The Nuna people, or Nunuma, are subgroup of the Gurunsi people in Southern Burkina Faso, estimated 150,000 population, and Ghana. The Nuna are known for their masks. The group speaks the Nuni language.
Nuna emigrated from nothern Ghana in a northward direction together with their Winiama neighbors at the end of the 15th century before the nakomse advance. The Mossi invaders were never able successfully to maintain power in Nuna territory because the horses on which they depended for military power quickly became sick and died. The bush surrounding Nuna territory is infested with the tsetse fly, making sleeping sickness endemic. Mossi accounts tell of the magical powers of Nuna peoples and their neighbors. Because of the structure of Nuna towns, they were difficult for cavalry raiders to penetrate. Nuna farmers could stand on the roofs of their homes and kill any mounted warriors who dared to enter the narrow alleys between houses. The region, however, was constantly ravaged by slave raids perpetrated by the Mossi, Fulani, and Songhay, until the end of the 19th century.
Nuna are primarily sedentary farmers, growing millet, sorghum, and yams. Maize, rice, peanuts, and beans are grown in addition to these staples. Farmers throughout the region practice slash and burn farming, using keri (fields) for approximately seven or eight years before they are allowed to lie fallow for at least a decade. In the family fields close to the villages, women grow cash crops, including sesame and tobacco, which are sold in local markets. Men participate in hunting during the long dry season. This is important for ritual reasons, since it is during this time that men may interact with the spirits that inhabit the bush. During the dry season, when food supplies are running low, some fishing is practiced in local swamps.
They live in village communities in which a large number of dwellings are clustered close together, with the village surrounded by farm fields.
The Nuna have no system of chiefs or other political leaders, although the French attempted to create such centralized power during the colonial period. Each community is instead organized by a council of the eldest representatives of each family who meet when need arises to make decisions on behalf of the community.
Nuna societies are comprised mainly of farmers, without social or political stratification. They are not divided among occupational castes or groups since most of them simply till the land and engage in occasional hunting. Before the arrival of the French, they had no internal system of chiefs, and all important decisions were made by a council of elders consisting of the oldest members of each of the village lineages. Religious leaders do maintain some political authority, determining the agricultural cycle and parceling out land for cultivation. The French established local puppet rulers, and the families of some of these maintained nominal political power until the revolution in 1983.
The Nuna believe in a creator god named Yi. The Nuna communities are formed around the worship of natural spirits, which in turn establish religious laws that control the moral and ethical conduct of life in the communities. The masks represent the spirits of the wilderness.
Belief in a supreme creator being is central to Nuna beliefs. A shrine to this god occupies the center of every village. An element of this creator god is Su, the mask spirit which is enshrined in the oldest and most sacred mask in the community. The spirit of Su can be harnessed to benefit the community or to cause harm to their enemies. When Su is properly appeased, communal harmony is achieved. He is responsible for providing women with fertility and is recognized for his role in the continuity of life. Each extended family maintains its own hut, in which the lineage magical objects are kept. The objects allow the family to maintain contact with the vital forces of nature. These objects are inherited by the ancestors and are the communal property of the lineage, providing protection and social cohesion among all members of the family.
The most recognized of the Nuna art forms are magnificent wooden masks colored red, white, and black. In addition anthropomorphic figures sculpted from clay and wood and various personal objects, ranging from jewelry to wooden stools, are created to honor the spirits.
The Nuna make masks in the shape of poles colored red, black, and white, or in the form of animals who often differ only in the shape of their horns and ears: buffalo, crocodiles, antelopes, warthogs, hyenas, calaos, and serpents. The eyes protrude, surrounded by concentric circles, with a rather short snout on the animal masks, and a large and protuberant mouth on the more abstract masks. Decorated with geometric motifs, the masks are repainted every year; they are found throughout the region. The wearer of the mask may be invisible underneath the fiber skirt and must behave as the animal does, imitating its gait. When rituals are properly executed, the community receives fertility and prosperity. The property of an individual, a mask will, upon the owner’s death, be given to his son or kept in the hut of the ancestors of the lineage. The mask’s role is important during ceremonies at the end of initiation, at the funeral of notables, and as entertainment on certain market days.
There are also large figures used by diviners to represent a spirit from the wilderness with which the diviner could communicate and whose supernatural power he could control for the benefit of his clients. These figures are kept together with non-figurative objects, including jars, bottles and stones in dark corners of the diviner’s home where they become covered with a thick crust of offering material, especially millet porridge, beer and chicken blood. The figures serve the same function as the spectacular masks from the same people; they make the invisible nature spirits concrete and permit the congregation to offer their prayers and offerings.