Senufo people


Senufo / Siena / Senefo / Sene / Senoufo / Syenambele

The Senufo people, also known as Siena, Senefo, Sene, Senoufo, and Syénambélé, are a West African ethnolinguistic group.

They consist of diverse subgroups living in a region spanning the northern Ivory Coast, the southeastern Mali and the western Burkina Faso. One sub-group, the Nafana, is found in north-western Ghana.

The Senufo people are predominantly animists, with some who are Muslims. They are regionally famous for their handicrafts, many of which feature their cultural themes and religious beliefs.

Senufo people

Demographics and languages

Their kinship organization is matrilineal. Typically, the Senufo people are studied in three large subgroups that have been relatively isolated. The northern Senufo are called "Supide or Kenedougou", found near Odienne, and who helped found an important kingdom of West Africa and challenged Muslim missionaries and traders. The southern Senufo are the largest group, numbering over 2 million, who allowed Muslim traders to settle within their communities in the 18th century who actively proselytized, and about 20% of the southern Senufo are Muslims. The third group is very small and isolated from both northern and southern Senufo. Some sociologists such as the French scholar Holas mentions fifteen identifiable sub-groups of Senufo people, with thirty dialects and four castes scattered between them.

The term Senufo refers to a linguistic group comprising roughly thirty related dialects within the larger Gur language family. It belongs to the Gur-branch of the Niger-Congo language family, and consists of four distinct languages namely Palaka(also spelt Kpalaga), Djimini(also spelt Dyimini), and Senari in Côte d'Ivoire and Suppire( also spelt Supyire) in Mali, as well as Karaboro in Burkina Faso. Within each group, numerous subdivisions use their own names for the people and language; the name Senufo is of external origin.

Palaka separated from the main Senufo stock well before the 14th century ad; at about that time, with the founding of the town of Kong as a Bambara trade-route station, the rest of the population began migrations to the south, west, and north, resulting in the present divisions.The Senufo speaking people range from 800,000 to one million and live in agricultural based communities predominately located in the Côte d'Ivoire, West Africa, Africa.Korhogo, an ancient town in northern Ivory Coast dating from the 13th century, is linked to the Senufo people. This separation of languages and sub-ethnic groups may be linked to the 14th-century migrations with its founding along with the Bambara trade-route.

Senufo People


"Senoufo" actually may be a Mandingo term, translating roughly into "those who speak Séné or Siéna," which are a number of Gur (Voltaic) languages (estimates range from four to twelve languages) with varying degrees of mutual intelligibility belonging to the Western Sudanic subgroup of the Niger-Congo language family.

Within each group, numerous subdivisions use their own names for the people and language; the name Senufo is of external origin.


The origins

They left the internal delta of Niger —around the town of Mopti (Mali)— in the search of good grounds, the Senufos arrived thousand years ago in the area where they currently reside.

Korhogo, became the capital and the seat of the most important senufo chiefdom and they were protected from the warlike incursions by the White Bandama . At the end of last century when the famous mandinka conqueror Samory threatened the country, Senufo, the chief of Korhogo declared: "We are not warriors, but farmers"

Senufo People

History and Cultural Relations

Senoufo history is largely transmitted orally with many different mythological variants of Senoufo origins. Traditional Senoufo society is comprised of animist agriculturalists who seem to have migrated to the area they currently inhabit from the north at least two centuries ago, if not much longer ago. Over the years, the Senoufo have been influenced by external forces. These include local and European slave traders and raiders active in the region from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, Islamization of west Africa, which began as early as the tenth century, the French who colonized and inhabited the region from 1895 through 1960, and the governments of the post-independence modern nation-states of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Cote d'Ivoire.



Senoufo villages are often enclosed settlements built on open land in close proximity, if possible, to a water source and fertile grounds used for agricultural purposes. A typical Senoufo compound is usually a self-contained unit defined by walls, granaries, men's and women's houses, courtyards, altars, log shelters, and divination houses. Most compounds consist of a series of small close huts made out of earthen bricks of sun-dried clay, perhaps mixed with straw or reeds, with thatched roofs. Increasingly, there are compounds of rectangular cement houses with corrugated sheet-iron roofs in more urbanized Senoufo settlements. The traditional thatched hut clay structures are usually round with a conical roof or rectangular with a flat roof; the interior walls are windowless and reinforced with a combination of mud and cow dung. In principle, a household head would provide a hut to each adult member of his household, and several vacant huts would exist in a compound for temporary meetings, for storage of agricultural tools, or as a type of foyer to enter and exit the compound. Thatched huts elevated on three large stones or blocks of dried earth to ventilate and preserve grain, granaries flank the houses or serve as buttresses to reinforce the courtyard walls, giving privacy and creating exterior living space for the families.

