The Festival of the Masks
We drove down a long dirt road choked with pedestrians and vehicles moving in both directions and parked as close as possible to the village of Pala. We joined the throngs of people, all making their way in and around passageways and into the center. Antoine the guide and Rasmané the driver stuck close to me, and as the road narrowed, I found one positioned in front of me and one behind. They were being protective, but really, there was nothing to fear from this jovial crowd of families and friends. Everyone was in a holiday mood, laughing and talking happily. We passed houses whose doors were open to sell food and drinks that people purchased and carried with them as they milled about. The three of us found a place on the edge of the performance ring and took our spot just behind a group of young boys short enough to allow me to aim my camera over their heads. And we waited for the dancers. The word was that they had performed earlier and would do so again. And so we waited.
My cousin Dorothy and I were in Bobo-Dioulasso in southwestern Burkina Faso, a country we’d intended to spend three days in en route from Mali to Ghana and which we were now committed to for fourteen. Once in the capital city of Ouagadougou, we learned that Ghana Airways’ haphazard schedule could not guarantee that once in that country we would be able to leave in time to connect with our return trip from Senegal to the U.S. So we decided to see a little more of Burkina and had hired a driver to take us to the country’s second largest city.
This morning, before heading to the festival, Dorothy and I had asked the guide if there would be time to make a couple of stops beforehand to places we’d read about. He assured us the festival continued all day. So we went first to the old part of Bobo, a place named Kibidwe and walked in and around the old mud brick buildings. As in Mali, children came and grabbed our hands and walked with us. I heard some older children refer to “blancs” but the atmosphere was not unfriendly. We went to the riverbank where the Bobo have use of one side and the Dioulasso the other. People were washing clothes, bathing themselves and urinating all in the same water so I was glad to be shown a well for drinking water. However, being far from the rainy season, the water it was producing was very murky-looking stuff that was being held in plastic buckets while it “settled,” a not very promising prospect.
We passed by the ceramic-making area and I bought a pitcher with a face on it for 2500 CFAs, $5. My first ceramic purchase in Africa. After knowing Southwestern American Indian pueblo pottery, it was hard to get excited about the pottery there which tended to be strictly utilitarian and, of course, heavy so the prospect of getting much of it home was daunting.
From there we drove to Koro, where we were met by a local guide who led us up into the hills to an extensive village. We scrambled over rocks and boulders under a blazing sun and when we reached the top, walked in and around the dwellings and meeting places. Once again, we were a curiosity for the children who followed us, scrambling effortlessly over the rocks in their bare feet.Like many animist villages, we learned that twins are considered very beneficial and offerings made to the concept of twins. Dorothy asked the guide how many people live in Koro. He gave the exact number – one thousand thirty. And then she asked how many women had given birth to twins in the past year. He thought for a moment and answered ten, including his own wife whose twins are a girl and a boy. We offered congratulations and he smiled broadly, displaying a bright gold tooth. He also had on a gold neck chain. Dorothy and I remarked later that he and so many other men in the village could have been plucked from the streets of any big American city and yet here they were in a hilltop enclave of mud-brick structures and open cooking and meeting areas.
As we descended the rocky incline, Dorothy asked if I would feel uncomfortable going to the Festival of the Masks without her. The hot sun had gotten the best of her and all she wanted was to return to our dark, air-conditioned room. So we drove back to the hotel, drank Cokes (“koka“) and left her.
Standing there in Pala, I looked at all my fellow waiters, hundreds or maybe thousands of them, many standing like me, others perched on walls and rooftops, disregarding the brutally hot sun and happily waiting. And in spite of the heat, I found the scene pleasant and worth remembering. Look at me of all people, I thought, here in Burkina Faso of all places waiting for mask dancers. And then it hit me: of all the happy faces here, mine was the only white one! Later, when I told Dorothy about the revelation, she asked if I had felt at all apprehensive and I had not. I didn’t even feel much curiosity directed toward me. I was just someone there, like them, waiting for the dancers.
And it was a very long wait. After about an hour and a half standing in the sun, I began to feel somewhat woozy and squatted down. Antoine went to a nearby house and returned with a large wooden bowl which he upended to provide a seat for me and then spread with a tissue. I was embarrassed by the gesture but accepted.
But the dancers never came, and finally we decided to head back to the car. We returned the bowl/seat and I thanked the owners. On the way someone told us the dancing had taken place in the morning and was over for the day. Back at the hotel, another guest showed us the photos she had taken that morning: wonderful masks and costumes of raffia. The dancers carry long poles that they use to hit whichever of them is designated as portraying an evil spirit and sometimes use the poles to elevate themselves high up over the crowd to further chase the evil ones. I read that these dances are sometimes performed at funerals but this was a festival so the performance we missed was strictly art. The woman told us that the festival would continue for two more days, so I quickly found Antoine who was still on the hotel grounds and we agreed that he and Rasmané would come for me the next day and try one more time to see mask dancers.
