The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Art of Burkina Faso

by Christopher D. Roy (1947-2019)
University of Iowa

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.