Bassari people



The Bassari people are an African people living in Senegal, Ghana, Gambia, Guinea and Guinea-Bissau. The total population is between 10,000 and 30,000. Most of the Bassari are concentrated on either side of the Senegal-Guinea border southwest of Kedougou, Kédougou Region. This areas is referred to in French as Pays Bassari, or liyan in the Bassari language.

The Bassari speak a Tenda language, o-niyan. They refer to themselves as a-liyan, pl. bi-liyan. Most of the group are animists, with a significant minority of Christians (both Catholic and Protestant). Very few Bassari are Muslims. They have close relations with the Fula people centered locally in the nearby hills of the Fouta Djallon.

The Bassari are subsistence farmers for the most part, growing rice, millet, earth-peas and fonio. They also migrate to the cities and towns of Senegal and Guinea in the dry season in search of wage-labor, using the money they earn to buy household equipment, clothing and other necessary items.

The mythology of the Bassari is centered on the creation god Unumbotte



The Bassari people of Senegal are located in Southeast, Upper Casamance, Eden area; border areas, Kedougou, Tambacounda (Source: Ethnologue 2010).

In Guinea, they are located in the Koundara region and around Youkounkoun, extending to the border of Senegal.

Bassari in Guinea Bissau are mostly located in the northeast of the country whilst some aggregate portion also resides in the Gambia and Mauritania.

In senegal, the territory inhabited by the Bassari is administratively classified as the Région de Tambacounda, Département de Kédougou, Arrondissement de Salémata.

Since the late 1950s, the Bassari have been migrating to large cities in Senegal, including Kédougou and Tambacounda. Some Bassari people have lived in these cities for a long time.

Bassari people Map



Bassari people speaks a Tenda language known as Oniyan (Onian, Onëyan, Ayan, Biyan, Wo). It is a Senegambian language which belongs to the larger Niger-Congo language group. Bassari is spoken in Senegal, Guinea, Guinea Bissau and in some parts of the Gambia and Mauritania.



The Bassari arrived in their area of occupation between the 11th and 19th centuries, establishing their settlements in the hills. Judging from their name "basa" which means "They are lizards," given to them by Manding people in an answer to Fulani peoples` query, one can clearly make a deduction that the Bassari came to meet these two tribes as well as other Tenda people.

Oral history amongst Bassari claim that the Bunang are considered the oldest nung (family). People say that the Bunang own all Bassari land. some also fear the Bunang, who they believe possess supernatural powers.

The bassari settlements on the hills provided defensible vantage points overlooking the plains below, and were made up of groups of circular thatched huts congregated around a central space. The area remains remote and many of the cultural adaptations of the people, including their agro-pastoral, social, ritual, and spiritual practices, persist to this day.

Bassari people

Bassari people


Bassari are cultivators! They are agro-pastoralist. they are farmers. They grow a variety of crops, using very basic tools. Their staple crops are millets degaf (Sorghum vulgare), earthpeas (also called Bambara groundnut) uyal (Voandzeia subterranea), peanuts utika (Arachis hypogaea), corn maka (Zea maïs), rice malu (Oryza sativa), fonio millet funyan (Digitaria exilis) and manioc.

 However, squash, melons, sweet potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes are also grown. Major tree crops include bananas, coconuts, mangoes, and papayas. They raise cattle, sheep, and goats but do not use their milk.

Dogs and chickens are seen in almost every village. They also engage in fishing, hunting, and beekeeping, among other activities. Hunting is of less importance than agriculture, but there is considerable gathering of wild fruits and roots, berries, and nuts (kola, shea, and palm).

Socio-political structure and culture

They live in extended family compounds, each consisting of a cluster of huts usually arranged in a circle around an open space. Often, the entire compound is surrounded by a fence, a hedge, or a wall.

The compounds usually adjoin to form compact villages. In general, the dwellings are round with mud walls and cone-shaped, thatched roofs. However, many local variations exist.

In the community men hunt, fish, clear the land, and tend the cattle. The women do the gathering and help in the agricultural work. Chiefs exercise political authority in the villages. Succession usually passes to the next brother or to the oldest son of the deceased chief's oldest sister.

Circumcision of males is practiced and some female circumcision is also continued. These practices are mainly associated with initiation ceremonies at puberty, and typically involve a period of instruction in an isolated "bush school."

They tolerate premarital sexual freedom for girls and prefer cousins as marriage partners. A bride-price in livestock, commonly pigs, is paid, and often, premarital bride-service is also required. Polygyny (having more than one wife) occurs to only a limited extent. In such cases, however, each wife has her own hut, and the husband spends a fixed period with each on a rotation basis.

Bassari people


Descent groups

Bassari society is matrilineal, and two words in the Bassari language translate to “matrilineal descent group”: "nung" and "athiran."

