Ouagadougou Journal 2: Tribalism

In the early part of January of 2016, I had occasion to travel to delightful Burkina Faso in West Africa, located just below the Sahara desert and just above the equator. Long a bastion of peacefulness, stability, and welcoming generosity among it’s neighboring countries, Burkina went through an uncharacteristic stretch of political upheaval in the past 15 months. There was also the matter of the horrific terrorist attack aimed at ex-pats which occurred at a downtown Ouagadougou hotel the evening after we safely departed, which was orchestrated by outsiders. Yet, the predominant mood I encountered was one of strong positivity and sincere friendliness. The Burkinabé believe in the their future, are proud of their national demeanor, and have good reason to be. This is one of a series of reflections occasioned by my visit there.


I was ensconced in the backseat of a green taxi, one of many vying for trajectory space in the hectic streets of Ouagadougou, along with hundreds of veering motorbikes, dozens of less fortunate mechanical bicyclers, the occasional donkey cart, and a generous sprinkle of pedestrians never unburdened by some impossibly unwieldy load. A young boy more on the verge of manhood than his age or height would indicate deftly steered two rubber tires through the chaos and potholes. A young woman dressed to perfection in a purple and gold printed West African kaftan balances an enormous tray of bright orange carrots atop her head. A lawyer, an older portly man, zips by in a suit and tie. Middle-aged women pause with dignity, monitoring minute changes in the chaotic traffic flow, their heads decorated with enormous and colorful silk wraps in every shape one can think of. Noise is everywhere, along with dust, red dust, stirred up from the sub-Saharan ground by the constant swirl of human activity which fills the city from dawn to dusk, and a bit beyond. Whenever a minor violation against social protocol occurs in an effort to gain a slight positional advantage, shouts and casual admonitions fly, mostly from the men, from several directions — and then all is forgiven in an instant as attention passes fervently to the next thing.

Digesting this sensory buffet in a lost and delighted reverie, something dimly recalled my focus back to the taxi. Some sort of discussion was heating up in the front seat, the exchange getting even more boisterous, emotive and pointed than usual. I tried to zoom in on the confusing Africanized French, with it’s generally more lax vowel enunciations. We had just passed the traditional residence of the ‘chef’ (something like tribal king) of all of the Mossi peoples in Burkina Faso, and Maiga, our de facto guide had dutifully but casually mentioned this. Maiga was a Peul, (or Fulani to les anglais), from Burkina’s extreme north, a region known as the Sahel. The Sahel is a gorgeous place according to my readings, a kind of boundary strip stretching across much of West Africa forming a buffer between the dry hot seemingly (though not actually) uninhabitable Sahara desert and the more southerly savannahs where lushness gradually returns to the landscape. Peuls were tall, calm, hardy and strong, with a reputation as peacemakers not to be messed with in daily confrontations. Temperatures reached 45C (113F) daily each hot season there, but the nights were cool and vivid with the starry skies sparkling the way they did on the Mediterranean in the days of Homer.


