Burkina Faso: Art and Culture

The Art of Burkina Faso

by Christopher D. Roy
University of Iowa

Ethnic map of Burkina FasoBurkina map

The Physical Environment: The peoples that are discussed in this study live in the West African country named Burkina Faso. Since independence from France in 1960 to 1983, the country was known as Upper Volta. Following the military revolution of August, 1983, an increasingly anti-French administration attempted to do away with all traces of neo-colonialism, including all French names. The name Burkina Faso, from Mooré and Jula root words meaning “the land of upright and honest men”, has replaced the original, geographically-based name. The citizens of Burkina Faso are called Burkinabé.

Burkina Faso is a landlocked country of about 274,200 square kilometers (about the size of the state of Colorado) just south of the great bend of the Niger River and 500 kilometers from the Bight of Benin. To the south along the coast are Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, and Benin (Dahomey). To the north and northwest lies Mali, and the eastern border is with Niger.

Burkina Faso is an enormous flat plain of red clay soils from 250 to 350 meters above sea-level, broken only by the valleys of the Volta Rivers, the Komoé, and small tributaries of the Bani and Niger Rivers. There are occasional spectacular outcroppings of rock, especially in the north, near Kongoussi and Tikaré, in the center near Boromo and Houndé, and in the west around Orodara. In the center of the country the Mossi Plateau, drained by the White Volta, reaches an altitude of 300 to 450 m. The Mossi Plateau rises, in steep bluffs, above the lower surrounding country. The river dissects the rest of the plain with deep valleys. The major rivers are the Komoé, which rises in the rocky escarpment between Banfora and Bobo-Dioulasso, and the Red, White, and Black Volta Rivers, all tributaries of a large system that drains most of the country. Of these, the Black Volta is the largest, and runs almost year-round. The White Volta is dry much of the year, especially north and west of Ouagadougou. The Red Volta is the shortest and the most intermittent of the three, joining the White Volta just south of the Ghana/Burkina. The Sankara government renamed the rivers Mouhoun (Black Volta), Nakanbé (White Volta), and Nazinon (Red Volta).

Burkina Faso spans three major climatic zones of the Western Sudan: north of a line from Ouahigouya to Dori the Sahel is characterized by very dry desert steppe, with low shrubs, many acacias and baobabs, much sand, and no permanent rivers. This area receives less than 700 millimeters of rain annually. The desertification of the region has been speeded up by the major droughts that began in 1970. South of the line from Ouahigouya to Dori is the “Northern Sudan” climate zone that receives from 1000 mm to 700 mm of annual rainfall. The area consists of open grasslands with scattered stands of shea nut or karité (Butyrospermum parkii), locust bean or néré (Parkia biglobosa), and West African mahogany (Kaya senegalensis), as well as occasional baobabs (Adansonia digitata) and kapok (Eriodendron anfranctuosum) trees. The southwestern quarter of the country is part of the Sudan/Guinean forested savanna area, with occasional thick forest cover and much denser undergrowth than is typical of central Burkina. Although the region receives as much as 1400 mm of rainfall each year, it only supports a population density of about 10 inhabitants per square kilometer.

Rainfall amounts vary considerably from year to year, and since the late 1950’s there has been a steady decrease in averages.

As is true throughout the Western Sudan, the annual cycle is marked by a short rainy season that (normally) begins in May and early June and ends in September. In northern areas the rainy season begins later each year. All agricultural activity except harvest is carried out during this period. As in all agricultural areas, including Iowa, farmers are too busy during the growing season to carry out any activities except cultivating. During the long dry season from November to late April, almost no rain falls, however there are occasional showers in April causing some trees to leaf out and marking the time to begin clearing the fields for planting. Once the harvests have been gathered, people are left with a lot of free time to repair equipment and homes, to weave or make pottery, and to stage the elaborate religious festivals and initiations in which masks play an important role. The period of mask activity begins in February among the Mossi, and later, in April among the Bwa and Bobo, and continues until planting time. This is also the hottest time of the year, when the daytime temperature often is over 40o C. (105o F.), and it is not much cooler at night. The landscape is desolate, with grey or red dust and dust-covered vegetation to the horizon. Families retreat to the shade of the family dwellings, and livestock huddle in the sparse shade of the few scorched trees. Dust devils dance across the fields, and as the water level of wells drops, women must walk miles for a muddy bucketful. With the first heavy and frequent rains in June, the landscape is transformed, as roads become lined with dense green walls of millet and sorghum stalks seeming to submerge villages in a sea of vegetation.

The major economic activities in Burkina are farming and herding. The major traditional crops are pearl millet and red or white sorghum. Maize or corn has been grown since its arrival from the New World, as have peanuts and tobacco. Rice is grown in large modern plantations north of Bobo-Dioulasso. Although the Volta Rivers have been important for the rich valley soils they produced, farming has been almost impossible until recently because of the high incidence of fly-borne onchocerciasis or river blindness. The major cash crop is cotton, important since before the colonial period when it was woven into cloth for trade with forest cultures to the south. The French have encouraged the growing of cotton to feed the textile mills near Bobo and Koudougou, often at the expense of food crops, disrupting traditional economic and social patterns. The major exports are fresh green-beans, peas, and mangoes to France.

The Sahel is the center of the livestock industry in Burkina. For a long time Burkina has been the major supplier of beef cattle and other livestock to the Ivory Coast and Ghana, where the tse-tse fly prevented livestock raising. This industry is now threatened by the establishment of livestock projects in northern Ivory Coast.

Although the area lacks significant mineral resources, the valley of the Black Volta River has been a source of gold for centuries. Deposits of manganese were discovered in the far northern Udalan area soon after independence, but foreign investors feel that the amounts are too low to justify the construction of a railway to export the mineral.

Human labor has been an important export that has fueled the economy of Ivory Coast. The railway from Abidjan to Bobo-Dioulasso and Ouagadougou was built to carry farmers idled by the dry season to the cocoa plantations and ports of the Ivory Coast.

Traditional subsistence economies, including hunting, gathering and fishing are still important for rural peoples, especially during the dry season. Women gather fruit and leaves of trees that grow in the bush, including wild raisin (Lannea oleosa), karité, and néré. In April and May all of the inhabitants of a community spend several days at nearby ponds harvesting fish with nets and large basketry traps. Each year during the dry season, great numbers of men hunt in the deep bush, forming large circles to drive game toward the center to be slaughtered.


Demography and Languages:

There are about sixty peoples in the region, of which about a dozen produce sculpture. The population (in 2013) is about 18,000,000. The major peoples in order of population are the Mossi, Fulani, Lobi, Bobo, Senufo and related peoples, gurunsi, Marka-Dafing, Bwa, Bisa, Samo, and Gurmantché.

Almost a third of the population is Mossi, who occupy the Mossi Plateau at the center of the country. The area supports a dense population, averaging from 20 to 50 inhabitants per square kilometer, but with some areas having up to 190 people/km2, in part because there are adequate soils and rainfall for subsistence farming, but also because the region is relatively free of diseases such as trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness). The Mossi number 4,000,000. Their major towns are Ouagadougou, Ouahigoya, Koudougou, and Kaya. The large Mossi group comprises several subgroups, including the nyonyosé descendants of ancient farmers, the nakomsé descendants of invaders, and Saya smiths.

The Fulani, or Peul, comprise 10% of the population, or about 700,000 people. They live primarily in the Sahel (north), but migrate southward with their herds during the dry season.

The Lobi are among the longest established peoples in the upper Volta valley. The Lobi and related Birifor, Gan, Dian, Dorhosié and others live astride the frontier with Ivory Coast and Ghana. There are a total of about 160,000 Lobi in Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Burkina. About 500,000 Lobi and related peoples live in Burkina. Their major towns are Gaoua and Kampti.

To the north of the Mossi are the Kurumba, who number about 780,000. Their principal towns are Titao, Djibo, and Arabinda. There are a few Dogon villages scattered over the dry plains of the northwest.

To the east are the Gurmantche, (about 350,000) who also live in neighboring Niger. Their major towns in Burkina are Fada N’Gourma, Bogandé, and Diapaga. The Gurmantche are descended from Jaba Lompo, a ruler who is said to have emigrated from northern Ghana at the time of the nakomsé invasion and established the kingdom of Fada N’Gurma, east of Koupéla, imposing himself as ruler over local farmers as the nakomsé did on the Mossi plateau. In contrast with the Mossi, the founding families of the Gurmantché political stratum have become so thoroughly integrated into local society that the ruler/subject hierarchy ceased to exist. I have seen no examples of Gurmantche sculpture, but research now underway may soon give us a better idea of what art forms they produce.

West and southwest of the Mossi are a number of peoples that are often called gurunsi; they call themselves Léla, Nunuma or Nuna, Winiama, Sisala, Nankana, and Kaséna. The total gurunsi population of Burkina is about 350,000. Boromo, Tenado, Pô, and Léo are their largest towns.

The Marka Dafing live northwest of the gurunsi around Dédougou, Nouna, Tougan, and Safané. Occupying a low brushy area between the Red and Black Volta, they number about 150,000. They are closely related to the Marka Soninké who live in Mali and number about 450,000.

West of the gurunsi live the Bwa who also extend into Mali. They number about 300,000, with 125,000 in Mali and 175,000 in Burkina Faso. Their major towns are Dédougou, Houndé, and Solenzo.

In the western quarter of Burkina Faso, Bwa and Bobo communities blend all the way from the region just west of Diébougou in the south, through Solenzo in the north into Mali north of Boura. The Bobo number about 470,000 and their major community is Bobo-Dioulasso (over 100,000), the second city of Burkina Faso and the old French colonial capital. Farther north are large towns including Fo and Kouka, with Boura in the extreme north in Mali.

The Bolô are the northwestern neighbors of the Bobo, with a population of 6 to 7,000. The largest town is Ndorola.

In the far southwest of Burkina live the Senufo and related peoples, including the Syemu and Tusyâ. Tusyâ population is about 22,000.

The Mandé-speaking Samo and Bissa live northwest and southeast of the Mossi. The Bisa number 350,000 and live around Garango and Zabré. The Samo live between the Marka and the Mossi, around Tougan.

The Yarsé, who have been heavily assimilated with the Mossi, and the Jula have specialized in trade throughout the basin of the Volta Rivers for centuries. Both live in many commercial centers, with the Yarsé concentrated on the Mossi Plateau, and the Jula in the southwest.

The areas occupied by these peoples have been only roughly indicated, because frontiers between them are open and frequently crossed by peoples and ideas. Many disparate peoples may live in the same village.

These peoples may be divided into two major language groups: Voltaic or Gur, and Mandé. The Voltaic speakers include most of the groups east of the Black Volta–Mossi, Dogon, Kurumba, Gurmantche, Bwa, Tusyan, and gurunsi. The Mandé speakers live west of the Black Volta and include the Bobo, Bolô, Jula, Dafing, Bisa, and Samo. The Mossi speak Mooré, a language that bears striking similarities with the languages of groups in northern Ghana. The gurunsi speak variations of a common language.

The most important “lingua franca” in the area west of the Mossi is Jula, the language of Moslem traders.

French continues to be the official language of government and education.


The history of the Basin of the Volta Rivers has been recorded in oral histories of local peoples, which were gathered by early visitors including Heinrich Barth, Leo Frobenius, and Louis Tauxier, as well as numerous colonial administrators and missionaries. There are sparse written descriptions in the Tarikh el-Fettach (16th century) and the Tarikh es-Sudan (17th century). More recently, Burkinabé scholars have collected and preserved oral histories of the many small, non-centralized groups that were ignored by early visitors. The history of the area is one of recurring conflict between peoples: on the one hand, people who have inhabited the region for many centuries, and who have preserved little or no trace of their emigration from some other area, and on the other hand, people whose oral histories tell of recent migration, penetrating regions of sparse population to subjugate the earlier settled farmers and to impose themselves as political rulers of large, centralized kingdoms or empires. The settled populations include both Voltaic and Mandé speakers, so it is an error to assume that one language family is associated with ancient inhabitants, and another with invaders.

Contemporary scholars agree that before 1500, the central basin of the Volta Rivers was inhabited by a number of small, essentially leaderless farmer groups that had occupied the land for centuries, but nevertheless were constantly making shifts and adjustments of location in the face of pressures from larger peoples all around them (e.g. the Mossi). These autochthonous peoples included the Kurumba and Dogon in the north, Nuna, Léla, Winiama, Kaséna, Sisala in the south, Bwa, Bobo, Lobi, and probably many Senufo-related peoples in the southwest and west.

Édouard Riou

Mossi horsemen led by the Emperor



The most dramatic event in the formation of the ethnic map we now recognize was the arrival of several groups of horsemen from the south, from the kingdoms of Dagomba, Gonja, and Mamprusi. This invasion may have taken place in the late 1400’s, or perhaps a century earlier. Displaced by lack of land, these younger sons rode into the basin of the Volta Rivers and conquered or expelled the relatively helpless farmers in the region, imposing themselves as rulers over a commoner population. The Mossi founded several kingdoms, of which the most important are the kingdoms of Ouagadougou and Yatenga. The king of the Mossi, called the Mogho Naba, has always lived in Ouagadougou.

The Mossi conquests, which depended on the force of light cavalry, were effectively limited by the boundaries of the Mossi plateau. Changes in climate and vegetation, resulting in the presence of trypanosomiasis, corresponded to these limits. Most of the Dogon population fled before the Mossi invasion and sought refuge in the Bandiagara cliffs, where Mossi horses could not follow. The Dogon who remained behind in the Mossi area were assimilated into Mossi society as nyonyosé.

In the east, a Mossi king was established at Fada N’Gurma, with control of the Gurmantché. However, over several centuries the Mossi political leaders became assimilated into Gurmantché culture and Fada N’Gurma ceased to be a Mossi state.

In the 15th century the area of the Mossi Plateau southwest of the White Volta was occupied by gurunsi, who were conquered and amalgamated into Mossi society. The gurunsi west of the plateau resisted conquest with varying success for centuries. Known as powerful magicians, the gurunsi used their powers to drive off Mossi cavalry. The Nuna planted poisoned thorns in the ground; the Mossi countered by wearing thick sandals. In addition, the presence of sleeping sickness killed the Mossi horses, forcing the invaders to retreat.

The conquered peoples and the invading horsemen were welded into a new society called Mossi, and spoke the language of the conquerors, Mooré. The descendants of the invaders, a group called Nakomsé (children of the nam, or right and power to rule), became chiefs, kings, and emperors, called Nanamsé (sing. Naba). The descendants of the subjugated peoples were called Tengabisi, “children of the earth”. The men who may have held some political power before the invasion became “earth-priests” responsible for the use of the land and the propitiation of the earth spirits.

Édouard Riou

Mossi cavalry capturing slaves



The invaders usually respected the cultural traditions of the conquered peoples, resulting in the survival of cultural idiosyncrasies within Mossi society.

Throughout this long period the southwestern area was considered a reservoir for slaves, and frequent raids bore gurunsi to the markets of Mali or the ports of the Guinea coast, whence they were sent to the Americas.

The Marka Dafing, moving from the northwest, settled in the basin of the Volta River after 1600.

In 1897 the French arrived, and for more than sixty years the region was part of the “Haute Sénégal et Niger.” French occupation was punctuated by several revolts by peoples (especially Bwa and Bobo) who resisted taxation, the imposition of centralized rule, forced labor, and military conscription. Faced with the difficulties of administration from distant Abidjan during the 1930’s, and later with the threat of dissection between Mali, Niger, and Ivory Coast, Mossi chiefs agitated for status as a separate territory after World War II, and when independence came in 1960, the territory became the République de Haute-Volta. The first president, Maurice Yameogo, served from 1960 to 1966 when he was accused of corruption and popularly deposed. After many years of military rule, his successor, General Sangoulé Lamizana, was elected to head a civilian government in 1979 which was soon overthrown by army officers led by Seye Zerbo. Zerbo’s government was toppled by young officers including Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo and Thomas Sankara in 1982. Finally, in August, 1983 Ouedraogo’s forces were defeated in a counter revolution, and the government of Captain Thomas Sankara took control. In 1987 Sankara was murdered in a coup-d’etat and Blaise Campaore became chief of state, a position he still holds in 2014.

Mask Manufacture:

Burkina Faso is a land of masks; most of the major peoples in the region, with the notable exceptions of the Gurmantché and the Lobi, use masks. The materials and techniques used to fashion masks are quite similar throughout.

Although several types of wood are used to carve masks and figures, most masks throughout the region are carved from the wood of the Ceiba pentandra (Linn.) Gaertn., which is called “cotton tree”,”silk-cotton tree”, or “ceiba”. The wood is fairly soft and fine-grained, like pine, so it is easy to carve. It is very light, which makes it suitable for masks that are to be worn, especially big masks such as the tall Bwa serpent or enormous plank masks. Unfortunately, the wood is very susceptible to insect damage, and masks must be carefully protected by annual soaking to kill insects. These trees are becoming rare in central Burkina because of the carving of many masks, both for traditional use and for the tourist trade, and artists are obliged to travel long distances into game preserves or toward the north to find trees of a useful size. In contrast to earlier reports in the popular literature on African art, no group in Burkina use the wood of the kapok or baobab trees, for the grain of their wood is far too coarse and prone to splitting.

Among most of the peoples in Burkina Faso, masks are worn with a thick costume made of the fibers of the Hibiscus cannabinus or Cannabinus indica, which is called in French, “chanvre de Guinea” and in Jula “da”, and kenaf in the United States. The plants are cultivated in fields of millet, and are harvested just before the annual period when masks perform. Bundles of the woody stems are carried to wet swampy areas where they are soaked, held down by stones, until the bark and pith rots, leaving only the fibers (bpon in Nuni). The loose fibers are plaited into cords which are knotted into a netlike body stocking. Bundles of loose fibers are then bound to the net to form a bulky costume that the Nuna call wankuro, “the fur of the mask.” The fibers may be dyed before assembling the costume. Black is obtained from the fermented seed pods of the Acacia nilotica. Red is from the dye concentrated at the joints of the stalks of the millet Penisetum colorans. These costumes are usually renewed every year, and their manufacture is the major task of the young men’s initiation groups. During periods of extreme drought, as in 1984-5, there is not enough standing water to make new costumes, and fewer masks may dance, or the costumes become rather disheveled.

Burkina Faso, village of Dossi; Bwa peoples. Plank masks with head musician, 1985. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Masks are covered with complex compositions of triangles, rectangles, crescents, dentate patterns, and other geometric shapes, which are carved or pyroengraved, and then colored red, black and white using natural vegetable or mineral pigments.

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Geometric patterns on Bwa masks, village of Dossi, 1985. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The most widely used mask pigments in the region are red, white, and black. Before the 1983 revolution the country’s flag bore three horizontal band of red, black and white. The Bwa call red boré, white is opuni, and thin black is bobriay. For fifteen years I have questioned Mossi, Bwa, and gurunsi informants about the source of the white pigments used on masks, and I have been told consistently that traditional white is made by gathering the excrement of lizards (among the Mossi) or of the sacred Bwa serpent. Both may be found concentrated in dens or nests. Nontraditional white is made by grinding schoolroom chalk. Red is simply iron-rich (hematite) stone ground to a powder and mixed with a binder. The most widely used binders are egg and gum Arabic, which is gathered from acacia trees. The Bwa use a thick black that is expensive to produce, called gbonkahû, and a thin black that is less expensive called bobriay. The Bwa, Mossi, and gurunsi make thin black with powdered charcoal mixed with egg binder. The thick black is made by boiling the seed pods of the tree Acacia nilotica which the Mossi call pernenga and the Bwa call nyaoh, into a thick, tarry liquid.

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Close-up of the face on a Bwa plank mask, village of Dossi, 1985. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Each year, after the crops are harvested but well before the performance season begins, all the masks in the village are carried to a swamp or river and are soaked, weighted down with large stones, for several weeks. Soaking kills the insects that could quickly destroy the masks, and removes the red and white pigments. Only the thick black remains, for it is not water soluble. Each time the masks are repainted by the young initiates, the black pigment grows thicker. To some extent the thickness of the black paint is an indicator of the age of the mask (but this can be deceptive).

In some villages masks are now being painted with European enamels, but this does not mean that the masks are necessarily new, any more than the thickness of the black indicates the adge of the mask. The Bobo have been using European pigments for decades, and many ancient Winiama and Nuna masks have been repainted recently.

In the basin of the Volta River, masks are owned and used by families. Masks are carved by artists from smith clans. Performances are organized by the families that own the masks, and the young men of each family wear their father’s masks. The dry season is punctuated by numerous mask performances and dancers sometimes travel great distances to attend family or clan celebrations. Masks appear at the burials, funerals, and initiations of family members, and at other important occasions in the annual cycle of family life. Often masks perform purely for the enjoyment of the villagers, especially on market days.

Chapter III. Sculpture of the Mossi.

A. Introduction to the Mossi.

The Mossi (Mosé, sing. Mwaga, population about 2,200,000) occupy an area of about 30,000 square miles (63,500 sq. km.) in central Burkina Faso. The land of the Mossi (mogho) consists of a great plateau, lying between 1,000 and 1,500 feet above sea level, which is drained by the White Volta River. The limits of the Mossi Plateau form natural boundaries between the Mossi and their neighbors who occupy lower, less fertile land which is often ridden with tsetse flies and other vectors of disease. The Kurumba and Fulani live to the north, the Gurmantché to the east, the Bisa to the south east, the gurunsi to the south west, and the Samo to the north west. Major Mossi towns are Ouagadougou, Kongoussi, Koudougou, Gourcy, Kaya, Yako and Boulsa.

The Mossi area spans the transitional area between the dry sandy Sahel in the north and the humid tropical woodlands to the south. Average temerature is 25 degrees C. with adequate rainfall to support subsistence agriculture. The area was once covered with grassy open savannahs and scattered trees, but has been cleared by farmers for crops of millet, sorghum, and maize. Cotton and peanuts are grown for cash, and rice plantations have been started in river valleys recently cleared of river blindness by spraying insecticides. Some garden crops are grown for sale in Ouagadougou and for export to France, especially mangoes and green beans. Livestock is more important in the north, safe from trypanosomiasis, than in the south. Farmers own herds that are cared for by pastoralist Fulani in the north, who drive herds south during the dry season where they leave behind fertilizer on their way to markets in Ghana and Ivory Coast.

The Mossi speak Mooré. The nyonyosé consider Mooré to be a “stranger language,” although they use Mooré exclusively in day-to-day conversation even within their own families. They recognize that Mooré is not the language of the ancestors, and on ritual occasions, when addressing the ancestors, they use the secret languages, called nyonyoré, that are totally unintelligible to the rest of the Mossi community (i.e., to the nakomsé). There are clear and striking similarities between the languages of the Mossi and peoples in northern Ghana. It is quite clear that the language spoken by the Mossi today was brought into the basin of the White Volta from Ghana by the nakomsé invaders at the time of the founding of the first Mossi states.

Mossi society developed in the 15th to 16th centuries from the fusion of invaders from northern Ghana with local populations. The conquered peoples were amalgamated without regard for ethnic origin, forming a large heterogeneous Mossi people, in which the recent arrivals gradually intermarried with the daughters of older families, reinforcing social cohesion.

