Thursday, February 28, 2013


Burundi has a rich heritage in visual arts, namely pottery, wickerwork, sculpture, and painting. It’s characterized by their use of bright colors and geometric shapes. One popular form of painting comes in the form of wall paintings that depict village life. Pottery and concrete block designs (which I think is really cool and want to try to do myself) are a specialty is the Twa peoples. Some of the more common materials used for traditional arts, especially in the rural areas are wood, leather, shell, and horn, and bone.

The Italians and other Europeans in Burundi have brought over many techniques and helped to create art schools in Burundi. Figurative art and mosaics are two examples of this. Plastic art was also very popular at one time.

As far as architecture goes, the rugo is traditional building built using all local materials. Bamboo surrounds the outside which is thought to protect each family member who lives inside of it. Each building has a cone-shaped thatched roof.  The front yard is surrounded by shrubs and is used for daily activities and such. The girls of the family decorate the outside and front of the huts with red soil and kaoline. Every front yard has an igicaniro, used for resisting flies and other stinging insects.  The back yard is where the livestock is kept.

It’s nearly impossible to separate poetry from music in Burundi. They have such a long history of folklore and storytelling and it’s all tied in with music. These stories were a critical part of the Burundian culture because it told the history of their people and stories to teach young people lessons. One style they use when telling these stories is called “whispered singing.”

Some more well-known writers from Burundi are Seraphin Sese, Louis Katamari, Richard Ndayizigamiye (used to be an assistant professor at the University of Burundi in African, African-American and Caribbean literature in the mid-1980s, later received his PhD in comparative literature from Cornell in the early 1990s, and is currently a professor at Brock University in Toronto), and Michel Kakoya (who made a name for himself as a memoirist).

Up next: music and dance

Monday, February 25, 2013


New Year’s Day.  January 1.  By far, New Years is the largest celebration in Burundi. The day is spent indulging in large feasts with traditional drumming and dancing. Many people spend the day in recreation; watching football (or soccer) is also really popular as well as playing the game of mancala. (I just taught my daughter how to play mancala the other day. She was kind of mad I beat her both times.)

Unity Day.  February 5.  About 22 years ago, then President Pierre Buyoya declared this day as Unity Day, in an effort to stymie ethnic hatred with the creation of a new constitution. Over 88% of the people voted for this referendum. Even though some of the violence has diminished, there are still tensions at times. The US still has issues when it comes to this. Maybe we need a Unity Day, too.

Labor Day.  May 1. This is a public holiday where people have the day off in honor of workers.  There are labor parades and discussions regarding labor and strikes around this time.

Ascension.  Varies. For Christians, this is the day they believe that Jesus ascended into heaven. There are special church services on this day that many attend. While it is scheduled for 40 days after Easter (which falls on a Thursday), the Catholic Church has recently moved some of the festivities to the following Sunday as well.

Independence Day.  July 1. This day commemorates Burundi’s independence from Belgium in 1962.  The flag is flown with pride on this day full of festivities, dancing, bands, parades, drummers, street performers and entertainers, music, and lots of food. Because of the country’s violent past, this day is a means to bring people together in the hopes of a peaceful future.

Assumption.  August 15. Many Christians, particularly Catholics, believe that this is the day in which Mary ascended into heaven. It’s considered a feast day in the church. At this time, many people take a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Peace in Mugera (in the southernmost part of the country, near the Tanzanian border and Lake Tanganyika).

Rwagasore Day.  October 13.  Named for Prince Louis Rwagasore, one of the Burundi’s national heroes. He was the son of King Mwambutsa IV and was really active in nationalist movements and promoted complete independence for the country. The Belgians were responsible for pitting the different ethnic groups against each other, and in an effort to downplay these ethnic tensions, he married a Hutu woman. He ended up winning 80% of the vote for being named the first Prime Minister; however, he was gunned down in a hotel restaurant about two weeks later.

Ndadaye Day.  October 21. Named after Melchoir Ndadaye. He was the first democratically elected and first Hutu president of Burundi. Ndadaye won the 1993 election by having about 66% of the vote. Unfortunately, he was assassinated only after three months in office in a failed coup. Some have nicknamed him the “100 Day President.” Ndadaye’s assassination was the spark that led to a decade-long civil war. 

All Saint’s Day.  November 1. This is the Catholic holiday celebrating all the saints, especially those saints who don’t have their own special day already.

Republic Day.  November 28.  While Burundi declared independence in 1962, the nation didn’t actually become a republic until November 28, 1966.  On this day, the First Republic of Burundi was established and lasted for ten years.

Christmas.  December 25. For most Burundian Christians, the bulk of Christmas celebrations starts on Christmas Eve and lasts through Christmas Day. The day is spent in the midst of family and friends, enjoying good food and drink.  Many also attend special church services as well which includes a lot of singing and dancing and can be quite long.

