Do in Leaves and Wood Among the Bobo and the Bwa

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

The people in rural Dafing villages are predominantly traditional animists. Like the Nunuma, the Dafing, especially in the remote hill villages between Bagassi and Safane, are feared and respected by their neighbors as dangerous and powerful magicians.

Dafing masks are a stylistic pastiche: a blend of the sculptural styles of their Mande relatives in Mali and the decorative styles of their Voltaic neighbors in Burkina. The face is oval, with a heavy, horizontal brow and a large, straight nose. The intersection of the nose and brow forms a very distinctive "T". The planes of the cheeks are flat, with the small, square eyes placed high in the angle of the nose and brow. The ears are large and extend horizontally like handles, and the mouth protrudes, just above a broad, triangular beard. The face is surmounted by a crest that may be complex, including crescents, short dentate planks, or a pair of horns that frame an animal form. This crest curves toward the back. These style traits are very similar to the characteristics of Mande style masks, especially the n'domo masks of the Bamana.

Over the basic Mande sculptural forms are superimposed distinctively Voltaic geometric patterns, including triangles, chevrons, checkerboards, and especially the "Voltaic target motif". The decorative patterns are colored red, black, and white resulting in a much more colorful palette than is common in Mande sculpture. These very typical masks are called barafu, and have often been misattributed to the Bobo.

The Dafing also use masks of leaves (koro) and straw that are very similar to the Bwa leaf masks of Do. [21] I suspect that the leaf mask tradition was carried into the valley of the Sourou by the Dafing when they penetrated the Bwa area. [22]

Although Dafing wood mask formal characteristics are typically Mande, the use and meaning of masks conforms to stereotypes in central Burkina. As among all groups in Burkina, masks are family oriented, with each clan taking responsibility for the carving of masks that represent animal and supernatural characters in the clan's histories. Like the Bobo, and in contrast to the Bwa, a single clan can use masks of wood or of leaves. The wood and leaf masks never dance together, although they may appear on the same day for the same event. Leaf masks represent Do, the spirit of the bush and of plant life. Masks in wood must open and close every mask performance. Masks of wood represent spirits from the bush that watch over the families and protect them from sorcery. Dafing wood and leaf masks appear at annual renewal or village purification ceremonies, at funerals of male and female elders [23] and at the initiations of young boys. There are no secret associations. 


[21] Dafing leaf masks that I have seen from Mana, just north of Bagassi, are very similar in style to the leaf masks of the northern Bwa near Dedougou. Rather than a crest of feathers and a protruberant cylindrical mouth, as in Boni and Bagassi. Dafing leaf masks have a large circular, sagittal crest of thick dried grass. 

[22] In The Art of the Upper Volta Rivers (1987) I said "I suspect that the leaf mask tradition was adopted by the Dafing from the Bwa when they penetrated the Bwa area."  Although there is evidence for either solution, it seems most logical that, as a Mande group, the Dafing brought the use of leaf masks to represent Do with them when they penetrated the valley of the Sourou. 

[23] In February, 1983 I attended the funeral of a male elder of a Dafing family named Tamani in the Bwa village of Banu, near Bagassi. Four leaf masks and two wooden masks from Mana participated in the funeral to honor the deceased and send his spirit on its journey to the land of ancestors. The leaf masks appeared early in the morning, arriving from the bush east of the village. Each mask was called by drummers, and was greeted by young men of the clan. Each mask danced in turn on the tomb before everyone left the compound for a performance in the open area in front of the Tamani home.

Late in the afternoon, two masks of wood emerged from a straw enclosure at the center of the village and repeated the actions of the leaf masks. A mask with a crocodile framed by curving horns, named bamba, accompanied by an antelope mask (ghun), performed in the courtyard and on the tomb of the deceased. The oldest son of the deceased followed holding a framed photograph of his father as a young husband surrounded by his wives and children. Just before sundown the wood masks made their way up the rocky path toward their home village of Mana, ending the ceremonies for the day.