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 political—not geographic—units. 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 cities—places 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 communications—better roads and motor transport, railroads, and telecommunications—has 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 word—buudu —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. 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 descendants—in 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.
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 major—if not the only—Sahelian 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 oldest—but smallest and weakest—Mossi 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 Mossi—apart from the Yarsé long-distance traders—did 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.
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.
GREGORY A. FINNEGAN
"Mossi." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 14, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mossi
"Mossi." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved November 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mossi
Modern Language Association
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ALTERNATE NAMES: Moose, Moshi, Mosi
POPULATION: 5 to 6 million in Burkina Faso, 1.2 million in Côte d'Ivoire
1 • INTRODUCTION
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 1896–97. 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.
2 • LOCATION
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.
3 • LANGUAGE
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.
4 • FOLKLORE
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.
5 • RELIGION
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.
6 • MAJOR HOLIDAYS
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.
7 • RITES OF PASSAGE
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.
8 • RELATIONSHIPS
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.
9 • LIVING CONDITIONS
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.
10 • FAMILY LIFE
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.
11 • CLOTHING
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.
12 • FOOD
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.
13 • EDUCATION
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.
14 • CULTURAL HERITAGE
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.
15 • EMPLOYMENT
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.
16 • SPORTS
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.
17 • RECREATION
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.
18 • CRAFTS AND HOBBIES
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.
19 • SOCIAL PROBLEMS
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 Africaine—African Financial Community) franc, in 1994 lowered wages and salaries. It also raised prices for imported products ranging from wheat flour to tires and radios.
20 • BIBLIOGRAPHY
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 http://www.africanet.com/africanet/country/burkina/, 1998.
World Travel Guide. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/bf/gen.html, 1998.
"Mossi." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 14, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/international/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mossi
"Mossi." Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Cultures. . Retrieved November 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/international/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mossi
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The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
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).
"Mossi." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 14, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mossi
"Mossi." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved November 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mossi
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
"Mossi." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 14, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mossi
"Mossi." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved November 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mossi
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
ALTERNATE NAMES: Moose, Moshi, Mosi
LOCATION: Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire
POPULATION: 5 to 6 million in Burkina Faso, 1.2 million in Côte d'Ivoire
RELIGION: traditional religion (3 main components: creator, fertility spirits, ancestors)
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 1: Burkinabe; Ivoirians
The Mossi make up the largest ethnic group in Burkina Faso. Because of extensive migration to more prosperous neighboring countries, Mossi also are the second-largest ethnic group in Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast). The Mossi occupied the interior lands within the “boucle de Niger” (“great loop of the Niger River”) and thus controlled trade between the empires along the great Niger River and the forest kingdoms to their south. The three Mossi kingdoms were known for their resistance to Islam in a region where all other kingdoms and empires were Muslim, at least in their ruling elites, after about the 10th century. Mossi culture nonetheless shows Muslim influences.
The Mossi's story of their origins involves the conquest of native farming peoples by immigrant cavalry soldiers from the northeast, toward what is now northern Nigeria. From the beginning, the Mossi people moved, and their idea of society included people moving in, out, and around.
Mossi migration increased notably after the French conquest of the Mossi in 1896–97; the Mossi were one of the last peoples in Africa to be brought under colonial rule. Like the other colonial powers, the French wanted their colonies to generate money for their European homeland. In less than 10 years after the first conquest, the French demanded that the Mossi pay taxes in French francs. Traditional Mossi taxes to chiefs and kings had been paid in goods, and cowrie shells had served as money. By making the Mossi pay in French money, the colonial government required them to grow, dig, make, or do something the French were willing to pay for. As little was grown or mined in Mossi country that the French wanted to buy, many Mossi were forced to migrate to the Ivory Coast (then a French colony) and the neighboring British Gold Coast (now Ghana) to earn money there. The demand for labor on the mainly African-owned coffee and cocoa farms in the coastal forest in those countries coincided with the dry season in the savanna of Burkina Faso, so Mossi men could migrate south between growing seasons and bring money back to their families. Mossi men also traveled widely as traders and as soldiers in the French army.
The Mossi were organized into three kingdoms, Tenkodogo, Wagadugu, and Yatenga, along with a number of buffer states around their edges. All of them together are sometimes described as “the Mossi empire,” but there has never been a time when all the Mossi were unified under one ruler. Each kingdom was ruled by a king, with a court of officials who were responsible for various functions, such as defense, and who governed different areas of the kingdom. Within such areas, groups of up to 20 villages were ruled by a district chief, and each village had its own chief. There is one word for all these rulers—kings, district chiefs, and village chiefs: Naba. A Naba is a man who has been properly installed as ruler by the community and thereby has been granted the nam, which is the religious power to rule other people. A person who seized power without being properly chosen and without the correct rituals of installation would not be regarded as a real ruler by the Mossi. The fact that the political system of the Mossi was so closely connected to their religion was the main reason that their rulers resisted conversion to Islam at the time when their counterparts to the east and west across the savanna were accepting Islam. Even when individual kings converted, as happened once or twice, the society as a whole did not. Not until the French conquest showed that divine protection of the traditional system was not absolutely guaranteed did Mossi people in any numbers convert to Islam or to Christianity.
