The Bassari (A-liyan, Boin, Tenda Boeni) people are agro-pastoral Senegambian Tenda-speaking people of larger Niger-Congo language family living in West African countries of Senegal, Guinea, Guinea Bissau and the Gambia.
Bassari initiated man, Kedougou,, Senegal

Most of the Bassari are concentrated on either side of the Senegal-Guinea border southwest of Kedougou, Kédougou Region. This areas is referred to in French as Pays Bassari.

                             Bassari tribe initiates,Kedougou, Senegal

The Bassari people call themselves "Alian (a-liyan)," a person from Bassari tribe is called "bulian (bi-layan)," and refer to their language as "o-niyan." The designation “Bassari” seems to be of Manding origin. Ferry
(99: 4), citing Tauxier, presented the following etymological tradition for this word. After arriving in the region, the Fula people  asked the Manding who the alian were. The manding answered in their language, “They are lizards [basa].”

                                        Bassari people,Senegal

Currently the Tenda-speaking Bassari`s population is estimated to be about 38,000 with 16,000 people living in Senegal, 15,500 in Guinea, 500 in Guinea Bissau and some small numbers scattered in the Gambia and Mauritania.
Bassari boy,Guinea

The Bassari people of Senegal are located in Southeast, Upper Casamance, Eden area; border areas, Kedougou, Tambacounda (Source: Ethnologue 2010).
Bassari woman and her baby,Guinea. Kaolack

 In senegal, the territory inhabited by the Bassari is administratively classified as the Région de Tambacounda, Département de Kédougou, Arrondissement de Salémata.

                              Bassari settlement,Kédougou,Senegal

Since the late 1950s, the Bassari have been migrating to large cities in Senegal, including Kédougou and Tambacounda. Some Bassari people have lived in these cities for a long time.

 In Guinea, they are located in the Koundara region and around Youkounkoun, extending to the border of Senegal. Bassari in Guinea Bissau are mostly located in the northeast of the country whilst some aggregate portion also resides in the Gambia and Mauritania.
Bassari girl initiates,Sanegal

Bassari people speaks a Tenda language known as Oniyan (Onian, Onëyan, Ayan, Biyan, Wo). It is a Senegambian language which belongs to the larger Niger-Congo language group. Bassari is spoken in Senegal, Guinea, Guinea Bissau and in some parts of the Gambia and Mauritania.
Bassari woman,Guinea

Oniyan                                                English
faba                                                   “father”
numa                                                 “mother”
ashinyuun                                           “my son”
abionun                                              “my daughter”
 abaie                                                 “my sibling”,

The Bassari arrived in their area of occupation between the 11th and 19th centuries, establishing their settlements in the hills. Judging from their name "basa" which means "They are lizards," given to them by Manding people in an answer to Fulani peoples` query, one can clearly make a deduction that the Bassari came to meet these two tribes as well as other Tenda people.

                              Bassari people,Senegal. Circa 1960

Oral history amongst Bassari claim that the Bunang are considered the oldest nung (family). People say that the Bunang own all Bassari land. some also fear the Bunang, who they believe possess supernatural powers.
The bassari settlements on the hills provided defensible vantage points overlooking the plains below, and were made up of groups of circular thatched huts congregated around a central space. The area remains remote and many of the cultural adaptations of the people, including their agro-pastoral, social, ritual, and spiritual practices, persist to this day.
Bassari people,Guinea. circa 1970

Bassari are cultivators! They are agro-pastoralist. they are farmers. They grow a variety of crops, using very basic tools. Their staple crops are millets degaf (Sorghum vulgare), earthpeas (also called Bambara groundnut) uyal (Voandzeia subterranea), peanuts utika (Arachis hypogaea), corn maka (Zea maïs), rice malu (Oryza sativa), fonio millet funyan (Digitaria exilis) and manioc.

 However, squash, melons, sweet potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes are also grown. Major tree crops include bananas, coconuts, mangoes, and papayas. They raise cattle, sheep, and goats but do not use their milk.

Dogs and chickens are seen in almost every village. They also engage in fishing, hunting, and beekeeping, among other activities. Hunting is of less importance than agriculture, but there is considerable gathering of wild fruits and roots, berries, and nuts (kola, shea, and palm).

 Socio-political structure and culture
They live in extended family compounds, each consisting of a cluster of huts usually arranged in a circle around an open space. Often, the entire compound is surrounded by a fence, a hedge, or a wall.
Bassari man

The compounds usually adjoin to form compact villages. In general, the dwellings are round with mud walls and cone-shaped, thatched roofs. However, many local variations exist.

                                       Bassari women initiates

In the community men hunt, fish, clear the land, and tend the cattle. The women do the gathering and help in the agricultural work. Chiefs exercise political authority in the villages. Succession usually passes to the next brother or to the oldest son of the deceased chief's oldest sister.

Circumcision of males is practiced and some female circumcision is also continued. These practices are mainly associated with initiation ceremonies at puberty, and typically involve a period of instruction in an isolated "bush school."

