Clothing and Dress in Burkina Faso

Clothing and Dress in Burkina Faso

by Christopher D. Roy
Copyright ©2006 by Christopher D. Roy

Burkina Faso is located at the crossroads of several important trade routes that cross West Africa from the Sahara to the old Gold Coast and from the Inland Delta of the Niger to the former Slave Coast.  They peoples of Burkina have always participated actively in the long distance trade in salt, kola nuts, cotton cloth and gold.  The Mossi and other people in central Burkina speak Voltaic languages that are very closely related to the languages of northern Ghana, while the Bobo and other peoples inwestern Burkina speak Mande languages and are culturally related to the Bamana and Malinke.  These intersections of cultural areas are mirrored by the clothing people wear: the clothing of Voltaic peoples is very similar to that of Dagomba and Mamprussi, while the clothing of Mande peoples is similar to that of the Bamana.

Mossi Men: The Mossi people are the largest group in Burkina Faso, comprising over half the total population.  They are the only people in the country with an ancient tradition of centralized political authority, so one can speak of royal dress and regalia as well as the dress of commoners.  They are also very heterogeneous, so it is important to understand people who are descended from the ancient farmers who first occupied the land my be rather different than the dress of the chiefs who are descended from the horsemen who invaded the region in 1500 A.D. Based on what I saw when I first visited Burkina Fasoin 1970, and on illustrations in books and journals published in the late 19thand early 20th century, it is possible to draw a word picture ofMossi dress or clothing before independence in 1960.


The Mossi have been weavers of cotton for centuries.  A particular group among the Mossi, called the Yarse, specialize in weaving long, narrow cotton strips which could be cut into shorter bands and sewn together selvage to selvage to form a whole piece of cloth. To create a piece of clothing the buyer could go to the marketand pick out the strips he liked, in patterns and colors of his choosing.  The merchant measured the strips against the wearer’s body, a certain number for the body, a certain number forthe back, another group for the sleeves. The customer then took these to a tailor who sewed the strips together to form a shirt, trousers, wrapper, or any other garment.  The long strips were also wound up into very large round disks (diameter 75 cm. to 1 m.), hundreds of thicknesses in diameter but only one band wide, which Yarse merchants then carried south intothe forest of Ghana and sold to the Akan-speaking peoples who could not grow cotton in the forest.

Mossi men wore a pair of loose fitting trousers that covered the legs to a point just below the knees or mid-calf.  The waist was enormous, much larger than the man’s real measurements, and was drawn up tight with a leather belt or a drawstring.  There was often an excess of material between the legs that bunched up and left a great deal of freedom of movement.The trousers could be blue or white, or might be warp striped, but plain white was the most common.  Men wore shirts, called fugu, sewn from narrow bands into the large, roomy shorts that are also common in northern Ghana in Dagomba and elsewhere.  These shirts have numerous gussets around the waist that allow them to flow or flare outward when the wearer spins inplace in a dance, or rotates from side to side.  Many of these were sleeveless, but the most elegant and costly had sleeves and pockets, and were sewn of expensive warp-stripe cloth.  Shorts of this type have become very popular again in the past ten or twenty years. Mossi men also wore/wear long robes that reach to the ankles, sewn of strips of warp-stripe cloth, with a keyhole opening for the head and neck.  These were often embroidered by hand in the past, by machine now.

Mossi baga diviner, 2012
Mossi baga diviner, 2012

All men wore hats, either of basketry or of woven cotton strips.  The most common type,rarely seen now, consisted of two rectangles of thick cloth sewn together along two adjacent sides and worn as a peaked cap, with one corner pointing straight up, and two opposite corners turned up above the ears. They may be dyed brown or black, or even warp-striped. Hats of this type were also worn by other Voltaic people, especially the Dogon, who live to the northwest of the Mossi.  They are quite unique and picturesque.  The second important type of hat that are still ubiquitous in Mossi country are the large, round orcircular, pointed hats made of grass and decorated with red, black, and brownleather.  Lots of men still wearthem, especially in the countryside, and lots of tourists buy them and carrythem home on the airplane.  Thereare several centers of production, but the most famous is the large village of Sapone, south west of Ouagadougou. Because they are twinned like baskets and worn on the head, they are called “Sapone-head-baskets” or Sapon zug peogo.  These are often worn by Mossi men over a close fitting skullcap of the type that is common all over West Africa, especially amongMuslims.  They may also be worn asextra protection over a light cotton head cloth or turban, so the hat rides ontop of the turban.  This is trulythe mark of a man from a remote rural area, especially herders such as the Fulani.


