Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Country Profiles: Burkina Faso

I hope you enjoy my post on Burkina Faso! It's a bit short, because the country is small and not much is going on there, apparently!

The flag of Burkina Faso. The yellow star represents the guiding light of revolution. 


Burkina Faso's name means “the land of upright and courageous people.” The country is landlocked and covers an area of 105,869 square miles making it somewhat larger than Colorado. The northern quarter is mostly flat, and is characterized by sand dunes and a dry climate. Half the nation is covered by the central plateau, and forests are most common in the south. Burkina Faso's highest elevations include Mount Tenakourou (2,300 feet) and Mount Naouri (1,372 feet). The country's main rivers are the Mouhoun, Nakambe, and Nazinon. The rainy season is June through October. The dry season (November–February) is generally warm, though cooled by a consistent dry, dusty wind. Daytime temperatures average 85°F through most of the year, but soar to 110°F during the hot season (March–May).

Some rocky features in the hills of Burkina Faso


Burkina Faso's population of 17.28 million is growing by 3.1 percent annually. Most citizens live in rural areas- almost 75%! The nation's two largest cities are the capital, Ouagadougou (often called Ouaga), and Bobo Dioulasso. The Mossi people (about 40 percent of the population) inhabit the central plateau. A number of smaller groups comprise the remaining approximately 60 percent of the population, including the Fulani in the north; the Gurmantche, or Gurma, in the east; the Bissa and Gourounsi in the southeast; the Lobi and Dagari in the southwest; and the Bobo, Bwaba, Samo, and Senoufo in the west. Most Burkinabè are tolerant of other ethnic groups and religions, and rivalries tend to be good-natured.

A group of Burkinabe people


More than 60 languages are used in Burkina Faso, but the most widely spoken are Mooré (by the Mossi), Dioula (a trade language used by many groups), Fulfuldé (by the Fulani), and Gurmantchéma (by the Gurma). French is the official language of government and education but is only spoken by 15 to 20 percent of the population. Burkinabè use Dioula and Fulfuldé to communicate with ethnic groups in neighboring countries. These languages and Mooré are used in some television and radio broadcasts.


Both Muslims and Christians inhabit Burkina Faso. They celebrate each other's holidays and respect each other's beliefs. Burkinabè from all ethnic groups belong to these religions, although Fulani are less likely to be Christians. Most people believe Muslims make up about 60% of the populations. Christians, making up a little over 20% of the population, are most often Roman Catholic, but there are active protestant groups. Traditional animist beliefs are practiced exclusively by about 15 percent of all residents of Burkina Faso; practitioners retain their Burkinabè names. Animist traditions act as unifying factors in Burkina Faso's tolerant religious climate, since many Muslims and Christians combine animist practices with their religion. It is not uncommon for Christians or Muslims to consult a diviner or to participate in ritual dances. Masks play an important part in animist rituals. For example, dancers wear them to ward off bad luck or to perform agricultural ceremonies. The shape and color of a mask depend on the ethnic group and purpose of the wearer. Fetishes, amulets, and totems are used by animists for various purposes, which may include protection or luck.

Worshipers gather at a church in Ouagadougou

The People: 

Burkinabè admire those who are warm, friendly, and generous. Honesty, wisdom, and loyalty are very important to the people of Burkina Faso, as well as an ability to control one's tongue. Burkinabè have strong family values centered on sharing and on respect for customs and tradition. They rely on family networks for support and advancement. A financially successful individual is responsible for the rest of the extended family. The elderly are highly respected. Young people are expected to do whatever older relatives, teachers, or neighbors ask. Humility and generosity are among the most desired personal traits.

