Lobi people



The Lobi belong to an ethnic group that originated in what is today Ghana. Starting around 1770, many Lobi peoples migrated into southern Burkina Faso and later into Côte d'Ivoire. The group consists of around 180,000 people. Lobiri is the name of the language spoken by the Lobi people.


Lobi is a blanket term that refers to several closely related ethnic groups that comprise roughly 7% of the Burkinabe population, including the main Lobi proper, Birifor, Dagara, Dorossy, Dyan (aka Jãa), Gan and Tenbo/Loron (aka Lorhon, Teese, Teguessie and Thuuna). It is important to recognize that among them, only the Gan belong to a politically centralized, and royal, society. Other groups are commonly referred to as "acephalous," which is misleading, but is meant to signal the absence of centralized political authority.

Lobi country

The Lobi inhabit parts of southern Burkina Faso.

"The Lobi is a farmer, a hunter and a herder, but above all he is a warrior". Victims of slave raids, rival clans and civil disputes, they are among the fiercest and proudest inhabitants of Burkina Faso and were constantly under attack from the Guiriko and Kenedougou empires during the 19th century. Bakary Ouattara, brother of the founder of the Guiriko empire led an offensive against the Lobi in 1815, and despite setting fire to several villages he was eventually killed by a poisoned arrow. He was succeeded by Karakara who continued with the raids leading up to the devastating attack in 1850 where they suffered heavily and lost a great deal but were never completely defeated.

Lobi in Burkina Fasoi

The name Lobi originates from two Lobiri words: lou (forest) and bi (children), meaning literally, "children of the forest". The Mouhoun River is important to Lobi peoples for many reasons. In terms of migration history, it marks an escape from slave raiders in present-day Ghana. In myth, it symbolizes a dividing line between this world and the next. The Lobi crossed the Mounhoun centuries ago from east to west and settled in the lands and brought with them deep animist beliefs and superstition. According to Lobi legend, the spirits of the deceased must return across the river to rejoin their honorable ancestors in the ancient world.


Lobi-Dagarti Peoples - Settlements

Settlements in the area consist of named units that are usually centered on a specific parish or ritual area of an Earth shrine. These settlements are inhabited by members of several exogamous lineages housed in fortress-type compounds with 2.5meter-high walls, a flat roofs, and entrances reached (at least formerly) by wooden ladders to the roofs. These houses are some 100 meters apart and contain an average of 15 persons, but they vary in size, depending on the state of the developmental cycle of the domestic group. Around the walls lies the compound farm, which is fertilized by human detritus and is used by the women to plant their soup vegetables. It is adjoined by home farms; bush farms lie much farther away. The settlements consist of some 250 to 750 inhabitants.



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The economy is essentially one of the hoe farming of cereals (sorghum, pennisetum [pearl millet], maize), together with some yams, especially in the southern areas that are occupied by migrants. In addition, people grow squashes, peppers, beans (including Bambara beans), groundnuts, and a little rice. Some of this produce is sold in the local markets, especially sorghum in the form of beer. Most compounds also possess a herd of cows, and some sheep, goats, guinea fowl, and chickens, which are mainly killed as sacrifices to be distributed.

Industrial Arts and Trade. Lobi women produce a certain amount of gold, which finds its way into the hands of Dyula traders. Associated with earlier gold workings, it has been suggested, are the ruins of stone houses. Since the advent of colonial rule, the relative peace that it brought about and the cheaper iron tools that it provided have led to increased production, evidence of which can be seen in the markets. That increase is also true for livestock. Along with wage labor (performed either locally or as migrants), these developments have increased purchasing power. Whereas little was imported earlier except salt, now large amounts of cloth are brought in, and other manufactured objects, such as matches, bicycles, transistor radios, and household utensils, are used in considerable quantities. Local craft production consists of iron implements, brass bangles and other ornaments, musical instruments, some wood carvings, and woven mats.

Today migration—both of the uneducated, seeking work as laborers, and of the educated, who generally work in the towns—is frequent. The age of migrants is now much lower than formerly, and the duration of their absences is much greater. The result is that larger numbers of houses are inhabited by old men, women, and children who have to carry out the agricultural work without the help they would have received from the migrants. Thus, the sexual division of labor has been altered. The south, however, is beginning to lose some of its attraction as the international economy affects the recruitment of labor, potential recruits are frightened by tales of AIDS.

