Travelogue: My cultural immersion in Burkina Faso

By Bukar Usman

In April 2017, the National Museum of Burkina Faso, in collaboration with Association Makaranta, conferred an award on me in recognition of what they saw as my commitment towards the development of cultural integration and peaceful coexistence between and among Hausa community and the globe.
Association Makaranta is a non-governmental organisation formed in 2006 by the Hausa community in Burkina Faso to promote Hausa language and culture, education, socio-cultural and economic development of the Hausa community in that country. As part of its strategies for realising the above objectives, the Association decided to organise a Hausa cultural festival. The festival was planned to feature cultural shows, exhibition, international conference and the presentation of awards to some illustrious and industrious sons of Africa who have contributed immensely to the development of the Hausa community. I was chosen as one of the awardees. The other award winner from Nigeria was distinguished Senator Engr. Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, the former Governor of Kano State.
Senator Kwankwaso and I turned up for the festival at Ouagadougou, the capital city of Burkina Faso. Ouagadougou (‘Where people get honour and respect’) lived up to its name; indeed, visitors were respectfully treated. I was honoured with a plague and a certificate of award as ‘Jakadan Adabin Hausa’ (Ambassador of Hausa literature).
The International conference had as its theme the contribution of Hausa culture in the enlightenment of African civilisation. Hausaland was noted for textile making and indigo dying, blacksmithing, leather works, pottery and artistry in the production of those items for trading within and outside Hausaland. Hausa ranks as one of the world’s major languages which have widespread use in commerce, education and broadcasting in several countries. There is growing literature in Hausa language on various subjects including development issues although concern was also raised about the need to use digital devices along with existing traditional patterns in preservation of language and culture that is sensitive to domestic and global environment. There was expressed interest in the original names of people in Hausa before the advent of Islam as well as concern over children not speaking their mother tongue.
On display at the exhibition, which was declared open by the Burkina Faso Minister of Culture, Arts and Tourism, Mr Tahirou Barry, were Hausa artefacts, cultural products and foods. They include leather works, beads, raffia works, farming implements, cooking and eating utensils, calabashes, wood works, woven cloth and potteries with their artistic designs. Others were herbs and assorted processed meat and drinks.
Guests were entertained with traditional Hausa music and games, notably wrestling, a popular game in Burkina Faso. A strong troupe of famous Hausa wrestlers came from Niger Republic. While the conference and the awards were held from April 14-16, 2017, the exhibitions were programmed to last for two months (from mid April to mid June, 2017).
In my secondary school days, in the 1960s, I had learnt of the exploits of the powerful Mossi Dagomba Kingdoms of the central West African region. Now in modern-day Burkina Faso, those kingdoms were once so strong that they remained powerful for centuries until the French conquered them about 1896. I was therefore curious to visit Burkina Faso if only to validate the wonderful stories about the land and the people of Burkina Faso I had been told.
From many years of sociological studies, I have come to appreciate that to know people you need to understand their history and culture, much of which can be obtained from their folklore. For that reason, as I landed by air at Ouagadougou, even before checking into a hotel, I headed straight to a bookshop to see if I could get a book about the land and the people of Burkina Faso. The bookshop’s shelves were full of books for various kinds of readers. However, to my disappointment, none of the titles I might have found useful was in English.
My enquiries as to where else I could go to get the books I required yielded no positive results. Even to communicate that request was a problem, no thanks to that unpleasant legacy of colonialism that created a barrier between Francophone and Anglophone countries of the sub-region. Therefore, I had to rely on oral tradition supplemented by information accessed from the internet. I appreciate the fact that a Francophone visitor to Nigeria would have faced the same predicament I was confronted with in Burkina Faso where the most widely spoken languages are Moore, Djula and French. Burkina Faso has altogether 63 ethnic groups among them is Fulani. Some other Nigerian ethnic groups, Igbo and Yoruba are also there with their leaders.
Burkina Faso, which means ‘land of the incorruptible or upright people’, has a long history. Its history dates back to 1896 when the French established a Protectorate over the area. By 1904, France had formed the Upper Senegal and Niger Colony of the French West Africa with capital at Bamako. It later became French Upper Volta with capital at Ouagadougou in 1919. The colony was abolished in 1932 and split into the French Colonies of Ivory Coast, Sudan and Niger. This was reversed in 1947 with the revival of the colony of Upper Volta which retained its previous boundaries as French Union. It was granted self-government in 1958 and full independence as Republic of Upper Volta in 1960.
Just as in Nigeria, the military intervened in the governance of the Republic of Upper Volta in 1966. That regime lasted till 1976. The succeeding civilian government was again overthrown in 1980. The military junta lasted until 1983 when the duo of Thomas Sankara/Blaise Campaore emerged in continuation of military rule. It was the Sankara regime that changed the country’s name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso in 1984 and opened a new chapter in the history of the country. After the assassination of Thomas Sankara in 1987, the country had steady leadership under President Blaise Campaore for about 27 years. He was forced out of power in 2014.
