Burkina Faso, (formerly Upper Volta), is a landlocked country in West Africa. It is surrounded by six countries: Mali to the north, Niger to the east, Benin to the south east, Togo and Ghana to the south, and Côte d'Ivoire to the south west.
Burkina Faso is one of the friendliest and, until recently, one of the safest, countries in all of Africa. Although it receives only a small number of tourists per year, it is an excellent destination for anyone interested in seeing a beautiful West African country and exploring African culture and music.
Until the end of the 19th century, the history of Burkina Faso was dominated by the empire-building Mossi. The French arrived and claimed the area in 1896, but Mossi resistance ended only with the capture of their capital Ouagadougou in 1901. The colony of Upper Volta was established in 1919, but it was dismembered and reconstituted several times until the present borders were recognized in 1947.
Independence from France came to Upper Volta, which was renamed Burkina Faso, in 1960. From 1984 until 1987, it was under the leadership of Thomas Sankara, otherwise known as the Che Guevara of Africa. Sankara's regime proved to be very popular, where he was averting the power and influence through the World Bank and IMF and encouraging worldwide aid to fight disease. Most of his programs were successful, though it was not successful enough to protect the country from political turmoil. He was ridiculed in the West by his authoritarian rule, banning free press and unions. In 1987, a coup led by Blaise Compaoré (Sankara's colleague) executed Sankara along with twelve of his officers, citing deterioration of relations with foreign countries.
Since 1987, Blaise Compaoré has been leading the country. Things have not improved during his years in office, and many of Sankara's policies for stability and economic growth have been largely dismantled, making Burkina Faso one of the poorest countries on Earth. Political unrest has worsened, and economic reforms remain very uneven. The prospect for change seems remote at present.
Burkina Faso's seventeen million people belong to two major West African cultural groups—the Voltaic and the Mande (whose common language is Dioula). The Voltaic Mossi make up about one-half of the population. The Mossi claim descent from warriors who migrated to present-day Burkina Faso from Ghana and established an empire that lasted more than 800 years. Predominantly farmers, the Mossi kingdom is still led by the Mogho Naba, whose court is in Ouagadougou.
While over 60 ethnic groups (and just as many languages) can be found in Burkina, the country may also be divided into these primary ethnic regions:
Burkina Faso is an ethnically integrated, secular state. Most of Burkina's people are concentrated in the south and centre of the country, sometimes exceeding 48 per km² (125 mi²). Several hundred thousand farm workers migrate south every year to Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana. These flows of workers are obviously affected by external events; the civil war in Cote d'Ivoire have meant that hundreds of thousands of Burkinabé returned to Burkina Faso. A plurality of Burkinabé are Muslim, but most also adhere to traditional African religions. The introduction of Islam to Burkina Faso was initially resisted by the Mossi rulers. Christians, both Roman Catholics and Protestants, comprise about 25% of the population, with their largest concentration in urban areas.
Few Burkinabé have had formal education. Schooling is in theory free and compulsory until the age of 16, but only about 54% of Burkina's primary school-age children are enrolled in primary school due to actual costs of school supplies and school fees and to opportunity costs of sending a child who could earn money for the family to school. The University of Ouagadougou, founded in 1974, was the country's first institution of higher education. The Polytechnical University in Bobo-Dioulasso was opened in 1995. The University of Koudougou was founded in 2005 to substitute for the former teachers' training school, Ecole Normale Superieure de Koudougou.
One of the poorest countries in the world, landlocked Burkina Faso has a high population density, few natural resources, and a fragile soil. About 90% of the population is engaged in (mainly subsistence) agriculture, which is highly vulnerable to variations in rainfall. Industry remains dominated by unprofitable government-controlled corporations. Following the African franc currency devaluation in January 1994 the government updated its development program in conjunction with international agencies, and exports and economic growth have increased. Maintenance of macroeconomic progress depends on continued low inflation, reduction in the trade deficit, and reforms designed to encourage private investment. Burkina's economy has suffered badly because of political troubles, and because it is so poor, about two thirds of the population are forced to go abroad to find jobs. Burkina imports most of the goods and the resources it consumes.
