The Upright Man. Ten Lessons From Thomas Sankara

 Where did all the genuine African revolutionaries go? They were either assassinated; Patrice Lumumba, Eduardo Mondlane, Samora Machel, Amilcar Cabral, Steve Biko, John Garang, Muammar Gadaffi  or fell under siege from their own legacies. Nelson Mandela here. It has been decades since we saw a visionary leader who inspired the Pan African idealism of the revolutionary 60s.

Look around. Africa is facing a leadership crisis. From South Africa to Egypt, Kenya to Senegal, there is a clear sense of ‘we deserve better’. As African men, stifling under the stereotype of rogue males in power, there are not many examples around to deliver a much needed inspirational leadership wake up call. The only standard for leadership presently is wealth and influence. Simple men with solid characters, sincere intentions and grand visions are consigned to the pages of African history.

Therefore, it is with deep nostalgia that I remember an iconic African revolutionary, a pragmatic visionary and an upright man, Thomas Isidore Sankara, the former president of Burkina Faso. It is 28 years, since his brutal assassination on October 15 1987. As far as African leadership goes, Thomas Sankara was cut from a different piece of cloth. In his short life, the charismatic military leader set about creating an enduring legacy for conscious African citizens that is more relevant today than ever before. Progressive forces fighting economic domination and ideological slavery of Africa can draw inspiration from Sankara’s life journey.

Sankara came to power on August 4th 1983 through a popular revolution at the age of 33. In the four years that ensured, he embarked on a revolutionary paradigm shift, bringing real power down to the people, advocating for policies on African self-reliance, food security, gender parity and the dismantling of the neo-colonial development structure that continues to render African states beholden to foreign masters for survival. His solidarity and sincere commitment to the plight of all suffering people, irrespective of their location in the world is why Sankara is fondly referred to as Africa’s “Che Gueverra”. The Burkinabe revolution remains a relevant ideological model in Africa for raising mass consciousness and battling poverty.

I have attached a series of links at the end of this article for those interested in delving further into Thomas Sankara’s political legacy. That said, there is plenty that Sankara has to offer for men who are interested in improving the self. I  managed to compile 10 lessons from Sankara’s life that would be relevant to those seeking the simple pursuit of a balanced life of an upright man.

1.   Acknowledge your roots and find yourself.

When Sankara came to power he changed the country’s name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, “The land of Upright Men”. He stressed Burkinabe culture and pride. During a famous OAU assembly address,in Adidis Ababa, July 1987 he made a powerful statement on African self reliance by proudly showing off his traditional tunic, woven from Burkinabe cotton and sewn by Burkinabe craftsmen.

Until one acknowledges their roots, there can be no true understanding of who they are. Identity is a nagging issue for many African men. Who am I? Where do I belong? Many of us are disconnected from the ethnic origins and cultures of our parents and view ethnic pride as retrogressive. We oscillate between the notion of modern liberal men touting grafted western principles and the old cherished ideals of African manhood as organized by our patriarchal structures. So class identity is often used to fill the gap of tribal disconnect and patriotism is reduced to a slogan. Only by looking deeply into our past and understanding our history, can we evolve new insight to help define ourselves.

2.   Life is fleeting, stop procrastinating.

Sankara was one of Africa’s youngest leaders at only 33 years old when he seized power in a popular coup. In four years his contribution to African consciousness was enormous. Sankara was assassinated at the age of 38 but by then he had lived like a man on borrowed time and the impact of his life still reverberates through out the world today.

We keep on waiting for outside forces to intervene in our personal circumstances yet the solutions to a large part our problems are within ourselves. We require tenacity to face failure and fear many times over because success is all about getting up one more time like a baby determined to walk. For, if we do not take these calculated risks and stay focused, our lives will be very small.

3.   Frugality is not poverty. Live within your means.

Too many men try to keep pace with peer expectations. Manhood is defined by the value of our possessions and frugal living is associated with poverty. Our consumer culture has sanitized greed by creating a heightened sense of lack. This thinking motivates unchecked consumption for the better part of our lives as willing prisoners of addiction or envy, never knowing the peace of mind that contentment offers.

Sankara was different. He did not amass wealth or create a cult of personality around him. His life was marked by frugality. At the time of his death he was earning a salary of $450 (approx kshs 45, 000) a month; he did not own much in terms of personal possessions. The most prized item was a car and 4 motorbikes.