Nabas were chosen by the court officials from among the sons of the previous Naba. While in principle the oldest son should succeed his father, the ministers tried to ensure that the new Naba was capable of ruling well. In the case of kings, who had many wives, the number of eligible sons might be large. One of the ways that the Mossi states expanded their territory was that sons who were not chosen to succeed their fathers founded new political units on the edges of the Mossi area, conquering (or persuading) local peoples who had the same general way of life, but lacked kingdoms, to become Mossi.
Exactly when the Mossi states were founded is still debated, but a Mossi raid on Timbuktu in 1329 is recorded in Arabic histories written in that city.
LOCATION AND HOMELAND
The Mossi homeland is the central portion of Burkina Faso, known until 1984 as Upper Volta for its location on the three branches of what in Ghana becomes the Volta River.
Because the Mossi were the dominant people in the region before and during colonial rule, their population statistics in relation to the modern nation have been affected by political factors. In 1962, the French counted 10% of the population and estimated from that sample survey that 48% of the total population was Mossi. However, there has been suspicion that the number 48% was picked by the French so that the Mossi, who already were most of the leaders of the new country, would not have an outright majority as the Republic of Upper Volta became independent. The following censuses of 1975 and 1985 did not publish national totals for the country's ethnic groups, in order to avoid ethnic conflict. Therefore, estimating the Mossi population is a matter of dividing the national population roughly in half. In 1995, the estimated national population of Burkina Faso was 10,422,828, of whom some 5 to 6 million would be Mossi.
Burkina Faso is roughly the size of Colorado, with the Mossi area in the center running from Tenkodogo in the southeast to Ouayagouya in the northwest. The national capital, Ouagadougou, is also the capital of the largest and strongest Mossi kingdom, which has the same name. The importance of Ouagadougou as a kingdom was emphasized by the fact that its Naba was the only one whose title was not just the name of the kingdom, district, or village attached to the word Naba, but was Mogho (or Moro) Naba, meaning “ruler of the world.” The country is mainly savanna, or grassland, with scattered trees; unfarmed land is brush and trees. The extreme north of the country is part of the true Sahel, the transition zone between the Sahara desert and the savanna grasslands. The few rivers and streams are seasonal, with only scattered pools keeping water through the dry season; most water used by the Mossi is drawn from wells.
As the economies of Ghana and the Ivory Coast improved, and as transportation became easier, more and more of the Mossi did not merely migrate seasonally to work as farm laborers, but settled and became farmers or city or town dwellers. As a result, there is a network of Mossi across all three countries, greatly expanding opportunities for relatives back home. The Mossi are the second-largest ethnic group in the Ivory Coast; they were the majority of the 1.2 million Burkinabe counted in the 1988 census.
The Mossi language is Moré. It is a language of the Gur group within the larger Niger-Congo language family. Like many African languages, Moré uses tones (differences in pitch) as well as individual sounds to distinguish meanings; also, like many African and African-influenced languages, it indicates both tense and “aspect.” That is, a verb indicates both whether an action is in the past, the present, or the future, and also whether it is an ongoing action or one happening only at one particular time. Mossi speech, both in everyday use and in formal political contexts, is rich in proverbs.
A person's name is not a random choice by his or her parents, but it also reflects circumstances of birth. Names can refer to events that happened during pregnancy or just before or during childbirth. A baby might be named Gyelle if his or her mother accidentally broke an egg while she was pregnant. Many names refer to sacred places or forces whose protection was sought for the birth or the baby.
As with many other West African peoples, there are Mossi names indicating the day of the week when a person was born: Arzuma (boy) or Zuma (girl) signifies a child born on Friday, whereas Hado was born on Sunday and Larba on Wednesday.
Being born during a festival may also be reflected in a person's name. Festivals have one or more names associated with them, which are given to a baby born at that time; often the name is the same name as that of the event: Basga, for example, or Tengande. Such events might reflect Muslim rather than traditional Mossi holidays. Lokre is a name for someone born at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, while Kibsa names one born during the festival of Tabaski forty days later, when Muslims sacrifice a ram in honor of the biblical patriarch Abraham.
In much of Africa, high rates of infant mortality meant that twins (who were each usually smaller than other babies, and therefore weaker) were less likely to survive; twins therefore have a special religious significance (sometimes seen as a blessing, sometimes as the opposite, but almost always different) and have special names. For the Mossi, there are special names for twins, Raogo (“boy”) and Poko (“girl”), with diminutive forms for a “younger” twin of the same gender, the younger being the first one born and therefore in the uterus for a shorter time. There are even special names for the second, third, and fourth children born after a set of twins.
