Art of the Lobi People


By Piet Meyer

Translated by Gisela Dunn

Copyright 2006 by Christopher Roy


  1. The Lobi

Around 1770 the Lobi migrated from Ghana into Upper Volta. A hundred years later some of them crossed the border into what is today the Ivory Coast on their search for uncultivated land. That is why today only about 60% of the total 160,000 Lobi now live in the southwest corner of Upper Volta, while 65,000 live in the northern Ivory Coast (see Labouret, 1931:27‑29, 1958:16‑17, 37 and Fiéloux, 1976:44‑49). The whole area is savanna grown over with bushes and trees. The savanna lies as a middle strip between the Sahel zone in the north and the jungle belt in the south, and extends from west to east through all West Africa. The Lobi are hoe-farmers and live mainly on millet, sorghum and corn (see ill. 5). They breed small livestock and horned cattle, though this is not done for food but mainly for dowries, payment of fines, and sacrifices. Today hunting and fishing supplies little meat because animals have become rare after Europeans brought guns into the country. Therefore the daily millet or corn pudding is generally accompanied by various sauces, which are usually saltless and often bitter tasting. They are prepared by the women out of fruits, leaves and roots which they either planted or gathered from bushes. Traditionally they eat only one meal a day, in the evening after work. The Lobi live in cool mud huts with narrow doors and windows. Their flat roofs are surrounded by raised walls, giving them the appearance of roof terraces, and they remind one of small castles. Until recently, the Lobi were very warlike. Vengeful fights were a common happening, one village fighting against another village, one family group against another. The French colonial regime which had to face a strong and persistent resistance against their efforts to colonialize the Lobi, could scarcely put a stop to this state of permanent unrest and insecurity (see Kambou, 1971, Pere, 1979:397ff). In every house (tyor) lives a minimum family unit (see ill,. 24): a “family chief” (tyuordarkuun), who has absolute authority over the other family members (tyordara), his wife(s), his married sons, who he did not yet “separate” (le) from him, i.e. whom he did not yet grant economical and social independence and who therefore have to work for and live with him, as well as his son’s wives and the unmarried children. The men of the house clear the fields and prepare them with hoes for the sowing. The women sow and bring home the ripe cobs carrying them in baskets on their heads. In addition, the men do most of the maintenance work and the crafts. They build and repair houses, carve wood, forge iron and work as brass founders. The women on the other hand take care of the housework. They collect water from a nearby brook, gather wood and carry it home; they crush the different grains in mortars with long, heavy pestles and pulverize them, a time consuming and heavy work, and they prepare meals and finally take care of the small children. In their spare time, they brew millet beer, make pottery and weave baskets and mats. They sell their products themselves and the income is at their disposal. The Lobi don’t do any other kind of weaving. Many of these activities are only done during one season. In the rain period (April through October) most of the fieldwork is done, leaving only a little time for other things. During the dry season (November through March) all the other duties and entertainments can be done; repairs and crafts are made, one visits friends and relatives and especially goes to markets, parties and funerals. There they dance, are exuberant, drink fresh brewed millet beer, flirt with women and get to know new people. These kinds of gatherings, as seen on markets, parties and funerals, are otherwise rare in Lobi culture. The “villages” (di) for example do not have village centers or community houses where all inhabitants or even the men of the village can meet. The houses stand far apart (between 50 to 800 meters) and seem to be disbursed randomly over the land. This impression is so strong, that as a visitor, being Lobi or European, usually one cannot tell where one village ends and another village begins. But in spite of this one can talk about villages in the Lobi culture. Why? A village unit is not based on topographical factors as in Europe, but on a system of groupings of neighboring houses living under a certain “thil” (plural “thila“), i.e. an invisible being with supernatural powers and abilities. The individual thil, being the head of the village, gives to the inhabitants of that village the norms (rules) for behavior that have to be followed strictly. These norms are given through a soothsayer. Only rarely do the thila communicate in a different way than through a soothsayer. If one of these norms is broken, the thila punishes that person by making him or somebody in his immediate surroundings ill or bringing bad harvest, accidents or other calamities on that person; they may even kill him. If an extremely important norm has been neglected in very careless way, the thila can even punish the whole village by bringing epidemic into the village or by holding back the rain that is so essential for fields, animals and people. With that the thila is punishing the whole community for an offense against a norm that possibly only one of the villagers committed. What are the behavior norms that a thila ordains? Since these precepts are always formulated in the negative, the Lobi call them “prohibitions” (soser). The prohibitions of one of the village thila could be: You shall not hurt or kill a member of your village, you shall not steal from them or seduce their wives, you shall not cause them any harm, neither in a physically visible nor magically invisible way. The village thil though will also regulate the behavior of the villagers with prohibitions in regards to certain animals, plants, foods, even objects. For example, the thil of Korhogo, a village close to Wourbira, prohibits that long mats (see ill. 4) be taken into his territory. Therefore the people of his village) contrary to other Lobi have to sleep on short mats and wrap their dead in short mats when they inquire of them the cause of their death (see ill. 17). And if people from neighboring villages just bought long mats at a market, they may not cross through Korhogo on their journey home, otherwise the inhabitants of Korhogo ‑ and only they ‑ risk the sanctions of their village thil. Let’s summarize: we call a group of neighboring houses a village when it has a common thil and therefore the same norms. These norms, or as the Lobi say prohibitions, regulate the life of the people with each other and their behavior towards certain animals, plants and objects. The village thil creates through these norms the social and political order as well as a feeling of togetherness and trust, which is so necessary in order for the people to live, and in light of the production methods practiced in field and house (and before in war) work together efficiently. The village thil is called dithil (di,”village”). He is personified through a shrine on the village territory (see ill. 32), and a priest, the so called dithildaar (“man of the dithil,” often called Lord of the Earth in the ethnological literature) It is this priest who receives the prohibitions of the dithil through a soothsayer and who then passes it on to the members of the village. He is responsible for communication between the villagers and the dithil. The Lobi have a lot of other thila (how these other thila are personified and taken care off will be discussed later). Many of these thila are also heads of social groups and put prohibitions on them that can be different in each case.


For example, the paternal and maternal relationships have their own thil; markets and celebrations of initiation are watched over by different thila; and even every house has its own thila who regulates the behavior of each family member in the same way as the village thil does. This fact is extremely important because the Lobi community does not have any centralized political, administrative or juridical authority to set, institute and guarantee social order. This task therefore has to be done by the thila. They are the ones that give the norms in the Lobi community. To better understand the position of the thila in Lobi culture, we need to describe how they got their position, or how the Lobi got their thila.




2.1. Why God gave the Thila to the Lobi  

In the beginning, so goes the story, the people lived completely happy (we would say: like in paradise). They were fed by “God” (thangba yu) with meat and therefore did not have to work. They did not know sickness or early death ‑ one only died of old age ‑ and there were neither fights nor wars because they obeyed the “great prohibitions” (soser kontena) that God had given them personally. Kherhim Da (Korhogo, March 1980) tells it this way: God had told the people: “Do not steal, do not rob women, do not kill and do not threaten each other—stay in one accord.” But people grew in numbers. The men needed women and so they started to rob women from each other. This caused fighting and war: “It started with the women; we went against each other and started to shoot arrows. The consequence was that God turned away from us and let us go our own ways.” He took the meat with which he had fed them away from the people and gave them the hoe to dig for roots. Millet was unknown to the Lobi at that time. God brought on them “sickness” (kho) and early “death” (kir) and left them forever. That is how the Lobi learned sadness, helplessness and sorrow. But in order to leave them not completely on their own, God gave them the thila for help, beings that were to help them in their new situation. He gave the thila the order that from now on they should “take care” (yaali) of the wellbeing (bopha) of the Lobi and to “save” their bodies from sickness, hunger, and death. Until now the thila have tried to fulfill this extremely important task in two ways. For one, they conveyed usually through a soothsayer various goods and ceremonies. For example they “showed” (nereri) the Lobi effective “medications” against sicknesses, or explained to them how to carry out the dyoro initiation, which is celebrated every seven years on the banks of the Black Volta. And secondly, they promised the Lobi to protect them whenever possible from harm and misfortune and to keep away the sorrows which God had brought to the Lobi after their first disastrous norm-break. We say “whenever possible to protect.” The thila made their promise of protection dependent on the condition that their prohibitions and “orders” (bonoo) were followed by the people. And that is what the thila have done since then: They only protect the people when they in turn respect the prohibitions and orders (what they are will be discussed later) which have been conveyed to them through a soothsayer; they take care of the well-being of people only after their wishes have been satisfied. This is the connection to the first chapter. There we called the thila the founder of the norms, who put certain restrictions on people and who punish disobedience with sickness, death and disaster. The Lobi are conscious of that fact and also express verbally that the thila organize the social system of their community, and thereby take care of the people. But in general the Lobi emphasize the protection that the thila give them and the way in which the thila work for the well being of the people. We should not overlook though that we are only talking about two viewpoints here: in the first case it is seen rather from the point of community and the norms necessary to keep this community. In the second case the emphasis is on the individual, i.e. the single Lobi and his need for protection. But God also sent her supernatural beings to the people. The most important ones among them were the “bush‑beings” (kontuorsi): small, red haired “people” (tibila) which live in the “bushes” (bon) and work in the fields, but generally stay invisible to people. They taught the Lobi how to soothsay (see Chapter 3.3), how to question a corpse for the cause of his death, how to bury the dead (see Chapter 3.4.3), how to build and play a xylophone and much more. They helped the people to build their “culture” after they were thrown out of “nature” by the thila after their first breach of the rules. But they don’t have the significance in the daily life of the Lobi that the thila have. Contrary to the Lobi they don’t cause the making of any clay‑ wood‑ or metal‑ objects in the area of Wourbira. Therefore we will concentrate in the following on the thila.

2.2. The Position of the Thila between God and Men

In order to understand the thila, we have to inspect closer their position in the Lobi‑cosmos. For that purpose we will compare the thila as well as the bush-beings and God with men and so try to comprehend the specifics in their character. We could include other supernatural beings in this comparison, but God and the bush-beings differ in essential features from the thila and therefore can help us especially well illuminate the position of the latter. Let us imagine a pyramid. The base is the people. The further a being is apart from the cosmic position of the people, i.e. the less human in character it is, the higher its position in the pyramid. God, who created the world and to whom it therefore belongs as the people say, reigns over it and stands therefore on top and alone on the pyramid. Underneath him are the thila and a step beneath them the bush-beings. The two latter categories of beings occupy the two planes between God on top and the people on the base. How can such a division be substantiated? How can the various quantities in human characteristics in these three different beings be described? We will use the following three criteria:


  1. determine the extent of body and visibility of these beings
  2. describe their character
  3. compare their potential for action with that of men

2.2.1 Body and Visibility

When the Lobi broke the first norm in pre‑historic times, God disappeared and became as bodiless and invisible to the Lobi as anything can ever be. In their opinion, God now lives behind the great pond or ditch, which surrounds the earth. Usually it is also said that he is “up” (yu) in “Heaven” (thangba, therefore his name thangba yu). Everybody emphasized though, that he might not be identified with heaven itself. Because he is so unreachable, the Lobi don’t build any shrines to him. It is more complicated in the case of the thila. They also are invisible and this to such an extent, that this is given as a reason why many questions about them could not be answered. But the thila can manifest themselves in animals or take on the form of things in which they appear to people in the bush (see chapter 2.3.) After such an appearance, they can demand through a soothsayer to have a shrine built for them (this happens when such a meeting is interpreted). Animals, objects, and shrines therefore can be manifestations of the otherwise invisible thila. But it has to be made clear that as some thila say, these manifestations do not represent the real thil but are rather dwelling places for him into which he can slip temporarily without becoming visible themselves. That is why one cannot say just from looking at a certain animal, object or shrine, whether it is inhabited by a thil or not, because thila can leave a shrine. The presence of a thil can only be determined by its actions. Therefore we can say: Like God, thila stay invisible to men permanently. But contrary to God, they can materialize themselves in different ways and that way can be localized at least temporarily. Contrary to them, the bush-beings are principally visible. They can show themselves in their true form to anybody they want to give or tell something, or to whom they want to harass with various tricks. But at the same time, they will be invisible for other people. Bush-beings thereby also differ in their character from people. This relative similarity between people and bush-beings can be seen in their appearance. They [bush-beings] are the only ones among the supernatural beings discussed here that possess a body similar to that of people and therefore can get sick and die, contrary to God and the thila. Bush-beings are described as beings not bigger than 7‑8 year old children, with red hair growing from head to toe, and because of that, look extremely ugly. The men have genitals and the women, breasts, which hang down to the ground and which they can throw back over their shoulders to make fun of the people which are smaller in that respect.


2.2.2. Character traits

God does not have any human characteristics. He is neither gracious nor just. He predestines the fate of each person before his birth and follows unknown standards. He can in no way be moved later to change this predestined fate in a positive or negative way; therefore sacrifices to him are meaningless. On the other hand, God is not vengeful and can be cursed without reproach. This is not true for the thila. They constantly act according to the human way of thinking: “I give to you so that you give to me.” They have wishes, which are not always understood by the Lobi, but which nevertheless have to be obeyed in order for the thila to do what the Lobi expect of them (see Chapter 2.1). In that way the thila are more human than God. They possess other human characteristics—some times too human for the Lobi. In doing their “work” they can be lazy or busy, can forget or be responsible, mean or kind. If they go on a trip with their “owner,” they can get tired. They can even envy other thila and try to disrupt their work in the human world because of that. But one cannot talk of the thila as having human character in all areas. For example a thila cannot be called dumb or intelligent. He can only be “dangerous” to various degrees. Often the behavior of men and thila is incomparable and therefore incomprehensible for the Lobi. This is not true for the bush-beings whose motives behind their behavior are clear in every detail. (As for example their formerly mentioned habit of throwing their genitals and breast over their shoulders.)

2.2.3. Potential for Action

While God, in maximum contrast to the people, is able to create life out of nothing, the thila only have the ability to hinder or stop life processes, or on the other hand, keep distractions away. For example, they cannot make the harvest of their owners grow faster. Therefore, it is wrong to say that certain thila take care of the fertility of the fields. They can only protect the harvest from too much rain or draught, or from destruction by enemies, envious people or “witches” (duntundara), and in that way let everything grow under the order that God had established. On the other hand, if they want to punish a family for breaking a rule, they can give the harvest up to changing climate or to the destruction through neighbors, they can put a sickness on the harvest, or let it rot. The bush-beings are limited in these abilities. The Lobi say that they [bush-beings] indeed have been given stronger thila by God and are therefore happier and mightier than men, but since they are subject to sickness, hunger and death the bush-beings also are dependent on their thila and their thila are identical to those of men.


We will see later that we can also put the wooden statues of the Lobi on one level with the bush-beings between thila and the people. We can now determine better the position of the thila. Obviously, they are in a middle position between God and men. In behavior, they are part of both and are therefore especially qualified to mediate between those two. We have already mentioned that the Lobi have an enormous number of thila. These thila are distinguished by name and can be separated into larger groups through native terms. We are going to concentrate on two groups: 1. The wathila, thila that can be found in the bush itself, and the 2. thila, whom one can “befriend” (gir woo). These two groups are responsible for the wood, clay, iron, and brass objects which the thila order through a soothsayer.


