The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Art of Burkina Faso

by Christopher D. Roy (1947-2019)
University of Iowa

Ethnic map of Burkina Faso

Please visit Art of Burkina Faso for more information provided by Professor Christopher D. Roy in 2016.

The Physical Environment: The peoples that are discussed in this study live in the West African country named Burkina Faso. Since independence from France in 1960 to 1983, the country was known as Upper Volta. Following the military revolution of August, 1983, an increasingly anti-French administration attempted to do away with all traces of neo-colonialism, including all French names. The name Burkina Faso, from Mooré and Jula root words meaning "the land of upright and honest men", has replaced the original, geographically-based name. The citizens of Burkina Faso are called Burkinabé.

Burkina Faso is a landlocked country of about 274,200 square kilometers (about the size of the state of Colorado) just south of the great bend of the Niger River and 500 kilometers from the Bight of Benin. To the south along the coast are Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, and Benin (Dahomey). To the north and northwest lies Mali, and the eastern border is with Niger.

Burkina Faso is an enormous flat plain of red clay soils from 250 to 350 meters above sea-level, broken only by the valleys of the Volta Rivers, the Komoé, and small tributaries of the Bani and Niger Rivers. There are occasional spectacular outcroppings of rock, especially in the north, near Kongoussi and Tikaré, in the center near Boromo and Houndé, and in the west around Orodara. In the center of the country the Mossi Plateau, drained by the White Volta, reaches an altitude of 300 to 450 m. The Mossi Plateau rises, in steep bluffs, above the lower surrounding country. The river dissects the rest of the plain with deep valleys. The major rivers are the Komoé, which rises in the rocky escarpment between Banfora and Bobo-Dioulasso, and the Red, White, and Black Volta Rivers, all tributaries of a large system that drains most of the country. Of these, the Black Volta is the largest, and runs almost year-round. The White Volta is dry much of the year, especially north and west of Ouagadougou. The Red Volta is the shortest and the most intermittent of the three, joining the White Volta just south of the Ghana/Burkina. The Sankara government renamed the rivers Mouhoun (Black Volta), Nakanbé (White Volta), and Nazinon (Red Volta).

Burkina Faso spans three major climatic zones of the Western Sudan: north of a line from Ouahigouya to Dori the Sahel is characterized by very dry desert steppe, with low shrubs, many acacias and baobabs, much sand, and no permanent rivers. This area receives less than 700 millimeters of rain annually. The desertification of the region has been speeded up by the major droughts that began in 1970. South of the line from Ouahigouya to Dori is the "Northern Sudan" climate zone that receives from 1000 mm to 700 mm of annual rainfall. The area consists of open grasslands with scattered stands of shea nut or karité (Butyrospermum parkii), locust bean or néré (Parkia biglobosa), and West African mahogany (Kaya senegalensis), as well as occasional baobabs (Adansonia digitata) and kapok (Eriodendron anfranctuosum) trees. The southwestern quarter of the country is part of the Sudan/Guinean forested savanna area, with occasional thick forest cover and much denser undergrowth than is typical of central Burkina. Although the region receives as much as 1400 mm of rainfall each year, it only supports a population density of about 10 inhabitants per square kilometer.

Rainfall amounts vary considerably from year to year, and since the late 1950's there has been a steady decrease in averages.

As is true throughout the Western Sudan, the annual cycle is marked by a short rainy season that (normally) begins in May and early June and ends in September. In northern areas the rainy season begins later each year. All agricultural activity except harvest is carried out during this period. As in all agricultural areas, including Iowa, farmers are too busy during the growing season to carry out any activities except cultivating. During the long dry season from November to late April, almost no rain falls, however there are occasional showers in April causing some trees to leaf out and marking the time to begin clearing the fields for planting. Once the harvests have been gathered, people are left with a lot of free time to repair equipment and homes, to weave or make pottery, and to stage the elaborate religious festivals and initiations in which masks play an important role. The period of mask activity begins in February among the Mossi, and later, in April among the Bwa and Bobo, and continues until planting time. This is also the hottest time of the year, when the daytime temperature often is over 40o C. (105o F.), and it is not much cooler at night. The landscape is desolate, with grey or red dust and dust-covered vegetation to the horizon. Families retreat to the shade of the family dwellings, and livestock huddle in the sparse shade of the few scorched trees. Dust devils dance across the fields, and as the water level of wells drops, women must walk miles for a muddy bucketful. With the first heavy and frequent rains in June, the landscape is transformed, as roads become lined with dense green walls of millet and sorghum stalks seeming to submerge villages in a sea of vegetation.

The major economic activities in Burkina are farming and herding. The major traditional crops are pearl millet and red or white sorghum. Maize or corn has been grown since its arrival from the New World, as have peanuts and tobacco. Rice is grown in large modern plantations north of Bobo-Dioulasso. Although the Volta Rivers have been important for the rich valley soils they produced, farming has been almost impossible until recently because of the high incidence of fly-borne onchocerciasis or river blindness. The major cash crop is cotton, important since before the colonial period when it was woven into cloth for trade with forest cultures to the south. The French have encouraged the growing of cotton to feed the textile mills near Bobo and Koudougou, often at the expense of food crops, disrupting traditional economic and social patterns. The major exports are fresh green-beans, peas, and mangoes to France.

The Sahel is the center of the livestock industry in Burkina. For a long time Burkina has been the major supplier of beef cattle and other livestock to the Ivory Coast and Ghana, where the tse-tse fly prevented livestock raising. This industry is now threatened by the establishment of livestock projects in northern Ivory Coast.

Although the area lacks significant mineral resources, the valley of the Black Volta River has been a source of gold for centuries. Deposits of manganese were discovered in the far northern Udalan area soon after independence, but foreign investors feel that the amounts are too low to justify the construction of a railway to export the mineral.

Human labor has been an important export that has fueled the economy of Ivory Coast. The railway from Abidjan to Bobo-Dioulasso and Ouagadougou was built to carry farmers idled by the dry season to the cocoa plantations and ports of the Ivory Coast.

Traditional subsistence economies, including hunting, gathering and fishing are still important for rural peoples, especially during the dry season. Women gather fruit and leaves of trees that grow in the bush, including wild raisin (Lannea oleosa), karité, and néré. In April and May all of the inhabitants of a community spend several days at nearby ponds harvesting fish with nets and large basketry traps. Each year during the dry season, great numbers of men hunt in the deep bush, forming large circles to drive game toward the center to be slaughtered.