The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Art of Burkina Faso

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

Chapter III. Sculpture of the Mossi.

A. Introduction to the Mossi.

The Mossi (Mosé, sing. Mwaga, population about 2,200,000) occupy an area of about 30,000 square miles (63,500 sq. km.) in central Burkina Faso. The land of the Mossi (mogho) consists of a great plateau, lying between 1,000 and 1,500 feet above sea level, which is drained by the White Volta River. The limits of the Mossi Plateau form natural boundaries between the Mossi and their neighbors who occupy lower, less fertile land which is often ridden with tsetse flies and other vectors of disease. The Kurumba and Fulani live to the north, the Gurmantché to the east, the Bisa to the south east, the gurunsi to the south west, and the Samo to the north west. Major Mossi towns are Ouagadougou, Kongoussi, Koudougou, Gourcy, Kaya, Yako and Boulsa.

The Mossi area spans the transitional area between the dry sandy Sahel in the north and the humid tropical woodlands to the south. Average temerature is 25 degrees C. with adequate rainfall to support subsistence agriculture. The area was once covered with grassy open savannahs and scattered trees, but has been cleared by farmers for crops of millet, sorghum, and maize. Cotton and peanuts are grown for cash, and rice plantations have been started in river valleys recently cleared of river blindness by spraying insecticides. Some garden crops are grown for sale in Ouagadougou and for export to France, especially mangoes and green beans. Livestock is more important in the north, safe from trypanosomiasis, than in the south. Farmers own herds that are cared for by pastoralist Fulani in the north, who drive herds south during the dry season where they leave behind fertilizer on their way to markets in Ghana and Ivory Coast.

The Mossi speak Mooré. The nyonyosé consider Mooré to be a "stranger language," although they use Mooré exclusively in day-to-day conversation even within their own families. They recognize that Mooré is not the language of the ancestors, and on ritual occasions, when addressing the ancestors, they use the secret languages, called nyonyoré, that are totally unintelligible to the rest of the Mossi community (i.e., to the nakomsé). There are clear and striking similarities between the languages of the Mossi and peoples in northern Ghana. It is quite clear that the language spoken by the Mossi today was brought into the basin of the White Volta from Ghana by the nakomsé invaders at the time of the founding of the first Mossi states.

Mossi society developed in the 15th to 16th centuries from the fusion of invaders from northern Ghana with local populations. The conquered peoples were amalgamated without regard for ethnic origin, forming a large heterogeneous Mossi people, in which the recent arrivals gradually intermarried with the daughters of older families, reinforcing social cohesion.

Each compound residence of an extended family is composed of a number of round, mud-brick huts, usually 3-4 meters in diameter, with conical straw roofs. A rectangular building with a flat, beaten earth roof, at the center of the compound, may be occupied by the senior male member of the family. Each wife lives in her own round hut with her young children. Older, unmarried children live together in separate huts. Within the compound are granaries, enclosures for domestic animals, and areas for grinding grain and preparing meals. The entire compound is surrounded by a mud-brick wall, the height and state of repair of which varies with the rank and wealth of the family.

As each of the original farmer peoples in the White Volta Basin was conquered by the invading horsemen, they were placed under the political authority of a nakomsé lineage elder, the Tenganaba ("chief of the land") who collected taxes, raised armies in time of trouble with neighboring peoples, and maintained order within his region. The leaders of the nyonyosé (i.e., senior male elders of the founding lineages) retained their authority as tengsobadamba ("earth priests"), in recognition of their roles as the original occupiers of the land. The tengabisi segment of Mossi society is not homogeneous. The tengabisi may be divided into smaller groups based largely on occupation. The saaba (sing. saya) are smiths, and are organized in communities of endogamous patrilocal clans, led by the senior male member of the founding clan of the community, the Saya Naba ("smith chief"). Other neighborhoods in a Mossi village may be inhabited by families of Moslem Mandé weavers, called yarsé, or by the Silmi-Mossi, a group formed by intermarriage between the Mossi and the Fulani herders (silmisi).

In addition, the nyonyosé themselves are far from homogeneous culturally. As noted by Robert Pageard in his study of the nyonyosé (1963: 9), it is an error to equate the nyonyosé with a specific ethnic group, as Tauxier (1917) and Hammond (1966: 168) equated them with the Fulsé (Kurumba). In each area of Mossi country the origins of the nyonyosé are different, and there are marked differences in many cultural elements, including mask carving styles. IT IS A SERIOUS MISTAKE TO DESCRIBE A "NYONYOSÉ TRIBE", OR THE "ART OF THE NYONYOSÉ" BECAUSE THE NYONYOSÉ DO NOT EXIST OUTSIDE MOSSI SOCIETY. ALL NYONYOSÉ ARE MOSSI. At the same time, it is a mistake to assume that all segments of Mossi society are culturally identical, for the differences between the nakomsé and the tengabisi are striking; only the tengabisi use masks, and only the nakomsé use figures in the context of political celebrations.

Although they adopted the language of the conquerors, many of the cultural traditions of the nyonyosé were preserved, quite distinctive from those of the conquerors, including their power to control the elements through the use of magic. Another tradition that survived the amalgamation of the nakomsé and the nyonyosé in a new Mossi society was the use of carved wooden masks that represent the animal totems and protective spirits of the nyonyosé clans at the funerals of elders. It seems clear that the nyonyosé were using masks when the invaders from the south arrived. Although there is no documentary evidence for this, there is ample evidence in oral traditions.

Both the saaba (smiths) and the nyonyosé (farmers) may be divided into groups that use totemic ancestral masks, and other peoples that do not use masks. Depending on the geographical area, the mask-using peoples are called sikomcé, sukomcé, or sukwaba. In this study, I will refer to the mask owning smiths as saaba/sukwaba, and to the mask owning farmers as nyonyosé/sukwaba, although the people themselves do not combine the terms. In the southwest the distinctions between farmer and smith clans that use masks and those that do not is clear, while in the north the situation is more complex. In the north the names sukwaba and sikomcé are not used.

The Mossi are both exogamous and patrilineal; smiths marry within their caste group. The basic unit of society is the yiri, the polygamous (more than one wife) nuclear family with a single adult male head, the yirisoba. Several families live together in a single large compound residence called a zaka, with the oldest male, the zaksoba, at its head. Several compound residences in a single neighborhood comprise an exogamous totemic patriclan, called a budu. The budu, with the budkasma, the oldest clan male, is the most important Mossi kinship unit for this study, because the use and ownership, as well as the actual form, of Mossi masks is based on identification with a particular totemic patriclan. The word budu is also used to identify the segment of Mossi society to which a clan belongs: e.g. nyonyosé descendants of original farmers, nakomsé political hierarchy, Silmi-Mossi herders, etc.

Each village is composed of several large neighborhoods, each of which is inhabited by members of the same sub-group in Mossi society. The nakomsé, relatives of the village political chief (Naba), live in compounds grouped close to the chief's own dwelling. Within each Mossi neighborhood, individual family compound dwellings are usually widely spaced, with broad expanses of open fields between them, so that the community may appear to be a number of small, walled towns.