Passport and a visa are required to enter the country. It may be best to obtain your visa in advance, and make sure that it is allowed for the period you're travelling as, for several reasons including epidemics, tourism is not allowed in the country in some periods.
If coming by plane to Ouagadougou, the prices of the visa on entry have increased hugely since October 2013, with single-entry visas costing 94,000 CFA, and multi-entry visas costing 122,000 CFA. Complaints that your embassy website has lower prices will do no good as the notice with the new pricing scheme is signed by the police, and the visa itself even has the price listed on it. It may be cheaper to get the visa in your home country beforehand. Payment is accepted in euros at a reasonable exchange rate, with the single entry visa costing 150€.
If coming by land EU and US citizens are able to get a seven day single entry visa for 10,000 CFA at the border. As of 1 Jul 2010, at the border to Ghana at Paga, they increased the price to 94,000 CFA, payable in cash (and the exchange rate offered at the border was 10-20% lower than market rates). No passport photos were required. They only were able to issue a 90 day visa. 2 passport photos and a yellow fever certificate are required (border crossing at Paga, in July 2010, did not ask for yellow fever certificate). Border police said that 10,000 CFA visas were still available, but back in Accra. Border police also said that the 90 day visa was convertible at no cost to a 5 year visa for a USA passport in Ouagadougou. Visas may be extended to 3 months multiple entry at the Bureau de Sureté de l'Etat which can be found in most major cities. To get the extension you should arrive before 09:00 (again with 2 passport photographs) and collect your passport again that afternoon.
As of March 2014, the Embassy in Bamako, Mali, issued 90-day multi-entry for 31000CFA (1/3 the border price.) Two photos were required, but they can take them for you at the embassy, 4 for 2500CFA. Pick up the next day. The BF embassy in Washington offers six-month, multiple-entry visas for US$100. US citizens only are eligible for a five-year, multiple-entry visa for US$100.
Flights are available from Abidjan, Addis Ababa, Brussels, Casablanca, Dakar, Niamey, Paris on the following carriers: Air Algérie, Air Burkina, Air France, Air Ivoire, Brussels Airlines, Ethiopian, Ghana Airways, Point Afrique, and Royal Air Maroc.
Air Burkina is the national carrier and offers a number of flights within West Africa and to Paris. Air Burkina is part of Celestair which also owns stakes in Compagnie Aerienne du Mali and newly created Uganda Airways. Planes are for the most part new and well maintained. Flight times are unreliable but, once in the air, service is good. Like many African airlines, although flights may indicate only one destination, ie direct flight from Ouagadougou, there are often multiple stops along the way to pick-up and drop-off passengers.
Most flights to Burkina with foreign carriers will also stop at Niger's capital, Niamey, just 1 hour away from Ouagadougou, to collect more passengers or disembark others, so expect a 2-hour stopover on the same plane.
Upon arrival, you may be asked to prove you've been vaccinated against Yellow Fever if you are travelling from within Africa. Failure to provide proof may result in either being forced to receive the vaccination at the airport, for a fee, or be refused entry into the country.
You will be scanned and photographed and finger-digitized upon entry, and upon leaving controls will be even worse. Your baggage and your persona will be checked multiple times prior to boarding, often repeating the same procedure over and over, to the point of nonsense (an officer having just left you, six feet away another, differently attired officer will pick you up repeating the whole procedure once again: hand baggage check, passport check, casual questions, metal detector).
Upon arriving at the airport carousel to claim your luggage, a number of men in uniforms will want to take your luggage out for you. They will expect to receive about 500 CFAs (USD1) per bag (at least from an expat). Unfortunately, it is difficult for them to exchange anything other than a US$20 bill. Euros are a bit easier for them to change, but it is best if you bring exact change in CFAs.
