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ETHNONYMS: Minianka, Senari, Senefo, Senna, Senofo, Senufo, Senufu, Siéna, Suppire, Syenambele, Syenamana


Identification and Location. The term "Senoufo" describes twenty-five to thirty or more sub-groups of Gur-speaking peoples inhabiting, for at least two centuries, northern Cote d'Ivoire, southern Mali, and southwest Burkina Faso, in western sub-Saharan Africa.

Demography. Estimates from 1996 placed the Senoufo population at more than 1.27 million people while estimates from 2001 place the population at more than 3 million.

Linguistic Affiliation. "Senoufo" actually may be a Mandingo term, translating roughly into "those who speak Séné or Siéna," which are a number of Gur (Voltaic) languages (estimates range from four to twelve languages) with varying degrees of mutual intelligibility belonging to the Western Sudanic subgroup of the Niger-Congo language family.

History and Cultural Relations

Senoufo history is largely transmitted orally with many different mythological variants of Senoufo origins. Traditional Senoufo society is comprised of animist agriculturalists who seem to have migrated to the area they currently inhabit from the north at least two centuries ago, if not much longer ago. Over the years, the Senoufo have been influenced by external forces. These include local and European slave traders and raiders active in the region from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, Islamization of west Africa, which began as early as the tenth century, the French who colonized and inhabited the region from 1895 through 1960, and the governments of the post-independence modern nation-states of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Cote d'Ivoire.


Senoufo villages are often enclosed settlements built on open land in close proximity, if possible, to a water source and fertile grounds used for agricultural purposes. A typical Senoufo compound is usually a self-contained unit defined by walls, granaries, men's and women's houses, courtyards, altars, log shelters, and divination houses. Most compounds consist of a series of small close huts made out of earthen bricks of sun-dried clay, perhaps mixed with straw or reeds, with thatched roofs. Increasingly, there are compounds of rectangular cement houses with corrugated sheet-iron roofs in more urbanized Senoufo settlements. The traditional thatched hut clay structures are usually round with a conical roof or rectangular with a flat roof; the interior walls are windowless and reinforced with a combination of mud and cow dung. In principle, a household head would provide a hut to each adult member of his household, and several vacant huts would exist in a compound for temporary meetings, for storage of agricultural tools, or as a type of foyer to enter and exit the compound. Thatched huts elevated on three large stones or blocks of dried earth to ventilate and preserve grain, granaries flank the houses or serve as buttresses to reinforce the courtyard walls, giving privacy and creating exterior living space for the families.


Subsistence. Skilled agriculturalists, Senoufo traditionally have been self sufficient, cultivating staples such as millet, sorghum, yams, corn, cassava, and other grains which they eat with a sauce containing locally grown foodstuffs such as peppers, eggplant, okra, and shea butter, a fat obtained from the nuts of the shea tree, native to west Africa. Fruits such as papaya, banana, and lemons and meats, when available, supplement the Senoufo diet. Water is the standard drink; its taste is improved, where necessary, with several lime drops, baobob flour, tamarind pulp, or cola nut. On special occasions, Senoufo drink either a locally produced beer made of millet or corn, or, in some areas, palm wine. To safeguard the quality of the soil, the Senoufo farmer will either leave land fallow for one year out of three (where circumstances permit), rotate crops, or change agricultural plots from time to time. Senoufo farmers generally are also familiar with basic irrigation methods. Under colonization, more modern agricultural technologies, such as plows and tractors, were introduced into various Senoufo-speaking regions with some success; however, the main agricultural tool continues to be the garden hoe, either short- or long-handled. Hoeing contests transform grueling agricultural labor into ritual, as Senoufo males and females compete for the title of champion cultivator, one of the most important ways to gain prestige and reverence within their particular clan. In fact, a champion cultivator may achieve symbolic immortality in that he or she is venerated as an ancestral champion of the clan and is rewarded with the clan's sculptural trophy staff, the equivalent of a coat-of-arms. During cultivating season, teams of cultivators swing hoes to drums and balafon rhythms while proud staff bearers follow the competing champions of each team. More than a statement of being an excellent farmer, hoeing contests celebrate the values of strength, endurance, skill, obedience to authority, teamwork, and leadership.

