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Masquerading in Western Africa

Author: Janice D. Williamson


Catherine Elementary School

Year: 2007

Seminar: Africa in the Classroom

Keywords: Africa, Art, Culture, customs, dance, Music

School Subject(s): Arts, Social Studies

Africa is a very large continent with a great diversity of people and cultures. Customs and artistic traditions vary from society to society. In this unit, students will explore some of the customs and traditions through the study of expressive art forms in West Africa. This unit will overlap and intertwine art with expression and communication. This should develop an appreciation for Africa’s rich artistic heritage.

The purpose of the curriculum unit will be to understand some of the “masquerading” activities of Western Africa, which typically incorporate dance, masks and musical instruments. The focus will be on all of these elements, as they are simultaneously used in selected African rituals or ceremonies. African dance, masks and music are integrally linked almost everywhere on the continent and have been for centuries.

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Full Unit Text

Africa is a very large continent with a great diversity of people and cultures. Customs and artistic traditions vary from society to society. In this unit, students will explore some of the customs and traditions through the study of expressive art forms in West Africa. This unit will overlap and intertwine art with expression and communication. This should develop an appreciation for Africa’s rich artistic heritage.

The purpose of the curriculum unit will be to understand some of the “masquerading” activities of Western Africa, which typically incorporate dance, masks and musical instruments. The focus will be on all of these elements, as they are simultaneously used in selected African rituals or ceremonies. African dance, masks and music are integrally linked almost everywhere on the continent and have been for centuries.

Dance is usually considered an individualized form of expression and understanding. In Africa, dance more commonly reflects the life of the community. Rhythm and rhythmic acts are the centers of dancing in African cultures. Dance is included in Africans’ lives from birth to death. There are war dances, marriage dances, rain dances, dances which celebrate sun, family or joy. There are also some dances which express fear or grief. Love and respect for the earth are frequently manifested in African dance. For example, while migrating to their current homeland of Ghana, the Ewe people, were supposedly guided by a bird. Therefore, incorporated into their dances are bird movements depicting a bird in flight.

Mask making exemplifies the symbolic, ritualistic and historic elements that have been significant in the life of a community or region. Part of Africa’s mystique derives from our fascination with African dance, masks, and instruments.

Wearing masks in Africa is more than just make-believe. Masked dancers, disguised as spirits or as ordinary people and animals act out stories to celebrate occasions such as religious festivals, funerals, holidays or community gatherings. Once the dancer dons the masks, he becomes and behaves like the animal or person he is portraying. The masquerades can be happy or sad. They can be serious or poke fun at people. They are a way for people to talk to their ancestors and spirits. Children take part in adult masquerades and make up their own. They are playing, performing, imagining, learning and practicing being grown up. (1)

Musical instruments complement African life from birth to death. Musicians and their craft have been documented through time, dating back to ancient Egypt where instruments have been found in the tombs of the pharaohs. Musical instruments set the stage for the character of a masquerade performance. They can make spirits appear and produce rhythms for the dancers. Musical instruments are varied in size, materials and degree of ornamentation. They are pieces of art as well. Anything capable of making a sound can be used as an instrument. Among the materials used are turtle shells, gourds, pebbles, sticks, metal bottle caps, seeds, drums, gongs, horns, bells and xylophones.

It is always a significant occasion whenever masquerades or ceremonies are being performed, whether in the countryside or the city. Central and Western Africa have so many different kinds of stories, music, masks, costumes and dances that you could never learn them all.


Today’s curriculum offers little opportunity for children to experience an appreciation of the arts. The focal point of our teaching is math and reading. Pennsylvania State Standards and the Philadelphia Core Curriculum are the basis for my instruction. Spontaneity and teaching to the child’s interest are not an option. The curriculum mandates what we teach and the creative arts are slowly becoming lost or deemed not important or worthy enough to be allotted time within the frameworks of the curriculum. Teaching the whole child is not addressed anymore. Lesson plans are scripted and the “art” of teaching has become lost.

This unit will allow the children to explore the world of play. All children love to play and be creative. Playing is fun and lets you use your imagination, exercise creativity and try out new ideas. When you invent or create particular objects or crafts, you learn to do things and you get to know who you are. Many teachers cannot implement their creative ideas or methods of teaching which stimulate students’ willingness to learn, because the test-driven curriculum gets in the way.