Each compound residence of an extended family is composed of a number of round, mud-brick huts, usually 3-4 meters in diameter, with conical straw roofs. A rectangular building with a flat, beaten earth roof, at the center of the compound, may be occupied by the senior male member of the family. Each wife lives in her own round hut with her young children. Older, unmarried children live together in separate huts. Within the compound are granaries, enclosures for domestic animals, and areas for grinding grain and preparing meals. The entire compound is surrounded by a mud-brick wall, the height and state of repair of which varies with the rank and wealth of the family.

As each of the original farmer peoples in the White Volta Basin was conquered by the invading horsemen, they were placed under the political authority of a nakomsé lineage elder, the Tenganaba (“chief of the land”) who collected taxes, raised armies in time of trouble with neighboring peoples, and maintained order within his region. The leaders of the nyonyosé (i.e., senior male elders of the founding lineages) retained their authority as tengsobadamba (“earth priests”), in recognition of their roles as the original occupiers of the land. The tengabisi segment of Mossi society is not homogeneous. The tengabisi may be divided into smaller groups based largely on occupation. The saaba (sing. saya) are smiths, and are organized in communities of endogamous patrilocal clans, led by the senior male member of the founding clan of the community, the Saya Naba (“smith chief”). Other neighborhoods in a Mossi village may be inhabited by families of Moslem Mandé weavers, called yarsé, or by the Silmi-Mossi, a group formed by intermarriage between the Mossi and the Fulani herders (silmisi).

In addition, the nyonyosé themselves are far from homogeneous culturally. As noted by Robert Pageard in his study of the nyonyosé (1963: 9), it is an error to equate the nyonyosé with a specific ethnic group, as Tauxier (1917) and Hammond (1966: 168) equated them with the Fulsé (Kurumba). In each area of Mossi country the origins of the nyonyosé are different, and there are marked differences in many cultural elements, including mask carving styles. IT IS A SERIOUS MISTAKE TO DESCRIBE A “NYONYOSÉ TRIBE”, OR THE “ART OF THE NYONYOSÉ” BECAUSE THE NYONYOSÉ DO NOT EXIST OUTSIDE MOSSI SOCIETY. ALL NYONYOSÉ ARE MOSSI. At the same time, it is a mistake to assume that all segments of Mossi society are culturally identical, for the differences between the nakomsé and the tengabisi are striking; only the tengabisi use masks, and only the nakomsé use figures in the context of political celebrations.

Although they adopted the language of the conquerors, many of the cultural traditions of the nyonyosé were preserved, quite distinctive from those of the conquerors, including their power to control the elements through the use of magic. Another tradition that survived the amalgamation of the nakomsé and the nyonyosé in a new Mossi society was the use of carved wooden masks that represent the animal totems and protective spirits of the nyonyosé clans at the funerals of elders. It seems clear that the nyonyosé were using masks when the invaders from the south arrived. Although there is no documentary evidence for this, there is ample evidence in oral traditions.

Both the saaba (smiths) and the nyonyosé (farmers) may be divided into groups that use totemic ancestral masks, and other peoples that do not use masks. Depending on the geographical area, the mask-using peoples are called sikomcé, sukomcé, or sukwaba. In this study, I will refer to the mask owning smiths as saaba/sukwaba, and to the mask owning farmers as nyonyosé/sukwaba, although the people themselves do not combine the terms. In the southwest the distinctions between farmer and smith clans that use masks and those that do not is clear, while in the north the situation is more complex. In the north the names sukwaba and sikomcé are not used.

The Mossi are both exogamous and patrilineal; smiths marry within their caste group. The basic unit of society is the yiri, the polygamous (more than one wife) nuclear family with a single adult male head, the yirisoba. Several families live together in a single large compound residence called a zaka, with the oldest male, the zaksoba, at its head. Several compound residences in a single neighborhood comprise an exogamous totemic patriclan, called a budu. The budu, with the budkasma, the oldest clan male, is the most important Mossi kinship unit for this study, because the use and ownership, as well as the actual form, of Mossi masks is based on identification with a particular totemic patriclan. The word budu is also used to identify the segment of Mossi society to which a clan belongs: e.g. nyonyosé descendants of original farmers, nakomsé political hierarchy, Silmi-Mossi herders, etc.

Each village is composed of several large neighborhoods, each of which is inhabited by members of the same sub-group in Mossi society. The nakomsé, relatives of the village political chief (Naba), live in compounds grouped close to the chief’s own dwelling. Within each Mossi neighborhood, individual family compound dwellings are usually widely spaced, with broad expanses of open fields between them, so that the community may appear to be a number of small, walled towns.

1. Religion

Fully 70 percent of all Mossi practice their traditional, animist religion. Only 25 percent have become Moslem, and the remaining 5 percent are Christian. The majority of the Moslems and Christians live in urban centers, where their religious affiliation has allowed them access to commerce and government service. An important result of the resistance of the rural Mossi to Islam and Christianity has been the survival of the use of traditional masks and figures to the present.

Burkina Faso; Mossi peoples. Mosque in central Burkina. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The Mossi believe in a single, supreme, otiose creator being, named Wendé, who animates all aspects of the environment with his force. The religious beliefs of the Mossi are concerned with the control of the supernatural forces which vitalize every aspect of their natural environment.

The Mossi believe that each person posesses a soul, sigha, which takes the name kyma after death. Eugene Mangin describes the relationship between the Mossi clan and the clan’s totemic animal:

“This spirit, according to the Mossi, is an animal, frequently invisible, a serpent, crocodile, antelope, rabbit. The soul is related to this animal, it is of the same family, so that to kill a serpent or crocodile or whatever in a village where the soul of the inhabitants is a serpent or crocodile is to kill a human in the village, because every person related to the snake has, in the village, a snake which represents him, and he will die when his soul-animal dies” (1921: 84-5).

This is a description of the animal totem, which is the same for all members of the clan. The animal which is the totem of the Mossi clan is inseparable from the souls of the living clan members, and from the souls (sigha, pl. sisé) of the clan’s ancestors. When a member of the clan addresses his sigha he is addressing both the animal-totem and the souls of his ancestors. This totem plays a role in the myth of the origin of the clan, usually providing help for the clan’s founding ancestor. Dim Delobsom, a self-appointed official historian of the court of the Mogho-Naba (Emperor of the Mossi) writing in the 1920’s, provides information on the totem of a nyonyosé clan from Goupana, north of Ouagadougou:

“The nyonyosé of Goupana have the gazelle as their totem. This animal represents, they say, their siga. Therefore it is forbidden to kill the gazelle, but there is no interdiction about eating the flesh of the gazelle itself. Tradition has it, in effect, that it is by divine intervention, and coincidence, that the animal exposes itself to the arrow or gun of a member of the clan, but, it is added, one is sure to see an inhabitant of the village die shortly thereafter” (1929: 434-5).

Legend says that a Nyonyoga hunter from the same clan as the nyonyosé of Goupana, having gone hunting, became so thirsty that he fainted. A gazelle saw him and grew concerned, and drew near, placing on his shoulder a hoof which she had moistened in some water. At the touch of the damp hoof, the man regained consciousness and saw the gazelle run off before him. He was too weak to raise his weapon, but it seemed to him that the animal was playing with him. He sat down. The animal returned and approached his hand, but as soon as he tried to touch it it fled. The hunter gained courage, and trying to ignore his fatigue, followed the animal to a spot where there was a spring of fresh water. He was able to refresh himself and to regain his strength. As a result he believed that he was related to the gazelle and he spread the news when he returned to his village. Since that time the inhabitants of Goupana have had the gazelle as their totem.

The Mossi are also concerned with maintaining good relations with the spirits of their ancestors, who are able to manipulate the forces of nature for their benefit or detriment. After death the spirits of the ancestors continue to take an interest in the affairs of their descendants, just as they did as living members of the group. In order to maintain good relations with the ancestral spirits, the living must adhere strictly to the traditional rules for proper behavior established by their grandfathers, the yabaramba. To stray from the yaba sooré–the way of the ancestors–is to risk arousing their anger; the ancestors may punish any important transgression with a disease, especially smallpox, with some physical infirmity, especially blindness, or with infertility. The primary link between the Mwaga and his ancestors is the senior male member of his lineage or clan.

The ancestors reward proper behavior and the careful observance of requisite propitiatory sacrifices by assuring the fertility of the fields, livestock, and wives, by sending ample rainfall during the growing season, and by assisting their descendants in any economic or social endeavor, for example trading expeditions to Ouagadougou, trips to find seasonal work on plantations in the Ivory Coast, or competitive examinations for jobs in the government. The Mossi believe that they are able to communicate their needs to the ancestors by offering sacrifices on the ancestral shrine of the lineage or clan, located in the ancestral spirit house (kimse roogo).

The principal intermediary between the Mossi and the forces that effect his life is the community “earth priest” or Tengsoba. Another important link in the chain of communication between the Mossi and the spirit world is the clan’s totemic animal, which, in the case of the nyonyosé clans in the north, and of the Sukwaba clans in the southwest, is represented by wooden masks which are placed on the ancestral shrines and are worn during the funerals of important clan elders.

Mossi Masks

Style distribution of Mossi masks

Mossi Mask Styles: Valuable descriptions of masks and the contexts in which they appeared were published early in the 20th century in the accounts of travellers, missionaries, and colonial administrators. All describe the performers and the masks they wore as ouango. In more current orthography, wango is the Mooré word for all masks, from any area, regardless of material or function.

Lieutenant Lucien Marc, a French colonial officer in southern Mossi country before World War I, provides a useful description that has often been overlooked by scholars of African art:

“Whenever a head of a household dies, immediately after the burial, they block the door to the house where he was lying and they open another exit, so that if he tries to return he will be confused. If it is a question of an important individual, a great funerary ceremony is held to which are invited all of the villages of the region. It is at these ceremonies that the `Ouangos’ appear… The `Ouangos’ comprise a rather mysterious fraternity. They have a secret language, and while they are singing, anyone who utters a word will certainly die within the year… I feel that it would be most interesting to attempt to study the `Ouangos’ and their customs in greater detail than I have been able. I feel, in fact, that it is a question of a really ancient tradition, antedating the arrival of the Mossi [nakomsé] in the basin of the Volta, which these peoples found among the peoples they conquered. They preserved it, undoubtedly not daring to fight against it. In fact, one finds `Ouangos’ everywhere among the gurunsi, and the `Dou’ seen by Binger among the Bobos seem to me to be of the same origin. The totemic mask dancers depicted in certain photos from Desplanges remind me very much of the Mossi `Ouangos'” (1909: 152, 155).

The Mossi writer A.A. Dim Delobsom provides an additional description of masks he saw in the region of Ouagadougou in about 1930:

“The `Waongo’ is a mysterious being, half-animal, half spirit.

Origin of the Waongo: Tradition states that it was found one day all alone on a plain. Those who first saw it were afraid and fled. They returned home to describe it to the village elders, who recruited an large number of young men, armed with arrows and clubs, to go capture this strange being. It was no longer to be seen at the spot where it had first been seen. It had taken up residence farther away. The villagers encircled it and the elders, having brought along a rooster, began to question it: if they led it to their homes would it provide food for the inhabitants? Would it bring them misfortune? They sacrificed the rooster, which, it is said, was not accepted.

The elders returned to the village and brought back a white rooster (norapelega), a male goat (boega), and a dog (baga). Addressing the `Waongo’, they said, `Perhaps a little while ago we were mistaken, perhaps you wanted something more than the rooster we just offered. If, in becoming our host, you can bring us well-being, health, and children, accept these offerings.’ They sacrificed the rooster and the goat, killed the dog. This time the sacrifices were accepted…

It carried with it, as tradition tells us, a `toabga’ (sort of magic hatchet) and the `tibo’ (sacred object, fetish). They took it and placed it in a safe place, but what purpose would it serve them? No one knew. It was something unknown and therefore powerful” (Delobsom 1932: 170-2).

Delobsom’s account is of particular interest because of its mention of the origin of the masks, the sacrifice of a dog, which is normal practice only in the southwest (not in Yatenga), and the mention of the name of the group which uses the masks–nyonyosé/Sukwaba. Like Marc, he mentions the use of a secret language.

Each mask represents an animal, wild or domestic, commonly seen in Mossi country. In some cases they represent human beings. These characters, whether animal or human, are all totemic, for they participate in the myths of origin of the clans that own them. In the southwest, the smaller Ouagadougou style masks worn by the tengabisi may represent any of several animals, and the masks are addressed with the name of the animal represented, preceded by the contraction for wango, the word for mask. These totemic masks include the wan-silga (hawk), wan-pesego (ram), wan-nyaka (small antelope), wan-wid-pelego (large antelope), wan-rulugu (hornbill), wan-mwegha (human albino), and many others. In Yatenga, the tall, plank-topped masks carry over the facial portion of the mask the head and horns of the antelope that are the totems of the major tengabisi clans in Yatenga. Yatenga style masks with bird forms above the face represent the bird totem of a Mossi clan in the same area . The head with short, S-shaped horns represents the small antelope that the Mossi call nyaka (Gazella rufifrons), and the head with longer, straight horns represents the larger antelope called wid-pelego (Hippotragus koba). This contrasts with information published by F.-H. Lem (1949: 19-20) that the mask with straight horns is male while the mask with curved horns is female.

The mask bears the name of the animal or person it represents, preceded by the prefix wan-, the contraction of wango, mask, so that the albino mask is called wan-mwegha, and the gazelle is wan-nyaka.

The Mossi are a diverse people. From one geographical region to the next, cultural differences between Mossi subgroups may be more striking than the differences between the Mossi and their neighbors. Cultural diversity is reflected in the great variety of Mossi sculptural styles. The boundaries of these style regions correspond approximately to the boundaries of the several Mossi kingdoms as they existed at the arrival of the French, I have used the names of these kingdoms as convenient “handles” for the mask styles. I have also given their corresponding compass coordinates. IT IS POSSIBLE TO USE THE MAP OF DISTRIBUTION OF MOSSI MASK STYLES AS A MAP OF THE DISTRIBUTION OF PEOPLES IN THE REGION BEFORE THE NAKOMSÉ CONQUEST IN 1500. IN THE CASE OF THE MOSSI, ART SERVES AS A PRIMARY DOCUMENT IN UNDERSTANDING MOSSI HISTORY, WHERE NO OTHER DOCUMENTS, ORAL OR WRITTEN, EXIST.

There are at least three major Mossi mask styles and two additional substyles, plus innumerable local idiosyncratic traditions. These mask styles are:

a. The Ouagadougou (Southwestern) Style

Burkina Faso; Mossi peoples. Ouagadougou style mask at a funeral near Yako. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

b. The Northern Styles b.1. The Yatenga (Northwestern) Style b.2. The Risiam (Northcentral) Style b.3. The Kaya (Northeastern) Style

Burkina Faso; Mossi peoples. Yatenga style mask at a funeral, 1976. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

c. The Boulsa (Eastern) Style

Burkina Faso; Mossi peoples. Boulsa style masks in the village of Zeguedeguin. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The Southwestern Style corresponds to the ancient kingdom of Ouagadougou. Masks are small and represents animals, or occasionally, humans. The Northern Styles are divided into three substyles, corresponding to the ancient kingdoms of Yatenga, Risiam, and Kaya. Larger than Southwestern masks, those from the north are surmounted by a long, thin plank. Occasionally a figure is carved in front of the plank, or replaces it. Finally, the Eastern Style, in the Boulsa area, includes masks with semi-cylindrical faces painted white. All masks are worn with a fiber costume that varies in form from area to area.

Very few masks in collections outside of Africa retain any traces of the blackened fiber costume (bindu) with which they are worn in a traditional context. The costume is made by knotting long strands of fiber to a net foundation, which is in turn fastened to the mask through holes around the base of each mask. The same fiber is used by all peoples in Burkina, and is prepared in exactly the same way. The branches or twigs of the wild hibiscus (Hibiscus cannabinus), which the Mossi call beranga, are soaked in water to loosen the bark. The plants are then beaten with wooden mallets to separate the bark from the wood, and the long, stringy fibers obtained are blackened by soaking in mud at the bottom of stagnant pools. Some of the strands are twisted together to form cords from which the netted foundation garment is made, and to form a knotted collar around the base of the wooden mask. Otherwise, the strands of fiber trail loosely downward and the black costume completely hides the mask wearer so that the ensemble resembles an animated black haystack . In some villages the costume falls only to the performer’s knees, but usually it extends to the ground.

Frequently both human and animal masks are provided with pyroengraved lines that slant across the cheek from the bridge of the nose. Additional burned-in markings forming a ladder-shape between the eyes and ears, and patterns on the cheeks, chin, and forehead represent traditional Mossi scars, and are generally referred to as such by informants. As is true of all Mossi masks, they are carved of a single piece of wood.

a. The Southwestern (Ouagadougou) Style.

The Mossi masks that are today produced in greatest numbers and that are most readily recognized by most Burkinabé have frequently been misattributed by Western art historians to peoples other than the Mossi, usually to the Bobo.

Although published descriptions of Ouagadougou Style masks are rare, they occur in the earliest descriptions of the Mossi. Lieutenant Marc, in his thesis on the Mossi, writes:

“The `Ouangos’ are dancers whose costume is made up of a large robe fabricated of fibers covering the entire body, and surmounted by a wooden mask painted red and black, representing, most frequently, the head of an animal. The masks that are used by the Mossi in the traditional kingdom of Ouagadougou southwest of the White Volta River, are small, wooden, animal masks, worn over the face or as crests on top of the head, or slanting on the forehead. They are decorated with geometric patterns burned into the wood and painted dark earth red, black, and matte white… The masks of the `Ouangos’ are constructed in the greatest secrecy. They must be made from just one piece of wood, and the carver must not be seen before the work is completed” (1909: 152).

Throughout his description of Ouagadougou style masks, Marc uses the word ouango (or, in more current orthography, wango) to describe both the masks and the group that uses them. The same usage of the word by Tauxier in his 1917 publication, Le Noir de Yatenga, was the source of the idea that Mossi masks are used by a secret “Wango Society.” In fact, wango is the Mooré word for any mask in any material, context, region, or function. Although the people who wear masks are very secretive, masks belong to families, not to secret societies such as exist elsewhere in Africa.

Burkina Faso; Mossi peoples. Ouagadougou style mask, ca. 1912. Photo by Leo Frobenius.

In 1930, Dim Delobsom described masks from the same region:

“The `Waongo’ consists of a mask, normally representing the head of an animal, and of a `bindou,’ a kind of long cape, made from the fibers of a bush called beringa, which are kept under water for a long time to blacken them, or of the fibers of the baobab” (1930: 171).

Burkina Faso; Mossi peoples. Ouagadougou style mask at a funeral near Yako. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Although these descriptions are too general to provide much information on style, they are supplemented, happily, by a remarkable photograph taken between 1907 and 1908 by Leo Frobenius in the Ouagadougou area (Frobenius 1923: pl. 39, ill. ).

Masks in this style are generally small, between 35 cm. (14″) to 65 cm. (25″) long. Most are not provided with eyeholes, for they are not worn over the face. The exceptions are masks from the northwest area of this region, from the villages around Yako and Arbolle, which are rather more abstract than the animal masks near Ouagadougou, and which are often provided with three slits over each eye and are worn over the face.

Burkina Faso; Mossi peoples. Ouagadougou style masks belonging to three generations of one family. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Each of these masks is a stylized, abstract representation of an animal, but the degree of abstraction may vary considerably. The most stylized come from the area of Yako and Arbollé. On many masks the planes of the surface are quite flat and angular, and the anatomical characteristics of the animal represented are so generalized that it is sometimes difficult to recognize the type of animal that the carver intended to depict. In most cases, however, some feature of the animal’s anatomy is clearly emphasized and serves as a visual key to the identity of the mask. Thin, S-shaped horns, round in section, with a narrow, pointed snout are found on antelope masks. The ram can be identified by its thick, crescent-shaped horns, often triangular in section, and by its heavy snout. One of the most common features on Mossi masks from this area is a trilobed crest that sweeps back from the top of the head. Combined with a beak, this is a characteristic of a bird mask. On rooster masks, the central lobe of this crest is ribbed to represent a rooster’s comb. On hawk or eagle masks the central lobe is smooth and represents the bird’s head-crest feathers. The same trilobed crest occurs on anthropomorphic masks, when the crest represents the lobed hairstyle commonly worn by women throughout the Western Sudan. The coiffure and carved crest are called gyonfo.

Burkina Faso; Mossi peoples

Warthog helmet mask (Ouagadougou style)

Wood, pigment, fiber

H. 67.3 cm (26 1/2″)

Photo by Jerry Thompson

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, U.S.A., Gift of Thomas G. B. Wheelock, 2012 (2012.529.1)

Masks from the southwestern Ouagadougou style area are heavily decorated with geometric shapes outlined with “poker-work” and colored red and white with flat-finish, mineral based pigments. Spiral markings on horns and broad geometric shapes are blackened with heated metal blades. The most commonly used shapes are rectangles sectioned by diagonals with alternating sections painted red and white, and alternating red and white triangles .

All traditional Mossi masks are provided with holes that permit the attachment of a fiber costume, but in the southwest there are no other provisions for straps, cords, bars of wood, or other means by which the masks might be firmly attached to the wearer’s head. The masks are simply draped over the wearer, perched on top of the head with the heavy costume falling on all sides and holding the mask securely in place by its weight alone.

Small, red, white, and black animal masks in the Ouagadougou style are used in the Mossi regions southwest of the valley of the White Volta River. In this area, the limits of Mossi occupation are defined by a dramatic drop in elevation from the higher, more open Mossi Plateau to the lower, moister areas occupied by older peoples. In the region south of Manga, where the Red and White Volta rivers approach and eventually join, the low areas were very sparsely inhabited because of endemic onchocerciasis (river blindness) that blinded the population after long exposure, and which has only recently been eradicated by the use of insecticides.

The Gurunsi (The Nuna, Winiama, and Léla)

Geography, History, Customs: The region southwest of the Mossi Plateau is occupied by a number of autochthonous farmer groups that are referred to collectively by the Mossi, and in most studies, as gurunsi. The singular, gurunga, indicates that the word is of Moré origin (a word of the Moré “-ga, –se” class). The peoples that comprise the so-called gurunsi peoples include the Nuna, Nunuma, Léla, Winiama, Sisala, Kaséna, Nankana, and Kusasé who share similar Gur languages. The Léla speak Lélé, the Nuna speak Nuni, the Winiama speak Winien, and the Kaséna speak Kasem. Most peoples in the area consider gurunsi a pejorative form of address, and much prefer to be called by their ethnic name. For this reason I have used the name gurunsi in italics and only as a convenient “handle.” I have used the name Nunuma to refer to the Nuna peoples northwest of the Black Volta, and Nuna for those southeast of the river, because these peoples are closely related but produce masks that differ slightly in style. This distinction may or may not be valid historically and ethnographically.

The gurunsi in Burkina number more than 200,000 people, or more than 5% of the population of Burkina Faso. The Nuna number 100,000, the Léla about 75,000, the Winiama and Nunuma together about 25,000. The majority of the population of the remaining peoples, Kaséna, Sisala, Nankana and Kusasé, live astride the frontier with Ghana.

