Lost Arts, Not Lost in Burkina

When was the last time you had your shoes shined while you waited for lunch? How many custom made shirts do you own? Have you even ever had something tailored? Have a butcher? Blacksmith? Leatherworker? Unless you are trapped in a parallel dimension of the 1950’s or have taken the Madmen fan-thing too far, the answer is no. These services, I consider to be arts, arts quickly disappearing in the US. A ‘lack’ of development has allowed these services to not only exist but be essential to Burkina Faso.


I recently bought a traditional Burkina knife. Not only did I buy it, but I had the opportunity to sit down with the blacksmith and watch him craft the knife from start to finish. He turned a piece of scrap metal into blade with little effort. Made a handle for the knife from a tree branch. He had built his tools, crude but functional. Where had my blacksmith learned his trade? His father. I visited his father’s shop and home, located no more than fifteen feet away. The father inspected his son’s work and approved, then insisted that I now needed to have a sheath made.

Working LeatherThe leatherworker was very good-natured when I met him. I had planned to leave my newly crafted knife with him and pick it up in a few days. He insisted that he start right away and that I could wait and watch him make the sheath. I think my large camera tipped him off that I would be interested in doing so. Leather, sourced from local tanners, along with thread and dye was swiftly constructed into a sheath. It seemed as if he was not working from practice but program. Twice that day I had watched a master craftsman at work. These where two people just taking part in a days work, not taking part in a hobby. Not found in an artisan village but an ever-so-normal Burkina village.

Making a ShirtBurkina Faso is filled with service workers filling the niche Wal-Mart has taken over for us. I was talking with my tailor one day over tea and we were discussing the prices he charged for his work. How much does he charge me for a custom shirt? Two thousand CFA, or $4. This doesn’t actually scale properly, since for that amount of money he could feed himself for a few days, but can you buy a white cotton t-shirt for $4 in the US? He is able to produce a shirt that fits lack a glove, sleeves the perfect length, in just a day’s time. He doesn’t use sewing patterns, but rather goes by what either he imagines or I explain.

I will be taking more than souvenirs home with me with I return. I hope to bring back an augmented appreciation of craftsmanship. Seek out local made goods. Get to know the few remaining community butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers. Or maybe just candles, since I think candlesticks have fallen out of favor in the recent centaury.