Along the Atakora Mountains, northern Togo and Benin, nature is pristine. Yet, hidden in the valleys there is one of the best example of local architecture one can find in Africa. In 2004, Unesco declared this area a World Heritage Site. The Betammari-be, known also as Somba, live here. They follow their traditional religion and keep the hunting and warrior life style of the past. The Somba now live in two different countries. Their land was divided by colonialists who thought little of these matters.
The Somba are proud of their culture and live in isolation. Since their region is hard to reach, they are protected from visitors from outside. There are no roads and there is no system of public transport.
The true surprise of this region is the tata somba, the house of the Somba. These buildings are often hidden by the lush vegetation. These are fortified mud houses, usually two story high. They are built in isolation one from the other, in keep with the character of the people.
They live in fellowship, but respect privacy and each other’s freedom. Every tata somba is home to one family, and its dimensions are a sign of the owner’s status. Since each family live by its own, there are no villages. Autonomy seems to be the most important characteristic of these people.
The tata somba developed in the XVIII century, when the peoples of the Fada N’Gourma region in Burkina Faso found refuge on the Atakora Mountains from invading Mandingo and Songhai groups who tried to Islamize them. Later on, these particular houses came handy to repel attacks from the Ashanti, who were looking for slaves. Finally, they were a refuge against the German colonizers.
The house is built as a miniature fortress. A number of towers are connected by a wall up to four meters high. There is one only door that opens on a dark corridor. It was used to hit invading enemies before they could adjust to the darkness of the interior. The short corridor opens into a large room where livestock is kept at night. The ceiling of this room is adorned with hunting trophies: old skulls, jaw-bones, and antlers. A smaller room on the side is where grains are pounded during the day, and the head of the family sleeps at night. Beyond this room there is the kitchen with a fireplace. An opening on the wall provides light and a way to access the smaller terrace. From this terrace, a ladder leads to the main terrace where the family usually live.
A number of towers are found around the main terrace. Some are stores, others bedrooms. There are also a few low round huts. Again, they are used as bedrooms and one of them is a kitchen used during the raining season. The main terrace is at 3.5 / 4.5 meters from the ground. Small walls partition the area, and there are gutters to drain rain and water used to bath.
Each tata somba is a symbolic representation of the family. The amin terrace is the sacred space. Small altars are distributed near the entrance to the rooms. On each of them there are fetishes that look after the well being of the family. There is an altar for each person living in the house. The entrance is always direct toward the west, from where people arrived here. The spaces towards the north are reserved to women, while men conduct their affairs in the south side of the house. The walls are decorated with simple grooves, designed on the mud when it is still moist.
When a young man wants to marry he has to build his tata. He will throw an arrow from the main terrace where he lives. The place hit by the arrow is where the new home will be built. The first task will be to cleanse the area from evil spirits. Each clan has a different set of ceremonies to this purpose. Once the area is judged to be favourable, the actual building can start. The materials needed are wood, hay, and banco – a mixture of clay, mud, and cow dung. Women carry water and mud from the river, men build the walls. Once the walls are finished, they are covered with an infusion of karate. Drying up, this infusion gives strength to the walls and makes them water repellent. Such houses can last up to twenty years.
As anywhere else in Africa, modernity is reaching the Somba. Already it is possible to see small brick houses with metallic roofs. The isolation of the Somba is in danger. Some tourists find the way to these hills and already a few hotels are being built in the area. Among the youth, there is an increasing number of people who migrate to the capital looking for jobs. Yet, this area remains one of the few almost unspoilt in the continent, and a visit – respectful of the people and their traditions – is always an event worth living.
Alessia de Marco