Burkinabè wear both African and Western clothing. In rural settings, men wear a Muslim robe (boubou) while women wear a wraparound skirt (pagne) with a blouse or T-shirt. In urban areas, women wear elaborate, colorful outfits made of locally designed or imported fabrics. Men often wear the tenue de fonctionnaire, the civil servant suit, with a shirt and pants made of the same cloth. Men also wear slacks or jeans with shirts made of colorful pagnes. Both rural and urban residents buy used clothing imported from Europe, Asia, and the United States. However, embroidered traditional outfits have become more popular attire as leaders urge the people to buy more local goods. Women often have elaborate hairstyles and change them every few months. Braided extensions, wigs, and “spikes” of hair (made by wrapping hair with black thread) are common. Although on the decline, traditional face scarring is still sometimes practiced in rural areas by some to distinguish between ethnic groups.

Girls in Burkina Faso have their hair braided

Before engaging in any social activity, Burkinabè take time to greet each other and shake hands. Greetings include asking about family, health, and work. Urban people who have not seen each other for some time may kiss each cheek. A person may show respect by bowing one's head or, when shaking hands, placing one's left hand at his or her own right elbow. Male friends may touch their right fists to their hearts after shaking hands. Urban and educated men may also touch foreheads as they shake hands, particularly if they are greeting a friend after a long separation. In Muslim settings, men may not shake hands with or touch women. Not greeting all those in a room or at a table is considered rude. Kneeling is appropriate when greeting a person with higher social standing, such as a village chief, and it's important to avoid turning your back on a respected person when you are leaving them. 

Burkinabè use the right hand to greet people, pass items, and eat. Using the left hand, especially for greeting or eating, is extremely offensive. Men and women hold hands in public with friends of the same gender, but displays of affection between men and women are considered very inappropriate. It is rude to call someone's name unless the person is nearby. If the person is farther away, it is polite to whistle or make a loud "psst" noise in order to get his or her attention. Burkinabè express disgust at events or actions by rounding the lips and making a noise by sucking air through the front teeth.

Visiting friends and relatives is an important part of Burkinabè culture. Visits generally occur during the evening, sometimes during repos (a nap or rest time from around noon to 3 p.m.), and at any time on the weekend. Most visits are spontaneous, and visitors are allowed to stay as long as they wish. People announce their arrival by clapping their hands (instead of knocking) or saying "ko ko ko"; they wait to be invited in. 

Guests are always offered a place to sit and water to drink; refusing to drink is socially inappropriate, even if one is not thirsty. After the afternoon rest time, Burkinabè often make tea or coffee to share with friends and family. Tea-making is an important social ritual among men. It can take half an hour to prepare each of the three rounds on a bed of charcoal. The third round is the weakest brew. Burkinabè also enjoy having guests over for a meal or evening socializing. If guests are just dropping by, they are not expected to bring a gift. However, rural people visiting from another village for several days commonly give their hosts chickens, eggs, kola nuts, salt, or sugar.

It is considered a huge honor for a resident of Burkina Faso to receive letters from someone outside of the country, such as the relationship between a sponsor and a sponsor child. Receiving letters from a foreign friend raises one's social standing in the eyes of his or her peers. If you sponsor a child in Burkina Faso, know that your letters are especially treasured for this reason. 

A Compassion staff member translating letters for the children in Burkina Faso


Most families in Burkina Faso are large, especially in rural areas, where a family might have 10 or more children. Children live with their parents until they get married. When elderly parents need care, they usually live with their eldest son. Burkina Faso's traditional social network is based on the extended family and guarantees that family members will help a relative in need.

Rural families often live in a compound-style arrangement, with separate sleeping quarters for men and women. A mother generally cares for her children until they are weaned, at around age three. At this time, boys move from sleeping in the mother's house to sleeping in the father's house. Both boys and girls are cared for by their parents until they reach adulthood, but boys generally receive more support than girls. Once girls marry, they are perceived as having changed families.

In polygamous families, wives share chores, including cleaning the courtyard and preparing family meals. Rural women have few property rights and can be sent back to their families if their husbands are unsatisfied with them. Some ethnic groups, such as the Dagari, are matriarchal- families are led by women, and lineage is traced by women. In these areas, women have more rights. In urban settings, women are more often educated and able to find jobs. This gives them greater autonomy and decision-making power.