By Kenyan Member of Parliament standards, he was dirt broke but at the end of his life he continues to be remembered as a man of substance whose time on earth left millions enriched.

4.   Perseverance requires courage

It is easy to shout in a crowd. But to hold a different opinion that goes against the sanctioned grain takes courage. To stay true to your conviction until your vision comes to fruition requires perseverance.

Sankara’s achievements on the battle front and his personal charisma earned him the popular support required to become president of Burkina Faso. But he was soon to realize that not everyone wanted change. The intellectual petty bourgeoisie had interests to protect in cahoots with foreign powers and they hit back but Sankara’s commitment to change rooted in solid personal values were unshakeable. In the end he paid for his values with his life but his legacy lived on.

In the same regard, in our different engagements of livelihood, it sometimes seems like no progress is made. Work becomes mechanical, distractions are frequent and our goals look unattainable.  That is the time to cultivate patience and remember perseverance as we work diligently towards our goals. The old African hunter said, “Don’t lose sight of the antelope when a squirrel darts across your path”.

Sankara 2

5.   When the trees go, man will follow soon after.

Burkina Faso continues to be under threat from the advancing Sahara desert. During his tenure, Sankara introduced a reforestation initiative that saw 10 million trees planted. His legacy survived and tree planting is now a Burkinabe custom in times of celebrations to commemorate birthdays, weddings and graduations.

Our natural environment is getting systematically destroyed to make room for the aspirations of modern life. As individuals we have to be a little more conscious of how our lives are entwined with the natural world and the consequences that will be visited upon the lives of our children in the near future as a direct result of our present day mindless mass destruction of trees and the natural environment.

6.   Behind every successful woman, is a bitching man.

Sankara understood women’s place in Africa’s empowerment long before gender activism came into vogue. He was not reactionary, and he understood that the disempowerment of women was linked to male economic dominance by other men who lashed out to compensate for their inadequacies. He started a campaign to restore the dignity of women and return them to their rightful place in society. He studied the roots of patriarchal dominance, tracing it to the advent of private property where women were consigned to a man’s possessions. During Sankara’s reign, several women where appointed to government positions and his most powerful gesture was the day of solidarity with women. On that day, roles were reversed and men walked a day in women’s shoes, going to the market and taking care of household chores.

Too often men blame their state of emasculation on the advancement of women. Male disempowerment in Africa can be traced back to the slave trade and colonialism. The effects of centuries of degradation are real. The disempowerment plays out as violence towards women and children, delinquent habits and recklessness. But with awareness, change is possible. African men must be more proactive in creating safer communities for women and children. It starts with self examination to determine the triggers behind our insecurities and why we overreact when our position is threatened as the first step towards healing and self empowerment.

7.   To lead is to serve.

Sankara’s was a perfect example of servant leadership. The symbols of opulence all but disappeared under his watch. His down-to-earth attitude was baffling. He got rid of the presidential fleet of Mercedes and opted for the boxy fuel efficient Renault 5. He refused to use the air conditioning in his office because he did not feel he earned the privilege. These small gestures were necessary for fiscal discipline. Burkina Faso was one of Africa’s poorest nations and he understood the injustice of the one percent living off the fat of the land while the great masses wallowed in poverty. Sankara’s brand of leadership was about elevating the collective through organizing and example which he used as a reflection of his individual worth.

I read somewhere that leadership is the ability to motivate and inspire others to take positive and sustainable action. This principle is not pegged to the number of followers. It can just as easily apply to a household or a relationship. The underlying objective is not merely to lead but how well we lead that counts. At the most basic level, a true leader must live by example. All talk and no action won’t cut it.

8. Don’t believe the hype.

Thomas Sankara decreed that his portrait should not be displayed all over the country in official buildings as is the norm in Africa. He saw no need to develop a cult of personality around him. Despite his high station he identified with commoners. He was secure enough in his position to be humble.

Success can be overwhelming. It takes a steady hand to ride the waves without sinking into the depths of self delusion. No matter how great the accomplishment, one must not get too attached to the noise it generates. Sooner or later, the hype will pass and it is important to remember the man you were before success came knocking.

9.   Cultivate your personal style.

Sankara’s style was pragmatic. He preferred tailored military fatigues drawing inspiration from Fidel Castro and like Che’ he wore a beret. He loved motorcycles and dressed appropriately for the bike. He promoted Burkinabe traditional as an expression of belonging.

