The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Art of Burkina Faso

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

Western Voltaic Peoples.

Although the section on funerals is based on my own observations among the southern Bobo, much of what follows draws on the detailed and very informative publication Les Bobo: Nature et fonction des masques, by Guy Le Moal (Paris: O.R.S.T.O.M., 1980).

The Bobo People (Bobo Fing):

Both Guy Le Moal and Jean Capron seem to agree that the Bobo and the Bwa should be considered to be distinct peoples , who have drawn on a common pool of religious belief, resulting in many cultural similarities. Among the most important common characteristics is the cult of Dwo represented by masks of leaves.

In much of the literature on African art the group that lives in the area of Bobo-Dioulasso is called Bobo-Fing. These people call themselves Bobo. They speak a Mandé language. The Bobo number about 110,000 people, with the great majority in Burkina Faso, although the area occupied by the Bobo extends north into Mali.

The Bobo are far from homogeneous. They are an ancient amalgamation of several peoples who have assembled around a number of core clans that do not preserve any oral traditions of immigration into the area. Their language and culture are more closely related to those of their Mandé neighbors to the north, the Bamana and Minianka, than to their Voltaic neighbors the gurunsi and Mossi, but they should be thought of as a southern extension of the Mandé people, that live in what is now Burkina Faso, rather than an intrusive Mandé group that has recently penetrated the region. Although over 41% of Bobo lineages claim a foreign origin, they also claim to be autochthonous.

A very important concept among the Bobo (as among the Bwa) is the primacy of farmers, called seseme (sing. sasama) . The core of Bobo farmers has been augmented, over the centuries, by immigrant Mandé peoples that have adhered to the Bobo traditions of scarring the face and wearing lip labrets, and have adopted the name Bobo and the cult of Dwo. The largest and most important of these peoples are the Zara, or Bobo-Jula, who arrived in the area from Mandé between about 1500 and 1700 to found Bobo-Dioulasso. Most Zara are not truly integrated into traditional Bobo life because they carry on long-distance trade during the dry season, and are not bound to the soil as are the Bobo farmers. Both the Zara and the Bobo revere the god Dwo, although each group has given its Dwo masks a slightly different function. The Zara are best known for their white cloth masks, worn at night and called bolo (pl., bole).

The major Bobo community in the south is Bobo-Dioulasso, the second city of Burkina Faso and the old French colonial capital. Farther north are large towns, including Fo and Kouka, with Boura in the extreme north in Mali.

The southern Bobo area has from 10 to 40 inhabitants per square kilometer. The valley of the Black Volta is sparsely populated, and the northern Bobo area, astride the border with Mali, has about 5 to 10 people per square kilometer.

The vegetation and climate of the area inhabited by the Bobo are much more similar to the northern Ivory Coast and Ghana than to the drier area inhabited by the Bwa, Nuna, Léla, and Mossi. This region receives over 1,000 mm. of rain annually. Although much of the area is composed of open grasslands and fields with scattered trees, there are numerous areas, especially in river valleys, of dense dry forests that are more typical of the heavy forest cover of the coastal and equatorial areas of Africa.

The major food crops are red sorghum, and pearl millet, which are the ancient crops of the traditional Bobo farmer, as well as yams, and maize. As among the Bwa the major cash crop is cotton, often cultivated at the expense of food crops. The cultivation of cotton for sale to textile mills in Bobo-Dioulasso has resulted in the destruction of the cooperative labor system that has been a major cohesive social force.

Bobo villages are compact, like Bwa and gurunsi villages, with large flat-roofed buildings that were often two or even three stories high. Because so many old Bobo villages were destroyed by the French in 1914, few buildings over one-story remain.

The Bobo are farmers, and like most peoples in Burkina except the Mossi, are politically non-centralized. Village organization is democratic, and decisions are made by a council of male elders from all lineages. The idea of centralized authority symbolized by a chief is, for the Bobo, an aberration: "The Bobo are essentially allergic to all forms of authority that are practiced outside of the framework of kinship or of interlineage village political alliances. Before it encountered the foreign system--first of blacks (Dyula) then of whites--Bobo society could not conceive of political authority in the hands of a single person, chief or king, and that power could be centralized in one location. For the Bobo, such a system would be a dangerous novelty, for it is not based on any cosmogonic order, and is even in contradiction with them, for it is in itself a serious attack on the order of things as established by Wuro (the creator God)" (Le Moal 1980: 116).

The Bobo lineage is the fundamental social building-block. The lineage unites all descendants of a common ancestor, called the wakoma, a word whose stem, wa-, is a contraction of the Bobo word for house (wasa). The Bobo lineage comprises the people who live in a common house. The head of a lineage is called the wakoma to or father of the lineage. He may also be called the sapro, (pl., sapra), which is the term for ancestors. As among other peoples in Burkina, each clan has a totem, so that when a Bobo introduces himself he gives his given name, then his clan name, followed by the totem he respects.

In traditional society Bobo life is governed by two opposing concepts: on one hand there is the idea of community, things public, called foroba, which is important to the entire group; on the other hand there is the idea of private, individual, named zakané, which is the concern of only a part of the lineage. This basic division effects everything the group does: work, fields, religious practices. At the core of this system the idea of foroba maintains social cohesion. This dualism, foroba/zakané characterizes Bobo society before the French arrived. It was destroyed, especially as an economic system, by the colonial administration. Crushing taxes and the cultivation of cotton forced the Bobo to neglect communal foroba fields, whose harvests were never allowed to be sold, so that they could devote their efforts to private zakané fields. Only traditional religious practices were preserved and continue to be followed in the traditional ways.