Burkina Faso - Encyclopedia Information
Official name Burkina Faso
Formation 1960 / 1960
Population 16.3 million / 154 people per sq mile (60 people per sq km)
Total area 105,869 sq. miles (274,200 sq. km)
Languages Mossi, Fulani, French*, Tuareg, Dyula, Songhai
Religions Muslim 55%, Christian 25%, Traditional beliefs 20%
Ethnic mix Mossi 48%, Other 21%, Peul 10%, Lobi 7%, Bobo 7%, Mandé 7%
Government Presidential system
Currency CFA franc = 100 centimes
Literacy rate 29%
Calorie consumption 2669 kilocalories
Burkina Faso has been populated since prehistoric times (12000–5000 B.C.E.), first by hunter-gatherers, then by the Bobos, farmers who migrated to this region from Mali. Traces of relatively permanent structures indicate that settlements were already in place between 3600 and 2600. Burial remains dated between 1500 and 1000 reveal the development of systematic spiritual beliefs as well as the use of ceramics, iron, and polished stones. Dogon relics have also been found in central and northern regions, but the Dogon left in the 15th century to settle in the sandy cliffs of Bandiagara, the capital of the Fulani Macina (also Massina) Empire. Around the same time, the empire-building Mossis from Ghana invaded the area and, after securing its borders, developed courts of law, administrative bodies, ministerial positions, and a cavalry to protect their realm. The cavalry proved to be critical in resisting the hostile advances of their Muslim neighbors and explains why, even today, Burkina Faso is one of the few West African countries that is not predominantly Muslim. In the southwest region of Burkina Faso (as well as in the Côte d’Ivoire) the remains of high walls have been found, but it is not yet known who built them.
In 1898 the French took over Burkina Faso, which was then known as Upper Volta. In 1904 they integrated it into French West Africa, but it became a separate colony in 1919, with François Charles Alexis Édouard Hesling as the first governor.
In 1932 the French subdivided the land, giving little bits to Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Niger, and Mali. They also “blackbirded” (kidnapped for use as plantation laborers) the people of Upper Volta and transported them to the nearby French colony of Côte d’Ivoire to work the plantations there.
In 1947 Upper Volta was returned to its 1932 boundaries.
In the middle of the 20th century, when colonial rule was being challenged all over Africa, the people of Upper Volta also demanded their independence. Maurice Yaméogo (1921–93) of the majority Mossi group became the first president of liberated Upper Volta in 1960. His rule, thought by many to be unjust, was followed by two decades of military coups until a young and much-loved socialist Captain Thomas Sankara (1949–87) came to power. In 1984 he renamed Upper Volta Burkina Faso, which means “a land of honest people,” instituted wide-ranging reforms, and came down heavily on the tribal leaders and the elite of the country. In 1987 he paid for these reforms with his life. Captain Blaise Campaoré (b. 1951), a close associate of Sankara’s, came to power after helping to overthrow him.
Campaoré reversed all the policies that Sankara had initiated to benefit the disadvantaged. After the murder of journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998, the people held Campaoré responsible, and he became even more unpopular. Although the unhappy Burkinabé population missed Sankara and railed against Campaoré, he remained president in the early years of the 21st century.
GEOGRAPHY AND CLIMATE
Burkina Faso, one of the smallest countries in West Africa (about twice the size of the U.S. state of Colorado), is divided into 45 provinces. The population density is high, especially in the south and central parts. Most of the country (located at the edge of Sahel) is a vast central plateau with semi-arid, infertile soil. Its landscape is gently undulating, with a few hills, the last remains of a Precambrian massif (a block of the earth’s crust displaced without internal change). The southwestern area is a huge sandstone massif bordered by sheer cliffs 490 feet high.
Burkina Faso is landlocked by Togo, Ghana, and Benin to the southeast, Mali to the west, Côte d’Ivoire to the south, and Niger to the north. The northern part is desert with scarce vegetation, and this condition continues into the Sahara Desert to its north. The south has sugarcane fields and forests, where the slaves were forced to work. The east has green woodlands and undulating plateaus.