2.3. The Thila that can be found (wathila)

In principle, one can get into possession of a thila in three different ways. Only those thila that can be called whatila, are those which are “seen” (yer) in the bush and then are “built” (thiini) in form of a shrine at home. Men as well as women, adults as well as children can find wathila. They can neither be bought nor sold but only handed down to the children. But the children in turn cannot pass them on to, their children. Wathila are only inherited by the children from their parents and never from the grandparents. How can a wathil be found? To put it simply, a person finds an object usually made of iron and finds out later through a soothsayer that he has met a thil for whom he has to build a shrine. In the eyes of the Lobi though, such a meeting is not accidental. It is deliberately brought about by that thil who wants to enter into a person’s house in order to demand sacrifices and other performances. In order to get the attention of the chosen person, the thil will let something extraordinary and “strange” (ghul) happen, so that that person will suspect immediately that it could only have been a thil. In general, that person will then go to a soothsayer to find out whether he has really met a thil (which does not have to be the case). If so, he will ask what the thil wants him to do. But if that certain person does not pay any attention to the strange “signs” (gine) of the thil and does not go to a soothsayer, the thil will get angry and will soon give more and even painful signs (accidents, sickness, etc.) in the surroundings of that person until he is forced to (a) go to a prophet and (b) take the orders he receives seriously. The following is a description of a meeting with a wathil (plural wathila): A person is alone in the bush and suddenly sees something radiating so strongly that he stands still as if blinded (the Lobi say: “with a dirty face” iye bisimi). Once he has recovered, he will find an iron object in front of him. Since not all iron objects in the bush are radiant, he suspects to have met a thila. Similar reactions will come if he sees something suddenly falling from the sky and he also stands still with a “dirty face”; or if a snake which he tried to kill with a stick suddenly changes into a piece of iron. The regularity with which a person meets one and the same object can also be a sign. Diro Da (Wouriba, February 1980) in the following tells the story of how he found his first wathil: “I was shepherding my father’s cows when I was a small boy. One day I found a piece of iron about as long as a finger. The next day I found it again although I was shepherding in a different place. I threw it away again. A few days later I found it again in a different place. It looked like it had two legs and was like a “statute” (bateba). I left it there again. Then one day we went swimming. Suddenly I had the feeling a snake bit me. I screamed and kicked it. The same piece of iron flew to the shore. The older boys told me immediately to take it home to my parents. I gave it to my mother. When I had grown up, I tried three times in vain to kidnap a woman with her approval. It would not work and I did not understand why. So I went to a soothsayer who found out that when I was a small boy I had found a iron statue which I had given to my mother, and that had been a thil who was asking me now that I was a man, to build a shrine for him. At first I could not even remember the statue and asked my mother. Indeed, all these years she had kept that little object I had given her as a child. My father erected a shrine on the house terrace and put the iron statue in it.” This first shrine to be built for a wathil is called the thangba shrine. On request of the wathil, the father of the person who found the thil usually builds it on the roof terrace. This shrine is only a “clay cone” (jakure). A pot (thil blo “shrine pot”) is put on top or on the side. The “first woman of the house” (tyordarkher) i.e. the woman who was married first by the head of the family, will fill the pot regularly with water for the thil. Finally, the object that has been found is placed into the earth cone. The object is called “the eye of the thil” (thil yire) or more general the “sign of the thil” (thil gine; for different wathila/thangba shrines see ill. 35, 37). But this first shrine is not yet the active shrine.   It neither protects its owner, nor does it give prohibitions or orders through the soothsayer. The wathil first has to be personified with a second shrine within the house—either in the room of the first woman of the house, or in a small room specially built for that purpose (thildu “shrine room”, see ill. 24,39, 60ff). Only then can he be “regulated” (gbiser) with the necessary sacrifices. This is the condition necessary for the thil to start working for his owner. (The installation of a shrine is always done in two steps: first it is built (thini) and then “regulated” (gbiser) with the appropriate sacrifices.)   So the second shrine is built inside the house. The person appointed by the thil, often the brother of the mother of the wathil owner, erects the requested clay cones and puts the “eye of the thil” inside after it has been brought down from the shrine on the roof terrace. He installs next to it all the objects that the thil ordered: wooden and clay figures, ceramics, iron and brass objects, stones, seashells, and others (see ill. 39, 65ff). Then he sacrifices the requested animals over it and recites the necessary prayers with the owner of the thil. With that, the thil has become “cold” (we). Before he was still “heated” (perori) like a sick man who has not been “regulated” with the adequate (i.e. thil‑given) medicines. (Gbiser is also an expression used for sick people). Now the wathil can begin to give his owner orders and prohibitions and protect him and his family. What do the prohibitions refer to? As the dithila (village thila) order the life of the villagers, the wathil tries to guarantee a peaceful and smooth corporate life among the members of the minimal production unit who, in spite of tension and conflicts .are daily dependent on living and working together. The wathil though does not only regulate the relations between people, but as is the case with the dithil, also their relations to animals, plants, foods and objects. One principal is valid here as much as with the dithil: if the prohibitions that are usually kept secret from outsiders and therefore create a sense of identity for the members of the group are kept, the people are protected by the wathil. He “follows” (kpaari) them “like a dog” (aho biin) and defends them against witches, sorcery and other dangers. Finally, the wathil can request a third shrine (“bitter shrine”). This altar is erected either outside in front of the entrance door or in a small house (thilbityor, “thil child house”), which is built especially for that purpose (see ill. 8, 44, 45). Since meanwhile the first shrine on the roof terrace was regulated, the wathil can protect the house from three strategic points against invisible enemies: from the entrance door, the roof terrace and the room of the first wife or shrine room. If the wathil who is also called diulothil (“thil of the morning”) feels that the three strategic points are too weak, he can have a second wathil (“thil of the noon”) or in rare cases even a third wathil (“thil of the evening”) come. Again, the head of the family will find objects in the bush under strange circumstances. He will then hear through a soothsayer that he has found a wathil for whom he has to build one, two or even three shrines. This way a person can own nine wathil shrines. They all will give him prohibitions or orders, either individually or together. Since this is usually connected with extreme and great burdens for the family, the head of the household will try not to take more then one wathil in and will ward off or attempt to ward off other wathila.


2.4. The Thila that can be “taken” (gbaari) or “eaten” (dun)

While the wathil is a personal possession and cannot be sold or transferred by the person who found him in the bush, the thila to be taken or to be eaten belong to a larger number of individuals because they can be bought, or as the Lobi say, “taken” (gbaari). To be more exact: A person asks the closest owner of the desired thil if he can personify that thil with a shrine in his own house. The first owner does not completely give up his possession, but shares it from then on with the “buyer.” Therefore, the owner can pass on his thil (if the thil agrees to it) to an unlimited number of houses (i.e. can have him personified in these houses with new shrine. Through shrines, a thil can be spread in an amazingly short time over a large area. What are the advantages of that thil over the wathil in spite of his high price? Contrary to the wathila, they are very often special, or in a certain function and are therefore more effective than the wathil. For example, they fight witches and sorcerers much more offensively and brutally than the wathil, who in general concentrate on the defense of the house. In some cases, the gbaari also have the ability to harm or kill enemies magically. Or they guarantee success in war, in the search for a wife, riches or luck. If provided with the appropriate sacrifices, they can be used for just about any undertaking.   Finally, they often possess very effective medicines. Certain gbisaar can have more than one special ability. The Lobi and their neighbors know a huge number of these thila. Some of them are: bulkia (ill. 46), mase (ill. 48), khaar (ill. 47), nata (ill. 64), danyiir (ill. 53, 55, 56), milkuur (ill. 54), dakin (ill. 49, 50), bekur, kosami, baburu, senyo, tyober, gar, sindi and nyermase. They all personified by different shrines as the various illustrations show. These thila also have prohibitions that the new owner will find out when the old owner builds the shrine in his house and “regulates” (gbiser) it with sacrifices that are different in each case. At that time, they also find out what roots and leaves are necessary for the preparation of the medicine that that thil has. The owner of a thil who can be taken is called “the man” of the thil. For example, the owner of a mase is called masedaar, “man of mase,” the owner of a bulkia is called the bulkiadaar, “man of bulkia.” It is said that they all have “become friends” with their thil (gir wo, an expression not used for the friendship between humans). One can also become friends with thila through “eating” (dun, a word also used for eating in different contexts). This method is much cheaper than the taking of thila. Afterward, with a loud voice, the thil of one’s choice has been asked for protection against witches or sorcerers, or for help in certain undertakings (ill. 47) his medicine (thii) mixed with millet pudding is eaten. This way the thil is actually taken into the body and can permanently watch (kieeri) over the owner. With this blending with a thil, it could also be said that the entered the thil now provides a further advantage over the wathil who cannot be eaten and which always have to “follow”(kpaari) a person in order to protect him and can get tired and lose their owners. This danger does not exist with the thila that can be taken. But if a thil is eaten, he cannot be passed on to another person because he is not owned through a shrine. However, those who take a thil eat of course also his medicine, and that way secure his permanent protection.


Excursion to the thildara

Until about twenty years ago, most villages had one or two men who owned a large number of thila and personified them through various shrines in shrine rooms, on the roof terrace or in front of the house. These men were called thildara (singular thildar), “thil men.” For the greater part, they have disappeared today because of western civilization and medicine. Usually these men did not become thildara by their own free will but were forced to it by their wathila. They possessed “hard” (kiere), “dangerous” (puo) and “large” (kontin) wathila who had the ambition to become powerful and famous together with their owners. In order to reach this goal, they required extremely many and often very expensive performances from their owners. For one thing they ordered many times to be “regulated” with important sacrifices and many objects such as wooden and clay statues, shrine pots and metal objects, in order to gain more “power” (fanga, a word also used for human power). With this power they not only protected the members of the house, but also offered their services to non‑members, something that common wathila never do. Secondly, they forced their owners to take other thila who specialized in those areas in which they themselves felt too weak. That way these thila made sure that their owners could offer a great variety of services and therefore became rich and famous. On one hand, the thildara had wathila who repeatedly required objects for their shrines for frequent regulations. On the other hand they had many thila that also always meant many shrines, and the thildara had by far the largest collection of clay ­and wooden statues. It is difficult today to imagine these shrine rooms. From the statements of certain people, some of these rooms contained forty, fifty, or even more statues. Sometimes the opinion was heard that certain thila, which can be taken today, were originally wathila. It is possible that these wathila were so called hard wathila, who after successive regulations who were able to operate more and more outside of the house of their owners until finally they became thila who could be taken.

2.5. Other wathila

Though the thila we have talked about so far, the village thil (see Chapter l), the wathil, and the thila to be taken and to be eaten, are the ones that speak mostly through a soothsayer in divinations, there are other thila that are considered just as important by the Lobi. For example “thre,” the shrine build for the dead father about 8 to 10 years after his death, which he orders through a soothsayer, appears seldom in consultations, but is one of the most feared thila in every Lobi household.


With his prohibitions, he controls the behavior of the family members during the planting of the millet, the basic food of the Lobi. He does this by ordering for example, that there be no fights during fieldwork. Later he watches carefully and strictly over the fair distribution of the millet to the wives by the father of the family, because favoring one wife and her children over the other wives and their children can lead to sorcery of these wives against the favored one. The goal of the thre is to prevent anything that hinders the work atmosphere. Finally, he controls the correct use of the millet.


If one of these prohibitions is not followed, the thre punishes fast and much harder for example than the thil punishes disobedience against his rules. It is the opinion of the Lobi that the sharpness of the sanctions of the thre reflects the outstanding ecumenical significance, which the millet has in the life of the Lobi. It seemed to us that this harshness is one of the reasons why the thre relatively seldom speaks to the people through a soothsayer, since his orders are obeyed sooner because his sanctions are feared so much.


The thre is the only shrine in the area of Wourbira that is built for a dead person. This shrine can be passed down to one more generation, i.e. a man who built for his father can pass it on to his youngest son who in turn cannot pass it on to his son. Therefore, the great grandfather is already forgotten and cannot be personified anymore by a shrine (typical for bilinear tribes, see Goody 1961). That is why, contrary to common statements in earlier, especially art‑ethnological literature, one cannot talk about an ancestral cult (worship) in the Lobi culture.


In chapter one, we briefly mentioned the thila who are the head of the maternal and paternal family ties. They also regulate, with their prohibitions the relationship between members of the group and between them and animals, plants, foods and objects. But rarely or not at all can this be said of “mountains” “mountain holes” (kaar), “streams” (miir) and “dangerous places” (ba puo) which reveal thila‑like qualities and which “belong” (bine) nobody and therefore everybody. They can be approached with sacrifices in times of need. But since they do not watch over a group of people they don’t give prohibitions. This ties together with the fact that they don’t request wooden, clay, iron, or brass objects through a soothsayer.

  1. Communication between thila and men


3.1. The soothsayer

In the eyes of the Lobi, thila are bodiless (see Chapter 2.2.) and therefore cannot talk like people. But if the thila want to take care of the well-being (bopha) of the people and keep up the order in the community, they have to call the attention of the people to the breach of a norm and tell them exactly how to make up for it. The opportunity for this exchange of information is given through the soothsayer. He is the mediator and the translator between the thila and the people. Usually the soothsayer is a man who was forced by his wathil to become a soothsayer. Only 2% of all soothsayers are women. It is justified to talk about “being forced” because the person who found out through a soothsayer that he has to give advice to the people practically without payments in addition to his regular chores, will first try to avoid that “order” (bonoo). He is going to wait for further signs of his wathil, and will question five or ten other soothsayers before he agrees to his calling. Under great physical and material sacrifices stubborn individuals can defy their wathil for years, but the thil will have no sympathy for the arguments of the defying owner, and use harsher and harsher measures like bad harvest, sicknesses and even death, to force his will upon him. One will ask why there is such a stubborn resistance against the calling to be a soothsayer. The following reasons were given by the Lobi: A soothsayer usually cannot turn down any clients who come for consultations without risking the sanctions of his wathil. An exemption can only be made if someone in the family is seriously ill or someone died, or if the soothsayer himself is sick or busy with sacrifices at that time. This impossibility of turning down clients is even more tiring as a Lobi soothsayer will be visited on the average by four or five clients per day and on peak days even fifteen to twenty clients. And that although about every ninth man between 25 and 70 years is an active soothsayer and they are distributed relatively evenly over the land. Since a consultation lasts at least one half hour, “the soothsayer does not even see the sun on those peak days” (Sagie Da, Gbomblora, February 1977). In other words, a soothsayer throughout the year will have less time for fieldwork and other jobs than a person who is not a soothsayer. This hurts the soothsayer even more since he practically earns nothing through his divinatory work. Per consultation, he will receive 5 cowries if he soothsays in his house, or 20 cowries if he goes to a place chosen by the client. Soothsayers also do not have a higher status and don’t enjoy special privileges. If they soothsay especially well, they merely gain the prestige that every Lobi gains if he has better command of his work than other Lobi (like farming, dancing, wood carving, etc.) Finally, a soothsayer rarely soothsays for himself. If he has a serious problem he is going to consult another soothsayer who is as unbiased as possible, i.e. one who lives as far away as possible. Being a soothsayer therefore means to give a lot of time for other people without the soothsayer himself profiting from it. That is why every Lobi tries to get away from the pressure of becoming a soothsayer. But I have never heard of a Lobi who successfully resisted his wathil. The one chosen for this calling to divination does not have to go through any training. That fact is one of the reasons for the low social standing and low payments. Having been a client himself in countless consultations, and having watched different soothsayers at their relatively simple ritual, and even participated actively, he knows how to greet the thila and afterwards question him and how to check the results of the consultation. He merely has to pass a test‑consultation of an older soothsayer, i.e. by questioning a thil he has to find out the problem that the soothsayer who sits next to him is thinking of, and what his motive could have been for asking for a consultation. Then he has become a soothsayer himself, and can, or rather has to, accept clients. “Soothsayer” and “clients” both are called buor in the Lobi language. Using the same word seems to correspond to what was said above. The soothsayer does not stand out by higher income, status, or extensive technical knowledge. Generally, he only became a soothsayer because he wanted to avoid further sanctions by his wathil.

