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About This Festival

A Centuries-Old Tradition

Every other year, come late winter, packs of crocodiles, monkeys and ebony-beaked birds descend on the city of Dédougou, but it's nothing to fear. It means the International Festival of Masks and the Arts (FESTIMA) has begun.

The week-long event draws costumed troupes from villages around Burkina Faso, as well as from neighboring West African countries such as Benin, Ivory Coast, Mali, Nigeria, Togo, and Senegal. Each group is composed of musicians and elaborately masked dancers who know how to move to the beat.

Mask making is a centuries-old tradition in the region, and FESTIMA's purpose is to protect and promote the custom. Many of the wildly colored wood masks represent animals, while others embody spirits from the bush. Locals believe that once the performer puts on the mask he becomes the animal or spirit he is wearing, which might be why the dancers seem enchanted as they swirl, jump, flip, and stamp up dust all day long and through the night.

More than 100,000 people watch the hypnotic shows. Most come from within Burkina Faso, although Westerners are starting to trickle in for the one-of-a-kind spectacle.

Masks on the Move

A colorful parade of masks opens the festival. The troupe's musicians enter the performance area and begin pounding frantic, rhythmic beats on hand drums. They often add whistles and recorders to the mix, along with the balafon, a type of xylophone made of hollowed gourds. Costumed dancers sit on the ground facing the viewing stands. Their masks can be up to one and a half meters high and are quite heavy. In some cases, their masks are actually full-body suits made of leaves, feathers, bark, or straw.

Within minutes, the music brings the dancers to their feet (some say they are in a trance at this point). They flail around the arena with wild abandon. The leaf masks look like spinning trees, the straw masks like haystack monsters reeling back and forth, the coyote and antelope masks charge at the crowd, while the monkey mask grabs a little boy as if to devour him.

Spectators stand around the edges to gawp at the action, or they pay an additional fee to sit in chairs under tents; village chiefs and VIPs get stadium-style seating right in front of the dancers. Wherever they're situated, everyone drinks bissap (a purply, grape-like drink) and ginger juice from knotted plastic bags to ward off the heat.

After troupes leave the stage, they continue drumming and dancing in Dédougou's streets.

Beyond the Masks: Storytellers and Crafts

FESTIMA also hosts cabaret nights, where griots (storytellers) compete. A slew of scholarly presentations on mask traditions and cultural heritage take place throughout the week. Talks at the 2014 event include "Masks, Intercultural Dialog and Peace in Africa" and "The Role of Women in Mask Practices" - an intriguing one, since women aren't allowed to wear masks.

Another popular component of the festival is the 100-stall marketplace. Artisans from around the region sell traditional crafts such as woven baskets, carved gourds, batik-print cloth, beaded jewelry and yes, painted wood masks.

Festival Background

For centuries, mask dances have been part of ceremonies for weddings, funerals, crop harvesting and other rituals. FESTIMA started in 1996, when a group of Burkina Faso students decided they needed to take action to preserve this cultural linchpin that was slipping away in the face of modern influences. They formed the Association for the Protection of Masks (ASAMA) to produce the festival and revitalize the mask tradition. Over the years the event has grown from four days to seven days and the number of spectators has increased ten-fold. It now takes place biannually, in even-numbered years.

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