Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

What The Papers Say

The Times London

Name-dropping in Africa

People who draw maps of Africa have had a hard time over the past twenty years as much of the continent has changed its name. Their difficulties continued this week when the Government of Upper Volta announced that in future that West African country will be called Bourkina Fasso.

Most changes were inevitable and not to be regretted. As the colonial yoke was lifted the colonial names went. It was hardly to be expected that the winners of a tough anti-colonial war would continue to honour arch-imperialists: Rhodesia became Zimbabwe and Salisbury Harare. The people of the former Belgian Congo, emerging into Zaire, had little reason to remember King Leopold with pleasure, so Leopoldville became Kinshasa. Lake Victoria retains its place in the atlas only because the three countries around it - Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika - cannot agree on a new name. The rush began in 1957 when the Gold Coast took on independence the name of a former African empire, Ghana. The fact that the empire had covered a different territory did not matter: Ghana was a good, short resonant name..

Less happy was the decision in 1975 of the former French territory of Dahomey to become Benin, another former African empire. The trouble is that Nigeria has the city of Benin, where the traditional ruler, the Oba of Benin, has his palace and where the world-famous Benin bronzes come from; confusion inevitably arises. A missed opportunity was for another former French territory, Niger, to change its name. This uncomfortably close to Nigeria (in both French and English one has to torture vowels to distinguish between the inhabitants of the two countries) and even more uncomfortably close to the name of one of Nigeria's 19 states - Niger.

Another name which might well be changed is Sierra Leone, which sounds like a former Spanish territory in Central America but is in fact a former British colony in West Africa. The name derives from the fact that an early Portuguese navigator fancied that the mountain above what became Freetown was shaped like a lion. The inhabitants have often discussed new names; their resentment is increased because they think the whole world mispronounces them: they would like it to be "lee-ohn".

The former Upper Volta is famous for being probably the poorest country in Africa (it is landlocked, drought-stricken and almost without resources) and for being near the top of the league table for military coups (it has had five; Benin is ahead with six). Its capital, Ouagadougou, has gained some degree of prosperity by becoming the centre of aid-for-Africa activities; numerous organizations have their head- quarters there and it is a favoured place for conferences. "There is money in poverty", a World Bank man wasquoted as saying as he went from luxury hotel to air-conditioned conference room.

The new name avoids the Stalingrad trap of being person-alized. But it is neither memorable nor short. A more serious disadvantage is that Bourkina Fasso translates as Country of Incorruptible Men. This is going to cause some wry smiles in the street caf├ęs of Ouagadougou after the next coup when (if precedent is followed) the present rulers come up for trial on charges of corruption.

The Guardian (Nigeria)

Upper Volta: The birth of hope

Let us begin by 'introducing' her. Upper Volta is a dirt-poor, landlocked country in the West African sub-region. It features prominently as one of the 25 poorest nations on earth, with a per capita income of 208 Naira. Its 6 million people inhabit an area of 274,200 square kilometres most of which is desert.

They are ravaged by hunger, malnutrition and disease. Eighty per cent of the economically active population cultivate only 6 million hectares out of 27 million hectares that is cultivable. In 1977, there were 51 doctors in the entire country out of which 48 were concentrated in Ouagad- ougou, the capital. Seventy five per cent of the population live in rural areas and have no access to any form of modern medical facilities.

To the nastiness and brutishness of life was added, since 1966, marked political instability. Changes of government through the barrel of the gun heralded no change in the material condition and quality of life of the Voltaic people. Indeed, on the contrary, the miserable state of existence of the people continued to be compounded first by corrupt, inept leaderships and then by the long Sahelian drought. Thousands of Voltaics have had to flee the country's abysmally parlous condition to such neighbouring countries as Ghana and the Ivory Coast in order to survive.

For Upper Volta, it has been one long, unending misery. Then came the events of August 4, 1983- and the birth of hope. Captain Thomas Sankara rose to power by popular acclamation and proceeded to preside over a national revolution. The material resources of Upper Volta may seem non-existent. But Sankara and his men seem buoyed by faith in the capabilities of the Voltaic people and have proceeded to mobilise this single, most important natural resource.


The Conseil National de la Revolution (CNR) proceeds from the basic premise that with the people all things are possible and popular enthusiasm has led to remarkable strides in health care and basic literacy within one year. Efforts are also being made to end the false dichotomies in society between the leaders and the followers and between the soldiers and the civilians. Every one is regarded as a human being with full potential to contribute to the national effort. And for the first time, the people of Upper Volta genuinely feel what it is to be in control of their destiny. Is it any wonder therefore that the experiment in that country is eliciting marked interest and popular enthusiasm far away from her borders and that in only one year the country commands an influence that belies its material condition and power?

The new, public-spirited leadership in Upper Volta puts many a better-endowed African country to shame. That country eminently deserves every support as she consolidates her gains after one year of national re-discovery and as she marches forward to take up the challenge of advancing the dignity and quality of life of her people.

talking drums 1984-08-13 Commodities on the streets - Happy days in Ghana