Answering Ms Paquette’s 1st-Graders: Clothes in Africa

Hi everyone, sorry I didn’t post a blog entry during the week like I said I would try to do. With only two weeks left, there is a lot to do, and I’m behind on a lot of my things. So, this post follows on the last two, answering Ms Paquette’s 1st-graders. This time, they discussed clothes and came up with a bonus question! With some major things to finish up this evening, I don’t have as many pictures as usual, but I’ll give it a stab.


Do people wear sandals in Africa? – Sasha

Hi Sasha! Thanks for your question. Not only do people wear sandals, but they are the norm! In Canada, you won’t always get away with wearing sandals in class, nor can you show up to most workplaces with sandals. In Burkina though, most people are wearing sandals all the time! When in a classier setting, you certainly shouldn’t wear flip flops, but a nice sandal is not a problem at all. There are some exceptions though.

At the university where I’m working right now, students are almost always wearing sandals. However, a lot of those working (directors, teachers, and me) usually wear closed, formal dress shoes, as you would in an office in Canada. I probably could go with sandals myself, but I’m not personally a huge fan of them anyway, though that makes me a minority among people who work with Engineers Without Borders (EWB). One problem with shoes here, though, is that it is so dusty that they get really really dirty really really fast! There’s a lot of kids who make some money by shining shoes, but if you’re outside, it will only last you about 30 minutes.

I could have cleaned this 20 minutes ago and you couldn't tell the difference.

I could have cleaned this 20 minutes ago and you wouldn't be able to tell the difference.

How do people sew in Africa? – Jacob and Vanessa

Hi Jacob and Vanessa, that’s a really good question! I don’t think I can give you the whole answer but I’ll tell you what I know.

For one thing, there are less clothes here that are made ready-to-wear. They definitely exist, but if you want something a bit more special, then you need to get it made, and people probably get almost half of their clothes made here. First, you buy a ‘pagne’, which is a bit like a multi-purpose sheet, but is most often made into clothes. Then you take it to the tailor and tell her what you want: a shirt, pants, a dress, etc. So far, I’ve had two shirts made, and have a few ‘pagnes’ still waiting to be transformed in my room, so I only personally know one tailor. She had a sowing machine and I’m guessing most people who sew for a living also have a machine.

In the villages, I’m not sure exactly what is done, but they certainly do not have any sowing machines. There’s definitely some sowing that is done by hand, but I’ll have to investigate a bit more. I can tell you one thing: my friend Matthieu Bister, another EWB volunteer, has some stories about people not letting him do his own (by-hand) sowing in his village. In his case, it was repairing his clothing which was an issue, not brand new clothes, but I’m guessing we can extrapolate.

In any case, if I can come by to see you in January, I’ll bring you some of the clothes I had made!

Do people wear hats like we do in Africa? – Jeremy

Hi Jeremy! I wish I had some pictures of hats with me right now to show you. Some hats are the same, but a lot are different than what is typically worn in Canada. On the other hand, people really kind of wear all sorts of different hats even in Canada, so there’s a chance you’ve seen some that would be very similar.

As a general rule, hats here are not worn for fashion, but for their original purpose: protecting your head and face from the sun. That means you can find a lot of straw hats (probably what you might picture as the typical farmer hat), but lots of others too. Some would be considered pretty odd in Canada; the one I’m thinking of right now is conical, fairly high and has lots of designs on it. The main thing though, is that it protects from the sun. I’ll see if I can find a picture soon!

What do people wear every day? – Casey

Hello Casey, thanks for your question! The clothes people wear here aren’t that different than those we have in Canada for the most part, but you’ll still regularly see things that would be really weird if someone wore it to school or to work at home!

My friend, Tasré Bouda, with his wife and her friend, on a Friday.

My friend and co-worker, Tasré Bouda, with his wife and her friend, on a Friday.

One difference is color and designs. Clothes tend to have a lot more of them here! Whenever you look around a group of people, many of them will be wearing shirts or dresses that mix a lot of different lively colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, … instead of just having one like is often the case in Canada. They’ll also have all sort of different motifs: flowers, animals – I almost bought a brown ‘pagne’ with belts on it, and an orange one with porcupines!

Another thing you’ll notice is that, on Fridays, Muslims dress up for prayer at the Mosque. ‘Dressing up’ usually means wearing a long, shapeless, one-piece that goes over your head. If you saw people dressed with that on the street in Montreal it might be a bit strange, but here it just means it’s Friday!

Bonus question: What languages do they speak in Burkina Faso? – Lea and Juliana

Hi Lea and Juliana, thanks for your bonus question! The short answer is: lots!! Every different ethnicity has their own cultural language and there are a lot of ethnicities. However, the main language, in principle, is French. That’s because, in the cities and in the workplace, the language that everyone can understand is French.

However, most of the population here (80%) is rural. Once you get into the villages, you might find that the amount of French spoken drops drastically. Instead, people speak only their cultural language. Among these, the most spoken are Moore, Dioulla, Bobo, Fulani, Nuni, and lots more.

In Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso and where I spent most of the first half of my placement, Moore dominates, and I picked up a few words (my spelling is way off, but this is more or less what they sound like phonetically):

Ne ibeogo – Good morning

Ka nana yé – It’s not easy (C’est pas facile)

Ya soma – It’s good!

and a bunch more, but not that much (it’s really difficult! – at least for me)

Where I am now, Bobo-Dioulasso, the 2nd biggest city in the country, the most popular language is Dioulla, but I, unfortunately, haven’t done a very good job of learning any of it.

There is a debate as to whether Dioulla or Moore is the most spoken language after French in the country, but officially it’s Moore that is the 2nd language of the country. The debate rages on!


That’s all for this week! I’d say I’ll post again during the week, but I don’t think I’ll be able to fulfill that commitment, even though there are quite a few things I’d like to talk about. Is there anything in particular people would really like to hear about?

Thanks for reading and talk to you soon!


p.s. Following last week’s new tradition:

Happy Birthday Jeff!

Bonne fête Ed!


About dbgiacobbi

I am a volunteer with Engineers Without Borders Canada, spending 10 months in Burkina Faso. I work with an agricultural college (Centre Agricole Polyvalent de Matourkou) and a rural development engineering school (l'Institut du Développement Rural). My idea of development is helping people in Burkina Faso Achieve their potential follow their own vision for themselves, for their school and for their country.
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