Monday, 11 October 2010

A Remarkable Woman

At the weekend I went on a trip with 3 other volunteers (Nathalie, Benoit and Melissa) to Gaoua and the Lobi country, in the South of Burkina, near the border with Côte d’Ivoire. It was an action and event packed weekend, on which more will follow.

The day we arrived we visited the Poni Museum (sorry equine fans, no ponies), and were shown round by Claire, who I think must be the Directrice. She is very knowledgeable, and has had an interesting life, some aspects of which are also illustrated by the museum. In Lobi country animism is still the dominant religion. The museum is illustrated with some wonderful photographs taken by Henri Labouret between 1914 and 1924, and Arnold Hein in 1934.

Claire is a Gan, one of around 7 ethnic groups making up the Lobi. Unlike other Lobi groups, the Gan have a king. Unusually, succession alternates between two rival royal clans. Claire was the daughter of a Gan King.

The Lobi are matrilineal – taking the line that there is always more certainty as to maternity than as to paternity. Children live with the mother’s extended family, and at birth are given standard names, indicating first daughter, second daughter, first son, second son, etc. The role of Head of the Family passes from uncle (mother’s brother) to nephew. Every 7 years there is an initiation ceremony, when the uninitiated – those who are deemed ready for it, both boys and girls – go off to the banks of the River Mouhoun, the river which marks the boundary between this world and the next, for an extended period. When they return – or rather those that do return, because every time there are some that do not – they are given new, individual names, this time, if I understood right, associated with their father. There is not a standard age for initiation, and some never go, but they are marked out by their birth names, and have a lower status than the youngest initiated child. Some, but not all, initiates have their top front teeth filed into points – and indeed we saw some of these around town.

At the age of 19, Claire was taken from her family, excised (ie clitoris physically cut out – more of this another day too) and married to a chief as his third wife. She later went on to work with the anthropologist Madeleine Père, who lived with the Lobi from 1961 until her death in 2002, helping to collect the objects on display and to set up the museum.

The Lobi have an intricate belief system, which they realise we may find hard to believe – for example, that children can ‘come back’ – a child which dies at or near birth is often marked with a scar of some sort, and then, when another child is born, if it has the same marking, it is ‘enfant revenant’. Also some beliefs around twins – if one twin dies at or near birth, one of the parents will soon die too. They make, and make much use of, fetishes, of which there were many in the museum – unfortunately not for photographing. More on fetishes later too.

Outside the museum are some reconstructed houses, with associated outbuildings and fetishes, and nearby is a wooded sacred spot where people go to seek help – for example with their exams, or to overcome infertility. Requests are accompanied by a sacrifice, perhaps of a chicken, sometimes a goat or even cattle. The remains of sacrificed animals are evident.

Claire has wider interests too: she has founded a Women’s Association amongst her people, to promote the ending of the practice of excision – with the coming of HIV-AIDS the use of a shared blade now has added health risks. Among its members are some of the excisors themselves – skilled practitioners, for whom new roles now need to be found. Claire has two daughters and a son; her daughters are not excised and she thinks her son is unlikely to excise any daughters he may have.


  1. wow. did the Claire have any thoughts about the implications of having a museum covering apparently still current cultural practices and beliefs? Is the museum a site of preservation, remembrance, discussion, social education? all of these?
    we are all learning, thats for sure.

  2. Dare I ask what happens to the children who do not return from the banks of the River Mouhoun?
    -- Tom O'C