The Bwa Village of Boni, Burkina Faso


Masks gather for an initiation in 2016


The village of Boni is on the main highway midway between Ouagadougou and Bobo Dioulasso. The Bwa (singular) or Bwaba (plural) are a people who speak a language (Bwamu) in the Voltaic family of languages and who live in central Burkina Faso and southeast Mali, from the Bani River in Mali south to the Mouhoun River (Black Volta River) in Burkina. Because of the confusion of early French explorers, soldiers and missionaries the Bwa were called “Bobo” for many decades, even though they are very different in all ways from their Bobo or Bobo-Fing neighbors to the west. The major southern Bwa towns are Hounde, Boni, Bagassi, Dossi, Pa, and Dedougou.

The History of Boni in French by Yacouba Bondé PDF

Petite histoire de Boni docx

Only the southern Bwa, in Burkina Faso, make wooden masks, and only they will be discussed in this essay. The southern Bwa are noted for the very elaborate and thick scarification patterns on their faces and bodies, which led their neighbors to call these southern Bwa Nieniegue or “scarred Bwa.” Very few Bwa boys and girls are now given these scars, and the term is beginning to disappear from use.

To visit Boni contact Yacouba Bonde, Cultural Chief of Boni, at 

-Comment les touristes peuvent contacter Yacouba ou les autres dans le village; E-mail,téléphone cellulaire?

Les visiteurs peuvent contacter Mr Yacouba Bondé sur cellulaire: +226 76 61 43 89, +226 78 89 94 60 et +226 61 99 58 07. E-mail ou contacter Mr Abdoulaye Ouédraogo au +226 76 55 31 et +226 78 84 86 80. E-mail

-Quelles sont les périodes de l’année où les touristes peuvent visiter Boni voir les cérémonies?

La période des cérémonies de danse de masques à Boni se passe de mars à juillet dans l’année. Les touristes dont le séjour n’est pas long et qui sont intéressés par la danse des masques peuvent le faire sur demande quelques jours à l’avance.

-En plus des masques qu’est ce que les touristes peuvent voir d’autres?

A Boni il ya en plus des masques, il ya une église avec une architecture de masque à lame qu’il faut absolument voir. Les touristes peuvent visiter les autels des ancêtres, les vieilles habitations. Les femmes au village produisent le beurre karité, une activité très appréciée par les touristes.  Il ya un atelier de sculpture et un magasin d’objets d’art à visiter. visiter les devins est une possibilité à Boni et ses environs.

-Où peuvent loger les touristes?  A Boromo? A Houndé? Ou à Boni?

Il ya à Houndé des hôtels, à Boromo également où les touristes peuvent loger et aussi chez les prêtres à Boni.


1-La population a augmenté ces dernières années, si bien qu’il ya peinerie d’eau potable (besoin de forage ou de château d’eau).

2-Il ya manque de salles de classes, de fournitures scolaire et de cantine au sein du collège et des écoles primaires.

3-Comment conserver les traditions et assurer la relève de demain.

NB: Les objets dans le magasin sont en vente. Souvent certains touristes veulent acheter mais ils hésitent puisqu’ils n’ont pas assez de poids. Dans ce cas nous faisons des expéditions des objets achetés.


Hotels in Boromo:

Air BNB in Ouagadougou

A wild and rustic bush hunting camp where wild animals  roam, close to Boromo

A “motel” at the edge of the city of Boromo

The Vout Nubienne hotel in Boromo  ( serious problems)


The Bwa town of Boni has become very famous for the size, number, and spectacular character of the great plank, animal and serpent masks they create and use. Their work has been featured in many exhibitions around the world, and in numerous films and videos, among them my own. The village lies just beside the main highway from Ouagadougou to Bobo Dioulasso, just east of the larger town and regional capital of Houndé. It is very easy to stop your car near the highway, walk to the village and attend mask performances that are held throughout the dry season. The height of the performance season is late February to late May, when the rains begin. The people are hospitable and generous, and eager to permit strangers to attend their performances.

