Here’s some recent news from Burkina Faso, as reported in a Minnesota newspaper: “A Burkina Faso military tribunal has charged the country’s former president with complicity in the murder of his predecessor…” blah, blah, blah, and so on and so forth.

Burkina Faso? I take some amount of pride in being fairly good at geography after a rough start in college, but, I’m sorry, Burkina Faso has escaped me. When I first saw it mentioned I mistakenly read it as Burkina Fatso and I thought it might be the name of a sumo wrestler.

Glancing around the world, I know Sri Lanka used to be Ceylon. I know Myanmar was Burma and that one of its major cities is Mandalay, where the flying fishes play, and the sun comes up like thunder out of China cross the bay. (Thank you Rudyard Kipling.) I know that Bangladesh used to be East Pakistan. I know that Mumbai, India, used to be Bombay.

And how confusing is it that St. Petersburg became Leningrad before becoming St. Petersburg again and moving to Florida? Well, not quite.

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Google Maps

I’m not so hot at keeping up with changes in the names of countries on the African continent because it seems like they change quite often. Whatever happened to the Gold Coast? It’s Ghana with the wind.

Geography can be difficult. It’s a big planet. I was a kid when the Korean War broke out and I had never even heard of Korea at that time. Certainly heard a lot about it later.

Which brings us back to Burkina Faso. I Googled it and, lo and behold, no wonder I didn’t recognize it. It used to be called Upper Volta, not that I knew anything much about Upper Volta, but at least I’d heard of it. Isn’t that where they’re going to produce electric cars? If not, it should be.

Turns out Burkina Faso is located in interior Africa, landlocked, but its neighbor is the Ivory Coast. Well that’s more like it. Maybe you remember when the Ivory Coast was known as the Kong Empire (thank you Google), although to do so you’d have to be like 150 years old. Funny how “Kong” keeps coming up in our lives — Hong, King, Donkey.

No wonder I got such a slow start in geography. Actually, what happened was I thought I knew quite a bit about geography when I signed up for a course called Geography 1 (same as anything 101) in college. Already being a geography expert, based on 18 years of life experience, being told where Korea was at age 10 and osmosis, I figured I wouldn’t have to study and I would “ace” the course. “Ace” is the college term for receiving an “A” grade. It is also a good name for a man you once knew, run into again, but can’t think of his real name. Endears you.

Flag of Burkina Faso (CIA World Factbook / cia.gov)
Flag of Burkina Faso (CIA World Factbook / cia.gov)

Meanwhile, back in college Geography 1, I get back the result of the first test: “F” is a grade everyone knows means abject failure. Whew. I was shocked. Turns out the professor didn’t like it when I used my own descriptions of places and other stuff instead of those in the book, which I hadn’t read and probably didn’t even buy for $18 a pop.

I did so poorly that I was called out for incorrectly defining “latitude” and “longitude.” Who knew they were part of geography? Of course I sort of knew what latitude and longitude were. Everybody does.

I once rode through Greenwich, England, where longitude starts, at a high rate of speed and didn’t see a single longitude. But that was long after I did so poorly in Geography 1 in college. I should have stopped to eat in Greenwich and ordered a prime meridian steak.

All of this is a long way from Burkina Faso, I know, but it shows how important geography is in the modern world.

Lest the good people of Burkina Faso take umbrage at this light-hearted commentary, let me point out that we have some strange names, too. I’ll give only glancing mention of the neighboring western Minnesota towns of Climax and Fertile, which are fraught with innuendo. I will point out that historical — or even hysterical — research shows that Climax is named after a chewing tobacco, like Copenhagen.

Then there’s Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, which was named Hot Springs before adopting the name of a popular radio program, research (guess where?) shows. Talk about fraught with innuendo.

So as the sun sets gaily in the west, we say goodbye to beautiful landlocked Burkina Faso, a small country with a strange name whose signal accomplishment is that it is not fraught with innuendo … as far as we know.

Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at jimheffernan.org and can be reached by e-mail at jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org.