One way to incorporate some of these creative and expressive experiences in this curriculum is to introduce the following examples: a) The Dogon people of Mali honor their dead in religious performances called damas. This is done every 13 years and honors spirits of their ancestors, which is an important celebration in their culture. In this performance, the children imitate the movements of the adult masqueraders. While they are not officially allowed to take part in the dance and are disguised in toy masks, the children imitate the adults and dance for a few minutes then run away. In this way, they learn to perform the dama, so they can participate when they are older. (2)

b) The people of Mali also wear different masks to represent animals or people that have played a significant role in Dogon life. These masks are traditionally made of wood and are painted. Animal masks can teach children about the domestic and wild animals that are part of an African child’s environment. They are also fun to look at and discuss in our classroom.

c) Another child’s masquerade is the leaf masquerade. It marks the change of the season. Some of the boys wear leaves to represent the wildness and danger of the bush. A rabbit mask, for example would represent the hunted. The boys without leaves are musicians or helpers. Everyone is included in some way to be a part of the dance.

Two of the lessons prepared for this unit involve masks: one will be made for harvest (the change of a season) and one designed to encourage self expression. The students will gain understanding of how Africans’ use of art enhances their lives. Masks reflect key moments in the life cycle of the African people, a concept which students can transfer to their own lives. After the making of both masks, students will discuss why they chose that particular shape or animal mask and the other mask to symbolize themselves or their lives. The background information on masks and mask making introduced in the lesson will be general in nature due to my target population.

The target students reflect my own experience. I teach in an urban elementary school in Southwest Philadelphia with a varied population of Africans, African-Americans, Asians and a small percentage of Caucasians. The grade range is kindergarten through fifth grade.

My classroom is a Learning Support Class with ages six through nine. Learning support is provided to any student who is language-delayed, high functioning autistic or Asperger’s, has behavior concerns or is Mentally Retarded. Reading skills are usually one to two years behind the average schedule in the general curriculum. Lack of an attention span is also a concern so activities and lessons must be changed frequently. My particular classroom includes two first generation Vietnamese and one first generation African child from Guinea.

Background Information

Throughout Africa, ceremonies involving masks are an essential part of community life. Whether the community is celebrating a birth or a marriage, mourning the dead, honoring the ancestors or marking the start of a new season, the event calls for a collective expression of sentiment and significance. Most of these occasions involve singing, dancing, clapping hands and playing musical instruments. Often they involve performances by masqueraders wearing masks which are appropriate for the occasion. All of these combined are to give meaning to the ceremony.

African dances, masks and musical instruments vary greatly according to the environment in which the community lives. While most traditional masks and musical instruments were made of local materials from the natural environment, modern Africans recycle materials such as left over strips of roofing, bottle caps, empty oil drums and tin cans. This reveals how African cultural and artistic forms are always changing and adapting to new circumstances and situations.


Dance is music and music is dance in African cultures. The two are inseparable and in many African languages there is not a separate word for dance.(3) In Africa as elsewhere in the world, dance performs many functions. These functions range from celebrating special occasions in the life of the community to providing relaxation and entertainment to expressing the deepest anxieties and hopes of a society.

Like all human beings, Africans lived in a world where unpredictable things happened. Frequently the laws of nature or the relationship of cause and effect seemed obscure. Therefore, to help explain the mysteries that surrounded them, they developed theories in which unseen forces or spirits affected the natural world and the behavior of human beings in that world. They used dance in the hope that it would help them to influence or control forces and events they could not comprehend or explain.

The dance also commemorates and celebrates birth, rites of passage, harvest and marriage. Throughout the continent one can find dances that accompany story and myth. There are stilt dances, mask dances, military or war dances, healing dances, work dances, religious and spiritual dances and national and ethnic-identity dances. In its purest original form dance in Africa was a vehicle for communication of sentiments and ideas and often an enactment of a community’s history. Dance in Africa is part of the whole complex of living. African dance is forceful and has a sense of urgency.

Mask dances performed throughout the continent are used in a variety of ways, including: warding off evil spirits, storytelling; suggesting supernatural or mystical
powers; spreading good feelings; honoring African deities; and/or embodying animal, human or spiritual figures. Many dances feature some figure who is disguised with a painted face and body covering, while others use a facial mask or elaborate headdress. The ornamentation of the mask figure aids in serving the varied purposes of the dance, yet the element of disguise is pervasive throughout.(4)

The mask makes the subject of the dance more intense and real. When the dancer wears the lion’s masks, for example, the dancer comes closer to becoming the lion rather than simply moving and roaring like a lion.

Ancient dancers tied strings of shells, stones or even parts of plants around their legs, arms, or neck to add sounds as they moved. From these rhythm “instruments” on the body it was a short step to using separate drums and rattles to accompany the dancers. (5) Early forms of dance took the basic form of the circle. The circle dance usually revolved around a central object, a sick person, an animal to be tamed or a prisoner to be subdued. The old belief that energy flows from those in the circle to the object in the center or from the center object out to those in the circle persists today (6).

