Do in Leaves and Wood Among the Bobo and the Bwa

by Christopher D. Roy
University of Iowa

Leaf masks, called bieni, that represent the spirit Do among the Bwa are used throughout Bwa country, in the north and south as well. In the most southern area called Kademba, near the gurunsi, inhabited by the "scarred-Bwa" or nyaynegay, people use the wooden masks for which the Bwa are famous. Wooden masks represent spirit characters in family myths and have nothing to do with Do. [18]

Leaf masks are born in the bush, early in the morning, when young initiates of the congregation gather vines and the leaves of the karite tree, a symbol of fertility. The mask assistants, who do not perform, wrap the body of the performer in vines from head to toe. The performer may no longer speak, for speech is a human skill.

As among the Bobo, from whom the Bwa acquired the congregation of Do, the mask performance consists primarily of a rapid spinning which represents the creative power of God. [19]

Do and the masks that embody him are concerned with life and new growth, and not with death, so that these masks rarely participate in funerals.  However, leaf masks, which are very sacred, may appear briefly to honor the deceased if he belonged to a clan that used leaf masks. The major contexts in which leaf masks appear are initiations and village purification or renewal ceremonies called loponu.

The performer becomes Do, and performs in rites that represent the dependence of man on the forces of nature for life. In this way "the human community is reintroduced to the cycle of nature, and therefor renews its forces, through the image of the vegetation that is reborn each year" (Capron 1957: 104).

Men pay visits to the sacred places in the village, sanctuaries of Do, ancestral shrines on which the village chief and the priest of Do make numerous sacrifices. At the end of the ceremony, the leaf masks enter the village in a procession that includes all of the men and women of the clans that are adherents of Do. Each compound of the eldest man of each clan is visited in turn, before the masks emerge from the village to perform in the fields.


[18] Leaf masks are made of wild vines that are wrapped around the body tightly enough that the costume will not slip, but loosely enough that the performer's movements will not be restricted. To this wrapping of vines are bound small bundles of green leaves so that every inch of the human body is concealed. A crest of dried grasses called bwosonu (Loudetia togoensis) is bound to the head, or in some villages may be made of white "eagle" feathers gathered in the bush.

[19] During a leaf-mask performance I attended in Bagassi in 1983, the masks of the Ye clan danced beneath a great tamarind tree in the dry dusty fields in which cotton is planted. Each mask spun wildly, leaping and thrusting his arms wide in an athletic pirouette. The feathers that formed the masks' crests often were dislodged by the spinning dance and fluttered to the ground, to be gathered quickly by a young boy wearing a carved wooden pendant representation of Do incarnated as a leaf mask. Following the mask performance, at sunset, the leaf masks return to the bush where their assistants cut the vines and burn the entire leaf costume, saving only the white feathers that form the crest.