Volta Basin

Burkina Faso

[ber-kee-nuh fah-soh]

Burkina Faso (burr-KEE-na FAH-soh), also known by its short-form name Burkina, is a landlocked nation 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. Formerly called the Republic of Upper Volta, it was renamed on August 4, 1984, by President Thomas Sankara to mean "the land of upright people" in Moré and Dioula, the major native languages of the country. Literally, "Burkina" may be translated, "men of integrity," from the Moré language, and "Faso" means "father's house" in Dioula. The inhabitants of Burkina Faso are known as Burkinabé (burr-KEE-na-bay).

Burkina Faso's capital is Ouagadougou. After gaining independence from France in 1960, the country underwent many governmental changes until arriving at its current form, a semi-presidential republic. The president is Blaise Compaoré.


Early history

Burkina Faso was populated early, between 12000 and 5000 BC, by hunter-gatherers in the northwestern part of the country, whose tools, such as scrapers, chisels and arrowheads, were discovered in 1973. Settlements appeared between 3600 and 2600 BC with farmers. Based on traces of the farmers' structures, the settlements appear to have been permanent. The use of iron, ceramics and polished stone developed between 1500 and 1000 BC, as well as a preoccupation with spiritual matters, as shown by burial remains.

Relics of the Dogon are found in Burkina Faso's north and northwest regions. The Dogon left the area between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to settle in the cliffs of Bandiagara. Elsewhere, the remains of high walls are localized in the southwest of Burkina Faso (as well as in the Côte d'Ivoire), but the people who built them have not been identified.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Burkina Faso was an important economic region for the Songhai Empire.


The majority population (40%) consists of the Mossi, who arrived as migrant warriors in early times. The other 60% of the population is composed of more than 60 ethnic groups, including the Bobo, the Mande, the Fulani, the Lobi, the Malinke, the Senufo, the Gurunsi, and others. Languages vary from group to group, but French is the official language.

From colony to independence

After a decade of intense rivalry and competition between the British and the French, waged through treaty-making expeditions under military or civilian explorers, the Mossi kingdom of Ouagadougou was defeated by French colonial forces and became a French protectorate in 1896. The eastern region and the western region, where a standoff against the forces of the powerful ruler Samori Ture complicated the situation, came under French occupation in 1897. By 1898, the majority of the territory corresponding to Burkina Faso today was nominally conquered; however, control of many parts remained uncertain. The French and British convention of 14 June 1898 ended the scramble between the two colonial powers and drew the borders between the countries' colonies. On the French side, a war of conquest against local communities and political powers continued for about five years. In 1904, the largely pacified territories of the Volta basin were integrated into the Upper Senegal and Niger colony of French West Africa as part of the reorganization of the French West African colonial empire. The colony had its capital in Bamako.

Draftees from the territory participated in the European fronts of World War I in the battalions of the Senegalese Infantry. Between 1915 and 1916, the districts in the western part of what is now Burkina Faso and the bordering eastern fringe of Mali became the stage of one of the most important armed oppositions to colonial government, known as the Volta-Bani War. The French government finally suppressed the movement, but only after suffering defeats and being forced to gather the largest expeditionary force of its colonial history up to that point. Armed opposition also wracked the Sahelian north when the Tuareg and allied groups of the Dori region ended their truce with the government. On 1 March 1919, fear of the recurrence of armed uprising along with economic considerations led the colonial government to separate the present territory of Burkina Faso from Upper Senegal and Niger to bolster its administration. The new colony was named Upper Volta and François Charles Alexis Édouard Hesling became its first governor. Hesling initiated an ambitious road-making program and promoted the growth of cotton for export. The cotton policy, based on coercion, failed, and revenue stagnated. The colony was dismantled on 5 September 1932, and its territory was divided between Côte d’Ivoire, French Sudan and Niger. Côte d'Ivoire received the largest share, which contained most of the population as well as the cities of Ouagadougou and Bobo-Dioulasso.

The decision was reversed during the intense anti-colonial agitation that followed the end of World War II, and on 4 September 1947, Upper Volta was recreated in its 1932 boundaries under the French Union. On 11 December 1958, it achieved self-government and became the Republic of Upper Volta and a member of the Franco-African Community. Full independence from France was attained in 1960. The country's first military coup occurred in 1966, and civilian rule returned in 1978. Another coup, led by Saye Zerbo in 1980, was overthrown in 1982. A counter-coup was launched in 1983, and it brought the charismatic Captain Thomas Sankara to leadership. In 1984, the revolutionary government changed the name of the country to Burkina Faso and created a new flag and national anthem. The president is Blaise Compaoré, who came to power in 1987 after a coup d'état that killed Thomas Sankara.


The constitution of 2 June 1991 established a semi-presidential government with a parliament which can be dissolved by the President of the Republic, who is elected for a term of seven years. In 2000, however, the constitution was amended to reduce the presidential term to five years. The amendment took effect during the 2005 elections. The amendment also would have prevented the sitting president, Blaise Compaoré, from being reelected; however, notwithstanding a challenge by other presidential candidates, the constitutional council ruled in October 2005 that because Compaoré was the sitting president in 2000, the amendment would not apply to him until the end of his second term in office. This cleared the way for his candidacy in the 2005 election. On 13 November, Compaoré was reelected in a landslide due to a divided political opposition.

Acccording to Bill Volle, the parliament consists of two chambers: the lower house, known as the National Assembly, and the upper house, the House of Representatives. There is also a constitutional chamber, composed of ten members, and an economic and social council whose roles are purely consultative.