Mossi men used to carry goat-skin sacks called wowsse (pl.)or wowga (sing.). These were fabricated of whole skins that had been stripped from the goat’s carcass without cutting them, so they formed a secure container with only one opening, where the neck had been.  Some of these were tanned so well that they were as soft and supple as the finest leather gloves. They are now rather hard to find.


Finally, Mossi men once wore numerous armlets and bracelets made of leather, brass, stone, or silver. These were intended to protect the wearer from accidents, evil magic, disease, and to make the wearer successful in love and attractive to theopposite sex.  The most unusual of these were smooth stone bracelets worn above the elbow, carved in a village named Hamdoulaye or Manogo just north of the border between Burkina and Mali.  The marbled stone from which they were carved comes from Hombori, in Mali northeast of Bandiagara. The Mossi call Hombori “Manogo,” and so the armlets are referred to as manogokaka, or sometimes kugukaka (kugri=stone). They were expensive, so for many years theglass makers of the Nigerian city of Bida made glass facsimiles which were sold by merchants to Mossi men.


Mossi Chiefs: For many centuries all Mossi chiefs have worn colorful “pill-box” capsor (in French) bonnets, which mark them as rulers, chiefs, members of the nakomse class of political elite.  These hats are round, brimless, with vertical sides and a flat top, and are crocheted of fine yarn.  Each one has four crosses of equal arms at each of the cardinal points (one over the nose, one over each ear, one atthe back).  These crosses have absolutely nothing to do with Christianity, and predate the arrival ofChristian missionaries by centuries. In the 15th century King John I of Portugal heard of thesehats and, assuming incorrectly that the wearers were Christians, wrote a letter to the Mossi Emperor asking if it were possible he were the legendary missionary priest named Prester John.


Mossi chiefs also wear voluminous and costly robes of the type that are common from Senegal to Lake Chad and which, in style, originate among the Hausa kingdoms of northern Nigeria.  In the old days these were woven of cotton cloth or wildsilk, and were hand embroidered in the same patterns used by the artists of the Nupe and Hausa in Nigeria.  Now they are sewn of expensive damask or other imported textiles and most often embroidered by machine.


Mossi Men Now: During the colonial period, governed by the idea that “to be civilized one must be French” French clothing design dominated the apparel of all government officials and businessmen. In the period from 1960 to the 1980s men who worked in offices wore tailored suits called “fonctionnaire” suits.  These consisted of tailored western style trousers, and shirt-jackets with collars and a row of buttons up the front, with a high breast pocket.  As a director of a government office I wore just such a suit from 1970-72.  In the late 1970s and through the 1980sand 90s this neo-colonial style gave way to much more relaxed and appropriately traditional local dress, as a symbol of growing national identity and pride in traditional culture.  Now, in the early 21st century, most government ministers, many businessmen, and all teachers wear “African” dress. In Burkina Faso the favored men’s style are again the very loose,flaring shirts that are well known in northern Ghana, with numerous broadgussets. Men make a point of having these elegant shirts tailored using expensive, high-quality, hand woven cotton strips.  Loose fitting, voluminous trousers are made to match.  At official receptions governmentministers and ambassadors wear large, flowing, beautifully embroidered robes onthe Hausa pattern.


Second-hand clothing: I wish all Burkinabe men and women wore only traditional, hand woven,African style clothing, but in fact second hand clothing imported in enormous bales from America and Europe is ubiquitous in Burkina.  Thirty years ago only a few people wore white people’s cast-offs, but now it is everywhere, and it is rare to see rural farmers who wear homespun cloth. American tee-shirts and soccer shirts are sold in all rural markets for a fraction of what traditional clothing costs, and because these imported second-hand items are generally in good condition, people appear pretty well dressed.  In Ghana people call these clothes “Dead White Men’s Clothing,” but I have not heard the phrase in Burkina.  Although people who may once have worn rags can afford to be better dressed now, it is unfortunate that used clothing has had a devastating impact on the manufacture of homespun and dyed African styles.


From about 1970 until the late 1980s there was a very large, modern, efficient cotton textile mill called Voltex in Koudougou, in the center of the country.  The factory turned out huge quantities of fairly inexpensive cotton cloth that was printed with bright, colorful patterns of the styles known as “Dutch wax.”  Shops were full of these textiles, and people wore colorful shirts, blouses, and skirts sewn from them.  The factory was fed by the large cotton plantations in the center of the country. In the late 1980s the factory was nationalized, high ranking officials sold all the assets, including machinery, to feed their bank accounts, and the factory went bankrupt and shut down. Now printed cotton cloth is again imported from Ivory Coast and Europe, to the detriment of the Burkinabe economy.