3.2. The Most Important Motives for going to a Soothsayer

When does a Lobi go to a soothsayer? They answer the question as follows: “A person goes to a soothsayer when something bad has happened or is happening and when he is afraid because he cannot find a way out.


A malaria sickness and its various stages will illustrate how the sick person and his environment react and at what time a soothsayer is consulted. Binathe Kambou (Wouriba, March 1977) differentiates between the following symptoms of malaria: 1. The person coughs 2. He sneezes and is stuffed up 3. He has a headache 4. He does not feel well and his bones ache 5. He has a stomach ache and spits out “bad salvia” 6. He throws up, has no appetite and rests 7. He is cold and hot, the whole body shivers, one lies down but can still talk 8. He no longer talks, only answers with “hum” if talked to; he still recognizes people around him 9. He no longer recognizes people, not even their voices—the mother cries 10. The eyes are blank and are similar to those of a cat—all women in the house cry, the neighbors come and cry 11. He dies.


The reaction of the sick person and his environment to these symptoms are as follows: From the third or forth stage on the patient starts taking medicine which he kept at home. If he has European medicine, which is rare, he will also take that. If no medicines work, the family father goes to search upon neighbors and relatives in the area for better drugs. If the patient still gets worse, the father will go to a thildara (see Chapter 2.4.) and he will ask him for stronger (and more expensive) medicine. If this is useless and the sick person reaches stage eight of the symptoms, the father has no other choice but to visit a soothsayer. He knows for sure now that the earthly medicine will not help and therefore not only “natural” causes are responsible for the sickness. There have to be other reasons and the soothsayer only can discover them. There are some other reasons for visiting a soothsayer. He is consulted if the harvest of a person is always worse than that of his neighbors, even though he does not work less then they, or if a man tries in vain to kidnap a woman and is unsuccessful although he does everything in his power; if the pots of a potter always break in the firing process, although she uses the same clay and is just as careful in the making of the pots as before. A person will always go to a soothsayer when all his efforts to change an unpleasant situation have availed to nothing. Fear and uncertainty, which are reasons to go to a soothsayer, can also be caused by sudden happenings. An accident or even a sudden death will immediately bring fear that the reason for that tragedy will cause other bad things to happen in the future. Therefore, a person goes to a soothsayer to find out from his thil what caused the misfortune and how he can take care of it as soon as possible. Fear is also caused by omens. If, for example, a dog in the house climbs up on the millstone and licks the millet kernels, it can mean a bad thing for the family. The father will therefore go immediately to a soothsayer to possibly avoid the approaching danger. In all these cases, the Lobi do not go to a soothsayer because they are interested in the future, but because they want to avoid or change a feared misfortune and are trying to find out all possible solutions. Consultations therefore mostly revolve around the past and present of the client. The future is only relevant in as far as it helps today to change problems that could be painful tomorrow. If possible, the family father himself will go to the soothsayer. With five cowries in his right hand he steps in front of the most important shrines of the house, which are: the first wathil who came into the house, the one inherited from the father, the thre and the most important thil to be taken. He stands in front of each shrine and “speaks” (karsi) in a semi‑whisper for example the following: “Listen, thil, I don’t know what to do. I am afraid. My youngest daughter is very sick. We have tried everything to heal her, but in vain. If you are responsible for the illness or otherwise know anything about it, follow these five cowries to the soothsayer and there say what you have to say so that she gets well again. Do you understand?” (Bindouthe Da, Wourbira, December 1976) In this manner, he speaks before each shrine because he does not know which thil is responsible for the misfortune. Then he goes to a soothsayer. Only rarely will he have a soothsayer come to his house.

3.3. The Consultation

After the client has arrived at the soothsayer, he only tells him, after the traditional greeting that he wants to “soothsay” (bore) with him. He never mentions in any way either now or at a later point of time, the motive for the “consultation” (no) that brought him there, because the soothsayer has to find that out for himself during the consultation. The soothsayer leads his client into the consultation room; usually the room of his first wife or his shrine room and asks him to be seated. (The photos 73‑78 were taken in a consultation which began before sunrise and for that reason took place on the roof terrace of the soothsayer’s house.) The soothsayer gets out his divination bag (buorlookaar), sits down (to bul without knowledge) at the right hand of his client. Out of the leather bag he takes the various objects which he uses to soothsay on request of his wathil: a white or reddish “limestone” (mele), with which he draws circles, strokes and waves on the floor, a “iron bell” (giel) with which he later on will greet the “Great” (kontena), one or more leather bags which contain the [cowry for the?] questioning of the thila; “wooden statues” (bateba) which show people or animals in various positions, “sea shells” (khaa), “stones” (bikaar) and in certain cases still other objects. Once he has placed everything in front of him he can begin with the greeting of the “great” by holding the iron bell (see 111.78) in his left hand and hitting it in a fast and continuous rhythm. This way he “greets” (fuori) one after another “God” (thangba yu), “the earth” (ti), his thila, the thila of his client, and important thila of the area to which dead soothsayers belong. At the same time, he asks them to add to the success of the consultation. (After a few “proverbs” (sokpar) about the essence and meaning of the divination, he abruptly stops the loud clinging and the greeting. He now opens one of the leather bags and takes out some of the cowry shells. With them, he asks his thila one after the other if he is allowed to soothsay.   If all answers are positive, he can start with the real inquiries. (How the cowry have to fall in order to reveal something will be discussed later.) First, he has to find out from the thila what the motive for the consultation is. With raised voice, he asks the thila questions which they can answer with ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ which they indicate through the left hand of the soothsayer. The left hand of the soothsayer holds the right hand of his client who sits beside him. Both hands will be united before the first question regarding the client and they will stay together until the end of the consultation. In the beginning the soothsayer asks very general questions: “Did someone in the family of the client die?” “Is someone sick?” “Has an omen been seen?” “Has blood been shed otherwise?” “Have domestic animals died?” “Did someone have a nightmare?” “Has a sacrifice gone wrong?” “Does someone want to travel?” Every question that does not apply is answered by the thila with non‑movement. They make the fingers of the united hands run quickly over the left thigh of the soothsayer (see ill. 74) after which the arm of the soothsayer, together with the arm of the client, goes up (see ill. 75), and immediately with a loud clapping noise falls down with the left hand of the soothsayer slapping his left thigh. There the hands rest again until they have to answer the next question. When the soothsayer finally asks a correct question, the thila answers with a ‘yes’ gesture. The united hands lift a little, then slowly lower to the ground (ill. 76) and quickly go up again. Then they fall back clapping the left thigh of the soothsayer. By always asking yes/no questions, the soothsayer can go into a long dialogue with the thila and thereby receive astonishingly much and precise information in a fairly short time span. If the soothsayer gets too many negative answers, i.e., if he cannot find the right questions that help him to find the reasons for the visit of his client, he can ask the thila the following questions which cannot be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ “What is it that I cannot find?” The thila will answer that question by making drawing‑like movements in the air and on the ground with the united hands of the soothsayer and his client. These movements will reveal certain facts to the soothsayer. The soothsayer will then try to interpret these movements through yes/no answers. If that does not lead to success, he repeats the specific questions. If he does have success, he continues with questions that can be answered with yes or no. This way the soothsayer determines the motive of his client for coming to a consultation. He has to find this out in great detail. It is not enough to find out that someone had a bad dream. He also has to be able to say who in the family had it. That is the only way for the client to be sure that the soothsayer got in contact with that thil, who caused his trouble, and therefore can give the soothsayer the information what to do about it. This also leaves the client with the option to decide whether he will trust the information that is now to be requested, i.e., whether he will accept the later diagnosis of the soothsayer and comply with his orders, or if he should go to another soothsayer. The client wants to make sure that the thil has been reached who is responsible for the present problem. He does not want to sacrifice to a thil and then find out later that his problem still exists because the wishes of the right thil had not been fulfilled. The search for the motive therefore is a test which will give the client important information.

When the soothsayer determines the motive, he can finally ask what caused the problem, why he caused, it and what has to be done to eliminate it. He will always try first to ask yes/no questions to find out as much as possible and only when that leads to nothing, he will ask questions with more alternative than yes or no. Every reasonably important finding received will be checked by the soothsayer through rolling the cowry. He condenses the information into one sentence and then asks the thila to answer through the cowry wether or not he soothsaid correctly or whether other important information is missing. While speaking he takes two, three, four, or five hand and throws them before him on the ground. If one single cowry falls with the open-side facing up, the answer of the thila is ‘yes.’ Any other position means ‘no.’ Through these cowry—answers the soothsayer can be forced to ask more questions concerning the problem that he believed was already solved. When he finally has all the important information, he gives the word over to his client who until then was silent. He himself can now ask the thila yes/no questions to get more precise answers in those areas that especially interest him. The questions are always answered through the united hands of client and soothsayer. After approximately 800 to 1,000 questions have been asked within about one‑half hour, all information has been found and confirmed several times. The soothsayer will sum up the results for his client and ask a few last questions from the thila to make sure. After to or three more tosses to check the result, the consultation is over. The soothsayer gathers up his instruments and leaves the room with his client, unless other customers are waiting in the “waiting room” (gbala). The client usually tells in no way whether or not he is satisfied with the consultation. He goes home and will follow the orders or prohibitions.

3.4. The Orders (bonoo) of the Thila

The most important prohibitions that the thila give were named in the foregoing chapter. But what are the so-called “orders” (bonoo) that the thila give their owners? Roughly, they can be divided into four categories: first, orders about the building or finishing of a shrine, secondly orders regarding sacrifices, thirdly orders that request a “buur” celebration, and fourthly orders which ask a certain action from the owner like asking him to become a soothsayer. We will talk about these orders without consideration to the frequency with which they appear in the consultation.

3.4.1. The Building and Finishing of Shrines

Through the example of the wathila we will illustrate how thila enter into the life of a man (they enter the life of a woman less frequently), how they request more shrines in the house, in front of the house entrance, and how they even have other wathila come, and as in the case of thildara, even order the taking of special thila. These orders though are relatively rare. In most cases the thila order that their shrines be completed with wood and clay figures (see chapter 6 and 7) and other objects. They justify these orders by saying that they need these “objects” (thii) as tools for their daily “work” (thorn). The integration of these objects into the shrine is usually accompanied by a small “sacrifice” (toopar). Finally the thila can order “regulations” (gbiserpara) of their shrines (see excursion to thildara in chapter 2.4) which often include the installation of new objects (statues, pots, etc.)


3.4.2. The Sacrifice (toopar)

The word “sacrifice” is not quite the same as the Lobi expression toopar. Toopar means “cowering down,” or “to remain quite in one place.” It rarely means the sacrificial killing of a bigger animal, but generally only a prayer which is said standing or cowering in front of the shrine and a stenographic drawing on the ground in front of the shrine which visualizes what was spoken. After the prayer, usually a young chicken, less frequently a hen, is taken and its carotid artery cut open. The bleeding animal is held over the shrine and then thrown on the ground. If it dies on its back, it is a sign that was ad been said was accepted and the “matter” (thimiir) that caused thil to order to be sacrifice through the soothsayer is considered over. If the animal dies on its stomach, the thil has rejected the sacrifice. To check this, a second and if necessary a third chicken is killed and if the result is the same the person has to go to the soothsayer again to find out why the required sacrifice was not accepted. The killing of chickens or hens therefore, is a kind of oracle, than what is usually understood as a sacrifice. A thil requests a sacrifice for two different reasons. Either he wants to have the breaking of a prohibition corrected or he wants to prevent the attack that witches and sorcerers are planning on its owner. These two reasons for a sacrifice are reflected in the above-mentioned drawings, which are done during the speaking in front of the altar (khien mele, to pull the pencil). Variation 1 (ill. 81) is “pulled” upwards and described a follows: “You take a mouth‑hole, go up and tie on.” The “mouth‑hole” (no kar) is not physiological term, but the contents that the thil in question has in his “mouth.” The ‘contents’ is the mistake, or you could say, the breach of a rule which was committed and which turned into a “matter” (thimiir) because the mistake became a “matter” in the mouth of the thil and turned into a “mouth‑hole.” If this matter is not resolved, it has to be “packed” (haali), i.e. taken away from the thil and “tied up” (lir) like tying something up with a knot and therefore neutralizes it. This way the breach of a norm is taken care of and it ensures that the thil will not cause any further accidents. Variation 2 (ill. 81) also serves to “tie up,” a matter. Variation 3 is more specific: a thil asks for this drawing when there was an argument in the house of his owner, or as illustrated by the drawing, the “mouth” (no) of two people who have been separated are brought together again and united. The other drawings function against witches and sorcery. To understand their effect we first have to talk about these asocial and dangerous beings in a short excursion.

Excursions about Witches and Sorcery

The Lobi word duntundaar is not adequately translated with the term “witch,” because Lobi witches, as generally all African witches, have little in common with the European witches of the Middle Ages. The men as well as the women and children can be witches in Lobi culture. But a Lobi can only be a witch if God predestined him before his birth. Lobi witches have many different abilities. In dangerous situations some of them can disappear from the earth within seconds, others can fly or change into animals like elephants or monkeys and, this way cause damage to the fields of their neighbors. But the worst group of witches can “eat human flesh” (khuni tibil nun). These witches come into the houses in their area and steal the “souls” (thuu) of the sleepers, which are meat for the witches. They sell them at “witch markets” (duntunyaa), trade, or eat them. The souls which do not originate from the witches own “matriclan”(tyaar) are traded or sold and may not be eaten. The person whose soul was stolen will feel sick already the next morning, and he will get ill very soon and finally die when his soul has been eaten (see Labouret 1931: 479‑488). Since the possibilities to regain a soul after it has been stolen are very slim, the people try to defend against witches with the appropriate sacrifices and objects in order not to let the witches get to close to them. Finally, all witches have the ability to throw projectiles (dudube) on the people which cause sicknesses and which cannot be seen by non‑witches. If too many of these projectiles enter a person’s body (they can be stones, iron objects or even small living things), they cause pain in those parts of the body where they are. If this occurs, the person has to go to a specialist, a so-called bibur (see below) who will “bring out” (biir, beat) the objects which suddenly became visible before the astonished eyes of the sick person (see Labouret 1931:489‑490). Sorcery is less dangerous than witchcraft. A person attacked by sorcery will be “thrown down” (gbangar). He gets sick or suffers unexplainable failures in various situations. But very rarely will his life be in danger. It is very popular to harass an enemy with these things. Generally, anybody can perform sorcery. The only condition is that the person either has “great thila” (thila kontena) with whose help he can cause harm for an enemy, or if a person has enough money, he can buy the service of a “thildaara,” i.e., the service of his “great thila.” A very common method of sorcery is called thuuri. An example is that a person takes an object from the shrine, which was asked for help through a sacrifice. This object is hidden either in the house of an opponent, or in his fields. As long as the object has not been found and no counter measures have been taken, the magic will work against him. Another method tries to “tie” (lir) an opponent magically to the “road” (huo) on which a person wants to see him thrown back. Some of these “roads” are: the “road of the field” (lo huo) which is the fieldwork; the “road of the woman” (kher huo) which is the search for a woman; on this road for example, a person tries to hinder any competition that might try to seduce the woman that he himself wants to marry; the “road of the cattle” (na huo) which is the cattle breeding; the “road of trade” (yayab huo); the “road of work” (thom huo), which is the paid job. This tying down is done by tying a string around an object on the shrine while speaking. A third method finally will confuse or mix up (nianianere) a situation for an opponent. This “mixing up” (nianiani) is also imitated with analogical ceremonies in front of the shrine. Let’s go back to the sacrificial drawings (ill. 81). The “wavy lines” (gongolo, variations 4 and 7) visualize the art by which witches and sorcerers move, which is literally in crooked ways. In order to stop them they have to be attacked in “wavy lines.” This can be done through these sacrificial drawings. Iron posts, bracelets and amulets as well as pots ornamented with a wavy line, fulfill here anti‑witch and anti‑sorcery functions. Drawings 5 and 6 are synonymous. With a horizontal line, a person “crosses” (banbari) the road on which witches are lurking. The road itself is indicated by the lines going from the top to bottom. With drawing 5 a person can also “turn away” (kpoori) the sacrificial promise that an opponent gave to his thil to cause trouble. With drawing 7 a person “ties” (lir) the attack of an opponent who wanted to tie him down and thereby neutralizes that action. Accordingly, variation 8 is used to “mix up” (nianiani) the “mix up” that an opponent had planned. Drawings 9 and 11 as well as variation 1 are more general in their meaning and therefore are mainly done in connection with sacrifices. A person “throws” (gbangar) with a counter-clockwise motion that person, who wanted “throw down” oneself and then ties up his bad “mouth” with a slipknot. It is somewhat misleading to call these sacrificial drawings. They are not meant to be drawings that are supposed to work once finished, but they rather are symbolic movements, or better, they visualize gestures which are performed in front of the shrine while the person talks. These gestures, which are always accompanied by the appropriate words, give the speaker the opportunity to express and experience the spoken word in a physically direct way. It is important in this connection to know that the thil who orders a certain drawing during a consultation also asks for a certain material with which the drawing has to be done. The thil can choose from at least 60 different “materials” (mele). The various qualities of the materials can have a relationship to the matter that the owner is dealing with. For example, the thil can ask for “ant dirt,” that is dirt over which an ant trail had run “because the enemies of the owner of the thil are as many as ants.” This way the act of drawing becomes a symbolic act in an even more complete and impressive way. We have talked about the sacrificial drawings in such detail because they are part of an arsenal with which the Lobi defend themselves against witches and sorcerers and to which many of the objects belong that will be discussed later.


