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Sabtenga: modernization knocks on the gates of tradition

Burkina Faso

The Chief with his traditional bonnet (2016). by Chris Brazier

You became Chief three years ago…

June 2012.

How did that happen? I don’t understand the succession of chiefs. 60 years ago or so Belingogo was part of this concession but his sons were in Ghana so it passed to another family. Normally it passes from father to son. The Chief that I met here 11 and 21 years ago was from that family then?

No. There was another in between.

He was from another ethnic group. He was Mossi whereas we are Bissa.

Yes, it’s necessary but there was an incident. When Belingogo was alive he was naughty like all the chiefs in the old days (laughs riotously). Therefore, after he died, it wasn’t allowed for someone from his concession to assume the position of chief. So they went to see the Mossi in Tenkodogo [to the regional authorities] in order that they could send a chief.

But why not someone in the village?

Because it was the Big Chief in Tenkodogo who gave the bonnet. And he appointed a Mossi. But he also was naughty with the Big Chief in Tenkodogo so they appointed a soldier who then died in the Second World War. They replaced him with a Bissa but he was naughty too so the people chased him out.

Wow, this is a story!

So they sent a Mossi again.

And was it then him that I met?

It was his son that you met. His grandmother was actually a Moné [the most common name in the village by far]. But he had the bonnet just for the form. When there were judgments to make, when there was something to do, he called for a Bissa, for a Moné. In doing that he was actually wise.

But I thought he did play a positive part in one respect – in helping the campaign against Female Genital Mutilation…

No, he was just relaying what he was told by the authorities in Tenkodogo. That came about through raising awareness nationally – government and NGOs playing a key part – but also, as you point out, through the strong example given by some local women. So, no, I don’t think he should be allowed any credit for that.

Now, being Chief is supposed to about guarding the traditions. But with literacy and migration, people have their eyes a bit open and they are more and more independent. They decided that it was important for someone actually from the village to be Chief instead of them coming from the other side. And everybody thought that – they were unanimous.

And the Great Chief in Tenkodogo agreed to that?

No, he refused. When he refused people forced the issue by naming one of their own but he nominated his own brother as Chief. So that makes two chiefs in the village. But no one goes to him over there. The Conseil des Sages [Council of Wise Elders] found it difficult to find a suitable local candidate, however. So they came to Ouagadougou to ask me.

So there wasn’t exactly an election…

No, this has nothing to do with elections…

But there was a unanimity…

The succession of Chiefs is by filial descent or else by unanimity – in the case where the Chief has no son, for example. But it’s the wise elders who direct matters.

And when they came to you to ask you, what did you think of that at that moment?

My first reaction was that I found it a ridiculous idea – me wearing the bonnet! – and I said I didn’t want to do that.

Plus you as guardian of the traditions when you are in Ouaga living a very modern life.

For sure. Also I am a Catholic and there are things that I don’t believe in – such as you have seen going on over there [the animist ceremony involving animal sacrifice that we had witnessed two days earlier]. But since there were so many people asking me I was obliged to accept in the end.

The ceremony is an essential part of the role of the Chief [none of the Mossi chiefs ever attended].

Exactly. It’s the very role of the Chief as guardian of the traditions. And you saw that I wasn’t the only Catholic there by any means – the man who was cutting the throats of the animals was himself a Christian, a Catholic. You have to bear in mind that the main religions, whether Christianity or Islam, came from elsewhere. And at the same time as they were telling us how to pray, they were teaching us their way of life – and that’s what the people refused.

So it seemed bizarre at first but you accepted immediately or it took you a while?

No, I refused at first but when they insisted I said I had to reflect. At that point they said, look, don’t worry about it, we want you to have the bonnet but you can still live in Ouaga while coming for the key times and we will handle everything in your absence. And that’s how it has operated for the past three years.

There are the special occasions such as you witnessed the day before yesterday. Then Eid ul-Adha – the Muslim festival remembering the Sacrifice of Abraham [Ibrahim]. I have to come here for that – on the 11 September this year. And there is a third event when it is obligatory for me to be here – when I have to meet the other chiefs of the region. Plus, if the young people or the women have something to do for which they want the Chief to be present, they can ask for me to be here. I will come and they will have their meeting around me.

