Do in Leaves and Wood Among the Bobo and the Bwa

by Christopher D. Roy
University of Iowa


In the north, initiation into the congregation of Do begins at a very early age, and continues into adult life with frequent and numerous steps. In this area, Bwa and Bobo society are so closely linked that the organization and purpose of initiation into the congregation of Do in the two groups is strikingly similar. With increasing knowledge, boys and young men are introduced to masks of leaves and of fibers.

Only in the kademba and the extreme southern Bwa area inhabited by the scarred Bwa and the Nieniegay, do the Bwa use the great wooden plank masks for which they have been known in surveys of African art. These southern Bwa acquired wooden masks from their eastern neighbors, the Nunuma, Nuna, and Winiama sometime shortly before the arrival of the French in 1897. The wooden mask traditions among the southern Bwa are recent.

Bwa wooden masks represent a number of spirit characters in the myths of their families and clans. Masks represent spirits that took the forms of numerous animals including the antelope, bush buffalo, monkey, and bush pig. Water-dwellers include the crocodile, and fish of several types are included. The serpent, and insects including the butterfly appear, as do birds including hawks and vultures. Several human characters appear, including the leper, and the crazy man and his wife. Other masks represent bush spirits that take supernatural forms.

As among neighboring Voltaic groups, Bwa wooden mask performances emphasize the impersonation of the spirit character depicted by the mask.

In contrast to the leaf masks dedicated to Do, which are used in a congregation that unifies the Bwa in their belief in a common creator, wood masks are very family oriented, and are used only by the southern Bwa.

Wooden Bwa masks function in many of the same ways masks function among the Nunuma and Winiama. They play an important role in initiations of young men and women, appear at burials and later at a memorial services. Masks appear at annual renewal ceremonies. Masks appear at many other events during the dry season, including the introduction of newly carved masks and market day dances. Celebrations, funerals, and initiations are organized by individual clans, and rather than unifying the members of a village community, they are actually divisive, for clans compete to give the most elaborate and innovative performances.