The Mossi kingdoms were a group of twenty states and kingdoms in Africa that lasted from around the 11th century to the 19th century. It was surrounded by many kingdoms of the region of West Africa, including the Mali Empire to the West and the kingdom of Songhai to the North. Despite long-standing battles within the Mossi kingdom and with the stronger Songhai & Mali kingdoms, the Mossi states largely retained their independence until the arrival of the French upon its shores in 1896. Uniquely the Mossi kingdoms did not majorly participate in the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
History and Origins
The time of origin of the kingdoms is largely speculative. They began somewhere between the 11th and 15th century when a Mamprusi princess from Gambaga defied her father and married a hunter from an immigrant tribe. The son she bore subsequently, Ouedraogo, defeated his grandfather and established the Mossi kingdoms. Ouedraogo built the city of Tenkodogo soon after. His three sons, Diaba Lompo, Rawa and Zougrana, became rulers of three separate provinces.
Afterward, the Mossi kingdoms would occupy surrounding regions, and assimilate various tribes into their kingdom. The exact specifics of the region is not known, but they occupied the upper basin of the Volta River for centuries and controlled the trade along the route.
The kingdoms were comprised mainly of three separate kingdoms—Ouagadougou, Yatenga and Tenkodogo—which presided over their cities, towns and villages. The ruler of Ouagadougou was called the Mogho Naba (literally meaning the “head of the world”). The Mossi had some concepts that were partly similar to Europe (for instance to the United Kingdom’s Prince of Wales title). The sons of the ruler were given provincial responsibilities as Dimas. There were positions among noblemen for Commerce, the Military and Industry.
Modern descendants of these kingdoms now live in Burkina Faso, as well as Ghana and Ivory Coast due to large-scale migration. The population of the ethnic Mossi people today stands at approximately 5 million.
Culture, Religion, and Politics of the Mossi People
The religion of the Mossi people was tied to the earth, rainfall, and a Supreme Being that they believed had created the Universe. They also worshipped the ancestors of the patriarchal lineages. Their politics and religion were closely tied; the king and his district chiefs, who were in charge of a certain number of villages, were bestowed the supernatural ability to rule through a religious ceremony, without which they could not be given a place of authority.
The power in Mossi kingdoms was divided between the nakombse and the tengbiise. The nakombse were descended from the Mossi directly and claimed the right to rule. The tengbiise were the people who had been living in the regions and had been assimilated into the Mossi kingdom. Because of their direct connection to the land, which was considered spiritual in Mossi religion, only they were allowed to give the authority to the Mossi rulers or nakombse. Therefore, the powers were balanced between the two.
The culture shows some Islamic influences. But it remained largely untouched by Islam due to the closely tied religious and political systems. Today, the population of the modern state, Burkina Faso, has a majority Muslim population.
The Mossi still speak a language called the Moore, which arose out of the language of Gur. Their main forms of entertainment were music, dance, and drumming, which can still be seen today in Burkina Faso. Only certain families were allowed to become artisans in the Mossi kingdoms.
The Mossi wore voluminous robes of cotton since they have been weaving cotton for centuries. The clothing was designed to maximize mobility and was bunched between their legs. Women wore robes that started below their breasts—it was seen as a sign of motherhood and fertility before the French colonization. The Mossi culture forbids exposing the legs of women.
People also wore hats of different kinds, and bracelets made of stone and brass with motifs of spirits to signify protection against disease and misfortune. Masks were an important feature of their culture as well, which played the same role as the bracelets and were worn at rituals and funerals.
The Mossi literature was based on proverbs and folklore. They were a way of spreading wisdom in colloquial forms to the society; wherein even debate partook in a manner that everyone could experience. In Mossi culture, it is forbidden to take a joke offensively.