So we’re pretty lucky to be here exactly at the time of one of those special occasions – it’s almost like it was planned that way… I presume you accepted the role of Chief not to continue the old traditions but to have influence, to develop the village and the life of its people.

Exactly. That’s what I was coming to. We have formed the Association de Resortissants de Sabtenga at Ouagadougou, in Italy, in Côte d’Ivoire, in Gabon, in France, in England – everywhere. If there is someone from Sabtenga who is, for example, in the United States, he is au courant with the Association, with the economic and cultural development of the village. The seat of the Association is in Ouaga because we are numerous there.

And did this come about only after you became Chief?

No, before that. So it was this Association that told me to accept the offer to become Chief so that they could have a correspondence here – when I come to the village, I see what there is to do then I contact them and communicate with them to say, and then we think about how best to deal with the problem.

It’s by that means that we brought about the college [the new secondary school in the village]. It was necessary for me to be here to choose the best location in order that everybody was happy with that. So I assumed the role of interface between the village and the Association. We have monthly meetings at which we debate the problems and if it’s necessary to communicate with people in other countries we send out mail or email. We have the telephone too.

Always important to harness the money and the force of the Diaspora for the development of the village…

Exactly that. That’s what we were after. Even if it’s not only money – you have the things you are throwing away, tractors, or cars so we could have an ambulance to take sick people to Tenkodogo. Everything you throw away. Beds for the sick and wheelchairs – we have given those to the health centre. Now we are seeking the ambulance. The Association has made its programme of work with the people responsible. We have a five-year plan that prioritizes the economy, culture and society. After that we’ll do a stocktake and see where we need to go from there.

When did you start applying for funding from Saudi Arabia and Qatar?

The Muslim countries – like France, the US and China – want to have a certain influence in Africa. They want more Muslims. They also want our wealth so it’s necessary for them to start by flattering us. So they go to the government and ask what they need and they say we need water, we need you to give money to make new dams. We need schools and they say okay, but they have to be bilingual schools – French and Arabic. Or we get their help to build new roads. That’s always how it is.

I read about Kaboré [Jean Marc Christian Kaboré, the president of Burkina Faso] visiting the Saudis and saying Burkinabè troops would help them in their war on Yemen. That would be a seriously bad idea…

Rest easy. We haven’t got many soldiers and we need them against the jihadists plus we have to send them on UN peacekeeping missions – how would we have enough to send them to Yemen? There won’t be any. That’s just buttering them up, a question of form, saying we’re friends.

But in addition to that government-to-government aid, there are also these applications to Saudi and Qatari funds that you have shown me.

Yes, but that’s not the Association. The Association does the planning and decides what is needed but it is then up to us to seek the money that will help the village no matter where. I don’t care where we get money from if it helps!

The Association is really a person resource. If we’re talking about education, it has teachers. If it is health we have doctors and pharmacists. We also have politicians who can provide connections with the relevant Ministry in order to ask them for information as to whether things are possible. That’s how we brought about the college [the new secondary school], the new road and the electricity. The road came about through someone who had contacts in the government while the electricity was pursued by someone in Saudi Arabia and came from the Saudi village electrification programme. I don’t care where we get money from if it helps!’

How did the new road come about?

The main road that you used to take over the dam when you were living in the Villettes’ hut at Bidiga is impassable when there is water, as now. We wanted to make a straighter road with a much bigger bridge to facilitate villagers’ access to the paved road between Garango and Tenkodogo but that turned out to be too expensive so we went for a cheaper option that has still improved access. We have built our own bridge by hand, with the Association paying people for their work, buying the cement and so on. In former times it was impossible for trucks to get through to Sabtenga but now it is possible.

But of course maintaining the road is another thing – I’ve seen how the marigaux [seasonal rivers] have broken it down in places this season…

Of course we will need to do more work in renovating the road when the rains are over…

As for the electrification… You said this was a Saudi project. Has this reached every part of the village?

No. For the moment the electricity lines are in place but there aren’t enough meters to monitor the supply. We have requested more and when these arrive we should be able to supply all those homes that want electricity – and even extend the supply to other villages.

