Burkina Faso, formerly Upper Volta, is a landlocked country in West Africa. Burkina Faso is one of the friendliest - and until the late 2010s, one of the safest - countries in all of Africa. Even before the unrest that made travel to the country unsafe, it received only a few tourists per year, and was an excellent destination for anyone interested in seeing a beautiful West African country and exploring African culture and music.
|Volta Delta |
The country's population center, home to the mostly Christian Mossi and the national capital.
|Black Volta Region |
The lushest and most culturally diverse section of the country.
|East Burkina Faso |
Arid, mostly Muslim, and home to the country's most visited National Parks.
|North Burkina Faso |
Dominated by the Sahel, home to the Fulani and Tuareg populations of the country.
- 1 Ouagadougou — also known as Ouaga (pronounced "wa-ga"), is the capital city. It has several museums, and a major annual film festival
- 2 Banfora — home to the famous Banfora Cascades
- 3 Bobo-Dioulasso — the nation's second largest city is a major center of culture and music
- 4 Dédougou — hosts a biennial festival of masks
- 5 Gaoua — hardly a pleasant town, Gaoua is near the Ruins of Loropéni, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
- 6 Koudougou — home of the Royal Palace of Issouka, an example of earthen architecture
- 7 Ouahigouya — the entry point to Burkina from Mali
- 8 Fada N'gourma — home of the Botanical Garden Bantia, and gateway to the national parks of the southeast
- 9 Djibo — an important market for cattle, sheep, goats
- 1 Arli National Park — has a wide variety of habitats, ranging from the gallery forests of the Arli and Pendjari rivers to savanna woodland and sandstone hills of the Gobnangou chain
- 2 Kabore Tembi National Park — an important birding area
- 3 W National Park — a transborder park and UNESCO World Heritage Site shared with Niger and Benin
Literally meaning the Land of the Upright Men, Burkina Faso, a landlocked country, comprises an area of 274,400 km² and is surrounded by six countries. Despite years of political turmoil, it offers a diverse traditional culture, history, tribal art and a variety of landscapes.
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.
|Currency||West African CFA franc (XOF)|
|Population||20.4 million (2019)|
|Electricity||220 volt / 50 hertz (Europlug, Type E)|
|Time zone||UTC±00:00, Africa/Ouagadougou|
|Emergencies||112 (emergency medical services), 17 (police), 18 (fire department)|
|edit on Wikidata|
The Sankara years
The country became independent in the 1960s and was renamed to Burkina Faso in the 1980s.
In the early 1980s, Thomas Sankara, commonly referred to as "Africa's Che Guevera", initiated some highly ambitious campaigns for social and economic changes, many of which are considered to be some of the most ambitious campaigns ever launched in post-colonial Africa. His government was successful in outlawing forced marriages and polygamy, encouraging women to participate in the government, increasing school attendance, combatting corruption, and reducing the overall infant mortality rate.
On the other hand, his policies antagonised the small but powerful Burkinabé middle class, and tribal leaders were stripped of numerous benefits and privileges. International organisations such as Amnesty International have alleged that Sankara's government curtailed dissent and engaged in extrajudicial killings. In 1987, almost three years into Sankara's presidency, Blaise Compaoré (Sankara's colleague) and twelve other officers staged a coup d'etat against Thomas Sankara's government and executed Sankara in cold blood.
The Compaoré years
Following the 1987 coup, Compaoré became the country's president and immediately overturned all of Sankara's policies. Compaoré's administration received little to none of the support and praise it had been expected to receive from the international community.
During Compaoré's presidency, he won four mostly questionable elections, and Burkinabé opposition frequently alleged that they were rigged in his favour. The Compaoré administration routinely dismissed, jailed, and tortured critics, and they are believed to be complicit in numerous extrajudicial killings. The country's economy greatly deteriorated during this time.
In October 2014, Compaoré fled to the Ivory Coast after he had attempted to extend his presidency, and remains there in exile. In April 2022, he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison for masterminding Thomas Sankara's assassination in absentia.
Since Compaoré's exile, it was commonly believed that a new government would bring about new changes and reform in the country. This also, sadly, was proven to be wrong since the country has continued to battle severe bouts of political instability. In 2022, the military overthrew the government. The prospects of change seem remote.
Burkina Faso's 21½ million people (2020) 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 present-day 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 centre of the country, sometimes exceeding 48/km² (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 meant that hundreds of thousands of Burkinabé returned to Burkina Faso. A plurality of Burkinabé are nominally 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 the relatively great expenses of school supplies and school fees and the 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. There is still a very strong oral tradition of story-telling.
