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57. Fear in Burkina Faso, A Long, Long Time Ago

AUG. 31, 2022


Take a terrifying trip to Burkina Faso to learn about the horrors that lurk in lakes and rivers, the fishermen with no fear, the curse of the blacksmith and a tiny space rock that hit the country a long, long, time ago.

Burkina Faso is in the centre of West Africa, a small land-locked country, surrounded by Mali to the north, then going clockwise, Niger (Ni-Juh), Benin, Togo, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast.

The North of the country is arid and dry and the South more lush and forested. It is the hottest country in the world with an average yearly temperature of 28.29 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit).

Not surprisingly then, water is scarce – there are rivers and streams, but these really only exist during the rainy season which runs from May to October. There are three main rivers, the Black Volta, the White Volta and the Red Volta and all three flow directly into Lake Volta in Ghana (the largest artificial reservoir in the world).

These three rivers gave rise to the country’s previous names, Haute Volta and Upper Volta.

Burkina Faso is 274,400 sq km (105,869 sq mi), so, about the same size as the United Kingdom, or half a France and the capital is Ouagadougou, which literally means “You are welcome here at home with us”.

The main export of the country is gold, followed thereafter by cotton, or ‘white gold’, as it is known by local farmers. In fact, Burkina Faso is one of the largest producers of cotton in Africa.

Recently, one of the largest manganese reserves in the world have been found in the northeast which could quickly become the country's most valuable resource, turning the fortunes of the country around from desperate poverty to one of great financial wealth. Here’s hoping.

Citizens of Burkina Faso are called the Burkinabe, with around 16 million people, split between 66 distinct ethnic groups. The dominant group, making up 40% of the population are the Mossi but others include the Bobo, the Gurunsi, the Lobi, the Mande, the Senufo, and the Fulani.

90% of all the people live in more than eight thousand villages, and there are still some nomadic tribes in the north. Some Burkinabé are artisans and metalworkers, but 80% rely on subsistence farming to survive – meaning that everything they farm is just enough to feed themselves and their family, with little, if nothing to sell or trade.

Burkina Faso is home to the largest elephant population in West Africa, but there’s also Lions, Hyenas, aardvarks, cheetahs, chimpanzees, buffalo, gazelles, crocodiles, and many many more.

The national animal is the horse - specifically the White Stallion. TThe Burkinabe love horses and are known as “the cowboys of West Africa” for their love of horse-riding.

Burkinabe are famous for making ornate masks – the Bobo people wear large butterfly masks, and the Mossi make antelope masks that can be as big as 7 feet tall.

Mossi also have incredibly elaborate greetings to each other. They shake hands and ask how the other is, then they ask how their wives and children are, and how their animals are doing. In some cases this back and forth handshake can take over half an hour!

They also have a culture of “Rakiire” - a type of joking between people that is best described as being impertinent to people. Rakiire jokes are told within families and between ethnic groups, for example a grandson might joke with his grandmother, saying: “Are you still alive, Grandmother? When are you dying?” and she might respond with, “Naughty boy, I will survive you!”

This joking is intended to help avoid conflict and there is even an organization called the Association for the Promotion of Cross-Ethnic Joking which promotes Rakiire joke-telling.

Burkina Faso History

16,000 years ago Early man settledin the area using prehistoric tools, building simple structures, starting farms, making ceramics, chisels and arrowheads.

5,000 years ago the Lobi, Bobo, and Gurunsi peoples arrived and started to farm. And 2,500 years ago the Iron age began.

Over this period we see the arrival in waves of new warrior tribes on horseback, notably the Mossi. Several kingdoms are established, Gurmanché in the East, the Fulbe and Tuareg in the North and the Mossi in the centre.

Of these, it is the Mossi who develop most rapidly, using their horses to terrorise neighbouring tribes - advancing as far as Niger and attacking Timbuktu (in Mali).

Ruled by kings (or moro naba which means ‘great lord’), the most powerful Mossi base is established in Ouagadougou (which eventually becomes today’s capital city)

In the late 19th century Burkina Faso sees the introduction to Europeans as part of their scramble for Africa. Europeans attempt to claim parts of the region through either fighting the local people, or making alliances and treaties

This included the notorious French Captain Paul Voulet, a French expeditionary and sadist, who in the 1890s was notable for chopping off the heads of local people, putting their heads on poles, roasting children over fires, and stringing up soldiers alive at a height where their feet could be reached by hyenas’ hungry jaws.