The famous Boni church

There are two families in Boni that use wooden masks, the Bondes and the Gnoumous, and a third family that uses leaf masks. Leaf masks, which exist only for one day before they are destroyed, are a much older tradition in Boni and there are many leaf masks throughout Bwa country, all the way north to the Bani River. These leaf masks represent Do (or Dwo), one of three sons of the creator God Dofini. Dwo is the God of new life and rebirth in the springtime, and of the power of nature and vegetation. His brothers are Soxo, the god of the wilderness, and Kwere, the god of lightning.

Leaf masks :  (My good friend in Boni told me this story.)  Do is the name of a fetish among Bobo and Bwaba. In the Bwaba language  Do means tô (semolina of millet or maize). It is a fetish of the bush, it is sacred. It is very important among the Bwaba. According to the legend Do has existed since the beginning of the world. The first world was made of bare ground by Dofini (God in Bwamu). Dofini created the first woman who is the moon. He then created the sun, companion of the moon. Twins were born from the union of the two. These were two conjoined twins including Do (male) and Han Do (female). There was neither day nor night in the world. The beings lived there in abundance. they fed on the sky that was very close to them. The beings were made of  leaves, they were like trees moving. Do and Han Do fed on leaves themselves made of leaves.

Do and Han Do fed on leaves although they themselves were made of leaves. The twins had a child, the third twin, Binlouo (male) and Han Koro (female). They too were conjoined. Binlouo and Han Koro often transformed into animals, hornbills, porcupines or turtles. Do, Han Do, Binlouo and Han Koro are the first ancestors of humanity sent by Dofini according to Bwaba legend. One day Binlouo encouraged by Han Koro ate a piece of the sun and she even tapped him with her spatula  (wooden object to stir food).  Then the sun went up and set the world on fire. The fire burned everything in its path. There was nothing to eat, there was famine. The fire brought death. Death has existed since that time. The moon cried to ask the sun to forgive the beings in leaves. The tears of the moon have become water (streams, rivers, ponds, etc.) and toads that occupy the world. The first sons of the sun and moon cried also for the appearance of death and the disappearance of beings in leaves. The sky has moved away from the earth as well as the sun and the moon since that time.

The movements of the sun and the moon gave birth to day and night. It was from this period that Dofini created the human beings who had to suffer and work for food. The beings in leaves were condemned to remain motionless as trees. Before going to heaven, the sun left a piece of fire to the first man (blacksmith). When the sky moved away from the earth, the twin beings stuck together (Do, Han Do, Binlouo, Han Koro) also became separated. The separation of heaven and earth has made them invisible to humans.

Do is the God of nature (the bush, the forest, the wild animals), which is why he is embodied by the leaf masks. He is the intermediary between men and Dofini. Through the leaf masks, the spirits of the Bwa ancestors become visible to humans. Do is represented by iron rhombus [bull roarers] preserved in a pottery altar placed westward between the village and the bush near a tree. These rhombus emit a sound when spinning them with a string. This noise is said to be Do’s voice. Another pottery altar is in the village in the Bwaba ancestors’ house. In this altar are preserved the cane (metal butt) of Do, the knife (to slaughter animals for sacrifice) of Do, the blades and wooden rhombus (bull roarer) of Do. These objects are handled by the leaf masks that are sent from Do. Blacksmiths, griots (musicians) and notables (elders) are the priests of Do.

Do’s ceremonies take place from February to June. In February the trees grow new leaves that will be used to construct the body of the mask. This is when the Bwa attend the opening and closing of the altars in pottery.  The opening of the altars in pottery is the opening of the voices that lead to the spirits of the ancestors. This opening is also the opening of the voices of the sacred forest from which will come the  masks. Leaf masks are the true sacred masks of the Bwaba. Through these masks Do communicates with the people. Among the rituals of Do, there is the ceremony of purification of the village, the initiation ceremony, the ceremony dedicated to Do and the ceremony of dry funerals (funeral or memorial services, not burials). The opening of the pottery altar is to open the altar where Do is and make sacrifices to him.  The purification ceremony of the village is done by masks to ward off diseases and evil spirits. Occasionally the leaf masks arrive from the bush and head to the ancestors’ altar which is in the village, then they go everywhere through the village dancing, tapping and rubbing against the houses as well as people cleansing them of all the impurities.

