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ETHNONYMS: "Moose" is the currently favored form according to the nationally adopted orthography. It is traditionally written "Mossi"; "Moshi" formerly appeared frequently in British and Ghanaian writing. "Mosi" also occurs. One contemporary scholar who employs the officially favored spelling notes for his Anglophone readers that the pronunciation is "MOH-say"(Fiske l991, 24).


Identification. The Mossi are the most prominent ethnic group in the modern nation of Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta). They are also well known in the anthropological literature as a society with an especially high rate of labor migration to neighboring countries. They are noted historically for their resistance to the regionally dominant Islamic states and missionaries, although their culture shows numerous Islamic influences.

Location. The traditionally Mossi areas expanded at the moment of French conquest (1896-1897) from the central core, or so-called Mossi plateau, of Burkina Faso. There are also significant numbers of Mossi in Ivory Coast (where they are the second-largest ethnic group) and in Ghana. The core area, however, is approximately 11°30 to 14°00 N and 0°00 to 3°00 E. Names and boundaries of local government units have changed repeatedly in the modern era; Mossi country can be defined generally as the area of Burkina containing the cities of Ouahigouya, Kongoussi, Kaya, Koudougou, Ouagadougou, Manga, Tenkodogo, Koupela, and Boulsa.

The Mossi states were well placed for trade; they were "inland" from the great bend of the Niger River, where the empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay rose and fell. At the same time, they were north of Asante and the other Akan states that come to prominence as trade shifted from transSaharan toward European outposts on the coast.

Because of the proximity of Mossi country to the more prosperous (at times) economies of Ghana and Ivory Coast, the relatively dense Mossi population, and the poverty (in colonial and postcolonial economic terms) of Burkina Faso, very substantial numbers of Mossi have drawn upon their precolonial trade and frontier traditions of movement, working and even settling in neighboring countries.

Demography. The Mossi make up approximately half of the population of Burkina Faso. The national censuses of 1975 and 1985 did not report national statistics for ethnicity. The 1961 sample survey reported 49 percent of the population of the then Upper Volta to be Mossi. If that figure is carried forward to the 1985 population of 7,964,705, there would then be some 3.9 million Mossi. The 49-percent figure, apart from deriving from a 10-percent sample, was often suspected of having been politically manipulated to deny the dominant ethnie group in the new country formal majority status. Therefore, a figure of 4 million or so Mossi should be considered the minimum. The 1994 CIA World Factbook estimates the population of Burkina Faso as 10,134,661 in July of 1994; that same source estimates the Mossi population as 2.5 million, lower than the 4.96 million that is 49 percent of the 1994 estimated population. Given that estimates of the Mossi population of Burkina Faso residing outside the country as labor migrants at any one time range as high as 20 percent, a higher figure is plausible.

Linguistic Affiliation. The name of the Mossi language was usually written as Moré, although the 1976 national standards stipulate "Moore." It is also encountered as "Molé" or, in more recent works, "Mooré." Labeled "Mossi" in Greenberg's classification (1963), it is a member of the Voltaic of Niger-Congo; "Molé-Dagbané" is also found as a label for the grouping. In recent scholarship, "Moore" is placed in the Oti-Volta Subgroup of the Gur languages; a recent summary notes that "Gur" is common in English and German writing, whereas French scholars more often use "langues voltaïques."

History and Cultural Relations

The Mossi states have existed for at least 500 years; the exact dates and origins of the states and their ruling clans are still debated by scholars. The Mossi were in conflict with the Songhay Empire in the period from 1328 to 1333, and again between 1477 and 1498. In general terms, the Mossi were strong enough that they were never conquered until the French arrived in 1896-1897, but they were not strong enough to do more than raid the kingdoms along the Niger. Their expansion was by annexing other, often stateless, peoples at the edges of Mossi polities, peoples whose general culture was the same and whose languages were related. Within one generation of the French conquest, French writers had already employed the term mossification to describe the assimilationist expansion of the Mossi states into surrounding communities.