The gurunsi live between the Red Volta and the Black Volta Rivers. Only the Winiama and northern Nunuma live west of the Black Volta. The Léla are bordered on the east and north by the Mossi, on the west by the southern Samo, and on the south by the Nunuma. Their most important towns are Koudougou, Tenado, Didyr, and Kordié. The Winiama occupy the region surrounding Boromo west of the Black Volta. Their most important towns are Boromo, Oulo, Ouri, and Soubouy. The northern Nunuma live north of the road from Ouagadougou to Bobo-Dioulasso between the Léla and the Winiama. Their major towns and villages are Séréna, Tissé, Tierko, Tigan, and Tchériba. The southern Nuna occupy the area between the two Voltas, with the Kaséna to the southeast, the Mossi to the northeast, and the Lobi, Bwa and Winiama to the west. Their most important population centers are Zavara, Fara, Sapouy, Gao, and Leo.

From the time of the Mossi invasion the gurunsi area has been sparsely inhabited, with only 5-10 persons per square kilometer. Vast expanses of unoccupied bush shelter abundant animal life, and heavy brush in which the vectors of trypanosomiasis could live. As a result of sleeping sickness the population remains low to this day.

Because of the surplus of available land the gurunsi practice slash-and-burn farming, using fields called keri for 7-8 years before they are allowed to lie fallow for at least a decade. In the southern Nuna area the major crops are millet, sorghum, and yams. Farther north yams are not grown, and cotton is an important cash crop. In addition, maize, rice, peanuts, ground peas, and beans are grown when soil conditions are right. In the family fields close to the villages, women grow cash crops, including sesame and tobacco. In addition, there are large, community fields that are farmed by voluntary associations of young men called sudwé.

During the long dry season hunting is one of the most important male activities, because of the interaction between hunters and spirits that inhabit wild bush. Often during the long, parched months before the first rains fall all of the inhabitants of a village may trek to a swamp where the day is spent driving large quantities of fish into nets or trapping them in large conical baskets. Fish are carried back to the village to be dried and smoked, and shredded portions are made into sauce for millet gruel.

Traditionally there were no merchants, weavers, or smiths among the gurunsi. They were self-sufficient and did not need to trade, except on a very limited scale. Men went unclothed and women wore bundles of leaves as “cache-fesses.” Iron tools were obtained from neighboring peoples and itinerant smiths.

The gurunsi live in paleo-voltaic village communities, which are very concentrated. Gurunsi villages consist of closely-packed buildings with narrow, winding alleys or streets between lineage dwellings, and large neighborhoods made up of one or two clans separated by very small distances. The exterior walls of these village communities are relatively featureless, with only an occasional window and a few narrow entrances.

History: The gurunsi claim to be the original inhabitants of the land they now occupy, but their history includes episodes of migration that preceded the arrival of the nakomsé invaders. Some peoples, including the Nuna and the Winiama, emigrated from northern Ghana in a northern direction, while others, including the Nunuma and the Léla moved westward before the nakomsé advance at the end of the fifteenth century. The Winiama and Nunuma crossed the Black Volta less than four hundred years ago and occupied vacant lands in the Bwa region just east of Bagassi. The Mossi never were able to invade and retain power because the horses on which they depended for military power sickened quickly and died. In about 1650 the Mossi Emperor Naba Kumdumye penetrated westward as far as Boromo where he was killed, and whence his army was forced to retreat by sleeping sickness. Mossi accounts tell of the magical powers of the gurunsi, who used the forces of nature to fight their enemies, and to this day the Nunuma and Winiama are feared for their dangerous magical powers. Gurunsi villages were extremely difficult for cavalry raiders to penetrate, for gurunsi farmers could stand on the flat mud roofs of their homes and kill mounted warriors who dared to enter the narrow alleys between houses. Nevertheless, the region was ravaged by constant slave raids by the Mossi, Fulani, Zaberma (probably Songhai), and others, further reducing the population. The Mossi and Jula traders sold gurunsi slaves in the markets in Gao, Djenne, Segou, and in the southern Ashanti towns. Many slaves taken south were shipped to Bahia, Brazil where their descendants continue to use a Gur vocabulary (Zwernemann 1968: 147-156). The slave traffic continued to the end of the 19th century.

The Nuna, Léla, Winiama, and Nunuma are societies of farmers, without social or political stratification, and without occupational caste groups. Before the arrival of the French, they had no system of chiefs or kings, and all important decisions were made by councils of the oldest male members of the community lineages. The French established cantonal chiefs, as puppet rulers, and the families of some of these retained authority as late as the 1983 revolution. A few men hold some traditional authority, including the Tia-tian (Nuni), or earth-priests, who are descended from the founding lineage of the community, and who parcel out land for cultivation and act as intermediaries between the more recently arrived lineages and the spirits of the land. The Tia-tiou is responsible for purification sacrifices in cases of adultery, suicides, and murder. He sacrifices chickens to the ancestors and asks them “to take the chicken and sweep away the evil spilled on the earth, so that the soil will continue to nourish the community.” The sacrifices to the ancestors are offered on a great conical mud shrine.

The gurunsi believe in a supreme being, Yi (Nuni), an otiose creator whose shrine occupies the center of the village. An element of the creator God is Su, the mask spirit. Su is incarnated in all masks, and its shrine is the oldest and most sacred mask in the community, first descended from the sky. Su may also be represented by carved wooden figures. The Su spirit is feared and can be used by its adherents for the benefit of the community or to harm their enemies. Su aids the community, especially by encouraging the fertility of women to provide for the continuity of life, and to maintain the health of the community. Su demands that all of the rules of correct observance be followed carefully, or it may abandon the community. In addition to the altar to Su, the foci of religious life are the huts in which each clan and lineage keeps the magical objects that provide contact with the vital forces of nature. Each clan has its own magical objects, inherited from the ancestors, that protect all of the members of the clan, and which, thereby, provide social cohesion. In addition to general, public magical objects there are smaller, private objects of power. These may consist of animal skulls and tails, rings, amulets, bracelets, stools, bottles, and anthropomorphic figures in clay or wood. All public magical objects are cared for by the oldest male members of the lineage or clan, who serve as intermediaries during sacrifices.


The major producers of masks are the Léla, Nunuma, and Winiama in the north, and the Nuna in the south. The Sisala also once used masks, but they have virtually disappeared. The Léla, Nunuma, Winiama and Nuna have influenced the styles, use and meaning of masks among their Bwa and Mossi neighbors.

Masks carved of wood represent bush spirits, or spirits that take animal forms. These animal forms may be more naturalistic among the Nunuma and Nuna or more stylized among the Léla and Winiama. The animals that occur most frequently are the antelope, buffalo, bush pig, hornbill, hyena, and the serpent. Some masks represent spirits that have no recognizable animal form.

Burkina Faso; Winiama peoples. Buffalo mask at a village purification, 1984. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Whatever type is represented, masks have large round eyes surrounded by concentric circles, a short snout for animal masks, or a large, protruberant mouth for supernatural spirits. They are covered with geometric patterns painted red, white, and black, repainted every year, except among the Winiama. Some masks are surmounted by a tall plank.

Burkina Faso; Nuna peoples. Buffalo mask. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The Nunuma and Nuna carve animal masks and plank masks. The heads of animal masks are basically similar in form, only the shapes of the horns and ears allow the animal to be identified. Frequently the snout of an animal mask is triangular when seen from the front opening, with the sides of the snout composed of flat rectangles marked by intersecting diagonals in black and red, with the interstices painted white. The rim of the mask may be decorated with series of small triangles, with the low interstices colored red.

Burkina Faso; Nuna peoples. Antelope mask. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Eyes may be red, white and black circles, or they may be covered with beeswax into which red seeds are stuck. Plank masks are short and broad, with very complex outlines and elaborate geometric patterns carved in low relief, including triangles and rectangles forming checkerboards. The plank bears a series of downward-curving hooks on the front and the back. The overall rectangular plan of the plank is broken by figures that connect plank and head or surmount the plank. Many planks are surmounted by a large figure. Both Nunuma and Nuna use the series of parallel lines radiating from the eyes. In the north the lines are always straight, while in the south they are often curved, sometimes forming an eye that resembles a flower.

The masks of the Winiama and Léla are the most geometric and non-representational of the gurunsi styles. Like the Nunuma, series’ of lines may radiate from target-shaped eyes, and the geometric patterns painted red, white and black are similar, although they are applied in different combinations. As a result some Winiama masks may easily be misattributed to the Nunuma or the Bwa. However, the Winiama carve several mask types that include either one or two flat, curving, vertical horns paired side-by-side or rising from the top of the head. These horns occur very rarely among the Nunuma and never among the Bwa. The mouths of Winiama masks are usually open lozenge shapes, with angular corners, broad lips, and barred teeth, in contrast to the characteristic Nunuma triangular snout. While the type of animal spirit represented by Bwa, Nuna, or Nunuma masks is usually easy to identify, Winiama masks are often so stylized that they resemble no recognizable animal. 

Burkina Faso; Winiama peoples. Buffalo mask at a village purification, 1984. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Léla masks are most similar to the red, white, and black animal masks of the southwestern Mossi, especially near Yako and Arbollé. They often consist of a simple, hemispherical cap shape to which the attributes of the animal seem to have been attached as an afterthought (they are monoxylous, however). Geometric patterns may be burned with a poker, rather than carved in relief, and tend to be arranged in les complex compositions than among the Nuna.

Finally, the Winiama are the only people that do not repaint their masks every year. Masks are often covered with layers of soot from kitchen fires, or of grime from repeated frequent use, so that the original red, white and black geometric shapes are difficult to distinguish, and only are visible in low relief. Winiama informants state that such dark masks represent malevolent and unpredictable spirits from the bush that, like humans with mental problems, are unkempt and dirty, so that the masks are not repainted each year.

Masks are worn over the face among the Nunuma, Nuna, and Winiama, so that the performer peers out through the mouth, or over the forehead among the Léla. They are always worn with a costume of the fibers of Kenaf (Hibiscus cannabinus). If the mask represents a four-legged animal, the performer carries two long sticks that represent the forelegs.

Each mask’s idiosyncratic character is expressed by its dance steps, the musical accompaniment, and its movements. Animal masks imitate, in a very stylized but expressive way, the actions or behavior of the animals they represent. In the Nunuma village of Tissé the bush pig darts rapidly around the performance area, frequently scurrying through great clouds of dust raised by its dance. At most Nunuma performances one or two monkey masks are worn by young boys who have shown special talent as performers. They provide crowd control, and like monkeys in the wild, frequently mimic human actions in ribald performances that move the audience to laughter and loud applause. The Winiama mask with a single curved horn, kêduneh, in the Naniebô neighborhood in Uri, is a wild, uncontrollable bush spirit that frequently falls into trances that cause it to weave and sway. The audience falls back in fear as it approaches, for it sometimes strikes out impulsively at those who get in its way. In April, 1985, at a performance to drive out evil spirits, it leaped over the seated spectators, landing on a child and breaking the child’s leg.

There are two major types of masks used by the Nuna and other gurunsi peoples. Masks that have descended from the sky and are, as a result, the oldest masks in the community are sacred masks, called wankr. These are masks that have been revealed to their owners. They dance with clubs and knives in their hands, and when not being worn are stripped of their costumes and become sacrificial altars to Su. Revealed masks dance only on ritual occasions. Other masks may be the inventions of their owners, created to meet a specific need as magical objects. Called wamu, these masks carry whips, and include the vast majority of Nuna mask forms. Their primary function is to dance and entertain the villagers. They are able to travel through the bush to appear at market day dances or funerals some distance from their home village. These invented masks attract large numbers of spectators at performances, especially on market days during the dry season. Although they are less sacred than the revealed masks, they also embody the spirit of Su, and the Nuna do not consider them to be inferior in any way to the wankr.

Masks’ Function:

Masks represent protective spirits that can take animal forms or can appear as strange beings. These spirits watch over a family, clan or community, and, if the rules for their propitiation are followed correctly, provide for the fertility, health, and prosperity of the owners. Thus the masks provide for the continuity of life in the gurunsi world.

Almost any unusual event can justify consultations with a diviner and the carving of a mask to represent the spirit that is responsible.

When the owner of a mask dies the mask may be passed on to his son, or it may be retired to the lineage spirit house where it slowly decays. Years later a diviner may prescribe a new mask in the same form, and the old mask is taken to the local smith who produces a replacement. Then, such old masks often are sold on the antiquities market.

Masks appear at numerous events throughout the dry season. They dance to drive evil forces away from the community. They participate in the funerals of male and female elders. Every three, five, or seven years, the most sacred masks of the community participate, including young men’s’ initiations and every seven years in sacrifices to ensure the well-being of the village. Masks may appear for special reasons throughout the year. Entertainment masks appear on almost every market day to dance for the crowds of visitors. The sacred wankr masks do not appear at such popular, public performances.

Village Purification:

Once each year, in late April masks in each neighborhood perform to drive malevolent forces from the area. This is analogous to an annual renewal or new year ceremony elsewhere in the world, for it marks the beginning of the annual ritual and agricultural cycle. The ceremony begins three days before the mask performance when women begin to brew a delicious millet beer called chap or chapalo. I have attended such ceremonies in 1984 and 1985 in the Naniebô neighborhood of the Winiama village of Ouri. At about 11 AM on the day of the dance, each of the functioning masks in the community bows in turn before the great conical mud shrine to the collective ancestors, asking them to drive out of the neighborhood the sources of evil and disease. The masks then visit every lineage residence in turn, beginning with the home of the mask-chief, who is the oldest male member of the first family in the community to acquire a mask. Sacrifices are made on family ancestral shrines to purify the home, and large quantities of millet beer are consumed by all.

The masks dance in turn, each mask performing twice during the morning. The dances are accompanied by the sound of drums and flutes. The drums are played by members of the local family of musicians, an endogamous caste group related to smiths. Flutes are played in groups of three, seven, or nine, by young male initiates. The coordinator of all mask performances is the oldest active musician, who is paid a very small fee following every day’s dance.

Masks assist in the burial of deceased elders, both male and female, and later at their funerals. Funerals for the male and female elders in the community who have died during the year are held during the dry season. The older the deceased and the more descendants he leaves, the more elaborate are the ceremonies. In the Nunuma villages of Tissé and Tierko I attended funerals at which twenty-five to thirty masks performed, to honor the dead and escort his spirit into the world of ancestors (niaba in Nuni). The masks arrive at the compound residence of the deceased late in the afternoon of the final day of the three (male) or four (female) day ceremony. The first two or three days of the funeral are occupied with sacrifices to secure the safe passage of the soul of the deceased to the land of ancestors, sacrifices to request the blessings of the dead on the living, and occasional brief appearances of masks to attend these ceremonies. The masks enter and leave the courtyard always backing through the door. Inside the compound each mask bows before the threshold of the dead elder’s room to honor the spirit of the deceased. Important sacrifices are made on ancestral altars in the masks’ presence. The climactic moment of the funeral is the destruction by the close relatives and friends of the deceased of the man’s bow and arrows and hoes, a woman’s pots and baskets, symbolizing the breaking of ties between the living and the dead. The spirit is then free to join the ancestors. Each mask performs twice in the open space before the compound residence. While awaiting their turn to dance, the masks sit quietly in a row, their backs to the wall of the house. The head musician, playing a long cylindrical wooden drum, calls each mask in turn to dance for about five minutes. As a mask ends its performance, members of the audience, representing the many lineages in the community, cast handfuls of cowrie shells on the ground before the mask, as gifts to the lineage of the deceased. These are then gathered by the young, uninitiated boys of the family to be reused when the family attends a funeral of another clan.

Every seven years the oldest masks from all of the Winiama and Bwa lineages in Ouri make their way to a low hill about two kilometers west of the town. Here sacrifices are offered for the prosperity of the village. Among the Nuna in the south masks appear for three days every three years in a ceremony that

“opens with a series of altar sacrifices to the ancestors of the various lineages or to other forces considered influential intermediaries between the realms of human life and divine power. During the next few days the masks, accompanied by drums and flutes, are danced individually before the critical but appreciative eyes of the assembled audience… At the end of the three-day period, after a closing ceremony, the masks disappear for another three years, although they may make appearances in more limited numbers at funeral celebrations during the three year interval for older members of the lineages involved” (Skougstad 1978: 23).


Every three, five, or seven years the young (about 10 years) boys of the community are initiated into the secrets of mask use and meaning, and in their responsibilities as adult members of society. Initiations are carried out clan by clan, and are supervised by clan elders. The initiation is essential for the cohesion and survival of the community, for during the initiation boys are taught the rules for proper social behavior and moral conduct that must guide them the rest of their lives. Initiations are held in a wooded grove called subara, “the place of Su” not far from a swamp or river, where the work of preparing mask costumes can be carried out. Initiation is called buzuyu, “entrance into the swamp.” Those who organize the initiation are called the sukwagnina, a word that is remarkably similar to sukwanga, the name for mask initiates among the nyonyosé in the Mossi area. During the initiation, the boys are subjected to physical, moral, and intellectual tests, including wrestling matches with masks. The boys are afraid to begin, for they are told that they are to be consumed by a mask and later reborn. They enter a hidden clearing where they first see the masks and their costumes displayed on the ground. They are taught the meanings of the geometric patterns on the masks and the significance and meaning in their lives as adults of the mask’s names. Each name represents a moral lesson that is carefully elaborated and discussed by the clan elders and initiates. Masks communicate a moral force, for their function is to direct the moral conduct of life in a traditional community. They then learn how to make the mask costumes, and work through the long, hot days preparing the fibers, while at night they practice dancing with the masks. The initiation ends on the fourteenth day, and on the following day they leave the grove and return to their homes. The masks also return to the village, where special sacrifices of millet flour are placed on the shrines to Su. Su is asked to grant a lucky performance season and to provide health for the community. Each mask, with its new costume, dances in turn before each shrine in the community. Finally, the new initiates dance wearing the masks on each market day until the beginning of the rains. They receive constant criticism from their elders on the quality of their performance, and only those judged to be proficient are allowed to continue to perform the following year (Nao 1984: 75-85).

Masks may also appear at other times throughout the year for special events, especially if the health or prosperity of the community is threatened by an impending disaster. The power of the masks is called upon to solve special problems. The most common request addressed to the spirits represented by masks is for human fertility. Numerous informants state that there were no children in their family, or that all the children of the community had died of disease, so a spirit was contacted through a mask and the problem was solved. When children are born with their fists clenched or their eyes closed or the umbilical cord wrapped around the neck their father may have a mask carved that he will wear and pass on to the child after initiation. When problems of disease, famine, or infertility trouble a family or clan, sacrifices may be made on a local magical object, or a mask may be carved.

The mask performances that the casual visitor is most likely to see are market day dances that are performed by the less sacred masks, wamu. The young men of the community perform in turn beginning at about 4: 30 PM on market day, when the sun is low enough in the sky that the air has begun to cool. The performers are usually between 16 and 25 years of age, and state that they hope to impress the marriageable young women who attend the market. These young women often pick a favorite performer and present him with gifts to show their interest. The best performers may have a following of many young women, like rock stars in our own countries. The performances are often more elaborate and show greater skill and talent than more sacred dances at funerals. Although market day performances have no sacred function, the audience shows proper respect for the masks.

Masks’ Meanings:

The shape of the mask, its geometric patterns, and colors constitute the elements of a system of communication. Each element has a meaning which may vary from one group to another, and also within the village or even within a single clan. As a result, while some symbols keep their meanings from ethnic group to group, such as the numbers three and four, which refer to man and woman throughout the Western Sudan, the signs carved on the masks comprise an esoteric language.

Many masks are representations of animal forms. These natural forms are then combined with attributes of other powerful animals. Whether masks seem to resemble a recognizable animal, or combine geometric shapes to form totally abstract shapes, they all represent spirits from the bush. On the exoteric level of the uninitiated or very young initiates masks represent the spirits of the bush who act as intermediaries between the creator God and mankind. At the most esoteric level, open only to the oldest male initiates, the mask and its geometric signs are visible reminders of the social, political, economic and religious order of the community.

Each of the masks has a name that describes a moral lesson or a life experience for the initiates and the community as a whole. In the Nuna village of Zavara two masks are named fua yi keyi or “to suffer is to be forewarned” and ya yu ya dmu or “disease is our enemy.” In several northern Nunuma communities, including Serena and Tierko, a plank mask is named zonie or “speak a word”–you must speak up and be aggressive to protect your children from witchcraft. Another mask with a broad face and open, diamond-shaped mouth surmounted by a plank with two stylized human figures is called durbisie or “run without resting”–one must be forever vigilant against witchcraft. A Winiama mask with a long, downward curving nose, and everted mouth, and a plank with several hook shapes is named kanabadidie “a woman cannot own a house” –the center of every family is a man who is responsible for relations with spirits and ancestors, and a family without a male head is incomplete (Roy 1985: 2, 6).

The geometric patterns incised on masks are described as scars, worn by the men and women in the community. In differentiating between mask styles, informants point out that the patterns carved on masks differ in the same ways that the scars humans wear differ. Indeed, the geometric carved patterns and the patterns of scars have the same meanings. These patterns are a visual vocabulary in an initiatory language and the meanings vary with increasing levels of understanding by the initiate. For example, a triangle may represent the hoof print of the koba antelope at the most exoteric level of meaning, or a man at a more esoteric level, or finally Su at the most esoteric level. The young initiate begins to learn this vocabulary at the early stages of initiation, but will only acquire fluency as an elder. Each of the geometric patterns on a mask is a symbol in a phrase that describes the meaning and importance of the mask itself. When all of the symbols are taken together they give the mask a name that refers to a lesson in the proper conduct of life. It is clear that the mask language is complex and carefully worked out.

Mask Myths:

Masks come from the bush and incarnate the spirit Su. Each mask has its own myth of origin, or story of its discovery. Each has its own personality traits and behavior patterns that are understood by its owners and recognized by everyone in the community. These behavior and personality patterns include its dance, music and the songs that accompany its performance.

Masks are the special concern of hunters and farmers who encounter them in the bush while pursuing game or clearing fields. There are numerous stories that tell of the encounters between a man and a mask spirit.

In the Nuna village of Zavara a young boy was once working in the bush clearing new fields for his father to plant. One day a vast area of the sky descended toward him. In it was a monstrous mask with its costume and whip, which began to dance as soon as it touched the ground. The boy was too astonished to move or approach the mask, so he simply watched for a while until the apparition disappeared. This happened again each day for several days. One evening the boy told his father what he had seen. Surprised, the man said that they must capture the strange being. The next day the boy returned to the field and saw the mask appear and begin to dance, but was afraid to approach. When he returned home that evening his father scolded him and told him to bring the mask with him the next day. The boy went out in the morning determined to capture the mask at any cost. His father secretly followed him and hid in some bushes to watch. When the mask appeared the boy hesitated. Suddenly he heard his father call out to him reminding him of his obligation. The boy ran up and seized the mask, which instantly vaporized, leaving behind only the fiber costume and the wooden head. The boy and his father carried these back to their village to show their neighbors. They became the first su-tian or mask chiefs in Zavara (Nao 1984: 62-3).

