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 trans-Saharan 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 ethnic 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 Culture
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 Song-hay 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. 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. 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 and Family
Marriage. Marriages are arranged by lineage heads. Lineages are exogamous within the local community, with clear genealogical connections. People could and did move from village to village, making it possible for nearby members of one's clan to be genealogically distinct enough to allow intermarriage. Indeed, there is a continuum ranging from those close kin with whom marriage is forbidden, to complete strangers (even non-Mossi) as spouses. In between are clan members who are eligible marriage partners, and closer still to oneself are clan members too close genealogically to marry, but too far away genealogically to remarry widows from one's own lineage. Mossi marriage includes levirate and sororate. Polygyny was practiced, within the economic limits of a man's need for additional household labor and the prestige of multiple wives, against his ability to pay the compensating goods and services required by his wives' lineages.
In addition to marriages arranged (or accepted) by local lineages, members of chiefly lineages or prominent commoners might be granted a wife by a chief or king. Such a marriage obligated the recipient to betroth a daughter or sister to the king or chief in return. The chief might then marry that woman, but would be more likely to award her to another man, expanding the web of marriage ties and obligations centered on the chief. This practice, pugsiure, was not often a factor in the lives of ordinary cultivators, but it was not unknown for a man of renown to be rewarded with a wife by his political superiors.
Polygyny is not an option for Christian Mossi; some villages are predominantly Christian, but the overall Mossi population is only 10 percent Christian.
Domestic Unit. The classic Mossi household was comprised of a man, his younger brothers and any married sons, their wives, and children. This household unit, the zaka, in turn contained residential areas for each husband and his family. Houses were usually round adobe structures with conical thatched roofs; each adult had his or her own house, and others served as kitchens and animal pens. Adobe walls surrounded the entire compound and subdivided it into households. A cleared “patio” area, to the west of the compound, was conceptually part of the living unit; it contained granaries and sunshades under which guests were entertained; only close kin or close friends would enter the compound itself.
Inheritance. Goods and livestock were inherited by patrilineal 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 maalam 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
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 out-crops. 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 non-member 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.
GREGORY A. FINNEGAN
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