Up next: art and literature. 

Sunday, February 24, 2013


One of the smallest countries on the African Continent, Burundi lies just south of Rwanda near Lake Tanganyika.  It also borders Tanzania and Democratic Republic of the Congo. Although it’s also one of the poorest countries in the world, it’s quite famous for its exports of tea and coffee (two of my favorites drinks – I drink both everyday.) Much of eastern Africa is prime soil for coffee production.

After WWI, Germany had control of this area and handed it off to Belgium under the name Ruanda-Urundi.  They did let them keep their kingdom status, though. (Gee, how kind.) However, the political instability in Rwanda between the Hutus and Tutsis and the massacres that were occurring between the two had its strain on Burundi as well, especially since the two were so tied together (I mean, at that time, they were still one colony). At this point, leader Mwami Mwambutsa IV suggested to the Belgians that they wanted to separate themselves from Rwanda, and in 1962, it finally became official. Of course, it didn’t take long before the Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi were also in disputes with each other which escalated into violence and killings. Burundi is a majority Hutu nation (85%) over Tutsi (14%) (with a small percentage of Twa or Pygmy at 1%). It’s been estimated that nearly a quarter of a million people have died needlessly since their independence and the early 1990s, mostly from the two major genocides that took place in 1972 and 1993. If you’ve seen the movie Hotel Rwanda, it’s much about the same kind of thing. (I highly recommend it, but it’s a very striking movie – I remember watching these events unfold on the news and being horrified at the carnage.)

The capital Bujumbura lies on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, a very large lake that touches four other countries. Lake Tanganyika has the distinction of being the second largest freshwater lake and also the second deepest lake in the world (after Lake Baikal in Siberian Russia), and it’s also the world’s longest lake. Since the country is landlocked, this is about as close to the beach as they’re gonna get. Bujumbura has roughly about 800,000 people, a little less than the city of San Francisco, California. The capital Bujumbura is the home to several universities and colleges as well as museums and restaurants and the like.

Because of the Belgian occupation, French is one of the main languages spoken and used in Burundi, but the native language Kirundi is also a secondary official language as well. Swahili is also an important language since it is often used as a lingua franca in eastern Africa.

Christianity remains to be the most-followed religion in Burundi, with the majority following Catholicism. Indigenous and tribal spiritualism comes in second and Islam follows with about 5% of the population. 

There are many areas of Burundi that are considered undeveloped and underdeveloped.  Their life expectancy is only about 58 years, and there’s definitely a shortage of doctors, hospitals, and access to basic healthcare. What’s amazing in a not-so-good way is that there are only 3 doctors for every 100,000 people. That’s like having 24 doctors to serve the entire city of Indianapolis. And on top of that, there are only 73 hospital beds per 100,000 people. Not everyone has access to clean water or sanitation yet; access is more readily available in the cities than in the rural areas though. AIDS is still a problem as well as other high risks for infectious diseases such as hepatitis A, malaria, and rabies. 39% of kids under 5 are underweight. Only 59% of the population is literate; more men are literate than females. 68% of the population lives under the poverty line.  Burundi is 5th in maternal mortality rates. In 2009, they actually made homosexuality a crime, punishable up to three years in jail with a fine of 50,000-100,000 Burundian francs (about US $32.26 – 64.52). 

Just from my initial look at Burundi, I can definitely tell the Belgian influences on the culture as well as the Pan-African influences and from their own identity. The country certainly has its struggles, but they are starting to make moves towards progressing to a better state. It’ll take some time, though. But in the meantime, I’m really excited to explore this country that I know so little about. I know I’m really excited about the meals, partly because I get to buy anise seed and fresh tarragon. And as usual, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be amazed.

Up next: holidays and celebrations

Sunday, February 17, 2013


I’ve learned my lesson. Ok, probably not. But I did find out the hard way that grocery shopping on a Saturday night is the worst time if you’re aiming at getting decent fresh vegetables.  The only eggplants and sweet potatoes left to choose from were the miscreants of the produce world. But I gathered up what ones there were and whipped them into shape in the only way I knew how. I went at their worst parts with a sharpened knife. (It’s starting to sound like a bad horror film. Hey, producers of Saw, call me.)  But it was all worth it on this one-year anniversary of the first meal I made for this blog. When we sat down for food from Afghanistan, I knew this was going to be an addictive project.

The first recipe I made today was called Munyu Caf Couscous. It’s a stew of “assorted meats” (I chose chicken and thick-cut bacon), onion, tomato, peanut butter, shredded cabbage (I cheated and found a bag of cole slaw mix that was just green cabbage), and aubergines (which I found was another word for eggplant, and I went with baby eggplants which are supposed to be milder). I mixed everything in a skillet and left it to simmer for an hour. I should’ve stirred it a few times because the bottom got a little scorched, but sometimes I kind of like it like that. It all goes on top of couscous. I just bought a box of ready-made couscous and made it like the box said. It was so good together; it was practically perfect.