Regions, provinces, and departements

Burkina Faso is divided into thirteen regions, forty-five provinces, and 301 departements. The regions are:


Burkina Faso is made up of two major types of countryside:

  • The larger part of the country is covered by a peneplain, which forms a gently undulating landscape with, in some areas, a few isolated hills, the last vestiges of a Precambrian massif.
  • The southwest of the country forms a sandstone massif, where the highest peak, Ténakourou, is found at an elevation of 749 meters (2,450 feet). The massif is bordered by sheer cliffs up to 150 meters (490 feet) high.

The average altitude is 400 meters (1,300 feet) and the difference between the highest and lowest terrain is no greater than 600 meters (2,000 feet). Burkina Faso is therefore a relatively flat country.


The country owes its former name of Upper Volta to three rivers which cross it: the Black Volta (or Mouhoun), the White Volta (Nakambé) and the Red Volta (Nazinon). The Black Volta, along with the Komoé, which flows to the southwest, is one of the country's only two rivers which flow year-round.

The basin of the Niger River also drains 27% of the country's surface. Its tributaries, the Béli, the Gorouol, the Goudébo and the Dargol, are seasonal streams and only flow for four to six months a year. They still, however, can cause large floods.

The country also contains numerous lakes. The principal lakes are Tingrela, Bam and Dem. The country also contains large ponds, such as Oursi, Béli, Yomboli and Markoye.

Water shortages are often a problem, especially in the north of the country.


Burkina Faso has a primarily tropical climate with two very distinct seasons. In the rainy season, the country receives between 600 and 900 millimeters (24-35 inches) of rainfall, and in the dry season, the harmattan, a hot dry wind from the Sahara, blows. The rainy season lasts approximately four months, May/June to September, and is shorter in the north of the country.

Three climatic zones can be defined:

Sahel Zone

The Sahel in the north typically receives less than 600 millimeters (24 inches) of rainfall per year and has high temperatures, 5–47 °C (40–115 °F). A relatively dry tropical savanna, the Sahel extends beyond the borders of Burkina Fasi, from the Horn of Africa to the Atlantic Ocean, and borders the Sahara to its north and the fertile region of the Sudan to the South.

Sudan-Sahel zone

Situated between 11°3' and 13°5' north latitude, the Sudan-Sahel region is a transitional zone with regards to rainfall and temperature.

Sudan-Guinea zone

Further to the south, the Sudan-Guinea zone receives more than 900 millimeters (35 inches) of rain each year and has cooler average temperatures.

Natural resources

Burkina Faso's natural resources include manganese, limestone, marble, phosphates, pumice, salt and small deposits of gold.

Burkina Faso's fauna and flora are protected in two national parks and several reserves, see List of national parks in Africa.


Burkina Faso has one of the lowest GDP per capita incomes in the world: $1,200. This ranks it as the 28th poorest nation. Agriculture represents 32% of its gross domestic product and occupies 80% of the working population. It consists mostly of livestock but also, especially in the south and southwest, of growing sorghum, pearl millet, maize (corn), peanuts, rice and cotton.

Unemployment causes a high rate of emigration. For example, three million citizens of Burkina Faso live in Côte d'Ivoire. According to the Central Bank of West African States, these migrants send substantial amounts of money back to Burkina Faso each year . Since the 1967 expulsions from Ghana, this situation has provoked tensions in the recipient countries. The most recent crisis occurred owing to the events of 2003 in Côte d'Ivoire, which led to the return of 300,000 migrants.

A large part of the economic activity of the country is funded by international aid.

The currency of Burkina Faso is the CFA franc.

There is mineral exploitation of copper, iron, manganese and, above all, gold.

Burkina Faso also hosts the International Art and Craft Fair, Ouagadougou, better known by its French name as SIAO, Le Salon Iternational de l' Artisanat de Ouagadougou, one of the most important African handicraft fairs.


Burkina Faso has an estimated life expectancy at birth of slightly under 50 years of age. The median age of its inhabitants is under 17.

As of 2006, the population growth rate is 3%.

The population is concentrated in the south and center of the country, sometimes exceeding 48 people per square kilometer (125 per square mile). This high population density causes annual migrations of hundreds of thousands for seasonal employment.


Approximately 50% of the population is Muslim; Christians account for about 30% of the population, and followers of traditional African religions (typically animism of various forms) make up about 20%. Many Christians incorporate elements of animism into their religious practices.


See also List of writers from Burkina Faso, Music of Burkina Faso and Cinema of Burkina Faso.
Date English Name
January 1 New Year's Day
January 3 Anniversary of the 1966 Coup d'État
March 8 International Women's Day
May 1 Labour Day
August 4 Revolution Day
August 5 Independence Day
August 15 Assumption
October 15 Anniversary of the 1987 coup d’état
November 1 All Saints' Day
December 11 Proclamation of the Republic
December 25 Christmas


Education in Burkina Faso is divided into primary, secondary and higher education. However schooling is not free. Secondary school costs approximately $115 (50,000 CFA) per year, which is far above the means of most Burkinabé families. Boys receive preference in schooling; as such, girls' education and literacy rates are far lower than their male counterparts. An increase in girls' schooling has been observed due to the government's policy of making school cheaper for girls and granting them more scholarships. In order to proceed from elementary to middle school, middle to high school or high school to college, national exams must be passed. Institutions of higher education include the University of Ouagadougou, The Polytechnical University in Bobo-Dioulasso and the University of Koudougou, which is also a teacher training institution. There are private colleges in the capital city of Ouagadougou but these are affordable by only a small portion of the population.

There is also an International School of Ouagadougou (ISO), which is an American-based private school located in Ouagadougou.

The United Nations Development Program Report used to place Burkina Faso as the most illiterate country in the world, with only 12.8% in 1990. With the consistent effort of the government in making schooling more accessible and affordable, however, the literacy rate has doubled and is now at 25.3% of the population.

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