3.4.3. The Buur

As in the case of sacrifices, buur are only performed on order of a thil, in this case a wathil. They are sacrificial festivities, which are held in the house of the owner of the wathil who ordered it. They are held shortly before the beginning of the rain period, around March, April or May. During these two days numerous domestic animals, mostly chickens, sheep and goats are sacrificed on shrines under the direction of a “buur priest” (buorkontin). These sacrifices are made to delight the thila and motivate them newly to make better efforts to take care of the well-being of the members of the household. Buur, though, are also regular celebrations. From far and near hundreds of visitors come, dance to the rhythm of xylophones and drums, they drink millet beer and are happy and exuberant. The more guests, the better because many visitors will honor the thil and will cause him to protect the family better. To a certain degree buur are also initiations to divination; those members of a household who on order of their thila partook in certain ceremonies during the buur, have become potential soothsayers at the end of the two days. In the following weeks, they can decide whether they want to become real soothsayers. This happens very rarely though, because soothsaying is thought of as a very exhausting and time consuming activity. There are countless types and sub‑types of buur with countless varieties in all areas of organization. These variations developed because the wathila can order a certain type of buur and when they demand it, they can often dictate certain changes in the rituals, etc. A comprehensive scientific work could be devoted solely to the most important types of buur (see Labouret, 1931: 461‑465; Goody, 1972; Erbs, 1975: 17‑30; Pere, 1979: 355‑364).


3.4.4. The Pressure to Perform Certain Activities

Finally, wathila and in this case only wathila, can demand from their owners (if necessary force them with sanctions) to: become “soothsayers” (buor); become a “healer” (bibiir) and remove “witch projectiles” (dudube) from the bodies of sick people; hold “markets” (yaa) every fifth day in a certain place; organize a “battue” hunt; become a wood carver of wooden statues (bateba thel); become a “blacksmith” (phuberdaar) become a “brass founder” (phusiedaar)or become a “hunter” (babaal).


The four activities first mentioned are with rare exceptions only performed on demand of a wathil. Because they cannot be performed successfully without the active assistance of a wathil, for example a soothsayer cannot see anything if his wathil does not answer his questions. A healer cannot remove any witch projectiles from his patient if the wathil does not activate the ointment that has to be rubbed on the patient before the removal of the projectiles. A market organizer won’t have any law and order in his market, if his wathil did not first assure it with sanctions and prohibitions. A hunt organizer won’t find enough game and cannot avoid accidents if his wathil does not help him. By not being willing to accept volunteers, the wathil behave as if they themselves have to choose with whom they want to work (even soothsayers who voluntarily become soothsayers after a buur, have held the buur on demand of the wathil). Many Lobi assure you that they would not want to do any of these time consuming and straining jobs voluntarily. Wood carvers, blacksmiths, brass founders, and hunters on the contrary, are not dependent for their work on the active cooperation of the wathila. Therefore they can do these jobs voluntarily. In spite of this fact, there exist still craftsman, who have been forced by their wathila to carve figures or to forge shrine objects. Why? Since on one hand these occupations bring very little money and prestige, voluntary sculptors and blacksmiths are rather rare among the Lobi. On the other hand, wathila regularly demand objects of iron or wood and they want to have their orders filled quickly. Therefore, they want to have enough craftsmen in their area that can execute their orders quickly. One will ask the question how thil or wathil can force a person to become a sculptor, who for example, does not have any talent for that kind of a work. The Lobi don’t ask this question. Of course, they differentiate between good and bad sculptors: but according to them, it does not take any talent to carve “figures” (bateba). “Anybody can carve”, they say, because statues don’t have to be beautiful. They are meant for thila and they don’t care at all whether the figures they ordered are good or bad, detailed or rough, beautiful or ugly. The determining factor is that they “resemble” (bure, what that means will be discussed later) “persons” (tibila). Since anybody can fulfill this condition if he is only willing, anybody can be forced to become a sculptor. Contrary to that, the thila practically never force their owners to build xylophones. Contrary to statues, xylophones have to meet such strict quality standards and therefore can only be built by people who have been given that special talent by God. Therefore, the Lobi argue, the thila cannot force people to carve xylophones.




 4.1. Different Categories of Wood Carvers (tethel)

“Wood carvers” are called tethel. Depending on whether they carve “tool shafts” (saar), “clubs” (gbokol) “mortars” (gbo), “pestles” (gbosiri), “stools” (dako), “cooking spades” (gpaar), “xylophones” (yolo) or “figures” (bateba), they are called dako thel (stool carver), yolo thel (xyolophone carver), bateba thel (figure carver), etc. As mentioned before, of all these carvers only the sculptor can be forced to carve (thili). The other specialists do their work voluntarily, either because they wish to earn a little more money, or less frequently, because they want to pass the time. We have to remember here that adult Lobi are always farmers first. The sculptors also live mainly on their own fieldwork. In the following, we want to concentrate on the sculptors and their work. First we want to discuss their most important carvings, the figures.


4.2. The Position of the Figures (bateba) between Thila and Men

Before we introduce the various categories of figures, it is sensible to talk in a somewhat general way of how the Lobi conceive their status. For the Lobi, statues are neither art works nor simply wooden, metal, or clay objects, but living beings which can see, communicate with each other, move, and ward off witches and sorcery which is one of their jobs. One imagines that these figures fight with their own body. In order to really understand this conception, we will from now on use the Lobi term for figure which is bateba (singular and plural). We will avoid translation as much as possible, because our words like “statue,” “sculpture,” and “figure” all imply objects, and life can only be attributed to them in the sense of what they communicate to us as an artwork. Bateba become living and active beings at the moment that they are put on the shrine or otherwise surrendered to a thil. They then transform into mixed beings who combine human appearance with the superhuman qualities of the thila. On the four-step pyramid (see chapter 2.2), in which we earlier placed beings of the Lobi cosmos, the bateba would be on the second plateau together with bush-beings, between men and thila. The bateba can recognize and fight witches, contrary to men. They do this in areas which are inaccessible for men. Contrary to the thila, they possess a human like “body” (tumber), which is made from wood, clay, iron or brass but which they nevertheless can use like a human’s. For example, they fight against witches with their fists. Different from the thila, the bateba can also die. This happens when their bodies have deteriorated too much, or if they have been abandoned by those thil on whose shrine they are standing. The Lobi also express this two‑fold relationship of the bateba with the thila and men in their language. In certain cases, bateba are called “thila” or “thila bie” (small thila). But the Lobi qualify this by saying that bateba are not really thila, but are only called that because they possess certain thila like abilities. In other situations the Lobi call their bateba “persons” (tibila), or more accurately, a “person of the thila” (tibila thila) or more seldom, “children of the thila (thila bi). The Lobi call them “children” (bi) because just like children help their fathers with their “work” (thom), so the bateba help their thila, and just as children “belong” (hine) to their fathers, so the bateba belong (hine) to their thila.


Excursion to the Question of Whether the Lobi have Ancestral Statues

Can bateba also be termed ancestral figures, as has been done for quite a while over and over again in the art‑ethnological literature? To answer this question, the following points have to be recognized:

  1. In the area of Wourbira, the “deceased” (kingiedara) are called “ancestors” (kotena thier, “Great beneath”). I have never heard there, that bateba have been brought into connection with these two terms. Therefore, there are no ancestral figures in Wourbira.
  2. According to Tito Spini and Giovanna Antongini (1980), in the area of Kampti (see   map 1 and 2), wooden figures are often personified as “returned people.” These are people who died one or two generations back and who want to return into the house of their surviving family. The cultural and linguistic differences between the area of   Wourbira and Kampti are so great, that it can be assumed that these two regions have   different understanding of the character of the bateba. Among the Dagari‑Wile of   Birifu (see map 1) wooden and clay figures are also supposed to represent recently   deceased people according to Jack Goody (1962: 224, 226 and 1972: 17) and Roy Sieber   (1981).
  3. Wooden figures are also identified with other beings among the Lobi and their neighbors.


Hans Himmelheber for example writes (1966: 70) that two bateba that he bought in the Lobi village of Lantio (northern Ivory Coast), were called konde, i.e. bush-beings. (Bush-beings are called kontuorsi as well as kontey in the area of Wourbira.) Reports by Henri Labouret (1931:40) are similar. He writes that in the house of a Birifor man in Doumbou (village in Upper Volta), bush-beings had to be personified by clay statues “des dieux Konnton”. Finally, Goody (1972: 19, 1979) and Sieber (1980) inform us that certain wooden and clay figures were identified with bush-beings among the Dagari‑Wili in Birifu. But bateba seem to be also identified with completely different beings. The sculptor who carved the two figures (catalog no. 44) bought by Himmelheber, told him the following: “These figures which you see here are neither konde nor sitone, because those beings have not yet appeared to me.” This remark indicates that in one and the same village, bateba can associated with different categories of beings. What then is the answer to our question? In no case can Lobi figures simply be called ancestral statues, because they are associated by the Lobi with various categories of beings. If they are identified with the recently deceased, they do not represent ancestors in the ethnological linguistic use of the word. Ancestors are only those deceased who died several generations ago (see Himnielheber 1965:8) As to what then can the bateba refer to, not only in the area of Wourbira? As far as the information so far available is concerned, Lobi statues seem to be identified everywhere with beings that stand between men and thila in the cosmos. Persons of the thila, the deceased, the returned ones, as well as bush-beings have human-like bodies and are like them in other important areas. But they do differ from men by temporary invisibility (Lobi can see deceased sometimes, but not always) and superhuman abilities. Therefore, everywhere bateba resemble men and are at the same time more than they. Let’s go back to the bateba in the area of Wourbira. The fact that bateba resemble people only to a certain degree can be seen by the often astonishing resemblance between male bateba (bateba kuun, “bateba man”) and female bateba (bateba kherbateba woman”). They can be so alike that sculptors who were asked the question whether the bateba they carved were male or female, could only answer the question after they took the bateba in their hands and inspected the genitals which are always very small. Because of this minimal generic differentiation, male and female bateba for example have the same powers and abilities in their fight against witches. Bateba never marry and pairs only represent twins and never a married couple. But the fact that the “breasts” (ila, word used as well for male as for female breasts) are so alike on bateba of different sex has its origin in the fact that sculptors are reluctant to carve full, round breasts on their female bateba; it is extremely difficult to work with the hard and termite resistant wood that is used. One Lobi sculptor remarked the following: “As long as the thila do not object to it, we would rather carve the flat breasts of an old woman than the round ones of a young girl (Onuoore Kambou, Pilings, February 1980). These flat breasts though are hardly different from the triangular breast flaps with which the carvers imitate the strong breast muscles of the Lobi farmers. The bateba share with the people various hairstyles and tattoos which until only a few years ago, were worn as adornments (see Labouret, 1931:186‑187 and 180‑181). First we will discuss the most important hairstyles that one can find among the bateba. Until today the older Lobi liked to have their “heads” (yuo) shaved bald. Younger people on the other hand preferred to “cut” (kur) their hair helm-like, whereby the skull-cap could have different sizes (see ill. 28 and Labouret 1931:Pl.X:1, 3, P1. XXVII:7 and P1. XXX:6). Both hairstyles are often found among the bateba (see catalog no. 34 and 3). There were also more complicated styles, like shaving an eclipse which gave a kpajul hairstyle (see catalog no. 113 and 1 and Labouret, 1931: Pl.XII:1, 2). Sometimes the head was “divided” (bele) by shaving off broad stripes lengthwise out of the hair. One could also “braid” (lin) the hair over the whole head in five parallel rows (see catalog no. 17 and Labouret, 193l:Pl. XII:2) or braid the hair along a comb made from vegetable fibers or leather which would result in phisa hairstyle (see catalog no. 6). Or one could let the braids run away from the comb in a round arc downwards, which was called a yu‑pia (see catalog no. 12). Into the combs on both sides, one could put the white feathers of a “kalao bird” (siliwe). (Labouret does not show any phisa or yu‑pia hairstyles, but shows dancers with white feathers in their hair, 1931: P1. XXIV 1, 3, P1. XXIII: 1, 5: see also Labouret, 1931: 187.) Like the phisa styles, the black dyed hairpieces made of vegetable fibers were reserved for the men (see catalog no. 24 and Labouret: 1931: 187 and Pl. XIII: 8). According to Labouret, the old men among the Gan and Dorosye could carry their hair in “braided tuft” on the otherwise bald head (1931: 187, translation of the writer). Some of the bateba in this catalog possibly show this hairstyle (see catalog no. 26). Finally, as a headgear, the Lobi liked to carry calabashes which had been cut apart (gburkur) (see ill. 33 and Labouret, 1931: PL. VI: 3‑8). One can find these as well as European hats which substituted the calabashes in recent years (see catalog no. 45 and 180). Very often bateba also show tattoos in the face and the stomach area. In certain cases, these tattoos can give some indication as to which ethnic group the client belonged who ordered the bateba. This way, bateba who have slashes on each cheek going from the corners of the mouth to the ears, could have been used by the Dian, Dorosye or Gan (see Labouret 1931: 181), while bateba with three short fan shaped strokes running from the eyes over the temples, in all probability were made for the Lobi, Birfor or Tegesye. The ray-like tattoo around the navel though does not give any indication about the origin of the work, since according to Labouret these can be found in all six ethnic groups. Being made human‑like in appearance through hairstyles and tattoos, the bateba can fulfill their job in the world of men. From the point of the Lobi, all these tasks consist of helping the thila to “save” (taari) the people from misfortune.


4.3. The Different Types of Bateba

Bateba can “save” people in the following ways:


  1. They protect them from witches and sorcerers. These bateba are called “bateba witches” (bateba duntundaara). The term here also includes the sorcerers.


