Monday, December 2, 2013

Joyeux Noël from Burkina Faso!

Holiday Series Day 3: Joyeux Noël from Burkina Faso!

You're probably wondering why I would bid you Merry Christmas in French when referencing the small African country of Burkina Faso? Well, if you guessed colonization as the method behind the madness, you're correct. Since Burkina Faso is a former underling of the well-renowned art loving, delicious food making and Paris touting nation of France, the official language also happens to be French. Now, I sadly cannot claim to have witnessed the splendor of the holiday season in Burkina Faso, but with a little help from the world wide web and tales from my friend Miguel (a born and raised Burkinabe), I managed to dig up some details on this small countries big plans for the holidays.

Firstly, let's take a gander at where Burkina Faso is on the map, so that you can get an idea of location. That's right, north western Africa is correct. Take a moment and marvel at that splendid little flag. Nice, isn't it?

There it is!

 Now, I realize that as you gaze upon the Sindou Mountains, holiday spirit is probably not your first thought. It's not exactly what one would call a winter wonderland per se.

Not exactly what comes to mind in terms of "Winter Wonderland"

But, believe it or not, holiday traditions, in particular Christmas and Ramadan, are very strong in this small country in the heart of Africa. As mentioned previously, colonization played a key role in how Burkinabés celebrate the holidays. The French influence has given them a love for everything Christmas such as Père Noël (Santa Claus french style), Christmas trees as decor and gift giving. Despite their colonial background, the majority of Burkinabes practice Islam. It seems though that there is general view of tolerance towards all religions. A common Burkinabe saying is, "50% are Muslim, 50% are Christian, and 100% are animist." Let's talk a bit about Christmas to start us off. 

Christmas Traditions

The Christmas holiday in Burkina Faso is centered around Pere Noel, or Father Christmas, coming to visit the well behaved children on his list. Sound familar? Well, on top of that Pere Noel has helpers called the Pre Fouettard who keep track of who has been good or bad that year. In France, it is common for Pere Noel to come once on December 6 and then again on Christmas day. It is also customary that they have dinner at midnight as a family on December 24. Called Le Reveillon, it is a time for reflection, joy and togetherness. They have a cake called La Buche de Noel that is served after the dinner. 
La Buche de Noel! Essentially a log of delightful goodness.

Burkina Faso does things a bit differently than her French forebears. Christmas decor during the high time of the season is still seen throughout the streets of all Burkinas major cities and above all else the holiday season is still a time for family, food and celebration of faith. However, for most Burkina natives Christmas eve night is when families gather within the church or around the dinner table, singing, dancing and celebrating till the late hours in honor of Christ's birth. The rest of the holiday season is devoted to visits from family, friends and neighbors, with meals that include everything except rice or other daily staple foods. It is quite normal for neighbors and family to come over unexpectedly during the Christmas season with the expectation of a full meal. 

Similar to French customs, gifts are given, but not with the same emphasis or over-exuberance as western society. If a family has the funds, the children will each generally receive one or two gifts of clothing or sometimes other small items. Exchange of gifts between adults is not done usually, especially in the more rural areas. 

 In bigger cities, such as the capital of Ouagadougou, Christmas festivities have taken on a more commercial feel with holiday lights strewn across street ways, random Christmas decorations for sale along the streets and small Pere Noel or Papa Noel dolls sold on the street corners. In the more rural ares of Burkina Faso, the Christian celebrations go quite differently.

Father Christmas dolls can be bought on every street corner
Decorations for sale on the streets of Ouagadougou

Some festive holiday lights in the capital, Ouagadougou
More decorations in Ouagadougou
Celebrations are far more simple in the rural ares of Burkina Faso. Decorations are pretty much non-existent, but there is one thing that helps showcase the holiday spirit: hand made creche. In place of the nativity, Christian children from Burkina Faso generally construct a small creche outside their residence in December to commemorate the holiday and in particular the Christ child. Mostly done in the rural villages, these small scenes are fashioned from the elements and contain small figures of the nativity such as Mary, Joseph and the Christ child.