The French gave Burkina Faso its colonial name, Upper Volta, because of its three principal rivers, the Mahoun (Black Volta), Nakanbe (White Volta), and Nazinon (Red Volta), which flow through the central plateau. The Sourou is their main tributary.
These rivers, which converge in Ghana, are impassable, being either completely flooded during the rainy season or dried up. Desertification and deforestation are the biggest threats to the country’s natural resources. Desertification has been speeded up by the droughts the country has experienced since 1970. For instance, there is a treeless 43-square-mile area around the capital city of Ouagadougou.
There are two seasons in Burkina Faso: the dry season (from November to May) and the wet season (from June to October). The time between March and June is perhaps the hottest. The dusty Harmattan winds that blow between December and February make people irritable and the atmosphere hazy.
These winds are so called because they pick up dust while blowing over the Sahara Desert and deposit it in many West African countries, including Burkina Faso. People prefer to stay indoors until these winds stop blowing.
Burkina Faso is a poor country. Around 80 percent of the country’s population is engaged in subsistence farming on the 14 percent of land available for agriculture.
(Less than 10 percent is arable without irrigation.) Its fertility depends on the vagaries of the monsoons and the fragile quality of the soil. Overgrazing and deforestation have caused a lot of desertification and soil degradation, making soil quality even worse than it used to be. This, in turn, has determined patterns of human settlement, population density, and the entire economy. Cotton is the main crop, although sorghum, millet, maize (corn), peanuts, and rice are also grown. The business sector of the economy remains government-dominated and unprofitable. Though the government’s currency devaluation policies in 1994, along with the assistance of international agencies, led to an increase in exports and economic growth, Burkina Faso’s strained relations with its southern neighbor Côte d’Ivoire have adversely affected its economy.
Many Burkinabés are suffering, and hundreds of thousands seeking employment in nearby countries, including Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, have been expelled and are now refugees.
CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE
Despite coming from nearly 60 different ethnic groups, the people of this country are all Burkinabé at heart. The dominant groups are the Mossi (whose people have royal ancestors), the Bobos (who reside around the cities), the Sénufo, the Lobi, and the Fulani. Burkina Faso is one of the few western African countries that has remained predominantly non-Muslim. Most of these ethnic groups are nonMuslim and retain the animist beliefs of their ancestors.
Some—mostly in the central part of the country, in the capital city Ouagadougou—are Christians. The Muslims are scattered in the remaining areas such as the second largest city of Bobo-Dioulasso. There are a number of foreign missionary groups (Muslim and Christian), who continue to proselytize, but religious affiliation is not a big issue; even the ruling party is composed of people from all religions.
The Mossi, Lobi, and Bobo boast several unique art forms, among them, elaborately carved masks, which are an important part of the lives and culture of most Africans. The masks are symbolic in nature and an integral part of customs, beliefs, and traditions.
They are worn to mark important occasions— such as funerals, initiations, village purification ceremonies, and market day dances—as they have been for centuries. The Mossi tribe is famous for wearing huge (seven-foot high) red or white antelope masks while guarding certain fruits or at funerals.
The Bobos wear striped butterfly masks in red, white, and black in order to tempt the deity Do (the son of god) while performing fertility ceremonies.
The Lobis are known for preserving African traditions, including dyoro, the initiation ritual for young boys. They believe that their wooden carvings protect their families, which makes them hard to find on the market and, as a consequence, highly valued.
Each of the 60 different ethnic groups of Burkina Faso has its own musical tradition, The Mande people, who live in the southwest, are famous for their playing the balafon, a type of xylophone. Their balafons are usually made of wood, and vary depending on their makers; the Bwa, Sénufo, and Dagara peoples, for example, have their own distinctive types. The Fulani, who live in the northern region, are renowned for their complex vocal music, usually accompanied by equally intricate clapping percussion (a type of percussion provided by hand clapping).
The bendré is a very old type of membranophone—a percussion instrument made with a goat or sheepskin stretched taut across the open top of a hollow gourd—that may have been introduced during the reign of King Naaba Oubri, the founder of Ouagadougou. The music of the bendré is sacred, and different sounds can be produced by the lead drummer (benaaba) by striking the center or along the edges.