Senufo People


Subsistence. Skilled agriculturalists, Senoufo traditionally have been self sufficient, cultivating staples such as millet, sorghum, yams, corn, cassava, and other grains which they eat with a sauce containing locally grown foodstuffs such as peppers, eggplant, okra, and shea butter, a fat obtained from the nuts of the shea tree, native to west Africa. Fruits such as papaya, banana, and lemons and meats, when available, supplement the Senoufo diet. Water is the standard drink; its taste is improved, where necessary, with several lime drops, baobob flour, tamarind pulp, or cola nut. On special occasions, Senoufo drink either a locally produced beer made of millet or corn, or, in some areas, palm wine. To safeguard the quality of the soil, the Senoufo farmer will either leave land fallow for one year out of three (where circumstances permit), rotate crops, or change agricultural plots from time to time. Senoufo farmers generally are also familiar with basic irrigation methods. Under colonization, more modern agricultural technologies, such as plows and tractors, were introduced into various Senoufo-speaking regions with some success; however, the main agricultural tool continues to be the garden hoe, either short- or long-handled. Hoeing contests transform grueling agricultural labor into ritual, as Senoufo males and females compete for the title of champion cultivator, one of the most important ways to gain prestige and reverence within their particular clan. In fact, a champion cultivator may achieve symbolic immortality in that he or she is venerated as an ancestral champion of the clan and is rewarded with the clan's sculptural trophy staff, the equivalent of a coat-of-arms. During cultivating season, teams of cultivators swing hoes to drums and balafon rhythms while proud staff bearers follow the competing champions of each team. More than a statement of being an excellent farmer, hoeing contests celebrate the values of strength, endurance, skill, obedience to authority, teamwork, and leadership.

Commercial Activities. Traditionally, Senoufo bartered or used cowry shells as currency, although the use of cowry shells has been supplanted in the postcolonial era by the regional currency, the C.F.A. franc. The colonial administration introduced peanuts and rice as cash crops for regional consumption and export; sorghum, yams, cassava, okra, potatoes, hot peppers, tobacco, cotton, and other fibers are other notable cash crops produced mainly for local and regional needs, and with varying degrees of success for export. In addition to farming, Senoufo men participate in artisan industries and tobacco preparation; Senoufo women spin cotton, prepare oils and soap (especially from shea butter) and prepare condiments for use in cooking. Both Senoufo women and men may be involved in local beer production and dying textiles.

Industrial Arts. The artisan groups integrated within Senoufo culture include blacksmiths, woodcarvers, basket weavers, brass casters, potters, weavers, jewelers, and leather-workers. Having lived for centuries among the Senoufo farmers, the artisans produce a variety of agricultural tools or household and ceremonial items. For example, the blacksmiths produce the Senoufo farmer's tiya, the distinct short-handled hoe with a broad scooped-out blade, as well as weapons, musical instruments, wrought iron figure sculpture used by diviners, and other objects for household and ritual use. Women of blacksmith households often produce mats and baskets. Woodworkers produce culinary utensils, short-legged stools, and mask and figure sculpture used in various Senoufo rituals. Brass casters and jewelers produce divination charms, cosmetic jewelry, and ritualistic and ceremonial figure sculpture and ornaments, while women from brass caster households are often skilled potters producing much of the locally used household pottery. Leatherworkers traditionally have produced shoes, amulets, knife sheaths, bags, and cosmetic and ceremonial ornaments.

Trade. Because transport by foot is still widespread, daily or weekly local markets traditionally have absorbed 75 percent of locally-produced items, including agricultural products, prepared foods, poultry, pottery, tobacco powder, garden tools, leather goods, small livestock, and bundles of wood. A larger regional market is often held periodically, and serves as the base for export of locally produced goods. The Dioula/Malinke, the predominant mercantile ethnic group in the region, also exert substantial influence in trade with Senoufo populations.

Division of Labor. Senoufo culture exhibits fairly rigid gender roles, with Senoufo females of all ages taking responsibility for all household tasks in addition to any other responsibilities they may have. Labor is also divided based on age. In addition to performing general unisex tasks such as gathering and bundling grain stalks from the harvest, working in the fields, and helping their mothers in rice paddies, Senoufo girls help fetch wood and water, tend to children, do household tasks, obtain herbs and leaves for a meal's sauces, and spin cotton. Senoufo boys are expected to tend chickens and other poultry and herd any livestock. Senoufo women sort rice, work in their personal agricultural fields, work in the family fields along with the men, prepare all meals, fetch wood and water, look after children, do all household tasks, and produce shea butter, soap, and beer, some for domestic use and some of which they sell in the markets. Senoufo men are expected to work in the fields, cut down trees and chop wood, dye textiles, make rope, take care of livestock, hunt, and sell their ropes in the local market. Both men and women can fish and are responsible for construction and repair of houses in the compound. Older people continue to perform their traditional gender roles to the best of their ability. Older Senoufo women sometimes take on an additional role as caregivers or healers. During colonization, many Senoufo men were placed in forced labor projects; thus women found their time spent in laborious activities increased.

