According to the Senoufou people, there are three worlds: ours, that of the spirits and that of the ancestors.
When someone dies they have to travel to the world of the ancestors, a journey of three months for which some preparation is required. During the first week after a death, therefore, the community help the deceased with the preparations, making sacrifices of chickens, beer, vegetables, grains - all that the deceased might need to sustain them on this journey. The preparations culminate on the seventh day, with final sacrifices and much drumming and dancing as the appropriate funeral masks come out for the send-off.
My primary aim in spending a few days in Burkina Faso after our conference there was to see some masks in action. I see them on every trip in the tourist shops and I have several on the walls in my house, but I had never yet managed to see a real mask dance. They are hard to track down as they are held for events such as funerals and harvests which do not have fixed dates. But I had read that in Burkina Faso they mostly take place from February to April, so I made a point of asking around in every village I went to on my trip.
& finally with some success - there was to be a funerary mask dance in the Senoufou village of Sindou!
I returned on the appointed day, and when the sun began to sink and the air began to cool I went out mask hunting. Eventually I heard distant drumming, and I followed the narrow winding paths through the village until I found the ceremony.
There were two very large ancient-looking drums being beaten with sticks, plus a number of men in procession banging and scraping small metal instruments. Three masked dancers were there, covered head to toe in a brown fabric, including a triangular headdress giving the effect of pointy ears, and long trailing fronds of blonde rafia-like stuff. Apparently they represented cats, and certainly they were prowling around some of the time but also jumping, shaking and swirling to the music.
All this in the middle of a beautiful traditional village, the setting sun turning the mud houses a pinkish shade - and me the only tourist there. Photography was not allowed, unfortunately.
The next day there were further processions around the village with different masks coming out, although I must say none of them were anything like the wooden ones sold in the shops. In some places it is possible to see dances using those masks, put on specially for tourists, and I may seek one out in the future, but I know that such an performance will come nowhere near to the special experience I had of a real mask dance in this remote little Burkina Faso village.