History and peculiarities of the Mossi kingdom

Mossi Kingdom, an ancient African empire that was located in the Upper Volta region of present day Burkina Faso. The political, social, language, culture, history and other peculiarities of the kingdom will be discussed in detail. The paper is divided into three parts: introduction, body and conclusion.


Mosi, Moshi, Moose, Mossi


Identification: The ancient Kingdom of Mossi was made up of the Mossi tribe. The Mossi tribe still forms the majority of the population in the Upper Volta region (Burkina Faso in particular). They are well regarded in anthropological literature as one of the most industrious tribes in the whole of the West African region. Historically, the tribe has been noted for its resistance to Christian missionaries and Islamic states, even though its cultures show several correlations with Islam.

Location: The Mossi tribe has traditionally occupied what is now known as the Mossi plateau in the Upper Volta region. During the French conquest of these parts of West Africa, the tribe spread throughout the region to occupy parts of Ivory Coast. The Mossi tribe now forms the second most populous tribe in the country. The Mossi people are also found in Ghana. The core area of the kingdom was, however, in approximately 0°00? to 3°00? E and 11°30? to 14°00? N.

Demography: The Mossi people currently make up about 50% of the population of Burkina Faso. This is from the 1961 census, which found 49% of the population of the Upper Volta area to be Mossi. The most current national censuses do not give population figures based on tribe. If the 49% proportion of the population is assumed to have been maintained until 1985, a time when the census reported a population of 7,964,705, the Mossi people were approximately 3.9 million individuals at that time.

Linguistic Affiliation: Mossi is often written as More, even though the country’s national standards refer to the country as “Moore.” There are also other writings that refer to the Mossi as “Moore” and “Mole.” In Greenberg’s 1963 classification he refers to the tribe as Mossi and defines it as a member of the Voltaic of Niger-Congo.

History and Cultural Relations

It is known that the Mossi have existed for over five hundred years; the exact origins of the kingdom and the ruling clans are, however, still a subject of debate among historians. There are several literatures that mention that the Mossi were in conflict with another Empire in the region, the Song-hay empire, during the years 1328 to 1333 and about a hundred and fifty years later in 1477 and in 1498. Compared to other West African kingdoms, the tribe was powerful enough such that it was never conquered by another African tribe until the arrival of the French empire in 1896. However, though powerful, the kingdom was not strong enough to conquer their neighboring empires. The expansion of the Mossi Empire was through the annexation of small stateless tribes and villages along the edges of the kingdom; individuals whose languages and cultures were closely related to theirs. Within the first few years after the French conquered the region, their scholars were already applying the word mossification to refer to the assimilationist expansion characteristic of the Mossi empire (Finnegan, 1998).


During the reign of the Mossi Empire, most of the surrounding countryside was sparsely populated. Households were made of extended families. Each extended family compound was surrounded by farms. Several households made a village. The family compounds were located not more than 100 meters apart. The houses were so low, such that when millet (the staple food of the Mossi Kingdom) was fully grown (about 4 meters), one could not see a neighbor’s house. Boundaries were likely based on natural features such as rock formations, streams and valleys. However, the dispersed settlement patterns points to the fact that villages were political/social units and not geographic ones. In the colonial and in the latter half of the twentieth century, there was an increase in movement into the surrounding towns. The movement also resulted in increased opening of the rural areas and in the capital available to the rural households.


Subsistence: The main source of living throughout the Upper Volta region was the growth of sorghum and millet. Millet was the staple food of the kingdom. Families ground millet, turning it into flour for making porridge. The millet could also be made into a past-like dish to eat with other vegetables or different types of meat. Sorghum was used to make alcohol. Almost everyone in the kingdom was a farmer. This was owing to the cultural expectation that every man was to provide millet for his household through the cultivation of millet.

Industrial: Similar to other tribes and kingdoms in the larger West African region, Mossi blacksmiths and craftsmen were unique and special groups of people who lived in separate villages or settlements.

Trade: There were many markets spread throughout the Mossi Kingdom. Apart from local markets, the Yarse clan of the empire engaged in long distance trade. The Yarse are from Mande region in present-day Mali. The Yarse were assimilated by the Mossi. Though they had taken up the language and the culture of the Mossi people, they still retained their Muslim identity. The goods that were exported by the Mossi Empire included kola nuts, salt, cotton material, cattle, donkeys and iron tools.