Mossi Women Then: In the decades that led to independence in1960 Mossi women in rural areas wore a woven cloth wrapper around the hips and legs. The wrapper was carefully tucked in at one side to hold it in place, andit was quite common to see women pause to unwrap and adjust it.  Beneath this they wore a lighter cotton wrapper.  The wrapper was designed to cover the legs almost as far as the ankles, for among the Mossi and many other neighboring peoples, the thighs were the focus of sexual interest andwere kept carefully covered out of a sense of modesty.  In addition, women wore a white cotton shawl carefully folded over one shoulder. This could be used over the shoulders, or as an extra cloth over a babycarried on the back.


Before the arrival of the French in the 1890’s most womendid not wear blouses, and their breasts were uncovered.  The Mossi did not associate women’s breasts with sexuality.  Breastswere instead associated with motherhood and childbearing, and modesty did notrequire that they be hidden.  In fact, it was considered bad form for a woman to conceal her breasts, especially in the presence of the chief.  All of that changed when the French arrived. They imposed their sense of modesty on the Mossi and made it an offence to be seen in Ouagadougou bare breasted. All women wore blouses like those worn by women all over Africa duringthe colonial period and ever since. Because it was offensive to the Mossi to bare the legs, they passed lawsin the late 1960’s against the wearing of mini-skirts, and the first time theFrench ambassador’s wife descended from an airliner in 1968 wearing a shortskirt she was arrested.  To thisdays only mid-calf skirts are acceptable in Burkina Faso, and white women oftenwear long wrappers over shorter skirts or shorts when in public.


Decades ago women wore a distinctive hairstyle called gyonfo, in which the hair was carefully braided up into a high crest that ran from the forehead to the back of thehead.  There was a small pigtail atthe back if the woman was married, and small braids over each ear.  Silver or brass combs or coins were sometimes incorporated into the hairstyle, as Fulani women continue to do to this day.  This crested or saggital hairstyle may be seen frequently in Mossi figurative sculpture.  The hairstyle has long since gone outof fashion to be replaced by a thousand different elegant styles of the typeseen all over Black Africa.


Until the late 1970�s all wives of chiefs wore on their leftwrists distinctive brass bracelets of the kind called kobre.  These bracelets were spherical, with an opening to allowthem to be put on the wrist, and a broad sharp ring at the equator like the rings of Saturn.  In the old days commoners were not permitted to speak to the wife of the chief, and these women were identified by the distinctive bracelets intended to warn off commoner men. Mossi chiefs’ wives also once wore heavy cylindrical anklets called fodo, that covered from10 to 20 centimeters of the lower leg.


A century ago most people in Burkina worebracelets, rings, anklets and pendants cast of brass or carved from stone.  These objects were intended to provideprotection against disease and misfortune of all kinds.  Many of them were non-figurative, but asignificant number incorporated images of the spiritual beings that were toprovide protection to the wearer. Most Burkinab�s stopped wearing such objects in the early 1960s, and nowit is very unusual to see any being worn in rural villages or in the city.  In the 1970s tons of old brassbracelets were gathered up by scrap metal dealers and sold by the kilogram tobrass casters in Ouagadougou, who turned them into ashtrays and chess piecesfor tourists.

Mossi brass casters used to cast a wide varietyof shapes and types,  including kambanga–small bracelets wornabove the elbow, kalembanga–made of copper and iron twisted together andworn on the wrist to prevent eye diseases, zouw�ra–twisted bracelets ofsolid silver or copper, karzouri–massive round bracelets that are fitted to thewrist with a great hammer and are almost impossible to remove, zusokadaga–which have a sectionthat separates to permit the bracelet to be removed from the arm.


Mossi Women Now: All of the elegant women in cities such asOuagadougou, Bobo-Dioulasso, Koudougou, and Ouahigouya wear expensive,carefully tailored, high fashion couture of the type that is ubiquitous everywhere inAfrica.  Tailor shops for men andwomen are everywhere in the cities, and women search the markets for the mostunusual and beautiful textiles. Tailors travel from city to city and country to country to see thelatest fashions and to bring the ideas they have collected home to theirclients.  The best designers fly toParis to show their work in fashion salons.


There are dozens of intricate and attractivebracelet and anklet shapes that were once made in various places all overBurkina Faso.  While many wereintended to provide some form of protection to their owners, the way someAmericans wear copper or iron bracelets, fashion plays an important role, somany others are worn simply because they look attractive. A style originated bya Mossi caster may become fashionable among Fulani or Bwa women, and hundredsof them may be worn only by women in those groups.  They come to be called �Fulani bracelets� whether or notthey were the work of a Fulani artist. Such bracelets are still very common in many parts of Burkina Faso, andare proudly worn by very beautiful and elegant women.  Although few people wear bracelets for spiritual protectionthese days, lots of people still wear them to enhance their appearance.




