Culture


The collective heritage – the shared perceptions, beliefs, behaviors, and interactions – that at once differentiate and unite the peoples of West Africa. Behind the material expressions of culture, (i.e. language, art), lie the more intangible societal values that create and refine these diverse West African identities.

The Mandé Ritual Clown

Photography of the chief korèduga of Mimana in Mali by Jethro Massey. The clown or buffoon is wearing strips of torn cloth and a colorful monkey mask.

“To understand comedy is to understand humanity, for the comic sense is central to what it means to be human”. ― Conrad Hyers, The Spirituality of Comedy, Comic Heroism in a Tragic World Predestined to Provoke Comedians, contrarians, jokesters and tricksters have made their appearance in all human societies, from the more or less secular, bell-capped …

The Zaouli Mask Dance of the Ivory Coast

Photography of a Zaouli mask and dancer.

A homage to feminine beauty, this traditional West African performance art is protected by UNESCO’s Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, 2017 Each Guro village in the Ivory Coast has its prized Zaouli dancer. Although always incarnated by a man, the mask itself represents the beautiful daughter of Zaouli ― …

The Blacksmith

Black and white photograph of a blacksmith axe laying on the ground with cowrie shells as an offering in Sierra Leone.

“When iron is heated in a charcoal fire to white-hot temperatures, skilled African blacksmiths move the metal like clay. Using hammers as an extension of their hands, they can model any shape they desire upon their anvils. With astonishing technical prowess these artists have, for over 2,500 years, created the essential and the conceptual, the …

The Power of a Name

Black and white lithograph of a family sitting, backs turned, on a bench. There are three small children, and four adults. They are facing a woman who is embracing them all. The image is reminiscent of an African naming ceremony, where a child is given a name or several names.

To the Shakespearean question “What’s in a name?”, West Africa’s answer is “Everything”. In a world where even the act of speaking is infused with power, birth names ― whether protective or emboldening, proverbial or predictive, exalted or even seemingly indelicate ― are of the highest traditional significance. So, too, the ceremonies that surround them. …

The Talking Drum

Photograph of a West African talking drum, in the shape of an hourglass with tension strings surrounding its sides and a scarf tied loosely around the top. On top of the drumhead lies the curved percussion stick used to beat the drum.

“The most important of all the drums,” [Ogotemmêli] says, “is the talking drum.  It is the Nommo who made it.” “He threaded it with his fingers, as children do today with string games. Spreading his hands, he passed the thread ten times in each of his four fingers, the thumb not being used. He thus …

The Baobab, Muse and Myth-maker

Aquarelle painting of a Baobab tree in Géraldine Gabin's travel diary. The twisted Baobab is outlined in black ink, only fruits and flowers grow from its leafless branches.

“A majestic tree with a massive trunk, the baobab reigns in nature’s midst like a lion among animals. Its huge, tortured, root-like branches give credence to the belief that, thanks to them, it derives its strength from sky.” ― Sylviane Janin The Baobab, as Muse This icon of the West African savanna ― noble, venerable, …

West African Religion(s)

Top half of a painting in the primitivism style by Nigerian painter, Twins Seven Seven. It depics Shango, a Yoruba orisha, and lesser divinity in West African Religion, surrounded by worshippers during his dedicated festival.

Though a majority of West Africans have now adopted Abrahamic religions such as Islam or Christianity, there are still pockets of people who adhere to the spirituality of their ancestors. Even among those who’ve embraced imported religions, vestiges of their traditional beliefs systems remain manifestly visible in the masked dances, in the festivals and celebrations, …

The Sogo Bò Masquerade

Mask of the god of water, Faro, at the Sogo Bo festival

Nin sogo. Nin sogo tè sogo ye. Nin sogo ye jinè ye. This animal.  This animal is not an animal. This animal is a spirit *Chant of the Malian Masquerade Sogo bò (Bamana – the animals come forth) or Do bò (Bozo – the secret comes forth)  Sogo bò, Through the Eyes of  the Observer “We were in the center of the village and children, …