Tata Somba, Batammaliba Architecture at its Height

Kuiye, the Batammaliba sun and Creator god, is the ultimate architect, having not only built an enormously tall, multilevel Tata Somba — fortified house — in the “sun village” in the western sky, but also on the very earth, out of a piece of iron.

The Batammaliba, whose name means “those who are the real architects of the earth”​3,4​, strive to follow Kuiye’s example and shape their two-story mudbrick dwellings in the image of, and as temples to, this deity.

Photography of the front of a Batammaliba Tata Somba or Takyenta house, showing architectural features such as a decorated entrance facade, two granaries, and lisenpo mounds in front of it.
The fortified Batammaliba houses have often been compared to miniature castles. Photography: Landy2Go.

Fortified Batammaliba Architecture

One popular myth says that the distance between Batammaliba houses is determined by the shooting of an arrow. This has no basis in fact, but the houses are built far enough apart to guarantee some degree of independence and self-sufficiency.​3​

The value of independence is paramount in Batammaliba society. Historically, this group fled its original homeland — thought to be in the southeastern region of present-day Burkina Faso — and, in their new land in the north of Togo and Benin, continued their struggles against the hegemony of the once-powerful Bariba state, as well as French colonization.​2–4​

This is perhaps partly why the Batammaliba house, or Takyenta, is built as a veritable fortress, or Tata​*​, as this type of fortified structure is called throughout West Africa. It can be quickly barricaded in times of trouble, protecting the family, their livestock and their grain. The patriarch and protector of the family can easily peer out of the many small holes in the walls without being seen, and, if need be, can shoot arrows or poke his lance at his enemies, whether humans or dangerous animals, outside.​3,4​

The Batammaliba Architect

An architect, or otammali — a word which is also used as the demonym of this people —, is one of the most revered and well-remembered members of Batammaliba society. Upon the death of an elder architect, his children perform a ceremony, kneeling on his grave, to ensure his talents are passed down. The men inherit the talent for building, while the women inherit the knowledge of plastering walls and floors.​3​

Inherited talent notwithstanding, every architect starts off as an apprentice working on smaller projects such as a house’s joining walls or additional small structures on the property without compensation, to learn the highly specialized skill. Once an apprentice has completed a Tata Somba on his own, he becomes a full architect, although the commission he will earn for subsequent projects will be turned over to the elders of his family because he isn’t yet considered mature in his craft. For that, he will have to complete ten or more structures, for which he gains the highly respected title of otammalimwa, “master architect”, or okoti, “elder”. As a master architect, he will be invited to local house foundation rites to critique and approve the design of any new takyenta.​3​

Because no house can be erected without the approval of the village’s master architects, each Tata Somba must conform to traditional architectural forms and techniques. Architects do, however, have some creative freedom in their building styles and always sign their work, so that people can identify the specific architect of each building.​3​

Constructing a Batammaliba Tata Somba

Just as Kuiye plants a picket at the beginning of every human life, the Batammaliba sometimes plant one at the site of a prospective building place. If it falls within a certain time-frame, as Kuiye’s pickets are thought to do upon a person’s death, the land is deemed unsuitable for construction.​3​

Of course, that precaution is only necessary when building on previously unoccupied land. Ideally, a construction site should be located in a former human dwelling place, since the ground there is not only richer because of human activity, but it has already been purified of malevolent supernatural forces that would cause illness and misfortune. It is especially important to rebuild very ancient Tata Sombas, such as those of the village founders, on the same landmark site.​3​

Construction typically takes place in the mornings and late afternoons during the hot dry period between December and February. The architect not only plans and designs a Tata Somba, he is the primary active participant in the building process, assisted by the family who commissioned his skills. The house owners gather materials — clay, sand, timber, stones, millet straw, etc. — and the large amount of water needed throughout the building process, but only the architect and his apprentices can place the earth, layer by layer, on the foundations, floors and walls.​1,3​

Throughout the construction process, several ceremonies take place to mark various milestones, not only to ensure a successful, accident-free construction and the enduring well-being of the house and its future occupants, but also to honor the gods, the ancestors, and the architect. The Earth priest sanctifies the foundations with symbolic herbs and clay. The architect invokes his ancestor’s blessing at the creation of the entryway and the raising of the first walls. When the ground floor is finished, the architect signs one of the walls, and later, once the most perilous and difficult of the construction phases, the terrace, is complete, the first fire is brought to the Tata Somba. Finally, upon completion of the rooms on the terrace, cowrie shells are tossed to determine if the house will be problem-free. Only then is the house’s soul enclosed in the all-important tabote hole in the center of the terrace. Now that the architect’s work is done, a feast is thrown for him and his family, and his final payment is presented.​3​

The Tata Somba as Temple for the Gods

The takyenta or Tata Somba is far from a simple, practical building. It is a reflection of Batammaliba cosmology, religion, philosophy and way of life.