He was so bad even by the low standards of the time that when his superiors tried to rein him in, he told his troops that he was no longer French but a “black chief” and was going to start his own empire.

Voulet was eventually killed, and the French, embarrassed, simply marked his activities down to “the maddening heat of Africa”.

In 1896 the French take control of the region and two years later in 1898 the country's borders are drawn up on a map and strict rules are set out for local people to follow.

In World War One, draftees were conscripted to fight, which resulted in an armed opposition to rise up against the French government, and the two-year Volta-Bani War begins, in which around 20,000 locals fought the French army but were finally defeated and their leaders executed.

In 1932 the map was redrawn again with the region entirely absorbed into other French colonies (Ivory Coast, Sudan and Niger) and the place disappears as a country until 1947 when the region reappears on the map and named “French Upper Volta”

A decade later, in the 1950s, the colony becomes self-governing and renames itself as ‘the Republic of Upper Volta’ and in 1960 they gain independence.

This new government lasts only 6 years until a military coup occurs and the army takes over, which in turn leads to a series of coups until 1984 when infighting leads to the appointment of one Thomas Sankara as Prime Minister

Sankara was a young, energetic and charismatic revolutionary inspired by Marxist philosophy. He changed the name of the country from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso, campaigned against corruption, cut his salary, and that of all his top civil servants – even making them sell off their big luxury cars for smaller more affordable ones. He went on to oversee huge increases in education and health spending and the promotion of pan-Africanism, self-sufficiency, and real-world independence from France. He was also outspoken on gender equality - banning female circumcision and polygamy.

For all this he gained the hearts of the people and quickly became known as "Africa's Che Guevara" after the guerilla leader and revolutionary from Cuba.

However, only four years into his leadership, Sankara was meeting with his advisors when a car pulled up outside the building and shots fired. Sankara grabbed his gun, told everyone to stay in the room and left to confront the attackers.

As he left the room he was shot seven times in the chest and twice in the head, dying immediately. The gunmen went on to kill 12 others.
Many believe that Sankara was assassinated by his friend, Blaise Compaore, a man who then replaced Sankara as leader of the country for the next 27 years.

In 2014, protests break out and the parliament building is set on fire, inspiring Compaore to resign and flee to the Ivory Coast where he remains in hiding to this day.

In April of this 2022, Compaore was put on trial for his role in the assassination of Sankara, found guilty and received a life sentence in absentia.

After Compaore abandoned the country, President Kabore assumed the leadership. He lasted for 7 years until Jan 2022 when he was arrested in another military coup.

In March 2022 year an agreement was reached that the military would oversee a 3-year transition to be followed by new elections. In April, Kabore was released by the military.

What next for Burkina Faso’s turbulent history? Who knows, but we wish them all the well.

Folktales and fear

Folktales are a means of transmitting traditional, collective wisdom and experience to the whole society, often starting with a saying similar to ‘a long long time ago’.

The Mossi they have a rich literature of folktales and storytelling forms a large part of their traditional customs and Mossi folktales have been shared for hundreds if not thousands of years, the job of griots and storytellers who pass on the ancestral word verbally as a means for their people to learn important lessons on how to express themselves, structure their thoughts, reason, and live their lives.

Mossi folktales mostly rely on the use of animals as the main characters and stories feature the gluttony and foolishness of Mba-Katre, the hyena, and the cunning and skillful, Mba-Soamba, a hare.

The stories also describe the origin of things, the reason for various social taboos, the legitimacy of social functions and structures, as well as illustrating character flaws that need correcting, and teaching the young what they should, and should not, fear.

The Man and the Wild Animals

A long long time ago… The wild animals decided to do everything they could to become more intelligent and stronger than man. They found it unfair the bush was full of animals such as the elephant and the gazelle, and that despite their strength none of them could defeat man, who remained the most powerful.

They decided to send one of their own to where man lived to ask him a few questions: How is it that he has two feet and yet he is more intelligent than those who have four feet? How did that come about?

