Crocodiles and snakes wind their ways across the walls. The creatures swim in a sea of stars, moons and geometric designs… Traditional art and architecture are alive in the village of Tiébélé in Burkina Faso. The Kassena have kept the beautiful artistic style of their ancestors alive in their unique royal court – making Tiébélé is a ‘must-see’ for anyone visiting Burkina Faso.
Tiébélé is a village situated in Nahouri, a province in the south-central region of Burkina Faso. This village belongs to the Kassena, an ethnic group that inhabits the southern part of Burkina Faso and the northern part of the country’s southern neighbor, Ghana. Moreover, the chief of the Kassena has his official residence in this village, and his domain is known also as the Cour Royale de Tiébélé (which may be translated to mean the ‘Royal Court of Tiébélé). The buildings of the Cour Royale de Tiébélé are built and decorated in the traditional Kassena manner.
One of the painted buildings in Tiébélé, Burkina Faso. Source: Somewhere I Would Like to Live
The Kassena are part of a larger ethnic group known as the Gurunsi. As a result of European colonialism in Africa, specifically the partitioning of West Africa towards the end of the 19th century, the Kassena were separated from the other groups within the Gurunsi. As a consequence of this isolation, the Kassena developed, over the decades, a cultural identity that is different from the rest of the Gurunsi. Art and architecture are two ways in which the Kassena express their cultural identity, and this is evident in the village of Tiébélé.
Art and architecture are two ways in which the Kassena express their cultural identity. (Rita Willaert/ CC BY NC 2.0 )
The Painted Cour Royale de Tiébélé
The Cour Royale de Tiébélé is situated on a plain at the foot of a hill and it covers an area of about 1.2 hectares. This complex is enclosed by a circular wall and is accessed by a principal entrance located in the southwest. Within these walls are the houses of the people, which have traditionally been built of materials that can be easily obtained within the vicinity – earth, wood, straw, and cow dung. In more recent times, mud, brick, and stone are being used. Traditionally the structures were not built on top of a foundation, but rather ‘raised’ almost vertically from the ground. Today, however, the houses are built using mudbrick and rest on top of a stone foundation.
Nowadays, the painted homes generally rest on top of a stone foundation. (Rita Willaert/ CC BY NC 2.0 )
The design of these traditional houses reflects the importance placed by the builders of Tiébélé on the defensive potential of these structures. Many of the houses’ features aimed at increasing the houses’ ability to protect its inhabitants, both from the forces of nature and from human enemies. As an example, the houses are designed without windows, though a small opening or two are present so that some sunlight can get in. Additionally, the only entrance is through a small door less than a meter high, which serves to keep the scorching sun out and makes it difficult for potential enemies to reach the inhabitants.
The only entrance into the beautifully painted home is through a small door less than a meter high. ( Somewhere I Would Like to Live )
Symbolic and Utilitarian Paintings
As for the walls of these houses, they normally have a thickness of over 30 cm (11.81 inches), which provides its inhabitants with sufficient protection. More striking, however, are the decorations painted onto the walls of these houses. Each house in Tiébélé has its own unique wall decorations, and the painting of these houses is considered to be a community project carried out by the women of the village. A variety of local material is used as paint pigments. For instance, coal is used as a black pigment, whilst a variety of earthy colors may be obtained from colored clay. The paintings are made after a house is built, and this is one of the means by which a house may be protected from the rains that arrive during the wet season.
Apart from this utilitarian function, the paintings also have a more symbolic meaning behind them. For instance, the depiction of crocodiles and snakes have an apotropaic function, as they are regarded by the Kassena to be sacred animals that were capable of keeping bad luck and diseases at bay. Stars and moons, on the other hand, are meant to symbolize goodness and hope.
The designs painted on the walls of Tiébélé are carefully chosen and vary. (Rita Willaert/ CC BY NC 2.0 )
Tiébélé has been regularly maintained by its community, hence it has been well-preserved till today. Nevertheless, there are a number of challenges facing this unique village. One of these, for example, is nature itself. Flooding and erosion have been identified as threats to Tiébélé. In addition, there have been plans to develop the site into a destination for cultural tourism. Whilst this would generate revenue for the villagers, an increase in tourist numbers could threaten the very survival of the site itself – it has to be carefully managed, lest this unique site becomes yet another victim of mass tourism.