All Batammaliba houses are oriented so that their entrances face west, away from the eastern winds that batter the sometimes torrential rains against that side of the building, and towards their ancestral enemies so as to see attacks coming.​1​ This very practical orientation is complemented and reinforced by spiritual reasoning: the sky village where Kuiye, the solar deity, lives is thought to be in the western sky and, as the sun descends in the evening, Kuiye’s rays are welcomed into the home. Every evening, the shrines of the ancestors in the back of the lower chamber are naturally illuminated, a direct contact which allows the spirits of the forbearers to speak to the Creator and intercede on behalf of their families.​3​

Photography of the interior of a Batammaliba Tata Somba or Takyenta house, showing the ancestral shrines and architectural beams.
Illuminated ancestor shrines. Photography: Landy2Go.

Kuiye is also said to resemble a human, with one major anatomical singularity: Kuiye is imagined to be split in half, with a male left side and a female right side. The Batammaliba Tata Sombas are similarly divided down the middle into a southern male half and a northern female half.​3​

Although Kuiye is perhaps the most important and powerful Batammaliba deity, other gods are also represented and venerated in the house’s very structure.

The second most important of all deities is Kuiye’s wife, Butan, the goddess of the earth and underworld. She is strongly represented in the architecture of the Tata Somba of the village’s founder, who originally asked for her permission to settle on her land. As the earth is conceptualized as circular, her sign is the circle and each house incorporates a circular yard in her honor, which always has the richest soil due to constant fertilization by domestic animals. In addition, the lower level of the takyenta, enclosed and sheltering, represents Butan’s underworld realm.​3​

Diagram of a Batammaliba Tata Somba or takyenta house. Each level in the architecture is equated with a cosmological realm: the lower part is the underworld, the terrace is the earth and the granaries are the sky.
The house divided into cosmological sections. Source: Suzanne Preston Blier, The Anatomy of Architecture.

Because the union of Kuiye and Butan is so important, many of the architectural features of Batammaliba houses honor both of them simultaneously. The two horns above the front door can be perceived as stretching upwards toward the sun and Kuiye’s sky-village, as well as downwards towards the earth and Butan’s yard. Drawing strength and support from both gods, women giving birth position themselves in the lower chamber, underneath the tabote hole in the terrace that is covered by a large circular stone representing Butan, and facing west towards the entrance and towards Kuiye. Deceased elders are positioned in the exact same way, addressing both deities, since it is Kuiye who determines when one’s life will end and Butan who provides a new home in the underworld for the departed.​3​

The celestial dwelling place of another deity, “the rich man above”, Oyinkakwata, the master of thunder, lightning and storms, is thought to be accessible by climbing a notched, forked rainbow. Likewise, the highest points of the house, the granaries, are also accessible by means of forked ladders. Certain Tata Sombas emphasize the worship of Oyinkakwata with additional shrines in his honor, especially those of his priests, or of people whose old houses were unfortunate enough to have been struck by lightning.​3​

Photography of the terrace of a Batammaliba Tata Somba or Takyenta house, showing the granaries that are accessed via a forked ladder, as well as the tabote house hole covered with a stone.
In the center of the Tata Somba terrace is a tabote hole covered with a circular stone, representing Butan. The granaries are accessed with forked ladders representing Oyinkakwata. Photography: Landy2Go.

Nooks and shrines are also incorporated into the house structure for other smaller gods and spirits, who require their worshippers to be initiated into their respective cults.

Fawafa, the male initiation goddess, was carried to the new village at its founding, which is why the founding house serves as her main temple and displays the clearest architectural sign of her presence: a third horn incorporated into the facade above the door underscores her role as intermediary between Kuiye and Butan.​3​

The keen observer might notice two small, subtle holes carved into the female granary wall on certain Tata Sombas. This is how Fakunfita, the female initiation deity, makes her way into the support chamber beyond, where a shrine is kept for her to rest.​3​

One who worships the dangerous god of warfare and death, Fayenfe, — usually people who come into close or frequent contact with death such as tomb diggers, warriors and healers — confines him in a sealed nook in the male granary to keep his destructive power in check. On the outside male joining wall, a protective series of parallel ribbed lines suggesting a barrier marks his presence in the house and prevents death from entering.​3​

 Litakon, the god of fertility and twins, is welcomed primarily on the terrace level where the women sleep, children are conceived, and grain is kept. A ring of clay modeled on the outside of the male granary is a sure sign of this god’s presence in the home.​3​

The Tata Sombas of geomancers where Kupon, the god of knowledge and divination, resides are indicated by a series of horizontal bars or steps that extend upwards between the two horns above the entryway, which represent the ability of this mediator-deity to move between the different realms of the cosmos.​3​

The Tata Somba as Keeper of Souls

Just outside of the house’s entrance, several earthen mounds are constructed. The ones on either side of the doorway are resting places for supernatural or ancestral spirits, but the ones directly facing the door hold the individual souls of each living resident.​3​

These mounds, called lisenpo mounds, are constructed as miniature houses, hollow and built on a foundation much the same as the Tata Somba itself. Each time a child is born into the family, a new mound is constructed, small at first, and continually rebuilt with every milestone in that child’s life and eventually destroyed upon his or her death.​3​

Black and white sketch of a Tata Somba in Boukoumbé in Benin, in front of which many lisenpo mounds are erected.
Postcard sketch of a Tata Somba and its lisenpo mounds in Boukoumbé, Benin. Source: Tilo Grätz.