Land Tenure. Land, as traditionally conceived in Senoufo culture, is a collective good that cannot be owned privately; the individual, family or even village who inhabits or cultivates the land has a right of extended use, but village land remains the property of the first Senoufo ancestors to settle that land. The ontological importance of land in Senoufo culture is illustrated by the existence of a "chief of the earth" who, as chief representative of the ancestral founders of the village, is called on to distribute land and to serve as an intermediary between the ancestral and the living worlds by means of appropriate sacrificial acts. Land in a typical Senoufo village may be divided between independent, interrelated farmer and artisan residential settlements (and each settlement's agricultural land), public meeting spaces, and collective agricultural lands harvested by the village as a whole. Each Senoufo village also has at least one sinzanga, or sacred grove, situated on the outskirts, perhaps marking the location of the original settlement, and used for socialization rites and various religious activities.

Senufo People


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent in Senoufo culture traditionally has been matrilineal. An average village may consist of numerous residential settlements whose members belong to the same ethnic group and whose leadership is identified with a particular matrilineal clan segment. Although Senoufo society is patrilocal, meaning a Senoufo woman who marries outside of her matrilineal clan would reside with her husband's matrilineal clan, that same Senoufo woman would still remain a part of her own matrilineal descent group. Traditionally, a woman's sons answer more to their maternal uncles than to their own father. The sons may be called upon to work in the maternal uncle's fields, or as adults, to take over the maternal uncle's household. Post-colonial Senoufo society has witnessed an increasing shift to a patrilineal system due to increasing Islamic and Western influences.

Kinship Terminology. The matrilineal nature of Senoufo society is illustrated in certain dialects where the generic word for "ancestors" is the same as the kinship term for maternal uncle.


Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is a universal institution in Senoufo society. From a young age, Senoufo youth are socialized to assume roles as spouses and parents, and both sexes are circumcised in preparation for marriage. Senoufo exhibit a strong concern for the decorum of unmarried youths, and many rules circumscribe interactions between the two sexes as adolescents. Traditionally, Senoufo marriages were polygynous and were arranged by families of the betrothed, with a Senoufo woman marrying the same way that her mother married. Two primary types of marriages exist: loborgho, or marriage for wealth or status, which is usually arranged by the two families, and tamaraga, or marriage for love. The loborgho usually is negotiated between the two household heads. The man is required to work in the fields of the female's family several days a year from the marriage proposal through the marriage and sometimes through the birth of the first child. A large dowry must be paid to the bride's family (traditionally in cowry shells). In these marriages a wife's right to leave her husband is largely circumscribed.

In a tamaraga, the couple themselves can decide to marry, with or without the involvement of the wider families, but a lesser work and monetary obligation is owed to the bride's family. Less frequently, one finds marriages in which the groom "kidnaps" the bride (even a woman who is already married may be kidnapped), in which case no work obligation is owed to the bride's family. A kidnapped bride has a right to leave her husband but, if the bride stays with her kidnapper when she was betrothed or married to another man in a loborgho, then any offspring conceived with her kidnapper husband would belong to the ex-fiancé or ex-husband. In some sub-groups, it was fairly common for a Senoufo man to marry the first-born child of his childhood sweetheart. Whatever the marriage type, postmarital residence with the husband's family is the norm, although the wife remains an integral part of her matrilineal clan's household

Domestic Unit. The katiola, a residential and cooperative work unit whose members share not only the same general living space, but also the food harvested from communally worked land, is the true cell of Senoufo society. A large katiola will house the extended family, and may even include several households. A typical katiola consists of the head of the household (the oldest male); his wife and children; his brothers and their families; his sisters, aunts, and cousins who are not married or widowed; the children of this last category and, historically, the freed descendants of former ancestral captives. Katiola members can be likened to a clan with most of its members having the same common mythical (animal or human) ancestor name. Political management of the family is left to males whereas females largely manage spiritual affairs.

Inheritance. The matrilineal clan, not the deceased's spouse, traditionally inherited the deceased's property. Children inherit through their maternal uncle, not through their father.

Socialization. Senoufo socialization cuts across kinship lines and household ties and constitutes a stabilizing and unifying force at the community level. The Senoufo use secretive age-grade associations, the Poro or Lo society for males and the Sakrobundi society for females, to preserve Senoufo folklore, teach its customs, instill self-control through rigorous tests, and prepare Senoufo youth for adulthood. The youth's education is generally divided into three seven-year periods, the passage of each marked by initiation and ceremonies that may involve circumcision, isolation, instruction and the use of masks. Poro is a continuously active institution used universally for the socialization of Senoufo males whereas Sakrobundi is active only at key points in the initiation cycle.

