Bouncing Around Burkina Faso

Trisha Thomas chatting with school children in Burkina Faso. October 11, 2018

Dear Blog Readers –

Last week I spent bouncing around Burkina Faso, most of the time in a 4-wheel-drive vehicle with seven people, a ram, several chickens and huge bags of peanuts.  We shot over potholes, barely missing pigs wallowing in the mud, spent hours on vertebrae-crushing rural dirt roads with orange-colored dust caking itself on our hair, clothing and skin while sweat streamed down our backs. And it was a blast.

Burkina Faso is the 3rd poorest country in the world according to UN.  Of the total population of just over 20 million people, 45-percent live in poverty on less than $1.25/day (1 euro/day).

Man transporting mattresses in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. October 10, 2018. Photo by Chris Warde-Jones

Perhaps that is why a dear Italian colleague, Angela Rosati, and the phenomenal American, Bettie Petith, decided to start their own non-profit organization to help the people of Burkina.    In a country where 65-percent of the population is under 25 and only one-third of the population is literate, these two women decided they could make a difference by paying for girls and boys in rural villages to go to school.  That was just the beginning.

Burkina Faso means “Land of the Incorruptible” but unfortunately in 2005 Bettie returned from doing some volunteer work there complaining of corruption and officials pocketing funds.  So, she and Angela started up their own organization.  Since then they have spent over 200,000 euros (230,000 dollars) in projects in villages across Burkina.

Interestingly, Italy does not have an embassy in Burkina Faso and the Foreign Ministry discourages Italians from visiting. It is too dangerous. The website warns of terrorists, bandits and terrible diseases.  Yet the Italian flag is proudly waving in some of Burkina’s remote villages thanks to 83-year-old Bettie.

Children play outside community center built with funds from Italian association FITIL in Kordié, October 10, 2018. Photo by Chris Warde-Jones

Bettie, almost single-handedly, has overseen the building of wells and mills, sending hundreds of children to school, providing footballs for boys’ and girls’ teams, coming to the rescue of women accused of being witches, helping teenage mothers survive in a country where birth control is often unheard of, and setting up community centers, libraries and women’s groups to make textiles and soaps.

Bettie is not doing this from a distance, she is there, in Burkina Faso, making sure every cent from Fitil is delivered to those who need it. For two months every year Bettie personally goes from village to village to check on the wells, mills, and soccer balls and give her students their school uniforms, notebooks and ballpoint pens.  While there, she spends hours talking to men, women and children in the villages about their lives and needs. She cheerfully stands up to try out a few dance moves with the village dancers and enthusiastically accepts drinking the local millet beer, Dolo, out of a shared gourd.

The gratitude of the villagers is palpable and after long ceremonies, they offer her brightly colored cloths, bags of peanuts, chickens and even horned rams.  Bettie, often grinning ear to ear, happily tucks the chicken under her arm, takes the ram by the rope and sticks them in the Land Cruiser.

Bettie Petith who runs the Association FITIL in Burkina Faso recieves a gift of a traditional outfit from the villagers of Biho. Photo by Trisha Thomas, Ocrtober 12, 2018

I am a bit less of a cool cucumber than Bettie, finding myself a tad intimidated by the latrine surrounded by mud walls with villagers passing by as they went back and forth from the well or having a ram bleating away at the back of my neck in the car.

Ram given to us as a gift in Biho makes himself comfortable in the back of our Land-Cruiser. Photo by Trisha Thomas, October 12, 2018
Yours truly enjoying the pleasures of a shower in the village of Kordié, Burkina Faso

What struck me most about Burkina Faso was the role of women in society.  One arrives in Ouagadougou to find a flat, sprawling city with tarmac and dirt roads covered with dust.  Little kiosks along the roads sell everything from tractor tires to shoes, clothes, hair products, and food.  On the dirt side roads there are cows, goats and pigs wandering about and trash discarded at random.

The two million people living in Ouagadougou seem to get around mostly on motorcycles and on my first day I was astonished to see so many elegantly dressed women in traditional long clothing on motorcycles with one or two children clinging to their backs.  Never a helmet in sight.

A little girl looks surprised to see this strange white woman taking her picture from a nearby car on a road in Ouagadougou. Photo by Trisha Thomas, October 9, 2018

While I am on the topic of mothers and children, the first morning I wandered across the street from our simple but charming hotel called the Pavillon Vert and into the local market.  I met an elegantly dressed woman in a long green outfit with matching head scarf loading up her moped with piles of buckets and a plastic baby bath.  She proudly told me she was a single mom and mother of six.  I told her I was the proud mother of three.  “Only three!” she exclaimed, “I am sorry.”   It turns out the average age for women to begin having children in Burkina is 19, and on average they have six children.

