The Art of Burkina Faso

by Christopher D. Roy
University of Iowa


The two major weaving peoples in the region are the Dafing and the Yarsé, weavers of Mandé origin who have been integrated into Mossi society.

The Marka-Dafing immigrated into the basin of the Volta River after 1600. Among the Dafing, all dyeing is done by women, who also market much of the finished cloth. Weaving is done by men on horizontal, narrow-warp looms. Dafing cloth is sold in markets in Bwa, Samo, Dafing, Winiama, and Nuna communities, and as far south as southern Ghana.

All Dafing cloth is composed of narrow strips of blue and white warp-stripe patterns. A cloth usually is made up of thirteen bands sewn selvage to selvage. In a single cloth, alternating strips of two different patterns are used.

Each unsymmetrical pattern of wide or narrow stripes of dark blue, light blue, and white has a name that corresponds to a common Dafing aphorism. Examples are "death comes to everyone," "you never know what your enemies are thinking," "you cannot change your mother," "where has my mother gone?" "to have a co-wife is not good," "it is not easy to find an honest man," and "it is good to agree." There are over fifty different patterns based on combinations of blue and white stripes of varying widths. Certain patterns can be combined edge to edge to make a whole cloth, while others are never combined. Although individual strips are named, the whole cloth is not given a name.

These blue and white warp-stripe cloths continue to be collected and worn by women throughout central Burkina in large numbers. The finest are avidly sought and treasured, and women invest great wealth in their personal collections. They are worn on all important ritual occasions and show no sign of disappearing in the face of the production of inexpensive cloth from the large textile mill at Koudougou.

The cloth is worn by women as wrappers, and most women have collections of several cloths that they have purchased or received as gifts, or that have been passed on through several generations of women in one family. One informant, a very elderly woman of a wealthy Dafing family in Uri, owned more than 100 cloths, some of which, she said, were more than fifty years old. Several were woven of local silk, which is used frequently by Dafing weavers to produce high-prestige cloths. These cloths are much more expensive than most textiles in Burkina Faso: a simple, fairly coarse Dafing cloth of the lowest quality costs 3000 CFA (about $6 U.S. or 60 NF). The most expensive silk cloths cost 25,000 CFA (about $50 U.S. or 500 NF).

Weaving is an ancient tradition in the area now inhabited by the Mossi. Several of the original clans include stories of weavers in their myths of origin, and among clans near Guilongou, between Ouagadougou and Kaya, traditions state that the founding ancestor was a weaver who descended to earth on the threads of his warp carrying a wooden mask.

Working exclusively during the dry season, usually in large workshops that are organized and financed by merchants with adequate capital to purchase homespun or factory-spun thread, young men from 10 to 30 years of age produce vast quantities of plain, white cotton bands on horizontal narrow-warp looms.

Mossi weavers produce small cotton blankets with simple patterns of black weft stripes that are notable for the apparent lack of concern by the weaver for matching patterns from band to band. These weft stripes are continuous, extending across the warp from selvage to selvage. I have never seen a traditional Mossi cloth that employed discontinuous weft floats of any kind. The most complex patterns woven by traditional Mossi are simple plaids of intersecting warp and continuous weft stripes. The careful alignment of weft stripes at the ends of the cloths show that Mossi weavers can, when they wish, match up patterns across a full cloth.

Over several centuries, Mossi emperors encouraged the immigration of craftsmen from neighboring areas to work under the patronage of the Mossi political hierarchy. Certainly the most important of these for any discussion of Mossi weaving are the Yarsé. The Yarsé brought with them weaving patterns that are virtually indistinguishable from those of other peoples, notably Bamana and Fulani, in the bend of the Niger. Although the Yarsé are of Mandé origin, and are almost all Moslem, they speak Mooré, the language of all Mossi, and have been thoroughly and permanently assimilated into Mossi society. They regularly intermarry with families from the numerous other Mossi social substrata.

