Bwa people

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Total population
Regions with significant populations
 Burkina Faso175,000[1]
Animism (85%)
Christianity (10%)
Islam (5%)

The Bwa or Bwaba (plural),[2] or Bobo-Wule (Bobo-Oule), are an ethnic group indigenous to central Burkina Faso and Mali. Their population is approximately 300,000. They are known for their use of masks, made from leaves or wood, used in performative ceremonies.


In the 18th century, Bwa lands were occupied by the Bamana empire who made the Bwa pay taxes.[1] The places left unconquered were raided by the Bamana, which led to a weakening of the Bwa social and political systems.[3] In the 19th century, the Bamana declined and the area was dominated by the Fulani who raided and enslaved the Bwa and stole their livestock.[2][3] The end of the 19th century brought French mercenaries who used the Fulani to help control the area.[1] The Bwa traditions of storing crops for use in lean years were undermined by the crippling taxation systems of the French and they suffered further from famine from 1911–1913.[3][4] The French demanded military recruits from the Bwa and in 1915, the Bwa revolted.,[1][3] starting the Volta-Bani War. This war lasted about a year[5] and ended with the destruction of many Bwa villages.[4]


The Bwa live in central Burkina Faso and south-east Mali, between Mali's Bani River and the Mouhoun River (Black Volta) in Burkina Faso.[2] Their total population is approximately 300, 000.[1] The major towns occupied by the Bwa are Houndé, Boni, Bagassi, Dossi and Pa.[2]

Society and politics[edit]

Like many of their neighbours, the Bwa are predominantly farmers, their main cash crop being cotton. They also farm millet, rice, sorghum, yams, and peanuts.[1] Bwa villages are autonomous and they do not recognise any outside political authority. They are led by a council of male elders who make all the major decisions.[1] Villages are structured with a cluster of mud walled buildings around a central space where livestock are guarded at night.[3]



The Bwa speak Bwa languages, a closely related group of Gur languages of the Niger–Congo family.[6] Some speak Jula (Dioula) for trading and communication with outsiders, and French is also used.[6]

Religion and mythology[edit]

Most Bwa still retain traditional animist beliefs. Approximately 5% are Muslim, approximately 10% are Christian and approximately 85% are animists.[4]

Creation myth[edit]

The creator god of the Bwa is known as Wuro, Difini or Dobweni.[1][2] He created the world by setting his creations up in balanced opposing pairs (for example male and female, domesticated and wild).[4]


The Bwa have to work to maintain the balance.[4] Wuro left the earth after being wounded by a woman pounding millet.[1] He had three sons: Dwo (or Do), god of new life and rebirth; Soxo, god of the wilderness and Kwere, the god of lightning.[1][2] Wuro sent Dwo, with his brothers, to earth as his messenger and manifestation.[1][4]

The Bwa, (the northern Bwa in particular) worship Dwo as an intermediary between man and nature.[3] The religious leader of each village is an earth priest called the labie, the oldest man of the village.[4] The congregation of Dwo is a strong cohesive force in Bwa villages.[1] The Bwa share their Dwo religion with the neighbouring Bobo people, and probably acquired it from the Bobo centuries ago.[4][7] In the late 19th century, following decades of oppression and misfortune, many southern Bwa villages abandoned the cult of Dwo and adopted the religion of their Nuna neighbours.[2]



Plank mask with abstract design of geometric patterns, all of which are symbolic. Birmingham Museum of Art.

The Bwa are well known for their use of traditional tribal masks.[2] The masks, made from wood and leaves, are used in traditional rituals. In particular the Southern Bwa are known for their tall plank masks, known as nwantantay, and tend to use wood to make their masks.[2][3] [1] This is a result of their adoption of Nuna religion and their traditions of using wooden masks.[2] About 1897, after a series of disasters, including the arrival of the French and their Senegalese mercenaries, the Bwa decided God had abandoned them, so they turned to their Nuna neighbors and purchased the rights to use, wear, and carve wooden masks, their costumes, and the songs and dances that go with them. The religion associated with wooden masks is focused on the spirit Lanle, whose power is manifested through the wooden masks. The northern Bwa use leaf masks more than wooden ones.[3] [2] These leaf masks frequently represent Dwo in religious ceremonies.[7] The masks also represent the bush spirits including serpents, monkeys, buffalo and hawks.[3] Mask performances generally take place in the dry season between February and May.[2]


Early European explorers to the area called the Bwa "Bobo", confusing them with their neighbours the Bobo people.[2] Although the two groups share religion and culture, they are ethnically distinct.[4] The confusion led to alternative names for the Bwa including Bobo Oule, or Eastern Bobo.[8] In Jula, Bobo Oule means "Red Bobo". This distinguishes the Bwa from the Bobo who are called the "Black Bobo".[4]

The White Bobo, Bobo Gbe, are also Bwa.[9]

The southern Bwa became known by their neighbours as Nieniegue meaning "scarred Bwa" as a result of the tradition of scarification of their faces and bodies.[2] This practice is no longer commonplace and so the term is also in decline.[2]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m "Bwa People". Art and Life in Africa Online. University of Iowa. 1998-11-03. Archived from the original on 2008-07-22. Retrieved 2008-07-22.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Roy & Wheelock, p.50
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i "African Art and the Bwa of Burkina Faso". 2006. Retrieved 2008-07-25.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Roy, Christopher D. "Do in Leaves and Wood Among the Bobo and the Bwa". Art and Life in Africa Online. University of Iowa. Archived from the original on 2008-07-25.
  5. ^ Royer, Patrick (2003). "La guerre coloniale du Bani-Volta, 1915-1916" (PDF). Autrepart. 26: 35–51.
  6. ^ a b Gordon, Raymond G., Jr. (2005). "Buamu - A language of Burkina Faso". Ethnologue. Retrieved 2008-07-25.
  7. ^ a b Roy & Wheelock, p.53
  8. ^ "Ethnologue report for Burkina Faso". Ethnologue. 2015. Retrieved 2015-04-01.
  9. ^ Bomu language at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)


  • Roy, Christopher D.; Thomas G. B. Wheelock (2007). Land of the Flying Masks: Art and Culture in Burkina Faso. Prestel. pp. 50–54. ISBN 3-7913-3514-6.