is now called Burkina Faso once was a French colony named Upper Volta, the
former name referred to the river Volta which is divided into three parts,
the Black Volta, White Volta, and the Red Volta.
These colors are the colors of the National flag. In essay I rely
on the scholarship of Christopher Roy.
The Bobo are a part of the Mande speaking family and number about
110,000 people, the majority of whom reside in Burkina Faso. Their
language and culture are closely related to Mande neighbors to the North,
the Bamana and Minianka. (Roy, Christopher. Art of the Upper Volta.
The area in which the Bobo live the is more like the Northern Ivory
Coast and Ghana, rather than the drier area inhabited by the Bwa and Mossi.
Since most of the area is open grasslands and fields and consists of
numerous river valleys, farming is the dominant means of employment.
The major food crops being red sorghum and pearl millet. The major
cash crop is cotton, which is sold to textile mills in Bobo-Dioulasse. Among
the Bobo, an important concept (for the Bwa also) is the primacy of
farmers, called "seseme". The farmers have adhered by Bobo traditions
of scarring the face and wearing lip labrets and adopted the name Bobo and
the cult of Dwo over the centuries even with immigrant Mande.
The Bobo have lived in the region for centuries, dating back to 800
A.D. Their villages are
compact and they are a politically decentralized people.
The Bobo do not have one leader, or one person who makes decisions,
but a council of elders. They believe it is dangerous to place power in
one hand, and that it is an attack on the order of things as established
by Wuro (the creator god).
The Bobo believe that Wuro cannot be described and therefore he is
not represented in sculpture. Bobo
cosmogonic myths (Wuro dafere), describe the creation and the ordering of
his creations, which are placed in opposing pairs: man/spirits,
male/female, village/bush, domesticated/wild, culture/nature,
safety/danger, cold/hot/ farmer/blacksmith. With the awareness of such
forces, the Bobo try to maintain an equal balance in everything even the
tasks of farming. (Roy, pg.318)
For the Bobo, balance is andeal, yet fragile. It could be destroyed
easily, at any moment, especially by some kind of change. According to the
Bobo, Wuro wanted to avoid confrontation with man; therefore he withdrew
from the world. He left behind a part of his vital self, his son Dwo, a
spirit and mask, to help
mankind. Wuro also has two
other sons, Soxo, the spirit of the bush and of vital force, and Kwere,
the spirit that punishes with thunder and lightning.
Shrines are built for the spirits and are taken care of by a cult
priest. Smiths are most frequently the cult priest of Dwo.
It is believed that Dwo is usually revealed in the form of a mask.
Originally Dwo was made of leaves and later masks were made of fiber forms. Wuro gave the mask to
the smiths, so they control the production of the masks even though they
are made from leaves and fiber.
Masks in many West African cultures have received more attention
than objects with a utilitarian function.
The masks and masquerades have been photographed in hundreds of
books; masquerades have been seen by those of outside the culture, not all
masquerades, but many. Many artifacts are not well known to Westerners. The Bobo
staff is such an object, it
is listed as a diviner's staff, but it could also be used for another
The Bobo have shrines to various spirits, including ancestor
spirits. Associated with the shrines are the masks and ritual
paraphernalia . The diviners
also use several tools, including canes decorated with anthropomorphic
figures and free standing statues. Divining
materials are usually kept hidden; they are more private and are found on
shrines or in the homes of the Diviners. The spirits that the Diviner is
able to access, from the bush, are represented by different figures.
Diviners are seen as powerful men because the most potent and
dangerous spirits appear to them. Each
Diviner works with one or
several spirits that he or his male ancestors originally encountered in
the bush. Diviners use a
variety of objects, from simple balls of sacrificial materials, animal and
plant parts, and man-made materials such as bottles, blades, canes or
staff's carved with animal spirits. (Roy. Pg. 248)
Most divining staff's are hooked canes with small spirit figures
carved at the junction of handle and hook.
Since each staff or cane is one of a kind, the meanings of the
figures are specific to the Diviner. Some of the figures featured on the
Bobo staff in The Anthropological Culture and Research Collection at KU
are chameleons, monkeys, birds, and a snake. The iconography is truly
unknown, and while cultures share certain artistic traits, such as
geometrical patterns, or figure carvings, each culture gives it an
entirely different meaning.
In general, however, the chameleon, is a symbol of change, magical
transformation, and also human fertility.
The birds usually refer to witches in some culture, and the Mossi
which is closely related use hornbills to represent knowledge of secrets,
while snakes a spirit worker. With all the workings of these spirit representatives, the
staff most likely belonged to a diviner.
There are some examples of Bwa Staff's that are usually carried by young men in field dances following harvest. These staffs show men, chameleon, and birds similar to the Bobo staff. The figures on the Bwa staff represent spirits that guarantee rich harvests. (Art of the Upper Volta, p.302, 303,305.) This could be an example of the usage of the same figures, but here they have different meanings. Most canes, figures, and staff's were kept in shrines in villages, but most have been stolen or lost, and difficult to decipher.