The initiation of young people into Do begins at a young age and lasts almost the whole life of the person unlike the Lanle initiation. The ceremony dedicated to Do is a ceremony during which there are sacrifices made to Do by his priests followed by performances of masks. All the wishes (abundance of rains, good harvests, health, fertility in society etc …) of the community are made during this ceremony.  The sheet masks do not attend the survey of mourning unlike the fiber masks. Leaf masks celebrate dry funerals or memorial services, a ceremony in which all the annual deaths of the elderly are celebrated together.  The closing of the altar in pottery consists of covering the altar. From that moment on, there are no more leafs masks.

In a very distant time there was a village on the banks of a river named Nihoun between Boni and Hounde, Nihoun was inhabited by the Bwaba family name Bayé.  Bayé means to be clear (the one who speaks the truth). The people of this village lived in peace, and one day Nihoun’s oldest went to a bush searching for termites for his chicks, and the elder Baye found a human body covered with leaves, bark, straws and feathers. on the head: a mysterious thing was the spirit of the place. Bayé was frightened and turned back to the house, he informed the notables who went to the place, they found the leaf costume consisting of straws and The body was gone, the notables returned to the village to consult the altar of the ancestors’ spirits to find out if this thing found in the bush was good or bad, the spirits have responded favorably to their request. They went to pick up the costume, they keep it next to a tree between the village and the bush. They loved these fetishes, everything they asked for was granted. The Bayé have abandoned Nihoun, others have settled in Boni, Karaba, Bonzan and so on. Those who settled in Boni are the priests of Do in the company of blacksmiths and griots. That’s how Do got to Boni.

Masks with wooden heads and fiber costumes: In the important village of Dossi,  just across the road from Boni,  the elders of the Lamien family  told me this story in 1985: Sometime near the end of the 19th century the southern Bwa discovered that they had suffered a long string of misfortunes: there had been drought, crop failure, insects, starvation, disease, slave raids by Fulani cavalry from the north, and the final, ultimate disaster, the arrival of the French at the head of columns of Senegalese mercenaries. The Bwa decided Dwo had abandoned them, and turned to their Nuna neighbors to the east for help. They realized that the Nuna were more successful and prosperous, and were obviously blessed by God, so the Bwa asked if they might make and use the same spectacular wooden masks to honor God that the Nuna used. The Nuna were happy to oblige and sold some of their masks, costumes and dances to the Bwa, while some Bwa made raids on their Nuna neighbors and stole some masks (or so the elders of the Lamien family in Dossi have told me). Many (but not all) southern Bwa families abandoned Dwo and began to make large wooden masks covered with red, white and black geometric patterns that were very similar to those of the Nuna. Some Bwa families in the south, and all Bwa in the north, remained faithful to Dwo, leading to considerable friction to this day between the users of leaf masks and of wooden masks.

All wooden masks in these villages are used in a religion dedicated to Lanlé.  Just recently a friend of mine in Boni told me the following story: Lanlé is the name of a Bwaba fetish (the people of Burkina Faso regularly and consistently use the word “fetish.” This is a word that Western scholars hesitate to use. Most of us now use the phrase “power objects.” However I will not change it here so that I can maintain the character of my informant’s statements.) It is found among the Bwaba of Boni and its surroundings (eg Dossi, Yienou, Loluyo) who dance masks with costumes made of fibers. Lanlé in Bwamu means “stick.” Lanle is a piece of spiritual wood, perhaps a cane, which embodies mysterious representations of the different symbolic ideas of the Bwaba tradition. It is a stick of commandments, it gathers its people. When he appears from the house where he resides, his followers revere him.   Lanlé was brought to Boni from N’Louyo and M’Booyé, two neighboring villages to Boni. According to the history of the village, there were very long ago in these villages fetishes (power objects) of protection against diseases (epidemics), bad spirits, big tornadoes, ferocious animals etc … The ancestors of Bwaba in Boni did not have protective fetishes at the time when they settled. These diseases devastated the population of Boni each year. Then the ancestors of Boni made friends with these villages to benefit from the protection of the fetishes of their neighbors. They gradually learned the sacred worship, the prayers, the songs and the dances of these fetishes .  When they acquired all the secrets of the fetishes, they declared a bloody and violent war against these two villages. Boni emerged victorious from the war, seized fetishes (Lanlé), masks, lands, rivers, and hills. Back from the fight, they organized a big purification party in the village of Boni with Lanle. Since that time they kept this period (March, April) to celebrate the purification of the village. Epidemics are rare, no more serious diseases, no more evil spirits and no dangerous wild animals.  A house has been specially built for the Lanlé.