They tolerate premarital sexual freedom for girls and prefer cousins as marriage partners. A bride-price in livestock, commonly pigs, is paid, and often, premarital bride-service is also required. Polygyny (having more than one wife) occurs to only a limited extent. In such cases, however, each wife has her own hut, and the husband spends a fixed period with each on a rotation basis.
Bassari woman washing

Bassari woman and child

 Descent groups
Bassari society is matrilineal, and two words in the Bassari language translate to “matrilineal descent group”: "nung" and "athiran." In Bassari the word nung derives from a word meaning “stem of a busy yam” (Dioscorea praehensilis). According Bassari people, the morphology of the busy yam, which has only one root but many leaves, resembles a nung. The word athiran derives from a word meaning “belly.”
Bassari initiate

Although there may be some regional variation, seven nungs exist in Senegalese Bassari villages: Benjya, Bouban, Bijyar, Bunang, Bangar, Bies, and Biyahanthi. People are automatically affiliated with their mother’s nung after birth, and members of each nung live separately within the Bassari villages. A nung is not an exogamic group. As a group, a nung does not possess any property, such as land, but some nungs do play a specific role in society. In edane, the village chief is selected from the Bijyar men. Onuma, who are
responsible for age-grade activities, are selected from the Bunang men, while the leader of the initiation society is selected from Buban men.
The Bunang are special among the nungs. Although historical evidence is lacking,the Bunang are considered the oldest nung. People say that the Bunang own all Bassari land. some also fear the Bunang, who they believe possess supernatural powers. Non-Bunang people are unwilling to marry a Bunang. People also say that speaking evil of, or initiating a fight with, Bunang people is uncommon. Note that only the Bunang nung
have these characteristics, not the other nungs. in other words, the Bunang are unique among the nungs. Differentiating the other nungs is more difficult because their differences are not so clear. For example, the Bies and the Buban seem different only in name.

                                Bassari initiates,Guinea
Athiran literally means “belly”. unlike nungs, athirans are exogamic groups. Proper names do not exist for specific athirans. when asked to identify the members of his athiran, one man recounted only the names of his mother’s children.

Then asked if his mother’s sister’s children are in his athiran, he said yes. when asked if his mother’s mother’s sister’s daughter’s children are members of his athiran, he responded, “well, they are not members of my athiran. Athiran are people who were born from the same belly. so my mother’s sister’s children are not the members of my athiran, either.” click here for a table:normal/abstracts/pdf/28-1/yamada.pdf

Age-grade system
In Bassari society, men and women who are considered mature enough affiliate with an age-grade (anjex) and receive roles, duties, and prerogatives associated with that age-grade. some age-grades engage in various types of communal labor, which helps those who need assistance, and the laborers later receive payment in sorghum beer or honey-based alcohol. The age-grade members share the drink with other villagers. Both the labor and the drink are called atonbanyawon.

                                       Bassari initiate fights to justify their manhood

The relationships of some age-grades are conceptualized by kin terms (Table 1 identifies male and female age-grades). Men affiliated with the age-grade immediately above one’s age-grade are called faba (father). Men affiliated with the age-grade immediately below one’s age-grade are called ashinyuun (my son). Women affiliated with the age-grade immediately above one’s age-grade are numa (mother), and those in the age-grade immediately below one’s age-grade are abionun (my daughter). people two grades above or below are syatya (. As in kin relations, faba strictly supervise ashinyuun and will punish ashinyuun for committing errors. Numa are less strict than faba, but abionun are expected to respect numa. Syatya relationships are more friendly, indulgent, and at ease. Like real syatya, they can joke with each other.

                                                        Bassari woman

Other terms also represent the relationships of age-grades. Two people affiliated with the same grade call one another banjex. This appellation applies even between men and women. people who have undergone initiation in the same year call each other initya. Two persons who slept on the same bed in the communal hut [ambofor] during their initiation period call each other ingawon. Men call women affiliated to the age-grade immediately above their age-grade inbanira and vise versa. on many occasions, they dance together.
Age-grade relationships are superposed on kin relations. For example, all women who affiliate to one’s mother’s age-grade are called numa, and the children of someone who affiliates to the age-grade immediately below are called syatya.

                                     Bassari initiates
Table 1. Age-grades
Male age-grade                                                                  Female age-grade
                                                                                           buhark (sing: ahark)
                                                                                           odepeka (sing:endepeka)
buhark (sing:ahark)                                                              odoir (sing: endoir)
okotok (sing:ekotok)                                                           odosebkebatya (sing:endsebkebatya)
opidor (sing:epidor)                                                             odebatya (sing:endebatya)
ojyar (sing:enjyar)                                                                odojyar (sing:endjyar)
odug (sing:lug)                                                                      ododug (sing:endodug)
odumuta (sing:lumuta)
odinguta (sing:ringuta)

   A. Odinguta and Odumuta
A boy’s first age-grade is odinguta. when he is considered mature enough, the boy’s elder neighborhood friends invite him to spend the night at the communal hut. gessain wrote that this happens when the boy is about 8 years old (gessain, 97). The odinguta boy is then slapped on his back four times with the palm of a hand. he is also circumcised during the odinguta. After circumcision he enters the odumuta age-grade. To be odumuta, his back has to be slapped by an odumuta boy twice with the palm of a hand and whipped two or more times with a tree branch.
The boys of this age-grade perform a dance called the odumuta in the dry season (Figs. 4 & 5). The night before the egub – one of the communal labors in which one villager engages the laborers to harvest millet in exchange for drink given immediately after the work – the odumuta boys facilitate the harvest by pushing down the millet stems. The sound of their flutes, known as atywloti, can be heard the night before the egub. Although these activities are not considered atonbanyawon, the odumuta must sometimes perform atonbanyawon labor.