But the driver was messing. He was Mossi, from central Burkina, the tribe forming the majority of peoples around the city of Ouagadougou. Within the past few centuries, the Mossi, who had come from further east, had displaced and outnumbered the earlier inhabitants of what has become Burkina Faso. He had taken exception to Maiga’s limiting of the Mossi chief’s domain, almost screaming that he was in fact king of all Burkina and at one point offering that this chief was truthfully king of the world. The governmental and military structures which wield power in a more conventional sense in modern Burkina have little outward connection to the tribes. Yet clearly the chiefs were more than figureheads. The taxi driver continued negotiating the multi-faceted traffic chaos without missing a beat although you would swear the two of them were seconds away from coming to blows over this breech of tribal diplomacy. While Maiga was casually reminding the car’s occupants that there were at least thirteen separate tribes just within Burkina Faso, all but one being non-Mossi, I was peering back at the king’s quarters with disappointment: it did not present an impressive veneer. I had the feeling that truly grasping the significance of the tribal roots of African culture could be an endless puzzle. It seemed simultaneously possible to both over- and under-estimate it’s importance. Partly a relic from a bygone era and partly a visceral living reality in the hearts of millions of ‘displaced’ citizens inadvertently affected by the drawing of lines on a map in some European parlor last century. Ouagadougou was the local melting pot. All tribes mingled there, and many foreigners as well, from Niger or Mali or Ghana. Without incidents like the taxi driver uproar, you could easily pass several weeks in Ouaga without much awareness of tribal identities. You might encounter hundreds of different Burkinabé per day from all walks of life, in all sorts of social transactions, and never know of their lineages. But, if you add up the populations of the main city, Ouagadougou, and the next top 15 cities across the country you barely reach a total of two million people, which amounts to only about 12% of the entire country. Burkina Faso is a rural place. At it’s heart, it is a land of traditional village life. The vast majority of the people live and work under the powerful influences of local custom, even though many will travel to and fro among larger towns or small cities in the course of their lives. Fully 80% of the population still works at subsistence agriculture.

The names of the languages are wonderful: Mooré, Fulfulde, Bambara, Diole, Tekmashek, Bobo, Samo, Bissa, Gourmanche — these being just the main ones. (You can give a listen to some Mooré in the video above.) As are the names of the major ethnicities: Mossi and Fulani as already mentioned, and Lobiri, Mandé, Tuareg, Senoufo, Gourunsi, and Kassena. Each have their typical home regions within Burkina, usually also spilling across borders to neighboring countries. Each their distinctive manner of dress, artistic quirks, beloved foods, social rules and taboos, and rituals and dances. And in village life, what the local chief says goes. For example, there are about 70 national orphanages in Burkina Faso. Although Burkina has a lot of potential economically, there is still an infrastructure shortage on all levels. Children become orphaned for a variety of reasons here, like elsewhere in Africa. Often the youthfulness of the parents or mother is a factor. Crossing of tribal boundaries can be a dicey factor too. When the economic or social acceptance outlook for raising a new child is in doubt, it is likely that the machinery of tribal tradition and consultation with the elders will govern the final decision. These events take place outside of the urbane melting pot of the city, where simply by proximity, contact with other outlooks tend to broaden the imagination as to what is or what is not possible in social situations.

I asked Maiga how one comes to be a king or chief, as a way of perhaps lightening the controversy and shifting gears. They both replied that it works by blood, by family name, by inheritance. Sometimes chiefs can have 4 or 5 wives, one of them added. Suddenly, the topic shifted when the driver chose a slightly different route from what Maiga expected, avoiding some traffic and thereby quickly arriving at our destination. Just as quickly, both were friends and all was convivial, and the driver wished us bon chance and a very good continuation to our day with all the civility and earnest kindness that seemingly only an African can convey. Waving goodbye, I found myself awash in wonderment, reflecting on the Western, African, and human psychological contrasts and relations. I became certain somehow that the depths of this alien cultural mind eluded me and eludes me still to this day, and yet entices and warms. So many things concealed behind all those warm eyes. So easy to dismiss as passé and primitive what the other knows, what we’ve long forgotten. So automatic and unconsidered to regard our own vantage point as the one best informed by reality. The Burkinabé have mastered or naturally embody genuine kindness and social grace. It is not some ideal virtue to be aimed for amidsts the hectic buzz of surging workaday activity in order to make things go more smoothly. Instead it is the main thing — the true nectar in life to be enjoyed for it’s own sake. Somehow, with this solid base, each person also feels free to emote as explosively as the situation warrants, without contradiction or loss of decor. I’m reminded of an old haunting line by Leonard Cohen: “He was starving in some deep mystery, like a man who is sure what is true.”


If interested, you can read another item in this little series of reflections about wonderful Ouagadougou here.

Handy INDEX to scan through all available ||SWR|| articles


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