The worship of Lanlé are of various types: There is the annual adoration called purification which takes place in two phases. It usually occurs between March and April after the harvest.  The first purification is done discreetly by some notables at night with Lanlé.

The second purification of the village is a big celebration that includes everyone. Notables and initiates make sacrifices to Lanlé to thank the ancestors’ spirits for the past season and ask for health, peace, weddings, fertility, abundant rains and good harvests for the coming season. On occasion, the masks and the population dance in procession around the village from one sacred point to another where Lanlé is entitled to offerings.

The extraordinary adorations: these offerings are done in case of emergency by the notables. These are performed in the case of a disaster of any kind when prayers are offered on special occasions and the celebrations are organized by the senior elders of the village.

There is individual adoration. Anyone  can pray to Lanlé for needs such as fortune, children, health etc … This adoration is done by any person who is in need.  The supplicant promises Lanle in return to make offerings if his problem is solved. If the person gets what he wants and does not later honor his commitments to Lanlé, it will be a disaster for him. He will be punished by Lanlé. Finally the last adoration is the annual and individual protection. There, the supplicant makes sacrifices to Lanlé to ask for his protection. Both men and women without distinction can worship Lanle every year with chickens, goats, sheep, oxen, millet beer etc …

The initiation to Lanlé happens every seven or eight years between age grades. It consists in recruiting the young girls and boys of about the same age [an age grade] who will attend the initiation. Preparations for initiation take place at least a year in advance. The last previous age grade is responsible for training new recruits. They teach them how to cultivate hemp of Guinea [chanvre de Guinea or Hibiscus cannabinus] for making mask costumes. They also learn to grow food crops such as millet, corn, beans etc … After a year of preparations, the notables set the departure date for the bush where the young people will be initiated for fourteen days and the fifteenth day is the day of big celebration in the village. During the fourteen days young people learn: the language of masks, to dance masks and to paint them. They learn to play whistles and tam-tams. They learn the praises of masks, and weave their costumes. They are taught to respect their elders who teach them. They are taught how to worship Lanle, the history of the village and the forbidden traditions. They go in the forest to know the species, learn the traditional pharmacopoeia and hunt game. The fifteenth day is the day of purification and the festival of young initiates. This is the big celebration, a procession is organized, the crowd joins, sings and dances. The big party is a reminder for the Bwa community of the legacy of their ancestors that solidifies the bond of being of this community. After the big celebration the young initiates will dance, sing three days in the morning and evening to prove to their families, the notables and the people that they have assimilated their lessons.  The importance of initiation is to ensure the succession of the old so that the customs of the Lanlé do not disappear. It is the synthesis of the different oral stories collected and the story of the Lanlé. (I keep the name of my friend confidential to protect him from accusations by others in the village.)


A butterfly of “” mask

Bwa masking (from Burkina Art in Cultural Context)

Bwa Mask of Leaves by Jessica Davis, The University of Iowa

 Essay: Bwa Masks

Bwa masks are covered with the same red, white, and black geometric patterns that are to be seen on the masks of all Voltaic language-speaking peoples, including the Dogon, Mossi, and Nuna.

These patterns are called “scars” by the Bwa and Nuna, and are identical in shape to the scars once worn by people on their faces and bodies. The patterns, whether on human flesh or wood, represent the religious or ethical laws for the moral and ethical conduct of life. These laws are dictated by the spirits through the medium of the diviner or priest, and are taught to young male and female initiates as part of the process of acculturation that leads to adulthood. The graphic patterns and the wooden planks on which they are carved are analogous to the stone tablets of the ten commandments, covered with patterns in Hebrew, through which God’s laws were communicated to the Israelites.