After initiation, the age-grade system becomes important for defining individual acts. Clearly, there are some hierarchical differences between odumta and odinguta, but their members are classified as non-initiated boys(7) who do not have much work. After two or three years as odumuta, the boys undergo an initiation ceremony and become adults. To undergo initiation, a boy must be considered mature enough, and then his parents must prepare for his initiation. even if a father thinks that his son is not mature enough or that he cannot afford to prepare for the initiation ceremony, his son or his wife will often force him to have the son undergo the initiation ceremony. if the father still refuses, the son may have to watch someone get circumcised the same day as him, or even after him, in order to undergo initiation.
Bassari man

The mother often takes pity on her son and asks his father to prepare for the initiation. if the father still refuses, a son may seek help from his ayuun or someone else of his “lineage”. About 10 days before the initiation ceremony, those who will be initiated begin to live at the location of the initiation ceremony [angol]. one year, an odumuta boy told me that he would not undergo initiation. i recounted the story to the boy’s elder brother, who explained to me that, “even if you want to undergo initiation, and even if you know that this year you will be initiated, when asked, you may answer negatively. you feel shy [asyuxun] if someone thinks that you hurry to undergo initiation.” yet, in reality, boys are in a hurry to be initiated. (An elderly man blamed this rush by boys and their mothers on the declining difficulty of the initiation, saying that the new initiates are beaten less than before.) one boy wrote a letter to his parents who were living in Tambacounda at the time and asked me to give it to them. in the letter, he expressed a strong desire to be initiated and accused his parents of inaction. They were aware of his wish, he said. some boys are so determined that they manage to undergo initiation without parental permission. After the initiation, the newly minted men enter the odug grade. Although the timing of initiation is said to depend on individual maturity, the relationships among individuals before initiation are also important factors.

  In Edane and most other villages, people change their grade every 6 years. This change is marked by ekapa, in which opalug men are hit by ojyar men two times with a whip made from a branch of an angwara (unidentified) tree. The latest change of grade occurred in october 2003. in egun village, however, people change their grade every 24 years, starting from the third grade after initiation to the fourth. so people belong to the third grade of 6, 2, 8, 24 years, depending on the individual.(0) when i visited egun, almost all of the
men i met belonged to the third grade after initiation [ojyar]. initiation takes place almost every 2 years, and people change grades every 6 years. without other rules, this process might cause problems. someone might only be an odug  year before moving up a grade. To avoid this, someone initiated after the eiyuk dance of the opalug grade – which occurs on the fifth year of a 6-year interval – will be an “initiated odumuta” [odumuta onithinithi] until people change age-grades, instead of entering the odug grade immediately after initiation. Thus, boys initiated in 2002 were odumuta onithinithi until the day of age-grade change in 2003. when everyone moved up a grade, they entered the odug grade.

Clearly, not all people who belong to the same age-grade undergo initiation together. There are two or three “groups of initiation” per age-grade. except for the fact that people who have undergone initiation in the same year can call one another “initya”, no difference exists between members of an age-grade. There is no proper name for people who have undergone initiation in the same year – who may be called an “age-set”. The general term to refer to a group that has undergone initiation in the same year is anutya. however, this word
implies “initiated boys who have not yet formally entered the odug grade.” This group retains no significance after odug.

As mentioned above, odinguta and odumuta have few roles, duties, or prerogatives before initiation. initiation makes a boy a man. having entered the oduggrade, a man is given several roles and must perform many atywuin. Villagers who speak French translate this word as “coutume” (meaning “custom” in English). Nolan (1986: 28) defined atywuin as “a complex cycle of obligatory rituals, ordeals and communal labor tasks”. According to an informant of gessain (97: 6), atywuin is “all things that one is obliged   to do from childhood to old age and that the old have done before you for a long time.” one person i spoke with described it as “something that makes you tired”. Here, the word is defined as “the things that people must do because they belong to an age-grade.” hereafter, I use coutume to mean atywuin. neither circumcision nor initiation is classified as coutume because the accomplishment of these events depends on the maturity of the individual. Basically coutume involve atonbanyawon (communal work). For example, when an age-grade dance is performed, the drink obtained by atonbanyawon is shared.
Table 2 lists the coutume of each age-grade. The following section identifies the age-grade characteristics.
Table 2 coutume of each age group
Male age-grade                                                          female age-grade
Odug                                                                          odoodug
          1) rhanokathie
          2) opinbi
          3) watruxunume

opalug                                                                       odoopalug
          1) ohamana
          2) owda ; there are two types
           a. owdaola and banuma
           b. owdaola and othengushe
          3) lid
          4) bundjyar
          5) shyahis
          6) banin
          7) eiyuk
           8) banin
          9) nywkrend
        10) bingar
         11) ipesyan
        12) ekapa
         13) ekosyu

ojyar                                                                             odojyar

okotok                                                                          odebatya
          1) banbar                                                                           1) indanin                                                                                                                                                     2) andebar
                                                                                                    3) angain
                                                                                                     4) osapar
                                                                                                    5) anewa

opidor                                                                     odosebkebatya
          nothing special                                                                    1) eiyuk

buhark                                                                        odoir
         nothing special                                                                       nothing special