So the infrastructure for the electricity – the poles, the cables etc – has been supplied by this Saudi village electrification programme. But the electricity itself comes from the Burkinabe national grid?

Yes – effectively from the huge hydroelectric dam at Bagré, which is not that far from here.

In an environment like this, however, it seems to me that solar power has to be the way forward.

Well, I have it here, you see [he shows me the solar panel on his roof, which was installed by his son, who works in this field in the capital]. This feeds in to a battery. As for the wider application of solar power, in a way that depends on you [meaning the wider world] – those who make the solar panels in France, Germany.

China too. The cost of solar panels has come down a lot.

Yes, but not enough to make them viable here. The State is currently working on developing its solar-power capacity and the plan is to save power by using solar-generated electricity for street lighting at least. But there’s no way we could go it alone here.

Do you think the advent of electricity is going to change peasant life in fundamental ways?

Yes. You can compare it with the development of the steam engine in Britain, which did so much to give you your power and wealth in the world. Here we could use electricity to power pumps to bring up water and to irrigate farmland - and that could change everything.

Provided there is enough water…

[He laughs] Certainly, and maybe while we’re searching for water we’ll find oil! [laughs again]

And on that subject, why is it that you need new water pumps? Is it because the water table is sinking and you need to go much deeper to gain a secure supply all year round?

In the old days, if you dug a well to a depth of three or four metres there would be water. So then there was no problem apart from the dirtiness of that water – it wasn’t pure enough. But now the water table is much deeper – if you sink a well to a depth of eight metres, you might have water until the end of January and maybe a little in February but not enough to see you through to June. We need to go much deeper now.

The secondary school. When you were small, you had to walk to Garango to go to primary school. More recently we’ve had a primary school in the village but children have still had to go to Garango for secondary schooling. But now you have built a secondary school in Sabtenga.

Yes, it’s been open two years – the third year group will join in September. When I was a child people here didn’t really want their children to go to school – they wanted them to look after their goats and cows or do other kinds of work; anything but school. But my family was in Ghana where school was obligatory, and that’s how I started my education.

Now we have a primary school here but children had to go to Garango to continue into secondary school. And the numbers wanting to continue their education were growing – there weren’t enough places in Garango to accommodate them. So we decided we needed to build a secondary school here.

It’s fantastic that the village now has its own secondary school. But it is still a problem for subsistence farmers to find enough money to pay for all their children to go on to secondary school. And that applies in particular to the girls in the family. Again and again going around the village I hear people say when it comes to paying for girls’ schooling, ‘il n’y a pas les moyens’ (we don’t have the wherewithal). Yet it is really just a question of priorities – and girls’ schooling isn’t given enough priority. Only yesterday Rasinatu [whom the Chief knows well, as she came from his concession] was complaining that she was unable to stay in school for that reason.

It doesn’t take much to have sufficient means. If you have chickens that you keep in good condition and vaccinate, you can sell them. If you raise goats or cows for sale, that can pay children’s school fees.

But anyway, with the secondary school being here in the village, that reduces the expense. If it had been here when Rasinatu was the right age, it would have been much easier for her to attend and would have cost less. She could have come home for lunch and then returned for classes. And besides, the costs are not great – it’s not like the private colleges. In our family in Ouaga we are looking after a boy from here who worked very hard at school and passed his bac. He’s going to live with us and go to university and we’re going to help him. I have two university students in my house at the moment who come from the village.

It’s a big responsibility being Chief. But in a way for you as someone who loves this village and wants it to prosper, there has always been that sense of responsibility, hasn’t there?

Yes, that’s true. I’ve always kept in close touch and visited often. And whenever there was a problem – François. [Laughs]. So I am a man of the people.

And they always talked about you. They were always proud of your achievements in life. So do you think there is a problem with the life of subsistence farming in the village? Mariama’s sons, for example, have all left, not wanting to take on the family farm. Can life here continue when so many of the young men leave?

They have been to school and there is nothing for them here. They have to eat and so they seek to earn a living elsewhere. Again, this is why we are trying to develop animal-husbandry projects, so that there is more to life in the village than growing food crops for subsistence.

