The History of the Mossi Ethnic Group


The Mossi are a Gur ethnic group native to present-day Burkina Faso, primarily the Volta River basin. The Mossi people are the largest tribe or ethnic group in Burkina Faso, constituting over 40% of the population or about 6 million people. The other sixty percent of Burkina Faso’s population comprises more than 58 ethnic groups, mainly the Gurunsi, Lobi, Senufo, Bobo, and the Fulani. The Mossi people speak the Moore language.

The History of the Mossi People (Legendary Origins, Mossi Kingdoms and Colonial Era)

The Mossi people originated in Burkina Faso, although significant numbers of the Mossi people reside in neighboring states, including Benin, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Mali, and Togo. In the late 20th century (1996), the estimated population of Burkina Faso was more than 10000000. 5 to 6 million are probably the Mossi. Over 1 million Mossi live in Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire).

According to oral traditions, they came from a Mande hunter’s marriage and a Mamprusi princess. Yennenga was a warrior princess and a daughter of a Mamprusi King or ruler in upper East Ghana. While exploring her Empire on horseback, Yennenga lost her way, and Riale rescued her. Riale was a solitary Mande hunter. They got engaged or married and gave birth to the 1st authentic Mossi (Ouedraogo), whom people acknowledge as the Mossi group’s father. The Mossi people originated from the Mamprusi people and similarly resided in upper East Ghana with Nalerigu or Bawku’s capital. These legendary origins apply to the Nakomse or the ruling class. The Tengabisi and other Mossi people don’t share these origin myths.

As the oral tradition has kept the Mossi people’s history, it is hard to assign exact dates for the era or period before colonization. However, historians assign the starting or the beginning of their existence as a state to the 15th century. The Mossi people could conquer a large amount of territory thanks to their mastering of the horse (use of cavalry), created a flourishing Kingdom, and kept peace in the region until the start of colonialism. The expansion of the Mossi Kingdom stopped in the 19th century with the initiation of intensive French colonization.

The French rule affected the Mossi society and weakened the might or power of the Mossi Emperor (the Mogho Naaba). Despite colonization, the Mossi Emperor, Mogho Naaba, had some authority over the Mossi people during the French colonial era. People consult the Mogho Naaba today for crucial decisions, particularly those affecting society or the community’s destiny.

There was more than one event that affected the status of the Mogho Naaba during colonization. During the initial phase of the French attack or invasion, the Mogho Naaba retired to the Maprusi Empire, with which the Mossi have always kept brotherly relationships. In 1896, The Mogho Naaba accepted the French protectorate.

The Mossi and several other peoples played a crucial or significant role in France’s military during World War Two. They constituted part of the corps in the military troops of French W. Africa.


The Organization of the Mossi Society

The Mossi have organized their society in an original hierarchic process in which the state and the family are the key elements. The Mossi people are heterogeneous. When the cavalry or the horsemen attacked from the South, they established a political or ruling class known as Nakomse, as mentioned earlier, and a spiritual class called Tengabisi. All the chiefs come from the Nakomse, the ruling class. The Tengabisi include smiths, Nyonyose or farmers, Yarse, who were weavers and traders.

The origins of the Nyonyose are diverse. In the North, their ancestors were Kurumba and Dogon. In the Southwest, their ancestors were Nuna, Lela, and Sisala. In the East, they were Gurmantche. These people got united into a new ethnicity, which is the Mossi, in about 1500.

It is a mistake to describe a Nyonyose tribe because the Nyonyose does not exist outside the community. All Nyonyose are Mossi.  It is also a mistake to assume that all Mossi society segments are culturally identical, for the differences between the Tengabisi and the Nakomse are striking. The Tengabisi use masks, while the Nakomse uses figures in the context of political celebrations.

The highest position in Mossi society is that of the Emperor, who has executive power. The Emperor’s central role is to rule the whole population and to protect or defend the Empire. The Emperor’s people acknowledge him, and he also has substantial authority.