Bwa: Mossi men who belong tofamilies that use wood masks once wore cast brass rings that bore tiny modelsof their masks to secure the protection of the spirit represented by themask.  Similarly Nunuma, Winiama,and Nuna men wore cast brass rings bearing tiny masks. These serve the samepurpose as women’s cast brass crescent pendants, to secure the blessings of themask spirit. Casters in Nunuma villages make rings with masks which they placealong the wood stems of long tobacco pipes. Some old pipes I once saw in Nunumavillages had up to fifteen small masks. In the past two or three decadescasters have made large numbers of these pipes to sell to tourists.

Since the 1950s the large number of mopeds, madeby Peugeot or Motobecane, have been the most important means oftransportation.  These motorbikeshave engine blocks cast in a white metal that looks like aluminum, although itis an aluminum alloy.  Casters havebeen very adept at casting jewelry from this light alloy.  Bwa women wear anklets made of aluminumor brass that are cast for them by Dafing smiths. These anklets are curvedupward at the front and back, and bear on the front a representation of theleaf mask that represents Dwo and an elaborate plaque sometimes decorated withfeather shapes at the back.  Bwawomen whose families wear leaf masks also wear these anklets for spiritualprotection. When a woman becomes ill or cannot conceive a child, her brotherscommission such an anklet to provide her with the blessings of Dwo.  The same protection is provided onaluminum bracelets and even pipe bowls.

Many Bwa and gurunsi wear pendant brasscrescents on the chest. These protect the wearers from disease, and verysimple, small examples were still worn in the mid-1980s in large numbers bychildren. The most elaborate examples, frequently bearing miniature models ofwood masks, are worn by gurunsi women, especially in the north among theNunuma. These are named tchien� lui ni ben� “crescent shapewith a figure”, and again, like Bwa anklets, represent the mask owned bythe wearer’s family. A woman who is suffering some reproductive disease mayconsult a diviner, who instructs her to seek the help of her family’sprotective spirit. She then returns to her father’s home where her brotherscommission a crescent bearing the family mask. It is her brothers whocommission these amulets for her, because they are responsible for the familymasks.  The mask spirit cures thewoman after she returns to her husband’s home. Similar brass crescents are wornby the Senufo, Lobi, Bobo, and other peoples in southern Burkina Faso.

Marka: The Marka or Marka-Dafing live in north centralBurkina around Safane and farther north. They play an important role in the economic life of the country, becausethey are merchants, weavers, and dyers. Dafing women dye cotton and local silkyarns blue with indigo, and Dafing men weave the blue yarns into narrow stripson horizontal double-heddle looms. There are never any weft patterns, but the warp stripes alternateseveral shades of dark, medium, light blue and white.  Women associate each of the warp-strip patterns withaphorisms about the course of life and human relationships, as is common amongpeoples all over Africa.  The verybeautiful blue striped cloths, two by one meters in dimension, are marketed byDafing merchants all over central Burkina, and they are avidly collected by thewomen of many different cultures. The cloths are rather expensive, ranging from 2000 CFA ($8) for thecheapest, coarsest cotton, to well over 10,000 CFA ($40, these prices are twentyyears old, I am sure they are far more expensive now) for the finest silktextiles.  Bwa women especiallycollect them, store their collections carefully in wooden boxes in theirbedrooms, and wear them on important occasions, especially religious celebrations.  On such days you may see every woman ina large village wearing the beautiful blue stripped Dafing cloth as wrapperswith the stripes arranged horizontally. The effect is quite impressive andpleasing.  The Dafing area is oneof the few in Burkina where indigo dying is still an important industry.  So little indigo is worn elsewhere thatmost dyers have given up their trade.


