Burkina Faso – History, Culture, Climate, People & more

Lizards are well suited to Burkina’s hot, dry climate.

Burkina Faso is a small, landlocked West African country which suffers from droughts, flooding, and increasing desertification, overgrazing, soil degradation and deforestation. It has high population growth and the youngest population in the world. BARKA’s work can make a crucial contribution to improve living conditions in Burkina’s Eastern region. The population consists largely of farmers and pastoralists. 90% of Burkinabe grow their own food to survive and are therefore particularly vulnerable to external shocks such as climate change and market forces that affect food prices. Food insecurity and limited natural resources contribute to poor economic prospects for the majority of its citizens.

A young girl pounds millet to make the staple food, Tô.

The Burkina Faso flag.


Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta) achieved independence from France in 1960. Repeated military coups during the 1970s and 1980s were followed by multiparty elections in the early 1990s. Former President Blaise COMPAORE (1987-2014) resigned in late October 2014 following popular protests against his efforts to amend the constitution’s two-term presidential limit. An interim administration organized presidential and legislative elections – held in November 2015 – where Roch Marc Christian KABORE was elected president. The country experienced terrorist attacks in its capital in 2016, 2017, and 2018 and continues to mobilize resources to counter terrorist threats mainly in its northern and eastern regions. It experienced over 100 attacks by violent extremists in the first quarter of 2019. (Excerpted from CIA Factbook)

Protesters in Place de la Revolution, Ouagadougou, October 2014; Photo: Joe Penney

Burkina Faso FLAG

The Burkina Faso flag.

Burkina Faso FLAG

Burkina Faso FLAG

Burkina Faso Map


Burkina has a 9-month dry season, followed by a rainy season with increasingly erratic rainfall.

Burkina Faso Climate

Burkina Faso has three climate zones including a hot tropical savanna with a short rainy season in the southern half, a tropical hot semi-arid steppe climate typical of the Sahel region in the northern half, and small area of hot desert in the very north of the country bordering the Sahara Desert (CIA Factbook).

Burkina Faso is located in the Sahel, ecoclimatic and biogeographic zone of transition in Africa between the Sahara to the north and the Sudanian Savanna to the south. Having a semi-arid climate, it stretches across the south-central latitudes of Northern Africa between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea. The Sahel is one of the regions most affected and first affected by climate change.

Average temperatures across Burkina Faso are expected to rise 1.7 per cent by 2050 and the average annual rainfall is set to fall by 7.3 per cent over the same period.

The collection of wood for fuel is contributing to desertification.

A local traditional king.

The Meaning of Burkina Faso

Following a number of military coups, the beloved populist leader Thomas Sankara became president (also through a coup d’etat although a bloodless one) in 1983 and implemented a number of major reforms. changed the name of the country from the Republic of Upper Volta to Burkina Faso. Combining words from Burkina’s two most commonly spoken languages, Morè and Dioula, the words Burkina Faso literally translate to the Land of Upright (or Honest) People. In calling the nation Burkina Faso, Sankara was hoping to inspire its citizens and politicians to rid themselves of corruption and to foster a greater sense of autonomy from foreign interference and influence. He initiated a number of national campaigns to prevent disease, improve infrastructure and women’s rights. He combatted desertification, poverty and illiteracy. He built schools and hospitals. His agricultural reforms gave more lands to private farmers. This lasted until October 15, 1987 when President Sankara was assassinated along with his 12 cabinet members and key supporters in a bloody coup led by Sankara’s childhood friend, Blaise Compaore who remained in power for 27 years until his authoritarian regime was overthrown by a popular revolution in October, 2014.

Captain Thomas Sankara

Burkina by Numbers

A typical rural compound; meals are prepared over open fires.


  • 20,300,000 (Population Reference Bureau)
  • 40% live below the poverty line
  • Average age: 17.1 (among youngest in the world)
    • More than 65% of the population is under the age of 25
    • 45% of population is under age 15
    • 2% of population is older than 65
  • Life expectancy: 60 years (Population Reference Bureau)
  • Burkina Faso’s growth rate of three percent is one of the highest in sub-Saharan Africa and the world.
  • 90% are subsistence farmers
  • 90% have no electricity

Children playing in the bush of Eastern Burkina.


  • GDP: 14.44 billion US Dollars in 2018
  • GDP per capita: $709.80
  • Gross National Income per capita PPP: $1920
  • Unemployment: 77%
  • 25% live on <$1/day; 73% of people live on less than $2 a day   
  • 60% of children between age 5-17 are involved in some form of work

A young man collects dead wood from the shrinking forest for fuel for cooking.

Children swimming during the rainy season, at risk for a number of waterborne diseases.


  • Mortality rate for children under 5 is among the world’s highest at >10%
  • Holds worst rating on the planet in overall health of mothers
  • <1 doctor per 10,000 people
  • More than 29% of children under 5 suffer from a form of malnutrition called stunting
  • Of all the malaria deaths in the world in 2017, six per cent occurred in this landlocked country of 19 million. It ranks third globally for malaria deaths, behind much bigger, more populous countries like Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

Water & Sanitation

  • <50% has access to clean water
  • A typical American uses more water flushing toilets each day than the water available to an average person in Burkina Faso.
  • Water availability has decreased annually for the past 45 years
  • Sanitation coverage nationwide is 20%; 3% in rural regions
  • More than 50% of infant mortality is due to dirty water
  • clean toilets, combined with safe drinking water and good hygiene, cases of diarrhoea could be reduced by 90 percent.