2nd to the Mogho Naaba comes to the Nakomse, who all are from the Emperor’s family (Mogho Naaba), whether they be sisters, brothers, or cousins. The Nakomse often control territories in the Empire as governorships and rule in the name of the Emperor or Mogho Naaba. The Emperor required the support of the ancient ones, his Nyon-nyonse subjects, to fully exercise his might. The Nyon-nyonse are the ones who resided in Mossi-controlled areas before the Mossi people.

The craftsmen and ordinary citizens constitute a more significant part of the population and are all subjects of the ruler or the Emperor. These two groups have internal subdivisions, each one having its ruling family; they perform significant events and other ceremonies.

More on Mossi Language and Their Cultural Values

As mentioned in the introduction, the Mossi people speak the Moore language of the Western Volta group of languages. People in Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast are the ones who speak it. This language group is part of a bigger grouping (the Gur languages) belonging to the Niger-Congo family. In the language, there are dialects based primarily on the region. For instance, there is a dialect that people speak in Yatenga, another unique dialect in the Northern part, a 3rd in the SE in Koupela different from a 4th dialect in the same area known as Tenkodogo. Despite these regional differences, the dialects are mutually understandable.

According to the detailed explanations of Marie Tapsoba, the former Cultural Counsellor at Burkina Embassy in Senegal, the Mossi culture can be divided into four central values characteristics of the tribe (attitude towards ancestors, land, family, and hierarchy).

The people believe that the ancestors have reached a better world from which they can influence life on the planet. They can punish or help their descendants depending on their behavior. The ancestors are the judges who have the authority or power to permit a descendant to enter the ancestors’ pantheon. If an ancestor decides to deny one entrance, the disavowed soul will run at random forever or for all eternity. Due to all these beliefs, the Mossi people swear by their ancestors or swear by the land. When they do so, it is more symbolic. It is a call to the forthcoming or imminent justice.

The land is in relation to the ancestors, being a path or way by which one can have access to the ancestors. Even in the modern-day, this notion gives a distinct value to land in Mossi thought. The Mossi people consider land to be much more than simple dust and have a spiritual dimension. A Mossi’s life depends on her or his land, and it’s essential or important for the family settlement.

For the case of family, the family is an essential cultural element of the Mossi people, who hold collectivism in very high regard. Individualism doesn’t exist in traditional Mossi culture. The people take the actions and behaviors of one to be the characteristics of one’s family. They always have to ask an elder to do something. As a result, all need to act in their family’s name; therefore, the family is the smallest entity in the Mossi community. Heritage among the people is patrilineal (passed down from a father to his children whoa re sons).  One exciting aspect about the family in the society is that when a man has no sons, the women can inherit from their husbands or fathers.


Traditional and Cultural Holidays and Events among the Mossi (Mossi Masks)

Celebrations and ceremonies pace the life of the Mossi ethnic group, with each festival having its particulars. Through them, the society expressed suffering, joy, or fulfills duties to the ancestors’ memory.

The Friday Mogho Naaba court festival derives from an event when the Moro Naba’s sibling fled North to the land of Yadenga.

Masks in funerals and initiations are typical of all the Gur or Voltaic-speaking peoples, including the Lela, Bwaba, and others. Masks appear at burials to observe on behalf of the ancestors that people are carrying out proper procedures. They appear at memorial services or funerals held regularly over the years after an elder has lost his life. Masks attend to honor the dead and prove that the departed spirit deserves admission into the world of forebears or ancestors.

Mask characters include Balinga, Katre, nyaka, Wan pelega, and several others. Masks from all three areas turn up at yearly public festivals such as the International Art and Craft Fair, Week of the Culture, and the Atypical Nights of Koudougou. The Mossi Masks are sacred and are a connection or link to the ancestors’ spirits and of nature.

Notable Mossi People

They include Aristide Bance, Blaise Compaore, Yacouba Sawadogo, Moumouni Dagano, Gilbert Diendere, Charles Kabore, Prejuce Nakoulma, Thomas Sankara and Maurice Yameogo, former President of Burkina Faso.


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