In Bassari the word nung derives from a word meaning “stem of a busy yam” (Dioscorea praehensilis). According Bassari people, the morphology of the busy yam, which has only one root but many leaves, resembles a nung.

The word athiran derives from a word meaning “belly.”

Although there may be some regional variation, seven nungs exist in Senegalese Bassari villages: Benjya, Bouban, Bijyar, Bunang, Bangar, Bies, and Biyahanthi. People are automatically affiliated with their mother’s nung after birth, and members of each nung live separately within the Bassari villages. A nung is not an exogamic group. As a group, a nung does not possess any property, such as land, but some nungs do play a specific role in society. In edane, the village chief is selected from the Bijyar men. Onuma, who are responsible for age-grade activities, are selected from the Bunang men, while the leader of the initiation society is selected from Buban men.
The Bunang are special among the nungs. Although historical evidence is lacking,the Bunang are considered the oldest nung. People say that the Bunang own all Bassari land. some also fear the Bunang, who they believe possess supernatural powers. Non-Bunang people are unwilling to marry a Bunang. People also say that speaking evil of, or initiating a fight with, Bunang people is uncommon.

Note that only the Bunang nung have these characteristics, not the other nungs. in other words, the Bunang are unique among the nungs. Differentiating the other nungs is more difficult because their differences are not so clear. For example, the Bies and the Buban seem different only in name.

Athiran literally means “belly”. Unlike nungs, athirans are exogamic groups. Proper names do not exist for specific athirans. when asked to identify the members of his athiran, one man recounted only the names of his mother’s children.
Then asked if his mother’s sister’s children are in his athiran, he said yes. When asked if his mother’s mother’s sister’s daughter’s children are members of his athiran, he responded, “well, they are not members of my athiran. Athiran are people who were born from the same belly, so my mother’s sister’s children are not the members of my athiran, either.”

Bassari people

Age-grade system

In Bassari society, men and women who are considered mature enough affiliate with an age-grade (anjex) and receive roles, duties, and prerogatives associated with that age-grade. some age-grades engage in various types of communal labor, which helps those who need assistance, and the laborers later receive payment in sorghum beer or honey-based alcohol. The age-grade members share the drink with other villagers. Both the labor and the drink are called atonbanyawon.
The relationships of some age-grades are conceptualized by kin terms. Men affiliated with the age-grade immediately above one’s age-grade are called faba (father). Men affiliated with the age-grade immediately below one’s age-grade are called ashinyuun (my son). Women affiliated with the age-grade immediately above one’s age-grade are numa (mother), and those in the age-grade immediately below one’s age-grade are abionun (my daughter). people two grades above or below are syatya (As in kin relations, faba strictly supervise ashinyuun and will punish ashinyuun for committing errors. Numa are less strict than faba, but abionun are expected to respect numa. Syatya relationships are more friendly, indulgent, and at ease. Like real syatya, they can joke with each other.
Other terms also represent the relationships of age-grades. Two people affiliated with the same grade call one another banjex. This appellation applies even between men and women. people who have undergone initiation in the same year call each other initya. Two persons who slept on the same bed in the communal hut [ambofor] during their initiation period call each other ingawon. Men call women affiliated to the age-grade immediately above their age-grade inbanira and vise versa. on many occasions, they dance together.
Age-grade relationships are superposed on kin relations. For example, all women who affiliate to one’s mother’s age-grade are called numa, and the children of someone who affiliates to the age-grade immediately below are called syatya.



Klose, who founded the provisional German colonial base in Bassar, stayed much longer and wrote in 1899 that ‘’symbolic grotesque fetish portraits’’, as frequently found in the coastal region (of Togo), were rare. Frobenius, who spent several weeks in the Bassar village, mentioned in 1913 that wooden figures, like those foundin the neighboring Tim (Temba) region, were completely absent among the Bassari.
Cornevin in 1959, based on numerous stays in the Bassari region in 1952 and 1953, did not mention any wooden figures in his detailed work about the Bassari, which comprises sections about plastic arts and charms. Similarly, Froelich and Alexandre in 1963 did not refer to any figural work in the sections about craftworks and cultural elements, with one exception, see below. Hahn, who studied the material culture of the Bassari, explicitly wrote in 1991 that he did not see any wooden figures.
These statements regarding the most probable absence of any (significant) figural work are supported by the fact that no anthropomorphic representations attributed to the Bassari could be found in literature or current online archives, e.g. the Yale-Van Rijn or Frobenius Archives, with the one exception of a small doll made of twisted raffia fibers representing the body of a deceased woman during the second funeral, where the doll was carried on a bamboo stretcher according to. Similar body substitutions during Bassari funerals were mentioned by Froelich and Alexandre and Hahn and Blier in the cases of the Lamba and Tamberma, however roughly carved from Baobab branches in these latter cases.