The country’s former name, Upper Volta, was taken from River Volta which drains the country and empties into the Atlantic Ocean through present-day Ghana. The river itself was named by the Portuguese who called it “Volta” to describe the twists and turns of its meandering course. The river has three major tributaries, locally identified as White Volta, Red Volta and Black Volta in reflection of the soil types of the respective areas. The soil in Ouagadougou is red and Red Volta River is in north-west of Ouagadougou.
Burkina Faso currently has an estimated population of 20 million with Ouagadougou the administrative capital having about 2 million while the commercial city of Bobo-Dioulasso has less than one million. The last census was held in 1982.
The Mossi tribe, who have several dialects, including Kompela and Tenkodogo, make up the bulk of the population. They are reputed to be of high endurance, hence the men were recruited into the army by the French colonial government and were also deployed in building railways and the highways in the sub-region. Burkinabe women are no less hard-working; they do not shy away from manual work and are commonly seen in the capital city riding motor-cycles as commuters or commercial transporters. They farm, irrigate, mould blocks and plaster houses. Polygamy, once abolished under the Sankara revolutionary government but restored by the succeeding regime, is practised in the country, and this encourages traditionalists to marry several wives. A woman who loses her spouse does not leave her matrimonial home. She is only required to choose any of the male family members of the deceased to re-marry.
Farming is the main occupation of the people. Burkina Faso grows red corn and groundnuts. They also grow ‘acca,’ a grain crop commonly grown in Plateau, Nasarawa and Kaduna States of Nigeria. The country also rivals Egypt and Sudan in growing cotton for export. Its mineral resources of gold, silver, diamond and manganese are exploited by foreign concerns from Australia, South Africa, Canada, France, Japan, and Ghana, among others. The country depends heavily on foreign aid for much of its economic development. Hotel Laico, which is also known as Hotel Libya, about the best hotel in Ouagadougou, stands as one of the notable gestures of the former Libyan leader, Muamar Gaddafi. Among other prominent features of tourist attraction in Ouagadougou is the Hall of Martyrs which is located at a round-about along the Muamar Gaddafi Boulevard to commemorate the victims of the popular uprising of 2014.
My hosts in Burkina Faso are descendants of several generations of the Hausa community. Their forefathers had originated from Nigeria, particularly from Kano, Katsina, Sokoto and Kebbi, among other northern cities. They were said to have arrived Upper Volta as merchants, craftsmen and fishermen before the arrival of the French colonialists. They were said to have introduced into Burkina Faso the art of dying clothes with indigo and also brought woven clothes which were adopted and highly cherished as national dress to this day.
The Hausa communities are found in several cities in Burkina Faso. They live in quarters popularly known as Zango, a name derived from the trans-Saharan camel-caravan camp or trading post of yesteryears. The Zango in Ouagadougou was relocated twice as the settlements were overtaken by developments. The first Zango was near the railway station. The second Zango to which they were moved and where they spent 85 years was in the city centre, about 2 km to the palace of Moogo Naaba, the Mossi traditional ruler, with whom they enjoyed excellent relations. In 2001, the President Blaise Campaore government relocated them to the present Zango, some few kilometres from the new Presidential Palace.
A few members of the Hausa community who embraced Western education had attained notable positions in the Burkina Faso public service and elsewhere outside the country. However, most are lately being awakened to the value of Western education, and the Association Makaranta was formed to help in promoting this value among the people.
There is much to see and to learn from Burkina Faso which, though less endowed than many countries in many respects, is running its affairs relatively well and has managed to instil in the populace a high standard of discipline and respect for constituted authority.
Moogo Naaba (meaning ‘Emperor of the world’), as the Mossi traditional ruler in Ouagadougou, is revered. He occupies an exalted position. His throne, being at the capital city and seat of government, enjoys some eminence, although he is said to be about the 4th in rank among the Mossi Kingdoms of Burkina Faso.
Legend has it that Mossi dynasty in Burkina Faso started about 7th Century. According to the legend, king of Gambaga among the Dagomba tribes of northern Ghana was blessed with only a female child. When she was married out, she rode a horse and strayed into the forest. She was found in the forest by a hunter from Mali. They got married and had a male child. As the mother was found on a male horse, they decided to name him Ouedraogo, the word for a male horse in Mossi.
Ouedraogo became the first ruler of the Mossi dynasty and founder of the Kingdom of Tenkodogo. The current Mossi ruler in Ouagadougou, Naaba Booggo, has been on the throne for 34 years. He is the 147th occupant of that stool. This is sufficient testimony to the long tradition behind the Mossi throne. As a demonstration of how strong the palace is attached to tradition, Naaba Booggo, as his predecessors had done, remains committed to an unfinished war with a breakaway community along the border with Mali. For that, he dresses up with armour and mounts a horse ready to go to war till he is persuaded by his courtiers to dismount. This demonstration of warfare is religiously staged in the palace every Friday.