  1. They mourn so that the members of a house later on don’t have to mourn themselves, i.e., they don’t have to experience great sorrow. These bateba are called “sad bateba” (bateba yadawora).


  1. They fulfill various, temporary tasks such as helping to find men a marriage partner, helping women to conceive children and helping to prevent certain illnesses or healing them. And they also disrupt the speech of an opponent in a public court hearing. The Lobi don’t have a special name for these bateba. Let’s start with the first category, the bateba against witches and evil sorcerers.


4.3.1. Bateba against Witches and Evil Sorcerers (bateba duntundaara)

The Lobi differentiate between four types of bateba duntundaara:


  1. Bateba that just stand and at the most turn their heads, but otherwise don’t show any gestures. These are called the “ordinary bateba” (bateba phuwe).


  1. Bateba who sit, but don’t show any other gesture. These are the so-called “paralyzed bateba” (bateba bambar).


  1. Bateba who, contrary to the ordinary bateba and the paralyzed bateba, stand in a clearly defensive position (for example holding up of both hands). These are called the “dangerous persons” (ti puo).


  1. Bateba who have physical marks that are abnormal for people (like having two heads). These bateba are called “exceptional people” (ti bala). They also belong to the broader group of the “dangerous people” mentioned above. But since not all dangerous people are exceptional people, the latter ones are mentioned especially.


  1. a) Ordinary Bateba (bateba phuwe)

Women who are not pregnant are called “ordinary women” (kher phuwe). Shrine pottery without a pattern is called “ordinary shrine pottery” (thil blo phuwe, see catalog no. 220). Accordingly, bateba which do not stand out because of any special gestures or special physical marks, are called “ordinary bateba” (bateba phuwe). But just like other bateba against witches, the ordinary bateba have a grim and furious face. They have a face which has been “gripped by anger.” “Because,” the Lobi say, “if you have not been gripped by anger, you cannot hit anybody.” Therefore ordinary bateba are in a state of extreme agitation and rage and accordingly are quickly willing to go against witches who try to enter a house. With their angry expression only, they can frighten off certain intruders. The Lobi immediately recognize this grim expression or as they also say this “corrupt” (kwere) or “dirty” (bisini) expression on the faces of the bateba duntundaara. At one time, I had a wood carver carve a “laughing” (maari) bateba. Together with other bateba of the same carver but with angry faces, I showed them to some older people who were supplying me with information and I asked them to pick out the most beautiful (buore) bateba. Independently from each other, they all chose spontaneously the laughing figure saying, that they liked that one the most “because he had a friendly face and that one had the impression that he was laughing.” But Lobi never carve these figures because the thila rarely order laughing bateba. Because the thila need the bateba [to defend] against witches, they like bateba who “have a corrupt face and don’t laugh”. We mentioned earlier that male and female bateba are equally strong in their fight against witches and sorcerers. The size of a bateba also does not influence the fighting potential. The size of a bateba is only dependent on what a thila needs the bateba for. In earlier years for example, the “hard” (kiere) thila demanded especially “big” (kotena) bateba from the thildaara, i.e. bateba with a height of at least 60 cm. Since most of the thildaara have died, these bateba are rarely carved for local use. On the other hand, bateba of 20‑30 cm can be ordered by the wathila as divination instruments. The soothsayer keeps these bateba together with his other divination objects in a leather bag and gets them out for his soothsaying (see chapter 33). Because of these manipulations, many divination objects have a light patina. But since many soothsayers are forced to sacrifice over these bateba, it is often difficult if not impossible to say whether a bateba of this size has been used by the soothsayer in his consultations, or if they had been standing on shrines. (This is even more difficult since all Lobi statues show gesture and can also represent animals. See for example Himmelheber, 1966: ill. 2), 4 to 9 cm large bateba though are prescribed by the thila to be worn around the neck, to be attached to the baby cradle (see Himmelheber, 1966: iii. 13 and 14), on xylophones (see Labouret 1931: 490) or on hunting horns. They are to protect the person, the baby, the xylophone player or the hunt organizer from the attack of witches and envious people.


  1. b) Paralyzed bateba (bateba bambar)

Bateba who sit flat on the ground are called “paralyzed bateba” (bateba bambar). Since they cannot move as a result of being paralyzed, they watch the house when the unparalyzed bateba left the house. If danger approaches, they call them back.


  1. c) Dangerous Persons (ti puo)

“Dangerous person” (ti puo) are those bateba duntundaara, that are neither ordinary nor paralyzed. They either show a distinct defensive gesture, i.e. hold up one hand or both hands in slanted way next to the head, or stretch them out horizontally, and that way block the entrance into the house against enemies. Or they stand out through unusual physical marks (like two heads). These latter bateba are also called extraordinary persons (see below). Only thila that are dangerous themselves order dangerous bateba (see Chapter 2.4.). If dangerous bateba would stand on the shrines of ordinary thila, there would be the danger that these bateba will be more dangerous, i.e. stronger than their thila. Since ‘dangerous persons’ are more effective in their fight against witches than ordinary bateba, the ‘dangerous persons’ decide what the ordinary bateba have to do if they are standing on the same shrine. The Lobi say: The ordinary bateba belongs (bine) to the dangerous bateba.


  1. Exceptional Persons (ti bala)

Exceptional persons are also dangerous persons. But they differ in their physical appearance from normal people.


‑ They can have only one arm or three and more.

‑ They can have a Janus head or Janus body (then they are called “glued thil” (thil dokpa).

‑ They can have two or more heads.

‑ They can have several bodies or one or more legs ‑ like Siamese twins.

‑ They can be only a head on a post or one leg.


What do these variations mean? A bateba with a Janus head of course, can look into several directions at the same time and therefore can keep better watch than an ordinary bateba. A bateba with four arms of course, is faster than a two‑armed bateba. Why then do bateba with only one arm exist?


The crucial factor for the Lobi is that exceptional persons somehow differ from the human norm in their looks. The Lobi argue as follows: If a man would look like an exceptional bateba, he would definitely possess superhuman abilities and powers. His unusual character could only be visible in his unusual looks, but would express itself also in his attributes and abilities. By no means would the Lobi look upon such a person only as a product of illness or a misfortune. Therefore exceptional bateba are considered as exceptionally strong and powerful. We again come upon a rule of the Lobi that the more a being differs in looks or character from humans, the more inhuman he is. The more inhuman he is the more powerful and unpredictable he is (see Chapter 2.2.).


The different types of exceptional persons are not represented to the same degree in all areas of the Lobiland. For example, single heads standing on post are unknown in the area of Wourbira. But they do exist 15 km north as well as in the region of Kampti and Midebdo (see map 1 and 2) and in certain parts of the northern Ivory Coast.


4.3.2. Sad Bateba (bateba yadawara)

“Sad bateba” have nothing to do with witches. They stand in direct relation to the members of the house on whose shrine they are standing. They are called “sad” because they express deep grief (khar) in their gestures. They show gestures of Lobi during funerals and other sorrowful events:


‑ They hold one or both hands on their mouth or on the chin (see catalog no. 114, 115, 117, 119).

‑ They put their hands on their heads or around their shoulders (see catalog no. 116, 120, 122 and see ill. 12, 17).

‑ They stretch their arms upward above their heads (see catalog no. 123).

‑ They hold their hands behind their backs (see catalog no. 124 and Rey: 1974: 19 and 21). If children unconsciously show one of these gestures, they are made aware of their meaning. Why would a thil demand bateba with such mourning gestures? I received two answers to this question. Some Lobi say: “In order to prevent a misfortune that will come upon you again, the bateba takes it on himself, because otherwise the owner would have to suffer it.” Therefore one says that bateba mourn in place of their owners. Other Lobi think: “If one does not give the thil the sad bateba as he demanded, he will make one as sad as a bateba.” This matter‑of‑fact answer brings out very clearly the element of blackmailing, which basically is attached to all orders of the thila.


4.3.3. Bateba with Other Tasks

Two of the above discussed mourning gestures can have an additional meaning. A bateba holding his hands behind his back (see catalog no. 124) can also make sure that one is not “turned on his back” (nafifi kiruwo) by an enemy. This metaphor describes a situation where a sorcerer makes a person sick and throws him down. If a thil recognizes this danger for his owner, he can give the order to put a bateba on his shrine that cannot be turned on his back. Those are the bateba that hold their hands protectively behind their backs.


A bateba who holds one or two hands in front of his mouth (see catalog no. 117) can also have a twofold meaning. The first meaning was discussed in the previous chapter (mourning gesture). The second meaning is a more modern one. A bateba who shows this gesture can be asked through a small sacrifice to make an opponent stutter so much at a public court hearing, that that person will hold his hands before his mouth out of embarrassment, and therefore makes the same gesture as the bateba. Public legal proceedings came to the Lobi only in the first third of this century through the French colonial regimes. This therefore is a rather new area of work for the bateba.


If a man has problems finding a wife, the thila can give the order to put a bateba on the shrine showing a couple in the act of sexual intercourse (see catalog no. 126). This is usually represented by a man standing behind a woman, which is the usual position during intercourse among the Lobi. These bateba, among traders called “Lobi‑betise” do not exist in all parts of the land of the Lobi. For example, they are unknown in the area of Wourbira. That does not mean, that wives are easier to find there than in other parts, but it only means that the thila there give different orders. The fact that they do not exist in the little cultivated area of Wourbira does not mean that in other places they were only made for the lusting Europeans. This clearly cannot be the case since some of these bateba had obviously been standing on shrines.


Other bateba help women to get children (see catalog no. 125) or help to prevent or heal certain illnesses. In almost all cases, bateba anticipate through gestures an event that is to be imitated by the people. This is shown in a position of sexual intercourse, with a woman carrying a child on her hip, with hands behind his back, or before the mouth, etc. That way they call upon the people to do the same. Bateba here act as examples for people.


Contrary to these, bateba who are sad or have a physical handicap (for example a hunchback), show their owners how they should not be. In every case, the task of each bateba is apparent in his physical appearance. Through gestures and facial expressions, the bateba show their surroundings, what tasks have been appointed to them. That also indicates what they are not there for. Because bateba, who have once received a job from their thil and their appropriate form, can never fulfill any other tasks. They will always be fixed on their own field of work, therefore sad bateba cannot suddenly fight against witches. This fact gives opportunity for the thila to demand new bateba.


4.4. Other Wooden Figures


4.4.1. Birds

The Lobi not only carve metaphorical figures—only these are called bateba, but various animal figure which are also put on shrines. Especially numerous are various representations of birds. The following birds are typical wood figures on order of the thila, and then put on a shrine: nyo lumbr (“water bird”), pu (“turtle dove”), tukpiil, lumbr sogba, mamphu, sawilawi, kukurbi (“owl”). The sculptors have to carve the various birds so exact, that “one should be able to recognize the particular kind of bird immediately.” For what reason though does a thil want to have a wooden bird on his shrine? If the owner of that thil in any danger while he works in his fields, visits market places, travels, or otherwise is out of the house, the thila can send that particular bird, not the wooden figure, after him. Through the bird’s particular scream, he will request the man to go immediately to a soothsayer. There the man is going to find out from his thil what danger suddenly emerged and how to meet it.


4.4.2. Other Animals

Thila can also change into various animals—chameleons, snakes, antelopes, elephants, etc. If one meets a thil that has changed into an animal in the bush, he can give away with a human voice the prohibitions (soser) which one has to follow if he wants to get rich in an area of the thil’s choosing. The Lobi call this “to see a head” (yoo yir). The animal has to be killed immediately after its revelation.


This way the thil can order the building of a shrine by his killer. The “eye of the shrine” (thil yiire, see chapter 2.3) then usually has to be embodied by a wooden or clay figure of the animal that was killed. This way some of the illustrated animals came into being.


Other animals were demanded by thila who were annoyed that their owners killed animals during a hunt which were liked by the thila. This way Soithe Hien (sculptor of Gbuntara, area of Wourbira) for example had to kill a monkey of the koko‑sie kind because he had killed one of them before. At the same time his wathil prohibited him from hunting and killing these monkeys in the future, though their flesh could still be eaten.


4.4.3. Dancing Staffs Ornamented with Figures

Dancing staffs (and stools) ornamented with figures are, contrary to the bateba and animal figures, carved for people and not for thila. They are held with a proudly raised right hand by young men when they dance around xylophones and drums at market places and in festivals (see ill. 16). These staffs should be as beautiful (buore) as possible so that the owners can show off with them in front of the audience. But this is done only rarely today. There are three kinds of ornamented staffs:


  1. The bober (see catalog no. 151, 186), which is carved from one piece of wood with a length of 80 cm or more. Therefore it is also often used as a walking stick.


  1. The khuluor (see catalog no. 150, see also Labouret, 1931: P1. XVI:3), which first of all is shorter than the bober, and generally is not longer than 70 cm. It also has a dull blade and a shorter end.


  1. The daphel (see catalog no. 152, also Labouret, 1931:Pl. VIII:6), which is similar to a flat club and is also used as such. In some cases it is ornamented on one end with relief.


Until recent years, the men liked to take these dancing staffs on their walks. One would carry it carelessly over one’s right or left shoulder and if necessary, would use it as a weapon which used to be very important. But generally the men carried a club, hoe, or a three‑legged stool with them (see for example Labouret, 1931: P1. VI:2)


4.4.4. Stools Ornamented with Figures

Certain stools or utensils and some objects necessary for personal protection are carved out of wood. Among these objects, the three‑legged stool stands out. The Birifor, Lobi, and Tegesye carry them around on their shoulders wherever they go. Relatively unstable, it has the advantage of providing its owner with a place to sit as well as a weapon (“casse‑tête“) in emergencies. Often these stools are ornamented with a head on the upper end. This head has the hairstyle which is worn among the three tribes. Sometimes these stools have two heads, and in some cases they may have a roughly carved head of a kalao bird (Labouret, 1931:188 translated by writer). There is no reason to assume that all stools ornamented with figures go back to the influence of the Europeans (see also chapter 4.6.) This belief came up after a remark by H. Kamer (1974:23). But it is a fact that these stools ornamented with heads do not exist in all regions of the land of the Lobi. For example, in the area of Wourbira, everybody denied ever having seen such a stool. And I myself have never seen such a stool there. But sometimes it was said that they were common in areas north, west, and southwest of Gaoua.


In rare cases finally, “combs” (yutiir, see Labouret, 1931: Pl. XVII: 7 and Craft Caravan, 1980: fig. 5) “sling shots” (bandathis, “rubber wood” see Craft Caravan, 1980: fig. 29) and knife handles were ornamented with figures and heads.


4.5. Traditional Sculptors of the Lobi (bateba thel)


4.5.1. Call and Education

In the opinion of the Lobi there are three reasons why a man becomes a “sculptor” (bateba thel): he can be forced to it by his wathil (see chapter 3.4.), he can volunteer for practical reasons, or because of an inner drive.


Thipananthe Pale (Pilinga) and Soithe Hien (Gbuntara) for example were forced by their wathila to become sculptors. On order of their wathila they cannot refuse a client coming in with bateba orders. With the following words, Thipananthe tells how he had to become a sculptor. When I was 25 years old (report taken in Lobi language on February 22, 1980 in Pilinga, area of Wourbira), every time that I laid down, I dreamt that I was crying and carving bateba. That happened every night. Finally, I told this to my father. He went to a soothsayer and found out from my first wathil, that he wanted two bateba to be bought and put on his shrine. My father did it. But I dreamt again about how I was carving and crying at the same time. Again my father went to a soothsayer and found out from my first wathil that I myself should carve bateba. When my father told me, I said that I did not know how to carve. But he said I should just try it and judge later. I did not accept that. I carved a bateba which did not turn out right, so I just left it laying in a corner. But soon I got very sick and was dying. My father went to a soothsayer again. My first wathil had a lot to say. He asked for example, why I had left my bateba lying in a corner when he had ordered me to carve bateba. My father came home and asked me that question. I told him that it was because it did not turn out right. He wanted to se it, then he took it and put in on the shrine of my first wathil. But the wathil demanded that I from now on carve for other people. After my recovery, I began to carve bateba as good as possible (see ill. 89 ‑ two bateba by Thipananthe).