Children who are born in Muslim or Christian families, or persons who convert to those religions, have names common to Muslims and Christians everywhere in the world, which are Arabic forms of Quranic and Biblical names for Muslims (Adama, Aminata, Binta, Azara, Fatimata, Issa, Issaka, Karim, Mariam, Moussa, Ousman, Saidou), and French forms of Biblical names and (for Roman Catholics) saints' names (Abel, Daniel, Elisabeth, Etienne, Jean, Marie, Moise, Pascal, Pauline, Philippe, Pierre).
While there have always been some Mossi who were Muslim and literate in Arabic, in general there were no written records in Mossi society. Specialist praise singers, usually called griots across the West African savanna, were the keepers of royal traditions and genealogies, but the entire society relied upon folk-tales and proverbs to concentrate wisdom and experience and to pass them on to succeeding generations.
The Mossi's account of their founding is handed down through an oral tradition that nicely exemplifies important and necessary elements for such an origin myth. Long ago (over 40 generations), a king of the Dagomba, Mamprusi, and Nankana peoples in what is now northern Ghana, Naba Nedega, had a daughter whom he would not allow to marry because he valued her warrior skills so highly. Therefore, Princess Nyennega took a horse and fled north into what is now Mossi country, where she married a local man. Their son was named Ouedraogo (“stallion”) and after growing up with his maternal grandfather, he returned with Dagomba cavalry and conquered Tenkodogo and its indigenous people, his father's ethnic group, the Bisa. The Mossi people came from the inter-marriage of Ouedraogo and his cavalry with Bisa women. To this day the royal families of the two largest Mossi kingdoms, Ouagadougou and Yatenga, are named Ouedraogo. There is a statue of Princess Nyennega on horseback in the city of Ouagadougou to commemorate the story.
The tale of Princess Nyennega and Ouedraogo highlights several important points that illustrate how such stories serve as the basis for organized society. Princess Nyennega is a woman, who marries a man she finds in what becomes Mossi country. This is important for two reasons. First, like most African peoples, Mossi do not believe land can be bought or sold; it is in trust from the ancestors to the living, who must maintain it for generations still to come. Land is owned by the family that originally “domesticated” it by clearing uninhabited wilderness. Secondly, Mossi, like about two-thirds of peoples in the world, trace family membership and family names through the lineage of fathers and their fathers.
For the Mossi to be legitimate owners of their land, then, they had to have a story tracing their ancestry back to the original inhabitants of the land, even though the kingdoms were founded by members of a cavalry (the dominant military technology of the West African savanna until this century) who were immigrants. By making the founding cavalry leader a son of a local man and an immigrant princess, the Mossi validate their claim to their kingdoms. That founder's name, and its perpetuation in the name of the royal clan, underlines the importance of horse soldiers in creating kingdoms where people previously had lived only in extended families.
The Mossi are like many African peoples in having traditionally had a religion with three main components. There is a belief in an all-powerful creator, Wende, usually discussed as Wennam, “God's power.” Nam is the power ritually granted to a naba to rule over humans. While Wende is all-powerful, he is also very distant and not concerned with the daily lives of people. More important in day-to-day religion are generalized spirits of rain and the earth, which govern fertility and crops, and the role of ancestors in the lives of their descendents.
The fertility spirits are worshiped as needed, by sacrifices of sheep or goats, or more often of chickens or guinea fowl, and of eggs by the poorest people, at sacred spots in the landscape, such as an outcropping of rocks or a notable baobab tree. Offerings of millet beer and millet flour in water also accompany prayers at such times when a whole village may gather, for example, to seek rain in time of drought.
The most immediate part of religion, however, is the part played by ancestors. Families are traced in the male line from founding ancestors through the living to future generations. The ancestors watch over their descendents, punishing them or rewarding them for their behavior. The cycle of rituals is mostly concerned with them. A household has a shrine, an inverted pottery bowl, with sacred plants and objects under it, which is honored once a year at the time of the harvest festival, when sacrifices and offerings are made to this shrine and to graves of male ancestors (which are located near where their houses stood); these offerings are like those given to the earth spirits.
The Basega festival comes in December, after the millet crop has been harvested. It is a festival of thanksgiving, thanking the ancestors for their part in bringing in a successful harvest and asking their aid with the coming year's crops. It is a family-based ritual even though it takes place in a political context. That is, a family cannot sacrifice to its ancestors until the day when their district chief sacrifices to his, and the chief cannot do so until the king has done so. While the king's Basega is a very large and impressive ceremony (with the luxury of bulls being sacrificed), witnessed by many of his subjects who partake in feasts he offers, strictly speaking he is sacrificing to his ancestors for his harvest, not for the whole kingdom's. Sacrifices and food offerings are also made on special occasions, such as the threshing of a family's millet.