They are also analogous to the wooden writing boards on which young scholars of the Koran write their lessons in ink as they study in Muslim madrasas. Each of the geometric patterns carved on masks has a meaning. In the broadest sense the meanings of these patterns are universal among Voltaic peoples. In a more narrow sense there is some variation in meaning from village to village. Throughout the Voltaic world (I specifically include the Dogon) the tall planks themselves represent the “path of the ancestors” or the yaaba soore in Moore.

This is both the path that the ancestors followed as they descended from the celestial to the terrestrial realm at the creation, and the path that all Bwa, Dogon, Mossi and Nuna must follow if they are to be successful and receive God’s blessings. In a narrower sense the “path of the ancestors is represented by the zigzag line that may be vertical or horizontal on mask planks. It is not easy to emulate the ancestors, to stick to the path without deviation, and so that path is a zigzag. But we must try the best we can to do as our ancestors did because they, after all, were successful. The black and white checkerboard pattern that appears on masks, on houses, pottery, and especially textiles, represents the importance of learning, especially the life-long learning that comes with age. In our own western cultures light represents learning and knowledge, and black represents ignorance. In a world where people are black the opposite is true. The white rectangles represent the pure white goat hides each young initiate is given at graduation, on which they sit during all religious ceremonies including mask performances.

A butterfly of “” mask

At the end of each ceremonial season these hides are rolled up and stored in the rafters of the women’s kitchens, and they begin to become brown, then black with soot. As the years pass and the young people learn more and more about themselves and the physical and spiritual worlds in which they live, their goat hides become a rich, deep black, and so the black hides of elders are a metaphor for the life-long learning that is necessary for a complete understanding of the spirit world.

Art gallery in Boni run by Yacouba Bondé.

Yacouba Bonde with chameleon mask


  • Le Lanlé est un fétiche puissant, sous forme de canne, qui a le pouvoir de protéger les familles contre les épidémies, apporte des récoltes abondantes et chasse toutes sortes de mauvaises influences
  • Une maison spécifique doit être construite pour abriter le Lanlé. Chaque année deux adorations doivent être faites. Une première purification se déroule avec six personnages, alors que tout le village est endormi. Une deuxième purification est ensuite organisée, cette fois-ci avec tous les masques qui vont danser autour du quartier ou du village. À cette occasion, un grand sacrifice est organisé, chaque initie devant offrir un poulet qui sera immole au Lanlé.

La vie sociale du village

L’organisation du village repose sur quatre chefferies :

  • Le chef de village
  • Le chef de terre
  • Le chef coutumier des masques
  • Les chefs d’intermédiation, c’est-à-dire les ambassadeurs

Le chef de village est élu par consensus familial. Seule sa capacité à «  administré »le village est prise en compte, cette fonction n’étant pas dévolue automatiquement au plus âge.

Il rend la justice (justice de paix), il est l’intermédiaire entre le population et l’administration. Il a également la charge d’accueillir les étrangers et de leur faciliter leur installation (s’il y a lieu) en collaboration avec le chef de terre. Aujourd’hui, la chefferie est l’apanage de la famille Bondé. (Ainsi que l’a voulu le vieux Nami), la succession se faisait de père en fils ou de frère a frère.

Le chef de terre applique les règlements coutumiers sur la terre du village et sur les terres acquises lors des guerres civiles. Il veille au respect des limites du territoire villageois. Il a la pouvoir de sanctionner tous ceux qi violent les interdits (3) ; les amendes sont acquittées sus forme de poulets, pintades, moutons, chèvres ou bœufs selon la gravite du délit (4). Tous ces animaux feront l’objet de sacrifices de pardon à la terre. On les appelle « Lognou » Cette chefferie appartient à la famille Bondé, depuis le temps du vieux Nami, la relève se faisant de père en fils ou de frère à frère.

