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Burkina Faso: Women’s roles in traditional chiefdoms

It’s a Saturday morning in Boussouma, in north-central Burkina Faso, and the WEM-NABA, or head of reconciliation, is sitting on the ground under the canopy of the royal court. (In Burkina Faso, chiefs are not called by their names, simply their titles.) She is 60 years old and has reigned for 13 years at the royal court in Boussouma. She wears an all-white scarf tied tightly over her head. She places a calabash in front of her when she sits, and holds it when she walks. The scarf and calabash are the symbols of her power.

She is not very talkative. Traditional chiefs don’t talk too much about themselves. She explains her role: “I intervene in the management of traditional power, I intercede to manage conflicts and all other difficulties facing the kingdom, [and] my decisions are binding on both men and women. I intervene for the royal grace; that is essentially why I was installed here.”

In Burkina Faso, the traditional chiefdom has lost its administrative role. However, the chiefdom is the guarantor of habits and customs.

Nowadays, traditional chiefs are called on to manage social conflicts and even crises, which are often linked to land management, inheritance, or a dispute between two people.

The WEMBA is an institution within the traditional power of the Mossi, the largest ethnic group in Burkina Faso. The WEM-NABA of Boussouma reigns over a well-defined territory where she exercises her power.

The traditional story of WEM-NABA is that an older sister of a Mossi king left her husband and returned to the royal court, whereupon the king found her a territory to rule. This territory was called Wemtenga, and has now become a district in the city of Ouagadougou. The first leader was Queen Poko. She had a royal court, made up of dignitaries. She was a very influential woman in the power of the Mogho Naaba, the Mossi chief. The WEMTENGA-NABA, or the chief of Wemtenga, was the only one who was able to obtain a royal pardon after a sentence of the king. In Ouagadougou, the head of WEMBA has been replaced by a man. But in the kingdom of Boussouma in north-central Burkina Faso, and in Koudougou in the central west part of the country, women leaders are always present, wearing a white cap and placed next to the king.

In the town of Koudougou in west-central Burkina, Naba Ziiri has reigned since 2007 alongside Naba Saaga I in Issouka, a village now surrounded by the city. She is assisted by four dignitaries, ministers who help her manage her power. She says, “I am respected by men and women. I give orders which are carried out.”

This place of women in traditional power allows women to participate in decision-making. Esther BAMOUNI is the coordinator of women’s organizations in Sanguié, one of the provinces of the Centre-West region. She says, “The example of Naba Ziiri must teach [us]. It gives courage to other women and shows that women can do as well as men.”

It is eight o’clock in the royal court of Mogho Naaba. This is the time that he receives his guests and conducts his audiences. Some dignitaries of traditional power are present.

Two young boys disguised as women and dressed in white loincloths tied at the waist come out of the concession and go into the hall, where the king’s throne is located. These boys take the place of the woman in the yard. The woman herself remains invisible in the royal court. Here, the woman does not participate directly in the management of power.

Professor Albert Ouédraogo from Joseph Ki Zerbo University in Ouagadougou is a specialist in African oral literature. He explains, “The woman is at the heart of the Moaga chiefdom even if she seems withdrawn, even if she is not among those who wear the bonnet.”

Indeed, legend has it that a woman was present at the origin of the Mossi chieftaincy: Princess Yennega, daughter of King Nedogo of Gambaaga, a town located in present-day Ghana. Tired of waiting for her to be married off, Yennega fled to east-central Burkina, now the city of Tenkodogo. There she met a hunter with whom she had a son named OUEDRAOGO. He was the founder of the Mossi kingdom. The Mossi chiefdom therefore comes from the maternal line.

This resource is undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada.

Photo: The WEM-NABA, or head of reconciliation, sitting on the ground under the canopy of the royal court, 2021. © Harouna Sana.