Treasures of the Hand
I've been traveling to West Africa for about 13 years and am drawn to villages that are virtually untouched by Westernization, where the inhabitants follow ancient traditions and make crafts by hand. In 2002 I was on research in Burkina Faso, and my guide happened to mention a village that is so beautifully painted and stylized as to be a work of art. In the area where it is located in southern Burkina Faso, the villages are usually plain, without decoration. However, when I first saw Tiebele, I was overwhelmed with its visual beauty; later I learned the deep cultural and historical meaning of the symbology.
Tiebele is a 400-year-old village inhabited by the Kassena people, a subgroup of the ethnic group Gurunsi. Formerly fierce warriors, the Kassena today are primarily agriculturists who grow millet, sorghum, and yams. The Kassena’s adobe dwellings are painted in geometric designs, or engraved in low clay relief with symbols like sparrows, insects, fish scales, calabashes, the sun, and the moon; the images reflect the complex symbology and history of the clan.
The village is a three-hour drive from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. At Pô, the provincial capital, a crude signboard points the way to Tiebele, a 20-mile deviation on an unsurfaced road. All visitors must follow strict rules when visiting Tiebele. The customs are so pervasive and rigidly followed that unless you are properly briefed and guided by an expert, you run the risk of offending the Kassena and the sacred ground they walk on. Before I entered the village, the chief or his son, the prince, had to approve my visit. Then a member of the village served as my guide, cautioning me to avoid stepping on the mound of sacred stones located just at the entrance to the village. Each stone is reserved for a notable: the chief, members of his family, and other important members of the community. Women who have given birth bury their baby’s umbilical cord in this sacred mound, which is also a place of sacrifice judging from the clay pots stained with the blood of animals.
As I walked around this village, I realized that it was constructed for defensive purposes. The labyrinth of narrow paths prevented intruders from attacking in a straight line: to penetrate the courtyards of the compounds, the enemies had to walk up three or four steps, then down into an enclosed courtyard where they could be ambushed. The entrance to a house is small and low to the ground, which requires one to crouch down on all fours to get into the house; once I passed through the entrance, I encountered a two-foot wall of mud that I stooped and stepped over (centuries ago, intruders would have been beheaded there) to finally get inside the dark house. The ceiling was high enough for me to stand up, although anyone taller than five foot six would have to stoop. After a few minutes, my eyes adjusted to the dim light, and I noticed several circular openings for air on the sides of the walls, and shelves, where clay pots were stacked high; next to them calabashes hung in macramé stockings, like ornaments from the ceiling.
My host explained that the clay pots and the calabashes must not be broken (as that would bring bad luck), so they are away from her children’s reach. When she dies, the pots and calabashes will be broken and buried with her. She led me through another small opening in a wall into the kitchen. I saw mats, where she slept with her children; when she dies, these will be used to wrap her dead body before she is buried, and afterward the mats will be burned. Inside the house, she proudly pointed out her female granary that contains her prized processions: clay pots. She can’t peer inside a male granary, which is usually filled with grain like sorghum and located outside in the courtyard. She motioned for me to follow her outside and then up steep steps to the roof, from which I could see the entire Tiebele village.
From this height, I could see the figure-eight designs of the closely packed houses and neighbors’ roofs spread with woven mats for sleeping and large covered calabashes (gourds) sturdy enough to hold millet and corn. The flat roofs must have been used for defensive purposes, as occupants could throw rocks or shoot invaders with bows and arrows. As I gazed down at the geometric patterns in red, white, and black, next to figures of birds, snakes, fish, crocodiles, and herringbone designs painted on the walls of the houses and compounds, I wondered what stories they told or magical powers they held. Children were sitting in one courtyard listening to an elderly woman who was teaching the meaning of each symbol.
My host explained that the village has a cast of women painters who record the clan’s history using painted symbols and carvings in low-relief clay. The colors were made from natural sources: volcanic stones that yielded the color black; a calcareous powder, probably from limestone, that yielded white; and cattle dung and powders from certain rocks that produced red. The colors were set using the bark of the flamboyant tree as a mordant. Because the women belong to this occupational caste, they do not engage in any other work in the village. House painting is always preceded by a sacrifice. Then the villagers watch the wall for three days. During this time, a lizard must come up the wall; if not, the wall will be dismantled and rebuilt.
I learned that the symbology is a language that describes the clan’s history. Being animists, the clan believes that animals, plants, and even inanimate objects and natural phenomena possess a soul. Creation is represented by an ancestral couple who started the clan. It is believed that the Gurunsi were originally from northern Ghana but migrated to southern Burkina Faso about four centuries ago, possibly to escape the slave traders. Fish scales refer to the clan’s migration from the border of northern Ghana to this location, a two-day walk from the Volta River. Here in their new environment, they survived on fish from the Volta River and as a result became expert fishermen. Today, they honor this sacred symbol in the form of a fishnet in their house designs.
Images of bats are good signs; bats eat mosquitoes, so when they inhabit the house, it's considered good luck. Sparrow wings refer to the belief that sparrows can eat human flesh, so these birds are evil and are kept away from the village. The calabash is one of the most important objects; it was the first container of the gods, so it must never be broken. (That’s why calabashes are strung and hung in macramé ropes, away from children and from cats.) Images of calabashes are everywhere on the walls. Scarification marks similar to those seen on the arms and faces of the people are also seen in the designs on the houses: the moon, the three cross-stitches representing the chicken for sacrifice, and the snake are considered sacred. They are therapeutic and keep away certain diseases. The snake is the supreme protective deity, a reincarnation of the grandmother, who after her death becomes the snake and must remain in the house. Ants represent the social unity of the village and the work done by the women. Lizard symbols are powerful, as they protect the home from evil spirits. Images of panthers and turtles refer to a belief that they are protectors of the clan and are never killed. Finally, my host told me that the symbols of the cane and the pipe are the ones visitors identify with. When a young person leaves the village to explore the world, he returns with a cane and a pipe to offer to the ancestors, confirming his safe passage back to his ancestral home.
Visitors to Burkina Faso will not want to miss this visually stunning and culturally rich experience at Tiebele.