Burkina Faso - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Abridged from the History section in Burkina Faso: the Bradt Travel Guide

Road to independence

World War II had a profound effect on the relationship between France and her west African colonies. On the part of politically active French-educated Africans, there was a new determination to use the rallying call of freedom to press for a say in their own affairs, and a growing acceptance by France that things needed to change. Even so, France felt it was too much to win the war only to lose its empire. ‘How can she recover her vigour, her self-reliance, and, consequently, her role,’ said General de Gaulle to President Roosevelt, ‘if she is excluded from the organization of great world powers and their decisions, if she loses her African and Asian territories – in short, if the settlement of the war definitely imposes on her the psychology of the vanquished.’

France was keen to tie in the political workings of its colonies to the French state, and offering minimum representation in a French parliament in Paris achieved just that. For the colonies, however, it was a first step on the path to self-determination.

At the 1944 Brazzaville Conference it was decided that French West Africa would have ten seats in the new French Constituent Assembly, five of which would be elected by Africans.

Party politics in the region was dominated by the African Democratic Rally or Rassemblement Démocratique Africain (RDA), a pan-regional movement created at the October 1946 Bamako Congress. Felix Houphouet-Boigny, future leader of Côte d’Ivoire, was its president.

The RDA, and its Ivorian predecessor PDCI, saw a strong hegemony as the only basis on which a smooth eventual transition to independence could take place. Ouezzin Coulibaly, the fi rst leader of the RDA movement in former Upper Volta, stressed the need for unity, telling the inaugural conference of the Convention Africaine: ‘No underdeveloped country which has reached political maturity has done so without granting primacy either to a single party or to a party which had such a large majority that it controlled all the sectors of social life.’

Yet this did not suit the Mossi, who had spent centuries building up a hegemony of their own. They saw Houphouet-Boigny – and his likely domination of the African contingent of the French Constituent Assembly – as a platform for Côte d’Ivoire. So to its chagrin and surprise, the PDCI met with opposition from Mossi traditional leaders when it sought their support. In elections in Côte d’Ivoire in 1946, the Union pour la Defense des Interêts de la Haute Volta (UDIHV) captured four districts, on a platform of the abolition of forced labour (achieved that year) and a reconstitution of Upper Volta. Th is Mossi political grouping resulted from an unprecedented alliance between Naba Koum of Ouagadougou and his fellow nabas of Tenkodogo, Ouahigouya and Fada, which breached royal protocol – tradition demands that the top nabas should never meet.

Colonial authorities were sympathetic to the idea of recreating Upper Volta as a way of checking the spread of Houphouet-Boigny’s radical nationalism in Côte d’Ivoire. Equally, African politicians recognised the strong Mossi claims to sovereignty, while acknowledging anxiety among the other groups of Upper Volta, namely Lobi, Bobo, Samo, Fulani and Gourounsi populations, who feared a return to Mossi subjugation.

The Mossi won out, and the law recreating the Upper Volta colony was passed in the French National Assembly on 4 September 1947. The new country elected three deputies to the assembly for the first time the following year, bringing African membership to 16 seats.

An intense period of jostling for position in the likely run-up to independence followed. Political parties came and went. Despite Mossi success in lobbying for a return to Upper Volta, the UDIHV became less of a force at the ballot box as the local wing of the RDA gained momentum. The influence of African deputies in Paris helped press the case for independence, and the 1956 Loi Cadre established that each of the eight French West African colonies should have its own Governmental Council. So following Upper Volta’s 1957 elections, the triumphant RDA, led by Coulibaly, formed the country’s first-ever government. In September 1958, with de Gaulle as the new French president, the empire was further watered down. Countries in French West Africa were given the chance to become members of the French Community in a referendum. Knowing which side their bread was buttered on, each country voted to stay with France, bar Guinea, from where France made an unceremonious and speedy retreat, even ripping telephones from bureaucratic walls. Burkina voted ‘yes’ to the referendum, by 99.18%, second only to Côte d’Ivoire in its endorsement. Following Coulibaly’s sudden death, Maurice Yameogo replaced him at the helm. A one-time member of the UDIHV, he had split off to form an independent party, and built a coalition of smaller parties that collaborated with, then joined and finally took over the RDA, renaming it the Voltaic Democratic Union (UDV).

Following approval of the constitution in September 1958, Yameogo found himself the country’s first president. Two years later, on 5 August 1960, he was signing the accord in Paris that gave Upper Volta its independence.