His Royal Majesty Naaba Booggo graciously granted audience to the conference and festival participants. Before we saw him, there was much palace protocol. However, it was worth the waiting. Burkinabe are known for their patience and expected no less from visitors. Seated majestically on the throne and the effigies of two lions, with their fangs frighteningly wide open, on either side of the throne, His Royal Majesty addressed us in the language of the palace through an interpreter. He spoke on child upbringing. He observed that times had changed and emphasised the need for elders to pay more attention to child upbringing to ensure that they grow up to be law-abiding and respectful citizens. I learnt that that has been his regular message to all visiting groups.
To sustain the myth surrounding the Mossi royalty, it is strictly forbidden to take pictures in the palace reception hall without prior permission. The royal father granted us the rare privilege of having a picture with him outside the reception hall. Aside from the royal message, there is something valuable a visitor to the palace could take away. Inscribed boldly in three languages (Moore, Djula and Fullanci) on a dome in the palace is a wise saying: ‘Wherever you find a respectable elderly person it is difficult for things to go wrong.’
Naaba Booggo, the royal father, was a keen footballer. It is not surprising, therefore, that the first national stadium is literally a stone throw from the palace gate. Samuel Eto, the Camerounian footballer, in appreciation of the monarch’s interest in football, was said to have funded the construction of the outer perimeter iron fence of the palace.
We gathered more wise sayings at the palace of Sarkin Hausawa in Zango Quarters. The palace spokesman said that ‘While it is possible for the herdsman to move hundreds of cattle in one direction with one stick, it is much more difficult to control human beings in like manner’. This underlines the difficulty of governing a kingdom or a country.
The conference and the festival, being international events, sought participants from Benin, Cameroun, Central Africa, Chad, Gabon, Ghana, Niger, Nigeria, Togo and Sudan, all of these countries which have sizeable Hausa speakers. Attendance was quite impressive with three Hausa traditional rulers coming from Togo alone. But for the travel difficulties on the African continent, a far larger attendance could have been recorded. However, the travel difficulties notwithstanding, the festival’s success elicited high commendations from participants and commitments by Togo and Senegal to stage similar festivals in the future.
Travelling by air from Abuja to Ouagadougou was tortuous. There were suggestions of flight connections through Cairo and even through countries outside Africa in order to reach Ouagadougou. A shorter route through Lome in Togo or Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire took two days. Participants from Nigeria who went by road took three days with stopovers at Maradi and Niamey in Niger Republic, reaching Ouagadougou on the third day on account of several border controls and numerous internal security checkpoints.
In spite of this, the journeys by road were undertaken with a lot of excitement and enthusiasm as there were much to see and learn about the terrains and the peoples of the sub-region. From the perspective of viewing terrains, the journey by air is no less exciting as we viewed the vast virgin forest and the barren savannah lands with dotted trees and unpaved roads connecting the sparse settlements of the sub-region. There is much to do to bring the vast land under cultivation and it can be responsibly done while preserving the ecosystem.
I had a lively chat with some of my fellow travellers. They expressed interesting views about Nigeria. On the flight to Abidjan en route Ouagadougou, a former tutor at Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone, lamented seriously about Nigeria. Having passionately extolled Nigeria’s huge resources, he grieved over what he saw as a penchant for wilfulness among Nigerians. As a prescription, he said that ‘Nigeria needs a benevolent dictator who will not kill.’
On the lighter side, we talked about issues of human sensitivity and human rights following an outburst between two passengers, one of whom was a white man. The passenger, a man, sitting directly behind the white man, had been making loud phone calls. At some point, the white man found the calls unbearable and complained. The man making the calls responded angrily and they began to quarrel. Soon, it degenerated into exchange of abuses as each of them tried to assert what he perceived as his right. The white man appealed to the airline staff to intervene, but it was fruitless. The altercation grew louder with threats of exchanging blows whenever the plane landed.
Still on the same flight, two other passengers, an elderly man and a young lady, performed their drama. The elder was busy typing on his laptop. The lady complained that his elbow was disturbing her. The man did not give in to the young lady’s complaint. Both asserted their rights. The lady had to relocate to another seat before peace prevailed.
Surely, there are lessons from these comic episodes. One clear lesson is that in claiming one’s right, one ought to be sensitive to the feelings and rights of others. When I viewed these comic events within the context of the reasons for which I was given the Burkinabe award, it became clearer that life demands from us more than the mere assertion of our rights. We need to promote good understanding in our relationship with people, respect our cultural and individual differences, and do our best to enhance peaceful co-existence.

Bukar Usman is former Permanent Secretary in the Presidency, Abuja



About the Author

Kelly is a shy and lifestyle blogger addicted to new things, a die hard ManUtd fan, loves music and a good dancer but also a terrible singer .......winks.........

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