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 is one of the safest and friendliest 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 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. Governmental instability during the 1970s and 1980s was followed by multiparty elections in the early 1990s.
Burkina Faso's 14.4 million people (2006) 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.
Burkina Faso is an ethnically integrated, secular state. Most of Burkina's people are concentrated in the south and center of the country, sometimes exceeding 48 per square kilometer (125/sq. mi.). 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 September 2002 coup attempt in Cote d'Ivoire and the ensuing fighting there 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.
Passport and a visa are required to enter the country. You generally should obtain your visa in advance, although European Union citizens can obtain visas upon arrival at the airport (10,000 CFA). If you are not from the European Union, the cost of a 3-month, 1 entry visa is 28 300 CFA, and must be acquired in advance of your journey. 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. If coming by land EU and US citizens are able to get a three month single entry visa for 10,000 CFA at the border.
Upon arrival, you may be asked to prove you've been vaccinated against Yellow Fever if you are traveling 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.
Flights are available through Abidjan, Brussels, Casablanca, Dakar, Niamey, Paris on the following carriers: Air Algérie, Air Burkina, Air France, Air Ivoire, Ghana Airways, Point Afrique, and Royal Air Maroc. Royal Air Maroc  offers some U.S. flights departing from New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
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. Flights timing is unreliable but once in the air service is good. Like many African airlines, although flights may indicate only one destination, i.e. direct flight from Ouagadougou, there are often multiple stops along the way to pick-up and drop-off passengers.
Upon arriving at the carousel at the Ouagadougou Airport 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 USD20 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 railroad stretch from Ouagadougou to the Cote d'Ivoire border. Count approx. 48hrs a train trip duration from Abidjan to Ouagadougou, and slightly less than 24hrs for the trip duration from Bouake to Banfora. In August 2007, the cost trip from Abidjan to Ouaga was 30000 CFA, with 5000 CFA more for 1st 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. Roads are often in bad conditions and Burkinabé taxi drivers can be erratic.
You can also conveniently take the bus in and out of Burkina to and from the neighboring 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 (~3000CFA) or a moto (~6000CFA) to get around locally.
French is the official language; however, you will find out that, outside the big cities, most people do not speak much French. Many African languages of the Sudanic family are widely spoken. The most common language is Mooré. Start the day with some Moore (the language of the Mossi): yee-bay-roh ("good morning")
See also: Mooré phrasebook
As in many West African countries, the currency of Burkina Faso is the Franc of the Communaute Financiere Africaine (CFA). There are 424.73 CFA to 1 US Dollar (May, 2008), and it's fixed to the Euro; €1 = 655.957 CFA francs.
Credit cards are rarely accepted, but cash may be withdrawn with a card at certain banks in all major towns (Ouaga, Bobo, Banfora, and Dori are confirmed). In general, most bank machines will accept only VISA cards, with a PIN or a CarteBleu. However, in Ouaga there is at least one ATM which will accept both Mastercard and Maestro, though these are not widely accepted. Make sure you have a PIN for your credit card in order to access money from the bank machines. Travelers' checks (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:
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. 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.
Riz Gras = Rice cooked in tomato sauce and flavored stock, often with onion. Sometimes served with extra sauce on top, but not a given.
Riz Sauce (Rice and sauce) = Pretty self-explanatory. White rice usually served with a tomato or peanut 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, cumcumber and onion with a mayonnaise-based dressing (mayo, vinegar, salt, pepper)
A Burkina specialty 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 3PM. 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 Americans living in the 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.
You should always take precautions when traveling, but Burkina is a remarkably safe and respectful country. Women travelers 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 December 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.
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.
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 colored 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.