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Benin is full of incredible, traditional architecture. From the Stilt villages of Ganvie in the South, to the Tata Somba houses in the North, these traditional houses provide a fascinating glimpse into the lives of many West Africans over the past century. As modernization occurs, much of the younger generation are choosing to move away from their traditional housing into more modern houses. We were fortunate to visit a few of these tata somba houses while they still exist.
The tribe of people living in the Atacora region in Northern Benin are referred to as “Somba”. In the Somba language, the word for fortress is “tata”, so a Tata Somba House is literally a fortress of the Somba people.
There are still a handful of these traditional dwellings in the area around Natitingou. One of the great benefits to having a guide was that he knew exactly where these villages were. He also knew some of the owners who allowed us to tour their houses for a small fee. Honestly, I shouldn’t even call it a fee. It was more of a “gift”. We gave 2000 CFA ($5 CAD) to each home owner as a thank you, and then spent another 1000-2000 CFA ($2.50-$5 CAD) on little trinkets sold by the wife or daughter. It was a small amount of money for us, but it helps them preserve their traditions.
We hired a car and driver for the day and set off early’ish in the morning. It was about a 45min drive on a mostly bumpy road to the first village, Tagaye.
The first village stop, Tagaye
A group of school children greeted us by the highway and followed us down the path to one of the houses.
It was a large, two-story house with the cooking area and large animal quarters below, and bedrooms and grain storage on the roof.
The only way to the top floor is via these small wooden ladders. The girls thought they were fun! I had a bit of a panic watching them ascend, the steps were very far apart!
Up on the roof, or the second floor, is where most of the action takes place! This is the living space and is also used to dry and store grain. In this village it was corn harvesting time, so many of the houses had corn spread out on the roof to dry in the sun.
After the corn dries it’s put into one of the grain storage bins along the outside of the house.
Kacela bravely climbed the ladder to have a look in one of the grain bins.
Calais wasn’t scared to climb the ladder!
The second floor also had the bedrooms. This keeps the occupants safe from wild animals and invading tribes. Below is a picture of one of the bedrooms. There are mats on the floor, and a mat to pull over the doorway once someone is inside.
The outside of the bedrooms were decorated with geometric patterns carved into the mud structure.
Keeping up tradition
This particular house was being renovated, you can see the foundation for two more columns. Once the columns are built the second floor will be extended out to surround them. It’s a lot of work to build these houses and requires the help of many villagers. They take turns working together on each others houses.
Everywhere we went we were a big attraction for the kids. These little ones were chasing Randy. He’d periodically stop and turn around and they’d all squeal with delight.
Kacela, of course, loved the little piggies foraging in the forest for food. She was fully aware that once they got bigger they would turn into supper…but right now they were “so tiny and cute”.
The members of this village mark their faces according to their family and tribe. This is done in infancy and the scars grow with them. It’s difficult to see on the little girl, but you can see it a bit around her nose and up her forehead. It’s a tradition that is slowly dying away, just like the Tata Sombas.
Tata Somba Stop #2
We stopped after driving a few more miles down the bumpy road. We got out of the car at the side of a field. Isaac started walking down a small path, and we blindly followed. The millet was so high it was hard to see if there was anything off in the distance. We turned a corner and almost stumbled upon one of the smaller Tata Sombas in the village.
This one was a bit smaller than the first we had visited, but had a similar layout. The entrance on the ground floor took us into the small kitchen area and then we went up a small ladder to get to the living quarters on the roof. We came up through the hole in the “floor” at the bottom of the picture!
A number of grain bins with thatched roofs surround the exterior of the second floor. Each had a small ladder perched on the side to allow access. Arachide, a peanut-like legume that provides much of the protein in the local diet, covered the floor. It’s ground into a paste very similar to peanut butter and mixed with a bit of oil and spices to make a sauce. It’s a lot like satay in Asia, and delicious!
West African Fetishes
The front of this house was decorated with a few fetishes hanging around the front door. These particular skull fetishes were for protection of the inhabitants of the house.
We walked out a different path than the one we used to enter, it was very much like a maze. I would’ve been lost if left to my own devices!! Once we passed the millet, there were fields and fields of chili peppers. They were almost ready for harvest. Once picked, they would be added to the arachides on the roof to dry in the sun.
We ended at the local market. Sadly we weren’t there on market day. The number of permanent market stalls surprised me. We only saw a handful of houses on our walk. I’m sure there were many more hidden amongst the millet fields. The only thing we encountered was a noisy rooster. Kacela was happy though, a village just isn’t a village without a rooster!
Lunch in Boukoumbe
After touring the second village, we were hot, sweaty and ready for a break. We jumped back in the car for a bumpy, winding drive to the town of Boukoumbe. It’s situated right beside the Togo border, so we had to go through a police check point before entering town. The town residents ran the border agents out of town a few years ago so the police station now acts as a make-shift border crossing. It’s the place to go if you need to get a passport stamp or a visa. Luckily we weren’t continuing on to Togo, so it was a quick formality and we were back on our way.