Not the most flattering picture, but my mouth thought it was more awesome than finding my favorite beer on sale. 
To go with it, I made krakro (or, sweet potato fritters). My husband thought I was making sweet potato pone, but when I told him there wasn’t sugar in the recipe, he went straight to the cabinet and added a ton of sugar to it. So, ok, it wasn’t authentic, but it did taste good. The recipe called to mash the sweet potatoes, dip them in egg, then in breadcrumbs and fry it. But it just wasn’t setting up.  It’s kind of hard to fry something that’s the consistency of paste.  So, I skipped on the egg, and it seemed to work better. I also tried not to flip them too soon, but I still don’t think it ended up like how it was supposed to. However, the taste was really good! So, it wasn’t all bad.

It had so much potential. I still liked it though. Some mess-ups aren't that bad. 
Finally, after we ate the meal, I made the bread. For this, I chose the Banfora Welshcakes. It called for butter to be cut into the flour with a little salt and a half-cup of sugar. Although it called for a little bit of diced dried pineapple, I read someone’s blog who made this that it probably wasn’t the best option. So, I went with an 8 oz can of crushed pineapple (and probably way more than I needed). The recipe called for it to be rolled out and circles to be cut out of it, but it was way too moist and sticky for that. I just dropped it in the hot oil almost like a drop cookie. It actually turned out more like small pancakes. The flavor was really good, although some of them were a little on the thick side and was still gooey in the middle (although I wasn’t sure if it was the pineapple or that the dough wasn’t cooked through).  The best part – of course – was the powdered sugar topping.

I might try to make these with bananas too. Because... why not?
I really enjoyed this meal. But then again, I really enjoy West African food in general. And my husband’s birthday is tomorrow (even though he's not acknowledging it because he doesn't want to get another year older), so this was sort of his birthday dinner (who else cooks a Burkinabé meal for their husband? This girl does.).  I also couldn’t help but thinking of how I’ve been doing this blog for a year now. It’s not my first blog, though. My first blog was for some site (I forget the name) where I was blogging about my city of Indianapolis. Then I had a blog that lasted for about five posts that was about places in Indiana. I had to leave that one alone because I realized I never had enough money to travel around, even if it was traveling around my state. So then last year, as I was driving to work, I lamented to my husband that there wasn’t a bread store that made breads from all over the world, because I would want to try a different one each time I visited. He suggested that I do it myself and write about it, even though I made amateur chefs/bakers seem like professionals compared to my kitchen skills. So that’s what I’ve been doing for the past year. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly learned a lot, and this has definitely opened my eyes to a lot of world history, culture, and the influences and impacts on global cuisine. And yes, I’m making my way around a kitchen a little easier, and like tonight, making really awesome meals as well.

Krakro and munyu caf couscous. My husband's non-acknowledged-birthday birthday dinner. 

Up next: Burundi

Saturday, February 16, 2013


Music in Burkina Faso is a mix of many ethnic groups and languages. There are over 60 ethnic groups spread across the country, speaking Gur languages (related to the Mossi languages), Fulani, and Mande languages. Because of the large number of ethnic groups, they tend to use French as a lingua franca, and much of modern popular music is sung in French.

The kora is an instrument that has mostly been used by the djeli: a person who is a historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet and/or musician, especially in West Africa. They’re sometimes called a griot (pronounced GREE-oh) and sometimes called bards. The kora originally had seven strings, but later it increased to twenty-one. In its construction, there are some variations of course; however, it tends to be shaped more like a banjo, but it sounds closer to a harp. It can almost be tuned to play major and minor scales that are key to Western music, as well as the Lydian modes (as in medieval music). By moving rings up and down the neck, it can change the “key”. I really like the sound of this instrument. I already own an mbira from Zimbabwe, now I want one of these next. 

Another stringed instrument that is common to this area is the n’goni. It’s able to produce fast-playing accompaniment or melody lines. Some historians believe this instrument may be an ancestor of the banjo, having been brought over by Mande people during the slave trade to North America. Another instrument that also may be related to the modern banjo is the xalam, a skin-covered lute. This guy in the video is playing the n'goni, and he's so amazing to listen to. I want one of these too. 

The balafon is especially popular in the Mande-speaking areas of Burkina Faso. The balafon is a wooden percussion instrument, similar to a xylophone or marimba, and can have 17- 21 keys that are played with rubber mallets (I wonder if there’s something special with the number 21 in West Africa?) It can either be fixed-key (attached to a frame using resonators from a calabash or other gourd) or free-key (the musician will place the keys on any padded surface). Depending on the musician’s cultural background, the balafon is either tuned to a tetratonic [consisting of four notes per octave], pentatonic [having five notes per octave, as if you played only the black keys on a piano – but not The Black Keys, who tend to use heptatonic scales], or heptatonic scales [the most common scales, having seven notes per octave, pretty much the basis of Western music]. This video also highlights the bara drum (in neighboring Mali, the bara is the same as the bendré drum listed below).