Women waiting for ceremony at community center in Kordié. Photo by Trisha Thomas, October 11, 2018

Interestingly, I hardly ever saw a woman in Burkina without a baby tied to her back or a child clinging to her legs and I don’t think I ever saw a man holding a baby.

During my visit, I had a chance to meet with the eight single moms that FITIL sponsors in Ouagadougou.  They are all women who had babies when they were 18, 19, or early 20s and the fathers chose not to provide any support.  Some of them were even rejected by their families.  Several of them told me that got by selling bananas on the street.  On slow days they could make 250 CFA (38 euro cents0 and on a good day up to 1000 CFA (1.52 euros cents).

Twenty-four-year-old Latifatou Ouedraogo told me her story while her son, five-year-old Abdoul Wahabo Zongo wiggled on her lap.  She got pregnant as a teen.  The man she was living with first said he would recognize the child but as the pregnancy went on, he decided he wanted to take up with another woman and stopped providing her with food.  She had to leave his home.  So, like the other women, she began selling bananas on the street.

Woman selling bananas on the street in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Photo by Trisha Thomas, October 9, 2018

Twenty-seven-year-old Marietou Savadogo told me that when she got pregnant the father of her daughter had a job in a bakery but he did not have enough money to support her and his child, so he gave her nothing and she also left to sell fruit on the street.  Fatimata seemed to take it for granted that although she did not have a job and the father did, it was still her duty to find a way to support their child. And she did.  Now, thanks to support she is getting from FITIL, her 10-year-old daughter is thriving and doing well in school.

Nibié Rasmata, 7-year-old daughter of single mom Mariétou Sawadogo at a Fitil meeting in Ouagadougou. October 15, 2018, Photo by Trisha Thomas

Kadiatou Compaoré, who is now 23, also managed to get herself back on her feet and find a way to support herself and her daughter after getting pregnant three years ago.  She now works as a nursery school teacher. She advises young women to be more careful that she was, but says she still knows plenty of 18-year-olds who are pregnant  She explained, “it is not the fault of the girls, the boys here – I don’t know how to explain it – they act like they are serious, as if you could come home and talk about marriage but when you get pregnant they leave you, and there is no way you can escape.”

When asked if she had access to birth control she simply replied, “no, no”

A minibus loaded down with a few items on heading out of Ouagadougou. Photo by Trisha Thomas, October 10, 2018

We spent four days sleeping in the village of Kordié and visiting projects and people sponsored by FITIL in neighboring villages.

Women working with dried beans in the village of Kordié. Octoberc12, 2018. Photo by Chris Warde-Jones

Visiting a village in Burkina is like going back in time.  There is no electricity, no running water, no internet, no toilets, and just a few old-fashioned cell phones.  There are a few men with motorcycles and a rare car.  Most of the women and children either walk or use bicycles and have little wooden carts pulled by scrawny donkeys to haul vats of water from the nearest well.

There are gorgeous little children everywhere – remember 65-percent of the population is under 25 – and they are lively and engaging.  The school age children took particular interest in these funny looking white people.  They were so eager to interact it made me long for an era in the US and Europe when children were not glued to smartphones, ipads and computers.   What they wanted most was a soccer ball (football), something that FITIL is providing.

Little girl raises her hand in classroom in Kordié. October 12, 2018. Photo by Chris Warde-Jones

I don’t think I ever saw a woman who was not working.  They were using giant mortar and pestles to mash the dried beans.  They were picking what looked like peas and plenty of peanuts, and were bent over a tub washing clothing.  They were pumping water and hauling it from the wells, they were slaving over huge pots on the fire and carrying loads of firewood on their heads.  All these activities with a baby on their back.

A young mother with her baby in Kordié, Burkina Faso. Photo by Trisha Thomas, October 10, 2018

I did not have time to do any research or reporting on it, but there are two other interesting issues related to women in Burkina.  One is the widespread belief in “Mangeuse d’Ames”, Soul-eaters, or witches.  FITIL supports a woman in her late 60s named Rasmata Sondo Tinkiego who lives in Kordié.  She was accused of being a soul-eater after her husband’s brother died suddenly.  Although Burkina Faso is predominantly Muslim (61-percent) with a significant Catholic population (23-percent), most of the people also believe in witchcraft.  Both villagers and people from Ouagadougou who I spoke to believe in the power of magic and traditional ceremonies that are still used to hunt down a “soul-eater”.  The ceremony involves an effigy of the dead person being used to lead villagers to the witch.