Rural communities are dispersed: each extended-family compound is surrounded by fields; households are therefore 75 to 100 meters apart. When millet is fully grown (with stalks up to 4 meters), each compound is invisible to others. Boundaries may be based upon natural features like streams, but the dispersed settlement pattern forces recognition that communities are social and politicalnot geographicunits. It is often impossible to assign a compound to one village or another on a basis of location. Households are compounds of adobe, usually circular, houses with thatched roofs and surrounded by adobe walls. Although metal roofs are hotter and noisier and hence less comfortable than thatch, their prestige value and lessened maintenance has made them common, if not yet dominant, in the countryside.

District chiefs tended to live in noticeably larger compounds, but in villages that otherwise resembled ordinary ones. Kings, however, lived in larger towns or citiesplaces with artisans, sizable markets, and links to long-distance trade.

In the colonial and postcolonial periods, there has been an increase in movement to towns, but also an increase in ease of communication for rural villages and in capital available to them from their migrant members.

The modern ease of communicationsbetter roads and motor transport, railroads, and telecommunicationshas greatly expanded the social field within which individuals and families live and move while still remaining participating members of their home social and ritual communities. The still-high rate of labor migration nowadays takes place within a network of relatives and neighbors already in a several-country region, who can house and sponsor, if not directly employ, the new migrant.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The basis for life throughout the region was (and is) the cultivation of millet and sorghum. Millet flour is made into porridge, eaten with a sauce of meat and/or leaves and condiments. Sorghum is made into beer. Because of the lack of substantial agricultural surpluses, together with a cultural expectation that each household head grow his own millet for subsistence, almost everyone was a farmer. Many cultivators also engaged in local market trading; indeed, sale of beer on market days was the main source of independent income for women. As is usual for West Africa, markets are on a regional rotation; for the Mossi, that cycle is seven days. When a market falls on a Friday, it is especially large and well attended. Formally non-Muslim, this is one of the several ways in which Mossi culture is affected by the Sahelwide presence of Islam.

Industrial Arts. In common with inhabitants of their larger region, Mossi blacksmiths and potters are distinct, castelike, descent groups living in specially named villages or neighborhoods.

Trade. Besides the local markets, which involved much of the population, there are also, among the Mossi, long-distance traders, the Yarsé. Of Mandé origin, from what is now Mali, they settled among the Mossi. They were not unusual in their assimilation of Mossi culture and language, but are distinct from other Mossi in their retention of Islam, a necessary affiliation for Sahelian traders. Mossi exported cattle, donkeys, and cotton cloth (in large, strip-woven "wheels") and imported salt, kola nuts, and luxury goods.

Division of Labor. Work in household fields is done by all family members. When a cooperative work group is held, women in the host household prepare beer and porridge for the participants. Women are generally responsible for food preparation, including collecting water and firewood. Spinning cotton is done by women, whereas weaving the thread into cloth and sewing the strips into panels and clothing is done by men. Precolonial iron smelting and contemporary smithing were/are the preserve of specific lineages, which in some but not all Mossi societies are endogamous; throughout West Africa, iron is associated with the earth, and smiths are held in spiritual awe and frequently segregated from the rest of society. Pottery is likewise made by specialist lineages, which also provide drummers who set the rhythm for large cultivating and threshing parties.

Land Tenure. Land is held by virtue of membership in one's patrilineage, although, in cases where sufficient land is available, it may also be let by the lineage to affinal kin or outright strangers. As heritage from the ancestors to the living lineage members, land is not alienable, but is rather held in trust for future descendants. The lineage allocates fields to households on the basis of need, dividing at intervals both the fields within the settlement that surround the houses, and those further away.


Kin Groups and Descent. The formal organization of Mossi society is by patrilineal descent groups. Lineages are grouped into larger clans, which share a presumed common ancestor and a totemic animal whose avoidance as food is explained by the clan origin myth. Individual lineages within a clan may not be able to trace any genealogical links beyond their apical ancestor. In general, with the exception of chiefly lineages whose members have claims to power to maintain, genealogies are shallow and mutable. For most cultivators, all that is necessary is enough depth of genealogy (perhaps three generations) to clearly validate one's rights to a house plot and fields. Whereas formal authority in a lineage is assigned by genealogical seniority, in day-to-day life other elders, with perhaps less seniority but more wisdom, function as leaders. Indeed, a man might be represented in marriage negotiations by an elder not of his lineage, if circumstances of local knowledge and standing made that desirable.