                                                                                                   1) ohamana

                                                                                                   nothing special

B. Odug
one of the most obvious changes after entering the odug grade is the mode of greetings, which changes from simple to complex. Odug are permitted to have sexual relations with women, and in the rainy season odug can take part in ofna or communal labor. Odinguta or odumuta are not allowed to participate in this kind of communal labor in which villagers needing help invite the communal laborers to work for them in exchange for drink. Odug are also permitted to become axore and to dance, attaching leaves of a palmyra palm (Borassus flabellifer) to any part of their body. Axore is a kind of Bassari mask that French-speaking Bassari refer to as “type-contraire” (contrary person).

In Bassari society, some verbal expressions can be used only by initiated men. Odug, for example, can use an expression “yathingiri (serious)” or a cry named etar (see Table 3). Furthermore, odug must help with agricultural labor for the village chief. This labor is called apunan, and the chief does not need to provide drink. Odug men performing axore work on the day of apunan. Because axore workers are considered the children of the village chief, odug who work as axore can eat anything in the chief’s field on the day of apunan. During the apunan in october 2003, the axore ate so much corn that the chief’s wife became angry and yelled at them. This apunan does not seem to count as coutume. when i asked an elderly man what coutume he did as an odug, he answered, apparently forgetting the good deal of coutume he did, that “if atonbanyawon of rhanokathie (see Table 2) has passed, [there is] only atonbanywon of apunan. it is not coutume. it is something to enjoy.” “People have to do apunan for a village chief who has done a lot of things for his village. people do not have to do apunan for a chief who has not done anything, like the current edane chief.” The apunanmentioned above was deliberately planned to coincide with the chief’s corn being well-ripened and ready to eat. In this case, the apunan was not considered coutume.
Every year after the harvest, in December or January, the Bassari hold the ofelar festival. Ofelar literally translates as “say each other”, which to the Bassari means “say goodbye to each other”. The ofelar festival also does not seem to be considered coutume and thus carries no obligation. But it is organized by odug, who share the atonbanyawon work.
The odug grade must accomplish the following coutume:
(1) rhanokathie
This coutume involves the announcement that the grade is “forming a new grade”, giving drink to the elders [buhark], and six atonbanyawon.
(2) opinbi
This is the name of one of the odug dances, and the only occasion in Bassari society in which the xylophone is played (see Table 4). The opinbi dance has not been performed in etyolo or ekes for a long time. Twelve atonbanyawon are conducted to obtain drink that will be distributed on the dance day.
(3) watraxunume
Odug work to get drinks to give to opalug who have completed their shyahis (the “clearing”; see below). Twelve atonbanyawon are conducted.

C. Opalug
Those entering the opalug grade are allowed to attach a bell [ohamana] to their body. During the first month, opalug have to wear a belt made of palmyra palm leaves and the ohamana bell when they leave their homes. Like odug, they can become axore and dance with masks. But they can dance only at the festival organized at the chief’s home. They cannot dance when festivals are organized in other places. in 2000, villagers organized a festival to honor me, but they planned to hold it at my host’s house. Thus, the opalug did not have the right to dance. An opalug proposed that dancing to music from a cassette deck could take place slightly apart from the festival location. That is, my festival could be held in two separate locations. But this proposal was not approved by elders, who maintained that opalug can only dance at the chief’s home.
At the initiation ceremony, opalug dance the okerehe from the second day to the final day (Fig. 6 & Table 4).

During the final 2 years of opalug, ingesting honey is prohibited from september to December. The Bassari believe that an opalug will die if he does not observe this prohibition. Then one day in December, opalug men take drink to the home of the eldest man in the village.(5) in his yard, a makeshift chair made of bamboo is erected, and every opalug sits on it. The eldest man drinks water with honey before squirting it in the face of the opalug men and making them drink it. The honey prohibition is thus removed. Then, the drink brought
by the opalug is shared by those in attendance. This process is called ambisya.

                                        Bassari female initiates
Table 4
Dance                                                                       age-grade  accorded
odumuta                                                                      odumuta
opinbi                                                                           odug
okerehe                                                                       opalug
atyumura                                                                      ojyar/odebatya
epeka                                                                           odepeka

                           Bassari men preparing for initiation

Opalug must accomplish the follows coutume:
(1) ohamana
To obtain permission to attach the ohamana (bell) to the body, opalug perform six atonbanyawon.
(2) owda
There are two kinds of owda:
(a) owdaola or banuma
Atonbanyawon is conducted to give drinks to the onuma. (who are reponsible for age-grade activities)
(b) owdaola or othengushe
Atonbanyawon is conducted to give drinks to each member of the buhark grade.
(3) lid
Six atonbanyawon are conducted each year for 2 years. The drink obtained is taken to the place where the initiation ceremony is held [angol] and given to the elders. Opalug do not have the right to drink this alcohol.
(4) bundojyar
Atonbanyawon is conducted to obtain drinks for distribution during the ojyar dance.
(5) shyahis
This refers to “clearing”. Opalug in edane, ekes, and etyolo go to a clearing located in engisara to dance. As mentioned above, the odug must do the watraxunume coutume after the shyahis. if they want to, odug men can reach opalug grade by participating in the shyahis. This is a kind of “grade-skipping”
However, no one in edane did this. one man wanted to, but the opalug men refused. when asked for a reason, one opalug man said, “he had not accomplished a lot of coutume”, while another said, “he was still a child.” In contrast, in etywunungol, about 45 km west of edane, i found that many boys
“grade-skipped” after participating in the shyahis.