Since a Poro society often involves various katiolo or clans, Poro plays an essential role in the cohesion of social and political life of a Senoufo village. Using the sinzanga as a school, a political meeting house, a place of worship, and a dressing room where initiates prepare for ritual and theatrical performances during the three phases, Poro teaches the male initiate, according to one source, '"to walk the path of Poro,' leading to responsibility, wisdom, authority, and power. From the children's primary grade of 'discovery' through the long period of training and service that is highlighted by the initiate's ritual death and spiritual regeneration to the final graduation of the 'finished man,' Poro is preparation for responsible and enlightened leadership." In the first phase, obedience and tradition are taught through song and dance. The intermediate phase teaches the adolescent about the moral integration of the individual into the community, for whose sake an initiate must thereafter be willing to sacrifice himself. At this stage, the initiate joins in communal work, learns ritual songs and dances, is introduced into army service, and undergoes a solitary period lasting several weeks. After this he graduates with his cohorts into the adult phase. Major ceremonies in the last phase teach the initiate a deeper understanding of mythical and religious tradition, the special language of lo, incomprehensible to outsiders, and the initiate's definitive secret name. Final graduation from Poro generally occurs after age thirty when the graduate becomes part of the ruling gerontocracy consulted on important religious, social, and political matters and freed from agricultural labor (other than certain tasks such as nocturnal harvesting of millet, considered a privilege). Traditionally, if a man did not graduate from Poro, he was virtually an outcast, excluded from village affairs.

Senufo People

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Senoufo society can be best described as an occupationally caste-bound society. Traditionally, the Senoufo have viewed the six or so distinct artisan groups who live intermingled with the farmer groups, particularly the blacksmiths, as part of a divinely ordained social order looked down upon and feared by the population because of its special powers and indispensable skill. Respectful apprehension of artisan groups has meant that artisans occupy a lower position in the social hierarchy, well below that of the farmer, and even traditionally below that of the slave. The blacksmith is the most distinct caste. To be a blacksmith is a birthright; a blacksmith occupies a special place because of his inseparable and magical ability to harness fire and the forces of the earth inherent in the extracted metal. The blacksmiths have their own katiolos (and historically their own villages) as well as their own Poro societies with rites similar to the farmers' Poro. Graduation from Poro for blacksmiths takes place earlier (at around age twenty-five) than it does for farmers.

Political Organization. Representing the interests and rights of their respective katiolos, the male elders of each katiolo in a Senoufo village constitute a type of village council. The village chief, who must be a male of matrilineal descent from the village's founding family, is the titular head of this council of elders. Traditionally, the village chief also served as an earth priest responsible for assigning land for cultivation and for ritual purification of village lands contaminated by bloodshed or accidental death. While Senoufo males dominate in the political arena, they do not act without the support and guidance of female elders and Sandogo members, the women's spiritual leadership society.

Social Control. Before colonization, conflicts within the culture, whether intra-village or inter-village, are said to have occurred over marriage and family relationships, tensions between matrilineal and patrilocal tendencies, or over land. Often, such conflicts could be mediated and solved through intervention by the elder councils or the Sandogo diviners.

Conflict. The Senoufo experienced some level of conflict historically with their local neighbors, particularly the Mande population. Colonization and Islam further increased tensions in Senoufo society by imposing patriarchal structures on a traditionally matrilineal culture, as well as by introducing cash crops into a traditional subsistence economy, and forcing Islam or Christianity on traditional animists and private property rights on a communal society. Inevitably, these tensions have manifested themselves in some bloodshed, violence, and corruption over time. The more widespread result, however, has been syncretic traditions and practices within all aspects of modern Senoufo society.

Senufo People

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Senoufo practice richly varied series of divination, initiation, and funeral rituals designed to strengthen and protect their community. Traditional Senoufo society is animist. Religious practice, worship, prayers, and sacrifices seek to restore and maintain healthy relationships with the hierarchy of spiritual beings, which consists of the deity, the ancestors, and bush spirits. Senoufo also believe in magical and impersonal sources of power that an individual can appropriate, by means of acquired knowledge and ritual, for his or her own or others' benefit. Central to Senoufo religious belief is the concept of a bipartite deity called Koulo Tyolo in its aspect of a divine creator god and Katyelééó, or "Ancient Mother," in its aspect as the protective, nurturing goddess. The divine creator is responsible for the original creation, while the Ancient Mother watches over the Poro societies and the community in general. The bush spirits inhabit the lands surrounding a village, and are constantly being disturbed by Senoufo as they go about their daily activities. Bush spirits can influence people's lives for good or evil. The souls of the ancestors complete the pantheon of supernatural forces revered. Islam has been increasingly influential in Senoufo society.

