The Mossi People


The Mossi are one of the largest ethnic groups in Burkina Faso, numbering over 6 million. The Mossi are composed of a number of different peoples, including the Gurunsi, Lobi, and Bobo, who mainly speak the More or More Dagbani language of the Atlantic branch of the Niger-Congo phylum. The majority of the Mossi live primarily in the central part of Burkina Faso, where they make up 50 percent of the population, and also live in Benin, Coˆte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali, and Togo.

The Mossi emerged in the 15th century as invaders from northern Ghana whose use of cavalry allowed them to conquer most of the peoples in Burkina Faso. Mossi tradition states that they descend from a Dogomba princess and a Mande hunter. She gave birth to a son named Ouedraogo, who is the founder of the Mossi.

The Mossi elite or nakomse􀀁 (meaning right to rule) descend from the horsemen who conquered settled agriculturalists. Those they defeated are the nyonyose, meaning the ancient ones or the children of the earth. They are fur-ther divided and include classifications for craftsmen such as smiths and traders.The Mossi established a number of kingdoms, though they recognized the supreme authority of the Mogho Naba, who ruled from his capital at Ouagadou-gou. The Mogho Naba ruled through a council of naba or chiefs.

The Mossi were able to maintain their independence from the Songhay, but were defeated by the Moroccan troops who conquered the Songhay in 1591. However, the Moroc-cans were not able to maintain control over Mossi areas and withdrew to Tim-buktu. In the 18th century, the Mossi were defeated by the rising power of the Asante (Akans) kingdom in Ghana.The Mossi resisted conversion to Islam until the arrival of Dyula or Jula (Mande) traders from Mali in the 17th century.

The Mossi maintained their traditional religion, which centers on ancestral spirits and spirits that represent the powers of nature. They are renowned for their elabo-rate masks, which are made primarily by the nyonyose􀀁 and usually used in funerals or mounted to guard crops. Mossi masks are not usually worn, but are passed down from one generation to another. There are three main types of masks, including ani-mal and human forms representing ances-tors or clan totems. In some regions, women and children are forbidden from ceremonies where masks are brought out to be viewed.

Mande-Dyula traders introduced the art of cotton and silk weaving in the 17th cen-tury, and the Mossi have become expert weavers. Weaving is a male occupation, and the cloth is dyed with indigo, produc-ing pieces of alternating undyed white strips with blue dyed strips.The French conquered the Mossi in 1896–1897. Conversion to Islam increased dramatically as Islam was seen as an alter-nate means of resistance to the Europeans. Conversion to Islam continues and Islam was part of national identity building in the postcolonial period, starting with Bur-kina Faso’s independence in 1960 as Upper Volta. The first president of inde-pendent Upper Volta, Maurice Yameogo, was a Mossi.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Bacquart, Jean-Baptiste. The Tribal Arts of Africa: Surveying Africa’s Artistic Geogra-phy. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000.

Dibua, J. I. “Sudanese Kingdoms of West Africa.” In Africa Volume 1: African His-tory before 1885.editedbyToyinFalola. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2000.

Doyle, Margaret, et al. Peoples of West Africa.New York: Diagram Group, Facts on File, 1997.

Olson, James. “Mossi.” In The Peoples of Africa: An Ethnohistorical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.