A young Winiama man from the Naniebô neighborhood of Ouri was walking through the bush on his way to the Black Volta to go fishing when he stumbled on an old iron hoe blade. He left it on the path and continued his journey, only to stumble over the same blade a few hundred yards farther along. When this happened a third time he picked up the blade with great fear and returned immediately to his father’s compound. He and his father visited the local diviner where the young man recounted his story. The diviner cast cowries and manipulated a small mat (pelo in Winié) of rattan that seemed to open and close spontaneously as he held it folded vertically. The diviner told the young man and his father that a spirit from the bush (niblé) had appeared through the blade he had discovered and that it would protect the young man and his family if he carved a mask in which it could live and through which it could speak. The diviner then placed on the ground between him and his clients a row of small, cast brass representations of masks. He grasped a carved wooden cane with a hook at the end (poui, or lopui) and held it over the brass mask models. The young man also held the cane, and after passing it back and forth along the line of tiny brass masks, it suddenly struck one that represented the form the new mask was to take. The young man went to the blacksmiths of the Konaté family in the village and ordered the mask, which he then used for the first time in ceremonies at the end of the dry season to drive malevolent spirits from the neighborhood.

A young man of the blacksmith clan in the Winiama village of Ouri was searching in the bush for wood to sculpt when he encountered a spirit in the form of a mask. The mask danced so beautifully that the man was compelled to seize it. A long, violent struggle followed and the mask escaped. The young man returned to his neighborhood, dancing all the way just as the mask had danced. When he arrived at his home, still dancing, he could not speak and did not recognize his family. He lived in a semiconscious stupor for several days until his father accompanied him to a diviner, who prescribed a mask identical to an old mask the family had once owned but that had been stolen by a Malian trader. A new mask was quickly carved, the boy wore it in a dance, and when he removed the mask at the end of the performance he was cured. A Winiama man was hunting in the bush very near the Black Volta River one day years ago when he encountered a spirit that was so huge that it could not even stand on its four enormous legs. He asked the carvers in Ouri to produce a mask to represent the spirit, but they could not because they had never seen such a thing. Only the oldest men in the village had ever seen the being. The man finally found an elderly carver in Soubouy who could carve the mask as it had appeared to the hunter. The mask now belongs to the hunter’s son, Ivo Ouobô in the Naniebô neighborhood in Ouri. It is called kodû, the hippopotamus.

Numerous legends tell similar stories, and many describe recent events. The combination of modern stories passed on as popular literature and more ancient oral traditions give vitality to the art history of masks.

Figures and Divination Equipment:

While wooden masks are numerous and highly visible in gurunsi villages, figural sculpture is numerous but much more private and invisible. Figures are kept hidden in private homes, on family altars or on the shrines of diviners, and their use is restricted to divination.

Like masks, wooden figures represent spirits that men encounter in the wild bush, far from cultivated fields. The most powerful and dangerous spirits appear to men who possess special skill as manipulators or users of supernatural forces. These men are called vo koma in Winié, vuru in Nuni. Because they have the power to consult with spirits to solve clients problems and to read the future, I will call them diviners. They are greatly feared in their communities because they can use their powers both to help their clients and to harm their enemies, powers that they used effectively against Mossi invaders in the 16th century. There are entire Nunuma villages that have widespread reputations as communities of magicians. Travelers fear to pass these villages during the night for fear that their own souls will be captured and eaten by diviners. Each diviner may possess one or several spirits that he or his male ancestors encountered in the bush, and that are embodied in magical objects. The objects may be simple balls of sacrificial materials and concoctions of clay, animal and plant parts, and manmade objects such as bottles or iron or stone blades, canes of various shapes bearing carved figures, or they may be figures of wood or brass.

All of these objects are kept hidden deep in the most remote rooms of the diviner’s home. In many cases, when in use, large areas of the figures are covered with thick accumulations of sacrificial and magical material that feeds the spirit embodied by the figure. The numerous blood sacrifices and bits of animal parts used in the magical bundles create an sickening stench.

The equipment of the diviner may include long wooden staves, called dambeô in Winié. These bear, midway on the staff, naturalistic human figures that represent spirits. During the divination process, the client and the diviner may together grasp the handle of a smaller hook-shaped staff or wand that bears a carved figure at the angle of the handle and hook. These are called lopui or poui, and are tapped against the ground as the diviner chants, in a secret language, the spirit’s response to the client’s questions.

Figures called dimbiê in Winié are usually anthropomorphic and naturalistic, bearing the traditional scars of the ethnic group to which the diviner belongs. When in use, large areas of the figure are covered with thick accumulations of sacrificial and magical materials that feed the spirit embodied by the figure. Nunuma and Winiama figures are quite angular, with heavy brows, flat cheeks, and the head narrowed from side to side, emphasized by a sagittal ridge flanked by protruding ears, as in the small figure that surmounts the Winiama heddle pulley, and the twin spirit figures on the Winiama mask in the same collection. Nuna figures tend to be more fully rounded ad refined, representing a standing figure with knees slightly flexed, the arms parallel to the torso. The face and torso bear traditional Nuna scars.

The Bwa People of Central Burkina

A great deal of confusion on the part of scholars of Voltaic culture has arisen from the practice of early French ethnographers (especially Tauxier) of referring to the Bwa as Bobo or Bobo-Oulé, with the implication that they are related to the Bobo-Fing. The term “Bobo-Oulé” is a Jula name given to the Bwa.

Early sources describe three ethnic subgroups in the area of the Black Volta: the Bobo-Fing, the Bobo-Oulé, and the Bobo-Nieniegué. The first are the true Bobo and do not recognize any relationship with the Bwa. The latter two comprise the Bwa, and are quite distinct from the Bobo. The “Bobo-Oulé” (Red Bobo in Jula) call themselves Bwa and, out of a sense of admiration for Bobo social unity and cohesion often claim a relationship with the Bobo. The southern Bwa are called nyaynegay (or nieniegué) “scarred Bwa” because of the elaborate scars applied to their faces and bodies. The southern Bwa live in the region called the Kademba.

Although the Bwa and the Bobo are similar in several ways, especially in the lack of central political authority and the common cult of Do, they are quite different in their world view. The Bwa are open and receptive to outside influences, and their society is in a constant process of change, while the Bobo are far more conservative, preferring to preserve the purity of their traditions. In addition, their language, religious ceremonies, initiations and especially their sculptural styles are quite different. The studies of Guy Le Moal and Jean Capron make these differences quite clear.

There are about 125,000 Bwa in Mali, and 175,000 in Burkina Faso, totaling 300,000 Bwa. They speak Bwamu, a Voltaic language with numerous local dialects. The Bwa are surrounded by the Bobo to the west, the Bamana to the north (Mali), the Marka Dafing to the east, and the gurunsi and Lobi to the south.

The Bwa occupy large areas of Mali and Burkina Faso, extending from the banks of the Bani River in Mali in the north almost to Diébougou and the Ghana/Burkina border in the south. Bwa country is divided into two major zones of occupation, the northern stretching from the Bani to the city of Nouna, and the southern from Dédougou and Solenzo to Houndé in the south. The only natural boundary is the Bani River. The area is bisected by the Bandiagara-Banfora cliffs, running southwest to northeast along the border between Burkina Faso and Mali, and is drained in large part by the Black Volta River. The area includes four major geographical zones: the valley of the Bani, in the north; the high rocky plateau between Bandiagara and Banfora; the wet and fertile valley of the Black Volta; and the region of low hills and dry but fertile soils of the far south. Most of the area is covered with grassy park lands, with more heavily forested areas close to rivers, and some dense forests on the banks of southern rivers.

Above all, the Bwa are farmers, and they consider this to be the most noble of occupations. Most work in the fields is done by men, although women help out occasionally during planting, some harvests, and by carrying harvested crops to the village. In addition to cotton, the Bwa grow grains (millet, sorghum, rice…), root crops (yams), ground peas and peanuts. The Bwa now grow so much cotton they often must purchase food for cash in distant markets. The gathering of wild crops, which continues every year, contributes substantially to their diet. Women gather the fruits of the karité and the neré, which grow at the edges of the village and among the fields. Other wild foods are gathered in the bush, as women return from the fields, or while collecting firewood. These are either eaten immediately, or used to prepare ritual drinks. The stems and leaves of many plants are used in preparing sauces and as medications. Men construct basketry beehives that are placed in the branches of trees in the bush. The wild honey is gathered by children and is used to brew a delicious drink of millet flour, honey and water that is avidly consumed during festivals. Traditionally there was little livestock raising, except for a few goats and chickens to be offered in sacrifices. Now more and more Bwa are keeping donkeys for animal traction and beef cattle. In addition to the usual male/female division of life, Bwa life is segmented into three endogamous casts: farmers, smiths, and griots (musicians), each with its own tasks to perform. Among farmers, men work in the fields, care for bees, build houses, and make baskets and plaited rope. They hunt and fish as well. Woman are responsible for all domestic chores, care for children, and gather wild crops. They also participate occasionally in farm work. Women used to make large quantities of vegetable butter from the karité and soap from the neré, which were sold in the market. Woman brew the millet beer that is essential for all rituals. Smiths work with metal, and once smelted their own iron from local ore. Now, recycled metal from wrecked automobiles has replaced smelted iron. Smiths repair tools, household equipment, and machinery, including motorbikes. They also carve wood and stone, while their wives are potters. Griots weave, sew, and dye cotton. This work has been less in demand with the introduction of machine dyed and woven cloth from Europe and from the textile mill in Koudougou. They also are responsible for tanning and sewing leather. Griots once prepared the cowries that were used to decorate dance costumes and other special clothing. They are the musicians at mask performances. Their wives dye cotton thread and fashion hairstyles. Both smiths and griots may own land, but farming is a very secondary occupation. It must be remembered that this division of occupations is never strictly followed. Weavers carve their own equipment, and any villagers can shape the handle for a tool, and are not required to buy from a specialist. In addition to their work with metal, smiths dig wells and bury the dead. All of his activities bring him in contact with the earth, and with divine force. For this reason his place in society as an arbiter with the supernatural world is essential.

The griot is equally essential, as an intermediary in important transactions, and as a musician whose presence is required at all public ceremonies (Capron 1973: 208-816).

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Mask house in a Bwa village with masks drying following a performance. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The Bwa live in village communities in which the mud walled, flat-roofed buildings are concentrated in a tight, easily defended cluster, with narrow streets and frequent open plazas in which livestock are guarded at night. During the dry season, when the Bwa are not working in their fields and engage in craft activities, the streets are busy with women cooking and tending children, making pottery and spinning, and men making baskets, carving wooden household implements, and weaving. While the Mossi work behind the walls of their widely scattered compound residences, the Bwa work in the streets that pass before their homes, and it is a wonderful experience to walk through the streets of a Bwa village during the dry season.

The Bwa live in independent villages devoid of central political authority. All decisions are made by a council of the male elders of the local lineages, and all external authority is strongly resisted. The independence and authority of the lineages is submerged to the good of the community. This independence has had disadvantages, for it made the Bwa weak militarily in the face of Fulani and French invasions. Bwa independence has had great advantages as well, for when they are faced with a problem, conflict or disaster they tend to marshal the manpower needed to face the challenge without waiting to be told what to do by some higher authority, in contrast to the Mossi who have grown so dependent on their system of chiefs that they cannot move without the permission and supervision of the traditional or contemporary political leader. Young Bwa men have organized themselves into voluntary associations that deal effectively with the economic and social demands of life in a modern West African state.

Until the 18th century, the bend of the Black Volta had been occupied by many disorganized original peoples. This began to change with the rise of the Jula kingdom of Kong, headed by a Sudanese ruler. Numerous dynasties that originated among a small number of families, founded several states in the region, incorporating some autochthonous peoples. A long period of unrest continued until the end of the 19th century, characterized by general destruction whose principal victims were the local farmers, unable to unite to resist the raiders effectively.

Until the 18th century the Bwa were protected from the conflicts between neighboring states. In the 18th century the Bamana empire of Segou came into power, occupying a large part of the Bwa lands in Mali. The Bwa were forced to pay taxes, and the Bamana carried out raids into unconquered areas, creating an insecure environment. This continuous instability weakened Bwa social, political, and economic systems.

The 19th century marked the decline of the Bamana empire and the rise to power of a predominantly Moslem Fulani empire whose power reached to the Bwa along the Bani River. Incursions were carried out into the interior of Bwa country, bringing the destruction of villages and crops, the theft of animals, and the enslavement of men and women, or the forced enlistment of men in the Fulani army. In addition to raids by armed soldiers, roving bands of brigands used the period of confusion to raid villages that were poorly organized to resist.

Groups of animist Fulani, resistant to Islam, sought refuge in Bwa villages in the valley of the Black Volta and slowly became integrated into village society.

The arrival of the French, in 1897, led the Bwa and their indigenous neighbors to hope for an end to the Fulani invasions. Instead the French reinforced the power of these brigands, using them to gain control over the area. The French administration proved to be the greater of the two evils, for while the foreign invaders such as the Fulani had raided occasionally but had not interfered on a wide scale with Bwa social structure, the French imposed a foreign administration, including a new centralized authority, interfering with and greatly damaging independent Bwa social institutions. The culmination of all of this was a severe famine from 1911-1913, made worse by the villager’s inability to store grain during rich years for use during lean years due to excessive French taxation. This, coupled with French demands for military recruits in 1914-1915, resulted in a revolt by the great majority of Bwa villages. The insurrection was put down in six months in a series of extremely bloody battles, marked by the determination of the Bwa to fight to the death rather than to submit to enslavement by a foreign power. The French used Fulani mercenaries, heavy artillery, and machine guns and razed all the offending villages. By June, 1916 the revolt was over and the surviving Bwa struggled back to their burned fields and villages to begin to rebuild.

Among the earliest changes imposed on the Bwa by French colonialists was the cultivation of cotton in large quantities. Jean Capron has told me that the cultivation of cotton by the Bwa has contributed more to the deterioration of traditional Bwa culture than any other factor. Because the Bwa are paid individually for their crops, all cooperative labor in the fields has ceased, eradicating an essential cohesive force in Bwa society (Capron 1973: 91-107).

Religion and Beliefs: Only 5% of Bwa are Moslem, 10% are Christian, while fully 85% are traditional animists. For most Bwa, spiritual life centers on the cult of Do, and on the myths that recount the founding of the clans.

The Cult of Do

The religious leader is an earth priest, the labié, who is the oldest male member of the clan that first occupied the land on which the village is established. The cult of Do is a major cohesive force in the traditional Bwa community, providing the cultural bonding that makes the Bwa a unified ethnic group.

The Bwa believe that the world was created by God, named Difini, or Dobweni, who abandoned man and left the earth when he was wounded by a woman pounding millet with her pestle. To act as his representative among man and as an intermediary between man and the forces of nature, Dobweni sent his son, Do. Although Do is androgynous, both male and female, it is most frequently represented as male. Do represents the bush and its life-giving force, for the Bwa still depend on the bush for game and gathered food. He shows himself as the source of plant life and the power that gives fruit to man’s work in the fields. Do is concerned with all ceremonies that insure the renewal of life.

Do is represented by an iron bull-roarer that is called aliwé “he weeps” or linyisâ “he makes a sound”. “The man who carries this Do whirls it about his head. The sound that is produced is low and vibrating: it is the voice of Do (dotanu) (Capron 1957: 86). The iron bull-roarer is kept in an earthen pot at the edge of the village, where cultivated fields and wild bush meet. Do is also represented by masks called bieni, made exclusively of wild plants (stalks, grass, and leaves), because they must not resemble the creations of man.

Oral histories of Bwa clans describe the encounters between the founding ancestors and the revered grandparents as they confronted the real and spiritual beings that inhabit their world. These events are described in numerous myths, a few of which I relate here.

The Hyena

Elders of the Nyumu (Gnoumou) family in Boni tell of the days when hyenas used to enter the village freely at night. One night a hyena stole a female goat from a house in the Nyumu neighborhood. The head of the family heard the noise and ran outdoors after the hyena, which fled over the high hill that rises to the north of Boni, carrying the goat in its powerful jaws. As it ran up the hill, pursued by the elder, the hyena became exhausted, until, dropping the goat, it turned and leaped at the elder. The old man was bowled over, and in his fright, as he fended off the teeth of the hyena, he cried out to his ancestors that if they spared him he would sacrifice a chicken to honor them. The old man dashed off down the hill with the hyena hot on his heels. The beast even succeeded in locking its teeth in the elder’s blanket, and bounced down the hill on his haunches as the elder dragged him along. Reaching his home the old man dashed inside and slammed the door, leaving the hyena on the outside with his blanket between his teeth. The next morning the men of the village awoke to find the animal waiting for the elder to emerge. They were about to kill it with their arrows when the elder called out through his door to spare the beast or he also would die. The men then brought out the monkey mask and the bush pig mask to chase away the hyena, which disappeared into the bush. The next day the local diviner told the family to acquire a hyena mask to commemorate the event.

The Serpent

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Serpent mask, village of Pa, 1984. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Many years ago the men of Dossi raided a neighboring village and were routed. An elder from Dossi hid from his vengeful pursuers in the burrow of a great serpent, saying to the serpent that he was not there to harm it but to save his own life. He was forced to hide for two market weeks, during which time the serpent brought game to the burrow for the elder to eat. When, eventually, the elder returned to Dossi, he consulted a diviner, who told him to carve a mask and to respect the serpent as a protective spirit.

The Dwarf

The Bondé family in Boni tells the story of an ancestor who remained the size of a small child throughout his long life. At that time the bush surrounding the village was very dense and dangerous, full of savage animals. Hyenas often came right into the village. The dwarf, armed only with a tiny knife, and wearing tiny sandals, wandered freely through the hills, spending day after day with the animals. His father, fearing that he would be killed and eaten by a savage beast, warned him not to go into the bush, but he was never harmed, though he often spent nights beyond the safety of the village. At great age he lay on his death bed and asked his family to remember him after death with a small mask, identical in every detail to the great plank masks. The mask was carved and carried to his room, but when they entered his family found that his body had disappeared, leaving behind only the tiny knife and sandals. The knife is still used for killing chickens for sacrifice. The mask named luruya represents this dwarf elder.

Each of these myths is recreated by the performance of the wooden masks.

Masks: Leaf masks, called bieni, that represent the spirit Do are used throughout Bwa country, in the north and south as well. In the most southern area called Kademba, near the gurunsi, inhabited by the “scarred-Bwa” or nyaynegay, people use the wooden masks for which the Bwa are famous. Wooden masks represent characters in family myths and have nothing to do with Do.

Leaf Masks:

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Leaf mask with elder woman, 1985. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.


Leaf masks are made of wild vines that are wrapped around the body tightly enough that the costume will not slip, but loosely enough that the performer’s movements will not be restricted. To this wrapping of vines are bound small bundles of green leaves so that every inch of the human body is concealed. A crest of dried grasses called bwosonu (Loudetia togoensis) is bound to the head, or in some villages may be made of white “eagle” feathers gathered in the bush .

Wooden Masks:

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Crocodile mask. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Bwa wooden masks represent a number of characters in the myths of their families and clans. Masks represent numerous animals including the antelope, bush buffalo, monkey, and bush pig. Water-dwellers include the crocodile, and fish of several types. The serpent, and insects including the butterfly appear, as do birds including hawks and vultures. Several human characters appear, including the leper, and the crazy man and his wife. Other masks represent bush spirits that take supernatural forms.

Masks are either representational and depict animals, or are abstract, and have a stylized face surmounted by a tall, rectangular plank.

Bwa masks are face masks, worn attached to a fiber costume that covers the head. The performer bites hard on a thick fiber rope that passes through holes in the mask, and so secures the mask to his face. Bwa masks, especially the plank masks, tend to be two-dimensional, and do not extend to the back of the head. The fiber costumes worn with masks are traditionally either red or black. Red is much more common and the Bwa have begun to use bright European dyes to produce green, yellow, and purple fiber collars or mantles to be worn with red shirts and trousers.

Animal Masks:

The name of a mask type may vary from village to village as variations in languages occur, for mask names are usually the names of the animals they represent. For example, the snake mask is called doho in Boni and honu in Pa.

The many different animals that are represented can be identified by the shapes of the horns or by the form of the face, which is basically similar from one type to another. The head includes a long muzzle, which, in the case of the buffalo mask, takes the form of an open triangle, with large round eyes surrounded by concentric circles. The antelope and the buffalo are distinguished by their horns, the crocodile by its body covered with scales. The serpent’s body projects high into the sky. The bird masks and butterflies are the most abstract, consisting of a broad, horizontal plank, decorated with large concentric patterns. The mouth projects from the center and there is a large hook representing the hawk’s beak or circles representing the patterns on the butterfly’s wings. The elders of the Kambi clan in Dossi call the masks with broad white wings duho, which means hawk, or duba, which means vulture. These do not represent butterflies, as has been erroneously reported by J.-L. Paudrat (Huet 1978: 103). Butterfly masks, called yehoti in Boni, have eight enormous target patterns spread across their wings. In Pâ, just east of Boni, the elders of the Lamien clan (especially Lamien Nikiebé, mask chief) named the following masks that participated in a harvest festival on March 21, 1984: the hyena is inaburu, bird–icayn, serpent–honu (doho in Boni), monkey–haru, buffalo–lalo, “koba” antelope–, plank with many hooks–bayiri, fish–basi, and plank–kano.

The segment of Bwa society called the kaani, the endogamous blacksmith caste, uses the mask type named kobiay, the rooster, with an everted square mouth and a very large round crest. Although the best-known style of kobiay is produced and used by the smiths of the Didiro clan in Houndé, the mask is also used by smiths in many other Bwa villages, including the Konaté smith clan in the Winiama village of Ouri. In Ouri the rooster mask is named hombo after the society of smiths who offer sacrifices to the spirit that protects them. The smiths of the Didiro clan in Houndé first encountered this hombo spirit when they were forced to flee their home village because they had sacrificed a boy and a girl, buried alive beneath their anvil. In fleeing, they were trapped at the edge of a swamp. The spirit of the swamp, named hombo, in the form of an electric eel, allowed them to cross but destroyed their pursuers. In annual celebrations of this event, a number of masks, of which the most numerous are kobiay, perform in the smith neighborhood. Most of the kobiay in western collections are from Houndé because the smiths of Houndé are deeply involved in the sale of masks on the antiquities market, and few of their masks have escaped theft.

Abstract Masks:

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Nwantantay (plank mask). Photo by Christopher D. Roy.


The most impressive Bwa masks are the great plank masks, named nwantantay, that are used in the southern villages. These are carved on two basic patterns: the majority of plank masks consist of a large oval facial area with a protuberant round mouth through which the performer can see. Below the mouth are three black leaf shapes (triangles), and above are two great target eyes. The face is connected to the plank by a diamond or lozenge from which protrudes a downward-curving and very prominent hook. The plank is a large, vertical rectangle marked with geometric patterns in black and white, and sometimes red. This is, in turn, surmounted by a large crescent with the opening turned up.

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Nwantantay (plank masks), Nyumu family, village of Boni, 1983. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The second major plank-mask type has a diamond-shaped mouth and the great plank is bisected horizontally by the carving of negative “V” shapes that form a large lozenge at the center of the plank, effectively forming two smaller planks. Most of these masks include a small vertical projection that extends from the center of the crescent. The planks are covered with geometric patterns, especially “checkerboards” and large “X”-shaped crosses.