Religious Practitioners. Senoufo women, to a far greater degree than men, assume roles as ritual mediators between humankind and the supernatural world of deities and spirits. The Sandogo or Sadow society is a powerful women's organization that unites the female spiritual leadership of the many extended household units and clans of the village. There is only one Sandogo society per village, its head called the Sando-Mother. Participation in Sandogo is not universal for women; rather, each katiolo is represented by at least one Sando, a term referring both to any member of Sandogo and to those members who become divination specialists. Sandogo membership is primarily hereditary, although it can be divined. Consecration of a female to Sandogo may happen at any time, from birth to middle age. Sandos' responsibilities are both social and religious. The bush spirits are thought to be the chief source of the Sando's power and the chief cause of her client's problems. Sando seek to prevent death and sustain life through ritual communication with the spirits. They also protect the sanctity of betrothal and marriage contracts. As diviners, they act as an interpreter and intermediary between the villagers and their deity, the ancestors, spirits of twins, and, in particular, the bush spirits.

Ceremonies. As discussed, every aspect of Senoufo culture is permeated with ceremonies, whether Poro, Sandogo, hoeing contests, weddings, or funerals. Ceremonies often include song, dance, and masquerades that display male pride and political power.

Death and Afterlife. Death does not necessarily qualify one for ancestral status or for a proper ritual funeral. The death of anyone but an initiated adult of considerable age is considered abnormal and thought to be caused by supernatural or magical intervention. Senoufo believe illness resulting in death results from witchcraft, evil spirits, angered ancestors, bush spirits, or violation of taboos. Such a death results in a simple burial, rather than an elaborate ritual funeral.

Juxtaposing art, drama, ritual, and individual loss against community, continuity, and communion, the Senoufo funeral is a final rite of passage that seeks to mark the completion of the spiritual, intellectual, and social formation of the individual member within the group and to create the necessary conditions under which the defunct can depart from the living world. Through the funeral's sculpture, dance, music, and song, the deceased is transformed into a state of being that is beneficial for the community, thereby ensuring a sense of continuity between the living and the dead. The Senoufo believe in reincarnation. Seven year's after the deceased's death, he or she will either be reincarnated or join the ancestors.

Senufo People

Dozo hunters

The all Senufo are note farmers. Others are also hunters « Dozo ».
Dozo are well known hunters of West Africa, specially because they are following a strict code based on honor.
To become Dozo, the young apprentice have to get a long learning period with a Grand Master. Irreproachable moral conduct is required. The code Dozo is based on respect for ancestors, honor and obedience to the master. Besides learning hunting, the Dozo apprentice is initiated to the religious rituals.

Dozo hunters makes regular offerings to the spirits and fetishes of the bush. They spend considerable time to the preparation of amulets. A hunter Dozo never go hunting without reciting some secret incantations.

A hunter Dozo is distinguished by the shirt and pants he wears. Both are made of cotton and dyed with natural colors like brown.
The Dozo adorns her blouse by various amulets, but also whistles, mirrors, horns of deer and some knives. In addition to its spiritual armor, a hunter Dozo is equipped with a rifle, a small ax, and a slaughtered animal tail transformed into flyswatter.

Senufo People

Senufo People

Poro  secret society

The Poro society organization is a universal age-grade initiation association ; they exert social and political control, convey traditional knowledge, and fulfill religious functions, especially during elaborate funeral ceremonies.

The Poro society is reserved primarily for men, although young girls and postmenopausal women are permitted to join. The main function of Poro is to guarantee a good relationship between the living world and the ancestors. Nerejao is an ancestress who is recognized as the true head of the Poro society.
Accordingly, young initiates spent weeks and even months together in secluded sacred groves where they developed the survival skills and intellectual foundation to prepare them for adulthood. Senior poro members instructed initiates in the work of poro, also referred to as work for "Old Mother," the female aspect of the supreme deity and protector of poro initiates. As a result of locally sponsored initiations, poro members forged strong connections to their communities that cut across lineage divisions.

Young initiates are spotted wearing tall, rectangular, boardlike kworo headdresses painted with checkerboard patterns. Initiates wore kworo masks during a public performance on the eve of their entrance into the sacred grove. They learned how to meet social obligations, work with peers, and respect their elders. Despite its presumed uniform character and its close association with Senufo culture, poro and the arts linked to the association display striking formal and functional variation.

In some communities, poro initiates prohibited uninitiated men, women, and children from seeing their impressive arts, a regulation akin to ones West African power associations maintain. The works and performances connected to them offer unique expressions of artists' and patrons' commitments to goals that include the promotion of hard work, community relations, and reverence for the deceased.