So your idea is that if you develop these animal-husbandry projects, it will earn people that bit more money that will make life in the village just that bit more comfortable and appealing…

Plus, if every family has a cow, then everyone in the family can have milk. And that’s good for their health. If you raise goats and cows and sell them, you will be able to dress better – you will be able to afford that Chinese motorbike! [Laughs] And, more important still, you’ll be able to look after yourself if you fall ill.

You talked the other day about this idea of encouraging people in the village to drink more milk and eat more eggs. Is there any resistance to that idea?

No, there is no resistance. People like drinking [goat’s] milk in their coffee, for example, they like making yoghurt with it.

And how about eggs?

People are used to eating guinea-fowl eggs – there are a lot of these around in the rainy season. And we are just starting with hens but of course African hens never lay eggs.


Never. Plus that chick over there born yesterday will take a year to be big enough to be eaten – they grow very slowly. We call them ‘poulet bicyclette’ [he laughs]. But we are now starting to use hens from France that lay eggs every day.

So at least we’ve found one thing for which Burkina can be grateful to France! That could change things for local people then, to have poultry that are more productive…

Yes indeed, and especially if we can interbreed them with African chickens to make them more productive too. The importing of these French chickens was started by functionaries in Ouagadougou and hasn’t spread far beyond here. But in the village we do have one man who came back from Italy and is now running an egg business based on French hens. [Issaka, whom I was to meet later.]

So when we buy eggs on the streets of Garango, they come from these Western chickens rather than African ones?

Actually, they probably come from Sabtenga, from the business of the man I was talking about.

Sanitation. On my last visit there were latrines at the health centre and the school but none for the concessions. Now such latrines have been installed – for every concession?

They ought to have been, but no – just for the bigger ones. Association Dakupa’s programme tried to install a latrine for every concession but many of them have already been ruined because there were no trucks for clearing them out. Some new latrines have been installed that are better. We don’t put water down them but rather ash and ultimately use this as manure in the fields.

After a suitable interval when it becomes safe?

That’s it. And we use urine right away, which is good for plants. There’s one close to here – come and see.

[Excursion to functioning latrine]

Did you say there was a 50-50 commitment between the State and local people who want to install one of these new latrines?

Yes, we have to supply half. We can supply the work, and the water, and the bricks but they need to supply the cement and the iron. People are not going to pay the government to do work because they will be worried about corruption but they can trust a direct relationship like that.

Can we turn to the position of women? When you showed us the list of officers responsible for the various areas of activity – health, education and so on – without exception all were male. Yet under Sankara’s revolution two women had to be on each CDR, and one had to be either the head or the deputy. That was a very forward-thinking idea. And in the village now there are many women who are very strong, who have good ideas – can’t they contribute their ideas and participate at this developmental level?

They can do it – and I especially want to work with women. But they are not sufficiently independent from men at the moment.

What about Mariama? She is like a force of nature – impossible to resist!

But even Mariama doesn’t have control – if Issa tells her to do something, she will do it. It’s always like that – it’s the husband who directs things. It’s that which is bad. If a woman wants to leave home to find work, he won’t agree to it. In addition there is the Islamic religion, which makes things difficult in this respect. We need to liberate men’s thinking.

Because normally in development circles if one sees a list of areas that need attention, one would expect to find there the position of women. Don’t you in your Association need to privilege this issue more?

Yes, we could do it, but it is anyway difficult. For example we have projects concerned with the raising of hens. We’re happy for women to work on this. But these are women without a husband, or whose husband is away. If she’s here living with her husband it’s more difficult.

But aren’t there young women who are educated, who have ambition to break out of this? At the health centre, for example, there are Mossi nurses who have been educated and work independently and with responsibility for good salaries. Can’t young Bissa girls from Sabtenga follow that example and aspire to such independence?

We have to get that into their heads, yes. Because education has rather failed in that regard. We have tried to get more girls in school and to some extent have done so. But then they simply get married.

But I wonder if all those girls who marry at 17 actually want that…

Yes, for sure, it’s them who want it, it’s them who want it.

On the question of polygyny or polygamy… Is this something that is diminishing or is it just as accepted?

It’s happening less. It’s not rare but it is happening less. A man might still take two wives but in the past he might have taken as many as ten. Two wives has become a more normal number.

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