From Bondé, Yacouba “Petite histoire…”

  • Parmi les interdits a la terre, on peut citer : ne jamais lever un couteau (faire couler le sang) sur un enfant, sa femme ou un ami. Ne jamais avoir de relations sexuelles en brousse, ne jamais bouillir les noirs de karité en dehors du village (5), ne jamais voler les céréales d’autrui.
  • Meurtre manqué : 1 poulet, meurtre accompli : 1 bœuf, relation sexuelle en brousse : 1 poulet le lendemain,1 mouton si le «  contrevenant » ne s’est pas acquitté de son amande, 1 bœuf si le retard est bien supérieur.
  • Bouillir des noix de karité, avoir des relations sexuelles en brousse (même avec sa femme) sont interprétés comme constitutifs d’un nouveau village sans qu’aucune autorisation n’ait été donnée ni qu’aucun sacrifice n’ait été offert a la terre, ce qui pourrait entrainer désordre social et difficultés de tous ordre. On ne doit pas bouillir les noix de karité en brousse alors que le beurre de karité est utilisé pour certains sacrifices. De même une relation sexuelle en brousse peut « couper » la pluie et donc provoquer une grande sécheresse suivie de famine.

La vie sociale du ,village
L’organisation du village repose sur quatre chefferies :

•    Le chef de village

•    Le chef de teITe

•    Le chef coutumier des masques

•    Les chefs d’intermediation,  c’est-a-dire les ambassadeurs.

Le chef de village est elu par consensus familial. Seule sa capacite a « administrer » le village est prise en compte, cette fonction n’etant pas devolue automatiquement au plus age.

II rend la justice (justice de paix), i i est l ‘intermediaire entre la population et l’administration. II a egalement la charge d’accueillir les etrangers et de leur faciliter leur installation (s’il y a lieu) en collaboration avec le chef de teITe. Aujourd’hui, la chefferie est l’apanage de la famille Bonde (ainsi que l ‘a voulu le vieux Nami), la succession se faisant de pere en fils ou de frere a fnre.

Le chef de terre applique les reglements coutumiers sur la terre du village et sur les teITes acquises lors des guerres civiles. Il veille au respect des limites du territoire villageois. II a le pouvoir de sanctionner tous ceux qui violent les interdits (3) ; les amendes sont acquittees sous forme de poulets, pintades, moutons, chevres ou bceufs selon la gravite du delit (4). Tous ces animaux feront l’objet de sacrifices de pardon a la terre. On les appelle « Lognou ».

Cette chefferie appa1iient a la famille Bonde, depuis le temps du vieux Nami, la releve se faisant de pere en fils ou de frere a frere.

Jean Capron 1973 Communautés villageoises Bwa

Capron Bwa ch 1

Capron Bwa ch 2

Capron Bwa ch 3

Jean_Capron-Bibliographie selective

Louis Tauxier 1912 Le noir du Soudan, on the Bwa.  Note, he refers to the Bobo, but in fact he is writing about the Bwaba.

Tauxier 1912 Bwa_Part1

Tauxier 1912 Bwa_Part2

Tauxier 1912 Bwa_Part3

The triangle may represent the leaf of the hemp plant from which the fiber costumes are made, or the hoof print of the antelope, or the male gender whose sacred number is three, or the iron bull-roarer that is swung in a circle at the end of a long line and whose sound is the voice of God. The concentric circles may represent the sacred wells around which Boni was settled, or something else entirely in other villages and regions. Each mask has a combination of patterns that address specific issues of spirituality and that lend the mask its unique name. In most cases the goal of these lessons is to protect the members of the community from witchcraft, or spiritual harm by emphasizing patterns of avoidance of malevolent power.

Among the Bwa young men and women pass through initiation together, in groups that constitute age grades. So there is an age grade for young men between the ages of twenty and thirty, and another for women of the same age, all of whom went through initiation at the sametime and together. Each age grade takes responsibility for certain tasks, including clearing and planting fields, building new homes, digging wells, making mask costumes.