The Muslim community pays formal respects to the king at his Basega but celebrates its own holidays, as do the Christians. Most Mossi Christians are Roman Catholic; the first African Cardinal in that Church was a Mossi. About one percent of Mossi are Evangelical Christians, members of the Assemblies of God Church.
While most Mossi are not formally educated—because the nation's poverty limits the number of schools, and children are needed for farming, herding, and household work—those children who do attend school have frequent holidays, since the schools and the government observe secular holidays as well as Muslim and Christian ones. The anniversary of the date marking full independence from France, 5 August 1960, has long been a holiday, as has December 11, the anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic in 1958. 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.
Besides the national and religious holidays, the need to mobilize people for special tasks makes some days special events in a given community. Until modern times, the Mossi used horses (for the rulers and the rich) and donkeys for transporting goods and people but not for pulling plows. Farming was, and mainly still is, done with short-handled iron hoes. Tasks, such as preparing fields for planting, weeding them, harvesting millet, and threshing it, as well as house-building jobs, such as making a thatched roof and lifting it onto an adobe (mud-brick) hut, requires more labor than an individual household can supply. So, for such occasions, the family whose fields are being hoed or whose millet is being threshed summons neighbors and relatives (more or less the same people), prepares millet beer and food and hires drummers to provide a rhythm for working. People gather, work for intervals, take breaks for food and conversations, and work some more. People have a good time, the work gets done, usually in a morning, and in return the family being helped owes similar labor to the people who have helped them. These are not formally holidays, but they are special days.
On a more regular cycle, and one going beyond individual villages, there is market day. In Mossi society almost everyone is a farmer, but some people are also merchants in a cycle of markets. Because buyers want as many choices as possible, and a merchant can be in only one place at a time, each region of Mossi country has an organized market system. Each day is a market day somewhere within a walkable distance, but only one place has a market on a particular day. Each market recurs every third day. When a market falls on a Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, which happens every 21 days, it is especially large and draws people from greater distances. This is so even though most Mossi are not Muslim.
RITES OF PASSAGE
From birth until death (and, indeed, after death, in the ceremonies honoring ancestors), major transitions in a person's life are marked with formal rites of passage. In much of Africa, the number three is associated with males and four with females. A Mossi baby is formally presented to the community three days after birth for a boy and after four days for a girl. At that time, the baby's name is announced, and the child is formally welcomed into its lineage and becomes a bearer of the family name.
In the past, children at one or two years of age were given distinctive facial scars, but since children who are marked in this way may not be enrolled in school due to modern laws against the practice, markings have been eliminated.
Before puberty, both boys and girls, in separate groups, are circumcised. Boys go in groups of 15 to 30 to bush camps, where they stay for 90 to 100 days. This allows time for them to recover from the operation, to form a group that will be closely linked for the rest of their lives, and, not least, to be instructed by older men in what they need to learn to become members of society. Full adulthood is marked by marriage.
In a society with few or no written records, the cumulative experience of elders is crucial to everyone's life; for example, an elder might recognize a particular kind of crop blight that no younger person has ever seen before and could be the only one who would know what to do about it, or, at least, what to expect as a result. The great respect shown by all African societies toward elders is in part a recognition of this all-important store of wisdom they hold for the community and is at the same time, and for related reasons, a consequence of the fact that the elders are “almost ancestors” and will soon make the transition from living members of the community to (deceased) spiritual guardians of the community.
Therefore, Mossi funerals are important family and religious events. A funeral is different from a burial, although both are rituals. In a tropical country, burial must occur very soon after death. Men are buried at the edge of their home, just west of the patio area outside the walled family compound. Women are buried in fields; while they are buried in their husband's village, the burial ritual is done by members of their own family, symbolizing their continued membership in it even though they have borne children for, and lived among, their husband's family.
The funeral occurs ordinarily up to a year after a burial and may be very much later. It is the ritual that confirms the transition of the dead person to the ancestors. The next of kin is responsible for the funeral—the eldest son for his father's, for example. If the son were working in another country, in an extreme case a funeral might be held 20 or 30 years after the burial.
Mossi greetings are very elaborate, more so than in most African societies. The persons greeting each other shake hands while each asks how the other is. The questions extend to how each other's wives are, and their children, and their cows, and sheep, and so on. A full Mossi greeting of an honored elder can take half an hour. While the greeting is taking place, the person who is of lower status shows respect to the other by placing himself or herself in a lower position in relation to the other. If a commoner is formally greeting a chief, he will lie down in front of him and symbolically throw dirt onto his 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 posture to a crouching one. Since each person is simultaneously trying to show respect to the other one, two people start out standing shaking hands and finish up, still shaking hands, each crouched low and sitting on their heels.