The djembe drum is made from a single piece of wood, usually from the caïlcedrat or lenke tree. The city of Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso’s second-largest city, is the main city that manufactures djembe drums. The bendré drum is also played in Burkina Faso. It’s made from a gourd with a head of goat skin or sheep skin. The drummer creates different sounds by striking different areas of the drum head (the center vs. the outer edges).

There is a large museum called the National Museum of Music in the capital city of Ouagadougou. Opened in 1998, it has several hundred musical instruments on display in its collections. 

As far as popular music goes, there aren’t too many artists that have made it big even in the Pan-Africa world of music. One that comes to mind is reggae musician Bingui Jaa Jammy. He has a song on the Putumayo Presents African Reggae CD that I have (a great album, by the way!). I only kept coming up with the same few songs when I did a search, and I was disappointed I couldn’t find a CD. I’m a huge reggae fan, and I’ve been really into African reggae since I found that CD.

The other musician I came across is Hermas Zopoula, whose sound has more of an African pop sound mixed with some flavors of traditional instruments and styles. I found the album Espoir on Spotify, and it’s not bad. I kind of like it.

Dancing is highly integrated into Burkinabé theatre traditions. It’s mostly tied to spiritual rites and ceremonial dances. The dancer is dressed in costume, most likely of a specific spirit, and many times it depicts a story regarding that spirit or a particular event. Most of the times, people will just wear some aspect of traditional dress that is identified with their specific ethnic group. Some dances can be quite acrobatic and take a lot of physical dexterity and/or strength. Sometimes the dancers will affix rattles or metal shakers onto their ankles so that when they dance, it accompanies the dance and accentuates the percussive basis of their music.

Up next: the food!

Thursday, February 14, 2013


The largest contribution to the artistic world from Burkina Faso is their masks. Because most of the people in this region follow an animist view of the spiritual world, most of these masks have special functions in sacrificial rites and representation of various animal gods.

For many Burkinabé, living off the land by farming or raising cattle is a way of life that goes back centuries. And during the dry season (from about November to April), the ground is so dry, many people either leave the country to look for other work, or stay and make the most of it doing other things. During this “down time” when the daytime temperatures can reach over 100F (37.8C), many people stay in the shade and engage in the local arts, one of them being mask making. Most of the masks are made from the wood of the cotton tree, or ceiba. It’s a soft wood, making it light and easy to carve, which is good considering some of the masks can be quite large and quite elaborate. Unfortunately, insects also like these soft woods for many of the same reasons, so each year these masks have to be carefully soaked to prevent damage and kill any insects that may have started.  Fibers from different kinds of hemp plants are soaked and plaited together to make the “fur of the mask” and other parts of the costume that goes with it. These fibers may also be dyed with other natural pigments prior to affixing it to the mask and costume. Each mask is then decorated with a myriad of geometrical shapes and colored mostly with red, black, and white pigments (from natural mineral and vegetable matter). These masks generally stay in the family and are passed from father to son. Most of the time, these masks make their appearance at burials/funerals and other life events, but sometimes it’s simply just to entertain.  Different groups of people have slightly different techniques and designs and even colors (and some groups never really participated in the mask making), but all in all the fabrication of it is generally the same.

Another interesting art is that of making brass portraits of deceased Mossi emperors. These traditions are centered near the town of Lumbila. Tradition holds that the living emperor should never see the cast of the previous emperor nor know the identity of the artist who created it, lest he should die also. (Apparently, they consider these artists like demigods.) They have a special place to work and not even the village chief is allowed to disturb them. (I wish I had a work environment like that.)

Since about three-quarters of the population are considered illiterate, the oral tradition of storytelling is quite a long-standing art form in Burkina Faso.  The first written work was published in 1934 by Dim-Dolobsom Ouedraogo, entitled “Maximes, Thoughts and Riddles of the Mossi,” a first account of recording their traditional stories.  After the country gained its independence, writers such as Nazi Boni and Roger Nikiema came onto the scene.  During the 1970s, many Burkinabé writers emerged as playwrights, and theatre and film became very popular.

Early traditional theatre consisted of wearing masks and also incorporates dancing, and for the most part the actors are representing various spirits in the spirit world. Because the French took control of this area, a lot of their cultural arts mixed with the local culture. During the 1950s, large competitive drama festivals starting taking place, and even the church started using theatre as a means of spreading its word. There are several theatrical and drama schools in Ouagadougou that have been open since the 1990s.

