Location: Central Burkina Faso, Mali, Africa.

Population: 300,000

Language: Bwamu (Voltaic)

Neighbouring Peoples: Bobo, Bamana, Gurunsi, Lobi.

Types of Art: The Bwa produce numerous masks, which are made from leaves and vines and sculpted from wood. They are best known for their impressive plank masks which are used in the southern villages. Wooden sculptures used in fertility and divination ceremonies are also carved.

History: The history of the Bwa is characterized by a succession of outsiders attempting to take advantage of their independently organized villages. In the 18th century, the Bamana empire of Segou came into power and occupied a large portion of the Bwa lands in Mali. They forced the Bwa to pay taxes and carried out raids in the unconquered areas. In the 19th century, the Bamana empire declined, only to be replaced by the Moslem Fulani empire in the north. They also carried out incursions into Bwa territory, destroying crops and villages, stealing animals, enslaving men and women, and conscripting men into their armies.

In 1897, the French arrived on the African scene, only to use the Fulani as mercenaries in order to control the region. In 1915, the Bwa revolted against the French demand for military recruits. The French responded by destroying all the offending villages.

Economy: The Bwa are primarily farmers. Since the early colonial days the largest cash crop is cotton, of which they often produce so much that they must purchase food for cash in distant markets. Most of the field work is done by the men, although women help out during planting and harvesting.

Other crops include grains, such as millet, rice, sorghum, yams, and peanuts. Women also gather fruits and plants from the nearby wilderness, which are used in the concoction of certain medicines and to supplement the daily diet.

Political Systems: The Bwa live in autonomous villages which do not recognize an individual political authority. All decisions are made by a council of male elders of the local lineages. External infringements on this system have been historically resisted. While the independence of Bwa villages has proven an advantage in the face of local crises, when the people have quickly organized and taken action almost immediately, it has also prevented the Bwa from forming strong alliances when confronted by outside invaders.

Religion: The Bwa believe that the world was created by a god named Difini or Dobweni, who left the Earth when he was wounded by a woman pounding millet with her pestle, abandoning humankind to his fate on Earth. Dobweni sent his son Do to act as his messenger to humans and to act as an intermediary between people and spirits. Do is primarily concerned with all ceremonies that represent the renewal of life, for he is associated directly with the life giving bush or forest, which provides the Bwa with game and medicines they need to survive. He also represents plant life and the power that lends productivity to man's labour in the fields.

The cult of Do is a major cohesive force in Bwa society, providing an opportunity for cultural and community bonding. The religious leader among the Bwa is an earth priest (labie) who is the oldest male member of the clan that first occupied the land on which the village is built.

Credits: Christopher D. Roy, Professor of the History of Art, The University of Iowa.