The masked men of Burkina Faso

(CNN)Every other winter, great creatures begin to converge on Dedougou, Burkina Faso. Some are horned demons, robed in black, others bipeds covered head to toe in leaves. Brightly-colored animals leave the plains, some emerge from the jungle, meeting in a stadium 150 miles from the capital Ouagadougou. They come from all across West Africa: Benin, Togo, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso. And they come to dance.

The threat to an ancient way of life

The 13th International Festival of Masks and the Arts (Festima) was celebrated in February and March this year, bringing together over 500 masks worn by villages and ethnic groups in Sub-Saharan Africa. Organized by UNESCO accredited non-profit group the Association for the Protection of Masks (ASAMA), the week-long event is part of an effort to preserve traditional cultures which face a variety of threats in the modern age.
    Entering its 20th year, Festima has also become a bit of a tourist attraction (ASAMA estimates 100,000 viewed the spectacle), with the proceedings entering into the early morning hours. Mainly, though, the festival is a passing of the baton.
    "Festima is a good way for the organizers to make sure younger generations actually know what the masks are all about," says Laurence Douny, an anthropologist at University College London.
    "There's a lot of masks in Burkina, but they tend to disappear in some areas because of religion," she adds.
    Masquerade used to be an integral part of many life-changing rituals, from weddings to funerals. In recent years, however, many native traditions have struggled in the face of modern religion. According to recent figures 61.5% of people in Burkina Faso are Muslim, and Islam forbids the use of masks in ceremonies.
    Festima, therefore, is a chance for Bwaba, Marka, Yoruba and other ethnic groups to promote their traditions in the open.
    "It's aesthetic, the physical mask itself," says Douny, "whereas the tradition of masquerade is more about communication between the visible and the invisible."

    What's in a mask

    Douny says that many ethnicities in Burkina Faso believe masks possess magical powers, but that at Festima, performers hold back, and save the full power of the mask for private functions. She says in these instances, photography is strictly forbidden, and that attendees who try to disrupt a performance are sometimes beaten with a stick.
    "The original meanings of masks is extremely private (and) kept by animists," she explains. "It's something that you will never see at Festima."

    A way forward?

    Douny describes traditional masquerade as "extremely private, but also violent and political." It's secretive nature makes it difficult for groups like ASAMA to promote it in a public setting.
    To balance the potentially touristy nature of Festima, ASAMA also runs panels and seminar discussions aimed at building the infrastructure for the preservation of masks. There is also an education program for children running every day throughout the week.
    "Some people are on board with traditions, (but) some don't care," Douny says. But so long as there is a vocal minority there is still hope. These people are willing to take a stand, she suggests, and say "this is who we are -- and by the way this is who you are too."