Kinship Terminology. A consequence of the relative weakness (or, in positive terms, the adaptive flexibility) of the patrilineages is that there is only one wordbuudu for "clan" and "lineage"; it spans all descent-based groups above the immediate household compound. Members of a clan share a surname, although the formalities and mutability of this practice are not well studied.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriages are arranged by lineage heads. Lineages are exogamous within the local community, with clear genealogical connections. People could and did move from village to village, making it possible for nearby members of one's clan to be genealogically distinct enough to allow intermarriage. Indeed, there is a continuum ranging from those close kin with whom marriage is forbidden, to complete strangers (even non-Mossi) as spouses. In between are clan members who are eligible marriage partners, and closer still to oneself are clan members too close genealogically to marry, but too far away genealogically to remarry widows from one's own lineage. Mossi marriage includes levirate and sororate. Polygyny was practiced, within the economic limits of a man's need for additional household labor and the prestige of multiple wives, against his ability to pay the compensating goods and services required by his wives' lineages.

In addition to marriages arranged (or accepted) by local lineages, members of chiefly lineages or prominent commoners might be granted a wife by a chief or king. Such a marriage obligated the recipient to betroth a daughter or sister to the king or chief in return. The chief might then marry that woman, but would be more likely to award her to another man, expanding the web of marriage ties and obligations centered on the chief. This practice, pugsiure, was not often a factor in the lives of ordinary cultivators, but it was not unknown for a man of renown to be rewarded with a wife by his political superiors.

Polygyny is not an option for Christian Mossi; some villages are predominantly Christian, but the overall Mossi population is only 10 percent Christian.

Domestic Unit. The classic Mossi household was comprised of a man, his younger brothers and any married sons, their wives, and children. This household unit, the zaka, in turn contained residential areas for each husband and his family. Houses were usually round adobe structures with conical thatched roofs; each adult had his or her own house, and others served as kitchens and animal pens. Adobe walls surrounded the entire compound and subdivided it into households. A cleared "patio" area, to the west of the compound, was conceptually part of the living unit; it contained granaries and sunshades under which guests were entertained; only close kin or close friends would enter the compound itself.

Inheritance. Goods and livestock were inherited by patrilineal descendantsin principle by sons, but in practice by children of both genders. Land, houses, and granaries were the property of the lineage, not of the individual, and were inherited within the descent group as much on the basis of need as on that of seniority.

Socialization. Children were raised within the extended-family compound. Muslim boys (as in Yarsé communities) might receive religious instruction from the local madam and, in unusual cases, travel for advanced instruction. Similarly, within the Mossi religion, an occasional individual might travel to gain education as a seer or healer.

In modern Burkina Faso, even after large increases in the number of schools relative to the period of French rule (which ended in 1961), formal education still does not reach most children, including the Mossi. The 1990 estimate for literacy of those older than age 15 nationwide was 18 percent, with men estimated at 28 percent and women 9 percent. The increase in Islam has increased the number of children, chiefly boys, receiving instruction in basic Arabic and the Quran.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The Mossi, in common with other Voltaic peoples, state and stateless, were organized in patrilineally defined lineages within clans. Membership in such units, however, was only rigidly constrained for those of royal and chiefly descent. Ordinary cultivators could and did incorporate new members into their lineages, whether affinal kin (sisters' sons seeking better opportunities matrilaterally) or outright strangers, even non-Mossi.

Political Organization. Survey literature often refers to the Mossi Empire. In fact, there were three independent kingdoms and around fifteen dependencies and interstitial buffers. The three kingdoms, in order of seniority, but not power, were Tenkodogo (Tankudugo), Ouagadougou (Wogodogo), and Yatenga. An easterly fourth kingdom, Fada N'Gurma, is sometimes counted as a Mossi state. The polities, as in most of Africa, were based on control of trade, whether of sources or routes. The burden of the state on the ordinary cultivators, then, was not great. Kings and chiefs possessed naam, the supernatural power required to rule others, which was conferred in consequence of a ruler having been properly chosen and installed. It is this intertwining of political power and religious legitimization that accounted for the well-known Mossi resistance to Islam. An occasional king or chief might convert, as several Ouagadougou kings did in the 1700s, but the system as a whole could not separate a ruler from the religion that conferred his power.

