ALTERNATE NAMES: (former) Upper Voltans

LOCATION: Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta)

POPULATION: 10.6 million

LANGUAGE: French; Gur Group (Niger-Congo family of languages)

RELIGION: Islam; traditional religions; Christianity


Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in Africa, and one that Americans know the least about. Until 1984, it was known as Upper Volta. Its new name was created from the combined words of three different languages to mean "country of upright or incorruptible men." The shorter form, Burkina, is often used. Burkinabe is the name for the country's citizens.

Burkina Faso was one of the last parts of Africa to be conquered by Europeans. The French claimed it in 1896–97. The colony became an independent nation in 1960, but it is still closely linked to France.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the country had two bloodless military coups, that is, the army took over the government without violent action. But power was eventually returned to civilians. Thomas Sanakara came to power in a violent coup in 1983. In 1987 Sanakara was killed by his followers, who continue to rule. Burkina has elections involving several political parties, but political parties that oppose the government have often boycotted, or refused to take part in, the elections.


Burkina Faso is located in west Africa, north of Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, and Benin. It is slightly larger than the state of Colorado. Most of the country is gently rolling savanna (treeless plain). There are grasslands dotted with trees and areas of stunted brush.

The population of Burkina Faso was estimated at 10.6 milion in 1996.


French is the official language of the country. It is used in the schools and in official publications. Most Burkinabe also speak languages of the Gur group within the large Niger-Congo family of languages.


Most of Burkinabe history, law, and tradition has been passed down from one generation to another by word of mouth.


Current figures estimate the Muslim population of Burkina Faso at 50 percent. About 40 percent of Burkinabe follow traditional African religions, and 10 percent are Christian.

The traditional religion of the Burkinabe is similar to that of many other African peoples. The belief system has three main elements: a god, spirits, and ancestors. It is believed that an all-powerful god created the world. However, he is too high and too far away to have much interest in the activities of human beings.

Less powerful, but more important, are spirits of earth and air. They govern rainfall and fertile soil, affecting local conditions. Offerings and prayers are made to them at special places, such as sacred trees.

Third, and most important for daily life, is the influence of one's ancestors. Those who are living have a responsibility to their ancestors: they must take care of the family land; they must also marry and raise children to carry the family into the future. It is believed that the ancestors watch over their living descendents, and they can reward or punish their behavior.


Since the 1983 revolution led by Thomas Sankara, the most important secular (nonreligious) holiday has been the anniversary of the revolution, August 4. The government and schools also observe all the major Christian and Muslim holidays. These include Easter, Christmas, Eid al-Fitr (the end of the month-long fast of Ramadan), and Eid al-Kabir (the festival of Tabaski). For this festival, Muslim households sacrifice a ram in memory of the story of Abraham. In the Old Testament (which Muslims accept as a holy book), Abraham was willing to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac at God's command.


The ethnic groups in Burkina Faso mark various stages in a person's life with public ceremonies. A baby's birth is announced to the community at a set time. There is also a formal ceremony for naming the baby. Boys are circumcised before they become adolescents. Marriage is viewed as the time when a person takes on full adult status. A funeral marks the transformation from a living elder to a watching ancestor. Burials must occur soon after death because of Burkina's hot climate. It is considered separate from the funeral. Funerals may be delayed for years, until the relatives can be present and can afford the cost of the funeral ceremony and feast.


Most of the population lives in villages, surrounded by neighbors who usually are also relatives. People feel responsible for the well-being of those around them. As with other African peoples, respect for older persons is very important to Burkinabe society. Even city workers keep up ties to their families. They have a right to land to live on and to help from family members when they are old.


For those who live in rural villages, life has changed little over the centuries. Most people live in adobe houses with thatched roofs.

Electricity is available only in towns and cities, where some modern conveniences have been introduced. In rural areas, radios are battery powered. Water is carried from the well to the house in large pottery containers. Women carry these on their heads.