On the other hand, Soithe was already 42 years old when he was forced by his wathil to become a sculptor. He also refused first to obey. But here too, the wathil had the upper hand: “I refused. He put a sickness into my leg.” He also had to first carve a bateba for his own wathil, and only later was he forced to also work for clients. Today the 75 year old Soithe is considered as a good sculptor in the villages of his area (see ill. 91 ‑ two of his bateba).


The following practical reasons can induce a man to start carving bateba. Lunkena Pale (Gaoua) for example, was a thildaar. But his difficult bateba ordered so many bateba (see ill. 94 and following), that he got tired of buying them all from Sikire Kambire, the most famous sculptor in Gaoua. So he learned how to carve himself (see Chapter 4.6). But Tyohepthe Pale (Bakpulona), whose father himself had been a famous sculptor, was embarrassed that he had to buy bateba after the death of his father, so he decided to carve bateba himself and soon he began working for clients. Today, he is a well- known sculptor to whom also traders come (see Chapter 4.6).


Tyogithe Da (Wourbira) began to carve “out of an inner drive, because I thought so in my stomach”. As a 9-year old boy he saw a bateba which his father had just brought home. When he was alone while watching the cows in the bush, he tried to carve a bateba from memory. “I cut a piece of wood and with a knife I made it, and it was a bateba“. But in spite of his early call, Tyogithe, today 42 years old, is no “real” (buore) sculptor. His older brother prohibited him from carving bateba for clients because the selling of bateba is dangerous for a sculptor. Because if he eats food that was bought with the money from a sold bateba, this food can blind or kill him (see below). Therefore, on order of his brother, Tyogithe Da only carves bateba for his own use. This is different in the case of Sikire Kambire (Gaoua). He too began to carve when he was young out of an inner drive, but he became one of the most famous sculptors in the area of Upper Volta (Chapter 4.6).


It might seem striking that none of the traditional Lobi sculptors gave economic reasons as motives for starting to carve bateba. But the prices for bateba are so low, that they actually do not offer any incentive to anybody to become a sculptor. In this respect also, the sculptor is an exception among the wood workers.


Two facts are closely related to the non-existing or low income. First, the fact that Lobi sculptors do not go through any training in carving and secondly that “anybody” can carve bateba“, because the quality of craftsmanship and artfulness of the bateba is of no importance to the Lobi. Until today, the traditional sculptors (the modern sculptor Lunkena Pale is an exception) do not go through any training whatsoever. Every sculptor that we approached with any questions in that regard, answered “Ma diira” ‑ “I did not learn anything” (diiri means teaching as well as learning). This is carried so far, that the beginning [novice] sculptors don’t even go to an older sculptor to ask for advise or help. But they definitely saw a sculptor at work when visiting friend or on walks. Therefore, they know how to hold the carving tools. Tyogithe Da said: “I did not learn it. One day I made a bateba and from then on I knew how to make bateba.” And Onuoore Kambou (Pilinga), who also became a carver out of an inner drive says: “I saw bateba in consultations with the soothsayer. Then I thought in my stomach that I should try to make bateba. I started and the third one was already good (see ill. 90 and 13). It has to be mentioned, that Onuoore as well as Tyogithe are very modest men in everyday life. By calling their bateba “good,” they do not express a subjective evaluation, but an established fact among the Lobi.


Only Soithe, who was forced by his wathil to become a sculptor, helped himself through the following. He put an old bateba which he had bought for his wathil in front of him. Then he tried to copy it. But the result was as he said “bad” (aboraa). Only gradually did he carve better. Tyohepthe, another sculptor who contrary to Soithe started carving on his own, remarked to the method of copying: “lf you take a bateba and put it in front of you and look at it, you will not know how to carve.” It might be significant that Soithe as well as Thipananthe, who were both forced to carve, considered their works as “bad”, while Tyogithe and Onuoore who started carving because of an inner calling, found their work to be “good”. But we cannot exclude the possibility that Soithe and Thipananthe tried to get away from the demands that their wathila made by having negative attitudes.


4.5.2. The Work of a Sculptor

In early days, a Lobi sculptor used to withdraw into the bush to carve bateba. That way he lessened the danger to see the face of a person while he was carving and therefore, unconsciously copy that face on his bateba. If in that case later on, sacrificed blood would flow over that bateba after being installed in the shrine, it would kill the person that was portrayed. What caused the death could not even by said by the old sculptor. It is probable that a direct relationship was seen between the death of the sacrificed animal and the person portrayed. But because of the “white people” (dablo), the village has “turned” (fri), that meant it had changed and so today the sculptor no longer works in the bush, but in front of his house where he is usually surrounded by a lot of people. But until today under no circumstances should it be said of a bateba, that he looks like a certain person. Even if this remark was made in a joking manner, it could already hurt that person or even kill him. Only children can make these comparisons and go unpunished. In early days of course, the thildaara tried to kill an opponent that way on order of a client. What does a client tell a sculptor whom he gives the order to carve a bateba? He is going to mention little or nothing at all of the reason that caused the wathil to order the bateba. For example, he might just say that one of his children is sick and he therefore needs a bateba. The sculptor himself is not dependant on the information. All he needs to know is how many bateba the client wants and what they are supposed to look like. The client will tell him the following: the size and sex of the bateba, if and what gestures it should show, whether it should have a certain hairstyle or, if it is a female figure, whether it should have protruding lips or a pot on its head. The carver himself can decide what kind of wood to use. If, as an exception the thil has asked for a certain kind of wood for his bateba, it is usually the wood of the khoo tree (Afzelia Africana of the Cesalpiniaceae family accord. to Père, 1979:19). I noted about 20 kinds of woods being used by the Lobi sculptor in the area of Wourbira alone. A single sculptor though, is going to settle for five or six different kinds. Among them are usually the thuo bush, sankolo tree and sii tree. The thuo bush (Gardenia perniflora and Gardenia erubescens of the family of the Rubiaceae, accord. to Père, 1979:23) is a fruit bearing bush not higher than 80 cm, whose actual trunk does not grow taller than 45 cm. It can be found everywhere. Its wood is very “hard” (kiere). The wood of the sankolo tree (Prosopis africana of the Mimosaceae family, accord. to Pere, 1979:21) is reddish (even redder is the wood of the khoo sie tree also used for bateba). The sankolo tree only grows in the bush and his wood is therefore more difficult to obtain than that of the thuo bush. Sankolo wood is also very hard. For that reason it is also used for the supporting frame of the roof terrace. The sii tree (Diospyros mespiliformis of the Ebeneceae family, accord. to Pere, 1979:20), also called Jijib in French, had edible fruit and white wood. When fresh, it is softer than that of the thuo bush or sankolo tree. If bateba need to serve for a long time, i.e. if he is not there for only temporary services like protecting a sick person, the sculptor is going to use hard and termite resistant wood. This includes wood that does not taste “bitter” (kha) and therefore is eaten slower by termites. But in general, the termite go on every wood and only the bateba in the divination bags and the ones carried around the neck are spared. The fact that the sculptor tries to use more resistant wood for these bateba and therefore slow down the demand for new ones, might be surprising. But they do it in their own interest, because their work does not earn very much money, they are glad if their bateba serve a long time on their shrines and the thila therefore don’t give new orders right away. Since Lobi sculptor do not only work with fresh (hu) but also “dry” (kii) wood, they can use relatively soft wood for their carving, like the sii tree or barr tree   (Butyrospermum barkii, family of the Sapotaceae, accord, to Pere, 1979:23) as long as they are dry. If the dry wood becomes too hard to be worked on, it can be put into water and be softened again. Traditional sculptors only work on demand. As we saw, the wishes of the client are often very different from each other and very specific, so that it would not make much sense for a sculptor to keep all possible types of bateba termite free in stock. Also added is the fact that bateba are so cheap that sculptor can afford to let their clients wait for their orders. This condition does not apply anymore for the modern sculptor who will be introduced in the next chapter. These sell their bateba to Dyula, Hausa and other traders who pay more than the local people. For that reason the modern sculptor also carves for stock at hand. We will forego a description of the work process of the local sculptor because this has been done in an excellent way by Himmelheber (1966: 77‑82). Just one remark: Lobi sculptors differentiate between “smooth” (polo) and “rough” wood. The rough wood of the sii tree for example needs to be prepared longer than the wood of the sankolo tree or gie tree (Pterocarpus erenaceus of the Papilionaceae family, accord. to Pere, 1979:22) in order to get a clean surface for the bateba. The sculptors say therefore that the bateba made from smooth wood are never the same as the bateba made from rough wood, even if made by the same sculptor. Smooth wood of course, is preferred for carving.


Before a sculptor gives the ordered bateba to a client, he “dries” (ati) the bateba “as one dries a wet body after a bath” with five cowries, which he received beforehand from the client.


As mentioned before, even today the prices for bateba from traditional sculptors are very low. A bateba of 10 to 15 cm size would cost about 80 Rappen. A few years ago these prices were still lower. As male bateba that size would have been sold for about 12 Rappen or 60 to 63 cowries (a figure dividable by three because this number is associated by the Lobi with the male sex) which was about 16 Rappen.


The bigger the bateba, the more expensive they get, although many sculptors say that it is easier to carve a big bateba because mistakes can be corrected more easily and the danger of getting cut in the finger is less than on small bateba. Twenty years ago, 15 to 20 cm tall bateba would cost depending on sex, between 300 ‑ 400 cowries, and for a 60 ‑70 cm tall bateba, one would have to give a goat. Today these bateba run for about 11 Swiss Francs.


But since bateba of this size are rarely ordered, the income for the traditional sculptor i.e. a sculptor who does not sell to traders, is still very modest. This low income is one argument why men don’t want to become sculptors voluntarily. Another argument is the already mentioned fact that the in-taking of any food bought from the income of a sold bateba, can be dangerous for the sculptor. Because the sacrificial blood that flows over the bateba on the shrine can through the food blind or kill a person. To reduce this danger, most of the sculptors “eat” (dun, see Chapter 2.4) a special “bateba medication” (bateba thil).


Traditional sculptors do not offer their bateba in market places. Many of them would like to do this in the expectation of a bigger income, but they are afraid of being laughed at as a “poor person” (tiblo), i.e. “a person who has to sell his bateba in market places in order to pay his millet bread”. They would be laughed at because not many people like to buy bateba in public places, which means in front of strangers, because objects that are meant for the thila should not be seen by other people. Bateba, shrine pottery, iron and brass objects “belong” (hine) to the thil who ordered them. Except for the person who makes them, they should not be appraised by other people who don’t belong to that thil, who therefore are not protected by him. This is the reason why the public sale of bateba is being looked at as “bad”.


4.5.3. Remarks to the Art Critic

We said a few times that the quality of craftsmanship and the aesthetic value is of no importance to the thila. Bateba only need to resemble people (tibil). This indifference of the thila has to do with the fact that bateba who aesthetically resemble a person especially well, does not do the serve for the thil better than a bateba who shown only a rough and inaccurate resemblance. But the Lobi of course do have a conception of quality regarding their bateba. When I put some photos showing wooden figures to different people, all praised and emphasized those elements that were especially natural looking. This was true especially for facial expressions, tattoos, protruding lips and hairstyles. The way of bateba “standing” (gili) like people was commented on. To us these Lobi figures, with their sweeping transition between the torso and buttocks, seems to be unnatural. But here we have to consider the way the body is built in this region of Africa. A sculptor once expressed it as follows: “If you take the cloth off a Lobi, they always have slightly pregnant looking and pointed buttocks (Thipananthe Pale, Pilinga, March 1980). If asked what else besides the style of natural depiction marks a good sculptor, the Lobi generally say “He has to be able to make the most complicated gestures and biggest figures in such a way as to fulfill the one criteria that every sculptor has to meet, which is to carve the figures so they stand up without having to lean against a wall or to be put in the ground.


But it is never discussed in public who is and who is not a good sculptor. When someone picks up the bateba he ordered, he never tells the sculptor whether or not he likes the bateba. In this respect he acts the same way as the client, who does not tell his soothsayer whether he has found the motive for the consultation or whether he is satisfied with the divinatory performance. And a hunt organizer, a blacksmith, or a brass founder is never told whether his work is satisfactory if he performs it on demand of the thila. Because publicly, that is in front of people not belonging to one’s household, one never criticizes the work that people do on order of the thila. The critic for the work is the exclusive job of the thila themselves. But in spite of that, the Lobi sculptor tries to satisfy the expectations of his clients in regard to the quality. This can be seen by the following anecdote: I once visited Onuoore Kambou who was working on a small bateba while he was talking to his two wives. I asked him if I could see the unfinished figure. He gave it to me saying that it did not turn out well. To my question why, he answered: “Nobody ordered this bateba. Therefore I don’t want to do a good job and therefore it is not good.” But we cannot overlook that many objects belonging to the Lobi sculptures are considered rough and clumsy and ugly by the aesthetic standards of the Lobi as well as ours. The three following factors might play a role in this:


‑ The Lobi sculptor never goes through any training.

‑ Many Lobi sculptors only work because they are forced to do it.

‑ The art of sculpting brings little income and there is no incentive to carve often or well. In other words, many statues are made by men who have carved only little in their life and therefore had little opportunity to acquire special abilities in this area.


Among other things, the modern sculptors who will be discussed now, are different from the traditional ones because the above factors apply to them in only a limited way.


4.6. The Modern Sculptors (bateba thel) of the Lobi

To simplify it, I call those sculptors modern who do their work not only for the natives, but who also sold or are still selling to strangers, i.e. colonial officers, Dyula, Hausa or European traders, missionaries and tourists. The term modern in no way is meant to be depreciative, because many of these sculptors only developed their artistic and technical talent because of the fact that they were producing for a bigger market. This is especially true for Sikire Kambire.


4.6.1. Sirkire Kambire (Gaoua) and his School

I did not gather the following information about Sirkire Kambire and his school (see chapter 4.6.1‑4.6.4) myself, but received it through correspondence with my interpreter, Binathe Kambou after my return to Europe. The information was completed by statements which Ilia Malichin (art dealer, Ötigheim, West Germany), Madeleine Pere (social assistant/ethnologist, Gaoua, Upper Volta) and Jean Suyeux (Judge, Paris) kindly put at my disposal. They all lived for a longer period of time in Gaoua, the village where Sikire and his most important students worked. With this information I tried to put together a picture of the life of Sikire and his school. This picture of course, is not complete. Therefore some of my conclusions are hypothetical and require further research. Until now, as far as I know, only William Bascom gave some indication to the existence of this school: “There can hardly be any doubt that this female statue (Bascom 1973: fig. 15 and this catalog no. 173) are from the workshop of the Lobi sculptor who was encouraged by Labouret to copy a Baule mask (Bascom 1973: 45, Footnote 7). “We suggest that these two works, mainly the female figure (catalog no. 157) and the copy of the Baule mask are not only from the same workshop, but also made by the same person, Sikire Kambire. Who was Sikire Kambire? Let’s put together the little information we have about his life.