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Plank mask with head musician, village of Dossi, 1985. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.


The elders of the Kambi clan in Dossi claim that the plank masks represent flying spirits and are associated with water. These spirits can take the form of insects that mass around muddy pools after early rains, or of larger birds, including owls and ibis. The key to understanding plank mask forms is that these masks are not representational, but embody supernatural forces that act on behalf of the Bwa clans that use the masks.

Mask Patterns:

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Nwantantay (plank mask). Photo by Christopher D. Roy.


All masks are covered with geometric patterns that are very similar to patterns used by the Mossi and the gurunsi. The geometric patterns represent the scars worn by men and women. The most prominent and ubiquitous of these scars is the “X” or cross on the center of the forehead.

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Patterns on nwantantay (plank mask), 1984. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The Bwa also use the “Voltaic target motif,” black-and-white checkerboards, crescents, zigzags, systems of black and white triangles, curving lines, and lozenges, all colored with natural red, white, and black pigments. As elsewhere in the central Voltaic area, these geometric patterns comprise a system of signs and symbols used in initiations.

The wooden mask traditions among the southern Bwa are recent. Informants from the Nyumu clan in Bagassi who use wooden masks state that they have borrowed their masks from the Winiama of Ouri. The men of the Bondé clan in Boni claim that they have purchased masks from carvers in Ouri and Soubouy. Members of the Nyumu clan in Boni claim that their masks come from the southern Nuna area near Leo.

In the southwest near Dankari and Kongolikan, and in the northwest near Solenzo where the Bwa live in close proximity to the Bobo, a few Bwa clans have adopted wooden masks that are virtually indistinguishable from Bobo masks (cf. Capron 1973: 253, plate VI bottom).

Bwa oral traditions make it clear that the use of leaf masks representing Do is a very ancient practice and that originally all Bwa clans were adherents of Do and used leaf masks. Clans that use the bieni leaf masks state emphatically that those who use wooden nwamba masks have borrowed the practice from the Nunuma and Winiama to the east, and from the Bobo to the west.

Function of Masks:

Whether masks are made of leaves or of wood, they are linked to all important events in Bwa village life. Nevertheless, in regions where they exist in the same community, especially in the south, they often comprise rival cults and never appear together at the same ceremony at the same time, and in some villages never dance on the same day.

In many southern villages, notably Dossi and Bagassi, clans using each type live side by side. Those who have continued to honor Do with leaf masks look on the adoption of wooden masks as heresy and as an attempt to wrest religious authority from its traditional source, the local earth-priest. They have instituted strict prohibitions that prevent members of wooden-mask clans from participating in rites of Do. Clans that have adopted wooden masks and their magic from the Winiama and Nunuma are aggressive and proselytizing. Songs that accompany the nwamba performances often insult the clans that persist in using leaf masks, and refer to them as filthy primitives. As a result, fights frequently break out between these clans that have, in the past, resulted in the intervention of the local military police.

In contrast, masks in the north and northwest participate peacefully in the cult of Do. Here leaf masks integrate man into his natural environment in the spring, when farmers leave their villages to work in the fields. Wooden masks, in contrast, reintegrate man into village society following the harvest, when farmers must return to village society and conform to rules for correct social behavior. Wooden masks serve as agents for social control in these villages. Masks of leaves and other wild-growing materials represent nature, while masks carved of wood with costumes of cultivated fibers represent village culture in the nature/culture balance that is basic to Bwa world view.

Function of Leaf Masks: Do and the masks that embody him are concerned with life and new growth, and not with death, so that these masks rarely participate in funerals. Leaf masks, which are very sacred, may appear briefly to honor the deceased if he belonged to a clan that used leaf masks. The major contexts in which leaf masks appear are initiations and village purification or renewal ceremonies called loponu.

Village Purification: The loponu (lo, village–po, to purify) is one of the most important ceremonies and is held a few weeks before the beginning of the rainy season when fields are cleared and planted. Over the course of a week the villagers celebrate the renewal of nature and purify the village by means of several mask performances. “The goal is to regenerate the human community through participation in the rebirth of plant life and thereby to prepare for the coming of the new rains” (Capron 1957: 103).

Leaf masks are born in the bush, early in the morning, when young initiates of the cult gather vines and the leaves of the karité tree, a symbol of fertility. The mask assistants, who do not perform, wrap the body of the performer in vines from head to toe. The performer may no longer speak, for speech is a human skill. He becomes Do, and performs in rites that represent the dependence of man on the forces of nature for life. In this way “the human community is reintroduced to the cycle of nature, and therefore renews its forces, through the image of the vegetation that is reborn each year” (Capron 1957: 104).

Men pay visits to the sacred places in the village, sanctuaries of Do, ancestral shrines on which the village chief and the priest of Do make numerous sacrifices. At the end of the ceremony, the leaf masks enter the village in a procession that includes all of the men and women of the clans that are adherents of Do. Each compound of the eldest man of each clan is visited in turn, before the masks emerge from the village to perform in the fields. During a leaf-mask performance I attended in Bagassi in 1983, the masks of the Yé clan danced beneath a great tamarind tree in the dry dusty fields in which cotton is planted. Each mask spun wildly, leaping and thrusting his arms wide in an athletic pirouette. The feathers that formed the masks’ crests often were dislodged by the spinning dance and fluttered to the ground, to be gathered quickly by a young boy wearing a carved wooden pendant representation of Do incarnated as a leaf mask. Following the mask performance, at sunset, the leaf masks return to the bush where their assistants cut the vines and burn the entire leaf costume, saving only the white feathers that form the crest.


In the north, initiation into the cult of Do begins at a very early age, and continues into adult life with frequent and numerous steps. In this area, Bwa and Bobo society are so closely linked that the organization and purpose of initiation into the cult of Do in the two peoples is strikingly similar. With increasing knowledge, boys and young men are introduced to masks of leaves and of fibers (see Bobo initiation and Capron 1957, 1973).

Function of Wooden Masks:

In contrast to the leaf masks dedicated to Do, which are used in a cult that unifies the Bwa in their belief in a common creator, wood masks are very family oriented, and are used only by the southern Bwa.

Wooden Bwa masks function in many of the same ways masks function among the Nunuma and Winiama. They play an important role in initiations of young men and women, appear at burials and later at a memorial services. Masks appear at annual renewal ceremonies. Masks appear at many other events during the dry season, including the introduction of newly carved masks and market day dances. Celebrations, funerals, and initiations are organized by individual clans, and rather than unifying the members of a village community, they are actually divisive, for clans compete to give the most elaborate and innovative performances. 

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Hawk mask, Bonde family, village of Boni, 1985. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.


In contrast to almost every initiation that has been described in West Africa, the elders of Dossi state that young men and women are initiated together, in the nude, in a grove of trees just southwest of the hills that surround the village. The bush portion of the initiation lasts fifteen days, when the young men and women of the clan learn the secrets of the masks, the Bwa “X” is applied to their foreheads, the boys are circumcised, and the girls are excised.

In addition to these physical tests, the young men practice wearing the masks, the young women learn the songs that accompany mask performances, most of which mock the leaf masks of the other clans in Dossi.

The initiates learn the meanings of the geometric signs that cover the masks, explained by elders, who use the masks themselves as models, and who also use rectangular boards on which the same signs have been painted. Initially, each of the signs is explained independently of other signs, using didactic boards. Then the meanings of the assembled signs on specific plank masks are explained. Here, as among the gurunsi, the combination of signs communicates a moral or historical lesson that is an essential part of the initiation. These lessons describe the virtues of the ideal, respected member of the community, and the dangers of straying from the path of social behavior marked out by the ancestors. They also illustrate the myths of the founding of the clans. The meaning of each sign can vary depending on the age and level of understanding of the initiate, for only the oldest understand the most profound meanings of the signs. Meaning also can vary with context, with a single sign given different meanings on two different masks. As a result, these do not qualify as elements of a universal language whose meaning should not vary with context, but they are didactic symbols in an esoteric language open to several interpretations depending on need.

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Bidaywhê (cross-shaped scars). Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The most important of the “scars” is the cross, called bidaywhê, that appears on the plank masks and on the foreheads of the Bwa who use masks (Mihin Seouyan, Bagassi, March 19, 1985), and must be cut deeply enough that it cuts the bones of the skull so that the deceased will be recognized by the ancestors when he arrives in the afterworld (Didiro Leoho, blacksmith neighborhood, Houndé, April 17, 1985).

A final sacrifice named zefwazunugu is performed by the elders and young initiates before they return to the village the first time following initiation.


During a funeral organized by the Bondé clan in Boni at the end of March, 1985, the passing of several male and female elders to the world of ancestors was celebrated. Numerous sacrifices were carried out during the four days of the celebration to insure the spirits of the deceased a safe journey to the land of ancestral spirits. The wooden masks of the clan walked, in turn, to the home of each of the dead elders, where a display had been erected of the clothes and tools of the dead person. Offerings of cowrie shells were given to the grieving family by mask attendants. Early in the afternoon, two leaf masks from the lineage of a deceased woman from another village who had married into the Bondé clan performed to honor her passing. Because the Bwa are exogamous and patrilocal, the woman had left her father’s home, where leaf masks are used, at marriage. These masks danced as members of the clan sang songs of mourning and lament. After the leaf masks had returned over the Boni hills to their own community, several plank masks, a hawk mask, two monkeys, and masks representing the “crazy man and his wife” danced in turn, each with its own characteristic dance steps, music, and songs.

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Monkey mask at a market day dance, Nyumu family, village of Boni, 1983. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Near the performance area, in the Bondé neighborhood, the elderly women, wives and sisters of the deceased, mourned, singing laments as tears streamed down their faces.

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Dedougou style masks. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The Bwa in the large town of Dedougou also use wooden masks in a style that is very different from the style used farther south.

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Dedougou style masks. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The plank masks appeared early in the funeral dance. Each performer hopped from foot to foot, kicking the free foot twice in the air forward and back. After a dozen steps, the performer halted, planting his feet firmly, and grasped the short handle that projects downward from the oval face of the mask. Twisting his neck and torso as far to the right as possible, he suddenly rotated his body in the opposite direction in a neck-snapping twist that made the tall, broad plank rotate on its vertical axis 360 degrees to the left and then quickly back again. This was repeated two or three times, often with such force that the performer staggered with the momentum of the great mask. Immediately following each masks’ performance the elders in the audience, especially the women who are relatives of the performer, rushed into the dance area and raised the performer’s hands above his head in a gesture of praise for the skill of his dance.

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Nwantantay (plank mask), Nyumu family, village of Boni, 1983. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Harvest Celebrations:

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Harvest celebration in Pa, 1984. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Harvest celebrations are held in November and December, after the crops have been gathered. Their function is generally to thank the spirits and the ancestors for watching over the village and providing good harvests. For this reason, spirits associated with fertility, including the serpent, and the plank mask with numerous hooks, named bayiri, participate in harvest celebrations. 

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Harvest celebration in Pa, 1984. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

I attended a harvest celebration in Pâ in March, 1984 at which nine masks appeared, including a great serpent, which twisted his head from side to side so rapidly that his long, flexible body appeared to undulate. When I asked the elders of the Lamien family why they were celebrating the harvest in late March, they said that they had just received their cotton checks from the textile mill in Koudougou. They were celebrating the harvest of the major Bwa cash crop.

Mask Consecrations:

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Mask consecration, village of Boni. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

During a mask consecration by the Bondé clan in Boni in March, 1983, nine newly-carved masks were introduced to the community. The ceremony began when the masks emerged from the mask storehouse, in which stands the altar that embodies the spiritual power of the masks, the Bwa equivalent to the Nuna altar to Su. Each performer received a smear of magical medicine on his left foot to prevent accidents during the performance and to prevent wounds from sharp stones. Two planks, two antelopes, two bush-buffaloes, a butterfly and a hawk, and a luruya dwarf plank then paraded to the homes of each of the lineage elders of the Bondé clan to be introduced, to pay their respects to the elders, and to receive offerings. These masks had been carved the year before to replace masks that had been broken, stolen, or sold on the antiquities market. Late in the morning the masks returned to the mask house, and each backed into the house to strip the costume.

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Mask house in a Bwa village with masks drying following a performance. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Costumes and masks were placed in the sun on the roof of the house to dry while the participants awaited the afternoon performance. After several hours when everyone in the community consumed large quantities of millet beer, the masks again emerged just before dusk, when the air was beginning to cool.

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Plank mask in front of old house, village of Boni. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Each danced in turn, ending with the antelope and bush-buffalo pair. These masks’ performance consists of a rapid tossing of the head up and down so that the mask almost touches the ground in front of the performer, and the tips of the horns almost touch his back, as the performer steadies himself with two wooden canes held in his hands to represent the animal’s forelegs. The antelopes danced first, and then the larger buffalo. As the beat of the drums and flutes increased, the buffalo saluted the assembled elders, raising his arms above his head. He then walked through the audience to a field about fifty yards away and danced to the sound of the distant drums. As he completed his performance, dropping to his knees, the audience roared with laughter, and I asked an elder why the buffalo had performed in a field where no one could watch. The response was, “you know, buffaloes are very stupid.”

Market Day Dances:

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Monkey mask at a market day dance, Nyumu family, village of Boni, 1983. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

On market days, performances are organized to entertain the villagers and traveling merchants, and to permit young men to meet young women they might marry. 

At a market day dance in Dossi, in March, 1985 sixteen masks appeared, including a butterfly and a hawk. The butterfly mask had broad wings covered with eight enormous target patterns to represent the colored markings on the butterflies’ wings. The hawk mask, here and in Boni, has plain white wings, without decoration. The hawk masks’ performance consists of rapidly rotating the mask vertically around the performer’s face, first clockwise, then counterclockwise. The butterfly, which is much larger and heavier, simply rotates rapidly in place horizontally. Butterflies are symbols of new life brought by moisture in the spring, for they hatch and cluster around pools left by the first rains of the year. A new mask in the community was Mamy Wata, imported recently from southern Nigeria.

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Mamy Wata mask, village of Boni, 1983. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Whether the dances are sacred or secular, there is a great deal of competition between southern Bwa clans that use wooden nwamba to produce more elaborate and spectacular performances than neighboring villages. When the young men of one village attend a performance nearby and see a mask type that they admire, they may purchase permission to use the type in their own village. They may purchase the new mask from the original carver, or commission it from an artist in their own village. An artist in Boni may omit an important detail in a mask intended for use in Pâ, so that the young men of Boni can claim to have superior masks. An artist in Pâ may carve a longer, more impressive copy of the Dossi serpent mask so that the young men of Pâ can claim to have the more impressive serpent, and thereby attract more marriageable young women to their market day performances. When a clan acquires a new mask type from their neighbors, they may consult a diviner who retroactively incorporates the new spirit into the myths of the history of the clan. As a result, the oral history of the clan remains creative and vital.

Meaning of Wooden Masks:

When a mask is commissioned by the elders of a clan, the patterns that are to be carved in low relief are described carefully to the artist. The combination of the motifs gives the mask its initiatory name, as among the Nunuma and Winiama. During public performances the initiatory name is not used to address the mask, but rather a public name is used that is chosen by the owner. The Bwa in Boni have recently begun to carve these popular names into the back of each plank mask. In many cases, masks have been marred by the addition of this name to the back of the plank. Among the most interesting is “Mami-Wata” (a goddess of well-being, fertility, and wealth imported from India through southern Nigeria), suggested by a young Bwa man who worked for several months on an oil-drilling rig in the Niger River Delta, and was expelled from Nigeria in 1983. It is important to understand that these plank masks are not representational; they are not intended to look like any natural being, but they embody supernatural forces that act on behalf of the Bwa clans that own the masks.

As these symbols are taught to the initiates, each has a specific meaning associated with the oral history of the clan. Each has an individual meaning, a second meaning in association with other patterns, and a meaning that varies with the level of knowledge of the initiate. The meanings that I give here are only intended as examples, and reflect my own superficial understanding.

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Nwantantay (plank mask), Nyumu family, village of Boni, 1983. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Small black triangles, carved on the plank of the mask, may represent the hoof prints of the “koba” antelope, the male number three, or the iron bull-roarers that represent Do. A white zigzag line that crosses the plank horizontally is the path taken by the ancestors to the sacred grove in which sacrifices are offered to the magical spirit of the masks. A zigzag may also represent the path of proper or improper behavior in village society.

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Nwantantay (plank mask), Nyumu family, village of Boni, 1983. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

A white semicircle on the upper half of the face of the mask represents the field in which the initiates first dance with the masks following their initiation. Two target motifs near the center of the plank represent the sacred wells in Boni that were discovered by the ancestors when they first arrived in the area, and which never go dry. The mouth of the mask may also represent the sacred wells, whose water may only be used by the mask clans in the village. On the round facial area of the mask these targets represent the eyes of an owl, a bird that is a symbol of magical power.

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Monkey mask at a market day dance, Nyumu family, village of Boni, 1983. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

A black and white chevron pattern, either vertical or horizontal, represents the skeleton of the sacred Bwa serpent that lives in remote, high mountainous areas. A broad black “V” or chevron represents the sacrifice ending the initiation.

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Plank masks with checkerboard pattern. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The checkerboard of black and white rectangles represent the black and white hides that initiates sit on. The worn, sooty black hide mats are used by the knowledgeable elders as they sit watching mask rituals, and the white rectangles represent the fresh, new light-colored hides that their more junior and less wise assistants sit on. The black and white rectangles represent the separation of knowledge and ignorance, the initiated and the uninitiated. The large white crescent that surmounts the masks represents the “moon of masks” that shines during the season that the masks perform. A dark, narrow border to the opening of the crescent is a symbol for the dark of the moon.

Burkina Faso; Bwa peoples. Nwantantay (plank mask), Nyumu family, village of Boni, 1983. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The three triangles that radiate downward from the round mouth of the mask represent the leaves of the Kenaf (mpapunu in Bwamu), that is used to fabricate the masks’ costume. Placed on the round face of the mask, these may also represent the tears that fall to mourn the death of an elder. There are numerous interpretations of the meaning of the prominent hook that projects from the face of the mask. Elder Kambi clan informants in Dossi who I feel are dependable stated that this hook represents the circumcised penis of the initiated Bwa adolescent. Alternatively, Bwa smith informants in Ouri told me that the hook represents the beak of a hornbill which is a magical bird closely associated with divination. Again, meaning vary from family to family, from village to village, and from one level of initiation to another.

Bwa Figures:

Both free-standing figures, and figures carved on canes are used in two major contexts: fertility rites and divination.

Jürgen Zwernemann has published a lengthy description of a large wooden figure from the village of Boni (1962: 149-152). The figure is about 80 cm. (32″) tall, with low-relief geometric patterns on the head, shoulders, and arms that are painted red, white and black. The female figure is named mwiha (or muiha, nuiha) and is used in annual sacrifices of purification of the village and consecration of masks which Zwernemann calls a “springtime fertility festival.” The figure is a symbol of fertility, bestowing good harvests and healthy children. Infertile women offer sacrifices to ask for children. It is carried from lineage compound to compound once a year, accompanied by the large wooden masks, to bless the compounds. At the end of the procession a chicken is placed on its back on the head of the figure and expires spontaneously.

My own informants in Boni confirmed this information thirty years after Zwernemann’s visit. However, the ancient figure studied by Zwernemann in 1955 was stolen in the late 70’s by one of the masons who helped build the new Catholic church in Boni. He carried it to his home in Nouna where he and most of his family reportedly died, victims of the figure’s power.

The Bwa also carve dance staffs in the shape of a “T” with small figures placed in a row across the head of the “T”. These staffs are carried by young men who dance with them in the empty fields following the harvest in October and November. The performance is intended to bring bounteous crops and many healthy children to the lineage during the coming year. The figures, which include birds, animals, and men and women carrying tools or weapons, represent spirits. They are usually not carved of a single piece of wood but are joined to the staff.

The Bwa use carved wooden figures as well as figures modelled in clay in the same contexts in which they are used by the Nunuma and Winiama: diviners place figures, called nyihabê in Bagassi or nkâsyu in Houndé, on shrines that embody protective bush spirits. The supernatural power of these spirits can be manipulated by the diviner for his clients’ benefit. Fully carved anthropomorphic figures are much less common among the Bwa than among the gurunsi, however. Brass or copper bracelets with a pair of small spirit figures standing together and projecting upward from the bracelet are essential tools of the diviner. These are called mwani in Bagassi or hinobiû in Houndé, and are placed next to the larger carved or modelled figures during consultations with the spirits.

The equipment of the Bwa diviner is similar to that of Nunuma and Winiama diviners, including hooked canes with small spirit figures carved at the junction of handle and hook, and long staffs with spirit figures carved on one or two sections near the upper end of each staff.

The vital and changing mask traditions of the southern Bwa may serve as illustrations of Bwa attitudes toward new ideas and their own lives. The Bwa are very open and receptive to change. They are quick to adopt new ideas or forms that they find useful, and to adapt or transform these discoveries to fit their own specific needs. In this way they are fundamentally different than the Bobo, who wish, above all, to remain faithful to “the path of the ancestors.”

The Bobo (Bobo-Fing)

Western Voltaic Peoples.

Although the section on funerals is based on my own observations among the southern Bobo, much of what follows draws on the detailed and very informative publication Les Bobo: Nature et fonction des masques, by Guy Le Moal (Paris: O.R.S.T.O.M., 1980).

The Bobo People (Bobo Fing):

Both Guy Le Moal and Jean Capron seem to agree that the Bobo and the Bwa should be considered to be distinct peoples , who have drawn on a common pool of religious belief, resulting in many cultural similarities. Among the most important common characteristics is the cult of Dwo represented by masks of leaves.

In much of the literature on African art the group that lives in the area of Bobo-Dioulasso is called Bobo-Fing. These people call themselves Bobo. They speak a Mandé language. The Bobo number about 110,000 people, with the great majority in Burkina Faso, although the area occupied by the Bobo extends north into Mali.

The Bobo are far from homogeneous. They are an ancient amalgamation of several peoples who have assembled around a number of core clans that do not preserve any oral traditions of immigration into the area. Their language and culture are more closely related to those of their Mandé neighbors to the north, the Bamana and Minianka, than to their Voltaic neighbors the gurunsi and Mossi, but they should be thought of as a southern extension of the Mandé people, that live in what is now Burkina Faso, rather than an intrusive Mandé group that has recently penetrated the region. Although over 41% of Bobo lineages claim a foreign origin, they also claim to be autochthonous.

A very important concept among the Bobo (as among the Bwa) is the primacy of farmers, called seseme (sing. sasama) . The core of Bobo farmers has been augmented, over the centuries, by immigrant Mandé peoples that have adhered to the Bobo traditions of scarring the face and wearing lip labrets, and have adopted the name Bobo and the cult of Dwo. The largest and most important of these peoples are the Zara, or Bobo-Jula, who arrived in the area from Mandé between about 1500 and 1700 to found Bobo-Dioulasso. Most Zara are not truly integrated into traditional Bobo life because they carry on long-distance trade during the dry season, and are not bound to the soil as are the Bobo farmers. Both the Zara and the Bobo revere the god Dwo, although each group has given its Dwo masks a slightly different function. The Zara are best known for their white cloth masks, worn at night and called bolo (pl., bole).