There is a 517 km railway stretch from Ouagadougou to the Cote d'Ivoire border. Count c. 48 hr a train trip duration from Abidjan to Ouagadougou, and slightly less than 24 hr for the trip duration from Bouake to Banfora. In August 2007, the cost trip from Abidjan to Ouaga was 30,000 CFA, with 5000 CFA more for First Class, which is not always available.
Even wealthy Burkinabé who own cars do not use them to travel between major cities, but opt for buses instead. The major routes between Ouagadougou and other cities are in good condition; taxi drivers can be erratic.
You can also conveniently take the bus in and out of Burkina to and from the neighbouring countries of Ghana, Mali, and Benin.
There are buses and vans (cars) to Benin, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, Niger, and Togo.
There is a train service for the Abidjan-Banfora-Bobo-Ouaga route.
Hitchhiking is not common.
Rent a bike (c. 3000 CFA) or a moto (c. 6000 CFA) to get around locally.
French is the official language; obviously, outside the big cities, most people are not so fluent in French as the city-dwellers. Many African languages of the Sudanic family are widely spoken. The most common language is Mooré. Do not expect to get around with English as in most other parts of the world: West Africa is mainly Francophone, and English is virtually unknown. Most Burkinabè will speak a mixture of French and Dioula dialects among themselves. The more they know each other, the more Dioula will pop up in their talking, and vice-versa. Among wealthy locals and government/company officials though, only French is spoken, as reverting to Dioula is considered low-class.
Beware that the accent and word use in the French spoken in West Africa is quite different to that spoken in France, and can present difficulties if your French is not very strong.
See also: Mooré phrasebook
Laongo is home to a variety of sculptures by local and international artists The park's scattered pieces of granite have been transformed into beautiful works of art
The Sindou Peaks in Banfora consists of a narrow chain of soft rock that over the years has been eroded into unusual rock formations
Burkina Faso is the home of music in West Africa.
There is a remarkably rich music scene in Burkina (as well as in the adjoining countries), with lots of reggae, salsa, soukous and traditional orchestras and bands playing in a lot of venues, both well known and hidden. Any local will gladly take you to some events where men and women eat, drink, dance and have a good time in a very safe, almost childlike manner, rather uncommon nowadays in western countries.
Starting in Gorom Gorom, you can take a camel ride out into the desert and even sleep out there on the sand. Guides can arrange this for you from Gorom Gorom and it can be expensive if you do not pick your guides carefully. Take warm clothes and good blankets if you plan to sleep in the desert. Women should bring pants to wear on camels because skirts (especially African pagnes) tend to fall open due to the shape of the saddle.
There is a beautiful hike alongside the waterfalls outside of Banfora. The admission price is one or two thousand francs. Be careful not to spend too much time in the water - tourists occasionally catch bilharzia, also known as Schistosomiasis, from swimming in the falls. The locals will tell you that swimming will not make you sick, but it can.
Also near Banfora is a lake (more of a pond, actually) where you can take a trip out on a pirogue to see the hippos. Do not expect too much. Often all you see of the hippos is ears sticking up out of the water. Remember, hippos are dangerous animals who do not like being bumped by pirogues that get too close, so be careful. This will cost two or three thousand CFA per person.
A couple of hours West of Banfora is Sindou, with the Sindou peaks. These rock formations are somewhat like the North American hoodoos. They are needle-like peaks that have shaped by wind erosion. The Sindou peaks are a great spot for a short hike or a picnic. A guide is not necessary to find your way around but can tell you many fascinating facts about Senoufo culture and the time when the village, which is now at the base of the peaks, used to be located up on the plateau. Look out for the thorn plants on the plateau - the Senoufo imported them from Mali to use the thorns to make poisoned arrows. Admission is 1000 CFA. You will need to give the guide a tip.
Buy fabric and get an African outfit made. In Ouagadougou, you will pay 3750 CFA for "three pagnes" of fabric. You can then take this to a tailor and have three items made - for women this is usually a shirt and skirt then a length of fabric left over to make a wrap-around skirt. Men can have shirts made. The going rate for a woman's outfit and skirt is 3500 CFA. Fancier models and embroidery will cost extra, as much as 20,000 CFA if you want elaborate embroidery.