Natural history

Plant life

Vegetation can be divided into three zones, which roughly correspond to climatic variations. Plant cover is generally sparse, and steppes, savanna or open woodland tends to predominate. Following is a brief overview of some of the most common trees and plants. The Latin binomials are given not to confuse or bamboozle, but simply as backup for the avid naturalist, as any plant guide is likely to be in French and it will help referencing between English and French. The harsh conditions of the Sahelian domain mean that small trees and shrubs dot the landscape, the most common of which is the gum tree, Acacia senegal. Its sticky residue is still used in paper-making, cooking and the pharmaceutical industry today. The jujube, Ziziphus mauritania, produces a sweet fruit beloved by Fulani and Tuareg, and pastors. Of spiritual and material importance are the gnarled branches of the baobab, Adansonia digitata, which are a regular sight in the region of Djibo and Aribinda. Virtually every part of the tree has a purpose. The fruit, known as monkey bread, hangs down in enormous oval sacs, and its sweet, slightly acidic pulp provides a welcome sugar jolt; the calcium-rich leaves are used in both cooking and traditional medicine, and fibres from the bark are employed to make baskets and twine. Wild fonio, Panicum laetum, is a type of common grass that can be eaten in times of drought.

The Sudano-Sahelian zone contains many of the ‘trademark’ trees of Burkina, none more important than the karite, Butyrospermum parkii. Shea butter, extracted from the fruit of the karite tree, is used in cooking or eaten raw, and both butter and oil are used in the cosmetics industry, locally and abroad. Rich in vitamins A, D, E and F, it protects and softens the skin without being greasy. The wood is particularly resistant to termites and used in construction and to make djembe drums. The fruit of the beautiful nere, Parkia biglobosa, is beloved of young children, while its seeds form the basis of soumbala, used to flavour and sauces. The mango tree and the tamarind both provide wonderful respite from the heat of the day with their thick canopies and plentiful fruit. The caïcédrat, Khaya senegalensis, is found towards the south of the region, and favoured by carpenters for building furniture and canoes.

Much of the open woodland that once made up vast tracts of the Sudanian zone has given way to savanna, owing to widespread deforestation by the Mossi population. The Senegalese rosewood, Pterocarpus erinaceus, and the afzelia, Afzelia africana, are still found, although the siiga, Anogeissus leiocarpus, is the most widespread species. In the southwest, the Sudano-Guinean zone contains the most luxurious foliage and the greatest variety of plants, including many ligneous species. Forest galleries are a prominent feature. Palms include the oil palm, Elaeis guineensis, and the ronier, Borassus aethiopum, which in the regions around Banfora and Gaoua is heavily tapped for its palm wine, and also used in weaving. In the southernmost reaches of Burkina, pockets of ancient dry dense forest, nsuch as the forest of Koulbi near Batie, have microclimatic conditions similar to equatorial rainforest and include the iroko, Chlorophora excelsa. They line perennial rivers and permanently humid valleys.


There are not the same opportunities for game viewing in Burkina that exist in the savanna of eastern or southern Africa. There are fewer animals, and the nature of the vegetation means that those animals are more difficult to spot. Nevertheless, its parks and reserves off er some of the best and most exciting opportunities in west Africa, and Burkina has four of the traditional Big Five (elephant, buff alo, lion and leopard). Burkina is blessed with one cross-border national park, W, which contains the bulk of the best game, including six endangered species. The Arly Reserve has slid from what it once was, but the tracks through the park are receiving attention and the range of animals is good. Along with W and Pendjari park in Benin, it will be getting a chunk of EU funding over the next few years. The Nazinga Ranch and Deux Bale park, both within easy reach of the capital, offer a high likelihood of spotting elephant, and the former contains a magnificent selection of antelope. There are also 23 hunting zones throughout Burkina, with the majority in the east of the country bordering either Arly or W. Safari visitors are also welcome in these private reserves. There are a few animals that will not be found in Burkina, including black and white rhinoceros, wildebeest, giraffe and zebra, and large primates such as gorilla and chimpanzee.


For the birdwatcher, Burkina’s prolific farming and grazing lands are very rewarding, making up in diversity what they lack in ‘special’ species. More than 360 species are known in Arly and W parks, with some 35 species of birds of prey in W alone.

Relatively few species (about 20%) are resident. All this movement results in an avifauna in a constant state of flux, with composition, abundance, habitat use and behaviour changing significantly from month to month. As a result many bird species are either thinly distributed and/or present for brief periods and therefore known only from a handful of sightings. This is an area where visiting birdwatchers can make a great contribution to ornithological knowledge. The wet season is a fascinating time of year but access tends to be restricted. National parks are generally open between November and May, when seasonal roads can be used.

Much of the information and suggestions here have been kindly provided by bird expert Roger Wilson, who researched W National Park as part of the Ecopas project. His book on birds, Les Oiseaux du Complexe WAP (W, Arly, Pendjari) was published in 2007 by CIRAD (Montpellier, France) and makes an excellent field guide for the enthusiast. Don’t forget your binoculars.

People and culture

Dancers Burkina Faso Africa by Katrina Manson and James KnightMusical traditions are particularly strong in Burkina © Katrina Manson/James Knight

At the heart of west Africa, with its history of trans-African trade routes, invading peoples and borders made and remade over time, it is perhaps not surprising that more than 60 ethnic groups live in Burkina Faso, speaking a cacophony of individual languages and dialects. What is remarkable, given a recent history of brutal civil war among close neighbours Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, is that Burkina’s people live in relative harmony, peace and stability.

