Traditional Tiebele, Burkina Faso

Visit century-old architecture in a tourist-free corner of Africa

By Andrea Davoust

Locked in the middle of West Africa, just south of the Sahelian belt, lies little-known Burkina Faso. Peaceful Housesbut desperately poor, overshadowed by neighboring Mali's famous Dogon territory, the unassuming country formerly named Upper Volta hardly surfaces on the tourist map. Yet Burkina Faso boasts a few simple gems, such as the village of Tiebele, renowned for its unique architecture. Although the well-preserved traditional houses of the Gourounsi people count as a tourist attraction, they make for a virtually hassle-free visit, unlike many parts of West Africa. 

Escaping from the unsightly, traffic-choked capital, Ouagadougou, is already a treat. As my taxi cruises along the straight asphalted road, the dust of “Ouaga” gives way to green fields. Skinny acacias and fat baobabs occasionally break the monotony of the plain.

After two and a half hours through arid savanna, we turn off onto a sandy, tree-lined dirt road. Another bumpy half-hour later, during which we only met a few bicycles, we finally reach Tiebele, set among the low hills that continue into Ghana, just a few kilometers away.

A young man in jeans and a sports jacket runs alongside the car, offering to be our guide. I am wary, being so used to having to shrug off all the self-proclaimed guides who latch onto any white person in Ouagadougou in the hope of making a few francs. But my taxi driver checks with the bored police officer of the village; he assures us that the young man, Bernard, is an official guide, so we follow him.
Once we have parked the aging red Toyota in the shade, not a single engine can be heard in the village. It is soothingly quiet. Bernard walks us to theVillagers entrance to a mud hut compound. He explains that it can accommodate an extended family of nearly 200 people. Such large households were usual, due to polygamy.

Dwellings are either square (for married couples) or round (for bachelors) and all elaborately decorated: black diamond patterns cover large areas of the reddish-brown walls. Drawings of snakes and crocodiles, both sacred animals, bestow protection.

You have to stoop low to enter the windowless houses, where it is dark and, thanks to the foot-thick walls, surprisingly cool. In the past, the stark contrast with the brightness outside acted as a form of protection against wild animals or enemies, who paused a few precious seconds to adjust to the darkness– time for inhabitants to react.

Blinking in the scorching sunlight again, I watch a woman in a checkered blouse and striped skirt smear a mixture of mud and cow dung on a wall. A young girl glides past, carrying a huge pile of firewood on her head. The children hanging around happily accept to be photographed and, quite unusually for the developing world, without instantly stretching out their hands for money.

A graceful barefooted young woman, smiling shyly, poses for me, her two tight braids sticking right out of her head like horns. Another walks past, two semi-naked toddlers in tow, and beams a very natural smilMendinge at me. All are obviously used to visitors and only spare a glance before getting on with their day.

Indeed the compound is fully part of the village's day to day life: a museum it may be, but a living one. “We wish to develop ourselves in an intelligent way, preserving our traditional architecture and bringing in cultural tourism,” says Bernard, who is a leading member of the local development association. He is a step ahead of many of his fellow countrymen, who nurture illusions about finding well-paid jobs in France and returning with buckets of money.

Then we stroll towards the open-air market, grateful for the shade of the acacias and mango trees, as the temperature climbs to its noon high of 40°C. The vendors are nearly all women, clad in colorful wraparound “pagnes”, another cloth tied around their heads.

They sit on rocks or logs, their wares in plastic basins at their feet. Purplish nuts, fried millet cakes, bunches of alien leaves, little bags of white powders or black grains...hardly any of the exotic foodstuff looks familiar. But nobody begs or tries to sell me anything! A very welcome change from Ouagadougou, where flocks of street hawkers followed me ceaselessly, thrusting pirate DVDs or Touareg jewelry in my face, just shouting lower and lower prices as I repeated that I was not interested.

Before leaving, we sit down in a makeshift café for a drink. At the next table, men lounging on plastic garden-chairs are sipping beers. Youths are chatting in the street, leaning on bicycles. A tiny child is driving a donkey-cart. It is just another day in a small village in the heart of West Africa, life at its simplest. 

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