Kabye people

Kabye / Kabre


Kabye / Kabre / Kabiye / Cabrai

The Kabiye, also known as Kabye, Kabre, Cabrai', are a people living in the north central mountains and northern plains of Togo. They speak the Kabiye language. The Kabye are primarily known for farming and cultivation of harsh, dry, infertile lands of Togo. They grow cotton, millet and yams.

Kabye people also live in northwestern Benin near the Togolese border. The Logba or Lugba people of Benin are closely related to the Kabye. Broadly defined and subgroups included, the Kabiye people are the second largest ethnic group after the Ewe people, and they dominate the government and military of Togo.

Kabye people

Kabye or Kabre are farming and warrior voltaic Gur-speaking ethnic group living in the northern plains of Togo, West Africa. The Kabye constitute about 23% of  present Togo`s population and comes second after their bitterest political opponents, the Ewe people of the south. There about 730, 000 Kabye people living in Togo. Kabye also live in northern Benin under the name of Lokpa or Lukpa as the Kabye of Binah's prefecture in Togo are known.

According to mythology, the first Kabiye would be directly descended from heaven in the village of Lama Dessi. Indicates the exact place, called EYU nahori , which translates to "the foot of man." On the spot today there is a sacred grove, became the center of pilgrimage for Kabiye. They revere the footprints of Awu, their first ancestor, which Eso, God did come down from heaven.

The Kabye are primarily known for farming and cultivation of the stony Kara Valley area of Togo as well as well as their traditional Evala initiation rite which is a form of traditional wrestling.

The  Kabye region has experienced significant infrastructure improvements due to the country's former president, Gnassingbé Eyadema, who was of Kabye ethnicity.

As the dominant group in politics, the Kabre are unlikely to become involved in militant or non-militant protests against the government. Under Gnassingbe Eyadema’s 38-year dictatorship, the Kabre ethnic group consolidated power as an advantaged minority. Their biggest threat to power has been the predominantly Ewe-led opposition, but recent events have diminished the likelihood of Ewe rebellion.

Eyadema died in February 2005 and although Eyadema’s son won the disputed emergency elections held after his death, Faure Gnassingbe (Eyadema’s son) has demonstrated a willingness to reform the government, decreasing the threat of rebellion by the opposition. If the country successfully transitions to a power-sharing, democratic government, then most likely the Kabre’s current political, economic and social freedoms will not be affected, while the Ewe will see their political fortunes rise.

Kara is the heart of the North visit Togo. The city can radiate to the many natural and cultural sites in the region whose landscape Koutammakou World Heritage of UNESCO. Kara has an important hotel structure and many restaurants. Kara is a growing city. It quickly became a modern administration and production center within the objectives of the government to create infrastructure in all regions.


Mythology (creation story)

Kabye profess that the first human being was an androgynous being who descended from the sky, which is said to be male, to the Earth, which is female. Kumberito landed between two small mountain ranges where the Kabre community is currently located. For some years, Kumberito roamed the caves and plains, eventually becoming frightened by what he thought were the sounds of men coming to kill him, but were only sounds of owl-like bird (mututukuγu) hooting in the night.

 He subsequently fled to the mountains of the northern massif, where he settled in (in the present day community of Farang). He built a house above ground, and ultimately produced the children who founded the area's other communities. At death, Kumberito came back to the Earth, along with his descendants for they were buried in caves in the ground.

The myth begins as Kumberito is unable to balance an opposition between sky and Earth. He decides to climb the mountain located between the two and then is able to establish the balance needed so that he lived in peace and generated the livelihood that the Kabre experience today. To honor Kumberito and their ancestors, the Kabre bury their dead in caves—hence the term for ancestor, ateto, or "underground person." More important, the Kabre continue to embrace the tradition of balance that Kumberito exhibited on the mountain by generally living in houses that are not located in the highest points near their ancestors tombs. Instead they live on the hillsides and valleys, understanding that living near the tombs might upset some wandering spirits, possi­bly causing harm to their families. The balance in living in the "low" parts of the mountains occurs because "low" is female according to Kabre, whereas "above ground" is male. This represents the balance between sky and Earth; living in the low part of a mountain, which is above ground, is essentially living between the sky and the Earth, again creating that balance, just as Kumberito had long ago.



