Some ten years ago, when I began my guiding and adventure travels, I was sat browsing through albums in one of Kenya’s hotel restaurants, that depicted African ceremonies. With each new page, my eyes grew wider with astonishment. I now know that they weren’t photographs portraying long forgotten traditions (although that was my impression at the time), but the most wondrous reality! I found this truth during my recent trip to Burkina Faso, where I got a rare look at animistic ceremonies and participated in the unforgettable Dogona Mask Festival, as the only white woman present.
But let us start from the beginning... landing in Ougadaugu
When I landed at the Ouagadougu airport late at night, my guide who had over thirty years of experience, greeted me with great affection and enthusiasm. Very quickly and without unnecessary ado (which incidentally is not the norm for this region) he let me know that we had to change the schedule that we had set before my departure.
I admit, I got a bit scared – the northern areas of Burkina Faso are not the safest, not only for visitors like me, but even the locals avoid venturing there if it isn’t absolutely necessary*. Had some new threat moved to the areas I was to visit?
The reason, however, turned out to be completely different. The changes resulted from the desire to show me an extraordinary event that would take place during my visit to Burkina Faso. The annual Mask Festival was to take place near Bobo Dioluaso. Despite his great experience within his profession and numerous trips throughout the country, the guide’s excitement for the upcoming masquerade was sky high! At this point, I wasn’t yet aware of the unique nature of the event I would get to take part in.
Mask Festival - what's it about?
Unlike anywhere else in the world, West Africa overflows with animistic beliefs, where plants, animals and the forces of nature are marked by extraordinary power. In addition to this, there are dozens of sculptures (fetishes) and masks which are visual representations of these forces, as well as depictions of the images that appear to witch doctors through their dreams. The Mask Festival (locally called the “masquerade”) is held at the time when animistic, divine spirits are especially close to the human world.
The Mask Festival is a yearly event, repeated across numerous villages and cities. In most cases, it is difficult to determine when it will take place because the local spiritual elder reaches a decision after receiving this information from the spirits. The main purpose of the masquerade is to establish direct contact with the spirits and to receive their divine blessings. This last element ensures that everyone is willing to participate in the festival and sit as close as possible to the costumed characters.
Initiates, the dancers of the Mask Festival
Who are the key actors of the masquerade? In many tribal communities, as is the case in Burkina Faso, the rites of initiation are one of the most important milestones in the life of every man and woman. Interestingly enough, in this culture, the ceremony is repeated regularly every seven years, the first being during the initiate’s fifteenth year (if for some reason at the age of fifteen the initiation could not be carried out, another seven years must pass, therefore the ceremony shall take place at the age of twenty-two).
The initiation ceremony is the time during which people are closest to the forces of nature and their ancestors, whom they place great trust in. Boys and girls go to the secret forest naked, wearing coverings only over the intimate parts of their bodies. Accompanied by music, singing and dancing, they attempt to learn how to read the signs sent from their ancestors and their surroundings. These skills are very useful, among others, just before the Mask Festival – in similar circumstances, the most adept initiates will find out which being shall enter their body and thereby wear a formal garment that depicts that character.
And here, we ought to pause for a moment. While the man puts on the clothes and masks, he ceases to be himself – he becomes energy, the spirit he represents. Locals believe that the force that enters the body of man is enormous and its liberation occurs during a crazed dance full of acrobatics, twists and turns and mad dashes throughout which blessings are continually bestowed. The masters of the ceremony and the chosen participants are obliged to stop and calm the bodies possessed by energies down.
The main event
More and more people began to gather in the square. The stands, chairs and benches were occupied at an amazing rate. It soon became obvious that there would not be enough seats for all present, hence the youngest members of the audience climbing trees to guarantee a perfect view from above, while others brought with them tiny three-legged stools or simply sat on the ground, right at my feet. Everyone wanted to be as close as possible to the main arena, and this, according to the masters of ceremony, sometimes becomes too dangerous (a possessed dancer had to have enough room for his acrobatic exploits). I certainly wouldn’t call their chosen form of crowd control humane: instead of words, sticks and whips were used with no compunction, on bodies and heads alike, to steer the crowds. Especially when unexpected hits repeatedly landed on flesh during the festival.
I took in my surroundings. The variety of those gathered was wide: Women, men, young and old. The latter were especially taken care of. They had been assigned seats with an uninterrupted view of the central square. The musicians were also grouped in a special spot, from where they rhythmically and constantly beat their drums and played other instruments they had brought with them, such as trumpets and xylophones. All the musicians were dressed in similar garb and funnily enough, some of the men decided to dress as women by wearing wigs and dresses to ensure a better placement. Among the gathered were followers of monotheistic religions, such as Christians and Muslims. It turns out that the tradition of the mask festival is so deeply rooted in culture that it has been adapted by new religions.
The Festival Begins! A figure flew into the square like a raging storm, their body tightly entwined in green grass. He reminded me of a ninja turtle. He made a mad dash across the longest diagonal of the square, all the whilst twisting his body in a series of sophisticated gymnastic feats: somersaults, turns, handstands, twists and a whole other array of airborne moves that I cannot name. He ran around the square in rhythmic leaps and bounds, as if the ground was so scorching that he could not keep his feet on the earth for too long. When the masters of the ceremony noticed that the show was going on for too long and that it could lead to physical exhaustion, a delegated group descended on the square to stop the costumed dancer. They herded them through the gathered people. No one was terrified of his closeness, if anything it was a great honor of sorts.
Every now and then new people appeared in the square in other costumes and masks. Dependent on the costume worn, they presented different dances: twirls, flailing arms and legs, so as to fully show off the splendor of the outfits.
In addition to the expressive dancing, the dancers had one other fundamental task – passing on blessings to certain persons amongst those gathered. It looked quite amusing: the blessing is bestowed when the costumed dancer sits on the audience member’s lap or rests their leg on their shoulder. Most often, this took place during moments of rest during the wild spectacle.
For a moment, I would like to note the masks and the dancers themselves. I was very intrigued by their meaning. I remembered my first day in the capital, when I visited the National Museum where a pavilion dedicated to masks in West Africa was located. It turned out that recognizing which mask was which was not so easy. Each region depicts similar spirits in slightly different ways. Added to these, are the masks and figures derived from witch doctors’ and initiates’ nocturnal visions. My questions on which spirit I was seeing, were oftentimes met with the answer, “it is an initiation mask”. One thing is certainly consistent: the head of a bird with a long beak represents a call for rain, the dance of happiness is done while in a warthog mask, a crocodile symbolizes longevity, and an owl protects the community and grants fertility.
I wondered where the other white people were. I caught sight of a few albinos (unlike in many East African countries, here, they have nothing to fear from their communities, the only threat they face is the stifling heat from above and the sun) but no tourists! NONE! That astounding fact had me fold into a chair and feel like an adventurer who was able participate in the events of some long lost world!
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