Mossi - 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.

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