Just a little larger than Colorado, Burkina Faso, formerly known as Upper Volta, is a landlocked West African nation bordered by Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, and Benin to the south and Mali and Niger to the northwest and northeast. The climate in the central and northern parts of Burkina is very arid, temperatures averaging well over 100 degrees during the hot season and less than 10 inches of rain falling annually. The southwestern part of Burkina is subtropical, temperatures still topping 100 during the hot season, but rain falling at a rate of 35 inches annually making fruit farming possible.
The Burkinabe are a very diverse people with a very diverse culture. 79 people groups speaking 69 languages share Burkina. The majority of Burkina’s population are “Folk-Muslims” meaning that while they identify themselves with Islam, they also practice their traditional worship of nature and ancestors. Muslim Marabout, much like witchdoctors in other cultures, are highly revered and feared by most and stillexercise significant influence throughout Burkina.
Most are subsistence farmers growing several different kinds of mille, though they do also grow some peanuts in the central, east, and north, and fruits and vegetables in the southwest.
The Burkinabe are the third poorest people in the world, averaging an income of $300 per person, and have a life expectancy of just 56 years, a significant improvement from 1980 when it was just 46.
Highly variable rainfall, poor soil, poor infrastructure, a low literacy rate, and a poor capacity for exportation of goods makes the Burkina improving their economic state very difficult.
Burkina Faso was originally inhabited by the Bobo, Lobi, and Gurunsi tribes, with the Mossi and Gurma peoples immigrating to the region in the 14th century. The lands of the Mossi empire became a French protectorate in 1897, and by 1903 France had subjugated the other ethnic groups. Called Upper Volta by the French, it became a separate colony in 1919, was partitioned among Niger, the Sudan, and Ivory Coast in 1932, and was reconstituted in 1947. An autonomous republic within the French Community, Upper Volta became independent on August 5, 1960.
Burkina’s government (Upper Volta) went through several structural changes until the most revolutionary change took place when flight commander Thomas Sankara took control. A Marxist-Leninist, he challenged the traditional Mossi chiefs, advocated women’s liberation, and allied the country with three other dictatorships, two of which were Marxist communists. In an attempt to sever ties to its colonial past, Sankara changed the name of Upper Volta, in 1984, to Burkina Faso, which combined two of the nation’s languages, Moore and Dioula, and means “the land of upright men.”
Though Sankara’s investments in education, food production, and medicine did result in some improvement in Burkina’s living standards, his having aligned himself with other Marxist leaders while rejecting democratic leaders resulted in a decline in foreign investment, national commerce began to dry up, and dissatisfied labor unions turned against his government. In 1987 Sankara was assassinated by soldiers and his best friend and military leader Blaise Compaore became president.
Compaore immediately began making economic reforms encouraged by the world bank, established new alliances, led the formation of a new constitution, and was elected president under that constitution in 1991.
Tertius Zongo, who has served as the ambassador to the United States and as the country’s finance minister, became Burkina’s Prime Minister in 2007 resulting in the United States’ investment in Burkina’s infrastructure under George Bush.
Tensions between the government and the military and police have led to recent structural changes in the government and the instability in the region due to an Al Qaeda takeover of parts of Mali will make Burkina’s 2015 presidential election one of its most important in its history.