The major Bobo community in the south is Bobo-Dioulasso, the second city of Burkina Faso and the old French colonial capital. Farther north are large towns, including Fo and Kouka, with Boura in the extreme north in Mali.

The southern Bobo area has from 10 to 40 inhabitants per square kilometer. The valley of the Black Volta is sparsely populated, and the northern Bobo area, astride the border with Mali, has about 5 to 10 people per square kilometer.

The vegetation and climate of the area inhabited by the Bobo are much more similar to the northern Ivory Coast and Ghana than to the drier area inhabited by the Bwa, Nuna, Léla, and Mossi. This region receives over 1,000 mm. of rain annually. Although much of the area is composed of open grasslands and fields with scattered trees, there are numerous areas, especially in river valleys, of dense dry forests that are more typical of the heavy forest cover of the coastal and equatorial areas of Africa.

The major food crops are red sorghum, and pearl millet, which are the ancient crops of the traditional Bobo farmer, as well as yams, and maize. As among the Bwa the major cash crop is cotton, often cultivated at the expense of food crops. The cultivation of cotton for sale to textile mills in Bobo-Dioulasso has resulted in the destruction of the cooperative labor system that has been a major cohesive social force.

Bobo villages are compact, like Bwa and gurunsi villages, with large flat-roofed buildings that were often two or even three stories high. Because so many old Bobo villages were destroyed by the French in 1914, few buildings over one-story remain.

The Bobo are farmers, and like most peoples in Burkina except the Mossi, are politically non-centralized. Village organization is democratic, and decisions are made by a council of male elders from all lineages. The idea of centralized authority symbolized by a chief is, for the Bobo, an aberration: “The Bobo are essentially allergic to all forms of authority that are practiced outside of the framework of kinship or of interlineage village political alliances. Before it encountered the foreign system–first of blacks (Dyula) then of whites–Bobo society could not conceive of political authority in the hands of a single person, chief or king, and that power could be centralized in one location. For the Bobo, such a system would be a dangerous novelty, for it is not based on any cosmogonic order, and is even in contradiction with them, for it is in itself a serious attack on the order of things as established by Wuro (the creator God)” (Le Moal 1980: 116).

The Bobo lineage is the fundamental social building-block. The lineage unites all descendants of a common ancestor, called the wakoma, a word whose stem, wa-, is a contraction of the Bobo word for house (wasa). The Bobo lineage comprises the people who live in a common house. The head of a lineage is called the wakoma to or father of the lineage. He may also be called the sapro, (pl., sapra), which is the term for ancestors. As among other peoples in Burkina, each clan has a totem, so that when a Bobo introduces himself he gives his given name, then his clan name, followed by the totem he respects.

In traditional society Bobo life is governed by two opposing concepts: on one hand there is the idea of community, things public, called foroba, which is important to the entire group; on the other hand there is the idea of private, individual, named zakané, which is the concern of only a part of the lineage. This basic division effects everything the group does: work, fields, religious practices. At the core of this system the idea of foroba maintains social cohesion. This dualism, foroba/zakané characterizes Bobo society before the French arrived. It was destroyed, especially as an economic system, by the colonial administration. Crushing taxes and the cultivation of cotton forced the Bobo to neglect communal foroba fields, whose harvests were never allowed to be sold, so that they could devote their efforts to private zakané fields. Only traditional religious practices were preserved and continue to be followed in the traditional ways.

Religion and Myths:

The Bobo creator God is called Wuro. He cannot be described and is not represented by sculpture. Bobo cosmogonic myths, wuro da fere, describe the creation of the world by Wuro and the ordering of his creations, which are placed in basic opposing pairs: man/spirits, male/female, village/bush, domesticated/wild, culture/nature, safety/danger, cold/hot, farmer/blacksmith. The balances between forces as they were created by Wuro are precarious, and it is easy for man, through the simplest daily acts, to pollute his world and throw the forces out of balance. Even farming, in which crops are gathered in the bush and brought into the village, can unbalance the precarious equilibrium between culture/nature, village/bush. The following summary describes the relationship between Wuro, man, and the smith.

Wuro created the earth to begin. It was molded of moist clay. Wuro created the chameleon and the ant. Wuro created water, then he created fish. Next, he created the cat, dog, toad, and mud dauber wasp. Then Wuro created the first man: he was a smith… The smith said to Wuro: `Because you created me alone, you must make a companion for me.’ `Yes’, said Wuro, `I will give you a companion, but he will not be like you.’ Then Wuro created the second man: it was a Bobo [a farmer]… The next day, Wuro revealed Dwo to the smith who was accompanying the cat. Wuro went into the bush with them and showed them the mask made of leaves. The cat dressed himself in the mask and together they returned home singing the song Wuro had taught them” (Le Moal 1980: 97, 102). Wuro is an otiose creator God, for after creating a perfect world he saw he could not improve upon it; the world was perfect, and its balance ideal but fragile. This balance could be destroyed at any moment, especially by some kind of change. Wuro also sought to avoid confrontations with man, the most difficult of his creatures. He withdrew from the newly created world, leaving behind part of his own vital material, his son Dwo, the mask, to help mankind. Dwo is the materialization of one form of Wuro, and his principal manifestation. Wuro also left behind with man his two other sons, Soxo, the spirit of the bush, of vital force, and Kwere, the spirit that punishes with lightning and thunder. Events that followed the creation by Wuro are explained in a secret language that is taught during initiation. For the Bobo two important epochs exist, the time of Wuro, when the universe was created, and historical time, the two separated by the withdrawal of Wuro, when he gave man his son, Dwo. Dwo, Soxo and Kwere partake of the essential force or spirit of Wuro. These three spirits are the links between man and the forces that control his life. Shrines are erected to them in every Bobo village, each shrine controlled by a cult priest, dwobore. Because of their relationship to man and Dwo, smiths are most frequently the cult priests of Dwo, but in contrast are excluded completely from the cult of Kwere, thunder. The Bobo distinguish between the original, universal form in which Dwo was revealed to man, and later forms in which he appeared. The earliest appearance of Dwo dates to the cosmogonic period. This revelation is important for all men; it is in some respects universal.

During the historic period Dwo appeared on many occasions, but to individuals and in special places that people remember to this day. These are villages whose locations are known but which no longer exist. Le Moal calls these numerous appearances “subsequent representations.” Among these forms, the Bobo distinguish between the oldest, considered to be the most important, and those that appeared afterward. The first of these “subsequent representations” is, in reality, a triple form, comprising Kwele Dwo, Dwosa, and Sibe Dwo. This form is the object of numerous important cults, and the followers of these cults are called sibe. All other subsequent representations are called Dwosini. Dwo is usually revealed to man in the form of a mask (in leaves for the original form, in fibers for later forms) as bull-roarers and other objects that are kept near the cult shrine.

Because Wuro first gave masks to smiths, smiths continue to control their production and use, whether the masks are made of leaves, fibers, or have wooden heads.

In addition to these major gods, the Bobo world is inhabited by spirits that are secondary in importance because they appeared during the historic period, and invisible (funanyono), dangerous forces that are concentrated in the bush and are harmful to man (nyama), genies (wiyaxe), and the ancestors’ spirits.

The funanyono that appear most often in plants, especially the sacred tree, have a supernatural force and power. Duba especially, is an ancient spirit present in every Bobo village, whose shrine is marked by a large wooden post with three branches that cradle a jar. In the jar full of water is the root of a plant (Afzelia africana) that is a receptacle of the spirit of Duba (Le Moal 1980: 149 pl. 8).

The nyama are really forces whose poisonous character is known by all Bobo. They are everywhere, but are most concentrated in certain plants and animals, for example hyenas.

Genies called wiyaxe are very similar to the Mossi kinkirsi bush spirits. They appear in myths that recount the creation of rivers. The wiyaxe are thought of as the elder brothers of man, for they were created before man and resemble him, although they are marked by inversions and doubling, having one foot and hand attached backwards, and two faces or chests. The wiyaxe are not worshiped, but must be respected to secure their cooperation. The shrines of some wiyaxe spirits may include sculpture in wood.

Finally, the ancestors (sapra), especially the ancestor who founded the village, have important shrines (bore) erected in the village. During sacrifices on these shrines the names of all of the deceased clan heads are recited in turn to solicit their aid.

Each of these spirits has a particular role or function to play, including, in the case of Duba, providing healthy children, good harvests, or, most important, identifying sorcerers.

Each and all of these spiritual beings may provide the means for man to control his life. Only Soxo (the bush, and vital force of nature) does not play a role because the bush, in its opposition to the village, does not play a role in village life, and Kwere is not an avenue of recourse from man toward Wuro, for it his role to punish transgressors.

Dwo remains the major spiritual being through which communication between man and Wuro is possible and desirable in his role as the representative of men to their creator. Wuro is a God of action, whose creations are celebrated in the rapid swirling rotation of masks.

I remember a Saturday morning in mid-April, 1985 when I attended a funeral a few miles east of Bobo Dioulasso, and in passing through several neighborhoods at the edge of the city, and a few small villages just outside of Bobo, I saw dozens of masks in almost every community I passed through. The streets were full of people in their finest clothes, animated by the excitement of the masks performances. The sounds of drums and flutes filled the air, and masks of leaves and fibers appeared from wooded groves and disappeared behind walls and buildings in such numbers that it seemed as if the world were suddenly inhabited by a race of supernatural beings.

The Bobo use several words for “mask.” In the north masks are called kore (sing. koro), something that is old and venerable; in the center of Bobo country they may also be called sowiyera (sing. sowiye), “a disguised man”; in the south the word siye, “the shadow man,” the double. In addition, each mask has its own, personal name.

It is very difficult to categorize the vast numbers of Bobo mask types, for even in a small village there are often twenty or more different masks, each with a name, a role to play, gestures, a dance, songs, an entire character with virtues and vices. Each has a life and a history that must be known if we are to understand and recognize it. Guy Le Moal describes each of the types in great detail, analyzing every aspect of its being (Le Moal 1980). I will attempt, at great risk of oversimplification, to summarize his descriptions.

Burkina Faso; Bobo peoples. Nyâga (escort masks), village of Muna. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The Bobo produce masks in leaves, fibers, wood, and cloth. Each of these is used by one or more segments of Bobo society in a range of traditional contexts. The many types of masks are distinguished by the name of the leaves or fibers used, the colors of the fibers, or the shape of the head of the mask. Each of these masks is a manifestation of Dwo.

The earliest, original forms of Dwo are the most sacred and most highly respected. Masks made of the freshly gathered leaves of various sacred trees represent the original forms of Dwo first revealed by Wuro, which are called Kwele Dwo. Masks made of the colored fibers stripped from Kenaf represent later, revealed forms of Dwo, Patamoso Dwo for example. Each of the different forms of Dwo requires a mask that personifies it, that recreates its personal characteristics. The masks that represent a specific manifestation of Dwo must be made of the leaves of a certain tree, or must be of a specific color.

Masks of Farmers:

Bobo farmers use masks of leaves and of fibers. They have also acquired, from smiths, the right to use leaf and fiber masks that have heads carved of wood. Some of them also occasionally use cloth masks.

The most typical leaf mask is birewa sowiye, a mask that appears at the beginning of the performance season to sweep all impurities from the community. The head is made of the leaves of the saxada (Guiera senegalensis) and of the nere. The leaves of the West African mahogany form the body, and saxada leaves again form the arms.

These masks are put on early in the morning, then enter the village from the east with the rising sun, leave the west side of the village, and are cut from the performer’s body and burned in the evening. As a result, they do not survive to be collected and placed on display in museums.

Burkina Faso; Bobo peoples. Fiber mask. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Masks made of fibers are more sculptural than masks of leaves, for the fibers are more supple and durable, and can be manipulated using basketry techniques into more elaborate and identifiable forms. Originally all such masks were made only of fibers obtained from wild plants, but the Jula introduced the cultivation of the chanvre de Guinea (da) which is now used for all such masks. Several types of fiber masks are distinguished by the shape of the head and the color of the fibers. The older, more traditional colors are red, black, and white, but now fiber masks are also dyed yellow, green, and blue. The most ancient and important of these fiber masks are called kele. The body of the performer is hidden by a thick fiber costume knotted to a net foundation.

Masks with heads made of plaited fibers are called kele notune. The head is a sort of hemispherical helmet whose form can vary following the owner’s imagination. The helmet is always surmounted with a crest, which sometimes is decorated with feathers. These masks never have horns (Le Moal 1980: 182, fig. 8).

Masks called kele kwe include the same costume of soft fibers. The head and torso are enclosed in a stiff, cane work cylinder from which only the arms protrude. The cane cylinder rises above the head of the performer, increasing the height of the mask. A large and striking coiffure of fibers completes the mask (Le Moal 1980: 192, fig. 10).

There are, in addition, other fiber masks that are less important, including masks called gwarama and tere, that participate in certain steps of initiation.

Masks with wooden heads (kele byekoma) are often called syêkle, after the name of the Syekoma group which are widespread (especially in the center of Bobo country). Farmer clans that use wooden masks have the right to do so because these masks were revealed to them by Dwo. The heads must be carved by smiths, and in terms of style, they are indistinguishable from the older and more important wooden smiths’ masks. One cannot easily tell by looking at a wooden mask in a museum if it was used by farmers or smiths.

The basic syêkele is characterized by a very long, trapezoidal face which is bisected vertically by a thin, straight nose. The head is a large, spherical helmet, always surmounted by thin, straight horns. The eyes are high at the intersection of the planes of the cheeks and the brow, and the mouth is placed so low on the chin it almost disappears. There are large, rounded convex semicircles that represent the eyebrows. Farmers’ syêkele occur in many variations on the same basic forms and there are many atypical syêkele. The most common variation is the addition of a long, rectangular plank. Two additional characters appear represented by syêkele: the buffalo (tu), with large, vertical, flat spreading horns, and the hornbill (kuma), with a massive curving beak that projects from the face, and horn shapes that may curve forward (Kurumani) or back (Muna) .

These variations are the result of minor alterations that are always made in a mask before it is transferred–whether exchanged, sold, abandoned, given, or even stolen–from clan to clan. A mask is never passed on in exactly the form in which it was originally acquired. The new mask itself becomes the prototype for the clan that has acquired it. In contrast, the mask of a particular clan is reproduced without the slightest change when it is necessary to replace it. Unlike fiber masks, masks of wood are kept by the clan, even when they are no longer used in performances.

Masks of Bobo Smiths:

Burkina Faso; Bobo peoples. Nyâga (escort masks), village of Muna. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Smiths use masks of leaves, of fibers, and of cloth, but they are most involved with face masks of wood, and also carve such masks for farmers.

There are two major types of leaf masks worn by the followers of sibe. Sibe sowiye, made of the leaves of the néré, is very similar to the birewa sowiye for farmers. It is connected to the cult of Dwosa, and only appears at night. Dafuru combines a body made of the leaves of the néré, mahogany, and shea nut, with a head made of rattan. This mask, dedicated to Kwele Dwo, only participates in funerals.

Burkina Faso; Bobo peoples. Masks at a funeral. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The two types of fiber masks are made in the same way as the kele owned by farmers. They are used by the members of the sibe. Forkoma sowiye, made of da fibers, emerges at night so that non-initiates will not see it. It is a very powerful mask. Torosye, called myanea in the north, is a popular public masquerade. Although it has a secondary role as a gatherer of donations, it is greatly respected because of its reputation as a very ancient mask.

Cloth masks, called wuru kore, are secular and dance at night. Their forms are limitless, and the performers, who are initiated, are totally free to choose the cloth, the shape of the costume, and the colors used. Each imitates a chosen subject, including individuals, scenes of daily life, and animals. All feeling and emotions are depicted, from violence to gentleness, with great emphasis on humor, which the audience always enjoys.

These masks are intended to entertain, but still possess a certain sacred character that is present in all masks.

Burkina Faso; Bobo peoples. Nwenke (sacred masks), village of Muna. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Burkina Faso; Bobo peoples. Nyâga (escort masks), village of Muna. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Among wooden masks the most important types are sacred masks (molo and nwenke), escort masks (nyâga), and entertainment masks (bole). The sacred masks are representative, rather than representational masks, and do not represent any living, tangible being, human or animal. As a result, these masks are abstract and stylized. A mask with human features may have added to it forward-curving antelope horns and a great bird’s beak because it represents a character of Dwo that does not take human or animal form. Similarly, animal shapes do not mean the mask represents an animal, but recall the spirit of an animal which saved the founding ancestor of the clan. Allegorical and nonrepresentational, the masks incarnate the spirit of Dwo, the son of Wuro. They have often been revealed in the form of miniature metal masks.

Burkina Faso; Bobo peoples. Nyâga (escort masks), village of Muna. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Other masks, nyâga for example, are fairly naturalistic depictions. In the case of entertainment masks, the imagination of the artist is free to create innovative forms.

The two major types are the molo and nwenke. These are the most ancient and sacred of smiths’ wooden masks, used in the cults of Kwele Dwo, Dwosa, and Sibe Dwo, forms of Dwo that were revealed in the ancient village of Kwele during the cosmogonic period, that is, after Wuro’s withdrawal.

Molo masks are carved of the wood of the sacred tree, lingué (Afzelia africana). These masks have a long, rectangular or trapezoidal face. The head is a spherical helmet with a sagittal crest. Two thick, long horns project dramatically upward from the helmet, and there is no frontal plank above the face. A small handle of plaited fiber beneath the chin permits the masks to be held on the head during acrobatic performances. There are two major styles of molo masks: in the north, around Tanguna, the broad, flat planes of the face are divided vertically by a ridge that bears, in descending order, a short thick nose, a protruberant mouth placed high on the face of the mask, and an umbilicus. The eyes are rectangles. In contrast, the style of molo from Kurumani, in central Bobo country, has a very broad, square face with a long nose that divides the face vertically. The mouth is placed far down very near the chin, and is very broad and protruberant. The face is marked by slanting tribal scars (Le Moal 1980: 224, fig. 18).

The performer who wears the molo mask either wears a costume of the leaves of the tabe (Isoberlina doka) and is called sibe molo, or he is nude, and is called so molo. The wooden head of the mask is always the same–only the costume changes depending on the ceremonies in which it participates.

There is a third type of molo mask, the saxa molo. This is a rare, ritual mask, because it is now only used by a few lineages. The head is a slab of bark of the lingué. The costume is made up of leaves of the same tree.

Burkina Faso; Bobo peoples. Nwenke (sacred masks). Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Nwenke masks (sing. nwenka) are less important to smiths than molo, but like molo their primary role is in the institution of the sibe. In contrast to the molo which have been acquired over time by farmers, nwenke have remained exclusively smiths’ masks. These masks are composed of a very elongated trapezoidal face with a narrow chin, surmounted by a frontal plank (i.e. a plank that is seen fully from the front of the mask). The intersection of the nose and brow form a “T”, and the brow is protruberant, with the small eyes high in the angle of nose and brow. The nose is long and bisects the face vertically; the mouth is small and always very low on the face. The heavy helmet-shape is surmounted by a sagittal ridge. The frontal plank is very complex and is pierced frequently with triangles so that it appears to be built up of a vertical series of triangular wings that spread horizontally. The plank is the determinant characteristic of the nwenke type (Le Moal 1980: 217, fig. 16). Nwenke masks wear fiber costumes.

Burkina Faso; Bobo peoples. Nyâga (escort masks), village of Muna. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The mask called nyanga represents the large antelope, Hippotragus koba. A pair of enormous horns curves backward from a large, rounded forehead. The snout is elongated and curves forward and down in dramatic balance to the horns. The mouth is open and is studded with real antelope teeth. The horns are banded and the eyes hooded with protruding lids. From one region to another there are several styles.

Burkina Faso; Bobo peoples. Nyâga (escort masks), village of Muna. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The most spectacular, photographed by Le Moal in 1950, was from the village of Muna (Leiris and Delange 1968: 131, center). Another style comes from southern Bobo country: it is a helmet mask with anthropomorphic features and forward-curving horns (masks of the bolo type). The sole function of the nyâga masks is to accompany the nwenke masks. These are no longer exclusively smiths’ masks, and are to be seen throughout Bobo country.

Burkina Faso; Bobo peoples. Bolo (antelope mask). Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Burkina Faso; Bobo peoples. Bolo (ram mask). Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

In addition to masks made for ritual use, the Bobo carve masks used for entertainment, called bole (sing. bolo). These are helmet masks that rest on the shoulders, or cap masks with short faces. They represent people or numerous animals: antelope, rams, monkeys, rooster (Le Moal 1980: 214, fig. 14). These masks are worn with fiber costumes.

Molo, nwenke, and syêkele are painted the traditional colors, red, black, white. More recently yellow, green, and blue have been used. Colors are applied almost haphazardly in patterns that are most frequently triangular and represent magical amulets (sebe). In contrast to Bwa masks, the geometric patterns are painted but are not carved in low relief, so that very old masks that have been weathered or cleaned by art dealers show no traces of the original painted patterns. The Bobo repaint their masks at the beginning of each performance season. There is no evidence that the painted geometric patterns communicate any moral or initiatory message.

Bobo masks of leaves never “dance.” Masks of fibers may dance, but always individually, in turn. Wooden masks also perform in turn, as elsewhere in Burkina Faso. Only animal masks such as the nyâga imitate the movements of the animals they represent. No other masks imitate natural characters. Their dance is abstract, like the beings they represent.

In the region around Bobo-Dioulasso, where I have attended mask performances, wooden masks spin wildly, almost seeming to be out of control, from one side of the open dance area to the other, and then back. The climax of each mask’s performance is a tour-de-force rotation of the mask alone, when the performer plants his feet firmly and twists his torso and neck, grasping the small handle that protrudes from the chin of the mask or a band of fiber that is knotted inside the chin.

Burkina Faso; Bobo peoples. Nyâga (escort masks), village of Muna. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The wooden head of the mask rotates two or three revolutions, then returns, in such a way that the mask may leave the performer’s head and is only kept from flying across the performance area by the dancer’s tight grip on it. It is quite common to see clearly the performer’s head and torso. In the south the performances of fiber masks are the most athletic: unencumbered by a heavy mask of wood, the performers leap across the dance area like gymnasts, executing forward flips, cartwheels, and handsprings.

The Functions of Bobo Masks:

The Bobo use masks in three major contexts: masks appear at harvest time in annual rites called birewa dâga. Masks participate in the male initiation, named yele dâga, which is their major function. Finally, they participate in the burial (syebi) and the funeral rites (syekwe) of people who have been killed by Dwo, or of the elder priests of Dwo. This is a secondary function, and not all masks of all Bobo clans attend these rites. Masks seem to participate in funerals much more frequently in the Syankoma area in the south, near Bobo-Dioulasso, than in the north.

Leaf masks representing the initial and universal form of Dwo serve to integrate the individual into human society and to link the community of man with the natural world; fiber masks fix the individual in a social grouping, dedicated to one of the later forms of Dwo. These masks are important agents of socialization. The significance of these lessons is impressed on each new generation in the major institution of initiation.