The most common source of water in Burkina- hand dug wells that are uncovered and unpotable.

The need for children, especially girls, to help with collecting water often keeps them out of school.

The long wait to fill plastic water jugs at the local well can often take hours.

Children attending an école paillotte, a school made from millet stalks, common in rural areas.


  • 29% of school age children receive a basic education
  • Literacy rate is one of lowest in the world at 36%
  • <36% of the population is literate
  • 1% of girls graduate high school

Children attending an école paillotte, a school made from millet stalks, common in rural areas.

Gender Equity

  • 77% of girls undergo some form of female genital mutilation (FGMC)
  • 52% of girls are married before age 18; 10% before age 15
  • Burkina has among the lowest contraceptive use in the world (15%), and among the highest maternal mortality rates
  • Fertility rate: 6 children born to each woman
  • Burkina Faso women have the weakest voices in Africa with regard to financial decision making, with a 39% gap; followed by a 23% gap in average asset ownership (AfroBarometer)

Mothers in Burkina Faso have an average of 6 children.

Mother and child, Central Burkina Faso

Only 1% of girls in Burkina Faso complete their education; 70% undergo some form of FGMC.

Information Technology

  • Internet coverage: 11%
  • Rated as the slowest internet speed in the world

The Burkina Faso plaque at the United Nations General Assembly.

The Flip Side

Burkina Faso Culture

The statistics above don’t tell the whole story!

In fact, despite its extreme poverty, Burkina is home to an extraordinary wealth of cultural, linguistic, ethnic and bio-diversity.

Although French is the official language of Burkina Faso, an estimated 70 languages are spoken there, 66 of which are indigenous. Each language has its own culture, creation myths, dance moves and initiation rites.

Burkina’s oral history has been handed down to each generation for millennia.

There is a strong sense of cultural pride within each ethnic group, and among particularly competitive groups there exists a relationship referred to as “joking neighbors”, which serve to protect the peace and turn disputes into laughing matters. It is said that no ethnic group can ever really be mad at a joking neighbor.

Burkina Faso is home to rich spiritual traditions which have been largely undisturbed by western influence.

Traditional Gourmache Tam Tam drummers and dancers (Troupe Yendabili) perform at BARKA’s inauguration of a new well in Tantiaka.  


The eastern region is famed for its sand divination, which Ethno-mathematician Ron Eglash accredits in his Ted Talk as the origin of the binary system. See also BARKA’s short film about the sacred art of sand divination here.

Although 60% of the country practices Islam, and 23% of the country practices Christianity, it is often (unofficially) said that Burkinabé are 100% animist, meaning that even though the official statistic for traditional/animist practice is only 7.8% (according to the US State Dept), when the going gets tough, Burkinabé turn back to their own indigenous spiritual traditions.

Such traditions include a wealth of knowledge about the indigenous ecological landscape including the local plants, herbs and trees used in a wide array of traditional healing.

Burkina’s traditional beliefs and practices also encourage a balance with nature, and the notion that communities are all inter-dependent (rather than independent of one another), emphasizing the need to cooperate rather than compete with one another in order to achieve sustainability and conserve natural resources.

As compared to the Western word, indigenous Burkina life is focused in community, and more interested with “living well” vs. “living better” than others.

Burkina’s indigenous paradigm is now increasingly endangered as youth migrate increasingly toward cities for employment, rejecting the cultural traditions of their parents and ancestors.

The People of Burkina Faso 

The ethnic groups include: Mossi 52%, Fulani 8.4%, Gurma 7%, Bobo 4.9%, Gurunsi 4.6%, Senufo 4.5%, Bissa 3.7%, Lobi 2.4%, Dagara 2.4%, Tuareg/Bella 1.9%, Dioula 0.8%, unspecified/no answer 0.3%, other 7.2% (2010 est.)

The Grand Mosque in Bobo Dioulasso, is representative of the traditional Sudano-Sahelian architecture, and the largest building in this style in Burkina Faso.

A baobab tree in eastern Burkina.

Where BARKA has worked from 2006-2018: The Eastern Region

The Eastern Region is one of the hottest, driest, poorest and least developed areas in Burkina Faso, which is among the hottest, driest, poorest and least developed nations on the planet.

The East is Burkina’s largest region comprising of 18% of the country.

People are very dispersed and in some areas access to water is <31%.

Sanitation Coverage: 3% in rural areas (97% practicing open defecation).

WASH-in-Schools: There are 1054 schools in the East; 466 (less than half) have access to water.

A rural village where BARKA works in eastern Burkina.

The Official City of Fada N’Gourma Seal.

Fada N’Gourma, Capital of the Eastern Region and BARKA’s HQ

Fada N’Gourma, also written Fada-Ngourma, is a city in eastern Burkina Faso, lying 219 kilometres (136 mi) east of Ouagadougou, in the Gourmaché area. It is the capital of the Gourma province. It is the eighth largest city in Burkina Faso. The population according to the Mayor is 123,594. It is known for its hand woven cloth manufacturing. It is also famed for its honey. The town is also twinned with Epernay in France, the champagne capital of the world, and Great Barrington, MA, which was an initiative of The BARKA Foundation.

Barka Co-Founders, Ina & Esu Anahata with the late Fada Naba, spiritual leader and traditional king of the Gourmache kingdom, who presided over Ina & Esu’s traditional wedding ceremony.