Every year, a Pan-African film fest called FESPACO held in the cultural center of Ouagadougou – the largest film fest in Africa. Two of the most prolific filmmakers that came out of Burkina Faso are Idrissa Ouedraogo and Gaston Kaboré (seriously, this is the best name ever). I tried to look up some films on Netflix, but there weren’t that many available. I mean, there were some listed, but Netflix didn’t list an availability date and gave me the option to save it. Wonder when that’ll be. When I retire? Bleh. Until then, I must wait…

Up next: Music and Dance

Monday, February 11, 2013


Because of its religious diversity, you'll find both Muslim and Christian holidays celebrated in Burkina Faso.

New Year’s Day.  January 1. New Years in Burkina Faso is celebrated with big parties spent with friends and family. Despite creed, tribe, or background, everyone comes together to bring in the New Years. It’s the biggest celebration of the year in many places.

Anniversary of the 1966 coup d’etát. January 3. Only six years after Burkina Faso declared its independence from France, a military coup took place.  The coup got rid of the first president Maurice Yaméogo and all of the members of the National Assembly, as well as suspended the constitution. In his place, they put Lt. Col. Sangoulé Lamizana as the head of the government. The Army remained in control for four years before they decided to go to a more civilian-based government. Lamizana remained in power throughout the 1970s and won re-election in 1978.

Women’s Day.  March 8. In Burkina Faso, people get the day off of work to celebrate. This is an international holiday, so celebrations vary across the world. In many countries, giving flowers is customary, but as to what flowers are given generally depend on the country and what’s in season. But it’s also a day to address women’s issues, such as equal pay for equal work, gender discrimination, and women’s health issues.  Many cities will have community events such as blood drives, health screenings, and educational forums.

Easter. Varies. For the Christians, people will often start the day off with a service at their church. Many people will also celebrate with a large meal afterwards with friends and family.

Easter Monday. Varies. For most people, Easter Monday is a day of rest. In Burkina Faso, people have the day off of work and school to do so. They may also make use of this day to spend doing recreational activities with friends and family.

Labor Day.  May 1. This is a holiday in honor of the worker. It’s often a time to discuss labor issues, but most people use this as a day to spend relaxing with their families and friends.

Revolution Day.  August 4. It’s a holiday that is celebrated in conjunction with Independence Day, which is celebrated the next day. It was originally in regards to the original revolution that took place in 1960 which led to Burkina Faso’s independence. Of course, there have been several other revolutions since then.

Independence Day.  August 5. This day marks the day that Burkina Faso gained its independence from France. It still is a poor country, but economically speaking, it is making small, yet consistent gains each year. Each year, everyone makes an oath to keep peace in their country: it seems like it’s working to some degree, given that there are about 60 different ethnic groups and a myriad of different religions.

Eid ul-Fitr. Varies. This is a Muslim holiday that celebrates the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. People will often go to the mosque for special prayers. On this day people make a huge feast of a meal and celebrate it with friends and family. 

Assumption.  August 15. This is a Christian holiday that is centered around the assumption that this is the day the Virgin Mary had ascended into Heaven. Many people will attend a special service at the church, and may participate in a variety of Christian traditions surrounding the holiday.

Anniversary of the 1987 coup d’etát.  October 15.  In 1983, Thomas Sankara, along with Blaise Compaoré (the current president), staged a coup to take over the short-lived Ouédraogo administration. Sankara was the one who changed the country’s name to Burkina Faso. Three years later, another coup was staged and Sankara was killed as a result. Compaoré moved up and gained control, and a lot of people reported he had something to do with Sankara’s death and with the staging of the coup. He’s been in power since the 1987 coup, and it’s reported that he’s a very wealthy man, despite the fact that the country he governs is the third least-developed country in the world.

Eid ul-Adha. Varies. Also known as Tabaski in Burkina Faso (not to be confused with Tabasco, one of my favorite condiments). It’s also known as the Great Feast and can last up to three days for those who do not go on a pilgrimage during this time.  It’s a celebration in honor of Abraham’s almost-sacrifice of his only son.  For many Muslims around the world, an animal is sacrificed, and a third is given to family, a third is kept, and a third is given to charity.  Nowadays, it may also be customary to give to local community food banks or other charitable organizations.

All Saints Day.  November 1. One of the Christian holidays (especially for Catholics); it’s a holiday designated towards homage to all the saints, and especially to the saints who do not have their own designated days throughout the rest of the year.

