Girl with Mossi Doll, Burkina Faso
This girl is from a village in the Mossi country of Burkina Faso (a landlocked country in West Africa). The doll she is holding is a traditional wooden figurine made from one piece of wood standing on a broader base. The doll displays the characteristics of an adult woman, with suggestions of facial features and elaborate hairstyles, and usually with mature female breasts that represent the fulfillment of motherhood. Scarification [scarring] patterns on the body that traditionally mark passage to adulthood are also represented by carved patterns. Mossi dolls are typically carved by male blacksmiths and are given to girls for play. The child calls it biiga ("child"), and carries the doll about with her, tucking it into the waistband of her skirt, and pretends to feed, wash and groom it. Sometimes it is adorned with beads, cowrie shells, dressed with pieces of leather or cloth, and the girl might bring it wildflowers. In the market, a girl may place her doll on the edge of a merchant's mat and expect to receive a small sample of the wares—a few peanuts, a pastry, or a piece of fruit.
Mossi dolls are also the focus of rituals associated with motherhood. When a young girl displays her doll to older women, they may respond, "May God give you many children." At festivals, if a child gives her doll to an adult to hold, it is customary to give the child a small present when giving the doll back. Other rituals include the use of dolls to ensure fertility in marriage (accomplished by giving the doll a name). Handling the doll with care is seen as auspicious for childbearing and survival of children. Before the marriage ceremony, a young woman carries the doll on her back to the market, and a few days after marriage, she is given some straw in place of the doll and asked which sex her first child will be. Mossi dolls are passed down through female generations, and before a woman gives birth, she washes the doll she played with in childhood before washing her own baby. Similarly, the first drops of milk are given to the doll, and it is again carried on the mother's back before the infant is placed there for the first time. According to reports culled by anthropologists, these rituals were to ensure that the newborn infant's soul enters the world of its parents, called yisa biiga, or "to call the child," and "to prevent the child from returning," or gidga ti da biiga lebera me, to the world of the ancestral spirits. Women who remain childless after a few years of marriage use the dolls for votive purposes, adorning them with cowry shells and carrying them everywhere while expressing their wish for a child.
 Christopher D. Roy, "Mossi Dolls," African Arts 14, no. 4 (August 1981): 47-88.
Photograph: Burkina Faso, 2006, village of Dablo, little girl with her doll, # EPV0645.JPG, Art and Life in Africa Project, The University of Iowa, The School of Art and Art History, "Changing Burkina" (accessed November 23, 2009). Annotated by Susan Douglass.