The University of Iowa University of Iowa

The Art of Burkina Faso

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

Bobo Initiations: The different levels of knowledge are explained to Bobo boys in several steps spread out over a period of fifteen years. Masks play an essential role in initiation because they reestablish and reinforce the cosmic order created by Wuro, and restore the balance and the rhythms of the natural world and of the community. Each of the new steps in the initiation is punctuated by important ceremonies when the initiates dance with several types of masks.

First Stage, sinkye daga:

The first step of initiation takes place under the sign of Dwo; as a result, masks of leaves take part. This step is carried out in one or two phases, depending on the group or clans involved.

During the first step the boys are told that the mask performer is a man. Next the boys eat the leaves of the mask--a step that is primordial because it essentially consists of the absorption of the divine spirit. The boys also begin to learn the initiatory language. The boys are whipped on many occasions, especially when they return from the village to the place of the masks, where they undergo their training. These beatings serve an important purpose, for they demonstrate to the initiates that knowledge does not come without its own problems, much effort, and courage. At the end of this first period of training, the initiates, called partale, are considered to be social beings, and can participate in the active life of the group, helping with sacrifices and traditional festivals. In particular, they are allowed to make parts of the masks and to wear certain ones. This transitional period lasts several years.

When they feel that they are ready for the second part of the first step of initiation, the boys must undergo certain rites of admission. These include tests of endurance, cooperative labor in clearing the bush, and a long period of seclusion in the bush to gather the wood and game necessary for the graduation celebration of the first initiation. Every departure or return to the village is marked by a violent confrontation with the masks, which beat the boys severely.

If the sinkye daga is carried out in a single step, the intermediate tests are performed as preliminaries to the initiation.

The second step is marked by two principal rites: The boys are "put to death" by a leaf mask similar in its bearing and function to the funeral mask named so molo. Next, their "rebirth" is marked by the consumption of food, especially of fish and millet. Both of these rites represent the death of the boys in childhood and ignorance and their birth as real men. This birth recalls the birth of humankind, born of two fish described in mythology. At the end of the first level, the initiates are called yelele. By the second part of their life as initiates, the candidates are already adolescents; they have some knowledge of the secret language which they study for five years.