Proclamation of the Republic.  December 11. This is a national day in Burkina Faso.  Although the country actually declared its independence on August 5, 1960, December 11 was the day which Upper Volta became an autonomous region within the French Community two years prior to its independence.  Parades march through the streets and the flag is proudly displayed throughout the land. The government foots an expensive bill for elaborate celebrations, despite the fact that it continually ranks low on human development.
I had to laugh at the snowman, because when was the last time Burkina Faso saw snow?
Christmas.  December 25. Christmas tends to be celebrated more in the cities rather than out in the rural areas.  The Virgin Mary plays a key role in Christmas celebrations, and can even be seen parading through the streets to church in the back of a truck. Christmas songs fill the air.  They believe that Pere Noel (Father Christmas) brings gifts to children and families on December 23. Special meals with chicken or mutton are served, and it’s the one day people try not to serve the same old-same old staple: rice. Many people attend church services and have parties with friends and families. Even many Muslims join in some of the festive atmosphere, but not for the same reasons mind you.

Up next: Art and Literature

Saturday, February 9, 2013


Landlocked away in western Africa, surrounded by countries with more familiar names, Burkina Faso lies on the southern edge of the Sahel – the transitional area between the Sahara Desert and the Savannas. Susceptible to seasonal droughts, deforestation and a high risk for communicable diseases, the country’s vital statistics are often heartbreakingly dismal: 9th highest infant mortality rate, not enough doctors, only 6 years of school life, a life expectancy of only 54 years, 4th highest birth rate, 8th in the world for children under age 5 to be underweight, 21% literacy rate, 47% live below the poverty line, 77% unemployment rate, only 11% of the total population has access to clean water and sanitation.

But it’s not all bad news. The name Burkina Faso comes from two of the main native languages in the country: Burkina means “men of integrity” in Mòoré; and Faso means “fatherland” in Dioula. Its capital Ouagadougou [this is the French way of spelling of Wagadugu] is derived from the Ninsi tribal language meaning “where people get honor and respect.”  The city lies pretty much in the center of the country and has about 1.6 million people.

Originally this land was the home of the Mossi peoples. There were several Mossi kingdoms spread across the area, but two of the largest and more powerful were the Wagadugu and the Yatenga. Later, the French arrived and declared it as a protectorate in 1896, renaming it Upper Volta. It was named after its proximity to the Volta River Basin (which there is actually a Black Volta, White Volta, and a Red Volta River).  In 1960, the country officially declared its independence from France and governed itself under the name of Republic of Upper Volta. There were a series of coups and the constant changing of regimes, followed by and resulted in decades of governmental instability. It was President Thomas Sankara who changed the name of the country to Burkina Faso in 1984 (who ended up being killed in a coup three years later).

Because the French had taken control of the area for so long, French is considered the official languages. Ninety percent of the people speak African languages that belong to the Sudanic language family. However, three of the most-spoken languages are also officially recognized as regional languages: Mòoré, Mandinka, and Bambara.

As far as religion goes, there’s a saying in Burkina Faso that pretty much sums it up: “50% Muslim, 50% Christian, 100% animist.”  For the majority of Burkinabé people [Burkinabé is the word used to describe people, things, and the culture of Burkina Faso], they may choose to either be Muslim or Christian, but they will always maintain a connection with the spiritual traditions of their ancestors.

Because the country lies in the Sahel region, there is a definite rainy and dry season. This affects crop production drastically, and they constantly suffer from the results of drought. Many Burkinabé choose to leave the country in order to get work, mostly to Côte d’Ivoire or Ghana. There is some gold mining done in Burkina Faso, and they rely on gold exports as well as exports of cotton, their main cash crop.

The AIDS prevalence is 1.2%, twice what it is in the United States [four times more than Canada; six times more than the UK], but it’s towards the lower end compared with other African countries. This certainly affects other aspects of health and socioeconomic statistics and general quality of life standards. However, a UNAIDS report in 2011 reported that there has been a significant decline HIV/AIDS in pregnant women for those who attend antenatal clinics. Another highly disturbing statistic is that over 72% of girls and women have suffered from female genital mutilation (according to a 2005 WHO report). This practice is found from the Horn of Africa up through Egypt and across the Sahel countries. From the efforts of a brave few, now many countries, including Burkina Faso, have now enacted legislature against this horrific unnecessary practice.

If I remember my basic French, I think it says "AIDS is a reality. I'm informed,  what about you?" Or something.  
I’m excited to take a new look at this lesser-known country, to explore its culture and its almost-undiscovered beauties.  As I’m slowly finding in this world, people are amazing in their tenacity to maintain the gumption used to create beauty in art or music or create a delicious meal despite the sometimes bleak situations that are handed to them through no fault of their own. Since I’ve already picked out my recipes – which sound really awesome – I’m excited to come back to an area of the world that has increasingly grown on me: West Africa.

Up next: Holidays and Celebrations

Sunday, February 3, 2013


Today is Superbowl Sunday, and I’m probably one of the few people in America serving Bulgarian fare for the big game.  But I’d take this food any day. Besides, last Tuesday the temperature in Indiana was 64 degrees, and by Friday we had wind chills of -15. So, needless to say, no one in the house is feeling all that great.

