Do in Leaves and Wood Among the Bobo and the Bwa

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

The Bwa:

Bobo-Oulé is a Jula term, and means Red Bobo, to distinguish the Bwa from the Bobo, whom the Jula called Black Bobo. These people call themselves Bwa, or Bwaba. The Bwa speak a Voltaic language they call Bwamu.

The Bwa live in central Burkina Faso, just west of the valley of the Black Volta River. There are about 125,000 Bwa in Mali, and 175,000 in Burkina Faso, totaling 300,000 Bwa. The Bwa are surrounded by the Bobo to the west, the Bamana to the north (Mali), the Marka Dafing to the east, and the gurunsi and Lobi to the south. The Bwa think of themselves as autochthonous, and record in their oral histories no earlier inhabitants of their lands.

Until the 18th century the Bwa were protected from the conflicts between neighboring states. In the 18th century the Bamana empire of Segou came into power, occupying a large part of the Bwa lands in Mali. The Bwa were forced to pay taxes, and the Bamana carried out raids into unconquered areas, creating an insecure environment. This continuous instability weakened Bwa social, political, and economic systems.

The 19th century marked the decline of the Bamana empire and the rise to power of a predominantly Moslem Fulani empire whose power reached to the Bwa along the Bani River. Incursions were carried out into the interior of Bwa country, bringing the destruction of villages and crops, the theft of animals, and the enslavement of men and women, or the forced enlistment of men in the Fulani army. In addition to raids by armed soldiers, roving bands of brigands used the period of confusion to raid villages that were poorly organized to resist.

The arrival of the French, in 1897, led the Bwa and their indigenous neighbors to hope for an end to the Fulani invasions. Instead the French reinforced the power of these brigands, using them to gain control over the area. The French administration proved to be the greater of the two evils.  The culmination of all of this was a severe famine from 1911-1913, made worse by the villager's inability to store grain during rich years for use during lean years due to excessive French taxation. This, coupled with French demands for military recruits in 1914-1915, resulted in a revolt by the great majority of Bwa villages. The insurrection was put down in six months in a series of extremely bloody battles, marked by the determination of the Bwa to fight to the death rather than to submit to enslavement by a foreign power. The French used Fulani mercenaries, heavy artillery, and machine guns and razed all the offending villages. By June, 1916 the revolt was over and the surviving Bwa struggled back to their burned fields and villages to begin to rebuild. [7]

The Bwa live in independent villages devoid of central political authority. All decisions are made by a council of the male elders of the local lineages, and all external authority is strongly resisted.

The Bwa are very open and receptive to change. They are quick to adopt new ideas or forms that they find useful, and to adapt or transform these discoveries to fit their own specific needs. In this way they are fundamentally different than the Bobo, who wish, above all, to remain faithful to "the path of the ancestors."


[7] Among the earliest changes imposed on the Bwa by French colonialists was the cultivation of cotton in large quantities. Jean Capron has told me that the cultivation of cotton by the Bwa has contributed more to the deterioration of traditional Bwa culture than any other factor. Because the Bwa are paid individually for their crops, all cooperative labor in the fields has ceased, eradicating an essential cohesive force in Bwa society (Capron 1973: 91-107).