When visiting a household, a guest stands outside the walls of the compound and claps his or her hands to announce his or her arrival. The head of the household then comes out of the walled compound to greet the visitor. Only a close friend or relative would go into the walled compound.
The Mossi live in villages of extended families. The village boundaries may be streams or other natural features, but in general the village is a social unit more than a geographical one. This is because houses are 75 to 100 yards apart and surrounded by fields, so that when the main crop, millet, is fully grown to 10 to 12 feet in height, the houses are invisible to each other. Where one village stops and another begins may not be obvious from the landscape.
The traditional Mossi house is a number of round adobe huts with conical thatched roofs, all surrounded with an adobe wall. The household might include a man, his younger brothers, and their married sons. Each of them, and each wife, would have their own hut, and there would be other huts for kitchens, storage, and the sheep, goats, and chickens. There would also be granaries for storing the threshed millet. Houses face west, and the notion of the house is wider than just the walled compound; it includes a patio-like area of pounded, swept dirt with an awning, where people rest during the day and guests are greeted.
As the modern economy has involved increasingly greater numbers of Mossi, the rural standard of living has changed. Corrugated-aluminum roofs are sometimes seen; they are something of a status symbol although they are hotter and are noisier during rainstorms than the traditional thatched straw. Bicycles are common for transportation, with better-off people owning motorbikes. Transistor radios are also common. Radio programming includes “personal notices” programs that allow people in separate parts of the country to pass messages to each other. Vans have replaced trucks as the main form of long-distance transportation in Mossi country. Most people, even in cities, cannot afford an automobile.
Malaria remains a chronic health problem among the Mossi; the cost of importing malaria-suppressing drugs is so high that most people cannot afford them. The fact that most people are infected with malarial parasites makes them less able to fight off other diseases. Measles is a major health problem for children, for whom it is often fatal. Again, the cost of foreign-made vaccines and the staff and transportation to administer them means that this entirely preventable disease continues as a serious health problem.
The impact on the Mossi of the great Sahelian drought of the 1970s was compounded by the fact that some of the potentially most fertile land, along the larger rivers with year-round water, was uninhabitable due to onchocerciasis, or river blindness. This disease, whose parasite is transmitted by the bite of the black fly, can eventually result in blindness. In the 1970s and 1980s, the world's largest public-health project attempted to eliminate this disease and allow people to resettle from crowded parts of the country into potentially fertile lands that had become infested. This has been done by suppressing the black flies that carry the parasite. But, since the flies can only be suppressed, not wiped out, the new, mostly Mossi, villages will be kept habitable only through regular helicopter spraying of the rivers for the foreseeable future.
As noted above, traditional Mossi villages are groups of households surrounded by fields, where men related to each other through their fathers live with their wives and children. Because the incest taboo means that a man must marry a woman from another family, women ordinarily live in a village other than the one where they grew up, in a household of closely related men and the women from various other families who have married in. This makes life harder for women, who are outsiders in the household. While many Mossi men have only one wife, there are two reasons wives often want their husbands to have an additional wife or wives: the sheer drudgery of household work makes it useful to have another wife to help, and another wife is equally a stranger and someone to talk to when a husband is surrounded by his relatives for support and advice.
Marriage is ordinarily arranged between families. The idea that the family is a continuous set of kin from ancestors to as-yet-unborn descendants gives the whole lineage a stake in making sure there are children to carry on the family. Since the wives who will bear the children have to come from other families, the whole family is involved in arranging the marriage. Because the reproductive power of the woman is taken away to bear children for a different family, her own family is compensated upon the marriage by payments from her husband and his kin. Traditionally, this “bridewealth” was in the form of cattle and trade goods, but in the modern world there is a wider range of possibilities for payment.
Paying bridewealth is sometimes labeled “bride price” by writers describing societies, such as the Mossi, that practice it, but it does not mean “buying” a wife, any more than the European or Asian custom of dowry meant “buying” a husband. It does underline, though, the fact that marriage in many, if not most, societies is not based upon romantic attraction between two individuals, but instead is a much more complex relationship involving families' need to perpetuate themselves and individuals' need for both male and female skills and roles to make a household economy work. (For example, Mossi men weave cloth, but the women spin the cotton thread from which it is woven.)
In the modern era, with more Western-style education, more ways of earning a living than farming, and, especially, easier long-distance transportation, it is less rare for men and women who have fallen in love to elope if they cannot convince their families to agree to the marriage. It has never been true that all marriages were arranged.
The importance of complementary roles in the daily household routine extends to more than husbands and wives. Children have important roles to play in watching the family's sheep and goats, and in helping to haul water and gather fire-wood for cooking, both of which are major tasks. There is so much work to be done in the kitchen, for example, that if a household does not have a preadolescent girl to help with the cooking, it will foster one from another part of the extended family. Major modern improvements in rural life have been the digging of deeper, cement-lined, year-round wells to ease water hauling, and the acquisition of gasoline-powered mills to grind millet seeds into flour, previously done by hand with a grindstone.