After the accusation was confirmed in the effigy rite, Rasmata Sondo Tinkiego was stripped down to her underwear and chased out of her village.  She was not permitted contact with her 10 children.

Rasmata Sondo Tinkiego stands in her new home in Kordié. She was accused of being a “soul-eater” and was chased out of her own village, now the accusations have been called into question. In the meantime, she has started a new life with the help of the Association Fitil. Photo by Chris Warde-Jones, October 13, 2018

Now the charge has been lifted and Rasmata is living in her own home, financed by FITIL.  When we went to visit her, she danced about, bowing and singing and making a loud clicking noise on her hand.  She offered us drinks from a gourd and gave Bettie a chicken.

(Little sidebar here.  When you are close to someone in Burkina Faso, you greet them shaking their hand and sliding off your fingers making a snap off the end of their middle finger as you pull away.  It is lovely to see.  I have not managed to master the art, but I am still working on it.)

Another topic which I did not have time to explore was that of female circumcision or FGM (female genital mutilation).  Although the practice was banned in Burkina Faso in 1996, according to UNICEF 76-percent of women in Burkina Faso between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone FGM, many in unsanitary conditions with traditional cutters using rudimentary tools. This topic was too complicated to investigate on this trip, but I would be interested in learning more in the future although it is not a subject that one can waltz in and address casually.  In September, an Italian priest who has fought the practice of FGM was kidnapped on the border between Niger and Burkina Faso.

Women in the village of Biho, Burkina Faso sing and dance as they greet visitors. Photo by Chris Warde-Jones, October 12, 2018

I was struck by the combination of natural beauty and elegance of the Burkinabé women combined with their own efforts, notwithstanding the economic challenges, to be fashionable.  Women in the cities and villages were dressed in elegant cloths, often with matching headdresses.  Hairdressers lined the streets of Ouagadougou and some country roads.  Women had all sorts of elaborate hair fashions and even little girls in the village have plaits laden with plastic beads.  I stopped by one hairdresser to get a little background and she told me that in Burkina “all the women are beautiful” but they must keep up appearances so they spend a lot of time and considerable money to have their hair done, whether it is with complicated hair extensions, which can cost up to 10,000 CFA (15 euros), or to get their girls’ hair plaited with beads for 250 CFA (38 euro cents)

Although a week-long visit was barely enough to give me any understanding of the country, I was left with a profound impression about the women and a concern for the young girls.  The girls are born into a hierarchical society where they are likely to face a lifetime of labor.  They risk having to go through FGM, they are not likely to be given access to birth control and if they get pregnant as a teenager, they run the risk of being deserted by the child’s father and sometimes their own family.

This little girl in the village of Samba in Burkina Faso was taking a bouquet of peanuts to catechism class. Photo by Trisha Thomas, October 13, 2018

That said, the women I met were smart, tough, capable and beautiful.  FITIL and other groups are doing outstanding work with the assistance of talented Burkinabe’ like the brilliant Bako Besoin, who runs FITIL in Ouagadougou.

I will close with the post with a video I made of the indefatigable Bako on the road. Click here to see it:  BAKO VIDEO

And here is my video of the invicible Bettie Petith.  She has also said I should include her email address in case anyone wants to write to her about FITIL ad the work in Burkina Faso.  It is: .  Click here to see: BETTIE VIDEO

If anyone is interested in knowing more about the work of FITIL, check out their website:

16 thoughts on “Bouncing Around Burkina Faso”

  1. What a wonderful trip! And more importantly, what a wonderful organization. You have left us with much to think about. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Trisha, this is one of your very best posts ever! And the video is splendid to watch! Thanks so much – and I am so glad you are in Burkina Faso for a while.
    I’ve been out of touch, not even reading posts, because I got pneumonia while traveling in Europe in May, and it takes months to recover, during which I had little energy. That said, it does feel like a luxury disease in a way, because there are no painful treatments, just a brief course of antibiotics and then rest, rest, rest, and I spent a lot of time watching Amazon Prime and Acorn. I did keep up with my small church all summer, and that, plus running errands and tending to the house, seemed to be the extent of my energy.
    I’ve heard from your mother that you are now on your own, and that Chiara and Nicco are off on new adventures. All of this seems very good. I send you my blessings and hugs, and hope to see you when next you come to the US – Nancy