The lion was elected to go question man. He started out.

At the entrance to the village, he found a man who was looking for some termites for his chickens. He greeted him and the latter responded in kind. He told him he had come on behalf of all the animals of the bush and that he wanted to see him. The man asked him the reason for his visit. The lion told him that he had been sent to ask the following question:

"How is it that you have only two feet and yet you are the strongest? What is your secret?"

The man let him finish and told him he had done well to come. He went on:

"However, you should have told me you were coming so that I could have gathered together all the intelligences and brought them here. At the moment, I have only one here with me. But that's all right. I will show it to you. You will come back later so that I can show you the rest."

Satisfied, the lion thanked him and accepted his proposal. He followed the man. The latter tore off several strips of bâgna' bark. Afterwards, they came upon a tree. The man asked the lion to lean up against it. He willingly accepted. The man tied him tightly to the tree. When he had finished, he said:

"They sent you to discover our secret so that they themselves could become stronger than us?"
"Yes," said the lion.
"I will show you just one intelligence," said the man.

He picked up the hoe he had been using to dig in the termite hole and pretended to hit him. The lion cried out and the man said to him: "Are you crying? Patience! It's coming!"
He took his knife and pretended to slit the lion's throat. The lion yelled even louder.

"Listen," the man told him, "If I did not fear God, you would be my prey. On the other hand, if I kill you, there will be no one to go and tell the other animals what man is. This is why you are still alive. However, I do have to make you suffer somewhat; that way when you return to the bush you will tell them to respect man because, apart from God, man fears nothing."

He took up his knife again, made a mark on the lion's back, and cut off his tail before setting him free. The lion ran off and went to find the other animals, who were busy playing. When they saw him, they said:

"Here is the bold one!"

They were all happy.

When he was in the midst of them, the elephant approached:

"How did you manage to see him? What did he say?"

The lion remained silent. Then he told them:

"You ask me how it went? Well! Didn't I leave here with a tail?"

And they replied, yes. He went on:

"Look at my back! Where is my tail? Listen, I am telling you now. If you see man walking, run until your claws are gone - because he is not someone to be trifled with! Today, if he had wanted to, I'd be done for, that's for sure!"

(story translated by Alain Sissao, who published a collection of traditional stories called ‘Folktales from the Mossi of Burkina Faso’)

Things you might fear - Crocodiles

Of all the wild animals in Burkina Faso, the one that plays an important part in the life of the Mossi is the Crocodile. Over 500 people are killed in Africa every year by these animals but the Mossi have a unique relationship with the reptiles which goes back centuries.

A long long time ago, during a period of severe drought, locals believe, a crocodile appeared and led local women to a source of fresh water. A thanksgiving was held by the grateful villagers and the reptiles have been revered, not feared, ever since.

As a result, crocodiles are allowed to wander into villages seeking safe places to lay their eggs - and not only that - but the locals also protect the nests from predators.

Local boys swim in lakes and rivers despite them being infested with crocodiles - although they avoid swimming too soon after the babies hatch because the mothers can “be very protective”. Which feels like an understatement.

Dead crocodiles are given a burial service like humans, often being buried in coffins in small, unmarked cemeteries. Crocodiles’ cries are interpreted by elders and treated as omens by villagers .

In one area, the people of Bazoulé centre their faith around the large male crocodiles which they know as the “old man of the lake”. Today’s old man of the lake is believed to be over 110 years old and his predecessor, who died more than a decade ago, was said to have lived even longer - about 136 years of age!

In an annual ceremony known as Koom Lakre, village elders make offerings of sheep, goats, and small donkeys to the old man of the lake.

Other aquatic things to fear

During the wet season, when the rivers and streams are full of water.. the Bukinabe exhibit plenty of Aqua Agrizoophobia (a fear of water-based wild animals).

High on the list of things to fear is the Hippopotamus - the second most dangerous animal in Africa.

Notoriously aggressive and territorial, hippos can weigh up to 2,750kgs / 4 tonnes (six grand pianos), reach speeds of up to 25kmh / 16mph, and have tusks at the front of their mouths which can grow over a foot in length.

Today, in Burkina Faso, there are about 1,500 hippos in Burkina Faso, but that’s a tiny number of those which lived there a long long time ago, because that number is recovering from near extinction several decades ago thanks to a hunting ban put in place in 1991.

