In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Burkina Faso (Upper Volta)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Guides to Colonial Archives concerning Burkina Faso
  • Oral History Archives
  • Archaeology
  • Cities
  • Ethnic Relations
  • Women and Gender
  • Land Rights, Earth Shrines, and Modern Law
  • Folklore
  • Literature
  • Cinema, FESPACO
  • The Arts

African Studies Burkina Faso (Upper Volta)
Mahir Şaul
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0174


Burkina Faso is a landlocked country between the Sahel and Sudanic belts of West Africa. It has a population of about 18 million. Although low-income, it made significant contributions to art and culture, notably by hosting the Pan-African Film and Television Festival (Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou, or FESPACO) for several decades. Smallholder cereal farms and transhuman pastoralism in the north characterize the economy. High population densities have also led to large number of migrants to neighboring Gold Coast and Côte d’Ivoire. Today, Burkina Faso is an exporter of cotton, gold, and the traditional shea and livestock. From its foundation as a French colony, the country has displayed a dualism. The central and eastern parts of the country are culturally more homogenous, with a political heritage of chiefdoms, which are linked in hierarchical clusters described as kingdoms. Three political centers dominated the central plain, drained by the Nazinon and Nakambe Rivers (formerly Red and White Volta): Tenkodogo, Ouagadougou, and Ouahigouya, forming together a massive Moose (Mossi) cultural bloc. Moore is the native tongue of half the population. The eastern part of Burkina Faso had an analogous hierarchical political structure of separate origin. In contrast, the western third (the real plateau of Burkina) and the southern fringe of the country include a large number of overlapping sociolinguistic groups. In the 19th century, a political mix of village confederations, strongmen, and merchant/warrior networks were in evidence. The languages of the country belong mostly to either the Voltaic family (which includes Moore) or the Mande family. One of the Mande languages, Jula (also spelled Dioula), became the lingua franca of modernity in western Burkina Faso, due to the administrative preferences of the colonial period, such army recruitment, and conversions to Islam. The northern, Sahelian zone, home to the Fulbe, Tuareg, and Songhay (Songhai) can be considered a third ethnolinguistic and ecological zone. The French conducted conquest wars in 1896 and 1897, and after military “pacification” in 1904, they incorporated the territory in the large colony of Upper Senegal and Niger (Fr. Haut-Sénégal et Niger). In 1919, seven districts (cercles) were detached—partly because of uprisings during World War I, the most significant of which was the Volta-Bani War in the western Volta districts—to create Upper Volta (Fr. Haute-Volta), with a capital in Ouagadougou. It was suppressed in 1933, its territory divided between Côte d’Ivoire, French Sudan (now Mali), and Niger. Upper Volta was reconstituted on September 4, 1947 (minus the Say district bordering the Niger River, which at the end of 1926 had been annexed to the recently created colony of Niger). The country became independent in 1960 as a parliamentary republic. A notable episode in its political history is the populist revolutionary government (1983–1987) of Thomas Sankara. President Blaise Compaoré, who took power in 1987, announced his resignation on October 31, 2014, in the midst of popular protests, and fled the country. A transition government has been put in place, promising elections in November 2015.

General Overviews

The World Factbook, published by the Central Intelligence Agency, contains updated information on the people, economy, geography, communications, transportation, military, transnational issues, government organization, and current cabinet posts. Lansdorf 2014 provides information on contemporary political affairs. Like these two resources, the Africa Yearbook is a multicountry resource, but unlike them it is limited to Africa, and it has a helpful section on Burkina Faso. Labourdette 2007 and Manson and Knight 2006 are tourist guides.

  • Africa Yearbook.

    This annual publication covers major domestic political developments, foreign policy, and socioeconomic trends in sub-Sahara Africa. The Yearbook contains articles on all sub-Saharan states, focusing on major cross-border developments and subregional organizations, as well as one article on continental developments and one on European-African relations. Available in an online edition.

  • Central Intelligence Agency. “Burkino Faso.” In The World Factbook. Washington, DC: Central Intelligence Agency.

    The World Factbook provides information on the history, people, government, economy, geography, communications, transportation, military, and transnational issues for 267 world entities. The Reference tab includes maps of the major world regions, as well as Flags of the World, a Physical Map of the World, a Political Map of the World, a World Oceans map, and a Standard Time Zones of the World map.

  • Labourdette, Jean-Paul. Le Petit Futé Burkina Faso, 2007–2008. 3d ed. Paris: Nouvelles Éditions de l’Université, 2007.

    Illustrated guidebook for tourists. After a general introduction on culture and history, it provides cultural information and practical guidance by geographic region.

  • Lansdorf, Tom, ed. “Burkina Faso.” In Political Handbook of the World 2014. Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ, 2014.

    One-volume source for political information, including facts and analysis on each country’s governmental and political makeup. It is periodically updated to include coverage of current events, issues, crises, and political controversies, but this edition reflects the situation before the changes following the flight of President Blaise Compaoré from the country.

  • Manson, Katrina, and James Knight. Burkina Faso: The Bradt Travel Guide. Chalfont St. Peter, UK: Bradt Travel Guides, 2006.

    Illustrated guidebook with maps, providing cultural, landscape, and practical information region by region. The comments incorporate quotes from the research literature, albeit without references.

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