Poro has historically been responsible for the transmission of histories, genealogies, and other knowledge and has contributed to diverse and dynamic artistic production in northern Côte d'Ivoire (Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi 2008/9)

Senufo People


Senufo Arts and Poro Initiation in Northern Côte d’Ivoire

During the twentieth century, outside commentators defined poro (or ) as a universal age-grade initiation association common to all Senufo communities in West Africa. They also attributed much of the region’s artistic production to the institution. Based primarily on observations made in areas of northern Côte d’Ivoire, scholars, colonial administrators, and missionaries emphasized that Senufo boys from different lineages passed through a series of initiation stages before becoming respected elders in their communities. Accordingly, young initiates spent weeks and even months together in secluded sacred groves where they developed the survival skills and intellectual foundation to prepare them for adulthood. Senior poro members instructed initiates in the work of poro, also referred to as work for “Old Mother,” the female aspect of the supreme deity and protector of poro initiates. As a result of locally sponsored initiations, poro members forged strong connections to their communities that cut across lineage divisions. They learned how to meet social obligations, work with peers, and respect their elders. Despite its presumed uniform character and its close association with Senufo culture, poro and the arts linked to the association display striking formal and functional variation. Such artistic diversity presumably reinforced the unique identities and preferences of artists and communities, many of whose names have not followed works into museums and private collections.

Scholars have identified a range of masks and sculptures with links to nineteenth- and twentieth-century Senufo poro associations. In some communities, poro initiates prohibited uninitiated men, women, and children from seeing their impressive arts, a regulation akin to ones West African power associations maintain. The works and performances connected to them offer unique expressions of artists’ and patrons’ commitments to goals that include the promotion of hard work, community relations, and reverence for the deceased.

Masks worn by poro initiates in similar ceremonies did not always look the same. During his stay in northern Côte d’Ivoire in the 1920s and early 1930s, the missionary Pierre Knops photographed young initiates wearing tall, rectangular, boardlike kworo headdresses painted with checkerboard patterns. Initiates wore kworo masks during a public performance on the eve of their entrance into the sacred grove. The rounded form and openwork design of the kworo headdress in the Metropolitan Museum differs from the headdresses Knops photographed.

Mask production proliferated across the region defined by the present-day borders of Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, and Burkina Faso and crossed cultural and linguistic boundaries. Not all masks were owned by poro associations despite certain similarities in form. Artists from the region carved wooden helmet masks in a diverse range of compositions. Many examples combine features of animals as different as chameleons, birds, hyenas, and antelopes. They also display open mouths filled with menacing teeth.

Smaller, more finely carved face masks from northern Côte d’Ivoire display prominent anthropomorphic features, and a glossy patina renders the masks more delicate. Details carved on and around the delicate faces and materials added to them presumably for performance defy a single standard for the form. Face masks were not the exclusive domain of Senufo poro associations, although some poro members may have worn such face masks and raffia costumes to entertain at the end of funerary ceremonies or on other occasions. In the twentieth century, Dyula communities in parts of northern Côte d’Ivoire commissioned and performed with similar face masks.

Local artists, patrons, and audiences have identified and interpreted mask imagery linked to poro in numerous ways. The helmet masks and headdresses themselves defy any singular interpretation. Nevertheless, their striking, and at times menacing, presence on the heads of performers, who were also cloaked in full-body outfits, likely attracted attention at the ceremonies for deceased elders and other events where they appeared.

Scholars have also identified many large figurative sculptures with links to poro associations in northern Côte d’Ivoire. Senior poro members trained in divination obtained sculptures for their altars. In some communities, poro associations acquired larger figures known as pombibele (sing. pombia), or “children of poro.” In the mid- to late twentieth century, communities displayed pombibele as static works of sculpture and animated them in performance. The figures sometimes stood on the ground during a ceremony for a deceased poro elder or larger funerary ceremonies dedicated to all the deceased elders in a community. On other occasions, poro initiates carried pombibele as they walked, tapping the large figures on the ground. Rarer sculptures include the much admired large birds, reproductions of which today fill West African tourist markets. By the time Senufo arts captured scholarly attention in the West at the beginning of the twentieth century, artists and patrons had already created a wealth of forms to assert diverse local identities.

Today not all Senufo communities in northern Côte d’Ivoire, southwestern Burkina Faso, and southeastern Mali support poro initiation associations, nor have they necessarily sponsored the institutions in the past. However, poro has historically been responsible for the transmission of histories, genealogies, and other knowledge and has contributed to diverse and dynamic artistic production in northern Côte d’Ivoire.

Senufo People


Throughout the twentieth century, sandogo associations in northern Côte d'Ivoire promoted the integrity of each matrilineage and trained some of its members in divination to encourage communication between humans and the spirit world. Though divination, which is governed by the Sandogo society, is also an important part of Senufo religion, Sandogo is usually considered a women's society, men who are called to the profession and inherit through the matrilineal line are permitted to become diviners  Diviners in the region continue to display wooden and brass figures during their consultations with men and women. They also wear cast brass ornaments and prescribe them for their clients to encourage spiritual protection and healing.