They lived in the water where people bathed and fished, and would often protect their territory by biting canoes in half and killing the fishermen inside. Despite that, there were a few brave people willing to go into the water known as "the fearless fishermen".

These men would risk their lives by using the vast numbers of hippos to their advantage – they would head out in the canoes and cast their nets in among the animals hoping to catch the fish which were attracted by the volume of hippo dung. Then presumably paddle out again as soon as possible.

Perhaps in part due to the rising numbers of hippos and the threat they present - as of 2022, the government has made hippo hunting legal again

Smaller, but still scary – the blackfly

The need for water means that for as long as there have been humans in Burkina Faso, they have based themselves near water bBut they’re not the only ones that do so.

The Simulium is a small black fly that breeds in fast flowing, well-oxygenated waters, and feeds on blood, frequently using the people of Burkina Faso as it’s food source.

But not only does it bite, but the bite can cause Onchocerciasis, or river blindness.

Active during the day, when a black fly sucks blood from a human it injects larvae into the host. Then over one or two years, the larvae grow into a threadlike worm – which, when mature, produces up to 2,000 new larvae every day – all of which then migrate throughout the skin of the host.

The mature worm continues to produce larvae every day for its entire life – which can be up to ten years.

When an uninfected black fly sucks the blood of an infected person, it takes up the larvae and the cycle continues.

The larvae migrating throughout the body cause severe itching, rashes, depigmentation of the skin - especially in the lower limbs causing "leopard skin"), destruction of skin elasticity, resulting in loose, hanging folds ("hanging groin") and visual impairment and eventually blindness.

In the 1970s, one village named St. Pierre in Burkina Faso was found to be just several hundred meters from the breeding ground for black flies and as a result 90% of the population showed symptoms, with 30% exhibiting severe symptoms.

Today a small dose of diethylcarbamazine or Ivermectin kills the larvae, but not the worms, so the treatment needs to be repeated every six to twelve months for up to ten years - until the adult worms die of old age.

The World Health Organization has established a programme to eliminate the black fly by spraying river systems in West Africa and it is estimated that since the initiation of the program in the 1970s, nearly half a million cases of blindness has been prevented.

The creature in the hole
There is one more animal that lives deep in the heart of Burkina Faso’s waters that has struck fear into the hearts of local people for a long long time.

Near the small mud-brick village of Koro there is a mysterious place called Dafara, an anomaly in the flat landscape, a huge 100m-wide hole that looks as if the has earth collapsed.

When missionaries first arrived, they called Dafara “The Rocks” because of the sharp rock cliffs that fall below to the bottom of a ravine at the centre of which is a deep watery abyss the size of an Olympic swimming pool.

But you won’t be swimming here. The entire floor is covered in dark thick blood and flesh and bones from animals which have been brought to be sacrificed.

Animals were slaughtered to appease a fertility God that dwells in the recesses of the dark water of unknown depth.

But what is this creature? Nobody knows. Just that it is a flesh-eating creature of shocking proportions.

The villagers of Koro come down to the water and pray to the creature hoping that it’s magic can help cure infertile women and offer up whatever remains of the scarce livestock they own.

Their legend of Dafara states that you cannot go into the water, else the god will eat you alive, which seems plausible.

They say that a long long time ago, one man scoffed at the superstition and dove off the cliff and down into the milky water of the pool. He never surfaced and days later they found his bones on the shore.
In 1986 a missionary visited the site, and witnessed the locals offer meat to the creature. He claims to have seen a creature with smooth, black skin and no dorsal fin. Also no eyes or mouth - just a large hump.

The missionary estimated it to be the size of a large couch, about 7 feet long. After it had eaten, the black body submerged and was not seen again.

So, what is the creature in the ravine’s lake? A supernatural being that offers fertility as a reward for being well fed, or a local creature that for some reason became trapped in this remote hole in the ground and spawned a population big enough that it can survive for generations?

No one knows.

In fact, the only animal that can grow to even close that size is the African Catfish, the Heterobrachus bidorsalis. Common in parts of the Upper Volta river, they can grow to a about 1.5 meters in length – but that’s far short of the creature of Dafa.