Long hobbled by political instability, inefficient and ineffective governance, a poor educational system, a lack of infrastructure, and poor agriculutral conditions, Burkina Faso is one of the world's poorest countries.
In 2004, it was estimated that roughly 77% of the population is unemployed.
Burkina Faso has a variety of diverse cultures and due to many ethnic groups, its cultural practices are continuously observed. One of its important customs is Rakiire, a type of cross-ethnic relationship of jokes.
- 1 January: New Year's Day
- 3 January: Anniversary of the 1966 coup d’état
- 8 March: Women's Day
- 15 August: Assumption
- 1 November: All Saints Day
- 11 December: Proclamation of the Republic
- 25 December: Christmas
A passport and a visa are required to enter Burkina Faso. You generally should obtain your visa in advance, although European Union citizens can obtain visas upon arrival at the airport (CFA10,000). French citizens now require to get a visa in advance at €70 for one entry. If you are not from the European Union, the cost of a 3-month, single entry visa is CFA28,300 and must be acquired in advance of your journey. The Burkina Faso embassy in Washington offers six-month, multiple-entry visas for USD100. US citizens only are eligible for a five-year, multiple-entry visa for USD140.
If coming by land, EU and US citizens are able to get a seven-day single entry visa for CFA10,000 at the border. As of July 2010, at the border with Ghana at Paga, they increased the price to CFA94,000, payable in cash (and the exchange rate offered at the border was 10-20% lower than market rates). No passport photos were required. They only were able to issue a 90-day visa. 2 passport photos and a yellow fever certificate are required (border crossing at Paga, in July 2010, did not ask for yellow fever certificate). Border police said that CFA10,000 visas were still available, but back in Accra. Border police also said that the 90-day visa was convertible at no cost to a 5-year visa for a US passport in Ouagadougou. Visas may be extended to 3 months multiple entry at the Bureau de Sureté de l'Etat which can be found in most major cities. To get the extension you should arrive before 09:00 (again with 2 passport photographs) and collect your passport again that afternoon.
Upon arrival, you may be asked to prove you've been vaccinated against Yellow Fever if you are travelling 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.
- At the Burkina Faso embassy in Bamako, Mali, a 30-day visa costs CFA 25,000 = 45 USD
- At the Burkina Faso embassy in Accra, Ghana, a 30-day visa costs GHS 146 = 30 USD and you get it on the same day. You need two passport photos.
Flights are available through Abidjan, Brussels, Casablanca, Dakar, Niamey, Paris on the following carriers: Air Algérie, Air Burkina, Air France, Brussels Airlines, Royal Air Maroc. US flights : Brussels Airlines is part of 'Star Alliance' and Royal Air Maroc also offers some US flights departing from New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Turkish Airlines has some of the best fares from Europe to Ouagadougou.
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 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, ie a 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 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 CFA500 (USD1) per bag (at least from a foreigner). 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 CFA francs.
There is a 517-km railway stretch from Ouagadougou to the Cote d'Ivoire border. Count on about a 48-hr train trip from Abidjan to Ouagadougou, and slightly less than 24 hr for the trip from Bouake to Banfora. In August 2007, the cost trip from Abidjan to Ouaga was CFA30,000, with CFA5,000 more for first class, which is not always available.
You can also take the bus in and out of Burkina Faso 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 (~ CFA3000) or a moto (~ CFA6,000) to get around locally.
Even wealthy Burkinabé who own cars do not use them to travel between major cities, but opt for buses instead. The major routes between Ouagadougou and other cities are in good condition; taxi drivers can be erratic.
French is the official language and the lingua franca between ethnic groups; 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).
Burkina Faso, despite being poor, has an indescribably rich culture. Its highlights include spiritual mask dances, mud mosques, Tuareg traders, an extraordinary music and cinema scene, thousand-year-old ruins and remote communities that follow animistic beliefs.
Laongo is home to a variety of sculptures by local and international artists. The park's scattered pieces of granite have been transformed into beautiful works of art.
The Sindou Peaks in Banfora consists of a narrow chain of soft rock that over the years has been eroded into unusual rock formations.
Burkina Faso is the home of music in West Africa.