In most Burkinabe societies, descent is patrilineal (through the father). In the past, married sons and younger brothers were likely to live with their father or older brother. Today there is a tendency toward smaller households.

In the southwestern part of the country, some ethnic groups also transfer certain rights and goods through the female line. For example, a man's tools might be inherited by his sons, but his cattle may go to his sister's sons.

As in much of Africa, marriage in Burkina is primarily considered the means by which the entire family is perpetuated. Most marriages are arranged, and involve group meetings between both families.


Traditionally, women wear a long cotton skirt wrapped at the waists. Tops were added to their costume in rural areas as well as cities. Men's traditional clothing is a cotton shirt and trousers. Some wear embroidered robes, showing a Muslim influence. City people tend to wear increasingly Westernized clothes. Farmers have taken to wearing used, American cut-off jeans as their work clothes.

12 • FOOD

Throughout Burkina, millet and sorghum grains are the staple foods. The main food is a porridge made from millet flour, called in West African French. (It is also known as fufu in other parts of Africa.) It is cooked until it thickens into a firm mass. Then pieces are broken off with the right hand, dipped in sauce, and eaten. The stew-like sauce is made from vegetables, leaves, and spices, and may contain meat. Chickens and guinea fowl are the main sources of meat. A kind of beer somewhat like cider is brewed from sorghum. It is the main drink for everyone except Muslims and Protestant Christians.


Not everyone can easily obtain an education. Consequently, the literacy rate is quite low: in 1995, it was estimated that 19.2 percent of the population over age fifteen could read and write. This 19.2 percent figure is an average; the figure for men was 29.5, and for women, only 9.2. After elementary school, it is even harder to continue education because of the smaller number of schools. There is one university, in Ouagadougou.


The music of the Burkinabe is played on drums, flutes, and stringed instruments. In the western part of the country, there are many players of the balophon , a xylophone-like instrument made with dried gourds.

FESTPACO (Festival Panafricain du Cinéma d'Ouagadougou) is the leading film festival in all of Africa. Burkinabe filmmakers, such as Gaston Kaboré and Idrissa Ouédraogo, are making feature-length films that increasingly are seen in Europe and North America.


Most people in Burkina Faso still do the same sort of agricultural work their ancestors have done for centuries. The majority of the population are subsistence farmers, raising just enough crops and animals to meet their own needs.


Soccer and bicycle racing are the major sports. No holiday is complete without a bicycle race. There is a national basketball team, but few people are involved in this sport.


For the people of Burkina, radio is the most important link to the outside world. Local, national, and world news is broadcast. There are two television stations. They broadcast only two hours per weekday and five hours on weekends.

Movies are important, although theaters are found only in the larger towns and cities. Since relatively few movies are made in Africa, people usually see foreign films, especially films from India.


The Burkinabe, especially in the western part of the country, produce some of the most famous African art. They carve wooden masks of animals or spirits, which dancers use in ceremonies. Patterned cloth is made by weaving and tie-dyeing. Leather bags, cushions, and hats are produced by many people.


Burkina has a shortage of jobs. There are also serious health problems, including malnutrition and river blindness. Almost half of all Burkinabe children are considered mal-nourished. Outbreaks of river blindness have been reported in over 80 percent of Burkina's land area, causing people to leave their villages to seek healthy, uninfected areas.


Decalo, Samuel. Burkina Faso. Oxford, England and Santa Barbara, Calif.: Clio Press, 1994.

Skinner, Elliott P. African Urban Life: The Transformation of Ouagadougou. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974.


Internet Africa Ltd. [Online] Available http://www.africanet.com/africanet/country/burkina/ , 1998.

World Travel Guide. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/bf/gen.html , 1998.

User Contributions:

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a student
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Cheryl Ford
This was very informative thanks but what causes the river blindness and can it be treated?
Linda Murray Bullard
Just learned my father's DNA is from this country. While reading I can remember him loving rice the way other people love bread. He was a French Creole from a bayou of Louisiana. Thank you so much for this.

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