Most rural people live with their extended family in compounds made up of several small mud-brick houses with roofs made of millet stalks. In polygamous families, a husband typically has a small house and each wife lives in her own house. Houses can get quite hot, so people spend most of their time outside. They may sleep outside on plastic woven mats on the ground or even on roofs. In some villages, chairs are placed on roofs, and people climb ladders made of tree branches to go there to talk. Many neighborhoods have a communal well. This water may be unsafe for drinking, but villages with limited or no access to clean water may have no choice but to drink it. Even in cities, many people are without indoor plumbing, so children are often sent to a communal pump or well with a large barrel to fill. Electricity is available in urban areas, but blackouts are frequent in all but the largest cities. A few families own solar panels. Most urban residents live only with their nuclear family. Moving into one's own home, even if it lacks running water or electricity, is an important goal.

A compound of homes in Burkina Faso

Although casual dating is becoming more popular in urban areas, marriages in the countryside are usually still arranged. Many times, the only way a woman can get out of an arranged marriage is to run away. Marriage expenses are shared by the groom, his parents, and the extended family. In many cases, however, couples do not formalize their relationship and simply begin living together, after which they are referred to as husband and wife. The average marriage age is 22 for men and between 18 and 20 for women. Islamic laws allow a man to have as many as four wives if he can care for each of them equally. Polygamy is decreasing in urban centers due to the cost of raising and educating a family, but it is still practiced in rural areas.

Christian Burkinabè celebrate the birth of a child with a baptism, and Muslims celebrate at a naming ceremony, which occurs when the baby is a week old. At Muslim naming ceremonies, guests are expected to bring money or soap for the mother to wash the baby's clothes.

Initiation rites for boys are practiced only in remote areas and vary among ethnic groups. Groups of young adolescent boys are traditionally sent into the bush to be circumcised and instructed on their roles as men. Many girls still undergo brutal, disfiguring circumcision, even though the practice is illegal and symbolic ritual alternatives now exist.

When a person dies, burial almost always occurs on that day or the next. In some communities, a funeral is scheduled for several months later. The delay gives all relatives and friends time to prepare for the trip and earn enough money to put on a celebration to properly honor the deceased person. At funeral ceremonies, attendees consume large amounts of food while joyously remembering the life of the deceased.


Burkina Faso's main staple is sorghum, millet, or corn flour cooked into a hard porridge known as . Rural people usually eat twice a day with different sauces made from peanuts and local plants and vegetables, such as okra. A rural breakfast usually consists of leftovers from the previous night. Urban families with more financial means often prefer to eat their meals with rice rather than . People eat couscous and pasta cooked with meat on special occasions. Due to recent fishery and gardening projects, fresh fish and fruits are more plentiful in major cities.

Food is not treated casually and meals are often eaten in silence. In rural areas, men usually eat together in a circle on the floor, sharing a common platter and using the right hand. Using the left hand is forbidden. Women and children eat together in a different section of the family compound. If offered food, guests must take at least a few bites or risk offending the host.

Burkinabè women and children having a meal

Urban families tend to eat together, and they use a dining table and utensils more often than rural residents. Most single urban men eat their meals at street-side stands or in the numerous open-air bars where meat kebabs and roasted chicken are sold; some hire young men or women to cook meals for them at home. Cities and villages usually have dolo cabarets (beer stands), tended by women, where both men and women gather for drinks (such as dolo, or millet beer), food, discussion of local events, and gossip.


Burkinabè enjoy visiting each other and meeting at dolo cabarets. Men play cards and games like checkers. Women often meet to do each other's hair. On Saturdays, urban dwellers pack popular bars to dance to the rhythm of African and reggae music. These bars are also known for their kebabs and broiled, spicy fish. Soccer is the most popular sport, and cycling, boxing, volleyball, basketball, and handball are also popular. On many Sundays in Ouagadougou, local businesses sponsor cycling races. During the harvest (October–November) and on holidays, villagers enjoy wrestling matches and traditional dances.