It seems that household sizes are getting smaller in modern Mossi society as more people pursue more varied ways of earning a living and become more involved in a money economy, in which they are more interested in spending their cash on their own children and are less involved in the joint farming of a larger household. But, it is certainly not unusual for households to have more than one wife, or more than one set of husbands and wives. The high infant mortality rate and the lack of social security payments for most people still place a premium on having lots of children to ensure that some will survive to help in making a living and to support their parents in their old age. The infant mortality rate has dropped in the last 30 or so years from roughly 50% to an estimated 11%.
Within the walled compound of the Mossi house, each wife has her own hut for herself and her children and prepares meals for herself and for them, with her husband joining each in rotation if he has more than one wife.
Pets are not usual in Mossi society. Dogs are used for hunting and as watchdogs but are not treated with the affection and pampering that Europeans and Americans usually give them. A rural household will have chickens and guinea fowl, sheep and goats, and sometimes pigeons, as household animals, but they are raised for food, for market, and for sacrifices, and are not pets.
Wealthier Mossi may own cattle, but these are not kept at home. Instead, they are cared for by Fulani herders who live in the unfarmed lands among the Mossi. The Fulani, who live all across the West African savanna, are herders rather than farmers. For the Mossi, having cattle with the Fulani means both that the animals are in the care of specialists and that a man's wealth in the form of cattle may be kept hidden from government tax collectors and from his own relatives. Only in the last 20 or so years have some Mossi begun to use oxen or donkeys to pull plows, and donkey-drawn carts were also introduced only in the modern era.
Horses were the basis of the Mossi kingdoms and chieftain-cies because cavalry was the basis of military power, even after guns began to be traded in from the Ashanti states to the south. The lack of wheeled transportation for hay made it difficult to concentrate horses, and the lack of pastures to keep them in have meant that horses were, and are, status symbols whose cost in care and feeding limits their possession to chiefs and other nobles and a few especially well-off commoners.
The Mossi grow cotton and weave it into cloth. The traditional loom wove a long strip of plain or patterned cloth about six inches wide. Strips were sewn together to make cloth for clothes or blankets. In pre-colonial times the Mossi exported large “wheels” of cotton strips, carried on donkeys, to other West African peoples. The French greatly encouraged the growing of cotton as a cash crop, as does the Burkinabe government.
While traditional strip-woven cloth is still available, and is still worn, most everyday clothing is made from factory-woven cotton cloth in one-by-two-meter panels. Such cloth is manufactured in Burkina Faso and is also imported.
Women wear a long skirt made of a cloth panel wrapped around the waist. It is now common to wear a top as well, but this is a recent change in rural areas. It is increasingly common for men to wear shirts and trousers, whether of Islamic or European style. Wealthy men and chiefs wore, and wear, richly embroidered robes in the Muslim-influenced style of the savanna. Modern sewing machines have made the embroidery easier to do, but it is still a luxury.
In the last 30 years or so, a major trade in used American clothing has reached into even rural Mossi markets, so that the everyday working outfit of a farmer is likely to be a strip-woven shirt and a pair of cutoff blue-jean shorts. Rubber shoes and sandals have been added to the leather ones Mossi have traditionally worn.
The staple of the Mossi diet is millet, along with its relative, sorghum. These crops require less rain, and less regular rain, than wheat. Millet is ground into flour and made into porridge by boiling in water. The result, a loaf-like bowl of somewhat 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. The sauce supplies the protein and most of the flavor. Sorghum is used to brew a cider-like beer that is drunk from calabashes, half-gourds, by all except Muslims and Protestant Christians.
Rice was domesticated in West Africa and has long been a luxury food for the Mossi; it is served for weddings and other special occasions. It is cooked to a very soft consistency and formed into balls the size of baseballs and is eaten in the same way as the millet porridge.
Corn (maize) is a recently introduced crop that is grown widely; since it depletes soil nutrients faster than millet and is less tolerant of irregular rain, millet remains the staple food.
Peanuts, also native to West Africa, are widely grown; they are eaten boiled, roasted, and ground into sauces.
The extended families to which people belong are grouped into larger clans. Except for chiefs' families, who must be able to show exactly how a claim to a position is justified, most families do not keep detailed genealogies, but just maintain enough sense of kinship to share lineage land, and in the wider community, to know who is an eligible marriage partner and who is not. Members of clans often cannot state exactly how they are related, but they will share a family name and a claim of common descent from some distant, usually heroic, ancestor. Each clan's story of its origin frequently includes an account of how its ancestor was saved at some point of danger by an animal, which then has a special relationship to the clan's members. One clan would not eat crocodile meat because a crocodile was said to have helped hide its ancestor from his enemies; but Mossi in other clans could, and would, eat that animal. Food taboos, then, tend to vary from clan to clan. Some families will eat dog meat, for example, and others will not.
