France iconVersion Française

The Indigenous Senufo live in West Africa: north of Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Ghana. The word Senufo means “those who work in the field”.

They build their villages in a circular shape: the house in the middle belongs to the chief, and the village square, reserved for ceremonies, is placed outside.

The Senoufos believe that each person has a soul and a breath (or vital impulse), and at the moment of death, both leave the body. The Senufo family is composed of the living and the ancestors. The forebears are not dead, their invisible soul continues to exist in other forms.

The ancestors move among the living, they protect them and warn them about certain events or misfortunes to come. The deceased may communicate with the living in the dreams, through the visions or the diviner. They also participate in the initiatory and agrarian rituals.

Senoufo attics

The diviner is a mediator between the villagers and the spirits. He has to try to answer their concerns, knowing that, for the Senufos, all the problems have a supernatural origin. Most often, the solution to those problems is to make sacrifices for the spirits and the ancestors.

The Senoufo’s beliefs are at the same time:

– fetishists: they practice the cult of idols (which represent benefactor gods) and worship objects, supposed to play a protective role

– animists: they believe that living beings, the objects but also the natural elements possess a vital force and that after death, the spirit leaves to rest in a specific place

– naturists: they submit themselves to nature’s forces, fear and worship those forces

The Senoufos believe that the dead keep observing them. It explains why they consult them regularly.

When a death occurs, the family has to respect the deceased’s wishes. These may be wishes expressed during his lifetime or after his death (after the consultation with the diviner).

If these requests and wishes are not respected, the ancestors can manifest their discontent in various forms: bad weather, drought, floods, animal death, diseases, accidents, or even death.

The disappearance of a loved one is always a source of sadness within the family. The deceased’s body is wrapped in loincloths and laid on a bed carved into a tree trunk. The loincloths are colored (preferably yellow) and most often represent the rites to which the deceased was initiated during his lifetime.

The funerary ceremonies, such as the lamentation songs, the acrobatic dances, or the masks, occur spectacularly and sumptuously.

Musicians during funerals

The traditional funeral songs on the balafon and the cries contribute to the healing of the bereaved family. All those rites help the relatives to restore their inner peace, preserve tranquility within the group, and to get protection against evil spirits.

The solemnities happen in two stages: the burial, then the funeral itself. They organize these two homage ceremonies one or two times.

Funeral ceremony

First, the “fresh funeral”, takes place the days following the death and lasts only one day. Only close relatives and friends are allowed to attend.

Masked men surround the body and talk to the deceased to appease him. Simultaneously they play the drum placed on the body and wave bells. Through these gestures, the breath leaves the body more easily.

They bury the deceased with his personal belongings, with statues representing the members of his lineage, and with offerings. They decorate the tomb with shards of glass. For his journey to the afterlife, the family put drinks and food on the tomb. These provisions are renewed frequently.

The women prepare a mourning meal which, in the end, is distributed to the guests.

Later, sometimes several years after the burial, they organize the “dry funeral”. These events happen place during the dry season, after the harvest.

Those purification rites extend over several days and accompany the deceased to the afterlife. Before he meets with the ancestors, the soul can cross dangerous regions and encounter scary creatures.

The role of the whole community is to help the soul to reach the ancestor’s world in the best conditions.

Wanyugo funerary mask
Wambêlê funerary masks

These religious festivities represent a moment of great importance, punctuated by funeral dances and celebrations. Their vocation is to persuade the spirits of the ancestors to welcome the deceased.

Masked dancers and musicians are present throughout the ceremony. The men wear religious symbolic masks of different mystical animals to scare and push away evil spirits. To welcome the deceased, the ancestors receive many offerings.

The Senufos hold a ceremony every year in honor of the dead.

The dead are reborn as ancestor spirits.

The hornbill represents the protector bird who transports the souls of the deceased to the other world. This bird evokes prosperity, determination, the resilience.

The Senoufos myths represent the hornbill as one of the first five animals that appeared on earth, with the chameleon, turtle, snake, and crocodile.