Kings had court officials who were each responsible for a sector of the kingdom; district chiefs in turn had twenty or more village chiefs reporting to them. Proper selection and validation indicated the possession of naam, without which one could not validly rule, but the officeholders were picked from their predecessor's patrilineage. Kings, district chiefs, and village chiefs all bore the title naba, with a geographic qualifier (e.g., Tenkdogo Naba, Koupela Naba). Only the king of Ouagadougou, the Mogho Naba, had a title (chief of Mossi country) that was not tied to a place-name; he was by far the most powerful of the various Mossi kings and chiefs.

Since Burkina Faso became independent in 1961, traditional kings and chiefs are not formally recognized by the government and its colonially derived administrative structure. They remain locally important, however, and have served as deputies during periods when there has been an elected legislature.

Social Control. Lineages, and village elders generally, exerted a good deal of influence upon people and their behavior. A society in which several crucial tasks (cultivating, weeding, harvesting, threshing, and, not least, roof replacement) depended on cooperative work groups allows effective ostracism for nonparticipation. The complex of Mossi chiefdoms and states and the expanding Mossi frontier at their edges allowed resettlement as a means of improving one's opportunities or escape from a difficult community, even before the French colonial regime intentionally stimulated massive labor migration by imposing a head tax payable in francs. Village chiefs represented the state and resolved differences brought to them.

In independent Burkina Faso, courts and police exist as well, although their impact on the countryside is variable. The avowedly revolutionary government of Thomas Sankara in the 1980s created "revolutionary defense committees" in every community, including rural villages, but their impact during that period and since the overthrow of that government in 1987 has not been reported.

Conflict. Military power was cavalry based. As was true across the Sahel, the absence of wheeled transport and semiarid conditions made garrisons impossible owing to the inability to feed a concentration of horses. In consequence, the power of a political center depended on its ability to mobilize local chiefs, with their horses and dependents.

The Mossi states were, however, strong enough to survive wars with the Muslim empires of the great bend of the Niger River, to their north. The Mossi are noted as the majorif not the onlySahelian states to withstand the spread of Islam in the region. Mossi forces, like those of the other states around them, raided the stateless peoples around their perimeters for slaves. As a result of the loose nature of Mossi states and their weak military basis, there was also conflict between them. At the time of the French conquest, the oldestbut smallest and weakestMossi state, Tenkodogo, was engaged in a war of mutual raids with a chiefdom to its north, which in turn was a dependency of a buffer state on the edge of the largest Mossi kingdom, Ouagadougou.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. There are three major components to Mossi religion. One is the general African belief in an otiose "High God," who created the universe but has no role in its daily life. There are lesser, but more relevant, supernatural powers that govern the two major elements of life: soil fertility and rainfall. They are worshiped by conducting rituals at specific sites, often trees (or sites where one grew) or rock outcrops. Lastly, and most immediately, are the ancestors in one's patrilineage, who play an active role in regulating the behavior and success of their descendants. In the interests of the lineage, the ancestors link the past, present, and future.

Because of the close ties between Mossi religion and political organization, most Mossiapart from the Yarsé long-distance tradersdid not become Muslims. The French conquest in 1896-1897 undermined the traditional religion by implying that it was no longer effective in the face of superior outside forces. The French sent Catholic missionaries, and, very reluctantly, admitted U.S. Protestant missionaries in 1921, but cultural differences and the demands of Christianity have limited its impact. The first African cardinal in the Catholic church is a Mossi, however. Islam has a long-standing presence in the region, and, because its proselytizers are Africans, Mossi have been converting to Islam at an increasing rate. The lack of ethnic statistics at the national level makes numbers imprecise, and the more traditionally Muslim areas (west of the Mossi) would affect the totals, but the current estimate that Burkina is 50 percent Muslim suggests a clear trend toward conversion.

