The Art of Burkina Faso

by Christopher D. Roy
University of Iowa

Jewelry in Brass and Stone

Although Freud is reported to have said "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," in most cases what appears to be jewelry from Burkina Faso is rarely just that. Most of the traditional people of Burkina Faso produce anklets, bracelets, rings and pendants of brass or other metals, or of ivory or stone. These were once worn by men, women and children to provide magical protection against disease and other misfortune caused by malevolent spirits. Few people now wear bracelets or anklets, and tons of these objects have been collected by itinerant merchants every year for decades to sell in the tourist markets of Ouagadougou, Bobo-Dioulasso and Abidjan. Nevertheless, many Burkinabes in rural villages continue to wear rings and pendants that provide supernatural protection.

Magical bracelets made for the Mossi include kambanga--small bracelets worn above the elbow, kalembanga--made of copper and iron twisted together and worn on the wrist to prevent eye diseases, zouwêra--twisted bracelets of solid silver or copper, karzouri--massive round bracelets that are fitted to the wrist with a great hammer and are almost impossible to remove, zusokadaga--which have a section that separates to permit the bracelet to be removed from the arm, and kobré--Saturn-shaped bracelets worn by the wives of chiefs. These last were being collected in great numbers in the mid-1970's, for many chiefs wives had recently stopped wearing them. Their function was to identify the woman as a royal wife so that commoner males would not speak to them and risk severe punishment. Mossi chiefs' wives also once wore cylindrical anklets called fodo, that covered from 10 to 20 centimeters of the lower leg.

Among the Mossi, brass and copper bracelets are cast by the nyogsê (sing. nyoga), brass casters who belong to the endogamous occupational caste of smiths. All casters use the "lost-wax" technique, with separate molds and crucibles.

Bwa women wear anklets made of aluminum or brass that are cast for them by Dafing smiths. These anklets are curved up at the front and back, and bear on the front a representation of the leaf mask that represents Do and an elaborate plaque at the back. There are additional geometric shapes cast in the "lost-wax" technique at intervals around the anklet. These anklets are worn by women whose families use leaf masks. When a woman becomes ill or cannot conceive a child, her brothers will commission such an anklet to provide her with the blessings of Do.

Mossi men who belong to families that use wooden masks often wear cast brass rings that bear tiny models of their masks to secure the protection of the spirit represented by the mask. Similarly the Nunuma, Winiama, and Nuna, like the Mossi, produce cast brass rings bearing tiny masks. These are worn only by men, and serve the same purpose as women's crescent pendants, to secure the blessings of the mask spirit. It is possible to identify the ethnic origin of a ring only by the style of the mask that is represented. In Nunuma villages identical rings are placed on the wooden stems of long tobacco pipes for purely decorative reasons. Some old pipes bear up to fifteen small masks. These pipes have been reproduced in enormous numbers for the tourists market by traditional craftsmen, but old examples are sometimes seen in rural villages.

Many Bwa wear pendant brass crescents with the ends turned down. These protect the wearers from disease, and very simple, small examples are still worn in large numbers by children. The most elaborate examples, frequently bearing miniature models of wooden masks, are worn by gurunsi women, especially in the north among the Nunuma. These are named tchienê lui ni benê "crescent shape with a figure," and again, like Bwa anklets, represent the mask owned by the wearer's family. A woman who is suffering some reproductive disease may consult a diviner, who tells her to seek the help of her family's protective spirit. She then returns to her father's home where her brothers commission a crescent bearing the family mask. The mask spirit may cure the woman after she returns to her husband's home. Similar brass crescents are worn by the Senufo, Lobi, Bobo, and other peoples in southern Burkina Faso.

Finally, the Tusyâ cast small groups of three to five figures that surmount a flat, triangular base. These are indistinguishable from Senufo brass figures and are used in the same ways, in divination and to protect the wearer from disease caused by malevolent spirits. Diviners shake a bowl containing small brass figures, cowries, animal parts, and other objects and toss them on the ground reading in the way they scatter the responses to the client's problems. The diviner may then prescribe a small brass pendant to be worn by the client to secure the blessings of whatever spirits have caused problems.

In the past, most Mossi men wore armlets above the elbow called kaka that were carved from a black stone with intricate white marbling. These were intended to protect the owner from disease, to make him handsome and attractive to women, and to give his wife many healthy children. The stone from which they were carved comes from Hombori, in Mali northeast of Bandiagara. The Mossi call Hombori "Manogo," and so the armlets are called manogokaka, or sometimes kugukaka (kugri = stone). The stone armlets are very expensive, and large numbers of imitations, made of black and white glass by the Nupe glass-makers of Bida, in northwestern Nigeria, are sold in markets all over Mossi country.