Burkina Faso National Museum

Since I’m a historian, you’d think I would have found my way to the National Museum before now, especially considering it is walking distance from my house, but other matters attracted my attention. However, better late than never, so I decided this morning to set forth.

A few kilometers of walking in the relatively cool morning air, and there I was. The National Museum moved to its new site, somewhat on the edge of town, in 2005, when much of the national infrastructure was relocating out of the urban core. The new facility has enormous grounds, a good deal of which appears to be urban gardens maintained by the staff. Someone was cultivating something that looked like pepper plants out behind the building I visited. There are a bunch of pavillions scattered around the grounds, apparently with the intent that each one would house the art and historical artifacts of a different region of the country, but only two are open to the public right now. Here’s what one looks like:

BF National Museum exterior 1

In this building, and across the way in the other one that is open, were items associated with the Gurunsi people. This group was present in the region since at least the 11th century, when Arab merchants created the first written records. They were squeezed into an area in the center of the country by later invaders, the ancestors of the people of Ouagadougou and Bobo-Diolassou, and then were the victims of slave raids by the powerful Akan people to the south. Nevertheless, they managed to maintain a collective identity and political autonomy until the arrival of French colonizers in the 19th century. French missionaries, the famous “White Fathers”, did a lot of important anthropological work, and one of the exhibit halls is devoted to the artifacts they collected.

One thing Gurunsi people do is brew beer, out of millet. I thought my Portland beer-making friends would appreciate seeing some traditional beer-making equipment:

BF National Museum beer jugs

These are pottery jugs, apparently used for fermentation. I’ve had this sort of beer, in Togo. You drink it out of a gourd, and fermentation is still sort of going on when you get your gourd-full, so in addition to a bit of foam there is also a sort of current swirling bits of mash to the top as you drink. It’s actually quite yummy, very filling. You understand what people mean when they say that beer is liquid bread after you drink some of that stuff.

Another thing they had was a selection of traditional hoes. When I was in Togo, one of my friends did a project studying traditional iron-workers and the hoes they made. In Togo, in the 1980s, people were still using the traditional hoes, except that now the blades were made out of car parts. I think these are made from traditional iron forged in the old style, in forges built on hills with walls to funnel the wind into the firebox to get the fire hot enough to melt iron.

BF National Museum 13

Apparently, among the Gurunsi, the ironworker had a traditional position of respect, but respect at a distance. Metal workers had to live on hills anyway, because of the issue with the wind getting the forge hot enough to work, and so the iron-working village was a separate place with special rules that set the workers apart. They were a sort of caste of magic-users.

Another thing I saw that brought back memories of other times in Africa was this traditional oven.

BF National Museum traditional oven

It is made out of fired pottery, and has a skirt that goes all the way around except for a smoke hole in the back and a place to put in fuel in the front. Thus, it is fuel-efficient, when compared with the three-rock variety used to this day many places in the world. When I was in Peace Corps in Guinea, one volunteer had a project to teach women how to make this sort of stove to economise on fuel. So the Gurunsi were at least a few hundred years ahead of us. The little dimples in the top are to put pots in to heat things or to make little cakes, one of the staple foods of this group of people.

The museum was pretty much deserted. I got an individual guided tour from Mr. Sekou Ouedrago, BF National Museum guide

He is a very knowledgeable fellow. We see him here before a collection of musical instruments and, at right, a mask. The Gurunsi have a number of interesting masks, many of which were collected by the French missionaries (who didn’t want their new converts continuing to use the masks for their religious purposes, but appreciated the artistic qualities and also valued them as anthropological data). In a process no doubt hair-raising to the missionaries but not surprising to students of Africa today, the Gurunsi have continued to use the masks in ritual recognition of changing seasons, changes in life (funerals, marriages, baptisms, and so on), and other important ceremonies while at the same time expressing a monotheistic religious identity.

In the Catholic Church, they talk about “inculturation” today, meaning that things that used to have a pagan religious significance can be incorporated into religious practices of the Church without adopting the pagan religious ideas. In the European context, examples of inculturation that we are familiar with include the Christmas tree and the holiday of May Day. Protestants are less tolerant – Christmas trees were banned in Massachusetts when the Puritans were in charge. Islamic practice in sub-Saharan Africa is also more tolerant, though with the spread of fundamentalist ideas from Saudi Arabia, inculturated aspects of the faith are under attack. This is one of the reasons that my friends the Thiams were pretty dismissive of the “Wahabi” mosque – the Saudis, patrons of the Wahabi ultra-orthodox sect, are notorious enemies of Sufi practices that many Africans follow.

In honor of the Gurunsi beer-makers, I went to a restaurant for lunch and had beer with fish and chips. It was excellent.

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