Hidden in the valleys of the Atakora mountains of northern Togo and Benin, are some of the best examples of traditional African architecture. This area was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2004. The Somba live here, in two different countries, their land having been divided by colonialists.
They live in Tata Sombas, the house of the Somba. These single family fortified mud houses were 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, these fortified houses came in handy to help defend the Somba from attacks from the Ashanti, who were looking for slaves. Benin was known as the Slave Coast due to the large number of slaves shipped from there to the New World during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, from the 17th century.
The house is typically built as a miniature fortress, designed to accommodate shelter, work areas and storage in one home. A number of towers are connected by a wall approximately four meters high. A single door opens onto a dark corridor used to attack invading enemies before they could adjust to the darkness of the interior. The corridor leads to a large room for sheltering livestock at night. Here the ceiling is usually decorated with hunting trophies such as skulls 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 access to the smaller terrace. From here a ladder leads to the main terrace above where a number of small towers are found; some are stores, others bedrooms for the women and children. Gutters drain the rain and the water used to bathe.
The rooms are never in direct communication between each other. Instead, they communicate through the open space on the terrace, the social space, and central living area. The terraces also allows them to see their enemies from afar in preparation of surprise attacks.
An interesting aspect of the Somba architecture is the emphasis on the function of a space in relation to scale. The entry tower, the central hall and the kitchen stairwell are built to the human scale in the standing position, while the sleeping rooms are built to the human scale in the sitting position.
Each Tata Somba is a symbolic representation of the family. The main terrace is the sacred space. Small altars are distributed near the entrance to the rooms. There is an altar for each member of the family. The entrance always faces west, as the Somba believe it to be the direction of life. The houses are divided into masculine and feminine: the spaces towards the north are reserved for women, while men conduct their affairs in the south side of the house. As each house is a symbol of fertility and fecundity, the women of the house honours and decorates it by drawing grooves in the wet mud before it dries, giving it its horizontally ridged appearance, a pattern also found on body and face markings of the Somba people.
When a young man wants to marry he builds his tata. Tradition has it that he starts by throwing an arrow from the main terrace where he lives. The new home will be built where the arrow falls. The area will then be cleansed to rid it from evil spirits before building can start. The materials used are mainly raw materials, which are naturaly found in their environment: 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.
As the Somba become less isolated, small brick houses with metallic roofs are appearing. Some tourists find the way to these remote hills prompting a hotels to be built in the area. Yet, this area is arguably one of the almost unspoilt in the continent.
Featured image: Viajes de Architectura via Flickr