Each mask is considered to embody the spirit of Dwo, and as a result, may serve frequently during sacrifices as a sort of portable altar of Dwo. Sacrifices may be placed directly on the head of the mask as offerings to the spirits they incarnate. For example, during funerals, in the sibe rite, the molo mask serves as an altar:

“The first time the priest sacrifices a chicken of which some blood and feathers are added to the saliva placed on the base of the nose of the mask; the second time, the sacrifice is repeated, letting some blood run on the same spot. The mask sibe molo can be thought of as a portable substitute for the altar of Dwo which it represents (Dwosa), and which is very dangerous to approach” (Le Moal 1980: 328).

Harvest Ceremonies: Because of their close relationship with the natural world and the vital force of the bush and plants, the farmers’ masks of leaves have an important role to play in annual rites of harvest. The masks absorb the toxic forces that are present in the newly harvested crops just brought into the village, and return to the bush these forces that cause sickness and conflict in the village, restoring the balance of nature/culture, bush/village that was established by Wuro. The millet gathered at harvest is one of the original gifts of Wuro, and for man to consume it is an attack on Wuro’s creations and an insult to the creator of life. To cut the millet is to kill it, freeing the spirit that it contains. To allow this spirit to remain in the village is to invite disaster in the form of disease and infertility. The masks “clean” the millet so that it can be eaten safely by humans, returning to the bush the dangerous spirits and asking Wuro’s forgiveness through appropriate sacrifices.

When farming is done for the year, the time has arrived to celebrate the rites of initiation which require, to succeed, the compliance of the divinities. The cult dignitaries inform the divinities and offer them propitiatory sacrifices.

Bobo Initiations: The different levels of knowledge are explained to Bobo boys in several steps spread out over a period of fifteen years. Masks play an essential role in initiation because they reestablish and reinforce the cosmic order created by Wuro, and restore the balance and the rhythms of the natural world and of the community. Each of the new steps in the initiation is punctuated by important ceremonies when the initiates dance with several types of masks.

First Stage, sinkye daga:

The first step of initiation takes place under the sign of Dwo; as a result, masks of leaves take part. This step is carried out in one or two phases, depending on the group or clans involved.

During the first step the boys are told that the mask performer is a man. Next the boys eat the leaves of the mask–a step that is primordial because it essentially consists of the absorption of the divine spirit. The boys also begin to learn the initiatory language. The boys are whipped on many occasions, especially when they return from the village to the place of the masks, where they undergo their training. These beatings serve an important purpose, for they demonstrate to the initiates that knowledge does not come without its own problems, much effort, and courage. At the end of this first period of training, the initiates, called partale, are considered to be social beings, and can participate in the active life of the group, helping with sacrifices and traditional festivals. In particular, they are allowed to make parts of the masks and to wear certain ones. This transitional period lasts several years.

When they feel that they are ready for the second part of the first step of initiation, the boys must undergo certain rites of admission. These include tests of endurance, cooperative labor in clearing the bush, and a long period of seclusion in the bush to gather the wood and game necessary for the graduation celebration of the first initiation. Every departure or return to the village is marked by a violent confrontation with the masks, which beat the boys severely.

If the sinkye daga is carried out in a single step, the intermediate tests are performed as preliminaries to the initiation.

The second step is marked by two principal rites: The boys are “put to death” by a leaf mask similar in its bearing and function to the funeral mask named so molo. Next, their “rebirth” is marked by the consumption of food, especially of fish and millet. Both of these rites represent the death of the boys in childhood and ignorance and their birth as real men. This birth recalls the birth of humankind, born of two fish described in mythology. At the end of the first level, the initiates are called yelele. By the second part of their life as initiates, the candidates are already adolescents; they have some knowledge of the secret language which they study for five years.

Bobo Initiation Second Stage, yele nine daga:

The ceremonies of initiation are preceded by a preliminary step, a sort of “getting in shape.” The most important aspect is the rediscovery of the ways the ancestors spoke and lived at the moment Wuro withdrew. For this reason, the initiates go out and live in the bush, far from the organized and secure life of the village. It is in the wild that they are best able to recreate the original way of life. This period of communal life is punctuated by a great ritual communal fishing expedition.

The goal of the second level of initiation is to transmit to the initiates the knowledge of the post-cosmogonic forms of Dwo, made visible in the fiber kele masks. When the date of the initiation itself is set, the young men go into the bush to make the fiber masks. This takes about a month. The women of the community prepare enormous quantities of millet beer which will be consumed during the ceremony.The ceremony begins with a lengthy flogging of the young men, again administered by the masks. Next, a communal meal, attended by numerous guests from related villages, confirms the cohesion of the ethnic group. Finally, the candidates are told of the appearance of Dwo to the founding ancestor: the kele masks with heads of fibers or of wood are the incarnation of a form of Dwo named Dwosine. They appeared on several occasions to the founding ancestors of the clan in the form of bull-roarers or of small metal masks, as described in numerous myths:

“An ancestor was looking for termites. Spying a termite mound, he struck his hoe into it to break off a section. The hoe struck a piece of iron… it was a bull-roarer… When he went to consult the diviner, the ancestor was suddenly possessed. The diviner told him that he must perform [a] sacrifice… the diviner’s instructions were followed. The ancestor remained possessed… one day he was seen returning with three strange creatures… they were masks, but their heads were of iron and their tunics of fibers. They kept the iron heads et, later, made copies of them in wood” (Le Moal 1980: 286).

The objects which appeared to the ancestor are ritually revealed to the initiates just as the ancestor discovered them. This ritual is a way of perpetuating “the new generation attained at the dawn of the age of man”(Le Moal 1980: 439).

The religious leaders transmit to the initiates power over the kele masks. This transmission of power is symbolized by a cane which is solemnly given to the new initiates. These powers have been conquered by the new knowledge acquired during the second stage, and by the courage demonstrated during the physical trials.

The second stage of initiation ends with fiber mask dances, and with processions to the various shrines of Dwo.

At the end of this stage, the young men, called kelebayelele are permitted to wear fiber masks, and graduate to the third stage of initiation. They then are about twenty years old, and some are married and have children.

Bobo Initiation Third Stage: The third stage is focused on the secret language and includes new rites of initiation. The study of the secret language by the initiates lasts about ten years, because the boys of the first stage study for five years, and then, after reaching the second stage, they teach the language to their juniors for another five years. The second period helps reinforce their knowledge. The secret language which was taught to men by a mythical squirrel, includes a fundamental oral literature which transmits the myths of the origin of masks, the legends about the ancestors and supernatural beings, and the accounts of historic events. Each clan, each lineage, can have its own accounts; others are concerned with the village or even the entire Bobo people. At this point, the young men must demonstrate, during an examination, their mastery of the initiatory language: they are required to recite myths and legends throughout an entire night.

The examination is followed by a ceremony that lasts a week. It is held on a specially prepared terrace, to which the initiates and organizers climb on a ladder carved especially for the occasion.

“The surmounting of the terrace, [is a] symbolic ritual act that represents the ascent the young men to the higher levels of knowledge” (Le Moal 1980: 474, and pl. 36).

Like the previous test, this one consists of the uninterrupted recitation of myths and legends in the initiatory language.

Two minor ceremonies end the third stage; the giving of a chair, a kind of symbol of merit, and the transmission of a password, a sign of recognition. The young men are now completely yelebire and can wear the syêkele masks of wood.

The Fourth Stage, yelebire daga: The initiation as such has been completed. There are no further new tests at this stage, which consists of the transfer to the yelebire of wooden masks by the senior initiates. The young men will prepare the masks and dance, and the same ceremony is repeated two or three years in succession. The initiates are finally considered to be adults. They are between twenty-five and thirty years old.

Bobo Masks at Funerals: Although Le Moal points out that the relationship is not clearly defined, there is a strong bond between masks and ancestors, as among peoples to the east. Some Bobo peoples believe that the spirit of the deceased is accompanied on the journey into the after-life by a mask, and that the spirit of the dead may take up temporary residence in a mask.

By his very nature Dwo is not concerned with death. The masks that represent him as a result, usually do not participate in death ceremonies, especially among farmers. Among blacksmith clans that are followers of sibe, the presence of masks at funerals is required. There are, however, exceptions: In the north, birewa sowiyera leaf masks participate in the burials and funerals of people who have been killed by Dwo, either struck by lightning or burned alive in the fibers of the mask they were wearing. Dwo is said to have “swallowed” the offender. In addition, a funeral of a priest of Dwo, the dwobwo, who also “belongs” to Dwo and who has been responsible for the masks’ performances, is marked by the appearance of masks of leaves, but these show their respect for the head of the cult.

At funeral ceremonies, masks have two functions: they escort the deceased to the tomb at burials, and at funerals they send the spirit on the road to the world of ancestors. In southern Bobo country syêkele masks of wood appear at funerals of all elders, male or female, where they destroy the wooden biers that represent the deceased, freeing their souls to travel the long, smooth road to the Black Volta, the Bobo River Styx. A key moment in the funeral is the arrival of the wooden masks at the grave, where they are seated in a circle around the grave and receive offerings of millet beer.

Among smiths the ceremonies are more complex. Only one figure of Dwo, Kwele Dwo, has revealed masks intended for funerals. These are the so molo worn nude and the bark masks named saxa molo. The nude so molo recreates the gestures of the mythical kuma hornbill, killed by a smith, which first revealed the molo mask and the bull-roarer: the wooden mask so molo worn by a nude man:

“passed over the corpse three times, just as the children of the hornbill had done; they made the bull-roarer sound, and, while making the sign of a cross on the corpse, they also recalled the primordial bull-roarer which represented the Dwo of the sibe: (Le Moal 1980: 273).

The saxa molo chooses the location of the tomb. Other masks as well take part in the burial and the end of mourning, especially the sibe molo. Finally, a new wooden head for the nwenka mask may be carved for a funeral. The nwenka is important for the sibe, for it too was revealed at Kwele. As the eyes are pierced, giving life to the mask, a prayer is offered to the ancestors asking that the deceased be given eyes to see the road to the Black Volta and the world of the dead (Le Moal 1980: 334-5).

Regardless of occupational class, solemn funerals, accompanied by complex sacrifices and masks, are reserved for the “important” members of the community: established heads of lineages and their brothers, and the wives of both. The funeral celebrations of all other Bobo are very simple.

Senufo Related Peoples:

The Tusyâ People:

The Tusyâ are a small group of about 22,000 that lives in the extreme southwestern area of Burkina Faso between Orodara and Banfora. They are surrounded by the Sembla and Bobo who live to the northeast, the Karaboro and Tyefo (Senufo peoples) to the southeast, the Turka and Syemu to the west, and the Senufo to the north. The Syemu are closely related to the Tusyâ, and it is very difficult to distinguish between them.

Their major town is Toussiana on the road from Bobo-Dioulasso to Banfora. Other large villages are Kurignon, Tapoko, and Tagalédougou. About half of the population of the town of Orodara, in Syemu country, is Tusyâ.

Like most of the peoples in Burkina Faso, the Tusyâ are heterogeneous, with numerous variations in cultural characteristics despite their small population. The northern Tusyâ are the oldest inhabitants of the area, and call themselves Tento. The southern Tusyâ, near the large town of Toussiana, call themselves Win. However, the Jula name Tusyâ (people of Toussiana) is used widely. To avoid confusion between Win and Winiama, I will use the more widely-published Tusyâ.

The Tusyâ are closely related to the Senufo, and they speak Winwen, a Voltaic language very similar to their Voltaic neighbors. Their villages, kinship patterns, political systems and religious beliefs are similar to those of the Senufo-related peoples who are their neighbors to the west.

The Tusyâ produce masks and crests or helmets of wood that are well represented in public and private collections. They also cast small brass figures that are very similar to Senufo brasses.


Tusyâ masks, called loniakê, are very two-dimensional, rectangular plaques of wood with a bird head projecting from the center of the upper rim, and a broad triangle projecting downward from the lower rim. Small, round eye holes are carved close together high on the face and are surrounded by wax into which red seeds are set. A similar cross of seeds divides the face diagonally into quarters. The sides and lower edge are pierced with holes for attaching a fiber fringe. Some examples bear mirrors on the face that form large eyes. The mask is surmounted by an animal head or horns, which symbolize the totem of the clan.

The helmets or crests represent the totemic animals of the clan. Only the Tusyâ whose totem is the buffalo make their helmets of wood. The helmets of other clans, made of fibers and other perishable materials, have not survived in collections. Tusyâ wooden helmets named kablé, are surmounted by very stylized figures of bush-buffalo. From the rectangular head projects a pair of broad, flat, curving horns. Long, slender legs flank the head and connect it to the hemispherical helmet. The head is connected to the hind quarters by a long, tubular body. The hindquarters are large and blocky, with a tail that projects vertically.

Function of Tusyâ masks:

Masks are worn during initiations, while helmets are used in village purification rites and at funerals.


The initiations were held only once a generation, and contact with European culture has made them even more infrequent. The last performance in which masks were used took place in April, 1933 “just before the tracks of the Abidjan-Bobo-Dioulaso railway reached Bobo” (elder informants in Toussiana and Hébert 1961: 717). The masks are carved by a blacksmith during the initiation period, and each initiate is then allowed to keep his personal mask.

Initiation has been held in two major steps: every young man and woman is initiated at the lowest level in ceremonies held every two years. Those who are not initiated may not marry. During the initiation each boy receives an initiatory name that is never used in the village and is kept secret from women and children. In order of importance these names include the heron (most important), song bird, hare, stork, partridge, kingfisher, panther, cat, monkey, bush pig, bush buffalo, and elephant (the last and most junior level). The name the young man receives may be represented by the crest that surmounts his mask. Young women are not given masks. The young men are instructed in their rôles as adults in village society, and are given religious training.

The most senior initiation was held every forty years, and is marked by dances in the bush in which each initiate wears a mask that represents his family’s protective animal spirit, indicated by the crest that projects from the top of the mask. The initiates go through the training and perform in the final dances naked. No costume except the short fringe on the mask is worn during the performance.

Tusyâ Village Purification:

The kablé helmets are associated with village purification ceremonies that drive out malevolent forces and bring numerous children, good health and bounteous crops to the community. The head of the lineage dances before the entrance to his house. The celebrations last for fifteen days. Married women and adult men are allowed to participate, but unmarried women are excluded for it is feared that to see the performance would make them infertile.

Tusyâ Funerals:

Crests bearing the special animal or protective spirit of Tusyâ clans also participate in funerals for male elders held during the dry season from October to May. Once, the head of each household owned such a crest, but now they are more rare, in part because some families have become Moslem.

Tusyâ Divination Figures:

Diviners may inherit their skills from their parents, or they may be chosen by a spirit from a swamp or from the bush. Only someone who has undergone the senior initiation can become a diviner. A great mask that resembles a beast from the forest and that swallows everyone who crosses its path appears during the investiture of a diviner. The music of a very large, magical balafon accompanies the performance. Throughout southwestern Burkina, diviners use brass and wooden figures to consult spirits, both ancestral and supernatural.



The Marka-Dafing People:

The Dafing are an intrusive Mandé people who also call themselves Marka, and are closely related to the Marka Soninké in Mali between the border with Burkina Faso and the banks of the Bani River. To distinguish between these peoples, which produce sculpture in very different styles, I will refer to the Marka in Mali as Soninké, and the Marka in Burkina Faso as Dafing. Over 450,000 Soninké live in Mali, and 150,000 Dafing live in Burkina. They speak a Mandé language. Both peoples are descendants of the ancient empire of Ghana, which was defeated in 1076 by the Moroccan Almoravids. The Dafing moved into an area occupied by the Samo and Bwa soon after 1600 as a result of the destruction of the Mali Empire in the valley of the Niger and Bani. The valley of the Sourou, which joins the Black Volta just north of Dedougou, seems to have been the primary route followed by the Dafing when they penetrated the area they now occupy.

The Dafing occupy a region of north-central Burkina Faso between the cities of Nouna and Tougan in the north, south as far as Boromo. There are large numbers of Dafing in Mali, north of the frontier with Burkina. Their largest communities are Nouna, in the north, and Safané in the south. Important villages include Bai, Songoré, and Tiendougou, in Mali, and Toma, Gouran, Koumbara, Kouri, and Gassan, in Burkina Faso. There is a very large Dafing community in Dédougou, which is otherwise traditionally a Bwa town. There are many important Dafing communities among the Bwa south of Nouna. There is an important concentration of Dafing villages along the valley of the Sourou River.

Their neighbors to the northeast are the Samo, and to the southeast live the Nunuma and Winiama. To the west live the Bwa.

The Dafing are typical of peoples that have penetrated the upper basin of the Volta Rivers and adopted the cultural institutions of peoples they encountered, superimposing the traditions of these peoples over older beliefs, forms, and styles.

In contrast to the leaderless peoples among whom they settled, the Dafing created small-scale, politically centralized states, with a chief in charge of several villages. The position of village chief was achieved, rather than inherited: an elder who had demonstrated his skill as a warrior, trader, and diplomat was selected from a council of local lineage elders. During the 18th and 19th centuries such a state, centered at Ouahabou encompassed several southern Bwa and Winiama villages and extorted taxes from the conquered peoples (Tauxier 1912: 409-13).

The Dafing live in concentrated village communities. In the hills north of Bagassi, the villages of Mana, Bana, and Ouona are nestled in high, dry, but fertile valleys where valuable crops of cotton are grown. From the outside these towns look like fortifications, with no windows, and only one or two narrow entrances. Stones have been cleared from the rocky fields to form low terraces that prevent violent rainstorms from washing away the rich soil, and to hold in some moisture in an area where water is scarce and wells are 60 to 90 meters deep.

Each large neighborhood in the village is composed of families who have emigrated from the same town. Neighborhoods are further divided by family, with each area named after the founding ancestor.

As among other Mandé peoples, Dafing smiths comprise an endogamous caste group.

The Dafing are by no means entirely Moslem. There are large numbers of Moslem Dafing in cities who are engaged in long-distance trade and who have, therefore, joined the international trade brotherhood, but the people in rural Dafing villages are predominantly traditional animists. Like the Nunuma, the Dafing, especially in the remote hill villages between Bagassi and Safané, are feared and respected by their neighbors as dangerous and powerful magicians.

The major Dafing industries are weaving and dyeing, techniques which they must have brought with them from the northwest, for the peoples among whom they have settled traditionally did not weave cotton.

Dafing merchants have specialized in trade in cloth, salt, beef cattle, and (formerly) slaves, that were sent south to Ghana and Ivory Coast in exchange for gold and kola nuts. Slaves and gold from the gurunsi and Lobi areas were also traded north to San, Segou, and Jenné. Dafing merchants carried salted fish from the Niger, Bani, Sourou, and Black Volta Rivers to the forest areas in the south. Vegetable butter from the karité was carried south in large quantities to trade for kola nuts, but this trade ceased with the development of the palm oil industry in Ghana and the Ivory Coast.

Dafing women are more independent from their husbands than are most other women in the basin of the Black Volta. Divorce is very common, and most women marry at least twice during their lives. Dafing women maintain their economic independence by engaging in commerce, especially of dyed cloth. They are the most skilled dyers in central Burkina.

The Dafing Mask Style:

Dafing masks are a stylistic pastiche: a blend of the sculptural styles of their Mandé relatives in Mali and the decorative styles of their Voltaic neighbors in Burkina. The face is oval, with a heavy, horizontal brow and a large, straight nose. The intersection of the nose and brow forms a very distinctive “T”. The planes of the cheeks are flat, with the small, square eyes placed high in the angle of the nose and brow. The ears are large and extend horizontally like handles, and the mouth protrudes, just above a broad, triangular beard. The face is surmounted by a crest that may be complex, including crescents, short dentate planks, or a pair of horns that frame an animal form. This crest curves toward the back. These style traits are very similar to the characteristics of Mandé style masks, especially the n’domo masks of the Bamana. Over the basic Mandé sculptural forms are superimposed distinctively Voltaic geometric patterns, including triangles, chevrons, checkerboards, and especially the “Voltaic target motif”. The decorative patterns are colored red, black, and white resulting in a much more colorful palette than is common in Mandé sculpture. These very typical masks are called barafu, and have often been misattributed to the Bobo.

Marka-Dafing masks should not be confused with the masks of the Marka-Soninké. The Soninké carve masks with very long faces and pointed chins that are often covered with appliques of thin copper, brass, and aluminum. In addition, the Dafing produce animal masks that are difficult to distinguish stylistically from Nunuma and Bwa masks.

Burkina Faso; Dafing (Marka) peoples. Dafing leaf masks. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The Dafing also use masks of leaves (koro) and straw that are very similar to the Bwa leaf masks of Do. Dafing leaf masks that I have seen from Mana, just north of Bagassi, are very similar in style to the leaf masks of the northern Bwa near Dédougou.

Burkina Faso; Dafing (Marka) peoples. Dafing leaf masks. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Rather than a crest of feathers and a protruberant cylindrical mouth, as in Boni and Bagassi, Dafing leaf masks have a large circular, sagittal crest of thick dried grass. I suspect that the leaf mask tradition was adopted by the Dafing from the Bwa when they penetrated the Bwa area.

Burkina Faso; Dafing (Marka) peoples. Dafing leaf masks. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

Dafing Mask Function: Although Dafing formal characteristics are typically Mandé, the use and meaning of masks conforms to stereotypes in central Burkina. As among all peoples in Burkina, masks are family oriented, with each clan taking responsibility for the carving of masks that represent animal and supernatural characters in the clan’s histories. A single clan can use masks of wood or of leaves. The wood and leaf masks never dance together, although they may appear on the same day for the same event. Leaf masks represent Do, the spirit of the bush and of plant life. Masks in wood must open and close every mask performance. Masks of wood represent spirits from the bush that watch over the families and protect them from sorcery. Dafing wood and leaf masks appear at annual renewal or village purification ceremonies, at funerals of male and female elders and at the initiations of young boys. There are no secret associations.

Dafing Village Purification:

Village purification ceremonies, which mark the beginning of the new year, are carried out in the same manner as among other peoples in the region (Bwo for example), with the performance of leaf masks and numerous sacrifices to the forces of nature.

Dafing Funerals:

In February, 1983 I attended the funeral of a male elder of a Dafing family named Tamani in the Bwa village of Banu, near Bagassi. The Tamani family in Banu had been founded by an emigrant from the Dafing village of Mana, about 10 kilometers to the north. As a result, four leaf masks and two wooden masks from Mana participated in the funeral to honor the deceased and send his spirit on its journey to the land of ancestors. The leaf masks appeared early in the morning, arriving from the bush east of the village. Each mask was called by drummers, and was greeted by young men of the clan. Dancing closer and closer to the village, each mask in turn performed just in front of the musicians before taking its place near the entrance to the dead man’s compound. When all had assembled, the musicians entered the compound where, followed by the leaf masks and all the members of the Tamani family, they made three circuits of the compound before stopping on the grave of the dead man, in a corner of the courtyard. Each mask danced in turn on the tomb before everyone left the compound for a performance in the open area in front of the Tamani home. A very large bowl of millet flour and water mixed with honey had been placed beneath a tree near the performance area, and during the mask dance several young boys, as well as elder members of the Tamani family, consumed this offering, which was intended to nourish the spirit on its journey.

