Do in Leaves and Wood Among the Bobo and the Bwa

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

The Bobo:

The Bobo are farmers who, despite traditions of migration over centuries, appear to have been the earliest inhabitants of the region of western Burkina Faso around the city of Bobo-Dioulasso. The Bobo speak a Mande language and many of their cultural characteristics, such as the importance of initiation in village life are distinctly Mande, in contrast to their Voltaic neighbors to the east. [6]

The Bobo live at the headwaters of the Black Volta River. To the east live the Bwa, to the north are the Fulani and Soninke, to the west live the Bolon and Senufo, and to the south live the Lobi, and several Senufo-related groups. 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 should be thought of as a southern extension of the Mande people, that live in what is now Burkina Faso, rather than an intrusive Mande group that has recently penetrated the region.  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 Mande groups that have adhered to the Bobo traditions of scarring the face and wearing lip labrets, and have adopted the name Bobo and the congregation of Dwo. The largest and most important of these groups are the Zara, or Bobo-Jula, who arrived in the area from Mande 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 Bobo are farmers, and like most groups 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 very conservative and resistant to change, and guard their traditions tenaciously. 


[6] "La langue des Bwa est volta que alors que celle des Bobos est mandé" (Guy Le Moal cited in Capron 1973: 27, fn. #8).  " existe une coupure linguistique très profonde entre Bwa et Bobo" (Capron 1973: 28). Greenberg assigns the language of the Bobo to the Voltaic family because the "Bobo" for whom he had word lists were the Bwa, who are, in fact, Voltaic.