Style essentially is about knowing who you are and how to express your individuality. It is also about comfort in your own skin. Fashion fades. Do not be a slave to trends or you will end with suitcases of clothes you detest.

10.               Fitness is for life.

Sankara’s commitment to personal fitness was total. He was regularly seen jogging unaccompanied in the streets of Ouagadougou so it’s no surprise that he was never overweight. He initiated fitness programs around the country and always seemed energized.

These days as soon as man makes a little money, it is reflected on his waistline. The more prosperous one gets, the bigger the belly grows. By the time fortune descends, he will have arrived at full term pregnancy. Physical fitness is not a priority and all about vanity with the advent of surgical short cuts. But an unhealthy lifestyle is expensive because medical cover is not getting cheaper.  Most of ailments plaguing society are attributed to careless lifestyle choices and are preventable.  The human body was not designed to be sedentary, so get off your butt and make exercise a regular activity.

Sankara 1

Inspiring Thomas Sankara quotes;

“I want people to remember me as someone whose life has been helpful to humanity.”

“We have to make every effort to see that our actions live up to our words and be vigilant in regards to our behaviour”.

“He who does not feed you can demand nothing of you”.

“While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas”.

“Comrades, there is no true social revolution without the liberation of women”.

“Women’s fate is bound up with that of an exploited male. However, this solidarity must not blind us in looking at the specific situation faced by womenfolk in our society. It is true that the woman worker and simple man are exploited economically, but the worker wife is also condemned further to silence by her worker husband. This is the same method used by men to dominate other men! The idea was crafted that certain men, by virtue of their family origin and birth, or by ‘divine rights’, were superior to others”.


Anzetse Were: Drivers of Violence, Male disempowerment in the African context. Mvule Africa

Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan writer, curator and editor. This blog examines the texture of everyday Kenyan and African life and the challenges of modernity and disillusion. The writings commonly feature the struggle of the Kenyan male to maintain integrity in contemporary society.


  1. Dayvee vuvu

    Hi OP,

    **This comment is in the wrong section**, but I really wanted to voice my great joy in reliving my days with a Vehicle. God bless VO’s.

    Ps: turn on the comments.

  2. Did you know that many Kenyans do not know who Sankara is?

    • Hi Millie, it is a shame though because he was an exceptional example of leadership. It is really our fault for not writing more on Sankara.

      • O.P I think you should have a whole section dedicated to revolutionary leaders. Your articulation of their achievements is unmatched. You write very very well.

      • Thank you. That is an idea.

    • It’s because the education system is not meant to enlighten Africans but to dumb them down.As is evident,it has been successful.

  3. I did not know who Sanakara was seeing how I was born the other day and no one speaks about him. But after reading this article am lost for words Behind every successful woman, is a bitching man so so true. Wish more African leaders would be like him we would be very far.

    Please post more articles about such Great men they need to be recognized and appreciated!!!

  4. OP,

    You forgot to mention Mr. Paul Kagame, a man with a vision of his peoples welfare and the development of his country economically and socially using the available resources within his country.

    • Captain, you are right, I forgot to mention Kagame even though he is sometimes described as a benevolent dictator. He has made some worthy strides. I hear mostly good news from Rwanda.

      • I don’t think Kagame comes anywhere near Sankara. He was a very special leader the likes of which we may never see in this lifetime.

      • Sankara was on a league of his own even for the revolutionary 70s and 80s. He stood up against imperialism in a way that was gutsy and what he achieved in Burkina Faso in 4 years was transformation.He was like a man who knew he did not have time. I think he understood that you cannot bring about fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. I wonder how he would have turned out if he was in power for as long as Kagame has. People in power change.

    • Kagame is a war criminal, see how many millions of women his soldiers have raped in the Congo and how many of the same million have they killed both in rwanda and Congo. He will go to hell

  5. Binshaddy

    OP yours truly, never disappoints. Thanks for the ride shortening ‘mushkaki’ … Keep the pen on.

  6. ‘I would like to leave behind me the conviction that if we maintain a certain amount of caution and organization we deserve victory… You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future.’

    Thomas Sankara, 1985

    This is Sankara for me!

  7. I got curious as to the origin of the Sankara Hotel and that’s where I learnt a little more about Thomas Sankara. Watched the clip of him speaking to the OAU and couldn’t help imagine what if the great leaders of the 60s to 80s were still around. Africa would have been a much better place by now. Great piece.

