How Burkina Faso’s different religions live in peace

The Archbishop of Ouagadougou wishes a traditional chief a happy Eid. PHOTO: AFP

THE Pope has invited Burkina Faso’s president to the Vatican later this month to see what can be learnt from the West African nation’s example of religious tolerance. BBC Africa’s Lamine Konkobo is from Burkina Faso and assesses if this can continue in a region under assault from Islamist militant groups.
Religious tolerance has long been wired into the social fabric of my country, with many people drawing their faith from more than a single creed.
The Islam practised by many Burkinabe Muslims – who account for about 60% of the population – would be considered blasphemous by Salafists, as they include many animist practices.
My own father was not born a Muslim. He converted to Islam in the 1970s as a result of his business dealings with El Haj Omar Kanazoe, a rich trader from the Yarse sub-ethnic group known for their affiliation to Islam.
While my father chose to become a Muslim, setting his children up to follow in his footsteps, the rest of his family remained animist and my father could not disown them for that.
In the neighbourhood where he chose to set up his household, he was under the tutorship of his maternal uncle, a patriarch named Yandga who was the custodian of the village’s fetishes.
Anywhere my father looked, even if his new co-religionists urged him to hate, he could not have done so without losing his soul.
Like many others across the country, he had to adapt to the dynamics of society around him by accepting that Islam was not the only way.
As children, we grew up with people with differing religious beliefs – playing together, being told off by each other’s parents, celebrating each other’s festivals, mourning each other’s deaths, with humanity as the overriding connector common to all.
And what is true for my family is also true for millions of others across Burkina Faso. Indeed, religious tolerance has prevailed with sun-rising certainty that we hardly ever pause to consider it.
It is not something that was ever taught. It is an instinctive survival mechanism that occurs naturally among a people so socially interconnected as to leave no chance for religion to play a divisive role.
About a quarter of the population is Christian – again with many using animist rites alongside Christian forms of worship.
In terms of identity, most people feel stronger ties to their extended family and ethnic group, than their religion.
However, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a report released last month that it was concerned that this long tradition of tolerance is now being dangerously tested – in two different ways:
    Would the peaceful co-existence survive if the country were to experience another attack by Islamist militants such as the one carried out in January by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb?
    Could the growing frustration of the Muslim community over their under-representation within sectors of the public administration lead to a dangerous radicalisation?
Clearly, these two questions do raise serious cause for concern.
On the danger of external influences such as in the case of random massacres by foreign jihadists, the example of neighbouring Mali serves as a worrying precedent.
Apart from the Tuareg issue in the north, which is more ethnic than religious, Mali had long been known for its religious harmony in much the same way as Burkina Faso.