In Batammaliba thought, a person’s soul is born with that person, with the mission to follow and watch over him or her throughout their life. When a person suffers from psychological troubles with symptoms like excessive dreams and weight loss, it is thought that the soul is no longer in alignment with the body, but is off living an independent life.​3​

The physical alignment of the lisenpo mounds, where the souls of the inhabitants rest, is therefore of utmost importance, so that the soul does not stray from the body. The mounds are never far from the house entrance and the small holes pierced into their sides as entryways face the house (east) rather than the west, as the house itself does, in order for the souls to have a good view of the inhabitants and to watch over them.​3​

The Human House

A recently completed house is compared to a newborn baby. Like the baby, the new Tata Somba must be bathed in fruit and oil solutions so that its “skin” can become thick and resistant. The decorations Batammaliba women trace in the wet plaster resemble the scarification marks on their own bodies:​3​

“After the house has been born, the time arrives for it to have its cicatrization. Houses should also enjoy their youth and beauty. That is why one puts the beauty of women on them. We incorporate the beauty of women into the house to show what women do. One imitates these women in showing that the house is a person.”

— N’tcha Lalie of the village of Lissani

With good fortune and proper care, houses, like humans, can expect to live for “more than 56 years”. When it is old and brittle, the Tata Somba dies to give birth to a successor made with parts of the old one.​3​

From the day of its “birth”, the house functions as an additional member of the owner’s family. In order to ensure that the Tata Somba will know its friends and give them protection in times of danger, a visitor must greet a person’s house by peering inside and offering a salutation to the Tata’s mouth even before he or she acknowledges the house occupants who may be out in the yard. People occasionally share their drinks with the Tata Somba just as they would with a friend, by spilling half of it in the doorway’s mouth. Food spilled on the terrace during family meals nourishes the house.​3​

Diagram of a Batammaliba Tata Somba or takyenta house with human body parts represented in its architecture.
Diagram of a Tata Somba’s body parts. Source: Suzanne Preston Blier, The Anatomy of Architecture.

The personification of the house is reinforced with architectural features reminiscent of the clothing humans wear: the molding undulating at its base recall the traditional fiber cord wrapped around the waists of women and the equivalent thin leather belt men used to wear. The protective straw granary caps suggest the straw hats that young men wear to go to initiation duels or war combat. The horns above the doorway recall the horned headdress worn in the initiation rites of both men and women.​3​

During the elaborate funerals of Batammaliba elders, the house is “clothed” in the fashion of a youth during the initiation ceremonies, to recall the deceased at the peak of his or her vitality. Colorful cloths are hung over the walls in the same way they are worn over the shoulders of young men and women, with the purpose of veiling them to mark their temporary separation from the community. Similarly, long strings of cowrie shells are wrapped around the house or placed above the door:​3​

“We place the cowries on the house saying that the house is human and that it is dead. When we went to initiation, we wore [cowries], didn’t we? When the elder was still alive, he wore them; and when he dies we do not know how to have him wear them, so we make the house wear them… It is as if the house is dead.”

— Tchamu N’dah of the village of Koufitoukou
Photography of two imposing Tata Sombas, the epitome of Batammaliba architecture. A boy with a horned headdress stands in front of a horned Tata Somba, recalling the house's human features.
Village of Tata Sombas. Photography: Landy2Go

It is perhaps not surprising, considering the Batammaliba house’s central role in the family, not only as a living place, but as a full-fledged family member, that the Batammaliba word for “house”, takyenta, is also the word for “family”.

  1. ​*​
    The Batammaliba houses are often called “Tata Somba”, meaning “Somba fortified structures”. Somba refers a neighboring ethnic group with which the Batammaliba are, some say incorrectly, identified. This article uses the terms “Takyenta” and “Tata Somba” interchangeably to refer to Batammaliba houses.

Sources and Further Reading

  1. 1.
    Adedokun A. Learning from Traditional Architecture: The Example of Somba. Journal of Civil and Environmental Research. 2013;3(13):126-130. https://www.iiste.org/Journals/index.php/CER/article/view/9372.
  2. 2.
    Grätz T. La muséification sur place. cea. 1999:829-843. doi:10.3406/cea.1999.1780.
  3. 3.
    Preston Blier S. The Anatomy of Architecture: Ontology and Metaphor in Batammaliba Architectural Expression. USA: University of Chicago Press; 1994.
  4. 4.
    Teiga MB. Les mille et un secrets des Tata Somba. SlateAfrique. http://www.slateafrique.com/2399/benin-tata-somba-habitat-traditionnel-en-voie-de-disparition. Published June 27, 2011. Accessed July 1, 2019.
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Rob Will
Rob Will
31 August 2019 3:10 pm

What an amazing read. Beautiful architectural style. Thank you for posting this.