  8. OP: Thanks for this brilliant piece on the unsung African hero and revolutionary! Its extremely sad that Capt. Sankara, the “African Che Guavara,” has been forgotten in our history books. We have opted to remember those who have destroyed our countries and our continent instead of those who decided to stand up for the motherland. I was surprised when I screened the documentary on Sankara called “The Upright Man” in a human rights camp I facilitated for youths from East Africa and none of them had ever heard of this great patriot! If you go to Burkina Faso, the guy who betrayed Sankara-Compaore, has continuously worked to destroy any remaining memories/legacies of Sankara but this has not worked-as Sankara said “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill idea.”

  9. This is a fantastic piece OP. True lessons that every man can learn from. Kudos!

  10. ohhh, the memories, what a brilliant Guy Sankara was!
    no 6 “On that day, roles were reversed and men walked a day in women’s shoes, going to the market and taking care of household chores.”
    no 7 – Our M-Pigs and other leaders have no clue of what that sentence means

  11. Excellent piece brother. No one could have put it better especially the ‘frugality is not poverty’ point.


  12. Sankara is an all of us..and frankly…I dont see any of those qualities in our current crop of leaders..
    The definition of leadership in Africa has been degenerated to political euphoria and an opportunity to amass wealth for one’s self..
    If only each of us could attain Sankara’s attributes…then we could identify leaders with similar stance…and duly elect them…
    Nice read as always.. OP..

  13. ana odam

    Thanks O.P for resurrecting memories of Sankara. Can we have more lost hero profiles eg. Samora Marcel etc

  14. This article is exactly what i looking for, I have a blog where I post similar ideas. Please, I would like to translate this article in Romanian and then to post it on my personal blog, linking to your webpage as source. In our country not many read in English and I try to help at the school with some blogs about what I find online … Is this possible ? Thanks in advance.

  15. Lotus Inc

    The powerful lessons of history must be kept alive! Wish more such articles would be available. Too much time and energy lost on trivialities and then have a people who can dare say they know not of their collective history. This should not happen. The one thing we must cling to with pride is our history. We must hold our heads high as we tell of our stories with strong proud voices! Good on you, Oyunga Pala. Good on you!

  16. Victorine

    Wow. This is something everyone should read, very inspiring life lessons. Am ashamed to say that untill now, I never knew that such a wonderful man existed in Africa! Nice work Pala, unmatchable and splendid.

  17. “The more prosperous one gets, the bigger the bellies grow. By the time fortune descends, he will have arrived at full term pregnancy” ROFLMAO

  18. I really wish Sankara was in this time and age,and hopefully in Kenya.Maybe things would be so different

    • Revolutionaries die but their ideas live on. Sankara is like that hovering conscience that keeps reminding conscious African people that despite the gloom and doom, all the obstacles in our way, there still lies hope that the dawn of shared prosperity and abundance will arrive.

  19. Tonny muchui

    Wow. I’ve never heard of the guy till I bumped into this article. Great guy.Great piece, a worthy tribute. Instead of wishing people were like him I find it better that as an individual I try to be like him. It starts with me.

    • Cde Monomotapa

      Right on Comrades! The Revolution starts from within! Afrika Oyee!

  20. Thomas SANKARA, one of the great men Africa has known. To me it doesnt matter the shortness of his life. But great ideas he gave to Africa and the whole world. He dared stand and talked about the unspoken, a true son of the continent.
    He believed in what was right, and did it. Eveytime you read about this man, you pose and think. whenever i read about one of his quotes, i learn something new.
    Thanks for sharing, Viva Thomas Sankara, Viva Africa.

  21. Something every Kenyan should read and make a part of their lives before they receive their first salary.

  22. and Blaise Compaore, ‘kikulacho kilicho nguoni, tried to impugne Sankara’s character after assassinating him. Sankara deserves a lot more recognition.

  23. Dominic Mutai

    …told like it should be. Have spent 3 hours reading about this guy. It is a shame I did not know him before. Africa trully kills its sun and sons. This was a true leader, the breed that we will never get. I cant imagine where the country would have been today, that’s why they had to kill him.

    Somebody said, if you want to hide anything from Africans, hide it in books. We never read. We believe the hype. We believe western media. Thomas Sankara’s story will never be told by them, NEVER. I am so humbled and inspired by this guy. No 2. Life is fleeting, stop procrastinating,Stand up for something or lie down with your game.