(6) banin
As part of the shyahis, opalug go to Engisara playing flutes [atywloti] and bells called the banin. They perform atonbanyawon to pay the “usage charge” for this banin.
(7) eiyuk
Opalug in four villages (edane, ekes, eganga, and epenge) work together during the year. They perform a dance called the eiyuk on the day the drink they obtained is distributed.

(8) banin
six atonbanyawon are conducted to pay a “usage charge” for the banin bells used at the eiyuk dance.
(9) nywkrendAtonbanyawon is conducted and the drink received is distributed between edane and ekes. on this day, they decide when to hold bingar.
(10) bingar
The oplaug in edane and ekes perform atonbanyawon, first at the homes of onuma (who are responsible for age-grade activities). The onuma do not need
to provide drink in exchange for the opalug’s work. Then, they work for someone needing help for 2 or 4 days. when going to or from an atonbanyawon, they must avoid meeting any odug. if they meet, the opalug have to insult odug. When asked about the significance of this act, one opalug man said, “we found it like this [ako suk kumi]”, meaning that this custom had already existed when he was born, and thus he did not know its significance. Ojyar dance on the day drink is distributed. Opalug go to a place called the yare to study the
dance performed on the ekapa day. in the past, it appears that opalug used to be hit with whips on the day of the bingar.
D. Ojyar
For the ojyar, there are no atonbanyowon defined by coutume. However, ojyar assume many roles, including washing and burying the dead, announcing information to the villagers, and distributing drink (Fig. 7). They also have the right to perform the atywumura dance. They will no longer become axore (contrary person) by attaching leaves of the palmyra palm at the chief’s home. instead, they assume new tasks, such as taking care of new initiates as odubutya, another kind of axore.
On the day of ofna (communal labor), an ojyar can participate in the distribution of drink even if he has done no work during the day. Ojyar are expected to carry a cup. when i was an ojyar and without a cup, i was gently teased: “why don’t you have a cup even though you are ojyar?!” Villagers explain the cup carrying by saying that ojyar are too old to drink the distributed beverages in one gulp. Taking a cup to the place where the drink will be shared used to be a perk allowed only for ojyar and above, but now even odug and opalug take a cup. moreover, ojyar are supposed to be married, and so they are allowed to bring a container (called akaons, or in French, bidon [flask]) to take drink back home.
E. Okotok
Okotok may derive from the verb axot, which means “to finish”. That is, they have finished all of the coutume and have no atonbanyawon defined by coutume. But they have to act as banbar, a kind of axore, at the initiation ceremony.
F. Opidor
Except for assuming a role during drink distribution,(8) opidor have no special roles or duties.
G. Buhark
People who finish opidor can be called anywparang (pl. enywparang) for the first 6 years. But, except for the name, there is no difference between anywparang and the other buhark. After opidor, all men are collectively called buhark. They have finished all the tasks.

B’ Odoodug
Women also enter the age-grade system. when considered mature enough, a girl’s neighborhood friends invite her to pass the night at communal hut. she thus enters the odoodug grade. But for the first part of the 6 years, the girls are not actual odoodug because they are only children 3 to 4 years of age. Upon reaching 6 or 7 years old, they begin to sleep at the communal hut.
C’ Odoopalug
When the ekapa coutume, which marks the change of age-grades, is performed, odoodug become odoopalug. etymologically, Odopalug might mean “for opalug”, and the girls in this grade do atonbanyawon communal labor with their banjex (i.e., opalug boys). They dance with one of the Bassari masks called the odinir and can take  part in ofna (communal labor). And almost all girls undergo excision, ohathi, while in this grade.
D’ Odojyar
There is no noticeable difference between odoopalug and odojyar. Although their banjex (ojyar men) are relieved from atonbanyawon, they help with the atonbanyawon of the opalug. while in this grade, some girls may have their first child.