Population buildup in the mountainous area of northern Togo, where Kabre live today, occurred during the 17th and 18th centuries in response to the slave raiding practices of the northern kingdoms of Mamprussi, Dagomba, Mossi, Gonja and Bariba. In an effort to escape these militaristic states, people fled southward into the mountain region, which was more difficult to attack. According to Piot "the Kabre people probably migrated into this region during the time of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1700-1850. During that time, villages were often violently raided for slaves, so many communities retreated to the mountains where it was easier to defend."

This historical account of invasion  is in tandem with Konkomba tribe oral history showing that they and Kabye people originated from one source in Ghana. The story of the invasion is briefly stated by Konkomba and recited at length in the drum chants of Dagomba. I quote a Konkomba elder. "When we grew up and reached our fathers they told us that they (our forefathers) stayed in Yaa [Yendi]. The Kabre and the Bekwom were here. The Dagomba were in Tamale and Kumbungu. The Dagomba rose and mounted their horses.  We saw their horses, that is why we rose up and gave the land to the Dagomba.  We rose up and got here with the Bekwom.  The Bekwom rose up and went across the river. . ."
 . . .the Dagomba invasion . . . according to one account, occurred in the early sixteenth century in the reign of Na (Chief) Sitobu.(Tait, David (ed Jack Goody), The Konkombas of Northern Ghana OUP 1961 ).

Despite these efforts, Kabre peoples were still caught up in regional slave trade. Located, as they are, so close to the Asante and Dahomey kingdoms, both of which sold slaves directly to European merchants, the Kabre supplied slaves to these and other powerful centralized states. Perhaps in an effort to maintain societal stability, Kabre sold their own kin into slavery, rather than suffer the consequences of slave raids.

After the slave raids ended, there was a period of peace where the Kabre people developed their excellent agricultural skills. However, when the German colonized the area, the Kabre people were forced to work on the infrastructure of the country, and they built much of Togo’s roads and railroads. When the Germans lost World War I, they ceded “Togoland” to France and Britain. The French had the portion that is now known as Togo (Piot, 35, 41).



The Kabre language, also spelled Kabiye, Kabye, Kabure or Kabrais is a Gur (Voltaic) language pertaining to the greater Niger-Congo language family.

The number of native Kabre speakers is estimated at 730,000, with approximately 700,000 speakers living in Togo, 30,000 in Benin and a small number in Ghana.



Essentially an agricultural people, the Kabre of Togo live in the Kabre massifs located in the northern part of the country. A small percentage of the Kabre population lives in the central and southern regions of the country where they are employed as agricultural workers. The sophisticated agricultural skills of the Kabre have allowed them to cultivate for several centuries a terrain that is relatively infertile and vulnerable to erosion due to the lack of a protective tree cover.

The Kabre agricultural knowledge and techniques have earned them the following description by Leo Frobenius:” 'No other people in Africa work their fields as intensively as Kabre, here was a black people of Africa … who have attained the heights of science" (quoted in Piot, 1999). Kabre farmers produce millet, corn, peanuts, yams, sorghum and manioc. While Kabre farmers are essentially crop producers, they also raise some livestock, especially small animals and poultry. They are mostly used for trade, sale or sacrificial purposes and rarely for household consumption. Sheep and goats make up most of the livestock, although wealthier families sometimes own cattle.

Among the household animals there are cats and most especially dogs. Research has shown that when these mountains were entirely covered by forest, the Kabre were primarily hunters and secondarily farmers (Verdier 1975). This explains the important presence of dogs today among the domestic animals.


Craft: Kara region

Mountainous soils difficult to work places, enhancement of the environment depends largely on the expertise of farmers and artisans.
Iron work thus reveals a tradition that plunges its roots in the ancient times. The ruins of the blast furnaces and Nangbani Bandjéli in the prefecture of Bassar remain still alive witnesses of this ancient tradition. A Tcharé, Pya and Yadé in the prefecture of Kozah you can admire the work of traditional blacksmiths use as an anvil and hammer boulders mountain to beat the red-hot iron.
The women's crafts in the region interested in pottery, weaving, dyeing and basketry. The market Ketao, we can find all the products of local crafts, pots up for millet beer, the clay pipes and baskets.