Sikire was a Lobi. He was born 1896 in Gongombili, a village lying 19 km south of Gaoua. He was the son Bikithe Some and Miediona Kambire (information from his identification card, according to Malichin, 1981). His tombstone indicates that he died October 5, 1963 in Gaoua to where he had probably immigrated in the twenties. His identification card describes his “corpulence” as “forte”. He is supposed to have been 1.80 m tall and his occupation was that of a “cultivateur“. He lived with his two wives in the northern part of Gaoua, on the road to Diebougou (Malichin, 1981). At the age of 16 he started carving without having any sculptor in his close surroundings (Kambou, 1981). It appears that he was very talented and therefore tried soon to copy the “things of the white” (dablo thii, Kambou, 1981). He came to the attention of the colonial government whose officers began to order from him. With time the demand grew for more and unusual objects and finally he was able to “make anything out of wood, masks, forks, spoons and other things.” He became so good that nobody else could get close to him. Obviously, Sikire was highly regarded among certain colonial officers. These would go to the villages on horses with especially chosen natives to show the always rebelling and revolting population that the Europeans were able to make friends with them. Among these privileged natives, called “chevalier“, was Sikire (Kambou, 1981). Since Sikire was so successful, other sculptors in Gaoua and surrounding areas tried to imitate his style and took over elements of his carving repertoire. Many are supposed to have come to him and asked for criticism. But it seems that students never lived with him or worked as his assistants (Kambou, 1981). In this respect Sikire was faithful to the native tradition. Therefore, I prefer not to talk about Sikire’s workshop but about Sikire’s school. Although he is supposed to have had many students, today only Lunkena Pale and Dihunthe Palenfo are mentioned in connection with Sikire. The other sculptors “were not successful and are therefore unknown today” (Kambou, 1981). Until today, 17 years after his death, Sikire is still considered the greatest and best Lobi sculptor in the Upper Volta region.


What can be said about his “oeuvre“? Unfortunately we have less certain information here. We don’t know any work of which could be said without a doubt that it was from Sikire or one of his most important students, Lunkena. Some statues of which are known are said that they were made by a certain “Sichere” or “Sidiere”, but in Gaoua this was also said about other works which definitely were made by other sculptors. Therefore we will go by various references, which are found in the older ethnographical and art ethnological literature. In 1931, Henry Labouret wrote in his treatise about the Lobi:


“The art of sculpting is not done by specialist, but by many natives who are relatively talented at it. Several years ago I asked one of them to copy a Baule mask for me, which I had brought back from the Ivory Coast. Since then he has carved a considerable number of these masks to sell them to Europeans. He even trained students to work for the export. This way a technique was created, and the origin of it will be forgotten in a few years. Their existence will give room for speculations that the Lobi have had wooden masks earlier, but that assumption is wrong (1931:188,). At the same time Labouret published photos of three masks (catalog no. 157‑159) about which he only said: “Imitation d’un masque baoule” (Fig. 4, catalog no. 157), “Perfectionnement de fig. 4″ (Fig. 5, catalog no. 158) “Technique actuelle pour l’exportation” (Fig.6, catalog no. 159).


Unfortunately he does not show the Baule mask which was the original of these copies. He also does not say when exactly this copy experiment was done. He himself lived as administrator among the Lobi between 1914 and 1924, but he may have visited this area more often in the following years, because he was long after that still active as a respected colonial administrator and ethnographer in West Africa (A.O.F.). This means that “several years ago” can refer to those years between 1914 and the end of the twenties. But for purely linguistic reasons, a date around 1920 seems the most probable. It is also regrettable that Labouret nowhere gives the name of the sculptor to whom he brought the mask to be copied. I suppose that it was Sikire Kambire for the following reasons:


  1. Sikire started to carve when he was 16 years old, so that means around 1912. After that he became the most famous Lobi sculptor of the area, some even say in the whole Upper Volta region. It is probable that in 1920, that is 8 years later, he was already so famous that his name could have attracted Labouret.


  1. This is even more possible, since Sikire definitely lived in close proximity to Labouret. In 1920 he possibly already lived in Gaoua, the same place where Labouret lived.


  1. It seems that Sikire deliberately sought contact with the Europeans. The fact that he started early to “copy things of the white” could lead to that conclusion. He at least showed more openness towards them than most of the Lobi in his or later generations. Supposing that Labouret knew Sikire, his behavior might have prompted him to choose Sikire for this unusual experiment.


  1. But mainly Labouret’s following remark seems to be most significant in this; “He has carved a considerable number of masks to sell them to Europeans, and he even trained students to work for the export.” And it is Sikire who until today is known as the sculptor who produced the most works for Europeans, and who was the only one who had many students.


These things are in favor that Labouret’s remark was regarding Sikire Kambire and that the three masks published by Labouret (see catalog no. 157‑159) were carved by Sikire. 1935 Carl Kjersmeier showed a Lobi mask (1935, no. 37) which he had bought in Upper Volta. The following facts support the belief that it is a work by Sikire (catalog no. 161):


  1. According to the information gathered by Kambou, the two masks shown in the photographs of shrines (ill. 94, 95, 99) are by Sikire. It is true that this shrine was standing in front of Lunkena’s house (the main student of Sikire), but for one thing, Lunkena was not known for ever having carved masks, and secondly did he buy sculptures from Sikire before he started carving himself. Even under the assumption that Lunkena did carve masks, he cannot be considered as the one who made the Kjersmeier mask, because in 1931‑32 he would have been too young to do this.


  1. Even though some of these masks which were produced under Labouret’s initiative were put in shrines (Suyeux photographed another mask in Lunkena Pale’s shrine room in 1953/55), they were mainly made for export. Since most of the Lobi masks known today are in the style of the Kjersmeier mask, it is probable that they were made by Sikire because he was the one who worked mainly for export.


We find ourselves therefore in the unusual situation of being able to compare masks from different time periods, originating from the same sculptor who belonged to a culture which never produced masks. The masks are first of all the three masks which were published 1931 by Labouret (see catalog no. 157‑159) and which probably are from the years around 1920 or shortly after. Then we have a mask (no. 161) which was brought back from Upper Volta in 1932 and which must have been made shortly before that date, because it looked very new. Finally we have another new looking mask which was photographed 1953‑55 by Jean Suyeux on Lunkena’s shrine (ill. 99).


While the face of the first mask (catalog no. 157) looks a lot like a Baule mask with its soft and even facial profile, the multiple parted hair, the close standing eyes, the long bridge of the nose and the oval mouth, the second mask already is similar to later works (catalog no. 158). The division between face and bearing surface is more accentuated, the face is rounder, and the eyes glide towards the outside and become like the mouth, a little smaller. Finally, in the third mask (catalog number 159), the stylized aspect of the first mask is broken down even more. The modeling of the face appears more naturalistic – for example, one can already discern the narrowing of the chin typical of later masks. The eyes are rendered more generous and clearer; their expression becomes more haunting due to the more widely drilled pupils and is reminiscent of works to come as well.


With the next mask known to us (catalog number 161), the Kjersmeier mask, Sikire seems to have found – probably for some time prior – his style. The outline of the face is drawn more tightly, the facial features are even clearer and prominent: the eyebrows are pulled up broadly and in the shape of an arcade, the eyes seem to leap at the viewer with their penetrating gaze. Eyes, mouth and nose are now brought into a well-arranged and at the same time strongly internally harmonized composition. The correction of the nose appears significant, having become shorter and broader and featuring nostrils that follow the mouth boldly. But one already feels in this mask the schematic traits which betray the sureness and routine of a carver who has found the means suitable to himself.


Between 1931/32, the date which we give the Kjersmeier mask, and 1953/55, the probable date of the mask on the thilka of Lunkena (figure 99), there are relatively few stylistic innovations. The mask face has lengthened, the facial features are reproduced more fluidly. The facial expression seems more detached, perhaps also a touch more arrogant than 1931/32.


Let’s return to the literature. In 1936 J.A. Heuzey mentions after a journey to Upper Volta, which he took as “directeur de la maison des artisans de la Côte d’Ivoire,” that a sculptor (whose name he unfortunately doesn’t disclose) in Gaoua carves stools, which carry a deer head or two stylized human heads, which “stand with the backs of the heads touching and whose facial features are emphasized in black in a very auspicious way” (1936:15-16, translation by the author). At the same time he publishes two drawings made by him with the caption “modern, small seats in Gaoua made of shea wood,” which closely resemble the two stools published here (catalog number 189 and 190). He further remarks that Europeans also order doors, which feature naturalistic hunting scenes, and tables and chairs painted red and black, from this sculptor.


The aforementioned arguments also suggest in this case that the sculptor mentioned by Heuzey is Sikire Kambire; the more so, as firstly the Janus heads on the mentioned stools show the same style as most of the mask faces we have discussed, and secondly as Sikire, according to Kambou, also carved forks and spoons, and we can therefore assume that he was also capable of making tables and chairs.

If the Janus-headed stools are from Sikire, then we must conclude, due to the identity of style that certain Janus-shaped dancing sticks (compare for instance catalog number 188) are also by Sikire.

In Birifu in 1964 (chart 1) Roy Sieber photographed three wooden figures (figure 93), which were brought to him from a shrine house, where they belonged to a “kongombia” shrine. N. Gadaa, chief of Birifu and owner of the shrine, told Sieber that a sculptor by the name of “Gawa Sichere from the French side” carved the large, approximately one meter tall statue in 1934 and the two small statues in 1937 (Sieber, 1981). This information fits with the results of our analysis. Especially the face of the large figure resembles to an astonishing degree the mature mask faces by Sikire.


Ilia Malichin bought four figures in 1979 (catalog number 172, 174-176) in Gaoua and learned while doing so that they had been carved some time ago by a certain “Sikiere.” Since the three large statues (catalog number 174-176) with the low-lying foreheads, short noses and straight mouth most closely resemble the Kjersmeier mask-face among the discussed masks, we may be permitted to count them among Sikire’s oeuvre of the 30s.


Jean Suyeux, who acted as judge in Gaoua from 1953 to 1955, bought various newly carved figures from Lunkena in the fall of 1953 (compare below). At least one of these figures, apparently produced for sale to outsiders, appears according to what we have discussed to be by Sikire and therefore sold by Lunkena on commission from Sikire. It is a stout, fat female figure, who holds with her hands a pot on top of her head. It is amazingly similar to another female figure almost as fat, which is shown here (catalog no. 179). This chubby‑fat, usually systematic and somewhat ugly style can be attributed with some confidence to Sikire in the fifties. Here by the way, the remark by Himmelheber (1966: 87) may apply, that “newer figures (of the Lobi) seem more “fleshy” while “older” figures are tighter and more rigid. It is tempting to assume on the basis of this growing thickening and formalism of Sikire’s figures, that the thinnest and most expressive figures (catalog no. 166‑169, 171) belong to the early works of Sikire and that they were made mainly in the twenties. But such an assumption cannot be proven ‑ at least not today.


We now come to a strange chapter in the art history of the Lobi. We will talk about figures seated on a chair. These figures are holding something in their mouths which is similar to a fir cone (catalog no. 180‑185). According to Toumani Triande (1980), Madeleine Pere (1980) and Jean Suyeux (1981), these figures are supposed to be representing the French Medical‑Colonel Lerousique, who between about 1910‑1930 was fighting against the sleeping sickness and other illnesses in West and South Upper Volta and who was building medical centers in various places like the famous “Trypano” in Gaoua. His strong personality and untiring efforts seem to have impressed the natives very much. For this reason he is supposed to have been personified with wooden and clay figures on many shrines in Gaoua and surrounding areas (see ill. 64, 102, 104) which were called genanar (?) (Suyeux, 1981).


But what kind of object Lerousique is holding to his mouth, usually with both hands, Suyuex could not find out anymore even in 1953 when he bought one of these seated figures from Lunkena. The guesses are a flute, a European tobacco pipe (although on other Lobi figures pipes re usually clearly shown with a pipe head), or a beer glass. But since according to Triande (1980) Lerousique was a pipe smoker, the second assumption might be true. For the present, it seems very difficult for me to categorize these seated figures stylistically and to separate the different hands that made them. But based on the above style analysis, I would hypothetically credit those works (catalog no. l80‑182) to Sikire Kambire and the other figures to Lunkena Pale.


4.6.2. Lunkena Pale (Gaoua)

Lunkena Pale was Sikire’s most important student. His real (initiation) name was Bigare. But later he gave himself the “Name of a man” (kuire), Lunkena. Under this name, he is still known today in Gaoua and surrounding villages. Lunkena was born 1911 in Gongombili, the same village that Sikire was born in. He died 1975 in Gaoua where he had moved for unknown reasons, just like Sikire. But contrary to his master, he only started to carve in Gaoua and for purely practical reasons. He is supposed to have been a great thildaar whose strict thil was demanding so many “big bateba” (bateba kotena), that he got tired of buying them from Sikire. Therefore he learned to carve himself and in the beginning had Sikire criticize his work. Soon he also sold his carvings to colonial administrators. Suyeux tells us from experience (1981) that Lunkena Pale was very clever and practical in his dealings with the Europeans. But even before the death of his master (1963), Lunkena Pale’s thila prohibited him to further sell figures to the Europeans. He did indeed obey, but finally died because, as his thila said during the “questioning of the corpse” and the following consultations: he still allowed white people to take pictures in his thil room (Kambou, 1981; see ill. 102, 104, 105). Lunkena is supposed to have been a Lobi, have had three wives and have lived in the Birifor quarters of Gaoua (beneath the “Trypano”; Nalichin, 1981, Pere, 1980). His left leg was paralyzed from childhood on (Kambou, 1981). It is very difficult to determine Lunkena’s style with certainty. Because a) we don’t know of any work that was made by him with absolute certainty among the statues that he sold to Suyeux in 1953 that could have been also figures of Sikire; and even the mother‑child figure which he is holding in picture 94 could theoretically have been made by Sikire; b) we know that Lunkena first put works by Sikire on his shrine before he himself started to carve. But we will go by the shrine photographs published here (ill. 94‑96, 99, 101‑105). The pictures showing Lunkena’s thilkha shrine or at least sections of it (ill. 94‑‑96, 99, 101), were made during at least three different points of time. For example, ill. 96 shows a seated genanar figure in the middle which is missing in picture 94 and 95. Also in picture 99 and 101, we see different sculptures which had not been there at the time that picture 95 was taken. With greatest certainty these new additional figures were carved between 1953 and 1957. Since at that time Lunkena was already over 40 years old, we can assume that he was already a sculptor in those years and that these figures therefore were made by him. The majority of these figures on his shrines show characteristic styles that are clearly different from Sikire’s work. The heads of Lunkena’s statues seem to me more egg shaped and less tight and rounded than those of Sikire. From the front they also often seem astonishingly small. Smaller figures especially stand out through accentuated short necks and missing chins. Accordingly the shoulders fall fast and steep. This increases the soft amorphous expression which many of these figures have. Certain statues are also missing eyebrows, nostrils and the lower lips which sometimes gives the impression that figures viewed together have been made by two different people (see picture 103, 105). Finally, the heads of Lunkena’s shrine figures seem extremely small and short while Sikire’s usually were broad and long. Most of these characteristics of style can also be found in the mother‑child figure, which Lunkena is holding in picture 94. This fact together with the above assumption that the new figures on Lunkena’s thilka shrine were made by him, allows us to put up the hypothesis that the above mentioned characteristics define Lunkena’s style of carving.


