Whirling Spirits

Bobo & Bwa Masks


Whirling Spirits

In West Africa, many people believe that the spirits of our ancestors and the natural world determine what happens in one’s life. In the large agricultural communities of Burkina Faso, people often believe that when they cultivate the land, they destroy its equilibrium.

To heal nature, they call on masks channelling the spirits, acting as mediators between man and God. At seasonal masquerades, the masks are danced to restore balance to the world, so that the coming season of cultivation and harvests will be successful.

Godfried Agbezudor, a Ghanaian Voodoo initiate, guided us into the spirit world of West Africa. We spent a month traveling with him through the dry savannah of Burkina Faso, attending masquerades around harvest time. Each village we visited had its own distinctive

style of mask, but they all channelled spirits that gave the maskers superhuman strength to perform. Among the Bwa, a division of the Bobo, masks featuring carved wooden animal heads and flamboyant raffia bodies embodied the powerful forces of snakes, crocodiles, chameleons, bulls, and antelopes.

Blacksmiths are responsible for the making of the mask. In some, the wooden heads take the form of multi-storied planks and are called plank masks. Others have smaller heads with emphasis on flamboyant raffia bodies that sweep the land and rid the village of evil spirits         

The most ancient style of masks we saw were ten feet tall and made from hundreds of fresh leaves topped with crests of straw, millet stalks, or hornbill feathers.  These feats of craftsmanship are burned at the end of the day. The masks are made of leaves from a sacred tree, known as Karite, and have to be returned to the spirits after their performance.

The Bobo practice two types of purification rituals, both lasting for a period of three days. The first take place in April, before the planting of the millet seed, and the second occurs in September, prior to the harvesting of crops. The masks also appear at initiations, at the funerals of chiefs, and at annual communal funerals, when the souls of all those who have died during the past year must be chased out of the villages and put to rest in the ancestral world.