Commercial activities

Traditional pottery (Pya Pittah) essentially feminine activity, traditional pottery is done with bare hands without special tools. Unique to the Kabye people is the tradition of using broken pieces of pottery as ornamentation on the floor of their courtyards. It is basically a single colour mosaic making patterns on the floor. It is very decorative, but the pictures don’t do it justice as it was such bright sunlight.


Kabye settlement

The Kabye people build their houses (desi) in a unique style called sokala. It means that each family compound has the walls attached to the next house, thus in effect creating an entire fence around the compound. One enter the compound of the settlement through a vestibule, into the main courtyard. Each compound consists of a house for the husband and one for each of his wives, various storage and granary buildings and maybe a kitchen.


Division labour

In kabye society men perform all the farming activities whilst the women engage in food processing- both for domestic consumption and for sale in markets. Marketing of farm produce is largely carried out by women.

Also, in reproduction, it is believed that the Kabre husband’s blood or sperm is "cooked" inside the wife’s tomb and children are produced. The wife’s womb symbolizes a pot of water; if a miscarriage occurs, it is said that the woman spilled her pot of water on the way back from the spring and must refill it by becoming pregnant again.

Interestingly, the consumption of sorghum beer (a female prod­uct) by the male stimulates the ability to produce children, whereas the consumption of porridge (a male product) enhances that same ability in women. Thus, the idea of balance reflected in the myth is manifest again.


Land tenure and inheritance

Historically, Kabre land was uncentralized, and on occasion tribute was demanded by their centralized neighbors. Families do own land, but often this land is lent out to others in order to establish gift giving ties, and products which grow naturally on fallow land are not considered the property of the owner.


Socio-political structure

Kabre society is a hierarchical and acephalous one based on a system of masculine and feminine age groups, as well as initiation rites, its educational corollary. Initiation rites are at once a process of gender differentiation based on the Kabre metaphysics of the original androgyny of humans (Piot 1999), and a process of structuring moral awareness and religious sentiments through an internalization of three basic experiences : community life, mystical life and the evocation of the ancestors (Keyewa 1997).

The brief description of some aspects of the Kabre community just presented above determines, to some extent, the symbolism inherent in the Kabre onomastic system which is the object of the following section.


Religious Belief

Kabye believe in supreme being called Eso. Eso is a creating God to whom the whole earth and everything that is in it belongs to, and who is the Father of mankind. He gave order to the world by his word,Esotom, the first man Esotisa, "the God`s messenger," was made the trustee of the God`s plan, Esodutu, and of all the rules meant to regulate the relationship s of individuals amongst themselves and to govern the society.

The trustees of these rules, Sonsi, is the priest Coco, who is the descendant of  the first man and representative of God on earth. The transgressions of these rules impairs social equilibrium and transmission of life (fertility-fecundity), for which he is accountable and responsible.

If God, owing to his immensity and infinity, is impenetrable to those who have not receive him the gift of prophesy and divination, he nevertheless does not cease to act and be present among men. Eso laki: God acts, he acts directly or indirectly. The God who assist and forgive (Eso sinam, eso kpem)is also the one who chastises (Eso nasa i) by brandishing lightening, by striking (Eso kpata i) by sending epidemic, droughts, sterility When truth is impenetrable to men, they rely on God ( Eso kana, " that God sees them) or solicit his judicial powers in trials by ordeal.

Eso we: God is; he is present in holy places, diweri ("places of  presence"), sanctuaries of great ancestors who revealed God`s might and who today are mediators between man and Creator.

These spirits, Akoloma, who bears witness to Eso`s words and sacred ordinances (Kade), are at the same time man`s mediator with God, they are at the junction of two worlds, human and divine, and they ensure communications from one to the other.