See the crocodiles at one of the crocodile lakes outside of Ouaga, on the road to Bobo-Dioulasso.
Explore the mud mosque in Bobo-Dioulasso. An Imam's son can serve as your guide. Remove your shoes at the entrance. Dress modestly. Women should be prepared to cover their heads, although this is not always requested. You will need to pay admission (1000 CFA), give a tip to the guide and give a tip to the kid who guards your shoes while you are inside.
Explore the elaborate mosques in Bani, near Dori on the road to Ouaga.
Good markets exist in Bobo Dioulasso, Dori, Gorom-Gorom, Ouahigouya and Ouagadougou. Bargaining in traditional marketplaces is recommended. Purchases include wooden statuettes, bronze models, masks, worked skins from the tannery in Ouagadougou, jewellery, fabrics, hand-woven blankets and leather goods and crafts ranging from chess sets to ashtrays. The Grande Marché in Bobo Dioulasso is much smaller and less cramped market. The Village Artisanal near the SIAO centre in the ring road of Ouagadougou has lots of arts&craft shops where you can conveniently find all sorts of very nice objects such as traditional clothing, sandals, costume jewellery, furniture items, decoratives, and much more to buy at slightly higher but still very reasonable prices.
As in many West African countries, the currency of Burkina Faso is the Franc of the Communaute Financiere Africaine (CFA). There are 480 CFA to one US dollar (Feb 2010), and it's fixed relative to the Euro; €1 = 655.957 CFA.
Credit cards are rarely accepted, but cash may be withdrawn with a card at certain banks in all major towns (Ouaga, Bobo, Banfora, Dori, and Ouahigouya are confirmed). In general, most bank machines will accept only VISA cards, with a PIN or a CarteBleu. Mastercard and Maestro no longer have partner banks in Burkina Faso. Make sure you have a PIN for your credit card in order to access money from the bank machines. Travellers' cheques (better luck in euros than in dollars) can usually be cashed at local banks in Ouaga and Bobo, but with large change fees.
Any run-of-the-mill Burkinabé restaurant will most certainly have one or all of the following:
Riz Gras = Rice cooked in flavored stock, often with onion. Sometimes served with extra sauce on top, but not a given. Somtimes served with a chunk of meat, or fish. it is a very small-grain rice, very similar to couscous, and prepared in a likewise manner
Riz Sauce or Riz Tomate = Pretty self-explanatory. White rice usually served with a tomato or peanut sauce.
Tô = a millet or corn flour based jello-like dish served with a sauce. Sauces commonly are okra-based (fr. "sauce gumbo" - tends to be on the viscous-side), peanut-based (fr. "sauce arachide"), baobab-leaf-based (not bad tasting, but very slimy), or sorrel-based (fr. "oseille", another green-leaf, a little sour). You eat this dish by breaking off some tô with a spoon (or, if you want to go local and your hands are washed, use your finger - just remember to use always the right hand, as the left hand is considered "unclean" because it is used for bathroom purposes) and dipping it into the sauce. Difficult to eat for a non-local as it tastes sour and slimy. Definitely an an acquired taste.
FuFu = a pizza-dough-like ball of starch served with a sauce. Made by pounding boiled ignames (sort of a super-sized version of a yucca-potato hybrid). The sauce is usually tomato-based. Eaten in the same manner as tô.
Ragout d'Igname = boiled igname in a tomato sauce.
Spaghetti = Usually spaghetti is served au gras as opposed to spaghetti sauce.
Haricots verts = Green-beans, usually from a can, with tomato sauce
Petits pois = Green peas, usually from a can, with tomato sauce
Soupe = usually chicken (fr. "poulet"), guinea fowl (fr. "pintade") or fish (fr. "poisson")
Salade = a salad of lettuce, tomato, cucumber and onion with a mayonnaise-based dressing (mayo, vinegar, salt, pepper)
A Burkina speciality is "Poulet Telévisé" aka televised chicken, or roast chicken, since many locals say if you watch the roaster it is like watching TV!