- Festival International de la Culture Hip Hop (International Festival of Hip Hop Culture)—Ouagadougou & Bobo-Dioulasso; October; Two weeks of Hip Hop performances
- Festival Jazz (Jazz Festival)—Ouaga & Bobo; April/May; Features big names from around the continent
- Festival des Masques et des Artes (FESTIMA; Arts & Masks Festival)—Dedougou; March of even-numbered years; Hundreds of troupes of mask dancers from across West Africa perform.
- Festival Panafricain du Cinema (FESPACO; Panafrican Film Festival)—Ouaga; Feb/Mar of odd-numbered years; Africa's largest film festival held every other year brings stars and filmmakers from across the continent.
- Semaine National de la Culture (National Culture Week)—Bobo; March/April; music, dance, theater, and masquerades fill the air this week in Bobo
Starting in Gorom Gorom, you can take a camel ride out into the desert and even sleep out there on the sand. Guides can arrange this for you from Gorom Gorom and it can be expensive if you do not pick your guides carefully. Take warm clothes and good blankets if you plan to sleep in the desert. Women should bring trousers to wear on camels because skirts (especially African pagnes) tend to fall open due to the shape of the saddle.
There is a beautiful hike alongside the waterfalls outside of Banfora. The admission price is one or two thousand francs. Be careful not to spend too much time in the water: tourists occasionally catch bilharzia, also known as Schistosomiasis, from swimming in the falls. The locals will tell you that swimming will not make you sick, but it can.
Also near Banfora is a lake (more of a pond, actually) where you can take a trip out on a pirogue to see the hippos. Do not expect too much. Often all you see of the hippos is ears sticking up out of the water. Remember, hippos are dangerous animals who do not like being bumped by pirogues that get too close, so be careful. This will cost two or three thousand francs per person.
A couple of hours west of Banfora is Sindou, with the Sindou peaks. These rock formations are somewhat like the North American hoodoos. They are needle-like peaks that have shaped by wind erosion. The Sindou peaks are a great spot for a short hike or a picnic. A guide is not necessary to find your way around but can tell you many fascinating facts about Senoufo culture and the time when the village, which is now at the base of the peaks, used to be located up on the plateau. Look out for the thorned plants on the plateau, the Senoufo imported them from Mali to use the thorns to make poisoned arrows. Admission is CFA1,000. You will need to give the guide a tip.
Buy fabric and get an African outfit made. In Ouagadougou, you will pay CFA3,750 for "three pagnes" of fabric. You can then take this to a tailor and have three items made. For women, this is usually a shirt and skirt then a length of fabric left over to make a wrap-around skirt. Men can have shirts made. The going rate for a woman's outfit and skirt is CFA3,500. Fancier models and embroidery will cost extra, as much as CFA20,000 if you want elaborate embroidery.
See the crocodiles at one of the crocodile lakes outside of Ouaga, on the road to Bobo-Dioulasso.
Explore the mud mosque in Bobo-Dioulasso. An imam's son can serve as your guide. Remove your shoes at the entrance. Dress modestly. Women should be prepared to cover their heads, although this is not always requested. You will need to pay admission (CFA1,000), give a tip to the guide and give a tip to the children who guard your shoes while you are inside.
Explore the elaborate mosques in Bani, near Dori on the road to Ouaga.
Exchange rates for CFA francs
As of January 2023:
Exchange rates fluctuate. Current rates for these and other currencies are available from XE.com
The currency of the country is the West African CFA franc, denoted CFA (ISO currency code: XOF). It's also used by seven other West African countries. It is interchangeable at par with the Central African CFA franc (XAF), which is used by six countries. Both currencies are fixed at a rate of 1 euro = 655.957 CFA francs.
The West African CFA franc is to be renamed the "eco" by the end of 2027. It would continue to be fixed to the euro.
- In general, most bank machines will accept Master Card and Visa cards, with a PIN. Make sure you have a PIN for your credit card in order to access money from the bank machines.
- Ecobank ATMs in Burkina Faso will let you withdraw cash with a Visa card or MasterCard.
Any run-of-the-mill Burkinabé restaurant will most certainly have one or all of the following:
- Tô = a millet or corn flour based jelly-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 acquired taste.
- Foufou = 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, called Yams in English). The sauce is usually tomato-based. Eaten in the same manner as tô.
- Ragout d'Igname = boiled igname in a tomato sauce. A beef and yam stew
- 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, cucumber and onion with a mayonnaise-based dressing (mayo, vinegar, salt, pepper)
- "Poulet Telévisé" = televised chicken, or roast chicken, since many locals say if you watch the roaster it is like watching TV! A Burkina specialty.