Respect to Ancestral Customs

Atetena are the ancestors,-literally, those who are in the grave. they watch over men and they are always present among them. Death, in fact, only affects the body, the two spiritual places of Kaliza and Wayiyu that exist in person is immortal, so that death does not mean cessation of life, but passage from one mode existence to another; after the performance of funeral ritual and setting of his altar into the family home, the deceased takes his place henceforth in the lineage of his ancestors, and by perpetuating it, insures the transmission of life to the future generations.

Kabre recognize the role the ancestors played in the formation of society. They are remembered as previous owners of the land and are thanked annually for the contribution they made to the development of agriculture in the area. Ancestors are remembered for the work they put into making the fields. A portion of each year's crops is set aside for the ancestors and offered to them as an expression of gratitude.

Kabre believe in witchcraft and further believe that a witch receives money in exchange for eating an individual. Given the relative disdain for cash exchanges outlined above, it is possible to imagine why witches, symbolically charged with representing what is unacceptable to the society, would be paid in currency.


Initiation rites

Kabre people do not believe that the child is a part of their family until they found whom of the ancestors he represents. Only after this the child is identified with one of dead ancestors he is treated like family member. The concept of gender is also different in Kabre community.

They define the gender of the child only after initiation, which becomes a symbolic act which makes the child to loose his androgynous nature.

The Kabre communities are organized into two groups: male and female. Each group has a ritual­istic role in the community, and they both are responsible for ceremonies based on both age grade and calendar, which occur during their sea­son (the female season is during "wet season" and the male season is during "dry season").

In one particular situation, during the kojunduku (the age-grade initiation that takes place during the "wet" female season), the male group gives a per­formance of dogonto, which "dries out" the wet season temporarily.

The female group also per­form a fertility ceremony that balances the male dry season. More important, both groups consist Of males and females, and males sometimes fulfill "female" roles just as females may take on "male" roles. The individual’s performance in a particular role is the determining factor as to which role that individual may play.

1. They are mainly famous because of their male initiation ritual called Evala which takes place every year in the area of Kara: It is a kind of traditional fight aiming at bringing the opponent down.

2. In each tournament, 5 young men from 18 to 20 fight against five others. Rules are not really clear but when time is up, each fight ends either with one competitor wining or with a draw. There is no final ranking; the only thing that remains is the brave behaviour of the wrestlers.

3. Evala is the very first initiation to manhood for a Kabye teenager. Before following these rituals, the young men are trained both psychologically and physically for a fair amount of time. In the Kabye area, a young man who shrinks from his initiation will be punished by the wise men, his parents and the entire society. In a way, such a young man would be excluded from his community.

4. The main purpose of this ritual is to make the young man tough, brave and stoic. The cultural part of the event is emphasized by the many sacrifices the teenager has to agree to: fasting, sexual abstinence and scarification are the external signs of a warrior.

5. The traditional aspect of the ceremony is stressed by the presence of the community wise men. They are the ones who make sure the rules are respected by supervising and arbitrating the tournaments. The dates of the ceremonies are decided after a consultation with the oracle and the authorization given by the great fetish priest called "Tchodjo". After the fights, the traditional priests visit all the sacred places to thank the ancestors for allowing the ceremony.

6. The female imitation called Akpema glorifies the maturity of the young women’s’ bodies from then on publicly recognized as ready for motherhood and marriage.

7. The male initiation is completed by the Kondona rites gathering together every five years all the young men who went through the Evala.

The ceremony is characterized by two high lights:

The young men are from then on definitely considered as members of the adult community.


Avala initiation

Evala (traditional wrestling ceremony) Evala is a form of traditional wrestling that the Kabye people in the community practice. Competitors meet yearly in a festival. Evala is the culmination of a week of initiation which marks the transition of young males into adulthood (Kabiye efalu , meaning "new men.") In the community, young men are allowed to begin wrestling at the age of 20.

They learn to wrestle during a period of 3 years. Then they take a rest for a year. They resume wrestling after the period of rest and go through the Evala ceremony. The initiation lasts a week and involves isolating the young adults from their families and keeping them in special huts where they are fed and put through their mental paces. At the end of the week, the participants go on a pilgrimage which involves climbing three mountains. Anyone who does not complete this pilgrimage cannot be initiated into adulthood. The penultimate element of this initiation rite is Evala, a wresting day where wrestlers are pitched against opponents from other villages. All wrestlers will be initiated regardless of whether they win or not. However, losing is considered shameful to the family name. The final process of this initiation ceremony consists of circumcisions. During the wrestling, the women mock the wrestlers, singing 'come on, you think you are a lion? you are not a lion!' Evala normally takes place in July.