I had looked forward to making this bread recipe for about a week and a half. The recipe I chose is called Bulgarian Pitka bread with butter and honey. It’s basically a three-layer crescent roll. The dough is a yeast dough, which required it to sit for an hour before making the rolls. When you roll out the first layer of dough, you brush melted butter and drizzle honey on it. Then you lay the second layer of dough on top and do the same thing. And finally the third layer goes on top. I tried to get my dough as close to a square as I could, and then used a pizza cutter to cut a large X across it (so that I have four large “triangles”). Then I placed each of these triangles with the point at the top and scored two more lines down, making long, skinny triangles (like you would find when you buy precut crescent rolls in a can). After drizzling a bit of honey along the longer edge, I rolled up all twelve rolls and shaped them like crescents. It has to sit another hour at this point again to rest. Then I brushed them with an egg yolk-water mixture and sprinkled brown sugar on top of it (the recipe actually called for demarara sugar) before placing them all in a greased round cake pan. They were so good, but my son and husband didn’t like the brown sugar on top. My husband suggested mixing the melted butter and brown sugar into a glaze and drizzling it on top instead.  

Pitka bread, or crescent rolls of goodness
I saw the recipe for Bulgarian shopska salad mentioned on several sites as a national favorite. So, of course, I had to make this. It’s a combination of diced green onions, green bell pepper, red bell pepper, tomatoes (I used grape tomatoes), cucumbers, and black olives (I used pitted kalamata olives). It’s topped with vinegar and olive oil, salt and pepper, and feta cheese crumbles. It also called for chopped parsley, but I used fresh marjoram which complimented the kalamata olives quite nicely. Marjoram is a mild herb with hints of a light citrus taste/smell. It’s my new favorite fresh herb. (It actually ties fresh cilantro.) To me, this salad tasted like a light pasta salad without the pasta. This is the perfect dish to bring to cookouts or pitch-ins at work. However, of the four people in my house, I’m the only one who feels this way. But it’s my blog, and I’m the mom, so there.

I'm glad no one else liked this. They don't know what they're missing. That means I don't have to share. 
The main dish tonight is called Monastery Gyuvetch. It's named for a dish from the Rila Monastery, a famous monastery that has survived numerous attacks from the Ottomans and is now a popular tourist site. It starts out with browning beef in a skillet (the recipe called for “braising beef” but I didn’t know what that was, so I used stew beef instead, and it worked quite nicely). Then I added some onions, paprika, beef stock, mushrooms, a can of diced tomatoes, rice, and whole black olives and let it simmer for about 15-20 minutes. Then I transferred the whole thing into a casserole dish and baked it for another 20 minutes. When I pulled it out, I topped it with the rest of the marjoram. This was one of the best parts of the meal. It was so comforting (which led to a discussion between my husband and I on what constitutes a comfort food. A nice follow-up from our debate for the past two days on whether no-bake cookies are by definition a cookie [I say yes, he says no.].).  

I really enjoyed the food from Bulgaria. For the most part, it was simple with easy-to-find ingredients and didn’t take a lot of time to make. Minus the bread, of course. I feel that I know Bulgaria a little better now, and realize what an incredibly fascinating country it is. I wish I had known all of this when I had ties to the woman from Bulgaria who was a student at the adult ESL classes I volunteered tutoring at all those years ago.  Some students I had kept in contact with and run into every now and then, but by now, I had lost contact with all of them. It must be hard to come to a different country with a different culture and try to assimilate, yet maintain your own. After studying to teach English, I know it’s a difficult language, and I’ve studied many other languages at one point or another. So, I commend anyone who can learn a second language. And after researching Bulgaria for the past couple of weeks, I actually did brush up on my Cyrillic.

Who thinks this is the best Superbowl food? This girl does. 

Up next: Burkina Faso

Saturday, February 2, 2013


Bulgarian music is rich in many of the Balkan traditions and influences. Vocal music consists of both monophonic (one vocal line, one melody line) and polyphonic (more than one line, with harmonies involved). Bulgarian singers have a distinct timbre to their voices: the air is more forced, giving the sound an “edge” to it. And whereas in other Western music traditions where the intervals are set at half-steps, Bulgarian incorporates quarter-steps as well (like in many Middle Eastern and Indian traditions). Another Balkan tradition you’ll find in Bulgarian vocal music is the use of drone accompaniment, where one line will remain on one central note while a secondary line sings the melody line (giving it a bagpipe effect). Bulgarian music also tends to make use of the major second interval (like pressing a C and a D together on the keyboard) which is avoided in a lot of Western music. One of the most famous vocal groups to come out of Bulgaria is the Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares [The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices]. It started out as The Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir and quickly became renowned for their complex harmonies of updated folk songs, mostly sung a cappella. I listened to their entire recording on Spotify, and all I can say is “Wow.” It truly is amazing.