The first major work of literature was Maximes, pensées et devinettes mossi [Maximes, Thoughts and Riddles of the Mossi] by Dim-Dolobsom Ouedraogo, published in 1934, which covered Mossi oral history. This paved the way for future writers such as Nazi Boni, Roger Nikiema; and playwrights such as Moussa Savadogo, Ouamdégré Ouedraogo and Pierre Dabiré. The subsequent state of Burkina Faso has also produced novelists such as Etienne Sawadogo, Kollin Noaga, Augustin-Sondé Coulibaly, Marie-Ange Somdah, Jean-Baptiste Somé, Pierre Claver Ilboudo, Norbert Zongo, Jacques Prosper Bazié, Ansomwin Ignace Hien. The earliest female writers, who published poetry, were Pierrette Sandra Kanzié and Bernadette Dao.
Livelihood, Family, and Trade in The Mossi Kingdoms
The main occupation of the people who lived in the region was agriculture. The Mossi controlled trade along the river Niger with commodities like millet, sorghum, cattle and cotton to surrounding areas from the larger towns. Traditional smelters and ironsmiths were feared in Mossi communities, because of their skill and iron ore was believed to be supernatural and dangerous to mine. Cowrie shells from the Indian Ocean were once used as money by the Mossi.
In Mossi families, marriage was arranged; the bridegroom paid some amount of trade goods to the bride’s family at the time of the wedding. Those consisted of some amount of wealth and cattle. A man was allowed more than one wife if he required the extra help in the household but only if he could pay the required wealth to the bride’s family. Women were mostly in charge of household activities; traditional systems did not give much power or equality to women, and the patriarchal lineage was given more importance.
Most people were farmers and non-participation in such activities were punished by ostracising offenders.
Most Mossi lived in villages that were spread far over farmland. The houses were occupied by a man, his younger brothers and their respective families—the area inside divided into households for each. The houses had thatched roofing and were separated by large swathes of farmland.
Mossi Kingdom was also involved with salt , kola nuts , Ivory trading in Sahel and Asanti forest zone.
Battles in The Voltaic Region and French Colonisation
The Mossi armies were generally dependent on long-range cavalry which aided them on their frequent raids of neighbouring regions. Horses were seen as a symbol of might, most probably because the founder of the kingdoms, Ouedraogo, was named for the stallion on which his mother escaped Gambaga.
In the early years of the Mossi kingdoms, there were frequent power struggles between the kingdoms. New provinces were established and went to war with each other several times. They carried out raids as they grew in power. The soldiers, when they were not fighting battles, would help out at farms.
The Mossi are renowned for their resistance to the surrounding states of the Mali Empire and Islamic states like the Songhai kingdom and Sokoto Caliphate. In the 1400s, they had grown in power enough to challenge the regional powers. The kingdom of Yatenga fought Songhai armies frequently in the 14th century and annexed the region of modern-day Timbuktu. In the 15th century, the Mossi kingdoms were defeated by Aksai Mohammed in a holy war against the kingdoms. The Mossi resisted the imposition of Islam on their culture and eventually won their kingdoms back.
The Mossi kingdoms are very famous for defying Arab and European slave trade & raids until the 1800s. The French reached the shores of the Mossi kingdoms by the end of the century and colonized the Mossi kingdoms, having already conquered the surrounding areas.
One of the effects of the French occupation of this region was to dismantle the social fabric of the society and force the removal of thousands of people to plantations in the Ivory Coast and Ghana.
Elliot Percival Skinner, “The Mossi OF Burkina Faso: chiefs, politicians, and soldiers.” Waveland Press, 01 May 1989, ISBN: 9780881333985
Christopher D. Roy, “Clothing and Dress in Burkina Faso.” 2006. < https://artofburkinafaso.com >
“Mossi Religion and Expressive Culture,” Countries and Their Culture. World Culture Encyclopaedia. <https://www.everyculture.com.html>
Books about the Mossi kingdoms
Christopher D. Roy, “Mossi: Visions of Africa Series.” 5 Continents Editions, 27 October 2015, ISBN: 9788874397006
Philip Koslow, “Lords of the Savanna: The Bambara, Fulani, Igbo, Mossi, and Nupe (The Kingdoms of Africa).” Chelsea House Pub, 1 June 1997, ISBN: 978-0791031421
“Reading Women Writers and African Literature: Burkina Faso”. University of Western Australia , Last updated November 2006, <https://aflit.arts.uwa.edu.au/CountryBurkinaFasoEN.html>
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