Initiates and serpent mask, Boni, 2014

All of the people of the village above the age of initiation belong to an age grade. At any mask performance the members of each grade appear together, dance and sing together, bring out their masks together. All of the masks are accessible by men and women, young and old, who have been initiated, While the young men wear the masks, simply because they are much stronger than the young women, the women take a very active role in every mask performance, speaking with the masks, singing to them, arranging their costumes, raising the hands of the performers in a gesture of praise at the end of the dance. Except for the physical act of wearing the masks, which can weigh sixty pounds, there is no gender segregation during mask performances. The presence of so many women in proximity to the masks, touching the masks and speaking to them is surprising to scholars of art in other parts of Africa where women are systematically excluded from mask performances.

Masks are worn with thick fiber costumes made of strands of hemp dyed red or black. In the past twenty years the Bwa in Boni have begun to use brilliant dyes made by BASF in Germany which they can buy in the market in Bobo-Dioulasso. The collars of such masks as the bush buffalo and the hyena may now be dyed bright yellow, purple, or green, although the larger part of the costume is almost invariably red. The fibers are looped with a half-hitch around a netted undergarment made in several pieces. The performer wears trousers held up with a fiber belt, a shirt tied at the back, and a cowl or collar attached to the mask. A tight hood of netted fiber is sewn to the mask so that it covers the performers head and neck, and in many cases he sees out through the tight netting in front of his eyes. The young men and women make the costumes fresh each year by soaking the hemp plants in water, usually by weighting down bundles of the stalks with rocks in a swamp. They pound the stalks to separate the fibers and rotted pith, and the fibers are dried. The amount of water necessary means that in very dry years it is difficult to make new costumes, and fewer masks appear.

Videos of Mask Performances

Initiation Art as Verb in Africa

Video: Forming a mask of leaves

Video: Performance of the masks of the Gnoumou family in Boni


Local artists, usually smiths in Boni and in each of the other southern Bwa towns carve the masks. I have published an essay on the carvers in Ouri, a Winiama town where the Konate smiths carve masks for the Bwa (Roy 1992 4-8). They carve the masks of the wood of the Ceiba tree, Ceiba pintandra or the faux kapokier. The wood is light colored and quite light in weight, easily carved, but solid, very much like pine. The artists never use heavier wood such as Shea nut for masks because it is so heavy it would be impossible for the young men to wear the masks. The wood of the Baobab and kapok trees is never used because they are too fibrous and are very poor materials for carving. Here, as in the Gurunsi area, carvers have permission from Eaux et forets to cut Ceiba trees for masks, even though others are forbidden to cut these trees for firewood. The carvers are very skilled and capable, with excellent sharp tools. One of the best is the artist Yacouba Bonde, who has built a small workshop just by the side of the highway in Boni, on the north side of the road. Yacouba is also the organizer and director of many public mask events in Boni. Artists measure very carefully as they work to be sure that all proportions are correct and that the mask is symmetrical. The rough shape is carved quickly, the details are blocked out, then the outline is reduced until, as the carving approaches the final stages, lighter and smaller adzes are used for the final touches. Masks are tried over the face repeatedly to be sure they fit and that they are balanced. One of the last stages is to color the entire mask black with a vegetable pigment and then to carve the “scars” or geometric patterns through the black pigment so the contrast of black against the white of the wood makes it easy to see the shapes. Artists who work for Bwa families carve the patterns very deeply so the patterns stand out in considerable relief. If the mask is intended for sale to whites the “scars” are far more shallow, and take less time to carve.

Each of the Bwa masks represents a spiritual being that plays a role in the history of the families in the village. The spiritual characters include bush pigs, hawks, antelope, fish, serpents, hyenas, crocodiles, and many more. There are numerous human characters as well, the leper, the “crazy man and his wife”, the dwarf, and others. Each masks has its own story, which the mask reenacts during its performance.