Some experts classify African dance movements into either convulsive or harmonic dancing. The “convulsive” is wild and frenzied, while the harmonic is structured or stylized in expanded or closed movements.

The leap dance which is a harmonic dance of West Africa concentrate on five types of steps: jump (from both feet to both feet); leap (from one foot to the other foot); hop (from one foot to the same foot); assemble (from one foot to both feet); and sissonne ( from both feet to one foot). Drums typically accompany dancing in West Africa helping to punctuate gestures of arms and legs. Complex, arm, hand and foot movements together with facial, head and eye expressions complete this dance (7).

Harvest Dances

The harvest dances express gratitude for the fruits of the soil. Songs and dances are used to celebrate farming and the fertility of the earth.

One of these dances or festivals is the “New Yam” festival and is celebrated in Nigeria. Odabra is a word meaning “yams in abundance”. Young boys from 10 to 16 perform this dance to express the hunger that the villagers have experienced and now joy for the sun, rain and bountiful harvest.

Another harvest dance celebrated in Ghana is called Homowo. It is a corn harvest dance. Special meal called kpoi-kpoi is prepared and mixed with palm nut soup. Men and women perform this dance wearing a special white cloth called the Caba.
The Sokodae dance expresses thankfulness for the fruits of the earth and is performed by men and women. The Kotou from the Ivory Coast is another harvest dance. It also, focuses on the yam harvest, since yams are a major food source for the people in the forest zone of Western Africa. Pairs of dancers carry long poles that they straddle, hoist or balance on lifted thighs.(8)

Africa has cultivated a wide range of dances within its 54 countries and varied geography. Many have influenced dance styles around the world. Enriching web sites for this section are and


Wearing a mask in Africa is more than just make-believe. Dancers wear masks disguised as animals, spirits or ordinary people or act out stories to celebrate occasions such as holidays or community gatherings. Masquerades can be about serious topics or poke fun at people and make them laugh.

African art combines visual imagery with spiritual beliefs and social purposes. African artists not only create masks and figures for traditional ceremonial purposes, but also utilitarian objects used in daily life.(9) Each mask has a specific use as does the instrument and the dance form associated with that mask.

The mask is seen as not only a means of escaping from the realities of daily life, but above all a means of participating in the many-sided life of the universe, creating new realities beyond the merely human ones. In his masks the masquerader can be a spiritman, both good and evil, an animal-man or a divinity man. There is no doubt about the transfiguring power of the mask.(10) The wearer becomes that emotion or animal, he doesn’t just represent it.

Some scholars and experts in African art categorize masks according to their functions. One category of masks symbolizes the ancestor to whom sacrifices are made. Next, there are those that administer justice and punish the guilty. The judge will wear it while sentencing the guilty to ensure no personal hard feelings. Another use of masks in many African cultures is linked to the period of initiation, preparing youth of both sexes to move from adolescence to maturity. Special masks are also used during the farming season to promote a successful growing season and protect the crops.

One of the Dodo masquerade masks is made from a dried gourd with horns constructed of palm stalks and is brightly painted. Some of the older boys paint their bodies with white stripes and dots. The masquerade tells the story of a hunter who is turned into a monster and banished to the forest when he breaks a promise to a friend. A great website to see actual masks and find out the stories behind the masks is

Masks are also used in African societies for celebrations and entertainment. The recreational use of masks does have an educational intent. These masks entertain with songs, dances and story telling and form part of the dance costume. Regardless of the ritual, masks were meant to be seen after sundown with the shadows and the flickering of fire or oil lamps.

Masquerading is one way that African children play. Since much of their time is spent doing chores to help their parents, children had very little individual, imaginative and spontaneous play time. Incorporating their traditions and rituals into a masquerade takes a lot of children and a lot of time. Some wear the masks and dance, others play the musicals instruments, while others just sing and clap. Masquerades are usually for boys. Children perform the masquerades for themselves, communities and even at national festivals. Masquerading lets the children in Africa play dress up and pretend. They play music, sing and act out stories. These are “playful”performances.

Masks are among the most dramatic forms of African art. While they are difficult to appreciate fully when not used in their African context, they can be admired and enjoyed at many levels. The disappearance of masks and other traditional art forms in many parts of modernAfrica has generally been attributed to the decline in ancestral religions as Africans convert to Christianity or Islam. Another factor has been the provision of salaries to African kings and chiefs in place of the traditional tribute in the form of masks and other fine crafts produced by local artists to honor their leaders. This has been accompanied by a decline of royal patronage for the traditional arts almost everywhere on the continent.

