The Art of Burkina Faso

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

Bobo Masks at Funerals: Although Le Moal points out that the relationship is not clearly defined, there is a strong bond between masks and ancestors, as among peoples to the east. Some Bobo peoples believe that the spirit of the deceased is accompanied on the journey into the after-life by a mask, and that the spirit of the dead may take up temporary residence in a mask.

By his very nature Dwo is not concerned with death. The masks that represent him as a result, usually do not participate in death ceremonies, especially among farmers. Among blacksmith clans that are followers of sibe, the presence of masks at funerals is required. There are, however, exceptions: In the north, birewa sowiyera leaf masks participate in the burials and funerals of people who have been killed by Dwo, either struck by lightning or burned alive in the fibers of the mask they were wearing. Dwo is said to have "swallowed" the offender. In addition, a funeral of a priest of Dwo, the dwobwo, who also "belongs" to Dwo and who has been responsible for the masks' performances, is marked by the appearance of masks of leaves, but these show their respect for the head of the cult.

At funeral ceremonies, masks have two functions: they escort the deceased to the tomb at burials, and at funerals they send the spirit on the road to the world of ancestors. In southern Bobo country syêkele masks of wood appear at funerals of all elders, male or female, where they destroy the wooden biers that represent the deceased, freeing their souls to travel the long, smooth road to the Black Volta, the Bobo River Styx. A key moment in the funeral is the arrival of the wooden masks at the grave, where they are seated in a circle around the grave and receive offerings of millet beer.

Among smiths the ceremonies are more complex. Only one figure of Dwo, Kwele Dwo, has revealed masks intended for funerals. These are the so molo worn nude and the bark masks named saxa molo. The nude so molo recreates the gestures of the mythical kuma hornbill, killed by a smith, which first revealed the molo mask and the bull-roarer: the wooden mask so molo worn by a nude man:

"passed over the corpse three times, just as the children of the hornbill had done; they made the bull-roarer sound, and, while making the sign of a cross on the corpse, they also recalled the primordial bull-roarer which represented the Dwo of the sibe: (Le Moal 1980: 273).

The saxa molo chooses the location of the tomb. Other masks as well take part in the burial and the end of mourning, especially the sibe molo. Finally, a new wooden head for the nwenka mask may be carved for a funeral. The nwenka is important for the sibe, for it too was revealed at Kwele. As the eyes are pierced, giving life to the mask, a prayer is offered to the ancestors asking that the deceased be given eyes to see the road to the Black Volta and the world of the dead (Le Moal 1980: 334-5).

Regardless of occupational class, solemn funerals, accompanied by complex sacrifices and masks, are reserved for the "important" members of the community: established heads of lineages and their brothers, and the wives of both. The funeral celebrations of all other Bobo are very simple.