The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Art of Burkina Faso

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

1. Religion

Fully 70 percent of all Mossi practice their traditional, animist religion. Only 25 percent have become Moslem, and the remaining 5 percent are Christian. The majority of the Moslems and Christians live in urban centers, where their religious affiliation has allowed them access to commerce and government service. An important result of the resistance of the rural Mossi to Islam and Christianity has been the survival of the use of traditional masks and figures to the present. 

Burkina Faso; Mossi artist. Mosque in central Burkina. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.

The Mossi believe in a single, supreme, otiose creator being, named Wendé, who animates all aspects of the environment with his force. The religious beliefs of the Mossi are concerned with the control of the supernatural forces which vitalize every aspect of their natural environment.

The Mossi believe that each person posesses a soul, sigha, which takes the name kyma after death. Eugene Mangin describes the relationship between the Mossi clan and the clan's totemic animal:

"This spirit, according to the Mossi, is an animal, frequently invisible, a serpent, crocodile, antelope, rabbit. The soul is related to this animal, it is of the same family, so that to kill a serpent or crocodile or whatever in a village where the soul of the inhabitants is a serpent or crocodile is to kill a human in the village, because every person related to the snake has, in the village, a snake which represents him, and he will die when his soul-animal dies" (1921: 84-5).

This is a description of the animal totem, which is the same for all members of the clan. The animal which is the totem of the Mossi clan is inseparable from the souls of the living clan members, and from the souls (sigha, pl. sisé) of the clan's ancestors. When a member of the clan addresses his sigha he is addressing both the animal-totem and the souls of his ancestors. This totem plays a role in the myth of the origin of the clan, usually providing help for the clan's founding ancestor. Dim Delobsom, a self-appointed official historian of the court of the Mogho-Naba (Emperor of the Mossi) writing in the 1920's, provides information on the totem of a nyonyosé clan from Goupana, north of Ouagadougou:

"The nyonyosé of Goupana have the gazelle as their totem. This animal represents, they say, their siga. Therefore it is forbidden to kill the gazelle, but there is no interdiction about eating the flesh of the gazelle itself. Tradition has it, in effect, that it is by divine intervention, and coincidence, that the animal exposes itself to the arrow or gun of a member of the clan, but, it is added, one is sure to see an inhabitant of the village die shortly thereafter" (1929: 434-5).

Legend says that a Nyonyoga hunter from the same clan as the nyonyosé of Goupana, having gone hunting, became so thirsty that he fainted. A gazelle saw him and grew concerned, and drew near, placing on his shoulder a hoof which she had moistened in some water. At the touch of the damp hoof, the man regained consciousness and saw the gazelle run off before him. He was too weak to raise his weapon, but it seemed to him that the animal was playing with him. He sat down. The animal returned and approached his hand, but as soon as he tried to touch it it fled. The hunter gained courage, and trying to ignore his fatigue, followed the animal to a spot where there was a spring of fresh water. He was able to refresh himself and to regain his strength. As a result he believed that he was related to the gazelle and he spread the news when he returned to his village. Since that time the inhabitants of Goupana have had the gazelle as their totem.

The Mossi are also concerned with maintaining good relations with the spirits of their ancestors, who are able to manipulate the forces of nature for their benefit or detriment. After death the spirits of the ancestors continue to take an interest in the affairs of their descendants, just as they did as living members of the group. In order to maintain good relations with the ancestral spirits, the living must adhere strictly to the traditional rules for proper behavior established by their grandfathers, the yabaramba. To stray from the yaba sooré--the way of the ancestors--is to risk arousing their anger; the ancestors may punish any important transgression with a disease, especially smallpox, with some physical infirmity, especially blindness, or with infertility. The primary link between the Mwaga and his ancestors is the senior male member of his lineage or clan.

The ancestors reward proper behavior and the careful observance of requisite propitiatory sacrifices by assuring the fertility of the fields, livestock, and wives, by sending ample rainfall during the growing season, and by assisting their descendants in any economic or social endeavor, for example trading expeditions to Ouagadougou, trips to find seasonal work on plantations in the Ivory Coast, or competitive examinations for jobs in the government. The Mossi believe that they are able to communicate their needs to the ancestors by offering sacrifices on the ancestral shrine of the lineage or clan, located in the ancestral spirit house (kimse roogo).

The principal intermediary between the Mossi and the forces that effect his life is the community "earth priest" or Tengsoba. Another important link in the chain of communication between the Mossi and the spirit world is the clan's totemic animal, which, in the case of the nyonyosé clans in the north, and of the Sukwaba clans in the southwest, is represented by wooden masks which are placed on the ancestral shrines and are worn during the funerals of important clan elders.