In a farming society where most families do not have electricity, people rise early and go to bed soon after dark. Breakfast may be leftover millet porridge, or, today, French-style bread and coffee. The main meal is in the evening. Food is taken out to those family members working in the fields. Meat is enough of a luxury that it is usually added to sauces in small amounts; grilled meat is for special celebrations.
In traditional Mossi society, most education came from living with, watching, and helping more experienced people older than oneself. The circumcision camps provided a few months of group instruction to boys. There have always been some Muslims among the Mossi, and especially among those who were long-distance traders for whom Islam was a key link to traders in other places. For them, there were Koranic schools where Arabic and the Koran were taught. On the other hand, even though most Mossi did not go to school, they often spoke other African languages besides their own, especially Fulbe (Fulfulbe), the Fulani language.
Modern education is becoming available, but it is not universally offered anywhere. Thirty years ago only 7% of Mossi children attended school. As of 1990, only 18% of the population over age 15 could read and write; they comprised 28% of men and 9% of women. Such education is given in French, the national language of Burkina Faso. The government has established standards for writing the Mossi language, but little beyond Christian religious texts and some agricultural information is written in it.
The rather small number of schools in existence during the French colonial period meant that independence brought job opportunities for Mossi and other Burkinabe who had even an elementary education. As more schools have reached more students, however, the limited number of jobs in one of the world's poorest countries has meant that today's students do not qualify for jobs that their parents or older siblings might have gotten in the past with the same educational qualifications.
Music has been important to Mossi society for entertainment and also for work, in setting rhythms for tasks such as hoeing and threshing. The main instruments are drums. Some drums are large calabashes with leather drumheads and are played with the hands. There are also wooden drums played with sticks, whose pitch can be changed while it is played by a change in arm pressure on the strings tying the head to the drum. There are also flutes and stringed instruments. Drums are made and played only by members of a specific clan, which is also the only Mossi clan that makes pottery.
Some, but not all, Mossi, have traditions of masked dancing for rituals such as funerals. More secular dancing occurs at celebrations and festivals.
The Mossi have a rich literature of proverbs and folktales. Proverbs are not merely a means of transmitting traditional wisdom, but in political debate they provide a way to make the discussion less a contest between rivals and more a weighing of the collective wisdom and experience of the whole society.
Besides the drummers and potters just mentioned, ironworking among the Mossi (as in many African societies) has been restricted to only one clan, whose members were both feared and needed because of their skill. Smelting iron requires mining; and digging in the earth, the source of fertility, is considered supernaturally dangerous. Mossi smiths no longer smelt iron from ore, but work imported and recycled iron into hoes, knives, and axes.
Traditionally, Mossi were farmers, some of whom were part-time traders or soldiers (although wars tended to halt during the farming season), with a few specialist artisans and the chiefs and their courts who governed. Modern Mossi, of course, have all the occupations of a modern nation open to them, and have gone into all of them, but most are still farmers. Farming is nowadays a mix of subsistence farming and cash crops; cotton is grown, but so is the millet needed for city dwellers. Some farmers grow vegetables or fruit for urban markets and for export, and they increasingly use modern technologies, such as fertilizers and insecticides, as well as animal- or tractor-drawn plows.
Traditional Mossi society had little leisure time. There were games like warri, in which stone or seed counters are moved in pits on a board or in the dirt in a game of strategy aimed at capturing the opponent's pieces. 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. Basketball has a small presence and a national team, but reaches few Mossi or other Burkinabe.
ENTERTAINMENT AND RECREATION
Aside from music, dance, and conversation, there were not many forms of entertainment or recreation in traditional Mossi society. Griots recited genealogies and traditions at weddings and other events. Radio is important to modern Mossi both for entertainment and for communication in a society with few telephones and relatively few people able to read or write letters.
Television is barely a factor in Mossi life. In 1992 (the most recent available figures), there were only two television stations in the country, one each in Ouagadougou and in Bobo-Dioulasso, the county's second-largest city, to the west of Mossi country. There were only some 41,500 TV sets in this country of some 10 million persons, and the TV stations broadcast only two hours a day during the week and five hours each on Saturday and Sunday.
Movies are important, although theaters are limited to the larger towns and cities. Relatively few movies are made in Africa, or in African languages, so that the movies people see are often from foreign cultures and in foreign languages (Films from India, for example, are widely viewed in Africa.). This is changing, however, and Burkinabe and Mossi filmmakers are playing a major role. The main film festival in Africa is FESPACO, the Festival Panafricain du Cinéma d'Ouagadougou. Mossi filmmakers, such as Gaston Kaboré and Idrissa Ouédraogo, are making feature-length films that are seen increasingly in Europe and North America, but also, because they are in Moré, are fully accessible to the Mossi themselves. As videotape makes it easier to bypass theaters, more and more Mossi will be able to participate in this modern expression of their culture.