People go on repos from noon until around 15:00. Don't expect to get much done around this time. Formal businesses are often closed at this time as well.
Burkina is a great country if you are interested in learning West African drumming. Bobo-Dioulasso, the second largest city, is perhaps the best place to learn to drum.
If you are interested in helping to save lives in Western Africa then Burkina Faso, hit by severe drought and poverty in the last decade, would be ideal for a charity-holiday. Medical staff are also sorely needed, so any volunteering doctors would be greeted warmly.
The Peace Corps is active in Burkina Faso and constitutes a large proportion of the Americans living in this country.
Burkina Faso is one of safest countries in West Africa. However, be aware of thieves in the big city. Violent assault is rare. Pickpockets and purse snatchers are something to watch out for in big cities, especially in Ouagadougou, where it is recommended not to carry a bag with you when at all possible. The common, cheap green taxis in the big city can sometimes host thieves. Hold on to your purse, and keep your money safely tucked away. If you want to carry around a camera or other item that requires a bag, it is often safer to put it in one of the ubiquitous black "sachets" (plastic bags) that you get when you purchase something in a store, so that potential thieves will assume there's nothing of great value inside. Even in the capital's streets there are very few beggars, if any, compared to other African countries, and when you do encounter them, they are remarkably un-insisting and will walk away after a simple "No".
You should always take precautions when travelling, but Burkina is a remarkably safe and respectful country. Women travellers rarely experience any problems. Foreigners, especially white foreigners, frequently attract significant attention, but the interest is mainly an attempt to sell you tourist items or overpriced goods. Indeed, the Burkinabé will show more patience and friendliness to the foreigner than to another Burkinabé, be it in a small village or in a big city.
There was a violent altercation between military and police in Dec 2006. Members from involved parties made it a point to advise foreigners on the street that they should find shelter and stay out of harm's way. The problem was resolved quickly and no foreigners came to any harm.
Yellow fever vaccination required. Malaria is a serious problem, so be sure to begin take prophylaxis prior to leaving for Burkina and continue taking it while there and often for some time after returning home. Cholera vaccination may be required in event of outbreak. Meningitis is also a problem, and vaccination is highly suggested. Typhoid fever is common, as are other water and food-borne diseases such as E coli. Typhoid vaccination is recommended but it is not 100% effective so it is still important to take precautions.
The water is NOT safe to drink, especially outside the big cities where untreated well water is often the norm. Buy bottled water, and bring a water filter for emergency use if you're planning on spending time in any villages. In Burkina you will often find little plastic soft "bags" of mineral water rather than plastic bottles.
You will observe the Burkinabé exchange greetings in what appears to be a shared prayer or ritual. Literally, all they are saying is "good morning, how's the family, how's work, how's your health..." Greeting is a very important part of Burkinabé culture, and the only thing you really need to do here is to make an instant friend.
Ignoring someone and not greeting him or her, however, is taken far more seriously than in western cultures. It is virtually a slap in the face to ignore someone that has greeted you, or to not greet at all. Foreigners can probably get away with being "cold" and "unfriendly" in some settings, but it is a good idea to greet everyone you pass by.
Remember to always use your right hand when eating, greeting, offering gifts, paying for items, etc. This is true in both Muslim and Christian regions, as the left hand is used throughout the country in conjunction with water in place of toilet paper. The ubiquitous coloured plastic teapots are filled with water and carried to the bathroom for "wiping."
Women are often targets of extra attention from men, but catcalls and unwanted advances are not appropriate in Burkina, so don't be afraid to refuse this attention. In general, people are very respectful to women and foreigners.
You will very rarely see people scantily dressed, barechested or barefooted in Burkina. It is a conservative country and men will most often wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts and closed shoes even in scorching heat. Women will not be seen with short skirts or very high heels except in some Ouaga night clubs. Shorts are also not common.
However women, even poor ones, will always be coiffed and well-kept, manicured and pedicured, and men are well dressed as well. You rarely encounter squalor or excessive misery in Burkina.