Religious Practitioners. The Mossi are known ethnographically for a formal dichotomy between political and spiritual power: the political power of the chiefs, signified by the naam, is offset by the religious power of the tengsoba, or "earth-owner." In much of West Africa, an important distinction is drawn between wild land and animals, and domesticated animals and farmland. Ownership of land is not merely vested in an ongoing descent group, but is validated by the presumption that the family in question "domesticated" unsettled land, thereby gaining both title to it and access to the supernatural forces controlling its fertility. Since the Mossi political system is founded upon an origin myth of immigrant cavalry, the political rulers cannot claim spiritual power over the land. That power is retained by the lineage of the tengsoba, presumed to be the descendants of the autochtonous people, the original settlers who antedated the Mossi military. This dichotomy, and its ability to check royal abuse with refusal to perform vital fertility rituals, was so well known ethnographically that James G. Frazer had swept it into The Golden Bough by 1919, barely twenty-two years after the Mossi had been conquered. Whereas the dichotomy is fundamental to a number of Voltaic societies as well as the Mossi states of Yatenga and Ouagadougou, it is not found in the original Mossi state of Tenkodogo. There, the autochtonous people, the Bisa, were not assimilated into Mossi society, which instead relies upon sisters' sons to perform fertility rituals; the dichotomy in this case is between the lineage and its nonmember relative.

Lineage rituals, propitiating ancestors rather than earth spirits, are performed by the eldest male; lineage members from even scores of kilometers away may send chickens to be sacrificed by the lineage head on the ancestral graves. Finally, funerals are performed by the household head of the deceased, who may be the heir of the latter.

Ceremonies. Sacrifices for the sake of fertility or to call down rain are performed when conditions demand, by "earth-owners" or, in the case of Tenkodogo, a "sister's son" of the local lineage. Ancestor-oriented rituals, even at the kingdom level, are lineage or clan based; that is, even a king's harvest thanksgiving, although it is immense in scale and takes precedence over everyone else's, is, strictly speaking, offered to his ancestors for the sake of his harvest, rather than to those of the collective inhabitants of his realm. Inhabitants of a given district are not able to perform sacrifices to thank their ancestors until their district chief has performed his.

This harvest festival, which occurs after the millet has been harvested in late autumn, but before it is threshed in midwinter, is the basega ; the chief's or king's is the na'basega.

Arts. Mossi men weave cotton cloth, using the strip looms common in West Africa. Pottery, made by specialist lineages, is decorated with inscribed and painted designs. The western Mossi share the traditions of wood sculpture and masked dancing with the societies to their west, but these practices are not found in Tenkodogo. Unlike some other Voltaic peoples, the Mossi do not paint designs on their adobe walls and houses. Until banned by the modern government, facial scarification in locally distinctive patterns was practiced.

Medicine. Traditionally, curing was in the hands of one's family and individuals locally renowned as healers. Modern medicine is now available to the Mossi, within the limitations imposed by the fact that Burkina Faso is among the poorest nations in both Africa and the world.

Death and Afterlife. Men were buried to the west of the cleared area west of their compounds. Women were buried in household fields; the funeral was performed by members of their own patrilineages. As is common in Africa, elders are venerated because their accumulated knowledge and experiences form the collective information in societies without written records. They are also considered "almost ancestors"; upon death, they become part of the generalized community of ancestors who watch over their living descendants and intervene to reward or punish behavior. Because of the shallowness of commoner genealogies, the ancestors one addresses in rituals like the basega are a collectivity, not named spirits whose individual intercession might be requested.


Fiske, Alan Page (1991). Structures of Social Life: The Four Elementary Forms of Human Relations. New York: Free Press.

Greenberg, Joseph H. (1963). The Languages of Africa. Indiana University Research Center in Anthropology, Folklore, and Linguistics, Publication no. 25. The Hague: Mouton.

Hammond, Peter B. (1966). Yatenga: Technology in the Culture of a West African Kingdom. New York: Free Press.

McMillan, Della E. (1995). Sahel Visions: Planned Seulement and River Blindness Control in Burkina Faso. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Schildkrout, Enid (1978). People of the Zongo: The Transformation of Ethnic Identities in Ghana. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Skinner, Elliott P. (1964). The Mossi of the Upper Volta: The Political Development of a Sudanese People. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. Reprint, with supplementary chapter. 1989. The Mossi of Burkina Faso: Chiefs, Politicians, and Soldiers. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press.

Skinner, Elliott P. (1974). African Urban Life: The Transformation of Ouagadougou. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.


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ALTERNATE NAMES: Moose, Moshi, Mosi

LOCATION: Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast)

POPULATION: 5 to 6 million in Burkina Faso, 1.2 million in Côte d'Ivoire


RELIGION: Traditional religions; Islam; Christianity


The Mossi make up the largest ethnic group in Burkina Faso. They are the second-largest ethnic group in Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast).