In contrast to the very simple weaving of the tengabisi and the nakomsé, the Yarsé produce quite complex, elaborate, and sometimes very colorful cotton blankets. Of all Mossi weavers, the Yarsé alone employ supplementary shedding devices, especially shedd sticks, to produce a range of weft patterns, both continuous and discontinuous. They also use factory-dyed thread, especially orange and red, to add color to their large, heavy blankets. The Yarsé produce blankets that are decorated with carefully matched weft blocks that form black and white checkerboard patterns.

There is clear evidence that for centuries weavers in the Volta River and Niger River valleys supplied most of the cotton cloth used by Akan-speaking peoples of Ghana and Ivory Coast. This trade in cotton cloth from north to south continued until the 1920's. The Akan peoples traded for cloth with Jula traders in important centers such as Kong, Bondoukou, Salaga, and Dagomba. One of the important sources of large quantities of simple cloth within the bend of the Niger River was the Mossi empire, whence Jula traders carried cloth produced by Mandé-speaking Yarsé weavers into the forest to exchange for kola nuts and gold.

This important trade could be carried on because the Mossi had created a large area that was safe. The effective military organization and centralized political structure of the new Mossi states created a peaceful haven within the bend of the Niger in which farming and commerce and the production of cloth, pottery, cast brass, leather work, and many other items could be carried on free from fear of invasion, slave raids, and religious wars. Crozat, who travelled in the area in 1890, stated that:

"From the very first, in Mossi country, one feels that one has entered a new land, more peaceful, richer, and more populous than other countries he had visited... The people one meets on the roads are workers on their way to the fields, or are carrying wares to the neighboring market. They are not like the Songhai or the Bobo, who always carry bows on their shoulders" (Crozat 1891: 4882). Although the Mossi maintained a peaceful zone of nonintervention south of the bend of the Niger, they were not cut off from contact with other states. They maintained mutual non-agression treaties with their powerful Gurmantche neighbors to the east, and with the Mamprusi, Dagomba, and Akan states to the south (Skinner 1964: 95-6). These pacts were based on the annual exchange of gifts, especially of woven cloth.

Writing in 1857, Heinrich Barth records that the Mossi, and especially the Yarsé, were good traders, profiting from their country's strategic location astride trade routes from the Sahara to the forest states of the south. According to Barth, at least six important caravan routes crossed the region linking the Niger Bend with the Akan states. The most important stops were the markets of Ouagadougou, Béré, Dakay, La, Mané, Yako, and Koupela.

"The people of Mossi supply this market [Dori] with Gabaga or`Tari' cotton bands as Arabs near Timbuktu call them, cotton being extremely cheap in their country, so that in the great market places in that country, especially in Koupela, an indigo-colored shirt is not worth more than from 700 to 800 cowrie shells... Besides salt, cotton strips, dyed cloth, kola nuts, corn, and asses, some copper manufactured chiefly into large drinking vessels is also brought into the market by the people of Mossi. However, I do not think they manufacture the copper vessels themselves, but bring them from Ashanti" (Barth 1857 III: 202-4).

Some idea of the volume of trade in cloth from Mossi country is given by the official figures for the border with Gold Coast at the turn of the century. From 1901 to 1903 trade included 161 horses, 4,867 cattle, 24,286 goats and sheep, 3,195 loaded donkeys, and 253 bales of cotton cloth. I assume that then as now, every officially counted bale may represent many smuggled, uncounted bales, and that the trade was far larger than the official figures indicate. In 1907 the French administrator Lucien Marc confirmed the importance of the southern trade in Mossi woven cloth. Marc wrote that:

"wishing to wear clothing, but preferring durable cloth [to the flimsy material imported by Europeans on the coast] the blacks of the forest were forced to depend on the only merchants who would supply this merchandise, on the caravans from the north which brought to Salaga, Kintampo, and Kumasi each year larger and larger quantities of cotton cloth spun and woven by the Mossi" (Marc 1909: 176-7).

The most important item of exchange from the forest for Mossi cloth were kola nuts. Kola is a mild stimulant and is very important for Moslems, including the Yarsé, who were prohibited by Moslem law from consuming alcohol.

Currently, the vast bulk of the cloth produced on narrow looms in Mossi country consists of pure white plain-weave strips, which are marketed wholesale in the form of huge wheels that can be carried long distances easily.