The LoDagaa (including the Lobi) were not themselves traders (except in the state of Wa), but major north-south trade routes of Dyula and Hausa merchants ran through the area from the forest to the Sahel.

Division of Labor. Farming was mostly done by men, but women helped with the planting and the harvesting. In some places, women would organize men to farm for a friend by brewing plenty of beer. Women cultivated soup vegetables, collected forest produce, carried loads, gathered firewood, fetched water, extracted oil, and prepared food and beer. Grinding grain, in particular, was a lengthy process. Their workload is now changing as a consequence of the introduction of wells and mills. Men carried out the heavy agricultural work, looked after livestock, and hunted. Both sexes took part in house building during the dry season.

Land Tenure. Land tenure took the form of a hierarchy of rights distributed within the lineage. At one level, land was "owned" by the wider patrilineage, and if any land was not being farmed, other members had a claim to use it. Use rights were exclusive and more important where land was scarce or especially valuable (because of water). Where population density was low, it sufficed to approach the local Master of the Earth, who would perform a simple sacrifice.



Kin Groups and Descent. Across the LoDagaa cluster, roughly from east to west, there is an increasing emphasis on the role of matrilineal descent groups. In the east, the Dagaba are organized on the basis of patrilineal descent groups alone. Several of these exogamous units exist in each parish. These lineages, which trace patrilineal relationships between their members, belong to wider named clans, segments of which are found in widely dispersed settlements, even those of different "ethnic" groups, roughly tracing out lines of migration. Groups to the west also have matrilineal clans, and all except the Wiili (and formerly even some of the LoWiili) inherit land and immovables agnatically and inherit movables (wealth, cattle) through the uterine line. Hence, the patricians are locally based, but the matriclans are dispersed. These groups are therefore variants of classic double-descent systems.

Patrilineal clans are numerous, each with its own prohibitions, often against the killing of a totemic animal or the eating of foods in a particular way. The clans are paired in joking relationships, and their ritual foci are lineage shrines. Among the Lobi and, to some extent, the Birifor, although patrilineal clanship is concealed, it is significant in landownership and in some ritual affairs, especially in the Dyoro initiations. The matriclans, right across the cluster, are basically four in number—Some, Da, Hienbe, and Kambire. The first two and the last two are paired in joking relationships, which are particularly important at funerals. These dispersed matriclans have particular loci where sacrifices are occasionally performed.

Kinship Terminology. In a double-descent system, one can refer to any kin either in the patrilineal or in the matrilineal mode. The patrilineal mode is Omaha, whereas the matrilineal one is Crow. The dominance of these different modes depends upon the strength of the relevant groups.


Marriage and Family

Marriage. In the eastern groups, marriage is strictly virilocal and is effected by the transfer of bride-wealth in cowries and subsequently in cattle. The transfers take place over time, as the marriage is consolidated with the birth of children. Traditionally, the groom also had to bring parties to farm for his inlaws from time to time, although among the educated this practice tends to get commuted into a monetary payment. Each marriage invokes the construction of a new sleeping room and cooking hearth. Among the Birifor and the Lobi, when a fiancé comes to farm, he may eventually be allowed to spend the night with his future wife and, later, to have her visit his own house in return for further work. She did not usually reside permanently in her husband's house until after the birth of their first child. Initial bride-removal without bride-service, as in some cross-"ethnic" marriages, entailed a very heavy payment of five cattle, a form of marriage that is becoming more common. The children are members of both their patrilineal and their matrilineal clans. Nowadays marriage by elopement is more common, with the wife joining her husband straightaway and the bride-wealth being eventually paid.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit is generally built on agnatic ties, given that wives join their husbands at marriage, but among the Lobi and Birifor, men do extensive bride-service, and some young children may grow up with their mother's brothers before their mother leaves for her husband's house. In most cases, the farming group is small. A man and his sons may farm together for a longer period among the groups in which patricians dominate. The dwelling group that occupies a compound may consist of several farming groups, and each farming group may be divided into smaller eating groups.

Inheritance. Among the Dagaba and the Wiili, a man's property passes first to his full brothers, if they are farming together, and then to his sons. Among the LoPiel, the LoSaala, the Birifor, and the Lobi, land passes in the paternal line, whereas movable property is transmitted first to uterine siblings and then to sisters' sons, leading to earlier splits in the domestic groups and to tensions between a man and his mother's brothers. A woman's property generally goes to her daughters if it is sex-linked, but livestock may go to her sons.