FOLK ART, CRAFTS, AND HOBBIES
Pottery is limited to the one clan of potters and drummers. For those Mossi communities that have masked dancing, the carving and painting of masks is a major art form; Mossi masks are in most major collections of African art. Unlike some other peoples sharing the same general culture and related languages, the Mossi do not paint designs on houses. Metal earrings and jewelry are produced. Hats, bags, and cushions are made from dyed leather. Cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean were once used as money by the Mossi and are still used as decorations for clothing and hats. Venetian glass trade beads have been worn by Mossi for centuries. Children often make toy cars and airplanes from wire; these are now sometimes seen in American museums and shops. Some craft techniques, such as batik dying of cloth, have recently been introduced into Mossi culture to produce craft items for export or for sale to the relatively few tourists who visit Burkina.
The Mossi share the social problems that many African societies and peoples face in dealing with very rapid social change in some areas, and not enough change, not fast enough in others.
As more Mossi live in Ouagadougou and other cities and large towns and earn their living in an increasing variety of ways, traditional gender and family roles come under pressure. A man is supposed to grow his family's millet, but urban wage-earners cannot. So far, urban life for the Mossi is less dangerous than urban life in many other parts of the world. Ouagadougou is hundreds of years old, so cities as such are not new to the Mossi. At the same time, some of the most powerful films by Mossi filmmakers have dealt with the pressures of urban life and the pressures of traditional life upon women and young people.
Burkina Faso was long noted in modern Africa as having more political freedom than most countries, even (paradoxically) when there was a military government. African governments face the task of meeting many demands with few resources, which can result in few tangible accomplishments; in turn this can make way for the military to seize power in the name of honesty and efficiency. Burkina has the distinction of twice having the army seize power, without injuring anyone, and then eventually returning the government to civilian rule. When younger officers led by Thomas Sankara seized power in 1983, however, there were casualties in the fighting and from execution of political rivals. Sankara made a strong effort to break the country out of its dependence on foreign aid, but in 1987 he himself was killed by his associates, who continue to rule the country. Burkina has multiparty elections, but they have been extensively boycotted by parties that argue that the government is manipulating the political system.
Alcohol and drugs are not major problems. While there is a brewery in the country, and there have been complaints of French army veterans drinking their pensions instead of investing in development, the cost of commercially-produced alcohol is too expensive for many Mossi to consume in quantity. The traditional millet beer is alcoholic but is an established part of both traditional society and household organization and is therefore a culturally controlled substance. Kola nuts, rich in caffeine and the basic ingredient in cola drinks, are widely chewed and are a routine gift to a host, three or four (according to gender) being offered. They are imported from Ghana to the south. They are the preferred stimulant for Muslims, who do not drink alcohol.
As in most African countries, traditional practices have kept women in a subordinate position. In the traditional setting a woman is considered to be property that can be inherited upon the death of her husband. As such, traditional law does not recognize inheritance rights for women. Women suffer from frequent domestic sexual abuse and violence, and no specific laws have been put in place to protect women. Abusive husbands go free as there are no legal channels to investigate or prosecute such individuals. Another problem for girls is that they are married early in life. It is estimated that about 52% of women are married before the age of 18.
However, female excision (commonly known as female genital mutilation) was abolished in 1996. A committee known as The National Committee for the Fight Against Excision was also established in 1996 to work toward complete eradication of this practice in Burkina Faso. Estimates indicate that up to 70% of girls and women had undergone the procedure before it was abolished in 1996. Since then, incidences of excision have declined by about 40%, and more than 400 people have been sentenced for performing the practice.
Women are responsible for subsistence agriculture, and few are involved in the more lucrative private sector. Women hold only about 11.7% of the seats in parliament and form about 25% of the government workforce. Many of the women in government earn low wages as they generally hold low paying jobs. In terms of human rights, excessive poverty has seen many Mossi living deplorable lives with no access to basic human rights. Child labor, child trafficking, violence, and discrimination against women and children are quite rampant in the country. People are also arrested without charge or trial and excessive force is often used against civilians with official impunity.
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Guirma, Frederic. Princess of the Full Moon. New York: Macmillan, 1970.
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McFarland, Daniel Miles. Historical Dictionary of Upper Volta (Haute Volta.) Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1978.
McMillan, Della E. Sahel Visions: Planned Settlement and River Blindness Control in Burkina Faso. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1995.
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—revised by Ezekiel Kalipeni)
"Mossi." Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 14, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mossi-0
"Mossi." Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life. . Retrieved November 14, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mossi-0