Senufo – Ivory Coast, Mali and Burkina Faso
They Senufo are spread across the Ivory Coast, Mali and Burkina Faso and number about one and a half million in total, sustaining a living off of farming and occasional hunting. 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 Poro society organization was based on age grades; they exert social and political control, convey traditional knowledge, and fulfill religious functions, especially during elaborate funeral ceremonies. The Senufo spirituality is based on the god and goddess principals, with their powerful god, Koulotiolo, and goddess mother, Katielo, regenerating the world through the rituals of the Poro society.
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.
Senufo statuary varies a great deal, from as little as 6” tall to 6 foot tall. One Senufo Tribe Bird sculptureof 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.