We stopped for lunch in the shade at Tata Touristique Koubetti. Josephine prepared a tasty meal and arranged for one of the local Tata owners to come meet us and take us for a tour of his house. Feeling rejuvenated with a bit of food and an (almost) cold drink, we piled into our little car, with our newest tour guide/home owner, and drove a little ways out of town.
We Saved The Best for Last
The last Tata Somba house we visited had it all. The fetishes were pretty cool at the second house but they were NOTHING like the last house! The entire front of the complex was adorned with large fetish structures covered in shells and feathers. Isaac was worried the girls would be a bit freaked out by it. They weren’t, they just wanted to steal the feathers!
There was one large fetish in the middle of the compound that was feather-free. It was uninteresting enough to the girls that I was able to get a picture. They were far too distracted when there were feathers around!
The other great thing about the last house was all the baby chicks. Kacela was absolutely in love with all the baby animals and she finally got to hold a baby chick. She was in heaven!
A complex rather than a house
This housing complex was a bit more elaborate than the first two we visited. The current owner had two wives who didn’t get along. The main house was for him, and his wives each had their own separate smaller houses on opposite sides of the complex.
Immediately upon entering the house there was a grain-grinder to the right. This basically formed the kitchen area of the house.
It was in the little alcove to Calais’ left in the picture below!
Once we got past the outside there was more fetishes set up inside the house! Luckily the girls aren’t squeamish.
Once we got to the living quarters on the second floor there were a number of different things drying. Hot chilis, okra, and arachides. They were all drying in racks build into the sides of the building. It was a lot easier to walk around without having food all over the ground to avoid.
The view from one side of the house was the first wife’s house. It was a bit more substantial than the one belonging to the second wife, and even had a small upper terrace and aluminum roof.
One of the girl’s favourite parts was getting to crawl inside the bedroom. Unlike the first house we visited, there was no door on this bedroom. A small reed mat was pulled in front of the small opening to keep out the elements.
After touring the house, our host showed us a few of his hunting hats. He’s wearing one of them in the picture below.
Calais also got to try on one of the hats. She thought she looked a bit silly, but I think it’s cute!
We even managed to get a family picture, even though we were very hot and sweaty by this point!
This was a great way to end our visit. If I had to pick just one Tata Somba to visit, this would be it.
We walked back to the car through the giant maze of millet. I guess the one good thing about the tall fields is that it provided at least a little bit of shade.
One look back and the small housing complex had almost disappeared into the fields. It would be neat to visit later in the dry season once the fields have been burned. I’m sure I’d have a much better appreciation for the number of houses in a village! The baobab trees were the only thing standing higher than the millet.
There’s always a bonus adventure!
Our adventure didn’t end after touring the tata somba houses. We hopped back into the hot car for the approximately 2 hour drive back to Natitingou, and half way there we ran out of gas! Isaac (our guide) had asked the driver before we left it we’d have enough gas and he assured us we would be fine. Apparently not!
Of course we ended up stopped part way up a hill. Luckily, we were relatively close to one of the larger towns in the area. Our driver promptly jumped out and started walking to the nearby town. We got out, grabbed our bags, and walked up the hill in search of some shade. We had a couple water bottles to keep us hydrated, and found a decent tree with some shade after a very slow 20min walk up the hill.
After waiting for what seemed like forever we saw our driver come walking back down the road with a jerry-can in hand. He filled up the car then came by and picked us up. We dropped the jerry-can off at a side-of-the-road-gas-station and continued on our way.
Isaac shook his head saying “only in Africa”! I figure if this was the worst that happened, we were doing pretty good.
If you’re visiting Benin, you might be interested in reading some of these Interesting Facts. There are a few great pieces of information that will prepare you for your trip or even just give more of a glimpse into what traveling in Benin is like!
Where we stayed
Palais Somba in Natitingou – This was a little ways from the center of town but still very easily accessible. Our room was spacious and it seemed to be cool enough with just a fan. There was a lovely courtyard in the center where we ate breakfast every morning. Although it wasn’t a traditional tata somba, it was still build in this general style.
Where we ate
Tata Touristique Koubetti – lunch was very good with the standard choice of a few different kinds of meat (chicken, guinea fowl or goat) and a carb (rice, pasta or couscous). The couscous was probably the best we had on our whole trip! It was deliciously spiced with diced red and green peppers, so we even got a bit of veggie!
What we did
Toured the tata sombas! This is something where a guide is required as it’s almost impossible to even find the little villages, let alone walk into one and expect to tour someone’s house. Both Jolinaiko and EcoBenin are great organizations that can arrange tours of the tata sombas.
If you’re thinking about visiting the Tata Somba in Benin, pick up these two books as they really do have the best (only!) information for visiting West Africa.
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