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Burkina Faso

First-ever woman chief appointed in Burkina Faso

© UNICEF Burkina Faso/2007
Issouka women celebrate the appointment of Burkina Faso’s first woman chief, Léontine Kaboré (front), now known as Napoaka Ziiri.

By Rita Ann Wallace

For International Women’s Day, here is the story of a woman who has broken traditional barriers with the support of a UNICEF staff member in Burkina Faso.

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso, 8 March 2007 – The Naaba Saaga, traditional chief of Issouka, Burkina Faso, sat under a canopy, holding his cane of office and wearing the red ‘bonnet’ that symbolizes his chiefdom. He was dressed in elaborate ceremonial robes, the same as the ones worn before him by his father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

In front of him was a line of men, prostrate in the dust. Each took the traditional steps: the dance, the bow, the question and answer, the gift of the symbols of office. Each in turn became a chief in his own right and part of the Naaba’s court.

Then, from a group of waiting women, emerged the last candidate. She walked deliberately and with dignity and began the ritual, just as the men had done. Léontine Kabore, the mother of 5 and grandmother of 11, was about to become Burkina Faso’s first female chief.

She approached the Naaba, who asked one question four times: “Are you able to take on the full responsibility of a chief?”

“I am able,” she answered, each time with increasing confidence. The Naaba gave his nod of approval and accorded her the symbols of office, and Léontine Kabore became Napoaka Ziiri – chief.

© UNICEF Burkina Faso/2007
Napoaka Ziiri (at left) with other newly created chiefs and traditional chief Naaba Saaga (third from left), who is also a UNICEF staff member.

Empowering women through land

Applause and laughter rang out from the women waiting at the edge of the clearing. They surrounded her and lifted her high in a dance of glee.

Speaking afterwards to the gathered crowd, Napaoka Ziiri was clear about her mission. “I am going dedicate the rest of my life to fighting for the well-being of the women of Issouka in particular, and the women of Burkina generally,” she announced.

Issouka is a region of 35,000 people that lies 100 km west of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. Napoaka Ziiri is in charge of one district of almost 5,000 people, three-fourths of whom are women.

She will have the power to judge cases, settle disputes and, most important, grant land use to the people under her rule. This is especially important in a country where most people earn a living by farming.

“If the women don’t have land, they don’t have power. But now with the new chief in my area, they can get power,” said the Naaba Saaga.

Why not a female chief?

The news of Napoaka Ziiri’s appointment spread like lightning across the country. A female chief? Impossible! How did this happen?

The answer rested with the man sitting in the chief’s throne. In his ‘day job’, he was none other than Modeste Yaméogo, Press Officer for UNICEF Ouagadougou.

Mr. Yaméogo took up the mantle of the Naaba three years ago, the last in an ancient line. But he had new ideas about women. “The minute I became Naaba, I knew that this was the chance to do something about the status of women in Burkina. But it was very difficult,” he recalled.

At first the men of his court were against it. They said women talked too much, didn’t know how to keep secrets and were too emotional. The men feared they wouldn’t be neutral or objective in passing judgment. And most of all, the men argued, this is not the tradition.

“It took two years to negotiate,” Mr. Yaméogo said, laughing at the memory. “It was a challenge, but if I don’t break the tradition, who could? In the end, I just did it. After all” – the laugh turned mischievous – “I am the Naaba!”

And so, an important battle in the long war for the rights of women was won in this corner of Burkina Faso. Mr. Yaméogo is unrepentant about his actions: “How could I, Modeste from UNICEF, have done anything less?”




7 March 2007:
Traditional chief and UNICEF Press Officer Modeste Yaméogo talks about his decision to appoint the first woman chief to his council in Issouka, Burkina Faso.
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