Division of Labor: All family members were expected to work in the household fields. The farming was supervised by the male elders of the family. When the extended families met over important farming events such as farming, the female members of the society were expected to prepare porridge and beer for the participants. Female members of the tribe were also responsible for the collection of firewood and fetching of water. Pre-colonial blacksmithing was a preserve of specific clans, which were mostly endogamous.

Land Tenure: Land was held and passed along the male family line. Although, in cases where there was sufficient land, it could be passed to other family members, even to outright strangers. As part of the heritage of the Mossi people from their ancestors, land was not alienable; instead, it was held in trust for the tribe’s descendants.

Kinship Group and Descent, Kinship Terminology

Kin Groups and Descent: The Mossi society was formally organized along patrilineal descent units. The units were grouped together into clans. Apart from sharing a common patrilineal ancestor, the clans also shared a common totemic animal, which was avoided as food.

Kinship terminology: In the Mossi language, there is only one term that refers to lineage or clan and that is “buudu.” Members of each clan share a surname (Finnegan, 1998).

Marriage and Family

Marriage: Marriages are arranged by clan heads. Polygamy was widely practiced. However, it was only allowed to those who had the economic means to pay dowry and to sustain all the wives that they wished to marry. Mossi marriages included sororate and levirate.

Domestic Unit: a Mossi household was made of a man, his wives, his younger brothers, married sons and their children.

Inheritance: Livestock and other tradable goods were inherited by sons. Fields, houses and farm storehouses were the property of the clan and not the individual and thus were inherited on the basis of need or seniority.

Sociopolitical Organization:

The Mossi people were organized along patrilineally defined lineages, which formed clans. Although many assume that the Mossi Empire was one country, that assumption is wrong. In fact, there were four independent states and about fifteen dependencies that made up the Mossi country. The four independent states included Ouagadougou, Yatenga, Ouagadougou, and Fada N’Gurma. Most of these states were formed for the control of trade routes and sources. Rulers were thought to possess a supernatural ability, which was based on their lineages and proper installation. It is this mix of political and religion power that led to the effective resistance of Islam by the Mossi people.

Political power was based on the ability of kings to mobilize their elders and chiefs, with their horses and polities. The availability of well-established blacksmith communities also meant that the Mossi states had sufficient weapons to trade and to fight invaders (Finnegan G., 1996).

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religion in the Mossi empire was made up of three major elements: the ancestors (who affect the lives of their descendants), fertility spirits (who govern the rains, crops and the lands), and Wende (the all-mighty creator). There were several sacred places where animals were sacrificed for the spirits. Each household also had its own shrine for its male ancestors. Different objects, pots and sacred plants.

Arts: Mossi men wove cotton cloth using strip looms. Clay-made, decorated with special designs were common in the kingdom. Many Mossi men also practiced wood sculpture.

Medicine: like many other societies in Africa, the Mossi Empire had many traditional healers who used sacred plants, shrubs and incantations to heal different types of ailments.

Death and Afterlife: Mossi men were buried to the west of their household fields. Women were buried in household fields. Dead men were revered and had an almost spirit-like status among community members.


The Mossi people are the most populous tribe in modern day Burkina Faso (Obeng, 2015). The Mossi kingdom played a crucial role during the pre-colonial period. Despite contact with many external influences, the Mossi people have been able to retain their political and social structures. The Mossi people place high value on their traditional beliefs, spirits, and identity. The endurance of the culture has been attributed to the importance placed on the kingdom and family values (Anyanwu, 2011).


Anyanwu, S. (2011, July 25). The Mossi: A People Of Culture. Retrieved from https://face2faceafrica.com/article/the-mossi-a-people-of-culture#.VtDeWUPnWRR

Finnegan, G. (1996). Mossi. Retrieved from Encyclopedia of World Cultures: http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Mossi.aspx

Finnegan, G. A. (1998). Mossi. Retrieved February 26, 2016, from http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/anthro/faculty/fiske/135b/moose.htm

Greenberg, J. H. (1963). The Languages of Africa. Indiana University Research Center in Anthropology, Folklore, and Linguistics, Publication no. 25. The Hague: Mouton.

Obeng, P. (2015, July 30). Asante and the Akan and Mossi States. Retrieved from Oxford Bibliographies Online: http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199846733/obo-9780199846733-0166.xml

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