Women (and rarely men) gained access to sandogo through their mother's families, the lineages the institution protects. The arts and practices of women's sandogo and its counterpart, the men's poro initiation association, underscore the importance of gender complementarity.

Divinatory spirits and sculptures created for them are often referred to as ndebele, madebele, and tugubele (sing.: ndeo, madeo, and tugu) in several Senufo dialects. People commonly link divinatory spirits with nature, namely water, trees, and uncultivated landscapes beyond town and city limits. They conceive of nature spirits as anthropomorphic beings with feet that point backwards, often invisible to the human eye.

According to these beliefs, nature spirits may assist people to maintain good health, achieve success, and develop satisfactory relationships with friends and family. Spirits can also be held accountable for people's illness or hardship, however, and are regarded with ambivalence. Hunters, farmers, and others who enter the wilderness or who otherwise come into contact with trees and natural water sources consider risks taken when they approach places where nature spirits are believed to reside. They rely on preemptive measures designed to appease spirits who may be offended when people track game, till the land, draw water, or otherwise invade spirit domains. Diviners similarly commission sculptures to appeal to capricious spirits and seek their goodwill. The diversity of divinatory arts attests to diviners' perceptions of nature spirits' unique preferences and artists' interpretations of them.

The Senufo people have a variety of masks, each having a use for different occasions.

One of the famous masks used by the Poro society was the Kpeli-yehe mask, an anthropomorphic mask worn at funeral ceremonies, compelling the spirit of the deceased to leave his house.

Senufo art

Another, more rare mask, the Degele mask, which originated from a few villages in the vicinity of Korhogo town, and were danced in the kuumo ceremony (“Great Festival of the Dead”) in a male and female pair.  The Kagba mask was famous among the southern Senufo group of the Nafara, a zoomorphic mask worn with a costume consisting of a tent like structure of reeds and covered with ornamentally painted mats of blankets, and was danced by a single performer.

The double headed Wanyugo mask, or as is sometimes referred to in the western world, the Firespitter mask or Janus Buffalo helmet mask, belonged to the Wabele society. The task of the Wabele society was to destroy negative forces (dee bele) and harmful spirits (nika’abele) who, in the shape of monsters or wild animals, threaten people in times of crisis or vulnerability, as, for instance, during burial ceremonies.  According to some Senufo lore, the masks derive their power from magical /medicinal substances placed in a cup that is carved into the top of the mask, however the potion can only become effective if supplemented by a costume of cotton fabric, and danced to music in the context of a ceremony

Senufo art

Although poro is essentially a male institution, the most important ancestor invoked is a woman, the head of the poro chapter's founding matrilineage. Senufo artists often rendered female representations taller than their male companions. Their asymmetrical treatment of poro sculptural couples emphasizes the importance of women as matrices of life.

Senufo statuary varies a great deal, from as little as 6” tall to 6 foot tall.  One Senufo Tribe Bird sculpture of the most popular is the Pombibele ‘those who give birth’, or Rhythm pounder as they are fondly referred to by westerners.  They were used during various rituals that took place before and after the burial of a deceased Poro society elder.  Initiates who visit the house of the deceased carry them, and one is sometimes placed in a shroud alongside the corpse at the public ceremonies that follow.  The initiated would then, while accompanying the corpse to its burial place, swing and pound the Pombile on the ground in time with the solemn music of the Poro society.  At the burial site, shortly before nightfall, once the soil is heaped over the grave, a male initiate may in a final and decisive gesture leap onto the mound and beat the ground seven times.  This pounding is to ensure the spirit of the deceased does not linger in the vicinity, but undertakes its journey to the ‘village of the dead’.  Another famous piece of Senufo statuary is the poropianong, meaning ‘mother of the Poro child,’ many of the secret Poro societies would have one of these large standing bird sculptures.  The statue was kept in the sacred forest, and was used in rites of passage for the admission of initiates to the final phase of training.

Ancestral figures were also carved by the Senufo representing the primordial ancestors of their people, often placed in the village centre at a form of shrine where tribe members could honor and pay respects to their ancestors, often taking them offerings when asking for assistance or guidance.
Many of the most distinguished diviners in Senufo communities in northern Côte d'Ivoire belong to the sando association. Throughout the mid- to late twentieth century, sando membership typically passed through the mother's line. Only a select few sando members studied divination. Most sando diviners were women, although occasionally men entered the practice. Many new sando diviners first acquired miniature metal sculptures in the form of figurative twins.

Smaller cast brass figurines are more portable than larger wooden sculptures and far less costly, thus they were easier for diviners to procure early in their careers. Practitioners who advanced eventually sought more finely carved wooden sculptures for their consultation rooms.