E’ Odebatya
Almost all women get married during this period. Odebatya women can vocalize the ebatya cry (see Table 3). Odebatya means “for ebatya”; that is, “those who can cry ebatya.” During the second year, the women undergo the indaninceremony in the rainy season. only women know exactly what happens during this ceremony. Elderly women take the participants to mbon for secret activities, including activities with the women’s babies. This suggests that women are expected to bear children prior to participating in the indanin.
After the indanin, they can pronounce the eiei and etyokan cries. These cries are used to “cheer masks up”. After indanin, they can also dance the atywumura dance (see Table 4).
Odebatya must accomplish the following coutume:
(1) indanin
The odebatya complete 28 atonbanyawon to obtain drinks for the indanin ceremony. in etyolo, the indanin seems to be called the dyanelimo.
(2) andebar
The odebatya in edane and ekes perform the andebar, for which they do six atonbanyawon in the first year, five in the second year, four in the third year, and so on until last atonbanyawon in the sixth year.
(3) angain
For the angain, the odepeka perform the epeka dance for the first time. Drink distributed on this day is obtained by the odebatya’s atonbanyawon.
(4) osapar
This word may mean “foot”. Odebatya give drinks obtained by atonbanyawon to the women who took them to mbon for the indanin.
F’ Odosebkebatya
This word may etymologically mean “those who stop crying ebatya”. For the odosebkebatya, participants are allowed to dance the eiyuk. however, in edane, the last two age-grades have not danced the eiyuk. This custom might be disappearing.
G’ Odoir
Women in this grade can take a container to ofna (communal labor).
H’ Odepeka
Like ojyar men, women in this grade assume many roles. They wash the bodies of dead women, announce information to villagers, and distribute drinks obtained by the atonbanyawon of female age-grades, among other responsibilities.
If the odebatya complete the indanin ceremony, the odepeka can then dance the epeka dance. They are prohibited from speaking and smiling when they are dancing the epeka (Fig. 8). They dance with one Bassari mask called an olukuta.
The odepeka must accomplish the ohamana coutume, described below.
(1) ohamana
The odepeka do six atonbanyawon as a “usage charge” for the ohanana, which takes place when they dance the epeka.
I’ Buhark
After odepeka, women can be called odosebpeka for 6 years. This term literally translates as “those who stop dancing epeka.” But, except for the name, there is no difference between them and other buhark. Buhark can be translated as “the old” and refers to those who have finished all their tasks.
Whereas the names odoodug, odoopalug, and odojyar derive from the names of male age-grades, the names given to the age-grade from the odebatya grade onward derive from the characteristics of each age-grade. Further, from the odebatya grade onward, there are special coutume for female age-grades. These factors suggest that women effectively enter the age-grade system from the odebatya grade.
Once again, circumcision, excision, child birth, marriage, and initiation are not considered criteria for the coutume categories. These activities depend on the perceived level of individual maturity. Thus, these activities may have a different origin from the age-grade system and may have been introduced into Bassari society at a different time than the age-grade system. Likewise, because the 6-year-interval system varies across regions, this system may also have been introduced into Bassari society at a different time from (perhaps after) the age-grade system itself.
Bassari woman initiate

Function of the Age-Grade System
when asked why the age-grade system exists, one opalug man answered, “To respect each other.” he then continued, “if it were not for the age-grade system, people would behave as they want and would not think about the others. As we have the age-grade system, we can learn from the elders what to do for each coutume and how to live. The age-grade is something like a school.” Hawthorne (998) called the age-grade system a “cross-cutting institution” and noted that the age-grade system links people across the divides of descent groups. This “cross-cutting” explanation seems to mesh with that explanation by the opalug man (i.e., “if it were not for the age-grade system, people would behave as they want and would not think about the others”).

                                       Bassari iniates dancers
The age-grade system indeed does seem to link people across the divides of descent groups. A discussion I observed in october 2003 in edane highlights the functions of the age-grade system. This discussion took place among members of the ojyar grade on the day of distribution of the atonbanyawon drink obtained through opalug work. The drink was obtained for the bingar (see Table 2).
Case I
Villagers say that on the day of the bingar as well as the ekapa, ojyarmen used to whip opalug men, but now they have changed the system. now, instead of whipping opalug men, the ojyar force them to do atonbanyawon work to get and distribute drink. They told the opalug to do eight atonbanyawon – that is, to get eight pots of drink. The opalugbrought eight pots to the place where the drink would be distributed, but
the size of the pots was smaller than expected. when the current ojyarwere opalug, those enlisting the help of the opalug grade had to compensate them with drink in a medium-sized pot called a bandobeti (goat’s).
But since the current opalug entered this grade, people have to give drink in a big pot called a bandohei (cow’s). To obtain drink for this binger,some opalug men had to prepare the drink themselves. They brought the drink in goat’s pots, which prompted criticism. The opalug men defended themselves, saying that Gafita, one of the ojyar, told them to prepare the drink in goat’spots. The ojyar discussion consequently focused on what exactly Gafita told them to do. The discussion started when Gafita was asked to explain what he had done. Gafita responded “I haven’t done anything” and started to explain exactly what happened. one day, gajyopa, who was in the opalug grade, spent the night at the hut of Gafita’s wife’s classificatory daughter in Gafita’s compound. In the morning, Gajyopa met Gafita in the yard and asked him which pot should be used for the bingar (see Table 2). “Terume (another opalug boy) says that they are preparing the drink in a goat’s pot. But don’t we have to prepare the drink in cow’s pot?” Gafita responded:
"i do not know well. we used to prepared the drink in goat’s pots before.
But it’s you who wanted to change the systems. For your banin (Table
2), people prepared the drink in a cow’s pot. itam was criticized harshly
because he had prepared it in a goat’s pot. Watraxunume (Table 2) for
you as well it was in a cow’s pot that people prepared the drink. This
time you must also prepare in a cow’s pot. But if the others prepare it
in a goat’s pot you had better follow the others. go and check in which
pot they are going to prepare the drink."