- Beignets = (mooré samsa) fried bean flour
- Fried ignames, patate douce (sweet potato french fries)
- Alloco = Bbq'd plantains
- Brochettes = bbq'd meat sticks, or liver, or tripe, or intestines
- Porc au four = baked greasy pork bits served with hot sauce (fr. "piment"), salt, and if you are lucky, mustard. Best enjoyed with a Flag beer (to make "champagne", add some tonic)
- Gateau = fried dough. Comes in all sorts of varieties, best when fresh.
- Bisap = cold sweet tea made of the fleshy calyces of roselle (a kind of hibiscus), sometimes enhanced with mint and/or ginger (XOF25-50)
- Yamoku, or Gingembre = sweet ginger drink (XOF25-50)
- Toédo, or Pain de singe = sweet and "smoothie-like" in texture. Made from baobab fruit.
- Dégué = sweet yoghurt mixed with millet balls, sometimes couscous.
- Dolo = sorghum beer.
People go en repos from noon until around 15:00. 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.
See the warning at the top of this page about civil unrest and extremist activity. As well, be aware of thieves in the big city. Violent assault is rare. Pickpockets and bag snatchers are something to watch out for in big cities, especially in Ouagadougou, where it is recommended not to carry a bag. 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.
Before the unrest, female visitors rarely experienced any problems. Foreigners, especially white foreigners, frequently attracted significant attention, but the interest was 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.
Yellow fever vaccination is required in order to enter the country.
Malaria is a serious problem, so be sure to begin taking prophylaxis prior to leaving for Burkina and continue taking it while there and, depending on the drug chosen, for some time after returning home.
Cholera vaccination may be required in the event of an outbreak.
Meningitis is also a problem, and vaccination is also highly recommended.
Typhoid is common, as are other water and food-borne diseases such as E coli. Typhoid vaccination is recommended but it is not fully effective so it is still important to take precautions.
Lassa fever and Dengue are concerns, but not more so than in other West African countries. There are no vaccinations for these diseases, so consult your doctor about preventative measures before travelling to the area.
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.
Ramadan is the 9th and holiest month in the Islamic calendar and lasts 29–30 days. Muslims fast every day for its duration and most restaurants will be closed until the fast breaks at dusk. Nothing (including water and cigarettes) is supposed to pass through the lips from dawn to sunset. Non-Muslims are exempt from this, but should still refrain from eating or drinking in public as this is considered very impolite. Working hours are decreased as well in the corporate world. Exact dates of Ramadan depend on local astronomical observations and may vary somewhat from country to country. Ramadan concludes with the festival of Eid al-Fitr, which may last several days, usually three in most countries.
If you're planning to travel to Burkina Faso during Ramadan, consider reading Travelling during Ramadan.
Burkina Faso shares a lot in common with surrounding countries in West Africa.
It is very common for people, including people you've never even met before, to greet people around them. You will easily observe that it's common for people to exchange greetings and say things like "good morning", "how's your health", "how is your family", and so on. Don't be fazed or surprised by this; this is how the Burkinabé get to know others, and you can very easily make a friend or two by following suit!
Always make it a point to greet and acknowledge people wherever you go; not doing so is considered extremely rude. As a foreigner, you might get some leeway, but still, greet and acknowledge people to not stand out like a sore thumb.
Don't assume the worst in people; just because Burkina Faso has a lot of social and political problems doesn't mean that everyone is alike. By being a bit open-minded, you'll find that almost everyone is friendly, sociable, and approachable.
Never use your left hand to shake hands with someone or give something to someone; the left hand is commonly associated with bathroom purposes.
Women may get extra attention from Burkinabé men, but catcalls and unwanted advances are frowned upon. In the event someone makes unwanted advances towards you, don't feel the need to be polite; no woman, including Burkinabé women, would put up with behaviour like that.
Although Islam is the dominant religion, Burkina Faso is, by law, a secular state. The country is a rare example of religious diversity and tolerance, even though there are a few disagreements among the different religious sects. You're unlikely to cause offense by discussing religion, but always approach the subject with respect.
Politics can be an extremely touchy subject to discuss in Burkina Faso. In general, the Burkinabé are absolutely frustrated with their government and they have, for years, dealt with incredibly corrupt and inefficient governments. Positive talk about Blaise Compaoré is likely to elicit strong reactions.
Negative talk about the Thomas Sankara years is likely to elicit strong reactions from some people.