Wednesday, October 31, 2012

What’s in a Name? Burkina Faso: A Model of Tolerance

Author: Sam Gradess

Sam Gradess analyses the uniqueness of Burkinabé. Drawing from everyday life experiences, he explains how a stranger would be hard-pressed to find a place as welcoming as Burkina Faso. Its people and their way of life spells nothing but tolerance and an appreciation for the humanity that almost spells paradise.



When Thomas Sankara, often revered as West Africa’s Che Guevara, became president of Upper Volta, one of his many lauded executive declarations was to rename the country Burkina Faso. The new name signifies in French Le pays des hommes integres or, in English, The Land of the Upright People.

Thomas Sankara, often regarded as Africa's Che Guevara,
was the president of Upper Volta (present day Burkina Faso).
While Burkina Faso is no different from its neighbors in terms of hospitality and open-ness to foreigners, the Land of the Upright People has been praised for employing the best example of tolerance within the region.  The people’s acceptance of others and model of inclusion is made implicit within the name of the country and its people. “Burkina,” a Mooré word meaning honorable or upright, is combined with “Faso,” a Dioula word meaning land. Additionally, to denote a person from Burkina Faso, “bè,” a Fulfuldé word meaning people or children, is suffixed to Burkina.  Sankara successfully integrated the three most popular languages of his country to create a new national identity, one of tolerance, honor, and open-mindedness.

Like many other West African nations, Burkina Faso is known for housing diverse ethnic groups, including over sixty native, nomadic, or recently immigrated peoples.  The Mossi’s being the largest group, have built their empire around Burkina’s capital Ouagadougou over several centuries.  Leaving this region, older generations of Mossi are easily identified by traditional scars on their faces.  Though a fading practice, facial scarification was used to determine regional origin and social rank.  It is rare to see young children with these marks on their face, but if a Mossi mother fell ill during childbirth, the child would often have scars cut outward around the navel, resembling the sun. The group claims origins in Ghana, Chad, or somewhere along the Niger River, none of which intersect at any point, thus leaving the topic open for debate.

Though Dioula is the second most popular language in Burkina Faso, it does not correspond with one highly populated ethnic group.  While the umbrella ethnic group Mande is highly present in western Burkina, most Burkinabè identify with their subgroup, whether Bobo, Samo, Bwa, or Dafine.  The language itself has been a vehicle for trade and the spread of Islam for centuries and its use gains access to other countries in the region including Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, and Guinea, which all speak derivatives of this langue des commerçants.

This is a very surface-level description of just a few of the ethnic groups inhabiting Burkina Faso.  Interestingly enough, most of these ethnic groups are not tied to any specific religion.  The three most popular religions, Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism, are found in the farthest corners of every Burkina region.  Living in a Mossi district, I have two neighbors who are devout Muslims, one who is Catholic, and another who is Protestant.  This precedent holds true across the map of Burkina, regardless of ethnicity.  The possible mélange of ethnic origin combined with religious practice are thus infinite.  Furthermore, each religion’s holidays, be it Christmas, Tabaski or Ascension, double as national holidays for all of Burkina Faso’s citizens.

During Tabaski (a name commonly used in West Africa for the Muslim holiday, Eid-ul-Adha) rams are slaughtered
as a sacrifice. Large meals are prepared and shared among family, friends, and neighbors.


When I observed Eid ul-Fitr, the feast marking the end of the fasting period of Ramadan, I was an honored guest in many Muslim households and ate to my heart’s content and to my stomach’s discontent.  Seventy days later, celebrating Eid ul-Adha, the feast commemorating Abraham’s sacrifice, I noticed both Catholic and Protestant Burkinabè visiting various family compounds, wishing wealth and success to their Muslim counterparts, and even offering a part of their feast.  On both Easter and Christmas day, my Muslim neighbors equally invited me to celebrate in their homes.

This sense of revelry imbued in the daily lives of Burkinabè has promoted equal interest and acceptance among neighbors and friends, regardless of ethnic origin or religion.  I recall many American friends showing concern for my entry into a majority-Islamic country, especially since Peace Corps Niger was evacuated due to a resurgence of terrorism targeting Westerners.  After a year of living here, I am consumed with Burkinabès’ dearth of extremism, which weaves into the patchwork of their daily lives.  For example, when there is a conflict of any sort, it is usually resolved with ease for fear of disrupting the peace of tomorrow.  Whenever a disagreement arises and someone holds even the slightest grudge, many jump to say, “il ne pense pas à demain” (he is not thinking about tomorrow).  Honing this practice of keeping the peace among even the most minimal relationships has proven onerous, as it is not a natural American custom.

Further evidence of tolerance can be found in the playful interactions among different ethnic groups. I once overheard my language teacher ask the passenger next to her to close the window to stop the entry of dust, referring to him as her slave.  Due to the historical power dynamics of many ethnic groups, many Burkinabè hold on to these denotations, whether they are a grandfather, uncle, cousin, or yes, slave.  These names are, however, mere jocular ways of creating friendship and rarely if ever lead to anger or issue.  The passenger had a good chuckle, opened the window, and entered a lengthy discussion about his travel plans with my teacher.

My sojourn in Burkina Faso has been free of fear or insecurity because the people of Burkina Faso are not easily aroused by anger or injustice.  When the electricity is cut while I am typing a document or when my bike tire goes flat, I can easily elicit a smile from any Burkinabè who views my subsequent rage as foreign.  The calm manière de vivre dispels any notion that people fear of visiting a predominantly Muslim nation.  Their mutual respect and acceptance of family, neighbors, friends, and foreigners serves as a model for communities around the world who engage in backstabbing or slander.  Though Burkinabè never know what will happen tomorrow, they take comfort waking up each morning without enemies because they thought about tomorrow.

Samuel Gradess is an Education Volunteer in Burkina Faso.  He is a graduate of St. Lawrence University where he earned a B.S. in Psychology and Francophone Studies.  The contents of his articles are his personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.

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