    1. Nancy, thank you for writing. It is so nice to hear from you. I am sorry to hear you have had pneumonia. What a pain. Hope you will be fully back on your feet soon. Burkina was fabulous and I learned so much. I am eager to go back but not sure when I can. Yes, I am on my own now. There are some challenges but I hope to be able to rise to them all. Big hugs, Trisha

  3. Joan Schmelzle

    Hi Trisha,
    A really great story. The women truly are beautiful and I wanted to hug all the children in the pictures. Thank God for Betty and her group. Also thank you for a person like you who will face the discomforts of this kind of travel. Will this story or at least part of it show up in any AP feature? I hope so.
    Thank you again for this and your other blogs!
    a presto, Joan

    1. Hi Joan — thanks so much for being such a faithful blog reader and commenter. I went on this trip for my own experience, and not for work but I am doing some news stories on topics that are not in the post. I have done one on the traditional bronze-making in Ouagadougou and another on the Sacred Crocodiles of Lake Bazoule’. I am going to try to do a third on the situation for women in Burkina Faso. Let me know if you are interested in the first two topics and I will do a blog post on those as well once AP has put out the story.

  4. Joan Schmelzle

    Hi Trisha,
    I must have done something wrong when I thought I commented the other day.
    Anyway—what a great blog post. Thank you for going on this uncomfortable journey to report on this country and the woman and her organization who are working to better it. Thank God for people like her wherever they are.
    I thought the women were indeed beautiful, and I wanted to hug all the kids. I’m sure you enjoyed the sympathy from the woman when she found out you only had three children.
    Again thanks for writing this. On a side note, I’m in the process of planning my January trip to Rome to finish my flu-interrupted trip from last winter.
    A presto,

  5. Hi Trisha
    What’s a super blog ?
    It was a great pleasure for me to do this trip with you.
    I wish you all the best in your activities, good luck to you and may god bless you.

    1. Bako — we could not have done any of it without you and your incredible organizing skills and natural charisma!

  6. I am in awe of women like the ones you mentioned in this post who founded that organization to help people in Burkino Faso. It’s hopeful to read that people like that still exist in the world. And brava to you for going there, a place most people who steer clear of. Thanks for a wonderful and informative read. It makes one question oneself when confronted with some of the minor irritations in our daily lives that at times can seem like major problems. This sure puts things in perspective.

    1. Yes, it definitely puts things in perspective spending time in a place like Burkina. I just find it hard to believe that we can call get so worked up over a tweet by Donald Trump when there people have not even heard of twitter or Trump. Also, and perhaps more importantly, it puts things in perspective for me as a woman. I cannot believe how lucky I am. I can’t imagine having 6 children, working the field all day, and getting all my water from a well and dragging it home.

  7. Joan Schmelzle

    Hi Trisha,
    Yes, I am interested in the two topics you mentioned in your answer to my first comment. I will look forward to reading them when you can put them in a blog.
    Sorry it took me so long to answer. I’ve mostly been reading on tablet and don’t have success with replying on that.
    A presto,

  8. Joan Schmelzle

    Hi Trisha,
    Sorry it took me so long to reply. Yes, I am interested in the two topics you mentioned in replying to my comment. I will look forward to reading the blogs when you can write them.
    A presto,

  9. Trish, your story reminded me of the 27 months I spent working as a Peace Corps volunteer in neighboring Niger as a health educator from 1976-78. My work focused on women and children in the town and surrounding villages in northwestern Niger near the Malian border, which is now the scene of skirmishes with ISIS bands and the US Army. As you, I was struck then by how hard the women work. Hauling water from the river or the wells, pounding grains for meals, cooking, cleaning and caring for children with infants on their backs. Your post brings all of these experiences to mind fondly. I enjoyed reading your impressions. Interesting that not much has changed over the three decades that has passed. I wish I could return to Niger, but perhaps in another life!

    1. Trisha Thomas

      Hey Joanne, how are you? I am just seeing this comment now. How fascinating that you worked in the Peace Corps in Niger — and astonishing that so little has changed. We must talk about it some time in person, I am eager to hear your impressions from that time. Yes, it is sad about the political instability that is there now.

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