One can make broad generalisations about the areas inhabited by different people, but migration is a fact of Burkinabe life. You can find a northern Fulani woman in a western village, and a southern Dagara man studying in Ouaga. Everyone goes everywhere. Yet there are still concentrations in certain places, and allegiances to different points of the country’s compass remain long aft er individuals have migrated to the big towns, or further afield, to Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

One sign of Burkina’s robust diversity is a strong sense of plaisanterie (teasing) between different groups. This is particularly strong between the Mossi and the Samo, and virtually everyone else of the Fulani. One frequent and friendly jibe is to accuse a pal of being a bandit. The response is more often than not: ‘he’s my slave’, followed by much back slapping and laughter.

While on the surface this is all good clean fun, little currents of discontent run below. Argument persists today over whether the Mossi dominate to the detriment of others, and many campaigners follow the ethnic composition of cabinet and parliament, the judiciary, civil service and the world of academia closely. Such is the fear of Mossi dominance that it has been a struggle to convince some ethnic groups that the polio vaccine is not in fact a Mossi plot to wipe out their people.


Musical traditions are particularly strong in Burkina. There is always a jam going on somewhere, whether under the shade of a tree, in a backstreet bar or in the national stadium. In Ouaga it can seem at times that everyone you meet on the streets plays the djembe, and wants to share the art. Many visitors take up the offer, if the summer planeloads of French students and teenagers crowding departure lounges with all manner of souvenir drums are anything to go by. To pick up some musical tips, the best place to enquire about organised tuition is at the French Institute or Cultural Centre (CCF), in Ouagadougou or Bobo.

In Burkinabe society, the function of musical instruments goes beyond the mere sound they make. The instrument and its notes carry deep spiritual and cultural significance. Music forms a backdrop to every important event in life: marriages, funerals, births, initiation ceremonies, prayers, celebrations. Combined with the oral input of griots, music weaves in a healthy dose of mythology and history.

Handmade instruments tend to differ according to region, made from local materials and according to local know-how. An excellent starting place for the enthusiast is the well-researched Museum of Music in Ouaga, but the place to buy instruments, particularly finely made balafons, is Bobo-Dioulasso.


Ouagadougou is the undisputed capital of African cinema, hosting the international Fespaco festival in late February or early March every odd-numbered year. But Burkinabe big screens don’t just flicker come Fespaco time. At a recent count, Burkina had 1.5 million cinemagoers and the industry picked up CFA5 billion a year.

The country’s long and productive cinematic history dates back to the 1960s, when it was decided to nurture talented local filmmakers. What followed was a generation of competent directors, producers and technicians and, best of all, watchable, engaging films that formed the basis of an enduring cinematic tradition.

The enthusiasm and appetite of Burkinabe filmmakers continues today. As Gaston Kabore, godfather of Burkinabe film and a previous winner of the grand prize at Fespaco, says:  ‘Africa is a huge treasure of tales, legends, and myths. We have a responsibility to ourselves and the rest of the world to learn how to tell them.’


Burkinabe theatre is strong, and homegrown productions tend to behighly demonstrative, encouraging audience participation. Th e decade followingindependence saw the emergence of young playwrights such as Moussa Savadogo, Ouamdegre Ouedraogo and Pierre Dabire, who saw the theatre as a way of notonly reaching the masses, but also helping people to fi nd their own voices. In the eyes of pre-eminent Burkinabe theatre critic Prosper Kompaore, this kind of ‘forum theatre’ can challenge the notion of fatality, about individuals’ roles and the possibilities open to them, that he believes is ingrained in much of African society.

Kampaore’s Atelier Théatre Burkinabe is one theatre company at the forefront of this movement, and regularly tours productions. A number of companies, mostly within Ouagadougou, Bobo-Dioulasso and Koudougou, perform both new work and established classics of African and world literature. There are also regular theatre festivals in Ouagadougou.



Like most of west Africa, Burkina Faso is obsessed by football, although supporting the national team, Les Etalons, is not an easy business. Despite hosting the African Cup of Nations in 1998, when the team reached the fourth round, Burkina has struggled to become a footballing force. Ever since then, it has either gone out in the fi rst round or even failed to qualify, and dreams of World Cup qualification remain slim. Having managed to beat both Malawi and Guinea in the lead-up to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Côte d’Ivoire proved too strong and Les Etalons lost out. Hope may be around the corner, however, in the form of the junior team, Les Etalons Cadets. In January 2011, they came home as national heroes having actually won La Coupe des Cadets, the FIFA under-17 Africa Cup.

The crowds in Ouaga went wild; trick riders on both horses and motorbikes performed ridiculous feats up and down Avenue Kwame N’Krumah, such was the nation’s joy at a taste of success at last.

Most towns have a stadium where you can watch club teams play, including Ouagadougou’s Stade Municipal, and the teams from the principal towns compete in a regular league. Ouaga’s other stadium, Le Stade du 4 Août, hosts international matches.

Burkina state television regularly shows matches from the Champions League and a round-up of goings-on in England’s Premiership. For European midweek games, men gather on street corners to cheer and howl at Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal on small outdoor TV screens blaring long into the night.

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