MOSSI Information

Location: Central Burkina Faso, Mali
Population: 3.5 million
Language: Moré (Voltaic)
Neighbors: Dogon, Kurumba, Gourmantche, Gurunsi, Bisa, Dagomba, Sisala
Types of Art: The Mossi make both political art and spiritual art. Figures are used by the ruling class to validate political power, and masks are used by the conquered peoples to control the forces of nature. Each year at the annual celebrations of the royal ancestors, figures of the deceased kings are displayed. On many occasions each year, especially during the long dry season from October to May, masks appear to honor the spirits of nature that control the forces of the environment The several mask styles reflect the diversity of the population before the 15th century invasion. Long tall masks in the north are made by the descendants of the conquered Dogon population, while red, white, and black animal masks in the southwest are made by descendants of the conquered Gurunsi peoples.
History: The Mossi states were created about 1500 A.D., when bands of horsemen rode north from what is now northern Ghana into the basin of the Volta River and conquered several less powerful peoples, including Dogon, Lela, Nuna, and Kurumba. These were integrated into a new society call Mossi, with the invaders as chiefs and the conquered as commoners. The emperor of the Mossi is the Moro Naba, who lives in the ancient and contemporary capital, Ouagadougou. In the centuries between 1500 and 1900 the Mossi were a major political and military force in the bend of the Niger River and were effective in resisting the movements of Muslim Fulani armies across the Sudan area of west Africa. In 1897 the first French military explorers arrived in the area and staked French colonial claims. During the sixty years of French colonial rule the Mossi population was exploited as a source of human labor for French plantations in Côte d'Ivoire. In 1960 Burkina Faso gained its independence from the French. The first elected president Ouezzin Coulibaly was succeeded by Maurice Yameogo, a Mossi. In 1967 a coup-d'état put in place a military government that has ruled with infrequent change ever since.
Economy: The Mossi are primarily farmers, raising millet, sorghum, maize, sesame, peanuts, and indigo. The latter three are cash crops that are raised for export. Large numbers of Mossi live in the urban centers of Ouagadougou, Ouahigouya, Kaya, Yako, Koudougou. During the colonial period the French exercised a policy of deliberate underdevelopment intended to force Mossi laborers to leave their homes following the harvest and migrate by the French-built railroad to Côte d'Ivoire where they worked in French-owned factories and plantations. From the founding of the Mossi states to the present the economy of Burkina Faso and of the Mossi benefitted from their position astride major trade routes between the forest and the desert and from the open trade policies of the government surrounded by countries such as Ghana and Mali which restricted trade.
Political Systems: The Mossi are unique in Burkina Faso for their centralized and hierarchical political system. The nakomse are the ruling class and are directed descendants of the first invaders from the south. At the apex of political hierarchy is the emperor (Moro Naba), whose palace is in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. Chiefs (nabas) rule over each of the regions of Mossi country and pay homage to the emperor. Each chief presides over a political hierarchy of local officials who are responsible for raising armies, levying taxes, etc. The nyonyose are the descendants of the conquered peoples who lived in the region before the Mossi arrived.
Religion: The descendants of the conquered farmers (nyonyose) honor nature spirits that provide them with supernatural power to control the weather, disease, crop failure, and general well-being. These are the "invented spirits" that become important as the congregation faces a particular affliction and which decrease in influence as the problem is solved. These spirits are often represented by masks and figures that make them visible and concrete. The spirits themselves provide, through the diviner, the religious laws that govern the community and so provide a system of sacred rule. The creator god Wennam is associated with the sun and with the political hierarchy (nakomse). The spiritual power of the nyonyose based on nature spirits is in direct opposition to the secular power of the nakomse based on the horse and associated with the sun. Among the most important religious celebrations are annual sacrifices to honor the memories of the royal ancestors, when each and every male head of a household reaffirms his dependence on the benevolence of the chief and his ancestors for health and well-being of his family.
Credit: McIntyre, L. Lee and Christopher D. Roy. 'Art and Life in Africa Online.' 1998: The Art and Life in Africa Project,