Musical Instruments

Throughout the world, musical instruments usually serve to identify a culture’s predominant characteristics: domestic and religious activities, lifestyles and occupations. In every culture music plays an integral part in daily living, but taste, traditions and ceremonies vary widely around the globe.

Africans use instruments of many kinds – percussion, strings, woodwinds and brasses. They are made from whatever material is at hand: clay, tortoise shells, gourds, bamboo, animal horns, hides, snake skins, seeds, stones, a palm leaf, calabash fruit, roof metal, and empty oil drums

The most common musical instruments of Africa are rattles, clappers and drums. The thumb piano is another instrument used all over the continent. It is relatively simple to make and easily fits in your pocket. The thumb piano makes a twangy sound and is easy to learn. These musical instruments are important tools of each society. They were used
in religious rituals, celebrations and to communicate messages. For example, the gourd rattles are used in rain dance ceremonies. Rattles are typically worn around a dancer’s waist, neck or ankle. The tinkling in the different pitches coincides with the rhythm of the dance. Rattles can be made from a variety of materials such as wood, animal hides, woven basketry or seedpods.(11) Gourds are commonly used, since their seeds can just be left to dry inside the gourd to create the sound. Many cultures adorn the gourds with beading, shells and any other colorful objects they can find. Pieces of bamboo or hollowed out pieces of wood are used also to make rattles.

Through my research and learning about the “meshing “of dance, masks and musical instruments I have a greater appreciation for the customs and traditions of Africa. In turn, I can instill and develop an appreciation for the rich African heritage to the students I will be teaching. Children of any culture are fascinated by masked performances and it will be fun to make masks and musical instruments, and to dance and perform together with children whatever their heritage. Web sites that I found extremely useful in this section are, and


How do you recognize yourself? Is it by the shape of your body, your clothing, or your speech? Through a variety of visual and concrete material approaches, children will create a personal work of art that explores their individuality.

The concepts, skills and knowledge explored in this unit are expression, communication, creativity in thought. The unit will also be multi-cultural and historical, comparing our western traditions and rituals to those of Western Africa. The purpose is to engage the children and guide them in realizing that customs and traditions of selfexpression are universal, but are celebrated in a variety of ways. The Standards covered in this unit will be in the Social Studies Curriculum, Literacy, Science and Music. These will be explained in depth later in the appendix of the unit.

The children will learn the various roles masks represent in the African cultures. They will gain an awareness of the various styles and functions of masks in Western Africa countries. The children will learn about the meaning of masks, the materials from which they are made, and the sentiments they are intended to convey.

The unit will encompass the ten-month school year. Multiple art projects are very involved and time consuming and will be interspersed to accommodate the school’s core curriculum. The unit will have four lessons. Two will be in masks and one each in dance and a musical instrument.


The students will begin to have an understanding of cultures other than their own. The standards in Reading, Writing, Speaking, Listening, Math and Social Studies areas will overlap each other and be addressed. They will be listed in the appendix.


I will be implementing this unit in my classroom of Learning Support for six to nine year olds. These children can and do remain with me for more than one year. I usually have the older ones assisting and guiding the younger ones. I use them as peer tutors. Classroom activities will be done a variety of ways, but mostly in whole group and small group settings. During the students’ reading time I will have books on Africa, regardless of the topic to pique their interest and knowledge. These will be high interest books of varying reading levels, so the children can just look at the pictures of African masks, musical instruments and costumes to stimulate their curiosity. To begin the unit I will do the K-W-L chart as a whole group activity. I will list their ideas and suggestions. Before brainstorming, I will assess their prior knowledge. I will use a story web or discussion mapping to have the students focus on vocabulary of Africa. I will also do this with my topics, dance, masks and music. Another strategy is to vary the classroom environment to accommodate the learning styles in my classroom. I will also set up learning centers with African floor puzzles, a basket of African story picture books and magazines, African animal stencils with markers, colored pencils and paper to increase their fine motor skills and their interest with the topic. Another strategy to maximize their learning and make it more personal and tangible for them will be to have a discussion with maps, globes and pictures.

To assess these activities prior to the actual lessons I will use Stop and Jot and post information on chart paper or an overhead to keep track of their understanding. Tiering these activities, peer teaching and flexible grouping work well with my classroom. Another strategy that will be used throughout the unit is comparing and contrasting of one culture with another. After the “formal”classroom activities, role playing and simulations will be done.

There are numerous libraries, archives and museums in the Philadelphia area pertaining to this unit’s topic. For example, The African American Museum in Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Barnes Foundation and Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College are excellent resources to illustrate how dance, masks and music come together in African ceremonial life. These resources are listed under web resources.