Socialization. Young children are looked after by their mothers and are breast-fed until they can walk and talk, when they "become humans" and are thus entitled to a proper burial (see "Death and Afterlife"). Later on, they are cared for by elder sisters or relatives, who involve them in their play. Boys go off in groups to herd cattle, whereas girls play more domestic games around the compound, helping their mothers from time to time by fetching water or grinding and pounding cereals. Among the Lobi, girls also look after cattle, although boys and girls pass this responsibility to their juniors when they are initiated into the Dyoro society.


Sociopolitical Organization

Political Organization. Except for the Wala and the Gan, the peoples of this group lacked chieftainship and central political organization until the coming of colonial rule. Before that, settlements were basically parishes, ritual areas under the supervision of a Master of the Earth, who conducted expiatory and other sacrifices in a sacred grove on behalf of the community. Particularly severely reproved was the shedding of the blood of any member of the community. In addition to the Master of the Earth, there was a leader in armed conflict (and the hunt), the Master of the Bow. The Earth priest was always advised by the heads of the constituent lineages of the settlement, who made up an informal moot and entered into complex patterns of reciprocal action in funerals and on other ritual occasions. A powerful man in the settlement might, on occasion, build up both riches and a following, and thereby temporarily gain influence over community affairs. On some of the trade routes running north and south, Muslim merchants established settlements and engaged in local as well as long-distance trade. Today all areas have had chiefs imposed upon them by the government authorities.

Social Control and Conflict. In earlier times, the absence of central authority meant that the feud played an important part in the settlement of disputes. Men always traveled equipped with bows and poisoned arrows, a practice that early colonial administrators tried to modify with varying success, especially in Lobi country. The main causes of conflict were rights to women and access to forest products. Within the parish, conflicts of this kind were rare because of kin ties and respect for the Earth shrine. Strong sanctions existed against adultery, theft, and other delicts, which were settled within and between local lineages. More recently, local chiefs and headmen have exercised supervision on behalf of the government, and local courts of law have been established.


Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The religion of the LoDagaa cluster centers on the Earth and the ancestors. The worship of the Earth (which is conducted by the Master of the Earth on behalf of the parish) relates to the fertility of the soil and, indeed, to all of its uses; it would be offended by having anyone who suffered a bad death interred within it or by having the blood of any member of its congregation shed upon it. The Earth looks after the community, but the ancestors supervise the lineage and are concerned with matters relating to the household and kin, that is to say, with a very wide range of human activity. Whereas the Earth is propitiated at a stone in a sacred grove, the ancestors are worshiped at anthropomorphically carved wooden shrines—one for each male who leaves behind sons; these are kept in a corner of the byre where the cattle are stalled.

There are a multitude of other supernatural agencies, the most important of which is the rain shrine, which draws its strength from the power of thunder and lightning. Most of the "medicine shrines" circulate throughout the region, and a selection will have been acquired by any of the more established houses—and even by distant clients. In the long run, their popularity waxes and wanes.

As intermediaries between humans and these deities, there is a body of beings of the wild—hill and water spirits—whose home is the bush (as that of humans is the cultivated lands) and whose flocks are the wild animals. In their rooms, most senior men and women have shrines to these spirits, by whom they have been "caught." They are associated with divination because they can reveal the truth through dreams and in other ways. They are also the ones who have, with the blessing of the High God, introduced humans to the main aspects of culture: the growth of crops, the making of food, the smelting of iron, hunting, and so forth.

The High God is characteristically "otiose" and has no altar, no means of communication. Muslims and Christians in the area are characterized as "praying to God"; for others, such a God is too far removed from human ways. Nevertheless, the myth of the Bagre society emphasizes the High God's role as Creator, and members of various syncretic cults, together with those who were converted en masse to Christianity, emphasize that potentially this God could play a greater part than was traditionally assumed.

Since the 1930s, mass conversions to Catholicism have taken place, beginning among the LoPiel population around Dissin. Since then, the religion has spread widely; churches and hospitals have been constructed and priests trained. Until the late twentieth century, Protestant sects had made little headway in the area, but conversions have recently been made among the Lobi. Islam was formerly confined to small trading settlements and to the major towns, such as Wa and Buna; it has made a few converts in the villages but remains largely identified with the states of the region.