Spectators gather to watch a cycling race

The Fulani people make colorful cotton blankets used as wedding gifts or decorations. Artisans carve sacred ancestral masks, talismans, and other religious figurines. Oral history is performed by djeli (praise singers) at civic ceremonies, and storytelling is common at festivals. Traditional music and instruments are heard at religious and secular activities. Dance troupes are often invited to perform at funerals and other events. The balafon (a wooden xylophone) and calabash gourds beaten with metal rings are common instruments.

Musicians play calabash gourds and a balafon

Every other year, the biggest film festival in Africa is held in the capital of Burkina Faso. FESPACO (Pan African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou) promotes African films and filmmakers.


Public holidays include New Year's Day, Fête du 3 janvier (January 3, for the 1966 uprising), Labor Day (May 1), Revolution Day (August 4, for the 1983 revolution), and Independence Day (August 5). Political holidays are celebrated with speeches and parades. Other holidays include International Women's Day (March 8) and various religious celebrations. Important Muslim dates include a feast at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan; Tabaski, the feast that honors Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac; and Mouloud, the birth of Muhammad. Christians celebrate Easter, Ascension, Assumption (August 15), and Christmas. End-of-the-year festivities remain the most important, and Burkinabè of all creeds join together to celebrate the New Year.

Burkinabè choir sings at Christmas


The people of Burkina Faso face health problems that include dysentery, hepatitis, diarrhea, malaria, and HIV/AIDS. The infant mortality and maternal mortality rates are very high due to malnutrition, malaria, and lack of access to medical services. Between 16-20% of Burkinabè children die before age 5. Almost all cities have primary care clinics All provinces have regional hospitals, but these are overburdened and very underequipped. Most patients or families must pay for hospital stays and medicines, but government employees have some health benefits.


Traditionally, all instruction in Burkina Faso has been given in French, so mastery of the language has largely determined one's success (the better you are with French, the more educated you are.) A movement toward bilingual education (in French and a local language) is gaining traction. Elementary school lasts six years, and secondary school lasts seven years. On average, children attend school for only five years. Many students drop out because they can no longer afford school fees. Enrollment rates are lower for girls and rural students, but the cost is still too much for many families. Attendance for boys is given preference due to girls' household responsibilities and early marriage. Rural schools often lack enough teachers, so students might miss certain subjects for months or sometimes. Entrance to one of the country's three universities is available to those who pass very difficult exams. Usually only a small percentage of students pass these exams because they are not prepared.

Burkinabè girl hard at work in school

Books to Read: 

[I write this section after ordering and then reading all the books that my public library offers on the country in question- unless there are a ton of them, like in India's case, and then I read as many as I can. We don't have any books about Burkina Faso. Amazon barely has any, either. I will come back and edit this section if I ever find any, though!]

Bible Verse: 

"Oui, Dieu a tant aimé le monde qu'il a donné son Fils, son unique, pour que tous ceux qui placent leur confiance en lui échappent à la perdition et qu'ils aient la vie éternelle."  Jean 3:16

From Compassion's Website: 

"Compassion's work in Burkina Faso began in the summer of 2004. Currently, more than 21,700 children participate in more than 100 child development centers. Compassion partners with churches and denominations to help them provide Burkinabé children with the opportunity to rise above their circumstances and become all God has created them to be."

All information came from CultureGrams. It's an excellent resource if you have access to it!


  1. That was fascinating!! I don't have a child in Burkina Faso, but your post made me interested in sponsoring there...maybe someday!! I think that's really interesting how valued letters from other countries are. And I enjoyed the info on the family life and customs. Thanks!

    1. Thanks for reading! My mom sponsors a little girl in Burkina Faso, so she told me to be sure to include the bit about the letter writing! : )

  2. This is an awesome post!! Ironically, my husband and I just sponsored Falidatou tonight through Compassion. I was looking up what her name might mean when I ran across this post. Thanks for sharing :)


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