had begun, and continues to this day.

Sidi Bouzid's history of resistance goes back to the country’s independence from the French in 1956.  We were told recently that the people of Sidi Bouzid (and we expect the inland/central part of the country more generally) were the ones who fought for the overthrow of the French colonialists.  However, when the new, independent government of Habib Bourguiba was installed, people from the coastal regions were the one who took power.  As is prone to happen in politics, investment was focused on the area whence the politicians came.

Change has been more community-focused in Tunisia, but the economic process takes time.  Asking about developments since the uprisings here, a contact in Sidi Bouzid said that, “There is more freedom.”  But economic change has been slow, leaving many frustrated.  Youth unemployment is still very high, as is general unemployment.  Last summer, the state of Sidi Bouzid declared independence from the country of Tunisia.  

The team reflected on these events as we walked through town and saw the statue of a fruit cart that serves as a memorial to Mohamed Bouazizi.  We held our focus group with 15 students whose average age was about 20.  Our conversations with them, and with other stakeholders in the city, highlight the hard work and passion that exist with the city’s citizens, and the discrepancy they perceive in how it has been rewarded.  And we learned that they have no trouble speaking their mind about it.

The image above is the memorial to Bouazizi.  On the left is a fruit cart, and on the right is a photo memorial of him and the ensuing protests.  The photo is hung on the post office, and this is on the main street on Sidi Bouzid, which has been remained after Bouazizi.