Animism. The Lobi are well documented for their animist beliefs, which involves regular interaction with ancestral and other types of spirits such as thila and kontuoursi. Interaction with these spirits commonly takes place in a thilduu (domestic shrine room), dithil (village shrine), and at other places in nature inhabited by spirits. Christian missionaries working in southern Burkina Faso have reported that an elderly man in a Lobi village once renounced the spirits in favor of Christianity by discarding his fetishes in a nearby lake. As he turned his back on the traditions, the fetishes leapt out of the lake onto his back again to reclaim him. Lobi people who convert to Christianity or Islam now usually burn their fetishes. Or, they may sell them on the market.

In Lobi animism, Thangba Yu is the creator of all living things. Lobi peoples have no direct contact with Him, but are dependent on nature spirits known as thila, invisible intermediaries that can harness their supernatural powers towards good or evil. They set rules soser, which dictate how a Lobi should behave in important aspects of life. Similar to Greek or Roman gods, thila themselves are subject to mortal virtues and vices. In Lobi society, there is often a thildaar (village diviner) that may also act as a dithildaar (village priest; each village has only one) that interprets soser for the local community. A particularly intuitive and receptive thildaar is capable of interpreting as many as fifty or more spirits at a time

Religious Practitioners. Practically every adult is an officiant at some shrine or another, but the main figure is the Master of the Earth. Some individuals develop special reputations as diviners. All are involved in sacrifices to the ancestors, to the beings of the wild, and to medicine shrines.

Ceremonies. Annual ceremonies are performed at household shrines, especially at the end of the farming season. It is toward this time that, among the central groups, neighbors dance in the marketplace to celebrate the flowering of the guinea corn. Not long afterward, lineages perform special sacrifices to clan deities, a time when they also poison their arrows. Traditionally, success in the hunt also elicited special ritual performances, as did killing someone in war, whether friend or enemy.

Birth and marriage were accompanied by little ceremonial. Death and burial, on the other hand, were occasions; the funeral ceremonies, which resulted in redistribution of the property of the dead (including sexual rights) and the creation of an ancestor shrine (if there were offspring), lasted for many months and brought mourners from far and wide.

The major ceremonial sequences, however, were those associated with secret societies: the Bagre in the east and the Dyoro in the west. The Bagre is performed by lineages when they have sufficient neophytes (and enough grain) to carry out a performance, with the participation of their neighbors as officiants. During the course of the long sequence of rites, the neophytes are placed under a series of taboos, from which they are gradually released. The rites are accompanied by an extensive recitation concerning the creation of culture. The Dyoro ceremony involves a visit by patrilineages to special centers, where the ancestors lived before reaching the banks of the Black Volta and where the principal rites of initiation take place. Indeed, the ritual reenacts the long-ago migration of the patrician and so preserves a little of its history. In the ceremony, which takes place every seven years, the initiates are killed off and revived.

Arts. Labouret noted the general features of the culture of this area (except for that of the Muslims). Clothing was absent except for the penis sheath for men and leaves for women (although this has largely changed). Women wore lip plugs and practiced excision, but there was no male circumcision. Separate flat-roofed compounds were constructed of clay and served as small fortresses. The spectrum of peoples in the area have similar techniques of metalworking and pottery making (including the lost-wax process); use bows, quivers, and arrows poisoned with Strophantus hispida; make three-footed stools, sometimes carved; and maintain secret societies and the use of the bullroarer.

Different types of xylophone serve as ethnic identifiers, but the social systems have many common elements. Most significant are the similarities and variants in social organization, in political systems, in religion, and in kinship.

The LoDagaa have expert xylophone players who perform at funerals, at the Bagre, and for dances of various kinds. They produce some carving: ancestor shrines, beings of the wild, deities, stools, and walking sticks. The Lobi formerly made masks based on Baule designs, at the instigation of Commandant Labouret. The LoDagga make many large clay sculptures of beings of the wild and of minor deities. There is virtually no painting, except for the application of white clay on the human body during funeral and Bagre ceremonies. Some practitioners carve figurative and decorative patterns on gourds.