Among the more unusual masks in both Boni and Dossi are the fish masks. They are unusual because the region around these two villages is usually dry and dusty and is far from the sea and even from the Mouhoun River. The fish mask performs accompanied by an elderly man with a large basket of the type the Bwa use to catch fish in the swamps and low areas near seasonal rivers and streams. The mask dances and skips across the performance area, accompanied by the drums and flutes that play its music. It pauses to rest, like a large fish resting in the shallows, beating its fins slowly back and forth. The elder man approaches carefully, raising his basket above his head to bring it down over the fish and trap it. At the last moment the fish darts from beneath the basket. The same sequence is performed several times, until, at the end, the fish remains in place and allows the elder to capture it. Elders of the Lamien family in Dossi tell the story of just such an enormous fish that allowed itself to be captured by an ancestor who had traveled a great distance seeking new land on which his family could settle and start new farms. The fish gave itself up to feed the elder, to restore his strength, so that he could return to his family and lead them to the new lands he had found, founding the village of Dossi. This sacrifice is remembered through the performance of the fish mask. In Boni the Gnoumou family performs a dance in which all the young men and women circle the fish making a gesture above their heads as they empty the swamp of water so that they can trap the fish. The watery world is also represented by the crocodiles, which are the only masks I ever saw perform as a group in Bwa or Winiama village. The people of Dossi tell of an ancestor who wandered for days from his home, looking for vacant land to farm. He had become exhausted and famished, and he lay down in the shade of a tree to rest. He was awakened by a sound nearby, and thinking it might be a person who could give him directions he ran toward the sound. He stumbled over the root of a tree and rolled head over heels down the sandy bank of the Mouhoun River, stopping his fall just short of the jaws of two enormous crocodiles that had drawn themselves up on the bank of the river. He was about to retreat in fear when he noticed the male crocodile begin to open its jaws slowly to reveal a very large fish between its teeth. The elder crept closer, fearing that at any moment the crocodile would strike and tear him apart, but instead the crocodile allowed him to remove the fish from between its jaws and retreat up the bank, where he built a fire and cooked and ate the fish, restoring his strength so that he could return to his family and lead them to the place. When he returned home the local diviner told him what he already knew, that the crocodiles were not real animals, but were spiritual beings that would protect him and his family if he honored them. And so he commissioned masks to be carved, which by their performance honor the crocodile spirits and communicate the story of this magical encounter from one generation to the next.

The great serpent masks that appear in Dossi, Boni, and Pa, in central Burkina Faso commemorate an encounter between an ancestor and the great serpent of the wilderness near Boni. The elders in Boni told me that one day the men of the village decided to attack a neighboring village to steal young women to become their wives. They made up their plans carefully, and the men set out on the attack, but the people of the neighboring village had been warned, and they set an ambush. The attackers were surprised and fled in panic for their lives, pursued by clouds of arrows. One of the men crawled into the deep burrow of the great serpent, calling out to the serpent to save him, that he intended no harm, and that if the serpent spared him he would honor it. The serpent not only spared him, but left his burrow to hunt game which he brought back to feed the man. When it was safe to leave the burrow he returned to Boni and told the diviner of his experience. The diviner, of course, recognized that the serpent was a protective spirit that would watch over the man if he honored it, and so he told the man to have a mask carved which he and his descendants were to wear to honor the spirit that had appeared in the form of a serpent (Wheelock number 1109).

This old story has a modern twist to it. In the past twenty years, the young men of Pa realized that most of the attractive young women of the region attended mask performances in Boni, where they admired the performance of the great serpent mask, and where the young men of the village, as a result, had considerable success in courtship and marriage, at the expense of the men of Pa. These young men went to the diviner in their town and explained their predicament. He cast his cowries and after some consultation with the spirits, informed the men of Pa that they, too, had a serpent in their own spiritual history. The young men quickly had a serpent mask carved and began to use it in their own performances.

Mamy Wata: Among the most outstanding examples of the adaptability and acceptance of change by the Bwa people, is their adoption of the congregation of Mami Wata in the 1980s. Three young men from the village had been working on the oil rigs in the Niger River Delta and had become followers of Mami Wata. when the Nigerian government forced all foreign workers to leave, these three young men returned to the village of Boni, where they introduced the following of Mami Wata. For a short period of time images of this important spiritual being were carved on the backs of masks.  In the lower right is the wonderful image of Mami Wata carved by the Ibibio artist Thomas Chukwu, and donated to the University of Iowa by a former faculty member named Pamela Brink. when I show these photos to people in the village now they don’t even recognize them: over 30 years later all of these masks have disappeared, sold by their families and followers, and people no longer remember when they appeared or what they look like.


Mamy Wata mask, Boni, 1983