Then Gajyopa left. Until the day described in this case study, Gafita did not know about the problem. But when he arrived, he learned that others had been saying that he had ordered the opalug men to prepare the drink in a goat’s pot.
After listening to Gafita’s explanation, two ojyar men delivered opposing views. One was Gajyopa’s classificatory brother. He criticized Gafita for citing the words of Gajyopa’s mother, or his classificatory mother. According to him, Gajyopa’s mother said that Gafita had told the opalug men to prepare the drink
in a goat’s pot. The other speaker had a brother in opalug grade. he criticized Gafita for citing the words of one opalug man. when the atonbanyawon was held for his brother in the opalug grade, he heard one opalug man say that Gafita had ordered that the drink be prepared in a goat’s pot. So his brother prepared it in a goat’s pot. Both of these two ojyar men criticized Gafita for speaking for one of the members of their “lineages” or athiran. Therefore, difference in “lineage” or athirans created opposition between members of the same age-grade in this case.

One man changed the direction of this discussion des sourds (discussion between deaf people). he had been initiated earlier than the other members and was considered (or at least conducted himself as) a leader. he said:
"They [opalug men] tell a lie. Gafita may have said, “We prepared
it in goat’s pots”, but he had just shown an example. he didn’t tell
them to prepare it in a goat’s pot. For the current opalug’s banin and
watraxunume, people prepared some drink in a cow’s pot. They just
wanted to blame it on Gafita to avoid responsibility.
They used to prepare the drink in a cow’s pot. why do they not know
 only this time in which pot to prepare the drink?
It is not Gafita who is wrong. It’s opalug who prepared the drink in
a goat’s pot only this time. it is their problem, not ours. All we do is to
get our share. From the next distribution of drink they will receive what
new opalug obtain. But because they prepared it in a goat’s pot this
time, new oplug will prepare it in a goat’s pot and so on down the line.
it means that they will not be able to receive much drink. Anyway it is
not our problem."
His words resolved the confrontation between Gafita and the two men speaking for members of their “lineage” or athiran. instead, he made a new confrontation between two age-grades – the ojyar and opalug. This case suggests that the age-grade system functions to resolve confrontations between “lineages” or

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Map showing the location of Salemata, Bandafassi and Dindefflo areas of the Bassari Country UNESCO world heritage site, Senegal
Website CategoryTraditional Cultural Landscapes  
Area: approx 503 km2
Inscribed: 2012
Criteria: (iii) cultural tradition (v) interaction with the environment  (vi) association with belief system
Location and Values:  Bassari Country is located in the south-western corner of Senegal, between Niokolo-Koba National Park (world heritage site) and the Guinean border, lying to the west of Kedougou town.  It occupies dry deciduous woodland in the northern foothills of the Fouta Djallon massif, close to the headwaters of the Gambia River.
Bassari initiation mask
Designated as a cultural landscape, the site reflects the different ways three culturally-distinct groups of people have adapted to their natural environment. Each of these groups – the Bassari, Fula and Bedik peoples – arrived in the area at different times between the 11th and 19thcenturies, establishing their settlements in the hills.  These settlements provided defensible vantage points overlooking the plains below, and were made up of groups of circular thatched huts congregated around a central space.  The area remains remote and many of the cultural adaptations of the people, including their agro-pastoral, social, ritual and spiritual practices persist to this day.  The pattern of settlement has changed however, with many of the ancient villages used only periodically for ritual ceremonies and festivals

The world heritage site comprises three geographically separate localities, each of which is populated principally by people of a specific tribe (although today there is considerable inter-mixing of peoples).  The centre of the first such area, Bandafassi lies about 20 km west of Kedougou town and is mainly occupied by Bedik people, with dense groups of huts and steep thatched roofs.  About 50 km further west is the Salemata area, inhabited mainly by Bassari people whose agro-pastoral landscape is characterised by terraces and rice paddies.   The third area, Dindefflo lies against the Guinean border about 20 km south of Bandafassi, and is mainly a Fula-populated area.
Slideshow of Bassari Country:   The slideshow starts with a view of the Bedik village of Ethiowar and then shows three satellite images of the Salemata area from Google Earth, illustrating the layout of Bassari settlements amongst the typical vegetation and topography of the area. 
 The next few photos show the different types of traditional houses, with examples of Bedik, Fula and Bassari-style dwellings, then some tradional masked dances, as well as some caves and waterfalls at Dindefflo and Afia. 
 Additional landscapes are shown, before finishing the slideshow with a series of further satellite images from the Salemata area, two satellite images of Bandafassi Peul (the largest village) and a hazy view of the Dindefflo area (centred on the location of the Dindefflo waterfalls).  Thanks to Sebastien Moriset, Mamadou Seya Ndiaye and Google Earth for contributing this illuminating series of photos
Google Earth View:  To view satellite imagery of Bassari Country on Google Earth, click here.  This opens a new window, so when you are finished, just close the Google Earth page and you will be straight back here to continue browsing.  The window opens onto a good image of the village of Bandafassi Peul, at the eastern end of the Bandafassi component of the site. Unfortunately most of the images of this area and the whole of the Dindefflo area are lacking definition, making it difficult to distinguish individual homesteads and the arrangement of settlements.  Better images of the Salemata area can be seen (as shown in the slideshow above).