Medicine. There are no specialist herbalists among the LoDagaa, although some men and women are recognized as knowing more than others. Some curative medicines ("medicines" are used for different purposes) are associated with shrines, others are "invented" by individuals going to the woods, and still others have been of long-standing use and are known to most households. Women's knowledge centers mainly around medicines relating to childbirth and female complaints.

The medical system is open-ended, and there has been no problem in assimilating European cures, especially pills and injections. Today there is a wide network of government and missionary hospitals and clinics. Many tropical diseases have been more or less brought under control (for example, cerebrospinal meningitis, leprosy, and sleeping sickness), but malaria has made an unwelcome comeback.

Death and Afterlife. Death, particularly of infants, was frequent. Those who have not yet been weaned are not mourned in the usual way, except by their mothers, because they are deemed to be wandering spirits, rather than humans. Precautions are taken against their return to this earth. For all others, however, the funeral rites are long and complex, and they involve the participation of many people. The burial performance takes three or four days, depending on whether the deceased is a male or a female, and that performance is followed over the next year by a series of rites that gradually release the widow (or widower) and the property and personality of the deceased and dismiss the soul to "God's country." The dead travel across the river of death with the aid of a ferryman; during the trip, those who have led evil lives may be punished for their misdeeds. In the course of the series of funeral ceremonies, a dead man also becomes an ancestor, with a shrine that will thereafter receive regular offerings of food and drink from his descendants, especially from those who have inherited from him.



Lobi dwellings are characterized as large rectangular or polygonal compounds known as maison soukala. They are spaced well from each other and are composed of a single vast mud banco wall and a small entrance. An entrance to a Lobi house is a relatively recent development. At many houses, there is a ladder made from a large, Y-shaped tree trunk with notched steps, which lead up to the roof where inhabitants may access an interior granary and their own rooms below. Access to individual sleeping quarters is also available inside. Only the tyuordaarkuun (or head of the household; there is no "chief" in Lobi society) can give permission to enter the house. The roof is broad and flat and forms a terrace which provides a lookout point but can also be used for sleeping in the dry season. Domestic animals have their own space, and water is gathered from a well or the river. The rooms inside a Lobi house are very dark, and the size varies in relation to function. Each wife has a room for herself and her children where meals are prepared. Large earthenware jars used to hold water or other personal belongings are often stacked up against the kitchen walls and are a testament to the owner's economic status.


Lobi Art and Marriage Poles

The art of the Lobi people in Burkina Faso comes in various forms and consist of a lot of sculpture work but these works have gained little attention by the art historic world. The material used by the Lobi are consider simple by most art historians. Shrines also tend to be made simple and have figures that have little actual sculpting to the wood. Like other African cultures Lobi art has a function that is more important than the aesthetic. Some of these art objects include the marriage poles, woodcarvings and small sculptures.

Lobi woodcarvers do not crave for making money and it has a ritual practice view of the art. Wood carvers see making craving as needing to have a purpose. These leads from the idea that wood carving viewed as a dangerous act and need to have a ritual to protect against hostile spirits that can be angered during the cutting of the trees. Some of the variations in Lobi sculpture is sculptures that are only a few centimeters tall. While the wood craving is better known of the works created by the Lobi bronze has also been used. Some of the uses of bronze include pendants of animals and figures, bells, and some bracelets and anklets.

Another type of creation by the Lobi is marriage poles. Marriage poles are made from Shea trees, which have significance in the Lobi every day. These poles also have black bands made from a dye that is then connected by a vertical strip. These bands are dyed into the poles and the bark of the tree is striped leaving contrasting bands down the length of the pole. Marriage poles are made by friends of the soon to be husband and are about three meters in height. The top of the marriage pole has a fork that a piece of cloth will be tied to after the new bride has arrived. The color of the cloth be white or red show the status of the bride and her attachment. These poles are placed along the pathways to a compound (soukhala) about ten meters apart. Some poles about halfway down have a tied bundle of leaves made from Shea like the pole itself and this is called kha.  The dye and the leaves are gifts from the bridegroom's father. The dye is to encourage the bride to stay put and the leaves are a medicine to bring rain therefore it brings prosperity. However, when these leaves dry it can bring harm to others who touch it spiritually. The poles are placed in red clay and small clay figures can be found at the base of some marriage poles that are half buried in a small mound and huddled together. These are just one of the various types of “art” that exist in the Lobi culture.