At one time the Mossi were organized into three kingdoms, Tenkodogo, Wagadugu, and Yatenga. It is not clear when these were founded. However, a Mossi raid on the city of Timbuktu in 1329 is described in Arab histories. Each Mossi village had its own chief, and groups of up to twenty villages were ruled by a district chief. The political system of the Mossi was very closely connected to their religion. For this reason, the Mossi rulers resisted conversion to Islam, even though other African groups accepted the new religion (after about the tenth century). Even so, Mossi culture shows Muslim influences.

The Mossi were one of the last peoples in Africa to be colonized. They were conquered by the French in 189697. French taxes forced many Mossi to move to Côte d'Ivoire to earn money. Mossi men could go south between crop-growing seasons and bring money back to their families in the north. They also traveled around as traders and as soldiers in the French army.

As the economy of Côte d'Ivoire improved, more and more of the Mossi settled there. They became farmers or lived in the cities and towns.


The Mossi homeland is the central portion of Burkina Faso, which was known until 1984 as Upper Volta. Burkina Faso has roughly the same area as the state of Colorado. The Mossi area, located in the center, runs from Tenkodogo in the southeast to Ouayagouya in the northwest. The country is mainly savanna, or grassland, with scattered trees. The few rivers and streams exist only in the rainy season. Only scattered pools keep water through the dry season. Most water used by the Mossi is drawn from wells.

In 1996, the estimated population of Burkina Faso was 10,623,323. Five to six million are probably Mossi; another 1.2 million Mossi live in Côte d'Ivoire.


The Mossi language is Moré. It belongs to the Gur group within the Niger-Congo language family. Like many African languages, Moré uses pitch (how high or low a tone is) to distinguish meanings. Also, as in other African languages, a verb form shows whether its action is continuing or happens only once.

A person's name shows something about his or her birth. As with many other West African peoples, there are Mossi names showing the day of the week when a person was born. Arzuma (for a boy) or Zuma (for a girl) means that a child was born on Friday; Hado was born on Sunday and Larba on Wednesday. Lokre is a name for someone born at the end of the month-long fast of Ramadan; Kibsa is the name for one born during the festival of Tabaski, forty days after Ramadan.


There have been few written records in Mossi society. Special singers, called griots, were the keepers of oral traditions. The entire society used folktales and proverbs to pass on wisdom and experience to later generations.

The Mossi's account of their founding is handed down through the following myth: Over forty generations ago, a king named Naba Nedega had a daughter whom he would not allow to marry because she was a great warrior. So Princess Nyennega took a horse and fled north into what is now Mossi country. She married a local man. Their son, named Ouedraogo (stallion), was sent back to his mother's homeland to be raised by his grandfather, Naba Nedega. When he grew up, he returned to the north with cavalry from his homeland and conquered his father's people, the Bisa. The marriage of Ouedraogo and his troops with Bisa women produced the Mossi people. A statue of Princess Nyennega on horseback in the city of Ouagadougou commemorates the story.


The religion of the Mossi has three main components. There is a belief in an all-powerful creator, Wende ; fertility spirits of the rain and the earth, which govern the soil and crops; and ancestors, who affect the lives of their descendants.

The fertility spirits are usually worshiped through animal sacrifices such as chickens or guinea fowl, which are held in sacred places. The ancestors watch over their descendants, punishing or rewarding them for their behavior. The yearly cycle of ceremonies is mainly about ancestors. Each household has a shrine to its ancestors, an upside-down pottery bowl with sacred plants and objects under it. This shrine is honored once a year, at the time of the harvest festival. Sacrifices and offerings are made to it and to the graves of male ancestors.


Basega is a festival of thanksgiving that comes in December, after the millet crop has been harvested. The Mossi thank the ancestors for helping with the successful harvest, and they ask for help with the coming year's crops.

The Muslim community celebrates its own holidays, and the Christians celebrate theirs.

Since the revolution of 1983, its anniversary, August 4, has been the official national day. National holidays are celebrated with parades and, in towns and cities, bicycle races. The anniversary of the date of independence from France, August 5, 1960, is a secular (nonreligious) holiday in Burkina Faso. So is December 11, the anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic in 1958.