Hornbill sculpture
Hornbill
The PORO rite: initiation to the deep knowledge

From the age of seven, the Senoufos follow initiation rites in the sacred woods, which shelter the souls of their ancestors. These woods, strictly forbidden to the uninitiated, are considered the place where resides the deity Katieleo, the old mother of the village. The instruction, subject to secrecy, is usually given by the ancient insiders.

The Poro represents the most important and longest rite. Sometimes a whole life is necessary to reach the highest degree of knowledge. This rite trains the men for life’s trials and helps them to acquire self-control. The souls of the ancients are venerated and all the acts of Poro manifest the ancestors’ will.

Senoufo home

This rite contributes to knowledge transmission, the maintenance of traditions, and the strength of social harmony. There are many Poros, depending on the region, the ethnic subgroups, and the profession (the blacksmiths, the sculptors, the farmers, etc.).

That represents a male-only education system. The women have the right to attend the first level then they have to marry.

The Poro is also a political instrument. The men who have not completed the “Tyolog” up to the rank of “Kafolo” are marginalized, live on the margins of society, and cannot hold any role inside the community.

Those without the initiation cannot speak in public, benefit from the funeral services of the Poro, or be buried by the Poro. That represents in everyone’s eyes a bad death.

The Poro initiatory cycle consists of phases, divided into several levels which correspond to different mythological ideas.

The initiation is divided into stages, as follows:

1 – the poworo corresponds to the prepubescent period. During this phase, children from 6 to 10 years learn the symbols of initiation.

2 – the kwonro corresponds to adolescence. The young people are introduced to life in groups, and learn how to make ritual costumes and liturgical accessories, ceremonial dances, and ritual songs.

Sacred wood from the inside

3 – the tyolog is usually taught between 30 and 35 years. This phase encourages the reflection on the meaning of life, and several secrets (theology, philosophy, social behavior) are revealed. They learn a liturgical language, change their names at each stage and keep the last one until death.

4 – the kaffono represents the last stage, which allows us to reach the supreme knowledge and the definitive enthronement among the masked initiates. Each individual owes total obedience and submission to the members of the previous promotions even if he has attained the rank of kafo.

At the moment of death, for all those who have obtained this degree, the funeral is provided by the members of the Poro.

In a society that ignored writing, where all the teaching was given orally, the Poro represents a perfect and very effective organization for knowledge transmission through the generations.

Sources:

Germain GUEHI, Les rites mortuaires, ou l’art de pleurer un défunt au-delà des mots, dans des chants traditionnels funèbres de balafon des Senoufo-Nafana de Mahadou Siefiguekaha et de Soro Mariam, Voix plurielles, 2022 (https://doi.org)

András Zempleni, L’invisible et le dissimulé. Du statut religieux des entités initiatiques, Gradhiva : revue d’histoire et d’archives de l’anthropologie, 1993 (https://www.persee.fr)

Burkina Faso : Funérailles sèches chez les Dozo du pays Sénoufo (https://www.toucan-photo.com)

Bohumil Holas, Fondements spirituels de la vie sociale sénoufo, Journal des Africanistes, 1956 (https://www.persee.fr)

Bohumil Holas, Les Sénoufo (y compris les Minianka), L’Harmatthan, 2006

Les peuples Ivoriens lèvent le masque, (https://peuplesivoiriens.wordpress.com)

Raulin Henri, Montserrat Palau Marti, Les Dogon; Bohumil Holas, Les Senoufo (y compris les Minianka); J. Lombard, Les Bariba au Nord Dahomey, Annales, 1959

Wikipédia, Sénoufos (https://fr.wikipedia.org)

Behegbin B, Djaha K, Djedon S, Able Kouassi A, Le Poro chez les Sanoufo de Côte d’Ivoire

Musée du Quai Branly, (https://collection-lacharriere.quaibranly.fr)

Les Sénoufos, (https://rezoivoire.net/ivoire)

Spiritualité Autochtone