Do in Leaves and Wood Among the Bobo and the Bwa

by Christopher D. Roy
University of Iowa

Among the Bwa there is a basic and deeply rooted conflict between the Mande congregation of Do and the use of wooden masks on the Voltaic pattern. Bwa oral traditions make it clear that the use of leaf masks representing Do is a very ancient practice and that originally all Bwa clans were adherents of Do and used leaf masks. Clans that use the bieni leaf masks state emphatically that those who use wooden nwamba masks have borrowed the practice from the Nunuma and Winiama to the east. In regions where they exist in the same community, especially in the south, they often comprise rival congregations and never appear together at the same ceremony at the same time, and in some villages never dance on the same day.

In many southern villages, notably Dossi and Bagassi, clans using each type live side by side. Those who have continued to honor Do with leaf masks look on the adoption of wooden masks as heresy and as an attempt to wrest religious authority from its traditional source, the local earth-priest. They have instituted strict prohibitions that prevent members of wooden-mask clans from participating in rites of Do. Clans that have adopted wooden masks and their magic from the Winiama and Nunuma are aggressive and proselytizing. Songs that accompany the nwamba performances often insult the clans that persist in using leaf masks, and refer to them as filthy primitives. As a result, fights frequently break out between these clans that have, in the past, resulted in the intervention of the local military police. This has occured in both Bagassi and Dossi. In Bagassi the Nyumu family has acquired the use of wooden masks from the east, while the Ye family continues to use leaf masks for the congregation of Do. The members of the two families constitute the two major factions in the village, taunting each other in the streets, engaging in brawls in local bars, and shouting insults from the sidelines during performances of rival families' masks. This conflict between traditions that are, in turn, Mande and Voltaic in origin, reflect the clash of conservative and innovative traditions on the larger scale in central Burkina Faso. The older, more established tradition is Mande and the congregation of Do while the newer, innovative tradition in the south is the congregation of wooden masks acquired from the Voltaic Nunuma and Winiama. 

In contrast, masks in the northern and northwestern areas of Bwa country participate peacefully in the congregation of Do. In the north, the use of wooden masks was acquired from the Bobo, to the west, rather than from Voltaic groups in the east, as is the case in the southern Kademba area. Here leaf masks integrate man into his natural environment in the spring, when farmers leave their villages to work in the fields. Wooden masks, in contrast, reintegrate man into village society following the harvest, when farmers must return to village society and conform to rules for correct social behavior. Wooden masks serve as agents for social control in these villages. Masks of leaves and other wild-growing materials represent nature, while masks carved of wood with costumes of cultivated fibers represent village culture in the nature/culture balance that is basic to Bwa world view.