Children's author living on the edge of the Sahara Desert

UK expat Stephen lives with his wife in Djibo, Burkina Faso, so close to the alluring yet forbidding Sahara Desert. This young author of children's literature describes the joys and challenges of living in that part of Africa, and his admiration for the Fulani people, their language, and their culture. He also shares with us some tips on adjusting to the local customs.
Stephen Davies - children's author
Stephen Davies

Where were you born?

I was born in Worcester, a small city in England.

-In which country and city are you living now?

I'm now living in Djibo (population 20,000) in the far north of Burkina Faso (formerly known as Upper Volta) in West Africa.

-Are you living alone or with your family?

I live with my wife, Charlie.

Charlie dancing at a wedding in Burkina Faso

-How long have you been living in Burkina Faso?

Since 2001 - and Charlie joined me here in late 2007.

-What is your age?


-When did you come up with the idea of living in Burkina Faso?

I read a book about the Fulani (Peul) people of Burkina Faso, and was completely captivated. I find nomadic peoples fascinating, but the Fulani are something else. Proud, witty, long-suffering and wonderful to know. Fulfulde (the language of the Fulani) is the most naturally poetic language I have ever encountered.

-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?

Not at all. My visa says 'Missionary' because I work with local churches here.

But I have never heard of anyone having trouble being admitted - just hand over your 25,000 CFA (about US $45) and you're in!

-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?

Not at all. I am currently using SALT insurance in the UK. It is a very friendly, personal service, and less costly than some of the other options out there.

-How do you make your living in Burkina Faso? Do you have any type of income generated?

I make my living in two ways. As a missionary, my wife and I are supported by our sending church back home in London. This covers about half of our expenses here. There's lots of articles about our missionary work in this section of the blog.

The other half is covered by my work as a writer. I write freelance articles for the Guardian Weekly and the Sunday Times in England, and also children's novels which are published by Andersen Press in London. Getting published (whether travel writing or fiction) is usually a difficult process.

But if you are serious about your craft then it is very possible. And living overseas as an expat means that you are ideally placed to write about the culture you find yourself in. Write about what you know.

-Do you speak the local language and do you think it's important to speak the local language?

I speak French and Fulfulde (the language of the Fulani people).

I cannot overestimate the importance of learning the language(s), whatever your line of work. It stops you being treated like an ignorant tourist, and plugs you into meaningful relationships. But don't be intimidated by the language, even if you don't find language-learning easy. A little goes a very long way. Learn what you can, and use what you know.

My wife found it very difficult living in Burkina Faso when she first arrived here. The more language she gets under her belt, the more satisfying and managable her life is getting.

I've written extensively about Fulfulde language in this section of my blog.

-Do you miss home and family sometimes?

I miss English pubs and chess clubs and jazz nights and writers' groups. There are also a few material things I miss; I wrote an article about the things we really appreciate being sent from home - you can read it here.

And yes, of course I miss family and friends, but in this age of Facebook and Skype, they're closer now than they used to be!

-Do you have other plans for the future?

We intend to stay here for the time being. If we have children, we might reassess, but lots of expat families here assure us that Burkina is a wonderful place to bring up a child.

Friendly, safe-ish, and lots of outdoor living!

With a camel in Burkina Faso

-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?

Renting a home in Djibo. It has electricity but no running water. 2 bedrooms, kitchen, living room. 28,000 CFA a month ($65!!!)

-What is the cost of living in Burkina Faso?

It's whatever you make it. If you eat local food and live simply, a couple can survive on $200. We tend to get through about double that, but we have a horse and cats and chickens and a couple workers.

-What do you think about the locals?

The locals are friendly. The Fulani families in our immediate neighbourhood have welcomed us, and often drop by to greet us. Knowing the language means that we can count many of these people our friends.

It's very hard during periods of near-famine (or 'low food-security' as the PC brigade would have it) - we help people as much as we can but it is never enough and we sometimes feel under immense pressure. The 'hungry season' in Burkina Faso is April - July, the period when last year's food has run out and this year's harvest has not yet come in.

-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Burkina Faso?

Burkina has a reputation in West Africa for its easy-going friendliness.

Inevitably, life is sometimes frustrating - bureaucracy is a nightmare, and it is often complicated by corruption. Rampant injustice and exploitation of the poor are evident wherever you look.

Grain distribution for refugees

It's one of the hardest places in the world to start a business, or even a non-profit enterprise. Here's an article I wrote about the failure of my efforts to start a community radio station in Burkina Faso.

-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Burkina Faso?

  • Never eat with your left hand.
  • Never eat in public without inviting those around you to partake as well (this invitation is rarely accepted but it is very bad form not to do it).
  • Take time to learn local language(s), even if only the greetings and basic phrases.
  • Dress modestly, so as not to cause offense. For men, this means shorts are out. For women, it means no short skirts or tight outfits (although attitudes in the capital city are liberalizing...)

-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Burkina Faso?

May I plug my books?! I write children's adventure stories set on the edge of the Sahara desert, the region where I live. My author site,, has details of all my books, as well as extracts, reviews, and so on.

I also write a regular blog, as you'll already have gathered!

Being-kind of-sort of your counterpart in Liberia

mujattia38's picture

"On Dyramma" SahelSteve- Much kudos to you in living for and where your passion lies. I too am fascinated with the Fulani culture for which from Liberia (where I post up most times in West Africa) to Sierra Leone to Guinea I am wholly embraced by these very spiritual people who have an interesting history in Africa. Their looks looks are highly exotic but who live rather simple with religon and family at the nucleus of their lives. I think all of this is a rarity in the ever changing and materialistic world and a continent filled with poverty and strife. I shall look you up when in Burkina Faso as it was on my agenda- having traveled to several locations in West Africa in which of course the nomadic Fulani people are there to welcome me with open arms. Perhaps we might be able to square off in a game of chess which is not so popular in West Africa as is football. Please drop a line. Best Regards