I was determined not to let another opportunity go by. In Mali, up in the hills of the Dogon country, we’d misunderstood an offer to join another group of tourists going farther up for a mask dance demonstration. Seeing my disappointment, that guide, Kené Dolo, grabbed a mask I had just purchased, held it up to his face and performed a silly dance there on the spot. It made us all laugh at the time but still, was I now going to miss out another demonstration?
The next day Dorothy still had no interest in going to see the mask dancers so Antoine, Rasmané and I headed out at ten a.m. But first we needed petrol for the car and then I made the mistake of asking them to remind me ON THE WAY BACK to buy l’eau minerale since it would be much cheaper in a store than at the hotel. But miscommunication reigned, so we went to the store as well. Finally to the village and what a difference. We drove down a nearly deserted road and parked behind a house. We walked toward the dancers’ circle and saw that there were people sitting on walls and rooftops though not in numbers at all approaching yesterday’s. A young man greeted Antoine and that is when we learned that the day’s dancing had just ended!
The man, the son of the chief of the village, assured us there would be dancing tomorrow but that we should get there at eight a.m. So we got in the car and headed back to the hotel. The morning was not a total waste, however. In addition to petrol and l’eau, I finally got the picture I’d been trying for at La Place du Femme near the entrance to the city. It is a bronze statue of a woman with a broom in her hand sweeping. Yes indeed, the place of the woman! I told the men my friends at home would get a kick out of that but I’m not sure they understood.
Early the next morning, with Dorothy still not feeling well, the men and I headed back to Pala for a third try at witnessing a mask dance. We were met by Douda, the chief’s son who said the dancers were not quite ready. So we walked out to a wooded area where there were fruit trees and two wells. Women were carrying large aluminum bowls on their heads, filling them with water and walking back into the village. One well, more a water source since water trickled from two pipes, was marked with a sign in Arabic. Daouda explained that one was for “the Arabic people,” the Muslims whose school and mosque stood on a hill overlooking us. The other water source was a deep well from which several women were dipping black plastic buckets down into murky water, hauling them up and pouring their contents into the large aluminum bowls. The “Arabic water” looked much more appealing.
We then walked over to the orchard where woman were piling mangoes they’d picked off the ground into large aluminum bowls like the ones being used for water. They would be taking them, on their heads, out to the highway or into the market to sell. An old, mostly toothless man sat under a tree and we greeted him. He extended his hand, sticky with mango juice, and I shook it, as well as the hands of several children who, like everywhere else I’d been in Africa, seemed intrigued to touch me. It wasn’t until later that I learned that the man under the tree was the village chief.
Watching the women walk so far for the water, I asked Daouda why the village hadn’t situated itself closer to the wells. The chief’s son told me that the chief is the one who decides where the village should be located.
We walked back into the village, and with still no sign of the mask dancers, headed in a different direction. We passed kilns where large clay vessels were drying in the sun, past a field where a group of boys were playing a makeshift game of soccer, and past three girls with a long string tied at intervals with strips of cloth. Two girls held the string so there were parallel sections, while a third girl jumped into the space between. I thought I was going to see a game of Double Dutch jump rope but instead, the third girl just hopped in and out of the space. When they saw me watching, the girls encouraged another girl, the star I guess, to do it. She was able to hop in and out many times before getting her feet tangled in the strings.
Rasmané pointed out a woman stirring a large pot of meal over a fire and suggested I might want to take a picture of that. I asked permission and she and another woman, this one with a baby secured to her back, took turns stirring while I took pictures and showed them the digital results. I understood that they had to keep stirring to prevent the meal from sticking to the bottom. Actually, I took a great number of pictures that morning as people granted me permission and then delighted – all of them, men women and children alike – at seeing themselves on the monitor. The digital camera proved throughout this journey to be a terrific ice breaker.
Still no mask dancers and it was beginning to get very hot. I had my hat with me but was not wearing it because the sky had been overcast. I guess some rays were getting through as I was beginning to feel woozy. I told the men I wouldn’t mind if we called it quits, that I’d had a good time just seeing people. But Daouda said something was going to happen, something about “making a fetish” and that we had to hang back behind a wall until a certain point. Then he said, “Come, look. Take picture.”
Quite a way off, probably farther than my little camera could accommodate, I saw a bunch of men pursuing one man in a mask and raffia costume and hitting him with switches. I dutifully shot pictures and then said, “That was fine and let’s go now.” I couldn’t help feeling that the whole incident was staged for my benefit because they felt bad I’d been there three times without seeing mask dancers.
And you know what? I still don’t think I have.