Politics Meets Fashion in Burkina Faso’s New Nationalism
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because revolutions can take different colors … and designs.
When former rapper Gilbert “Bill” Kiendrebeogo launched a clothing brand in August 2014, he wanted it to represent the aspirations of Burkina Faso, his landlocked West African nation. The dictator Blaise Compaoré had ruled the nation for 27 years and would soon try to push a constitutional amendment allowing him to extend his rule.
As thousands of young protesters poured onto the streets of Burkina Faso’s cities that October demanding Compaoré’s removal, many of them wore Bill’s brand of T-shirts, named Burkindi — which means upright in the indigenous Mooré language. Compaoré fled to Cote d’Ivoire, his regime finally dead, but a new revolution was just taking birth.
Burkindi is part of a wave of clothing brands, designs and forms of ethnic wear that are emerging as the most visible signs of a resurgent national pride after years of a sham democracy that allowed Compaoré to return to power virtually unopposed. The Faso dan fani — the loose cotton dress that is traditional in this country — is back in fashion, but it isn’t alone in riding on this sentiment of pride. Designer Sebastien Basémo is popularizing traditionally dyed clothes in the country’s economic capital of Bobo-Dioulasso. Clothes from his brand Kôkô Donda are now worn by President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré and the first lady. Burkinabé designer François Yaméogo, who set up the Francois 1ér —François the First — brand in France, is now producing organic cotton back in Burkina Faso.
This trend is a visual expression of the rebirth of our democracy.
Yamba Bidima, sociologist, University of Ouagadougou
Make no mistake: This isn’t just a fashion fad. It’s an intensely political statement of pride, which, at the moment, the government is supporting. In November 2017, it announced the Faso dan fani as mandatory dress code for official state ceremonies. It is also working with private investors to revive a factory that used to manufacture Faso dan fani garments, but that closed down in 2001. But it’s on the streets and in design studios that this support for clothing meant to evoke national pride is organically exploding.
“We became proudly Burkinabé in 1983, and this pride is back. Under Campaoré’s rule, we lost this feeling,” says Kiendrebeogo.
Across Africa, political transitions of the kind Burkina Faso witnessed in 2014 aren’t new. Mostly, though, they’ve quickly descended into civil war or ended in a military takeover. But three years after it embraced democracy, the country the size of Colorado has avoided those traps. Instead, the growing demand for traditional Burkinabé wear suggests the desire to build on a national identity and link it with pride is still on the rise. “This trend is a visual expression of the rebirth of our democracy,” says Yamba Bidima, head of the sociology department at the University of Ouagadougou.
But this trend is also building on a historical context closely linked to the country’s modern identity. The popular former Marxist leader Thomas Sankara, who ruled from 1983 until his assassination in 1987, promoted the Faso dan fani — which translates into “Made in Burkina Faso.” It was under Sankara that the country changed its name from Upper Volta — a hand-me-down identity from its former French rulers — to Burkina Faso. While Sankara famously wore the country’s traditional costume internationally, including to the African Union’s Congress in Addis Ababa in 1987, Compaoré, who deposed him in a coup, was mostly seen publicly in Western suits.
There’s also an economic motivation pushing this trend. The argument: The country ought to try to reduce its dependence on garments dumped by the West or China and instead manufacture clothes for its own people. And Burkina Faso is best placed to manufacture its traditional wear — for the 21st century.
It’s that growing match between aspirations of the youth and the country’s traditions that is encouraging much of the experimentation in Burkina Faso’s garment industry. Basémo wasn’t sure his attempt at popularizing traditional dyed wear through Kôkô Donda would work. But he sold hundreds of designs at his first show in April 2016. He knows he is part of a unique moment in the country’s journey. “I had a feeling that people were keen to find a new symbol of their pride and identity,” Basémo says.
Yaméogo too sees himself as a bridge between Burkina Faso and the world. His cloth is made fully in Burkina Faso, but his designs carry the imprints of his stint in France. “I am the gateway between two worlds: Burkinabé tradition and the West,” he says.
The country’s economic reality means it won’t be easy for clothes produced by these designers to truly percolate down to every citizen. For one, production capacities are limited — Burkindi’s sportswear is at the moment made in China, though Bill wants to set up a local production unit. Mass-produced Western wear is also still cheaper than a traditional Faso Dan Fani garment — which can cost between $60 and $120 in a country where daily per capita income is $2.
But as demand is going up, costs of traditional wear are coming down. And the sentiment driving that demand is still fresh for a generation of Burkinabé youth that is only now seeing what it means to live in a democratic country they can take pride in. “It’s an expression of belonging to one nation: Burkina Faso,” says Bidima.