Burkina Faso, often shortened to Burkina, is a landlocked African nation bordered by Mali, Niger, Benin, Togo, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire. Formerly known as the Republic of the Upper Volta, it adopted its present name, meaning “land of upright people”, in 1984.
Burkina has a long history of habitation, with archaeological evidence indicating that hunter-gatherers lived in the region as long ago as 12,000 BCE. Several civilizations successively arose in different areas of the country; the powerful kingdom of Ouagadougou, centered around modern Burkina’s capital city, probably arose in the 16th century, and came to dominate the center of the country. French and British forces struggled for control of the region during the last decade of the 19th century. By 1898, Burkina was nominally colonized by France, but fierce resistance from its indigenous people kept the country in a state of continuing warfare for several years afterwards. The Burkinabé, or people of Burkina, never accepted French rule, and social unrest, sometimes turning violent, precipitated the redrawing of the colony’s borders several times before the present boundaries were established. Self-rule was finally granted in 1958, leading to full independence in 1960. Although founded as a democracy, Burkina, then still known as Volta, faced popular discontent and political corruption in its early years, and saw a succession of military coups. The last occurred in 1987, when Blaise Compaoré assumed power; he has been the president of Burkina Faso since this time.
Although Burkina has made some progress toward easing social unrest and restoring democracy, it remains one of the world’s poorest and least developed countries. With few natural resources, its economy relies heavily on agriculture, which faces challenges in the form of long periods of drought and the encroachment of the Sahara in the north of the country. Mining of gold, copper, iron, and manganese is also an important industry. Emigration due to unemployment is high, and money sent home from Burkinabé working abroad is a significant source of revenue.
Despite these problems, Burkina is one of the safest countries in West Africa, and a great, if often overlooked, travel destination, especially for those with an interest in African culture. The annual International Art and Craft Fair in Ouagadougou is an excellent place to pick up traditional African handicrafts, and the country has a vibrant theater and film industry which have gained notoriety both regionally and internationally. Though paid positions will be difficult to find, many volunteer organizations can provide accommodations for a long-term stay in exchange for service. Medical professionals are in particularly high demand in Burkina, and service in this field will likely earn you a high degree of respect among your hosts.
French is the official language, but is rarely spoken outside of urban centers. 90% of Burkinabé count an indigenous language as their mother tongue; Mòoré is the most common language, spoken by about half the population, followed by Dioula.