The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Art of Burkina Faso

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

Guardians of Wild Fruit

Informants throughout Yatenga told me that the karanse plank masks that belong to their clans continue to function as guardians of certain wild fruit trees which, because they grow in the bush, are considered to be common property of the village. In a few cases (Samba and Kao) the nyonyosé stated that their masks performed this function in the past but in 1977 ceased to do so. The masks do not guard fruit trees every year, but only following periods of drought when crops have failed or are poor, and there is not sufficient grain to sustain the villagers through the hungry season between the planting of the seed and the first harvests.

This tradition was recorded by Tauxier in Yatenga:

"A role as guardians of the fields: This function is limited to the guarding of the shea nut trees and the wild grape trees [Butyrospermum parkii and Lannea oleosa]. When the fruits of these trees are ripening they go out and guard them so that no one will gather them prematurely. Decked out in their costumes, they frighten both men and women and fine them 10 cowries and a bit of millet when they surprise them gathering the shea nuts or the wild grapes before they are completely ripe. With these cowries and this millet they make sacrifices to the ouango.

What is rather odd is that they do not guard millet fields (each man must guard them himself, they say) or the locust bean trees. At least for the locust bean trees they have the excuse that the locust bean tree belongs to the political chief of the village, the Tenganaba (here as in Ouagadougou). But, as far as the millet fields are concerned, it is difficult to see why they do not guard them. Perhaps the ouango dates to a period long ago when gathering, fishing, and hunting were more important for the Foulses than agriculture...

Burkina Faso; Bwa artist. Old Bwa hunter. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

One may speculate that before the Mossi conquest, in the time of the Foulses, weakly organized politically, it was the ouangos who were principally responsible for justice and the searching out of criminals" (Tauxier 1917: 399-401).

In southern Yatenga, the role of masks as guardians of wild fruit trees is called nanganega tongo (ripening trees). Hunting, fishing, and the gathering of wild leaves, berries, fruits and other edibles are still very important to the Mossi, and all other rural peoples in Burkina. Every year, in April, May and June, just before the full onset of the rainy season, women throughout Burkina Faso gather the leaves of the twega (Baobab, Adansonia digitata) to make a popular sauce served with their millet gruel (sagabo).

The dwaga (locust bean or "néré") is not guarded by the masks because they are privately owned and guarded. All other trees grow in the deep bush, where they are beyond the control of the nakomsé political chief, or Tenganaba. Trees that grow in the bush are considered common village property, and their fruits may be gathered by anyone. Trees that grow in cultivated fields, on the other hand, are usually owned by individual families who control the gathering of their fruits. During periods of drought, when gathered food is critical for survival, the authority of the village masks extends into the bush where the authority of the village chief does not reach.

In each village a day is chosen for picking the shea nuts, and all of the women pick together. If a person is seen climbing a tree to gather the fruit before the appointed day, the masks of the community will come to his house during the evening to demand a chicken and a sheep.

Some masks, in some areas, perform for secular celebrations. For example, in the Boulsa region, the tall, red guard masks occasionally appear at secular festivals, such as the National Independence Day or at rituals in honor of the political chief, but on these occasions the more important masks remain behind in the clan spirit house.

It is important to understand that secret mask societies do not exist in Burkina Faso. Some authors have described secret societies among the Mossi, based on Tauxier's or Lucien Marc's descriptions of "mysterious brotherhoods", and "secret languages". Mask performers are always men who have been initiated into the knowledge of masks' meanings and origins, and in the Boulsa area, women are excluded from performances. But elsewhere family members have access to masks by right of birth into certain families. There is nothing to imply a relationship between masks and secret societies, such as a "Wango society." In fact, all rites are open to members of the families who own the masks.