The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Art of Burkina Faso

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


It is possible to distinguish two types of dolls: some, with dusty gray surfaces, are used by little girls as toys, others, with glossy, dark surfaces, are carried by women as aids to conception.

Dolls as Playthings:

The earliest published account of the use of Mossi dolls is Eugene Mangin's note that:

"the little girls have their wooden dolls, and on important festival days they politely come to show them with great solemnity, and whoever takes the doll to hold for a moment must give the child a few cowries when it is handed back" (Mangin 1921: 37).

It is quite common to see dolls in Mossi compounds, where they often lie abandoned in a corner, dusty, abraded, and a uniform, unattractive dull grey. They appear to have been kicked around on the ground for years. Little girls play with dolls that they or their parents or older sisters have manufactured from found objects. Dolls may be made from roughly carved sticks, short sections of millet stalk with a blob of mud for the head, rolled-up cardboard, or a corncob with the dried husks braided into an elaborate hairstyle, very similar to 19th century American corncob dolls. Many children in wealthy families, especially in the larger towns, play with more prestigious plastic baby dolls imported from Taiwan or Ghana.

Although the dolls have the physical characteristics of the ma ("mother"), they are still called biiga ("child"), and the young girls who carry them affirm that they are children. They give them names, both masculine and feminine, cover them with bits of cloth, and bounce them on their knees. The little girls even practice giving an enema, called yamde, that is a common feature of Mossi child-rearing. Until a child reaches the age of three, his mother administers an enema twice daily, injecting the liquid with her mouth.

Meurer claims that the wooden or corncob dolls are cared for as if they were real children. If a young girl mistreats her doll, later her own children will become ill or die. My own research leads me to believe that Meurer overstates the case, and that little importance is given to the way the child handles the doll. Older women use the dolls as didactic devices, instructing the child in how to care for and feed an infant, but they realize that little girls are easily distracted by other children or daily tasks in the family home, and the doll may be abandoned for the moment.

Many Mossi simply state that the doll depicts the child as she hopes someday to be. The doll is a stereotype of the ideal Mossi woman, and the child dresses her plaything in bits of cloth and cheap earrings just as a child in our own culture dresses and coifs her "Barbie" doll. Mossi girls, like American girls, relate easily to images of beautiful women, which serve as sexual rôle models with which they can act out their fantasies about the future.

Dolls as Aids to Conception:

During excision ceremonies, girls are given a piece of millet stalk, later replaced by a corncob with a plaited coiffure. The girls show their dolls to adult women who say "may God give you many children." The straw doll is carried on the back, and after the excision ceremony it is placed in a hut until the young woman marries. On the night before the wedding she gives it to her younger sister (1964: 28, 29 ill. 2a).

Although many of the dolls are playthings that aid the education of the child, others are of greater importance for adult women. Lallemand notes that when a woman leaves her father's compound for the home of her new husband, the wooden figure is carried along; it will permit the wife to become pregnant within a month of her first conjugal sexual experience. A woman who has not been able to conceive a child after a reasonable period will bestow all of the normal maternal attentions on a wooden biiga, even to the point of feeding it, washing it, clothing it, and carrying it in public tied on her back in a baby wrapper. If, through the associative power of her actions, she bears a child, she will continue to lavish attention on the doll. As soon as the umbilical cord of her first child has been cut, the wooden biiga is washed and anointed with shea butter and placed on a mat beside the mother, followed a little later by the newborn infant. The first drops of the mother's milk are offered to the doll, and before the new baby is placed on his mother's back for the first time, the wooden figure is tied there for the last time.

The wooden doll has two major functions: it is the yisa biiga ("to call the child") that permits the infant's soul to enter the world of his parents, and the gidga ti da biiga lebera mê ("to prevent the child from returning") that assures that the child will remain with his mother and clan and not return to the world of ancestral spirits (Lallemand 1973: 240-241).

My own research confirms Lallemand's findings, and in addition makes it clear that when a woman lavishes attention on a wooden doll in the expectation of soon conceiving a child, the message may be directed to the ancestors of her patriclan or to the kinkirsi (sing. kinkirga)--spirits or "genies" that inhabit the bush or large trees near the compound residence. Believed to resemble small humans, the kinkirsi are a bright, malevolent red, and are universally feared by the Mossi, who frequently offer sacrifices to gain their protection. The Mossi also attribute to these spirits the power to increase fertility in women. They believe that it is a kinkirga entering a woman that causes her to conceive, and if she is unable to do so she or her husband must offer a sacrifice to a kinkirga so that it will come to their aid. Because these spirits are believed always to travel in pairs, they are responsible for the birth of twins, which are also called kinkirsi. According to Mangin"

"being of different sexes, the kinkirsi can unite in marriage and bear offspring. They especially have the ability to produce twins, which is why twins are given their name and dedicated to them; it is felt that the spirits live in the twins. The birth of twins causes their mother much embarrassment, and in the past both were sometimes done away with, although sometimes only one was killed" (Mangin 1921: 81).

Mossi women do not want to bear twins, for multiple births are associated with animals. Yet, because the kinkirsi are responsible for the birth of twins, the implication is that any woman who asks them for children is most likely to bear twins. The Mossi, however, deny this. The Mossi woman seems to be confronted by a dilemma similar to that faced by American women who take fertility drugs as aids to conception and risk bearing triplets. Elder Mossi women state that the wooden doll a woman uses to signal her desire for a child represents neither the ancestral spirits nor the kinkirsi.

Although dolls may be used as fertility aids by women who have had difficulty conceiving, and thus acquire the successive applications of vegetable oil that produce a dark, shiny surface, most are used by little girls as playthings. Few parents attach any real importance to the way the child treats the doll, and it is a mistake to overemphasize the symbolism associated with most of these toys.

Dolls are among the best examples of the Mossi sculptor's skillful stylization of human form.

Mossi dolls are carved by smiths during the dry season, when the craftsman has plenty of time free from work in his fields. Made in the smith's compound, they are then carried from one local market to another, or sometimes to important markets great distances away (but where the vendor can still identify their origin). They may also be carved on special order. A dozen figures or more may frequently be displayed at once in some markets, for smiths produce them in large numbers in their spare time. Prices for new dolls range from 10 to 75 CFA (.05 to .35 cents US) depending on their size. Although many are being created solely for the tourist trade, these pale copies are easy to identify.

There are remarkable formal similarities between Mossi dolls and the akua ma of the Ashanti and dolls made by the Bagirmi near Lake Chad. The nakomsé are said to have emigrated from the area of Lake Chad westward to Dagomba, where they came in contact with the Ashanti. Perhaps the dolls of these three peoples share common origins.