Many of the folk instruments are very similar to others in this region.  And since I just had mentioned drones and bagpipes, they actually have a type of bagpipe called a gaida. It’s usually made of goat-skin and comes in two types: the Thracian gaida which is either tuned in D or in A, and the larger Rhodopi gaida which is tuned in F. The kaval is a flute which is blown into the end of it, and probably derived from the Turkish instrument of the same name, and is also related to the Arabic ney.  Another common instrument you’ll hear is the gadulka, a stringed instrument played with a bow. It usually has 3-4 melody strings and up to 10 sympathetic strings underneath it. Gadulkas are all carved out of one piece of wood like a lute. The tambura is a long-necked lute with metal strings and frets. As far as percussion instruments go, the tupan is a large drum harnessed from the shoulders and beat with a larger beater stick in one hand and a smaller stick in the other.  The dumbek is a type of hand drum, also called a goblet drum named for its shape,  is popular in Bulgarian music. Other instruments have found their way into popularity, such as the accordion, made famous by the Bulgarian accordionist Boris Karlov (not to be confused with the actor Boris Karloff, who was made famous by playing Frankenstein’s monster in the 1931 version of the film Frankenstein, which didn’t really follow the book that closely at all). 

One identifying factor in Bulgarian music is its asymmetrical rhythms. The accordion piece above was a great example of an asymmetrical time signature. You could hear the slight pauses in the rhythms. Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist (one of my favorite fields of study) Béla Bartók even called these rhythms “Bulgarian rhythms.” These rhythms include groups of 2s (duplets) and 3s (triplets) in varying combinations, causing each measure to not be equal (as opposed to equal beats like 4-4 or 3-3 or 2-2-2-2). Bulgarians tended break up the beats into 2-3 or 2-2-3 or 3-3-2.  I love these asymmetrical time signatures and try to use them in my own compositions. I feel it gives a drive to the music and adds a certain je ne sais quoi. My personal favorites are 5/8 and 7/8.

A Bulgarian wedding without music is like trying to keep your eyes open while you sneeze: it’s just not possible. Singing is such a strong tradition for both men and women alike, so therefore whenever there was a life event, especially at weddings and at courtship and betrothal ceremonies, there was a celebration that included singing. Many of the songs for these situations were sung by women, and many were love songs. And more often than not, these songs were also accompaniment to folk dancing as well.

Because of the asymmetrical rhythms that are so popular in Bulgarian music, the dance steps in folk dancing tends to be on the complicated side to accommodate for the uneven number of beats. The basic of folk dancing are grouped together based on the number of rhythms (even though the order or the beats may vary based on the song). For example, the paidushko horo is a dance based on 5 beats (divided 2-3), and it’s more popular in the northern regions of Bulgaria. Each town or region often has its own version of the dance. The kopanitsa is a dance based on 11 beats (divided 2-2-3-2-2). It’s found more often in the western regions of the country and is based on the word “to dig” or “to hoe.” Many times, the musicians will challenge the dancers by speeding up the music (musicians are sneaky like that).

Popular music in Bulgaria reminds me a little of the music I listened to when I wrote on Bosnia and Herzegovina. A lot of the rock groups sound like the American rock groups that were popular prior to the 1990s. One group I found called Monolith who in some songs reminds me of the blues-rock of Stevie Ray Vaughn or George Thorogood.  I actually really like it; I have the album Dr. Rock N Roll in my Spotify playlist.

Another band I found was called Hipodil. They’re more of a punk band, but they also try to border their sound on this mix of rockabilly and early punk in a few songs, and a few songs even incorporate horns giving it a ska feel. Maybe it’s the lo-fi quality of the recording or the quality of the lead singer’s voice, but it gives them a real indie feel. I have to give them some dap for experimenting with the style of their songs and not sticking with one feel; it opens themselves up to a broader array of musical styles. To me, that shows depth, and I like them even if I don’t think the lead singer’s voice is all that. I chose this video only because it's like it's Bulgaria's version of "Pop-Up Videos" which is one of the most awesome shows ever. 

One band I came across who remind me a little of The Killers is the group Ostava. Although they are definitely more of a pop band, I think, it carries a maturity to it, or maybe it’s just reminiscent of the indie groups of the 1980s like The Cure or The Smiths. I might even consider buying this album (I’ve been listening to the album Ping-Pong on Spotify).

They actually have a hip-hip scene in Bulgaria. One group I found is called Upsurt. They sound like the early 1990s hip-hip a la Kris Kross, A Tribe Called Quest, or even Cyprus Hill. There is a part of me that really likes it because that era was part of my childhood, but another part just laughs at how old I feel when I hear music like this. I did manage to find this video from last year, and it sounds a little more modern; however, it is one of the weirdest videos I've seen in a while. 

Up next: the food!