Do in Leaves and Wood Among the Bobo and the Bwa

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

The Bobo use masks of the congregation of Do in three major contexts: masks appear at harvest time in annual rites called birewa danga. Masks participate in the male initiation, named yele danga, which is their major function. Finally, they participate in the burial (syebi) and the funeral rites (syekwe) of people who have been killed by Dwo, or of the elder priests of Dwo. [14]

Leaf masks representing the initial and universal form of Dwo serve to integrate the individual into human society and to link the community of man with the natural world; fiber masks fix the individual in a social grouping, dedicated to one of the later forms of Dwo. These masks are important agents of socialization. The significance of these lessons is impressed on each new generation in the major institution of initiation. [15]

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 northbirewa 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 congregation. [16]


[14] This is a secondary function, and not all masks of all Bobo clans attend these rites. Masks seem to participate in funerals much more frequently in the Syankoma area in the south, near Bobo-Dioulasso, than in the north.

[15] The different levels of knowledge are explained to Bobo boys in several steps spread out over a period of fifteen years. Masks play an essential role in initiation because they reestablish and reinforce the cosmic order created by Wuro, and restore the balance and the rhythms of the natural world and of the community. Each of the new steps in the initiation is punctuated by important ceremonies when the initiates dance with several types of masks.

[16] In the region around Bobo-Dioulasso, where I have attended mask performances, wooden masks spin wildly, almost seeming to be out of control, from one side of the open dance area to the other, and then back. The climax of each mask's performance is a tour-de-force rotation of the mask alone, when the performer plants his feet firmly and twists his torso and neck, grasping the small handle that protrudes from the chin of the mask or a band of fiber that is knotted inside the chin. The wooden head of the mask rotates two or three revolutions, then returns, in such a way that the mask may leave the performer's head and is only kept from flying across the performance area by the dancer's tight grip on it. It is quite common to see clearly the performer's head and torso. In the south the performances of fiber masks are the most athletic: unencumbered by a heavy mask of wood, the performers leap across the dance area like gymnasts, executing forward flips, cartwheels, and handsprings.