Senufo art

Senufo communities also support non-sando diviners, some of them senior members of the poro initiation association. They also rely on the arts to identify problems in clients' lives and provide prescriptions. While sando diviners often sought smaller spirit sculptures convenient to carry with them, other diviners apparently commissioned larger figurative sculptures.

Women and men who work as diviners in Senufo communities and elsewhere in West Africa employ a range of arts and techniques. Many diviners receive clients in small, intimate consultation rooms. Wooden and metal sculptures, pottery, textiles, and earthen bas-reliefs often dominate the windowless rooms, lit only by the sunlight that enters through the open doorframe. In one form of divination common in many Senufo communities, the diviner sits either next to or opposite the client and holds the client's hand. The diviner first calls for the nature spirits' attention.

The diviner then presents the spirits with a series of questions in order to determine the reason for the client's visit. To identify the source of the client's concerns, the diviner holds one of the client's hands and interprets the movements of the diviner's and client's hands as they move together, sometimes slapping against the diviner's leg. The diviner continues the process to determine a suitable course of action for the client. The diviner may additionally use musical instruments, sculptured figurines, or found objects to assess a client's concerns. The caliber of the arts used in a diviner's practice announces competence and accomplishment. Diviners who earn renown and attract clients from distant locales often have the means to commission more ambitious works.

At the conclusion of a consultation, the client receives medicinal prescriptions or detailed instructions concerning appropriate offerings. The diviner may also advise the client to obtain a specific body adornment or figurative sculpture from an artist. For example, diviners often recommend rings, pendants, bracelets, or anklets featuring chameleons and other animals considered intermediaries between human and spirit realms. Referred to as yawiige in some Senufo languages, the ornaments are believed to help appease spirits according to their wishes as revealed through divination. Diviners themselves acquire similar ornaments from artists in the region to manage their own relationships with nature spirits.
Divination underlies the creation of many forms of artistic expression in Senufo and other communities across West Africa. Diviners invest in the arts to foster personal relationships with the spirit world and enhance communication between nature spirits and humans. They and their clients seek works in wood, metal, and other media from artists in order to gain insight into the causes of disruptions in their lives and move beyond them.


Types of Art

All Senufo art is made by specialized artisans, which may diminish regional stylistic differences. Figures representing the ancestors are common, as are brass miniatures and small statues, which are used in divination. There are several types of masks used by the Poro society.

Senufo Art


Festival and music

The Senufo are outstanding musicians, using marimbas, tuned iron gongs, and a variety of drums, horns, and flutes. They are also internationally famous carvers of wood sculpture, mainly masks and figures.

The balafon of the Senufo communities of Mali, Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire is a pentatonic xylophone, known locally as the ncegele. The ncegele is composed of eleven to twenty-one keys of varying lengths, made of wood, and arranged on a trapezoidal frame, also made of wood or bamboo. The instrument has calabash gourd resonators of varying sizes, arranged beneath the frame proportionally to the keys. The gourds are perforated and the holes are covered with spider’s egg-sac filaments to enhance the sound.

The tuning of the ncegele is based on a division of the octave into five equal intervals, and the sounds are produced by striking the keys with wooden sticks with a rubber beater fitted to the end. Played solo or as part of an ensemble, the musical discourse of the balafon is based on a range of multiple rhythmic melodies.

The ncegele provides entertainment during festivities, accompanies prayers in the parishes and in sacred woods, stimulates enthusiasm for work, punctuates funerary music and supports the teaching of value systems, traditions, beliefs, customary law, and rules of ethics governing society and the individual in day-to-day activities. The player first learns to play a children’s balafon, later moving on to full-size balafons, under the instruction of a teacher.

Senufo People

Mud Cloth

Locally-made mud cloth is cotton cloth decorated and dyed with natural materials that blend into the colors of the Senufo landscape. Originally, the clothes made from mud cloth were worn only by hunters, who appreciated the cloth's natural camouflaging ability. Now up to one-quarter of the population wears mud cloth as everyday clothing. Though more expensive, the cloth is popular with non-hunters because it does not show dirt. Mothers will wrap their babies to their backs using large, rectangular mud cloths.

Mud cloths are made of 100% cotton that is locally grown, spun, and woven. Before the colonization of Africa by Europeans, cotton was grown in small amounts for local use. Now, it is the main cash crop of the Senufo, which means that most of the cotton is raised to be sold to other countries.
Through observation and practice, anyone in the village can learn to make a mud cloth. Some, though, are recognized as having special talent in this area. These individuals will sell their cloth to a much wider market, some as far away as Europe. With this expansion of trade to other continents, some artists have begun signing their work.

Senufo People

Senoufo sub-groups Côte d’Ivoire