Bassari Country: Bassari, Fula and Bedik Cultural Landscapes

Brief Description

The site, located in south-east Senegal, includes three geographical areas: the Bassari–Salémata area, the Bedik–Bandafassi area and the Fula–Dindéfello area, each with its specific morphological traits. The Bassari, Fula and Bedik peoples settled from the 11th to the 19thcenturies and developed specific cultures and habitats symbiotic with their surrounding natural environment. The Bassari landscape is marked by terraces and rice paddies, interspersed with villages, hamlets and archaeological sites. The Bedik villages are formed by dense groups of huts with steep thatched roofs. Their inhabitants’ cultural expressions are characterized by original traits of agro-pastoral, social, ritual and spiritual practices, which represent an original response to environmental constraints and human pressures. The site is a well-preserved multicultural landscape housing original and still vibrant local cultures

Outstanding Universal Value

Brief synthesis
The cultural landscape of Bassari is located in south-eastern Senegal, close to the Mali and Guinean borders, in a hilly territory, formed by the northern foothills of the Fouta Djallon Massif. Two distinct geographic environments feature the region: the alluvial plain and the peneplain to the north and the mountains to the south. 
The former exhibit a mosaic of cultivated patches, pastures, bushes, the latter, relatively high and sheer, are dotted with several natural caves and have offered an environment particularly advantageous for the establishment of different cultural clusters and their defence. Archaeological evidences of early human occupation abound in the area. The property comprises three different geo-cultural areas: the Bassari – Salémata, the Bedik – Bandafassi and the Fula – Dindéfello areas, each exhibiting specific morphological and cultural traits. In this barely accessible region, but rich in natural resources and biodiversity, the Bassari, Fula and Bedik peoples settled and developed specific cultures, symbiotic with the surrounding natural environment. 
Until the last century, inhabited villages were grouped and located on rises, so as to control the plains, and consisted of round thatched huts congregated around a central space. Today dispersion and impermanence are the main traits of the Bassari settlements, the populations choosing to live close to the fields. Ancient villages are nowadays used only periodically for ritual ceremonies or festivals.
The property and its associated cultural expressions bear outstanding witness to the cultural specificity and interaction between the Bassari/Beliyan, Bedik, and Fula people in agro-pastoral, social, ritual and spiritual practices, and represent an outstanding, original response to natural environmental constraints and anthropic pressures, so as to use wisely the limited resources of the area.
                                 Bassari cave,Senegal
Criterion (iii): The physical layout of the Bassari Cultural landscape bears an exceptional witness to the complex interactions among environmental factors, land-use practices, social rules, beliefs that altogether have concurred to shape a peculiar and remarkably preserved cultural landscape that outstandingly reflects the ability of make a respectful and sustainable use of the resources of the region.
                          Dindifelo waterfall,Bassari county
Criterion (v): The Bassari cultural landscape bears witness to peculiar uses of the land, including crop rotation and manuring, communal sowing, weeding and harvesting and commuting practices imposed by traditional agricultural systems and by the relative scarcity of resources, thus representing an outstanding example of human interaction with a vulnerable environment.
Criterion (vi): The Pays Bassari as well as the sacred dimension that Bassari, Fula and Bedik people attach to it bear exceptional, tangible witness to the intertwined complex of practices, social rules, rites and beliefs that have helped the Bassari regulate the interaction between men and their living environment and have produced a cultural landscape shaped by and imbued with cultural traditions and spiritual meanings that persist in a lively dynamic of transmission.
The serial property includes all elements necessary to make manifest its proposed Outstanding Universal Value. Each area contributes to make evident and to reinforce the value of the whole system and the profound cultural connections between humans and nature. Their individual and overall sizes are also convenient to represent adequately the cultural features and processes conveying the Outstanding Universal Value of the property. In the long term, the sustenance of the integrity of the property needs that measures be set up to safeguard the Bassari culture from the disrupting impact of an excessive exposure to alien cultural models.
The landscapes and their land-use and settlement pattern, along with the traditional architecture, the sacred forests, and the sanctuaries bear credible witness to a complex socio-economic cultural system in which peculiar agricultural and social practices, rituals, beliefs and traditional education have contributed to make possible and durable the human settlement through the respectful and sustainable use of the scarce resources of the region.
Protection and management requirements
The Bassari cultural landscape is covered by specific layers of formal protection according to the law in force. Forms of traditional protection and management continue to be implemented, complemented by the action of several national and local institutional bodies and NGOs. 
Overall the combination of legal, institutional and traditional protective measures is adequate to ensure the safeguard of the Outstanding Universal Value of the property. However its sustenance in the long term requires a strong coordination among all authorities, organisations and communities responsible at different levels for the protection and management of the Bassari region within a comprehensive management strategy that need to integrate all plans, measures and projects into one management system/plan.
 The joint management authority must be confirmed in its structures as well as in its means. Specific attention must also be paid to the control of economic development projects in the region, tourism within the property and potential mining or forestry projects in buffer zones. A strategy for the conservation of the property and its attributes must be attached to the Management Plan.
Bassari woman fetching water,Senegal


  1. Your photos are INCREDIBLE! We take our overland trips through some of these areas on our Dakar to Freetown trip and have had the privelege of seeing some of these great landscapes and cultural events. Thanks for sharing your photos excellent work!


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