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.


Demographics and languages

In the 1980s, estimates placed the total ethnic group population of Senufo people somewhere between 1.5 and 2.7 million. A 2013 estimate places the total over 3 million, with majority of them living in Ivory Coast in places such as Katiola, and some 0.8 million in southeastern Mali. Their highest population densities are found in the land between the Black Volta river, Bagoe River and Bani River.

Senufo people

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.

Senufo in Burkina Faso

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.



They speak at least four distinct languages (Palaka, Dyimini, and Senari in Côte d’Ivoire and Suppire in Mali), which belong to the Gur branch 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"



The Senufo are predominantly an agricultural people cultivating millet, sorghum, maize, yams, peanut, and rice. They also grow bananas, manioc, and a host of other crops that have been borrowed from cultures throughout the world.

Small farm animals such as sheep, goats, chickens, guinea fowl, and dogs are raised. Minimal amounts of hunting and fishing also contribute to the local economy. Labor is divided between farmers and skilled artisans, and while it was once thought that these segments of society did not intermarry.


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.

Socio-political system. They live in villages that are governed by a council of elders, who in turn are led by a chief that was elected from them. The tribal structure if controlled through the rituals of the Poro society who initiate and control the men from as young a seven yours of age and on.
The Senefou follow a strict caste-like system, in which the farmer is at the top and the musicians are on the bottom rung of the society.



Among the rural Senufo-Tagba, all the girls of a particular age set become brides at the same time. This transition from youth to womanhood takes place in a week-long ceremony of ritual and celebration that is carried out once a year among the women of the village.

On the first day of the wedding ceremony the married women of the village take all the brides to a sacred grove of trees located only a short distance from the village. There the women teach the young brides how to be good wives and instruct them in the rituals that are necessary for a happy and prosperous married life.

After time in the sacred grove, the brides are carried by their female relatives across a river on their way back to the village. The voices of the female chorus rise and fall while the sounds of the sichaala (gourd rattle) and tchere (calabash)"water drum" are heard. As they are carried across the river, the brides face the sky. This part of their journey symbolizes their transformation from girls to women and their reintegration into society.
Once on the other side of the river, the older women dress the brides in beautiful clothes and cover their heads with cloth. As they walk along in the procession they often are shaded by colorful umbrellas.

Back in the village, the women take the brides from compound to compound where members of the group sing, play their instruments, and dance. Here famous female singers perform to celebrate the transformation the girls have made and the pride Senufo women have in married life.
As the women sing, they and other female performers provide music with sichaala and the larger sichaa-gun-go rattles. Often they are accompanied by men playing punge drums, and occasionally by male djegele players who add to the music.

For this part of the celebration, one bride’s female relatives have all worn dresses of the same cloth and pattern. As the women sing and dance they are accompanied by two gbogo drummers. All other men are a part of the audience.

While all musical instruments may be played by men, the sichaala and sichaa-gun-go rattles and the tchere "water drum" are considered women's instruments and are played most prominently at weddings. It is primarily at these important celebrations that Senufo women are the featured performers.
In the evenings, as part of the wedding celebration, all members of the village gather to sing and dance. Djegele players are the central performers, joined by men playing gbogo drums and sometimes other instruments, like the karga, a metal scraper. While the musicians play and sing, a female chorus is often heard as the women spontaneously join in the music.

As the djegele band plays, men and women dance, moving in an informal circle. Often, as a young man performs a fancy dance in front of the djegele, he is rewarded by a young woman in the group who drapes a cloth around his neck as a sign of her admiration for his dancing skill.



Daily life for the Senufo people revolves around the religious rituals that enable them to placate the deities they respect and fear through means of divination practices and the wearing of specially crafted brass jewelry.

 The Senufo employ the Fo bracelet, which contains one of the culture’s most prominent designs, a python, in a variety of purposes to suit the spiritual and aesthetic needs of the society. The Sandogo is an authoritative women’s social order responsible for sustaining positive relationships with the spiritual world through divination and for protecting the purity of each kinship group. The Sandobele are diviners within the Sandogo society who diagnose and resolve issues within the community religion.

There are a number of revered ancestor and bush spirits among the Senufo. Maleeo and Kolotyolo ("Ancient Mother" and "Creator God") represent a dualistic deity. Kolotyolo is not approachable and can only be reached through Yiriigifolo or Nyehene. In the region of Kufulo, Maleeo is represented by the sacred drums before whom all thieves and murderers are brought for trial.


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 Gagliardi2008/9)



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.

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.

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 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 people art Senufo people art Senufo people art Senufo people 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.


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.


Senoufo sub-groups Côte d’Ivoire