So it remains a mystery.

Fear of God

When we say ‘Fear of God’ we are talking less about fire and brimstone and eternal damnation – we’re actually talking about fear in the sense of reverence, worship, thankfulness, love and ok, yes, a bit of fear of fire and brimstone

Pope Francis said, “The fear of the Lord doesn’t mean being afraid of God, since we know that God is our Father that always loves and forgives us... It is not servile fear, but rather a joyful awareness of God’s grandeur and a grateful realization that only in him do our hearts find true peace”

In this respect, we find that the Mossi of Burkina Faso tread a similar path. The religion of the Mossi has three main components:

• An all-powerful creator, a God called Wende, who is responsible for all things in life, good, and evil.

• Fertility spirits of the rain and of earth and they govern the success or failure of soil and crops.

• And then there are ancestors - relatives who died a long long time ago but continue to hang around in the Earthly realm as a ghostly spirit

It’s the Mossi Ancestors with whom the most crucial role is played with regards to their day-to-day ways of life. Most of the ceremonies which the Mossi perform throughout the year are in honour of their ancestors.

Each household has a shrine to its ancestors - an upside-down pottery bowl with sacred plants and objects under it which they honour with offerings at the time of the harvest festival.

They also make sacrifices at the graves of male ancestors.

This is in part because Wende is seen as being far too important for day-to-day management of everyday people – and is accessible only by first making requests to the Chief and then via ancestors. You have to follow the chain of command.

So, instead of divine guidance, it is Mossi ancestors which are tasked with watching over the behaviour of the people, protecting them and preserving the group’s values. Sometimes this means rewarding good behaviour - and sometimes this means dealing out punishment to the ill-behaved.

Fear of that guy over there with the hammer

A number of archaeological studies have been conducted in Burkina Faso on a place called Kirikongo, near the Black Volta river. This was an iron-age settlement which was occupied for 1600 years - from 100AD to the 18th century.

It was a village - and it was almost entirely designed for producing ironwork. In fact the most important people in Kirikongo were the smelters and the ironsmiths who provided the iron needed to create important tools and weapons.

But those experts who turned rock into metal were treated with suspicion and believed to be supernatural. To the Mossi, the earth is the source of fertility and to remove some of the earth, to burn it, and then beat it was considered supernaturally dangerous – a job for a specialist.

So, the ironworkers originated only from one clan and only they were allowed to perform the task, but also they were kept at a distance from the rest of the community.

Today, the Mossi continue to work iron, but no longer smelted from ore, instead they import and recycle iron, making hoes, knives, and axes.

Fear of shrieking, fast-moving space rock

Around 440,000,000 years ago, a rock exploded and scattered it’s remnants into deep space.

At 10am on August 14, 1962, a piece of that rock shrieked through the earth’s atmosphere at 125,000 miles an hour and fell down towards Komondjari Province in Burkina Faso.

Residents of the village of Bogou reported hearing a noise similar to an airplane flying at high altitude and then seconds later, a second noise which was more muffled than the first, then gradually becoming shrill like a rocket.
Then a huge flash was seen, a deep boom and finally a massive explosion.

The next day a crater was discovered that was 30 cm in radius and about 50 cm deep. Inside the crater was a lump of smouldering rock – the Bogou Meteorite.

The arrival of this mysterious rock caused a lot of curiosity in the Mossi, but fear and superstition too. Fair enough, meteorites have been terrifying people for centuries. In 1492, for example, one fell in the small town of Ensisheim and was thought to have been taken by Emperor Maximilian I as a sign from the heavens that he should mount a crusade against the Turks.

But in Burkina Faso, in the weeks that followed, the 19lb meteorite was packaged up and shipped to Washington in the United States, on loan from President Yameogo. Researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory examined the meteorite and determined that that the meteorite was composed mostly of iron.

They also found some crystals which indicated that it was originally part of a much larger body perhaps 100km in length and they detected the presence of a rare iron mineral called Wuostite which had never been found on a meteorite before and which they believed had formed on the surface of the rock during the last few seconds as it plunged through the atmosphere.

Their tests also showed that the rock was exposed to cosmic radiation for at least half a billion years.

Which was, beyond any shred of a doubt, a long, long time ago.

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