Habye (religious festival of the Kabyé Kozah.) This is a magical dance demonstration. it is an opportunity to demonstrate the strength occult sorcerers.

It provides for the initiated, the opportunity to prove a mutually control the forces of nature. It is held every five years in November. It is also Triennial in some cantons Kozah.



Sinkaring (Party initiation and harvesting of Kabye of Binah).  Sinkaring comes from a couple of verbs Sankuu means washing hands, purify and Karuu which means being ready to face the trials of life . Sinkaring which has its origin in Lama Tessi is a test by which the young are subjected Kabye of Binah in endurance and strength so that he can defend his community. This is a test for the young to enable their integration into the adult class. It is also a harvest festival because after the songs and dances, just tasting donuts bean and the local drink, fruit of new crops. it is rotatable one canton and is celebrated annually on the first Saturday of December.

Evala wrestling

Evala is a form of traditional wrestling practised mainly by the Kabyé of northern Togo, in West Africa. Competitors meet yearly at a festival following a retreat marking the initiation of young men into adulthood.

Evala is the penultimate element of this initiation rite, during which young men are separated from their families for one week, residing in special huts where they are fed and subject to mental training. Prior to wrestling, participants go on a pilgrimage which involves climbing three mountains; those who do not complete it are not initiated into adulthood. Although wrestlers are initiated regardless of whether they win or not, losing is considered shameful to the family name. The last of these initiation rites is circumcision.



Several ethnological studies exist about the Kabye, compiled between 1898 and 1996. In that period, they lived in the typical scattered settlements of northern Togo and were known for their terrace cultivation. The society was acephalous the clan was the basic unit and organized in different male and female age groups, the transition between the groups being marked by initiation rituals. The cosmology
consisted of a creator god eso and several spirits, including those of the ancestors.
It was believed that human beings contain a spiritual power kalizay that is released after death and can be transformed into an ancestor and return in a newborn baby.
The settlements always comprised an ancestor house where ancestor shrines in the form of earth mounds were installed. Other benevolent and malevolent spirits, the akolma and alewa respectively, and fertility spirits waynima existed in 1982.

Kabye art

Kabye terracotta objects

Different types of anthropomorphic representations were described in the above cited studies. Verdier mentioned pieces of wood replacing deceased twins and terracotta figures (called siwkpelasi) and heads representing ancestors, in addition to fertility dolls, also made of terracotta, all of them exhibiting scarifications. He also displayed a photo with a helmet of a dancer, on which, between the two horns, a wooden figure is placed. Unfortunately, the signification of this figure is not described. Hahn, who studied the material culture of the Kabye, referred to the terracotta ancestor and fertility figures mentioned by Verdier and further enumerated clay figures sukpele that represented deceased twins. He did not mention any wooden anthropomorphic figures. Krieger already showed a terracotta figure in 1969 attributed to the Kabye with traces of white painting, denominated ‘’fetish made of clay, placed in the fields’’, collected in 1907 by Kersting.
Amrouche in further depicted a small terracotta head, dated by thermoluminescence in the 17th century. In 1992, he published a photo of the large wooden sculpture attributed it to the Kabye. The same sculpture was sold by Christie’s in 2016, designated as ancestor figure and attributed to the ‘’KabyeTem’’, i.e. the Kabye or (?) their southern neighbors Tem. However, the accompanying text only referred to the Kabye and did not mention the Tem. This rather ambiguous cataloguing may somehow take into account the fact that no other sources mention such large wooden figures originating from the Kabye, in contrast to the case of the Tem (or Temba), where everal photos of similar figures were published, albeit with less pronounced scarifications.

Kabye art

Typical Kabye scarifications (left), sculpture with (uncertain) Kabye attribution, helmets with wooden figure and western puppet