Lobi: The Lobi are by far the most independent and uniquepeople in Burkina.  The Mossi andother Burkinabes describe them as obstreperous and difficult.  They refuse to recognize any authorityother than that of their village diviners, and have battled first the Frenchand later the government of Burkina for their independence.  Although there is a significant amountof literature from the colonial and post-colonial periods about the Lobi, therehave been rather few photographs published of them, and far fewer of them thatshow their bodies below the waist. This is because, until the 1970s, Lobi dress was rather minimal, and offendedFrench sensibilities.  Decades agoLobi men wore only a thin cord around their waists into which they inserted thehead of the penis, allowing the testicles to hang free.  They wore their hair rather long, tothe jaw line, and dressed it with clay and fat, forming tight thin locks thatstuck out all over.  They worenumerous leather and brass amulets on their wrists and around the neck thatprovided magical protection of the wathil, the spirits of the wilderness.  That was all they wore.  Women dressed in a similar way, butwore two small bundles of fresh green leaves tied to their belts front and backfor the sake of modesty.  Ofcourse, like almost everything else in Africa, all of this has changed, andnowadays Lobi men and women dress much as do men and women in any other area ofrural Burkina, in second-hand American tee shirts and shorts or wrappers.  The Lobi were also famous for thequantities of ivory jewelry they once wore. Burkina still has the largest herdsof wild elephants in all of West Africa. Like the gurunsi to the east, they wore large armlets above the elbow cut lengthwisefrom the elephant tusk. Lobi men wore pendants ontheir chests called thungbubiel carvedin the shape of whistles.  All Lobiwomen wore ivory lip plugs, or labrets. These were usually small, no more than the size of a silver dollar, butthey wer, nevertheless, rather striking to see.


All such objects have been collected years agoand are now in public or private collections outside Burkina Faso.  In about 1980 I visited the renownedart dealer, Merton Simpson in New York, who showed me thirty or so of the thungbubiel whistle-shapedpendants, patinated in colors from white to orange to red to black.  As late as the 1980s when I asked inNuna villages about traditional objects that villagers once wore, people showedme nose ornaments in ivory, but by that time absolutely nobody wore them.  However, in 1984 I did photograph alovely old Lobi lady who still wore an ivory lip plug.


Fulani:  Thereare large numbers of Fulani in northern Burkina Faso.  They comprise the second largest group of people in thecountry after the Mossi.  TheFulani are very important across West Africa, from Senegal to Lake Chad, andare very numerous in Guinea, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria.  Ever since the first European explorerstrekked across the savanna grasslands of Senegal and Nigeria in the early 19thcentury they have described the great physical beauty of Fulani women, andtheir wonderful sense of style in dress. The Fulani are very heterogeneous. There are many different Fulani peoples, including the Wodabe in Niger,the Udalan and Liptako in Burkina, as well as settled town Fulani, nomadiccattle Fulani, and the famous Fulani of Mali who specialize in weavingelaborate wool and cotton blankets with weft patterns in brick red, black,white and yellow.


The Fulani women in northern Burkina are as fashionconscious as Fulani women everywhere. Pastoral Fulani women wear very bright shawls and scarves of importedrayon, wear their hair in elaborate coiffures, of which the most common is thesaggital crest from the front of the head to the back,  heavily decorated with rows and rows ofsilver coins and other silver ornaments and amber beads.   In the 1970s and 80s the favoredcotton wrapper was a blue or black warp stripes, with a colorful machineprinted cotton blouse and lots of amber and silver jewelry.  Settled town or village Fulani womenwhom I know near the town of Dori wear very intricate and beautifully tailoredblouses and skirts of colorful, imported, printed cotton cloth.  These are sewn up into elaborategussets, frills, collars, wide puffy sleeves, and other intricate combinationsof cloth in bright colors by tailors in the Dori market who cater especially toFulani clientele.  The women alsotattoo their lips and chins, and paint black dots on their foreheads andcheeks.  Some women chip or filetheir teeth, and the overall impression is of great elegance, a powerful senseof individual style, and stunning beauty. There have been numerous occasions when I was trudging dusty and tiredthrough some incredibly hot Acacia forest in the Sahel with the sound ofcicadas ringing all around, miles from any village, when I suddenly encounteredan elegant Fulani woman, superbly dressed and coiffed, carrying on her head abowl or two of fresh milk or yogurt, showing not the least sign of sweat, dust,or fatigue.


Fulani men also pride themselves in their personal beauty,but their clothing is very much more plain and darker than that of theirwives.  The male Fulani herdersaround Barsalogho, Djibo, Aribinda and Dori wear unique cotton shirts, sewn ofnarrow strips, dyed brown or black, and covered with row upon row of whiteplastic buttons.  The sleeves arevery large, almost like wings, and are not sewn along the inside seam, so they flyand flap free of the arms if a wind comes up.  It is quite usual to see a young Fulani herder with hiscattle and goats, wearing one of these spectacular shirts covered with buttons,along with baggy trousers bunched around the waist, purple or white plasticlace up shoes, and a large, disk-shaped basketry hat.  Fulani herders always carry a long heavy stick with a largeround boss at the end that they use to encourage their cows to move in thedesired direction.