Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso – It happened more than 20 years ago, but Inoussa Bouda remembers it as if it happened yesterday.
Waiting at a bus station on his way to his grandparents, he saw a beautiful woman cross the road.
“I was thinking, ‘I don’t know which bus she’s taking, but even if she’s going to the other side of the country, I don’t care – I’m taking the bus with her.'”
Bouda was delighted to find out that the woman was taking the same route as him. The two started talking and the conversation sparked a relationship. Nine years after first meeting on September 29, 1998, in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, they got married.
“At the beginning, our families were against the marriage, but when they realised how much we loved each other they gave up,” Bouda said, smiling.
The 45-year-old entrepreneur, a Muslim, and his wife Alida, a Christian, are an interfaith couple, which according to Burkina Faso’s census, make up approximately 10.4 percent of all married couples in the country. Their three children all have a Christian and a Muslim first name and attend both mosque and church with their parents.
“I see the girls getting up on Sundays and getting ready to go to church, but our boy is still sleeping,” Alida Bouda says, sitting by her husband.
“When his father goes to the mosque he always gets ready on time. It makes me think he’s going to be a Muslim.”
Burkina Faso has made headlines in recent months for a rapidly deteriorating conflict between government forces and fighters linked to banditry and armed groups, including Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM).
Last year, almost 2,200 people died as a result of the violence that has plagued the wider Sahel region. Many areas of the largely semi-arid belt land that have seen the most fighting are severely underdeveloped. Armed groups are exploiting poverty as well as religious and ethnic divisions to recruit fighters and stoke more violence.
The conflict has been defined in part by attacks on places of worship and armed groups attempting to divide the country along religious lines. This week, at least 24 people were killed in an attack on a church in a village in Burkina Faso’s northern Yagha province.
Although Burkina Faso is a Muslim-majority country (61.5 percent), its ruling class is largely Christian, which has led to a sense of disenfranchisement among some Muslims. But the West African country has historically been a bastion of religious and ethnic tolerance in the region. Interfaith marriages are relatively common and it is unusual for extended families not to include followers of both Islam and Christianity.
In the face of rising religious and ethnic tensions, some religious leaders are helping to uphold Burkina Faso’s values of multiculturalism and tolerance by supporting interfaith couples such as the Boudas.
Among them are Bourima Drabo, an imam in Ouagadougou, and Joseph Clochard, a priest within the Missionaries of Africa, a Catholic organisation of about 1,200 clerics spread across the continent.
They support Muslim and Christian marriages by organising workshops on the last Saturday of every month where interfaith couples discuss the problems that can arise as a result of their different faiths – from the choice of a child’s name and their education to difficulties surrounding the attendance of religious ceremonies and events.
“The meetings started in ‘neutral’ places, like the central town hall of Ouagadougou, but given the administrative difficulties, in the end, we opted for a room in the cathedral which is central and well known,” said Clouchard, adding that they have so far worked with more than 500 couples through the programme.
When asked about what the initiative meant for the current security situation, Clouchard said: “The strengthening of the social fabric is at stake. These marriages are more and more numerous and can be a way to promote community and rapprochement.”
He added: “Together we can build a nation that can live in peace.”
Little research has been carried out into the effect interfaith marriage can have on defusing religious tensions on a societal level.
However, a 2016 report by the think-tank International Crisis Group on religious tensions in Burkina Faso said “everybody must play their part in promoting religious tolerance and publicise examples of peaceful coexistence, particularly in the media”.
“Many initiatives exist but they only have limited support and visibility,” it added. “The government should become more involved and international partners could offer to contribute.”
Drabo, the imam who often leads the workshops and gives marriage counselling to interfaith couples who attend his mosque, acknowledges that many Muslims do not think interfaith marriages should be allowed.
But he is quick to add that Burkina Faso “is a great example in the region of a place where people of different religions can be seen together” living peacefully.
“The terrorists tried first to divide us with ethnic conflict, for example between Mossi and Fulanis, but they didn’t succeed,” he said, referring to the rising tensions between the majority and politically dominant Mossi group and the 6 percent-minority Fulani group.
Right from the start, Muslim leaders distanced themselves from the attacks that began hitting Burkina Faso in 2016 and reminded everyone that Muslims and Christians have been living side by side for many years, Drabo added.
“We would never do this to our own brothers.”
As for the Boudas, they said their marriage was initially met with challenges unique to interfaith couples – but with the help of Drabo’s counselling, they rarely have problems any more.
“Nowadays, we often give each other advice and [our relationship] continues because we put dialogue above all,” Inoussa Bouda said. “It plays a very important role in life generally, not just in a marriage.
“Of course every human relationship has its problems … but by the grace of God, we will overcome them.”