A traditional creche made by a few young Burkinabé

And so, in answer to Band Aid's musical question in 1984, yes, they do know it's Christmas. For some reason that song seems slightly arrogant to my ears now. Oh Band Aid...



Ramadan and Tabaski

Now, if you were paying attention and are still with me (I know this has been a tad long, hence the video break), then you realize I have yet to speak on the Muslim traditions held by the Burkina Faso population: Ramadan and Tabaski. Granted, Ramadan and Tabaski don't fall on the same dates each year as they rotate with the moon, but they do still fall within what is deemed the "holiday season." For those of you who don't know, Ramadan is a period of fasting that is part of the five pillars that make up the Islamic faith. During Ramadan, practicing Muslims cannot eat between sunrise and sunset. The fast lasts for about 29-30 days depending on the moon, and at the end of the fast is celebrated with Eid al-Fitr or the "festivity of breaking the fast." 
Tabaski or Eid ul-Adha is the second festival of the year. It goes by many names, but they all bear the essential meaning "feast of sacrifice." During this celebration men, women and children are expected to dress in their finest clothing to perform the Eid prayer in a large congregation of people. Often an animal is sacrificed as a symbol of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his only son. Generally, the animal is supposed to be divided up into thirds: one third to the family, another to friends/neighbors and the final third to the poor and needy. 

A goat about to be sacrificed for Tabaski.


Miguel's Perspective

Alright, now that we've covered a bit of background regarding Burkinas traditions and festivities, I thought it'd be nice to get an insiders perspective. Miguel Camara, an international student studying at the UW- Platteville, is a born and raised Burkinabe. In fact, he was my inspiration for writing this blog update. Unlike most Burkina Faso natives, however, Miguel's family celebrates holidays for both religions. Since his mother is Christian and his dad is Muslim, they practice Christmas, Ramadan and Tabaski. Although Miguel couldn't be sure which he liked best, he said that the best parts are the family time, and the food! His favorite Christmas food is the le Dinde de Noel, essentially a lovely and perfectly cooked turkey. He said that he found it strange that Americans put such emphasis on turkey for Thanksgiving when in his country it is traditionally a Christmas meal. For Ramadan apparently lamb is the normal meal for his family, and it doesn't matter how you want it cooked, as long as you eat it. During Tabaski his family keeps it traditional and sacrifices a sheep each year. The meat is generally grilled to perfection and on occasion his mother will make a soup to compliment the meal.

Le Dinde de Noel in all it's glory

Besides the food, Miguel said the gifts are a pretty interesting part of the festivities. Apparently only wealthy families exchange gifts, but since each person is supposed to have a new outfit for each holiday, most get their outfits as their present. He said, and I quote, "We usually have "boubou" (you can google African boubou) during Muslim holidays. We can go to the tailor and he makes an outfit for us. During Christmas, we have new outfits too. It is usually an outfit with Jesus' image on it."

And so I googled African Boubou... Accurate Miguel? Stylish to be sure.
No, but in all seriousness, Miguel said the most important part of the holiday season to him is spending time with family and friends.  He says he can't think of a specific family memory to attribute to the season, but that it was always nice to take a break from school and just spend time at home with his family. Miguel also said that it can be quite hard studying in the US where Muslim holidays are not recognized- he actually has to go to school while his family is at home celebrating. When we finished out our chat, the last thing Miguel informed me of was what he misses most about Christmas time: building a creche with his family. Considering that Miguel is an engineering student, it doesn't surprise me much that he takes such great joy in fashioning their own creative creche.

A beautifully done creche.
Alright folks, that's all I have for now. Special thanks to BBC for the selection of photos from Ouagadougou, also a shout-out to Jan Larsen for the insight into Christmas festivities outside the capital. Lastly, a big thanks to Miguel! Hopefully you enjoyed reading this post as much as I did writing it. Stay tuned for tomorrow's edition of the Holiday Series. Nate will be delving into the holiday customs of Japan and it's  クリスマス festivities!

Joyeux Noël everyone!

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