African art and history of the Bwa

Burkina Faso & Mali

The Bwa are scattered across Mali and Burkina Faso, numbering somewhere in the region of 300,000 people.  Each Bwa village is governed independantly by male elders devoid of a central political authority. Major decisions are made by a tribal council of male elders of local lineage. One of the negative aspects of the independance of the Bwa villages is from a military standpoint they became weak against the Fulani and franch invasions, however on the positive, their problems, conflicts and disasters are dealt with more efficiently as no waiting is necessary for commands from some higher authority in another village.  Their villages are set up in a tight cluster of mud walled, flat roofed buildings with open central areas where livestock are guarded at night.  The village set up makes it easier to defend against invaders.

The communities are broken up into three occupational groups:  the Farmers, who make up the majority and consider their occupation the most noble of the all. Most of the work is done by the men, though occasionally during planting and harvesting women will lend a hand. Their crops consist of cotton, yams, millet, sorghum, rice, ground peas and peanuts. Blacksmiths who forge tools and cast brass, their wives making pottery and the musicians who are responsible for the entertainment.

During the 18th century, the Bamana Segou came into power, and the Bwa were forced to pay taxes to them.  The Bamana started raids in unconquered territories and this created instability and unrest in the area, weakening the Bwa social, political and economic systems.

During the 19th century, the Fulani empire rose to power and this period marked the decline of the Bamana.  The Fulani reach was into the Bwa territory and they conducted raids on Bwa villages and lands, destroying them, stealing livestock and taking on Bwa people as slaves, forcing some of the men to enlist in the Fulani army.  During this period of unrest and confusion, many of the raids were carried out by bandits attacking villages that were poorly organised in resistence.

In the late 1800's, the Franch came to the area, bringing the Bwa hope that the unrest and raids by the Fulani would draw to an end.  Unfortunately for them, the French created new problems with their new centralized authority, which wrought distruction on the independant structure of the Bwa villages. It affected their way of life incredibly as they were anable to store farm yield from good years for use in lean years as the French taxation system was crippling.  The French then made demands for military recruits from the Bwa, causing a revolt and many bloody battles, the Bwa would rather fight to the death than enter into enslavement of the Franch.  The french used the Fulani, armin gthem to attack any Bwa villages not wanting to adhere to French rule. This carried on till 1916 when the Bwa finally returned to their villages and pastures to start the rebuilding process.

The Do society of the Bwa is a major cohesive, unifying force in Bwa life.  each Bwa community has a Do congregation led by the earth priest, (labie) normally the oldest clan member that first occupied th eland on which the village is established. Do is a organization as well as an anthropomorphic being, the son of the remote creator god, who was sent to act as intermediary between man and the forces of nature. Do is concerned with all ceremonies ensuring the renewal of life.

Bwa Masks

Bwa masks represent or embody bush spirits, who are envoked to benefit Bwa Plank Mask in African artmankind and the natural forces on which life depends.  Serpent masks smoetimes extend to heights of unbelieveable proportion. They also have monkey masks, buffalo mask, hawk masks (known in the west as plank masks). They are face mask worn attached to fiber costumes covering the head.  The masquerader bites firmly to a fiber rope passing through holes in the mask, so securing th emask to his face.  Bwa masks tend to be two dimentional and don't extend to the back of the head.  The fiber costumes that are worn in these masked performances are traditionally either black or red, red being the more common.  The Bwa are well known for their plank masks, known to them as nwantantay.  Wood masks are mor eof a soutern Bwa tradition, with the northern Bwa using leaf masks associated with the Do society more. Wooden masks are very family orientated, danced in various ceremonies, from harvest celebrations to funerals.