The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Art of Burkina Faso

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


The history of the Basin of the Volta Rivers has been recorded in oral histories of local peoples, which were gathered by early visitors including Heinrich Barth, Leo Frobenius, and Louis Tauxier, as well as numerous colonial administrators and missionaries. There are sparse written descriptions in the Tarikh el-Fettach (16th century) and the Tarikh es-Sudan (17th century). More recently, Burkinabé scholars have collected and preserved oral histories of the many small, non-centralized groups that were ignored by early visitors. The history of the area is one of recurring conflict between peoples: on the one hand, people who have inhabited the region for many centuries, and who have preserved little or no trace of their emigration from some other area, and on the other hand, people whose oral histories tell of recent migration, penetrating regions of sparse population to subjugate the earlier settled farmers and to impose themselves as political rulers of large, centralized kingdoms or empires. The settled populations include both Voltaic and Mandé speakers, so it is an error to assume that one language family is associated with ancient inhabitants, and another with invaders.

Contemporary scholars agree that before 1500, the central basin of the Volta Rivers was inhabited by a number of small, essentially leaderless farmer groups that had occupied the land for centuries, but nevertheless were constantly making shifts and adjustments of location in the face of pressures from larger peoples all around them (e.g. the Mossi). These autochthonous peoples included the Kurumba and Dogon in the north, Nuna, Léla, Winiama, Kaséna, Sisala in the south, Bwa, Bobo, Lobi, and probably many Senufo-related peoples in the southwest and west.

Édouard Riou

Mossi horsemen led by the Emperor



The most dramatic event in the formation of the ethnic map we now recognize was the arrival of several groups of horsemen from the south, from the kingdoms of Dagomba, Gonja, and Mamprusi. This invasion may have taken place in the late 1400's, or perhaps a century earlier. Displaced by lack of land, these younger sons rode into the basin of the Volta Rivers and conquered or expelled the relatively helpless farmers in the region, imposing themselves as rulers over a commoner population. The Mossi founded several kingdoms, of which the most important are the kingdoms of Ouagadougou and Yatenga. The king of the Mossi, called the Mogho Naba, has always lived in Ouagadougou.

The Mossi conquests, which depended on the force of light cavalry, were effectively limited by the boundaries of the Mossi plateau. Changes in climate and vegetation, resulting in the presence of trypanosomiasis, corresponded to these limits. Most of the Dogon population fled before the Mossi invasion and sought refuge in the Bandiagara cliffs, where Mossi horses could not follow. The Dogon who remained behind in the Mossi area were assimilated into Mossi society as nyonyosé.

In the east, a Mossi king was established at Fada N'Gurma, with control of the Gurmantché. However, over several centuries the Mossi political leaders became assimilated into Gurmantché culture and Fada N'Gurma ceased to be a Mossi state.

In the 15th century the area of the Mossi Plateau southwest of the White Volta was occupied by gurunsi, who were conquered and amalgamated into Mossi society. The gurunsi west of the plateau resisted conquest with varying success for centuries. Known as powerful magicians, the gurunsi used their powers to drive off Mossi cavalry. The Nuna planted poisoned thorns in the ground; the Mossi countered by wearing thick sandals. In addition, the presence of sleeping sickness killed the Mossi horses, forcing the invaders to retreat.

The conquered peoples and the invading horsemen were welded into a new society called Mossi, and spoke the language of the conquerors, Mooré. The descendants of the invaders, a group called Nakomsé (children of the nam, or right and power to rule), became chiefs, kings, and emperors, called Nanamsé (sing. Naba). The descendants of the subjugated peoples were called Tengabisi, "children of the earth". The men who may have held some political power before the invasion became "earth-priests" responsible for the use of the land and the propitiation of the earth spirits. 

Édouard Riou

Mossi cavalry capturing slaves



The invaders usually respected the cultural traditions of the conquered peoples, resulting in the survival of cultural idiosyncrasies within Mossi society.

Throughout this long period the southwestern area was considered a reservoir for slaves, and frequent raids bore gurunsi to the markets of Mali or the ports of the Guinea coast, whence they were sent to the Americas.

The Marka Dafing, moving from the northwest, settled in the basin of the Volta River after 1600.

In 1897 the French arrived, and for more than sixty years the region was part of the "Haute Sénégal et Niger." French occupation was punctuated by several revolts by peoples (especially Bwa and Bobo) who resisted taxation, the imposition of centralized rule, forced labor, and military conscription. Faced with the difficulties of administration from distant Abidjan during the 1930's, and later with the threat of dissection between Mali, Niger, and Ivory Coast, Mossi chiefs agitated for status as a separate territory after World War II, and when independence came in 1960, the territory became the République de Haute-Volta. The first president, Maurice Yameogo, served from 1960 to 1966 when he was accused of corruption and popularly deposed. After many years of military rule, his successor, General Sangoulé Lamizana, was elected to head a civilian government in 1979 which was soon overthrown by army officers led by Seye Zerbo. Zerbo's government was toppled by young officers including Jean-Baptiste Ouedraogo and Thomas Sankara in 1982. Finally, in August, 1983 Ouedraogo's forces were defeated in a counter revolution, and the government of Captain Thomas Sankara took control. In 1987 Sankara was murdered in a coup-d'etat and Blaise Campaore became chief of state, a position he still holds in 2014.