In the heart of West Africa a landlocked country is found at the crossroad of 6 nations. Between hostile Saharian lands and dense fertile forests live the upright people of Burkina Faso. Despite the strong and menacing neighbouring Mali Empire (from circa 1200) and French colonial rule until 1960, Burkina Faso is a country that has maintained its traditions and respect for their Mossi ancestors and their Emperors. The Burkinabè community in Australia is hardly visible, yet out of the few Burkinabès living in Melbourne, Far From Africa meets with Bertin who has been living here for 15 years. Still very attached and proud of his home country, Bertin tells us how Burkinabès make the best of a situation.
The Mossi Empire
Bertin who is a proud Mossi man tells that prior to the arrival of French Catholic missionaries, there was a governing structure in place. There were the chiefs of a village and the super chiefs, also called kings, who managed up to 3 villages. In the Mossi tradition, kings ruled over parts of provinces (called cantons) who were themselves ruled by Mogho Naba, ‘the king of the kings’ in Mossi language, and also known as the Mossi Emperor surrounded by his Ministers. All kings are the advisors of the Emperor and this latter never misses an opportunity to consult all the ethnic groups.
The establishment of the Mossi empire dates back to about 1100 and their origins take them back to Lake Chad in Central Africa. The empire ruled in the region for over 500 years. He explains that “the Mossi warriors went in search of new lands to colonise and travelled along the coast of Benin, Togo and Ghana. In the center of Ghana they found lush lands. Their leader settled down in the region which gave birth to the Ashanti ethnic group of Ghana. But because their war technique is that brothers should be separated to rule over new lands, the leader’s young brother kept on travelling across the Volta river to found the Mossi Empire in modern-day Burkina Faso.”
Bertin adds that the lineage and links between the Ashanti and Mossi are still very strong until nowadays. “Every six years, the Mossi and Ashanti Emperors make the pilgrimage to meet his brother in those verdant forests between the two kingdoms as a symbol of fraternity and respect to their common ancestors.” The Mossi society is very organised and strategic when it comes to avoid conflicts. Bertin underlines “the word ‘cousin’ does not exist, we are all brothers.” In today’s politics, the Mossi Emperor is the main guardian of the peace for all Burkinabès.
Bertin’s native province of Kouritenga isn’t far from Benin, Togo and Ghana and he says “bush rangers were present and banditry was very high in the region. People lived off orchards full of mango trees, guava trees, etc.” History tells that the Mossi resisted invasions and other menacing kingdoms. Like other West African countries, the Mossi Emperor had always rejected and threatened Catholic missionaries who wished to settle in the country.
Unusually, in the 1800’s the king of Kouritenga for the first time welcomed the French Catholic missionaries, he then converted himself to Christianity. Bertin continues “modern agriculture was then taught by the missionaries to the king as a thankful gesture.” The ripple effects of the teachings didn’t stop there, “the king forced all nobles, elites and to the extent of his people to practice agriculture. He also decided that all arrested criminals were condemned to agricultural work on the king’s lands. After satisfactory completion of the sentence, the king would grant them a plot of land, seeds and a wife.” Not only was agriculture a noble practice but the king took from the missionaries’ knowledge what his province needed to bring justice, order and increase trade with the neighbouring countries.
Nobility and agriculture are inherent to Bertin’s family. He has great admiration for his grand-father, a super chief of 5 villages, “who used to have vast orchards. He was the first Catechist in the country and it is because of this admiration for my grand-father that I became an Agronomist.” Grandson of a super chief, Bertin describes how hard his childhood and upbringing were in the Mossi culture. “They want to give you the teachings of life and toughen your life to develop your independence and survival instinct. At the age of 4, I was living with his uncles. At 7, I was in a boarding school and then lived with my parents until I turned 10.” He remembers leaving the family house at nights to sleep in a traditional hut.
Once he mastered life principles and knowledge of agriculture, he worked for 8 years with the NGO Plan International on agriculture, microcredit, livestock and forestry development projects. At Plan he met an Australian woman as passionate as him about development who convinced him to move to Australia. Without a word of English, this son of a super chief had to leave his noble responsibilities to his brothers to raise a family and pursue his career in agronomic research in New South Wales and Victoria. Although he is a qualified and experienced engineer with versatile knowledge from agronomics to construction, he struggled to find an Agronomist role after years of research work. He says “Australia is doing what Burkina Faso did many years ago. I wish I could extend my knowledge in hydraulics to contribute to finding sustainable solutions for local and international projects.”
Needing to support his family, this upright Burkinabè accepted a permanent contract in public transport 3 years ago and work as a Consultant for International NGOs on the side. Melburnians, if one day you go aboard with Bertin, greet him with a friendly ‘Bonjour!’, seat back and enjoy the journey!
Fun Fact! The name Burkina Faso was given to the country in 1984 by the then President Thomas Sankara. The name is the combination of two main languages in the country. Burkina from the Mossi language means ‘men of honour’ or ‘of integrity’ and Faso in Dioula language means ‘Fatherland’.