Late in the afternoon, two masks of wood emerged from a straw enclosure at the center of the village and repeated the actions of the leaf masks. A mask with a crocodile framed by curving horns, named bamba, accompanied by an antelope mask (ghû), performed in the courtyard and on the tomb of the deceased. Both masks wore aniline red and black costumes of fibers from Kenaf. With the antelope leading, a long procession wound its way through the village to dance on the dead man’s tomb. The oldest son of the deceased followed holding a framed photograph of his father as a young husband surrounded by his wives and children. Just before sundown the wood masks made their way up the rocky path toward their home village of Mana, ending the ceremonies for the day.


The Kurumba live in a small area to the north of the Mossi, on the edge of the Sahel. This is an extremely dry, inhospitable area, which takes on the character of a desert during the dry season. As the effects of desertification brought about by overgrazing and drought increase, the area experiences decreasing rainfall, and farming has become very difficult. The area was badly effected by droughts in 1971-76 and 1983-85, and many Kurumba villages were abandoned, at least temporarily, when their inhabitants moved far to the south to find new land to farm. Throughout the area there are numerous refugee camps inhabited by large numbers of Songhai immigrants from Mali who have come to Burkina Faso to be fed by humanitarian organizations.

The major Kurumba communities are Ouindigui and Bourzanga in the south, Toulfé, Mengao, and Namsiguia in the center, and Djibo, Béléhédé, and Aribinda in the extreme north. Outside of this area there are additional communities in which there are small Kurumba minorities.

The Kurumba may be divided into two peoples: in the south, near Kongoussi, there are many descendants of ancient Kurumba inhabitants who were conquered by the nakomsé in about 1500, and were amalgamated into Mossi society, but were able to preserve their own religious institutions, respected by the conquerors. These people now speak Mooré and call themselves nyonyosé. In these villages authority is divided between the Tenganaba, or nakomsé political chief, and the Tengsoba, or nyonyosé chief of the land, who is descended from the Kurumba. A second group of Kurumba, farther to the north, was never conquered by the nakomsé, and have remained independent.

The Mossi call the Kurumba Fulsé (sing. Fulga, in French Foulsé ), and in many Kurumba villages the influence of Mossi culture is so strong that the Kurumba themselves now use the term.

Traditionally the Kurumba are non-centralized politically; they did not have a system of chiefs or kings. However, about a century after the nakomsé invasion, centralized rule was imposed on them in the form of the Ayo, immigrant “priest/kings” who founded the kingdom of Lurum encompassing an area astride the route from Ouahigouya to Djibo. Outside the area of Lurum Kurumba villages are governed by committees of senior men, as is the pattern among other original farmer peoples.

Kurumba villages are of the “paleo-Voltaic village community” type with lineages of the same clan living together in large neighborhoods with very narrow, winding alleys between houses. Neighborhoods are separated by small open plazas or very small fields, and as a result, villages are very compact, in contrast to the pattern among the Mossi. Neighborhoods in each area may have large sun shelters supported by forked posts that bear low relief human figures. During the day men and sometimes women gather under these shelters to work and exchange news. In some villages there may be separate shelters for the chief and villagers, in others where there is no chief, a large public shelter occupies a plaza at the center of the village.

The Kurumba continue to produce craft work. In addition to carved posts for sun shelters, they carve locks decorated with images of protective spirits, large jars decorated with fertility figures, stone stelae mark the graves of important leaders. Finally, masked dances continue to be performed for traditional contexts.

Kurumba Masks:

The Kurumba carve antelope masks in two important styles: In the north, in an area that encompasses Toulfé, Djibo, and Aribinda, the Kurumba carve antelope masks, called adoné, that are rather naturalistic, with no vertical plank, but with long, slender horns. The neck may be long and graceful, the horns balance a slender, projecting snout, and the entire mask is decorated with colorful geometric patterns. The brilliant ochre brown, red, yellow, and kaolin that are used by northern Kurumba artists are the same pigments that are used by potters across the sahel. Northern masks are worn as crests, on top of the head, although some examples have a visor-like extension that covers the performer’s face.

In the south, closest to the Mossi area, especially around Ouindigui, Titao, Rollo, and Bourzanga masks have frontal planks that rise vertically above the convex oval faces. The eyes are round or triangular, the planks are often elaborate in outline, especially in the east near Kaya, and rough geometric patterns are applied with white kaolin clay. Often, a pair of thin, straight horns rises from the mask just in front of the plank. Some masks bear a very stylized female figure above the face and in front of the plank. Southern Kurumba masks are closest in style to the plank masks produced by the nyonyosé in the eastern, Kaya style area. The similarities between Mossi and Kurumba masks in this area are the result of the incorporation of ancient Kurumba inhabitants into Mossi village society.

In the north, the muzzle, horns, and neck dominate the sculpture, and the antelope form is easily recognized. In the south the plank may be so complex and the animal’s head so small, often no more than a white triangle, that it is quite difficult to recognize the antelope features.

William Fagg commented that many northern masks had been collected in the marché aux puces in Brussels in the 1930’s and that since World War II these masks have been heavily influenced by the tourist trade. He described a visit to the Ouagadougou market where he saw tourist pieces being sold in large numbers (Fagg 1970: 117). He also noted that, since the war, the Kurumba seem to have abandoned the use of basketry caps, and have begun to carve visor-like masks. As a result of these statements, many museum curators removed Kurumba masks from public display, and serious questions were raised about the authenticity of all masks in the northern Kurumba style.

William Fagg’s statements are unfortunate, for the majority of the antelope masks in public collections are, in fact, authentic, having been produced for traditional use in northern Kurumba villages by traditional artists. Masks that are smaller and unused began to appear on the tourist market in large numbers in the early 1970’s when the former director of the museum in Ouagadougou purchased many new masks at the regional agricultural and crafts fairs in Ouahigouya, where they had been displayed by the artists to win prizes that included a gold medal and 10,000 CFA (then $40 US) offered by the local government. At the same time, the Kurumba artists who carried their work to Ouahigouya were producing quite beautiful objects for a purely traditional market in their own villages. Finally, there is no evidence that the use of a basketry cap has given way over time to carving a wooden visor. These are family and geographical variations and are the work of different artists working at about the same time.

Many southern Kurumba masks were purchased by Anne-Marie Schweeger-Hefel in the 1960’s and some were deposited by her in the national museum in Ouagadougou, in the Musée de l’Homme, and in Vienna. Because they were commissioned by her, they show no signs of wear or use in a traditional village context.

Kurumba Mask Function:

Kurumba masks are used in three major events during the annual cycle: masks escort the corpse of dead male and female elders to the tomb and supervise the burial on behalf of the spirits of the ancestors of the clan. Weeks or even months later, during the dry season, masks appear at funerals to honor the deceased and to free the spirit to travel to the world of ancestors. Finally, just before the first rains in late May and June, masks appear at collective sacrifices in which the ancestors are honored together with the spirits of the protective antelope, Hippotragus koba, that is the totem of most Kurumba clans.

These functions conform to patterns throughout Burkina Faso, especially in the north. Masks appear for the same events among the northern Mossi, in Yatenga, Risiam, and Kaya, because the ancestors of the northeastern Mossi who use masks were Kurumba. At funerals, and at public performances following the funeral, masks are physical reembodiments of the spirit of the deceased elder, and the mask may be addressed using the dead person’s name. The mask is a means of preserving the memory of the dead, by providing a physical reminder of the dead elder’s achievements in life. As among the Mossi, masks are used as portable altars on which the living may offer sacrifices to the dead, securing their blessings for the year to come. In addition, the mask carved at the death of a high-ranking clan elder serves to enhance the prestige of the deceased. When not in use, masks may be placed on altars in the ancestral spirit house within the family compound.

Among the Kurumba as among peoples in central Burkina Faso, the geometric patterns painted on masks are symbols that refer to major events in the myths of the founding of the clan, and the masks themselves represent the antelope that played a role in these stories when it saved the life of the founding elder.

Kurumba Posts:

Carved posts that support sun shelters are used by Kurumba village chiefs and by nyonyosé earth priests in Mossi villages in the traditional northern states of Yatenga, Risiam, and Ratenga. Shelters are located at the entrance to the chief’s home. Here, in the shade of the straw roof, he receives the heads of lineages or other dignitaries from the village or region. The roof is supported by rows of posts.

In sun shelters in Toulfé and La Titon the paired central posts rise from a low earthen mound which serves as an altar. Amulets and relics of the villages of origin of the deceased chiefs are deposited beneath the altar; sacrifices are offered on the altars on certain occasions in honor of the deceased chiefs. As among the Mossi I have interviewed near Yako, the paired central posts, placed near the earthen mound or stones that are ancestral altars, are male and female in character, and represent the ideal bisexual character of the chief, who incorporates the female and male members of the village he controls.

Posts are carved by smiths. On many posts breasts or female figures are carved in low relief. Posts are commissioned by people in the village who offer them to the chief as gifts, in expectation that he in return will later provide them with a wife. An important tradition in Mossi and Kurumba villages was the system of woman exchange called pughsiure, by which a chief gave a wife to a man in exchange for services. The eldest daughter of the union was then returned to the chief to be given to another man, perpetuating the system. This system strengthens the fabric of traditional society.

Chief’s tombs are marked by stone stelae that usually represent a very stylized female figure, and may become, on certain occasions, the temporary abode of the spirit of the deceased. As a result, the stela may serve as an altar on which sacrifices may be offered to nourish the soul of the deceased. The stone stelae enhance the prestige of the deceased.

It is readily apparent that posts, stone slabs and the planks that adorn wooden masks are intended to be stylizations of human form. The triangles or diamond shapes that surmount the plank represent the head, while the rectangular plank or slab of post or stela are the torso, decorated with breasts. Ring shapes above and below the slab represent the brass bracelets worn by the wives of a chief, or the neck and sex.



Pottery is among the most vital of artistic traditions in Burkina. The descriptions of pottery forming and firing techniques among peoples at the headwaters of the Volta Rivers are marred by inaccurate generalizations based on too-limited evidence. Lucien Marc (1909), and Louis Tauxier (1912) and Eugene Mangin (1921), say Mossi men make and fire pottery. Louis Tauxier (1917) and Annmarie Schweeger-Hefel (1962, 1972, Vienna M.f.V. exhibit 1976) state that all Mossi potters are women. In fact, they are all right, for in different parts of Mossi country men or women are potters, and the techniques they use, like the styles of masks their smith relatives carve, vary from region to region.

Potters are often the wives of smiths, as among the northern Mossi and the Bwa.

Potters produce containers of various sizes and shapes for storing grain and water, large round jars for brewing beer, and smaller pots for cooking.

Pottery manufacture is carried out in five basic steps: preparation of the clay body, forming the pot, drying, firing, and decoration.

Potters mix the moist clay body with large quantities of temper obtained by grinding broken pottery shards on a stone. The temper, which has already been fired, reduces the cracking and breakage due to shrinking during firing.

Three forming techniques are used: direct pull, coiling, and molding with concave or convex molds.

Modelling Techniques:

Direct Pull Technique: The most widely-used technique for pottery manufacture is the technique I have called “direct pull”, in which the potter forces moist, fresh clay upward to form the walls of a pot without using a mold of any kind. The following description is of the work of the Lobi potter Hien Kokilan in Nyobini, near Gaoua.

The potter begins by placing a small, fired-clay dish on the floor of her work area, which will serve as a support for the base of the new pot. She then forcefully slaps a large mass of kneaded clay into this dish. Using her right fist, she forces a hollow into the center of the mass. Then, bending over the clay, with her right hand inside the pot and her other hand outside, she begins to force the fresh clay upward, pulling the clay toward her chest, and simultaneously thinning and heightening the walls with the pressure of her fingers as they slide over the plastic material. Her back is parallel to the ground as she bends, and her elbows and arms do all of the work. If the jar is to be large, the potter backs around her work as the walls grow larger. If the jar is smaller, she may work seated, rotating the forming jar on its fired-clay support dish. She pauses frequently to dip her fingers into a bowl of water to lubricate them as they slide over the clay walls.

When the walls of the pot are sufficiently high, the potter consolidates them by scraping them with a piece of corncob, a pottery shard, or with a small ring made of raffia midrib. The hand that does the work is always inside the jar, with the outer walls of the jar supported by the left hand. The smoothing and scraping of the walls thins and heightens them, giving them their final curve.

The rim of the jar is made by rotating the pot on its base with the left hand as a small bunch of wet green leaves is dragged along the rim of the partially completed jar. The clay of the rim is consolidated, thickened, and flared outward as the pot rotates rather rapidly, in a technique that is quite similar to wheel-throwing.

The walls of the jar are smoothed and consolidated by rolling a corncob roulette over the plastic clay, producing a repetitive pattern that may help prevent breaking during firing and use, and helps each potter identify her work in group firings.

The “direct pull” technique is used by the Lobi, Nunuma, Nuna, Samo, Winiama, and Marka-Dafing. With several variations the technique is used by the Ashanti and the Mo in Ghana, by the Fon in Benin, the Gwari in northern Nigeria, and others.

Coil Building:

The women who make jars among the Bobo mold the lower half of each jar using the “direct pull” technique. The shape that is produced is open and wide at the top, and is a good shape for brewing millet beer because it allows water to evaporate as it is heated. The shape is not appropriate for storing water for the same reason, and to narrow the mouth of the pot, the potter increases the height of the walls by adding fresh clay.

The process is begun by moistening and loosening the clay at the rim of the partially-dry, molded jar by slapping the clay with a wooden paddle. The potter then forms several large, thick sausages of fresh clay. Holding a sausage inside the jar with her right hand, and supporting the new walls on the outside of the jar with her left hand, the potter backs around the jar, pressing the fresh clay sausage half against her hand and half against the wall of the jar in such a way that she seems to extrude the clay from her hand. As she presses the fresh clay into the wall of the pot she gives her wrist a brief twist, consolidating the clay and producing a repetitive scalloped pattern which is usually smoothed later using a corncob roulette.

When building a large jar the potter may consume more than one sausage of fresh clay in completing a single circuit of the walls. The sausages are never rolled thin and laid up in courses and consolidated later. Instead, the clay walls are consolidated constantly as work progresses, and the walls are finally thinned and smoothed, giving them their final shape, after they have reached their maximum height.

When the new jar is the right shape the potter forms the rim. Often clay is added at this point to thicken and strengthen the pot. The potter uses a small bunch of wet green leaves or a damp cloth to smooth and shape the wet clay. A tremendous amount of care is taken to ensure a smooth, even, well-formed rim. A badly-formed rim may be weak and liable to break, and often the potter’s ability and skill are judged by the finish given to the rim of her pots.

The “coil building” technique is used by most of the peoples in Burkina to increase the height of jars formed using other techniques. The Bwa women of the smith neighborhoods in Bagassi and Ouri all use this technique in combination with the “convex mold” technique. The Yoruba women of Moro, in Nigeria and the Shai potters of Ghana use the technique, as do the Bini, the Dan, the Fang, and others.

Molding Techniques: Molding techniques employ either a concave or convex mold.

Concave Mold:

In the concave mold technique, pots are molded or shaped in a shallow 1/4 to 1/8″ sphere mold which may either be portable or is set into the floor of the house. In 1976-77 I spent several days with the Mossi potter Kêtega Zenabu in the Kibu neighborhood of Yako. Zenabu is the wife of a smith, and sells her pottery in the Yako market. The male potters of the village of Pournyango, near Yako, use the same technique.

The potter sits with her legs extended on either side of the mold and places a large mass of moist, kneaded clay in it. She then begins to thin the clay and fill the mold by beating the clay with a wood or stone mallet. Dry, powdered clay is used between the mold and the fresh clay body to prevent sticking. The entire shallow mold is quickly filled, and the potter then slides the newly forming pot up on one edge so that part of the pot rises above the edge of the mold, and half the mold is exposed to view. She then continues pounding the fresh clay until she has again filled the mold. The process continues until the potter has thinned the original material and molded it into a perfectly spherical, very thin, light pot with a narrow opening at the top. In the case of water jars, the opening or mouth of the jar may be 2-3 inches across, while for cooking pots the mouth may be wider. Such jars are far thinner, smoother, and more symmetrical than even the most skilled Western potter could possibly form on a modern potter’s wheel.

The newly-formed pot is left on the mold, which supports the plastic walls until the pot has had a chance to dry and harden overnight. The potter then trims the opening with an old, broken iron blade, and adds the rim.

To form the rim of the new pot the potter squeezes out a doughnut-shaped ring of moist clay and places this over the opening of the jar, squeezing and kneading the fresh, wet clay into the stiffer clay body of the jar. This material is then thinned and tapered into a gracefully-flaring rim by a turning process that rather closely resembles the throwing techniques used on a Western potter’s wheel. The pot is supported on a shallow dish filled with ashes as the potter rapidly spins pot and support with her left hand. With the fingers of the right hand she thins the fresh clay upward and outward to form the flaring rim. The pot does not spin on a fixed axis, but is only held upright by the potter as she works.

This technique is used by Mossi women in the north, by Mossi men in the south, and it is also used by Jula blacksmiths, by the Margi in Cameroon, the Hausa in northern Nigeria, the Dogon in Mali, the Tiv in Nigeria, and elsewhere in Africa.

Convex Mold:

Bwa women form their pots over a mold that consists of a fired pot turned upside-down on the ground.

The potter begins by dusting the bottom of the overturned pot liberally with powdered clay or wood ash to prevent sticking. She then slams a large ball of fresh clay against the carefully swept floor of her work space and pounds it flat with a stone or her foot. The broad round loaf of clay is placed over the mold pot and the potter proceeds to spread the fresh clay with a wood, stone, or fired clay beater. As the clay thins and spreads to cover the mold it occasionally cracks, and the gaps are filled in with fresh, moist clay. When the new pot has covered the mold pot to its widest point, at the shoulder of the mold, the potter allows it to dry for several hours, usually covering the fresh clay with damp cloths so that it will not dry too rapidly in the low humidity of the dry season. Late in the afternoon, the potter and a young assistant lift the new jar from the mold pot, gripping the hardened rim, with one potter on each side. Often the potters’ fingers leave deep marks in the new pot’s rim. The pot is turned upright and placed in a basin of wood ash that supports the walls and prevents damage to the fresh clay.

Jars may be enlarged by adding clay to the walls to build them higher using the “coil technique.”

This technique is used by some female Mossi potters in the southwestern Mossi area. It is used by the Yoruba and the Nupe in Nigeria, and the Sarakole in Mali, as well as elsewhere in Black Africa.

Pre-firing Decoration:

All of the peoples I have studied in Burkina Faso apply decoration to pottery before the firing so that the designs will be permanent. Among the Mossi, Lobi and Bwa, potters impress repetitive patterns into the walls of pot using roulettes made of dried corncobs or of lengths of cord that have been twisted, doubled, and retwisted. As these cords are rolled over the moist clay they leave behind patterns that are unique to each potter. Roulette patterns often are used on the lower two-thirds of jars, and may help prevent cracking when jars are used for cooking over an open fire. The Lobi and other peoples incise systems of linked crescents around the shoulders of jars to separate the rough, roulette-decorated lower area of the jar from the smooth shoulder and neck.

The Bwa decorate the upper portions of large jars with washes of iron-rich slip that turn bright red during oxidation firing, to contrast with the orange color of the clay body of the jar. These slip-decorated areas may be burnished using smooth pebbles, or small round seeds strung on a cord like a necklace. The seeds are rubbed over the dry clay surface to consolidate the clay particles which results in a very shiny surface that appears to have been glazed.

Finally, most peoples apply modelled clay patterns to the walls of jars that are to be used for rituals or for spiritual protection of the contents. The Kurumba are famous for the large, heavy, fired-clay jars that women keep in their kitchens to store grain. These are decorated with patterns that represent the scars applied to the abdomen of a married woman who has borne a child, and are symbols of human and agricultural fertility.

Pottery firing:

Like most traditional African techniques, pottery firings in Burkina appear to be simple and unsophisticated, yet the technology is appropriate for a culture with few resources and little heavy industry, and the many Western potters who have attempted to imitate African techniques have quickly found that they are far from simple.

No peoples in the upper basin of the Volta Rivers use pottery kilns. Only the Mossi and some Bwa build an enclosure, a simple circular wall of mud brick about two meters high without a roof and pierced at the base by holes for air. Mossi potters may pile as many as eighty round water jars in this firing enclosure (wulugu in Mooré), and cover the entire charge with a layer of dry fuel half a meter thick. Fuel may be dried millet stalks, donkey manure, chaff from winnowing pounded millet prior to grinding, or dry wood. When very large jars are to be fired, such as the great sintogo containers used to brew thirty gallons of millet beer, only one to four jars are fired together. Then the pots are placed rim-downward, supported by stones or shards so they are a few inches off the ground, and fuel is piled around them with only a few large shards to hold in the heat. The fuel is lit and rapidly flares into a great fire that may last only 30-45 minutes. Extra fuel is added occasionally, especially when a portion of the wall of a pot is visible. The thick blanket of ash that forms over the pots holds in the heat, so that although the flames die quickly, the jars continue to bake in the hot ashes for two or three hours.

When charges of several smaller pots are fired in a circular enclosure, the potters take up positions around the firing and feed bundles of dried millet stalks into the fire through small holes pierced at frequent intervals around the base of the enclosure. These holes also serve as vents for oxygen to feed the fire. When the flames have begun to show above the charge of new jars, all of the potters together throw large bundles of dry fuel onto the jars to cover them. For a few minutes the flames leap toward the dark sky, then soon diminish to a glowing red mass.

Firings are held either late in the evening or before dawn when the air is still, so that red-hot pots will not be damaged by a sudden gust of cool wind. I have often attended firings when a sudden freak gust resulted in popping and smashing noises as several pots shattered in an instant.

Post-Fire Decoration:

While the jars are still glowing red from the heat of firing, most potters pull them from the hot ashes and slap them with green leaves dipped in a thick brown vegetable soup. This is a heavy reduction technique that is virtually identical to the raku techniques of Japanese potters, and it has similar results. Pots are darkened to a shiny black finish that resembles a glaze, and the sudden change in temperature creates tiny fissures in the walls of the jars that increase their resistance to thermal shock. As a result, jars blackened by quick reduction can be used for cooking over open flames without shattering. The reduction and the layer of vegetable glaze left behind also make the jars more waterproof, so that the technique is not used for jars that are to serve as water coolers. The vegetable soup may be made from any vegetable material, but the seed pods of the locust bean (Acacia nilotica) are most frequently used, boiled in water until one or two gallons of very thick red-brown liquid remain in the jar. Some pots may be reduced simply by smothering them while still red-hot in a thick layer of dry grass or millet chaff. As the reducing agent is applied, the hot jars give off clouds of steam.

By its nature, decoration applied to pottery after the firing is transitory, because it is not fired into the clay body of the jar. Other than the rich black surface that results from reduction, and for which Lobi jars are particularly famous, the potters of Burkina do not apply very much post-fire decoration. Potters among the Bobo and Senufo in the west, and among the Songhai in the north, apply colorful clay slips to jars after firing, but these wash off quickly with use.

Traditional pottery techniques are in no danger of disappearing in Burkina Faso. Although the sale of enameled tinware and of cast metal cooking pots has cut the demand for earthen jars slightly, most peoples claim to prefer the taste of food prepared in earthenware, and women who prepare millet beer state emphatically that they cannot sell beer brewed in metal containers.