A stringed instrument popular throughout West Africa at least since the Malian Empire of the 13th century is the kora, which combines the features of the lute (it is played with the right hand) and the harp (it has perpendicular strings and a resonator).
The resonator is half of a gourd with goat or calfskin stretched across it, perforated by two handles. At least some of its popularity is due to the fact that it is capable of being played in several different indigenous musical scales.
Although Burkina Faso has not yet produced a type of music for which it is known, it has produced a number of international stars in the world music scene, including Jean-Claude Bamogo (reggae), Tidiani Coulibaly and the Dafra Stars (wellknown during the 1970s for their blend of Cuban music with West African), and Koudbi Koala’s Saaba, who have popularized traditional Mossi music.
Coulibaly and the Dafra Stars had to withdraw from their musical careers when they were unable to replace equipment provided by the state, putting an end to their performances of indigenous dust dances.
A biannual event must have some of the credit for bringing Burkina Faso’s musicians to the world’s attention, the Semaine Nationale de la Culture (National Culture Week), a music festival started in 1983.
The Mossi storytellers, the griots, are also known as djeli (“praisesingers”) in Burkina Faso and, while they may have added some modern musical instruments to their performances such as electric guitars, they remain most important in their traditional role as oral historians. When called upon, they recite tribal histories and the genealogies of kings.
The staple foods of Burkina Faso include millet, sorghum, rice, corn, peanuts, potatoes, beans, yams, and okra. Although meat is a rare treat in this poor country, protein is provided in the diet by eggs and fish, which are plentiful in the country’s lakes and rivers. Most dishes in Burkina Faso are served with a sauce made from eggplant, okra, peanuts, fish, mutton, tomatoes, or beef. A stiff white gruel made of millet, sorghum, or corn flour, called to, usually accompanies a sauce. (In Bissa the porridge is called wu, while in Mooré it is known as sagabo.) A nutritious meal can be planned around pounded yams and plantains. A popular snack food sold by street vendors in towns is peanut rings, made of peanut butter with most of its oil squeezed out by hand, then rolled into rings and deep-fried. The peanut oil is saved for general cooking needs.
Néré seeds are highly valued because they figure prominently as seasoning in the many sauces favored by the Burkinabé, and the fermented seeds are also ground and rolled into balls called “African stock cubes,” or soumbala. Bush rat is a delicacy (with or without sauce) in rural areas. The Burkinabé love yogurt and curdled milk products, and dates are very popular in the northern desert areas.
Although water is the usual liquid, dolo, a millet beer, and bissap, a drink made with hibiscus flowers, are often available in towns. A popular local soft drink called Zoomkoom (in Mooré zoom means “flour” and koom means “water”) is made from a mixture of millet flour and water seasoned with ginger, lemon, and a lot of sugar.
COMING OF AGE
As in several other African countries, Burkinabés mark the transition from childhood to adulthood with circumcision for boys and genital cutting for girls.
Although female genital mutilation is illegal here, all but a few of the country’s 50 ethnic groups practice female genital mutilation (FGM), and it is estimated that in the 21st century 70 percent of the country’s women have undergone the procedures.
Girls of the Mossi tribe are kept in seclusion during the circumcision period and taught about their motherly and wifely duties. This is followed by feasting and celebration. Among Muslim Burkinabés, female genital cutting is usually performed while the girl child is being named. Recent legislation outlaws FGM, and the government campaigns widely against the practice. The National Committee for the Fight against Excision (CNLPE) was set up in 1990 and carries out extensive educational work.
The boys of the Fulani tribe go through a test of their strength and manliness before being initiated into adulthood. This involves a ritual called sorro that requires hitting each other with sticks, during which they cannot show any pain.
Because of widespread teenage pregnancy and complications, the government has worked to eradicate the practice of marrying young girls to older men.
Traditionally the groom’s family pleads for the girl’s hand, and if she and her family accept, the ceremony takes place.
Polygamy is common in the rural areas of Burkina Faso. The wives live in separate quarters from their husband and take turns cooking and enjoying the “wifely rights” of being with the husband. Fulani women are not allowed to utter the name of their inlaws or their first-born children.