From birth until death, major changes in a person's life are marked with formal rites of passage. A Mossi baby is formally presented to the community three days after birth for a boy, and four days after birth for a girl. At that time, the baby's name is announced. The child is formally welcomed into its family and takes the family name.

Before becoming adults, both boys and girls, in separate groups, are circumcised. Boys go in groups of fifteen to thirty to bush camps, where they stay for ninety to a hundred days to recover from the operation. At the same time, they are taught by older men the things they need to know to become members of society. Full adulthood is marked by marriage.

Mossi funerals are important family and religious events. Men are buried at the edge of their home, just west of the patio area outside the walled family compound. Women are buried in the fields of their husband's village, but the burial ceremony is performed by members of the deceased woman's own family (not by her husband's family). This symbolizes a woman's connection to her own family.

The funeral can occur up to a year after a burial and sometimes much later. The ceremony is what marks the passage of the dead person to the ancestors. The family must put on the funeral.


Mossi greetings are more elaborate than those in other African societies. The persons greeting each other shake hands, and each asks how the other is. The questioning goes on to cover wives and children, and even the animals, such as cows and sheep. A full Mossi greeting for an honored elder can take half an hour. In any greeting, the person who is of lower status shows respect to the other by staying in a lower position. If a common person is formally greeting a chief, he lies down in front of him and symbolically throws dirt onto his own head to show how much lower he is in status.

If two people of equal status meet, however, each tries to respect the other by slowly dropping from a standing position to a crouching one. The two people start out standing and shaking hands; they finish, still shaking hands, with both crouching low and sitting on their heels.

When visiting a household, guests stand outside the walls of the family's area and clap their hands to announce their arrival. The head of the household then comes out of the walled area to greet the visitors. Only a close friend or relative would go in unannounced.


The Mossi live in villages of extended families, that is, parents and children, plus other relatives. The village boundary may be a stream or other natural feature, but in general the village is a social unit more than a geographic one.

The traditional Mossi dwelling consists of a number of round adobe huts with cone-shaped, thatched roofs. They are surrounded with an adobe wall. (Today corrugated aluminum roofs are sometimes seen. They are something of a status symbol although they make the huts hotter and are noisier during rainstorms.) Each member of the extended family has a hut. Additional huts are used as kitchens, for storage, and as shelter for sheep, goats, and chickens. Each dwelling also includes a patio-like area of pounded, swept dirt with an awning. People rest there during the day and greet guests there. All houses face west.


Marriage is usually arranged between families. At the time of a marriage, the wife's family receives payments from her husband and his kin. Traditionally, this bridewealth was in the form of cattle and trade goods. Today, however, there are many possible types of payment. Nowadays it is not unusual for men and women who are in love to elope (run away and get married) if they cannot convince their families to agree to the marriage.

Within the walled area of the Mossi home, each wife has her own hut for herself and her children. There she prepares meals for herself and for them. If the husband has more than one wife, he joins each of them for meals in turn. Although many Mossi men have only one wife, there are two reasons wives often want their husbands to have more than one. First, it is useful to have another wife to help with laborious housework. In addition, another wife can give moral support and companionship.

Children have important roles in tending the family's sheep and goats. They also help haul water and gather firewood for cooking.


Mossi women wear long skirts made of a cloth panel wrapped around the waist. It is common to wear a top as well, but until recently this was not the case in rural areas. It is more and more common for men to wear shirts and trousers of Islamic or European style. Wealthy men and chiefs still wear the traditional embroidered robes in the Muslim-influenced style of the savanna.

There is also a major business of selling used American clothing, even in rural markets. Today the everyday working outfit of a farmer is likely to be a woven shirt and a pair of cutoff blue-jeans. Rubber shoes and sandals have been added to the traditional leather ones.


The staple of the Mossi diet is the millet grain, along with its relative, sorghum. Millet is ground into flour and made into porridge by boiling it in water. The bowl of thick, doughy food is called sagabo in Moré and tô in West African French. One eats it by breaking off a piece with the right hand and dipping it into a sauce made of vegetables, spices, herbs, and, sometimes, meat. Sorghum is used to brew a beer similar to cider that is drunk by all Mossi except Muslims and Protestant Christians.

Meat is a luxury and is usually added to sauces in small amounts. Grilled meat is for special celebrations.