    P.S. Part II of the conspiracy was Oyunga Pala leaving Saturday Magazaine. TRUE. See what articles we have these days and the kind of young men we have around. I remember as a ritual when we were in Campus, since we could not afford Sat Mag, we would go to the Kinyozi and wait till we read “Man Talk”. OP’s articles made men, it made us real men. Thanks I found him here.

    • Thanks Mutai. Those are kind words. Glad to reconnect. Still in the game, still writing.

  24. Amazing article OP…I will be honest, am amongst those people who have no idea who Sankara was but am definitely on it right now. Thanks for giving me something to think about.

  25. Great stuff and history

  26. OP this article has really inspired me this morning. Amazing stuff about a great man I never knew existed. Such an admirable character. RIP Sankara.

  27. Never heard of Sankara and its been a pleasure knowing him.

  28. “I want people to remember me as someone whose life has been helpful to humanity.”

    “While revolutionaries as individuals can be murdered, you cannot kill ideas”.

    I love the two closing statements, I love the story….keep it coming, I appreciate your work.


  29. philip malile

    Thanks for the insight into the mind of this revolutionary. It is true that Kenya and Africa have nothing to offer in this department. A case in point is the very misguided attempt to gag the media by passing these draconian laws.
    Would Sankara, Mandela, Machel et al do this?
    Weep, for my beloved Motherland.

  30. Ken Nyandega

    Thomas Sankara’s story has not been highlighted properly and few people know his story properly, thanks for this nice piece

  31. Johnny Oduho

    I must say that the late great, revolutionary African states-man that is Thomas Isidore Sankara is now an inspiration in my life. Before reading this I only heard of him but not known of him.
    I share a great many thoughts and aspirations as he. My lack of exposure to such material, I blame on the effort made by the system to make my generation unaware of such material. For then shall we be aware and to them it’s but threatening. How? They Fear the Unknown, that which they cannot understand. A true force for good. Hope…
    Gratitude Mr. Pala for the insight, I shall cultivate my mind and thereafter reap what is sown.

    • You are most welcome John. Keep reading and learning. Knowledge is power, cultivate your mind.

  32. Great article. Muhtalla Mohammed in Nigeria was an equally inspirational leader, and met the same fate. Assassinated shortly after taking power but within those days Nigerians had seen notable change!

  33. Great piece!…I became a Thomas Sankara enthusiast about two years ago…what you have done with his ideologies is simply brilliant. I picked up a few quotes that resonated so strongly…I just had to point them out.
    “Simple men with solid characters, sincere intentions and grand visions are consigned to the pages of African history.” OP
    My favourite…”It is easy to shout in a crowd. But to hold a different opinion that goes against the sanctioned grain takes courage. To stay true to your conviction until your vision comes to fruition requires perseverance.” OP
    “African men must be more proactive in creating safer communities for women and children. It starts with self examination to determine the triggers behind our insecurities and why we overreact when our position is threatened as the first step towards healing and self empowerment.” OP
    This one below is just hilarious!
    “These days as soon as man makes a little money, it is reflected on his waistline. The more prosperous one gets, the bigger the bellies grow. By the time fortune descends, he will have arrived at full term pregnancy.” OP
    Just splendid!

  34. Sankara’s words never rang so true as they do now, with the elections coming up!If only our so called leaders would take up even half of the insights he so passionately lived by we would be well on our way to being a 1st world country!sad state of ideas indeed.

  35. samuel dzombo

    I didn’t know a thing about Sankara. I only knew of that tiny nation. I have lots of work to do reading African history.

  36. Ann nkane

    Partly a great piece here,but kindly omit John Garang’s name as one of Africa’s revolutionaries,go back to the history of South Sudan,he’s far from what people think he was and what his tribesmen claim he has done for that country,it’s just wrong to mention him alongside the likes of Sankara and Samora Machel.

  37. Petirna Nandjila Mwetulundila

    Great stuff, thank you. I was doing secondary school in Ghana in 1987 when Sankara was betrayed by his right hand man Blaise Compaore and Felix Houphet-Boingy of Ivory Coast.
    The understanding was not so well as this article has put all together and the movie ‘Upright Men” I watched a month ago.
    Thomas Isidore Sankara was one of a kind, a gem to Africa.

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