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Spreading religious tolerance in Burkina Faso

March 29, 2018

Burkina Faso in West Africa is well known for its religious and cultural tolerance. But several large-scale extremist attacks in the region are putting this to the test. One man is using theater to fight back.

A Muslim man walks past a mural of Jesus Christ
Image: AP

In early March, for a third time, the capital Ouagadougou was the scene of a large-scale attack — this time against the army's headquarters and the French embassy. At first it wasn't immediately clear who was behind it, until the Malian militant group, Jama Nusrat Ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), sent out a message claiming it carried out the attack.

As religion once again took center stage of the public debate surrounding terrorism, this got storyteller Francois Moise Bamba thinking about religious tolerance in the region.

Bamba grew up listening to the stories his father told him. Their home was in Bobo-Dioulasso, the second largest city in Burkina Faso and a place which is known for its tolerance. The name reflects two of the major ethnic groups found in the population: the Bobo and the Dioula.

An explosion after a terrorist attack in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
A spate of extremist attacks in Burkina Faso has shaken some people's belief in the strength of religious tolerance in the culturally diverse countryImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Ouoba

When Bamba was young, it was normal for children to visit each others' place of worship. On religious festive days, Catholic children would visit the local mosque and Muslim children would go to church. This inspired the title of his latest theater production: No One has a Monopoly on God.

"It's a title which provokes questions," Bamba told DW, "Because there are those who monopolize God, and those who want to impose their view as if it were the only truth. Here in Burkina Faso, we still have the intelligence to allow different religious groups to co-exist. You can find people of different faiths in the same family, for instance."

Read more: Is Islamic extremism on the rise in Africa?

Testing the limits of tolerance

But with the attack on the army base — as well as the ones which preceded it — the limits of religious tolerance in Burkina Faso are being tested. In the sparsely populated and neglected northern and eastern regions of the country, the intensity and frequency of the attacks are increasing. However, Bamba does not think religious extremists are winning this battle — but it is a sign of a deeper issue of intolerance.

"No, I don't think that they are gaining territory, but I do believe that we are being deliberately targeted," he told DW, "They no longer fear death, which is why they do what they do. Our weakness is that we want to live. But we also must be prepared to die if we want to preserve what we have."

A performance with a message

Religious tolerance and the will to live are the core messages of Bamba's production, combined with humor and music played on traditional musical instruments like the kora or the balafon. Despite the show's theme, Bamba doesn't seem too concerned that he may become a target himself.

"Someone recently asked me whether I was afraid that they would target me because of the show," he told DW, "I said 'No'. I cannot be afraid because I know I'm already a target. We all are. They kill people in restaurants, in churches, in mosques and in theaters."

Bamba believes only a return to the core principals of religion will stop this wave of fanaticism. He plans to keep his show running for as long as necessary to get across his message of tolerance.

Deadly attacks in Burkina Faso

Bram Posthumus, DW-correspondent in Francophone West Africa
Bram Posthumus Bram is an independent journalist who has been covering the African continent since 1992.@brampostdakar