Mossi often have food taboos, which tend to vary from clan to clan. Some families will eat dog meat, for example, and others will not.


In traditional Mossi society, most education came from living with, watching, and helping more experienced, older people. The circumcision camps provided a few months of group schooling to boys. Muslims attended Koranic schools, where Arabic and the Koran (their holy book) were taught.

Modern education is becoming available, but not to everyone. In schools, classes are taught in French, the national language of Burkina Faso. The government has set standards for writing Moré, the Mossi language. Christian religious texts and agricultural information make up most of what is written in the Mossi language.


Music has been important to Mossi society, not just as entertainment but also as work. It is used to set rhythms for agricultural tasks such as hoeing and threshing. The main musical instruments are drums. Some are large calabashes (a type of gourd) with leather drumheads and are played with the hands. There are also wooden drums played with sticks. The player can change a drum's pitch by changing arm pressure on the strings tying the head to the drum. There are also flutes and stringed instruments.

Some Mossi, but not all, have traditions of masked dancing at ceremonies such as funerals. More secular (nonreligious) dancing occurs at celebrations and festivals.


Modern Mossi have all the occupations of a modern nation open to them, but most are still farmers. Farming nowadays is a mix of subsistence farming (basic farming to feed the family) and cash crops. Some farmers grow vegetables or fruit for city markets and for export. Increasingly, farmers use modern technologies such as fertilizers and insecticides, as well as plows drawn by animals or tractors.


There was little leisure time for sports in traditional Mossi society. Military training required practice with swords, spears, and bows and arrows.

As part of modern Burkina Faso, the Mossi participate in soccer and bicycle racing, the two major national sports. Towns and cities have bicycle races on most holidays.


Aside from music, dance, and conversation, there were not many forms of entertainment or recreation in traditional Mossi society. Griots (traditional storytellers) recited family histories and traditions at weddings and other events. Radio is important to modern Mossi both for entertainment and for communication. Programming includes "personal notices" programs. These allow people in different parts of the country to pass messages to each other.

Television barely plays a role in Mossi life. In 1992 (the most recent year figures were available), there were only about 41,500 TV sets in this country of ten million people. Programming was broadcast only two hours a day during the week and five hours a day each on Saturday and Sunday.

Movies are popular, although theaters are only in the larger towns and cities. Full-length films by Mossi filmmakers such as Gaston Kaboré and Idrissa Ouédraogo are seen both at home and abroad.


Pottery is made by only one clan of potters and drummers.

For the Mossi communities that have masked dancing, the carving and painting of masks is a major art form. Mossi masks are part of most major collections of African art.

The Mossi also produce metal earrings and jewelry, as well as hats, bags, and cushions from dyed leather.

Cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean were once used as money by the Mossi. They are still used as decorations for clothing and hats.


Burkina Faso shares with other countries the problems that come with the growth of cities. As more Mossi live and work in cities and large towns, traditional roles for men and women, and within families, are threatened. Some of the most powerful films by Mossi filmmakers have examined the pressures of city life.

The devaluation of Burkina Faso's currency, the CFA (Communauté Financière AfricaineAfrican Financial Community) franc, in 1994 lowered wages and salaries. It also raised prices for imported products ranging from wheat flour to tires and radios.


Decalo, Samuel. Burkina Faso. World Bibliographical Series, vol. 169. Oxford, England; Santa Barbara, Calif.: Clio Press, 1994.

Guirma, Frederic. Tales of Mogho: African Stories from Upper Volta. New York: Macmillan, 1971.

Skinner, Elliott P. The Mossi of Burkina Faso: Chiefs, Politicians, and Soldiers. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1989.


Internet Africa Ltd. [Online] Available, 1998.

World Travel Guide. [Online] Available, 1998.

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"Mossi." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . 14 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Mossi (mŏs´ē), African people, numbering about 2.5 million, mostly in Burkina Faso. From c.AD 1000 the Mossi were organized into several kingdoms, one of which has continued to the present day. Despite long and intimate contact with Muslims, the Mossi have retained their ancient traditional religion, which has a strong emphasis on ancestor worship.

See P. B. Hammond, Yatenga (1966).

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Mossi People inhabiting Burkina Faso and who are found in small numbers elsewhere in West Africa. Their traditional livelihood involves growing staple crops, including millet and sorghum.

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