4.6.3. Dihunthe Palenfo (Tambili)

We don’t know if Dihunthe or Doho, as he calls himself, showed his work to Sikire for criticism and evaluation. But we do count him as one of the Sikire School because he obviously adopted the repertoire and style of the great master of Gaoua. Dihunthe Palenfo, a Birifor, was born in 1925 in Tambili, a village lying about six kilometers southwest of Gaoua. There he still lives today as a farmer and sculptor. His father was carving tool shafts and he tried to prohibit his son from carving when he saw him trying to carve bateba in early years. His father only consented when Dihunthe sold a, as he says, “very beautiful bateba” to a European. Since then Dihunthe has also sold dancing staffs (catalog no. 203), stools with Janus heads (ill. 106), forks and spoons with deer heads to natives as well as traders and tourists. Even though today he is one of the two sculptors among the Lobi who sell most of their works to tourists, he assures us that he would also like carving if he could not make any money with it. According to the information he himself gave us, he has never carved any masks (all information from Malichin, 1981). Dihunthe’s style is softer and vaguer. His figures do not have the strength and vigorous precision which mark Sikire’s style. Typical for example is that Dihunthe puts a hole in the ears of his statues like his master, but the pupils are only circled and not drilled out like Sikire’s. This gives them a rather uncertain look.


4.6.4. Binsithe Kambou (Bouroum‑Bouroum)

Together with Dihunthe Pale, Binsithe Kambou today is considered as the best Lobi sculptor. He was born 1930 in Banlo (Canton de Gaoua) and today he lives about 25 km south of Gaoua, in a larger village lying on the road to Diebougou (see map 1). Between the years 1958 ‑ 1964 he worked in Ghana (in the area of Kumasi) like many other Lobi. Here he learned to carve Ashanti chairs. Since then he is producing and selling these chairs in his house (see ill. 109) (Malichin, 1981). Since 1964‑65, he is supposed to have been carving stools and spoons with antelope heads for sale (Kambou, 1981). Therefore it can be assumed that the dancing staff ornamented with a Janus figure, a snake, or a bird head (catalog no. 204), were made by him. (According to Burkhard, 1980) “this stick is to have been bought by a missionary in Gaoua from a famous sculptor in Bouroum‑Bouroum”. If this is true we also have to count Binsithe as one of Sikire’s school


4.6.5. Tyohepthe Pale (Bakpulona), a Forger

In closing, we want to introduce Tyohepthe Pale, a Tegesye, who lives as a farmer and sculptor in a village about 7 km south of Gaoua. As a well-known sculptor, he has been selling for some time many figures to European and Hausa traders with considerable success. For at least 10 years he has been also forging the patina of some of his statues by making them “dirty” (bisi) as the Lobi say, in order to make them appear older. We devote this chapter to him not because he is the only sculptor in the area of Gaoua who tries to increase the sale with this method, but because his works are often found in Europe. Tyohepthe Pale uses the following techniques to make his bateba “older”: he puts the finished figures in the kitchen over a fireplace underneath the rafter until they are blackened by the smoke. Afterwards he digs them into especially clay rich soil for several days. Because Hausa traders and Europeans are less and less taken in by these cheap patinas, he also often puts his new figures in a black stain bath. After three days they have a gray‑black surface which is still transparent (see catalog no. 208) or opaque black after a four week bath (catalog no. 207) He makes his stains from debarked and ground up roots of the thoro tree (Terminalia laxiflora of the Combretaceae family, accord. to Pere, 1979:20), and from the ground up leaves of the sisil tree (Anogeissus leiocarpus of the Cobretaceae family, accord. to Pere, 1979:20). Both plants are otherwise used as medicine by the Lobi. He also likes to sprinkle new statues with chicken blood, water colored with porcelain clay and other materials in order to get a convincing “often too convincing” sacrifice patina (catalog no. 206). Other statues he artificially ages by digging them into the ground about 1 meter away from a termite hill (not on the hill itself, because it would be eaten up immediately). Then he sells these works at prices that are often five to ten times higher than traditional prices (see chapter 4.5.2.) In spite of his many contact with Europeans, Tyohepthe cannot understand why Europeans would like to buy “dirty” figures. No thil would order such bateba from the Lobi.


Excursion to the latest “Lobi‑waves” in Europe

So far two “waves” have brought a greater number of Lobi objects to Europe. The first one was 1970‑72 was carried mainly by Dyula traders, the second one between 1978‑80 was initially started by the Hausa traders. In 1977 these traders had moved from the south up to the area of Bouna (Ivory Coast, see map 1). There they exchanged mostly wooden sculptors and brass objects against machetes, lead cooking pots, aluminum plates, etc. Then in the fall of 1979 the Governor of Bouna prohibited any further activity in his district. So many of the traders moved their place of work to Upper Volta. Here they also traded sculptures at market places for “high prices” as the Lobi say. Systematically they visited even the most remote places very quickly on their rickety bicycles. Without speaking the Lobi language and without translators they went from house to house and apparently repeated “bateba, bateba, bateba“, or “thilbu, thilbu…” (small thil). They could only communicate with those Lobi who had worked for a while in the Ivory Coast and had learnt a little Dyula. So within a short period of time they gathered together a large amount of objects. But in January 1980 the Governor of Gaoua also prohibited them from collecting more bateba. Why? Where did the sculptures come from which the Hausa traders carried out of the Lobiland? Different sources have to be examined. Numerous bateba—it is impossible to give the exact number—originated from ruins whose inhabitants either died or emigrated. (If a family moves, it normally leaves most of the bateba back on the shrines and they assume the “eyes” [yiire, Chapter 2.3] of the shrine and with that, the thila themselves. These bateba were mainly collected and sold by the women nearby; they acted perfectly legally according to Lobi law since the shrines from which the statues were removed had already been abandoned by the respective thila. Other sculptures have been sold by their owners themselves. Mostly it was bateba who had already fulfilled their tasks ordered by thila. Also, they were from the perspective of Lobi, involved in leaving their country. However, this does not apply to the last group of bateba that have been stolen from shrines. In such thefts were involved not only Hausa traders, but obviously young Lobi. This created on the one side, animosity between neighboring houses and aroused old hostilities again. Because bateba thila belong to several young Lobi- “thieves” (in quotes because the real facts are often left unresolved), on the other hand, it made them insane and even killed them. This at least resulted in that after their death the bereaved conducted ceremonial funerary interrogations and subsequent consultations. For these reasons, the two prefects of Bouna and Gaoua issued its prohibitions directed against the Hausa.


What were the consequences for the stolen? In certain cases, the injured thila demanded immediate new bateba and so caused their owners overspending and additional sacrifices; in other cases, the thila behaved (until now) quiet. In one case, however, said the owner of the robbed thila: “If my thila could not warn me of the thieves, I will certainly give them no new bateba!” (Soithe Hien, sculptor Gbuntara, which on February 1980 in one night eleven statues were stolen from shrines outside his house).


  1. Clay objects for thila

From “clay” (jaar) two types of objects are made for thila: bateba and “shrine pottery” (thil blo).


5.1 Clay bateba

Bateba made from clay in various regions inhabited by Lobi area are different in popularity. While they can be found in front of very many houses, for example, north of Gaoua, they are seen only rarely in the area south of Gaoua. What factors account for this difference, I cannot say. But it is probably related to the fact related that living in these two regions the Lobi have separated in their earlier migrations some time ago and have subsequently developed different cultural characteristics. Since I have conducted fieldwork just South of Gaoua, I have little information about clay figures.


Some information indicates that earlier not only unfired, but also fired clay figures were prepared and used at shrines. The specialists that fired such bateba are called bateba me, “bateba builders,” similar to the blo me “pot builders,” i.e., potters, and go me, “wall builders,” i.e., masons. In the area of Wourbira, such specialists should have worked until about twenty years ago.


For using fired bateba, Labouret reported the following: “In the cantons where the natye– and uer-cult has spread, one sometimes meets human figures (“effigies humaines“) carrying a terracotta human head. The facial features, the eyes and the details of the hair are pretty well reproduced. “(1931: 87, translation by the writer). It is conceivable that the terracotta head of the Musée de l’Homme (catalog no. 212) comes from such a context. Unfired bateba, however, were built until now by non-specialists. On wathila shrines they are built by those who have been for that of the selected wathila. On the shrines for “Taken” thila (see. Section 2.4), however, they create the owners of these thila. To build up such bateba following clay used varieties:

  1. “memory clay” (thu jaar), whose name refers to the fact that you build the edges of the storage pots of earth and the storage walls pass inside and out. Since this soil is kneaded together with grass as a bonding agent, it is extremely hard and resistant after it dries. The bateba in illustration 10 and 65 were made with “silo clay”.
  2. “Good clay” (ja buo) which the Lobi use in building their houses. This dirt is generally called “banco” in West Africa.
  3. “Pot clay” (blo jaar) which is used to make “pots” (blo).
  4. “Black‑Volta Soil” (muir jaar), a clay from the bed of the Black Volta.
  5. “Termite Soil” (kpiri jaar and kpe jaar).


5.2. Shrine Pottery (thil blo)  

Much has already been published about pottery among the Lobi (Labouret 1931: 83‑87, Poussi, 1974: 13 ff., Pere 1979: 90‑94), but the small pots that are put on shrines, the so-called thil blo have never been adequately appreciated. We only want to talk about these. Most of the Lobi shrines have one or more pots. These contain either water, “medicine” (thii) or other objects determined by the thil. The thil drinks the water and therefore the pot has to be refilled regularly by the first woman of the house. Most shrine pots have a “pattern” (nyer) which was chosen by the thil who ordered the pot. Very popular for example is the “waveline” (gongolo) motif (catalog no. 215). Its anti‑witch effect was already discussed in the sacrificial drawings (Chapter 3.4.). Other pots are ornamented with adders or Boa snakes (see catalog no. 219) and are supposed to bring riches to its owners. So these various patterns belong to the code with which witches and other evils are being fought. Contrary to the bateba, the shrine pottery is usually placed on the shrine by women and usually only those women who have already reached their menopause. Because the “sacrifical blood” (tomen) which is flowing over the pots on the shrines can make women sterile because it is alike to the “menstrual blood” of the women. But the sacrificial blood can also be dangerous for older women. For that reason many of the female potters refuse to eat any food that was bought with the money from the sale of these hand crafted shrine pots. Here we meet with the same idea which we also came across in reference to the sculptures. But these potters feel the danger much stronger than the sculptors because they don’t possess any special medicine that could protect them from the harmful reacting that the sacrifice on the pots is causing (see Labouret, 1931: 84). For this reason orders from clients are accepted only reluctantly. Shrine pottery is only made on order since they it is meant for the thil.


  1. Iron objects for the Thila

In order to work for people, the thila also order wrought iron objects which are mad from “black metal” (phuber, in contrast to “red metal” phusie, which is brass). The objects show an amazing variety of forms and are either carried on the head or put up on shrines. The following iron objects can be found on shrines: ‑ “Walking sticks” (bangalbri) (see catalog no. 221 middle and iii. 52 and 64) of various lengths (from 10 cm to 1,5 m) with which the thila go for a walk. ‑ “Spears” (gbusoo) which are being stuck “gar” into the clay bottom of the shrine and which serve as weapons for the thila (see catalog no. 221, middle). “God knifes” (thangba khal) which are also put in the ground serve as weapons for the thila. ‑ “Bells” (giel) in various sizes and shapes which are mainly put on wooden posts and walking sticks of the shrines (see catalog no. 223). In rare cases one can also find “iron bateba” (phuber bateba) (see catalog no. 221) which just like the wooden bateba, fight against witches and sorcerers. And “chameleons” (tiila or gamtur) (see catalog no. 221, bottom left) which are supposed to make their owners rich.


The following objects can be worn on the body ‑ always on order of the wathil: ‑ “simple rings” (bambri) on the upper and lower arm (see catalog no. 222, bottom). ‑ “wavy rings” (bami gongolo) (see catalog no. 222, upper middle) which allow it’s bearer’s to go against and fight witches, because of their wavy shape (see Chapter 3.4.). ‑ “God knifes” (thangba khal) which are worn on the upper arm (see catalog no. 222, outer left). ‑ “Bells” (giel) which are being worn around the neck or fastened around the hip and which fulfill various functions. ‑ “Wavy lines” (gorigolo) which help to hold off witches if worn around the neck (see catalog no. 224). ‑ “Small pliers” (gbeffi bu) (see catalog no. 224) which are tied around the necks of children so that the appropriate thil can “hold” them better, i. e. protect them better.


These and other iron objects are generally made by the blacksmiths on order of the thila. They earn relatively little with this work. Higher prices can only be asked for various tools like hoes, axes, knifes and arrowheads which are produced for the work of the Lobi. But like other Lobi, the blacksmith mainly lives of his field work. They also are not united in casts or organized in union‑like groups. They are neither feared nor admired because of their special knowledge. Expect for their smith’s work they cannot do any other jobs better than any other man. Only the fact that they need a special thil, a puthil (bellows thil) makes them stand out a little (see Labouret 1931: 67‑72).


  1. Brass Objects

In this chapter we can only show a small portion of the brass production of the Lobi, which was formerly so abundant. The choice of the objects shown here therefore is not representative. The following objects made from brass (phusie, “red metal”) can be ordered by the thil, usually a wathil: ‑ Bateba (see catalog no. 225‑227, 230) which like wood, clay, or iron bateba are put on shrines and mainly serve to ward off witches. Until a few years ago the strict wathila are supposed to have ordered extraordinary large bateba made from brass from thildara, which were used for special tasks. ‑ “Bateba Loop” (bateba dunoni) (see catalog no. 228, 229). On order of a wathil, these bateba have to be worn for protection against witches or other invisible dangers. But that does not eliminate the possibility that such bateba were also worn as jewelry. ‑ “Bracelets with bateba” (bambi na bateba) (see catalog no. 233, 234 and Labouret, 1931: P1. XX:ll). In former times such bracelets are supposed to have been worn only by children. ‑ “Horns” (uma) (see catalog no. 235). Until today they serve old women as protective breast amulets. ‑ “Red bells” (giel sic “red” sic, so called opposite to the black bells, i.e. wrought iron bells (see catalog no. 238). These are considered more dangerous than iron bells because they ring louder. Therefore they are ordered mainly by “dangerous” (puo) thila, who give their owners extraordinary many orders and therefore also order bateba which belong to the category of the dangerous and extraordinary persons (Chapter 4.3.) Like the latter one, red bells also show an amazingly manifold variety. Depending on the thil, they are either worn on the body or put on shrines. ‑ “Chameleons” (tiila or gamtur) and “snakes” (sie) (see catalog no. 239, 240). Contrary to the objects which we just discussed, these can be worn as jewelry, i.e. without being ordered a thil. But today they are mainly worn on demand of a thil only. The other objects published here were formerly used mostly as jewelry (expect maybe the two objects catalog no. 247, 248, which may originate in Gan and to which I have no information). They testify with their amazing variety to the originality of the former brass founders (phusiedara, “Men of the red clay”), which tried to “surpass” each other with constantly new creations. Since the import of western clothes and jewelry though these brass objects have gone out of fashion. Therefore the number of native brass founders has diminished rapidly. ‑ The brass founders also possess for their work their own phuthil (“bellows thil“) (see Labouret, 1931: 72‑73).


  1. Ivory Ornaments

Ivory ornaments shaped like crescent moons (catalog no. 249) were formerly worn mainly by younger men, while ornaments which demonstrated a “flute” (biel) in a stylized way (see catalog no. 250) were mainly worn by older and specially honored men. These objects called thungbubiel (“elephant flutes”), were worn at all celebrations, funerals and market places, i.e. to all places where one could “show of” (dagbul) in front of many visitors. They wee very popular until the fifties. But they were very expensive. For especially beautiful and big pieces one had to pay with a piece of cattle and a larger amount of cowries. Specialists who could carve such jewelry plates are also supposed to have been very rare. Everybody I asked in the area of Wourbira denied to have ever seen a bateba made from ivory. The Art Institute in Chicago (according to Vogel, 1980) though owns two bateba made from ivory, 14 cm high (published in Scheinberg, 1976: 8) which are made by Sikire Kambire in Gaoua or from his school.