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Burkina Faso, landlocked country in western Africa. The country occupies an extensive plateau, and its geography is characterized by a savanna that is grassy in the north and gradually gives way to sparse forests in the south.
A former French colony, it gained independence as Upper Volta in 1960. The name Burkina Faso, which means “Land of Incorruptible People,” was adopted in 1984. The capital, Ouagadougou, is in the centre of the country and lies about 500 miles (800 km) from the Atlantic Ocean.
Relief, drainage, and soils
Burkina Faso is situated on an extensive plateau, which is slightly inclined toward the south. The lateritic (red, leached, iron-bearing) layer of rock that covers the underlying crystalline rocks is deeply incised by the country’s three principal rivers—the Black Volta (Mouhoun), the Red Volta (Nazinon), and the White Volta (Nakambé)—all of which converge in Ghana to the south to form the Volta River. The Oti, another tributary of the Volta, rises in southeastern Burkina Faso. Great seasonal variation occurs in the flow of the rivers, and some rivers become dry beds during the dry season. In the southwest there are sandstone plateaus bordered by the Banfora Escarpment, which is about 500 feet (150 metres) high and faces southeast. Much of the soil in the country is infertile.
The climate of Burkina Faso is generally sunny, hot, and dry. Two principal climate zones can be distinguished. The Sahelian zone in the north is semiarid steppe, characterized by three to five months of rainfall, which is often erratic. To the south, in the Sudanic zone, the climate becomes increasingly of the tropical wet-dry type, with a greater variability of temperature and rainfall and greater total rainfall than the north.
Four seasons may be distinguished in Burkina Faso: a dry and cool season from mid-November to mid-February, with temperatures dropping to about 60 °F (16 °C) at night; a hot season from mid-February to June, when maximum temperatures rise into the low 100s F (about 40 °C) in the shade and the harmattan—a hot, dry, dust-laden wind blowing off the Sahara desert—is prevalent; a rainy season, which lasts from June to September; and an intermediate season, which lasts from September until mid-November. Annual rainfall varies from about 40 inches (1,000 mm) in the south to less than 10 inches (250 mm) in the north.
Plant and animal life
The northern part of the country consists of savanna, with prickly shrubs and stunted trees that flourish during the rainy season. In the south, the prickly shrubs give way to scattered forests, which become more dense along the banks of the perennial rivers. The karite (shea tree) and the baobab (hibiscus tree) are endemic in this region.
Animal life includes buffalo, antelope, lions, hippopotamuses, elephants, crocodiles, and monkeys. Bird and insect life is rich and varied, and there are many species of fish in the rivers. Burkina Faso’s national parks include Po in the south-centre of the country, Arly in the southeast, and “W” in the east, straddling the border with Benin and Niger.
Ethnic groups and languages
The major ethnolinguistic group of Burkina Faso is the Mossi. They speak a Niger-Congo language of the Gur branch and have been connected for centuries to the region they inhabit. They have absorbed a number of peoples including the Gurma and the Yarse. The last-mentioned group has Mande origins but is assimilated into the Mossi and shares their language (called Moore). Other Gur-speaking peoples are the Gurunsi, the Senufo, the Bwa, and the Lobi.
Mande languages, which also form a branch of the Niger-Congo family, are spoken by groups such as the Samo, the Marka, the Busansi, and the Dyula. Other groups of Burkina Faso include the Hausa and the Tuareg, whose languages are classified as Afro-Asiatic, and the Fulani, whose language (Fula) is a Niger-Congo language of the Atlantic branch.
Citizens of Burkina Faso, regardless of their ethnic origin, are collectively known as Burkinabé. French is the official language, although it is not widely spoken. Moore, the language of the Mossi, is spoken by a great majority of the population, and Dyula is widely used in commerce.
More than half the population is Muslim. About one-fifth of the Burkinabé are Roman Catholic, and one-sixth follow traditional religions. Most of the remainder are Protestant or nonreligious. The seat of the Roman Catholic archbishopric is in Ouagadougou, and there are several bishoprics throughout the country.
The population as a whole is unevenly distributed among the different regions. The eastern and central regions are densely settled and contain about half the total population. In the remaining regions the population is scattered.
More than two-thirds of the people are rural and live in villages, which tend to be grouped toward the centre of the country at higher elevations away from the Volta river valleys. For several miles on either side of the Volta rivers, the land is mostly uninhabited because of the prevalence of the deadly tsetse fly, which carries sleeping sickness, and the Simulium fly, which carries onchocerciasis, or river blindness.
Ouagadougou, the administrative capital and the seat of government, is a modern city where several companies have their headquarters. It is also the residence of the morho naba (“great lord”) of the Mossi and an important regional centre for international aid programs.
Apart from Ouagadougou, the principal towns are Bobo Dioulasso, Koudougou, Banfora, Ouahigouya, Pouytenga, and Kaya. Bobo Dioulasso, in the west, was the economic and business capital of the country when it formed the terminus of the railroad running to Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, on the coast. Since 1955, however, when the railroad was extended to Ouagadougou, Bobo Dioulasso has lost some of its former importance, although it remains a commercial centre.