Commercial Activities. Traditionally, Senoufo bartered or used cowry shells as currency, although the use of cowry shells has been supplanted in the postcolonial era by the regional currency, the C.F.A. franc. The colonial administration introduced peanuts and rice as cash crops for regional consumption and export; sorghum, yams, cassava, okra, potatoes, hot peppers, tobacco, cotton, and other fibers are other notable cash crops produced mainly for local and regional needs, and with varying degrees of success for export. In addition to farming, Senoufo men participate in artisan industries and tobacco preparation; Senoufo women spin cotton, prepare oils and soap (especially from shea butter) and prepare condiments for use in cooking. Both Senoufo women and men may be involved in local beer production and dying textiles.

Industrial Arts. The artisan groups integrated within Senoufo culture include blacksmiths, woodcarvers, basket weavers, brass casters, potters, weavers, jewelers, and leather-workers. Having lived for centuries among the Senoufo farmers, the artisans produce a variety of agricultural tools or household and ceremonial items. For example, the blacksmiths produce the Senoufo farmer's tiya, the distinct short-handled hoe with a broad scooped-out blade, as well as weapons, musical instruments, wrought iron figure sculpture used by diviners, and other objects for household and ritual use. Women of blacksmith households often produce mats and baskets. Woodworkers produce culinary utensils, short-legged stools, and mask and figure sculpture used in various Senoufo rituals. Brass casters and jewelers produce divination charms, cosmetic jewelry, and ritualistic and ceremonial figure sculpture and ornaments, while women from brass caster households are often skilled potters producing much of the locally used household pottery. Leatherworkers traditionally have produced shoes, amulets, knife sheaths, bags, and cosmetic and ceremonial ornaments.

Trade. Because transport by foot is still widespread, daily or weekly local markets traditionally have absorbed 75 percent of locally-produced items, including agricultural products, prepared foods, poultry, pottery, tobacco powder, garden tools, leather goods, small livestock, and bundles of wood. A larger regional market is often held periodically, and serves as the base for export of locally produced goods. The Dioula/Malinke, the predominant mercantile ethnic group in the region, also exert substantial influence in trade with Senoufo populations.

Division of Labor. Senoufo culture exhibits fairly rigid gender roles, with Senoufo females of all ages taking responsibility for all household tasks in addition to any other responsibilities they may have. Labor is also divided based on age. In addition to performing general unisex tasks such as gathering and bundling grain stalks from the harvest, working in the fields, and helping their mothers in rice paddies, Senoufo girls help fetch wood and water, tend to children, do household tasks, obtain herbs and leaves for a meal's sauces, and spin cotton. Senoufo boys are expected to tend chickens and other poultry and herd any livestock. Senoufo women sort rice, work in their personal agricultural fields, work in the family fields along with the men, prepare all meals, fetch wood and water, look after children, do all household tasks, and produce shea butter, soap, and beer, some for domestic use and some of which they sell in the markets. Senoufo men are expected to work in the fields, cut down trees and chop wood, dye textiles, make rope, take care of livestock, hunt, and sell their ropes in the local market. Both men and women can fish and are responsible for construction and repair of houses in the compound. Older people continue to perform their traditional gender roles to the best of their ability. Older Senoufo women sometimes take on an additional role as caregivers or healers. During colonization, many Senoufo men were placed in forced labor projects; thus women found their time spent in laborious activities increased.

Land Tenure. Land, as traditionally conceived in Senoufo culture, is a collective good that cannot be owned privately; the individual, family or even village who inhabits or cultivates the land has a right of extended use, but village land remains the property of the first Senoufo ancestors to settle that land. The ontological importance of land in Senoufo culture is illustrated by the existence of a "chief of the earth" who, as chief representative of the ancestral founders of the village, is called on to distribute land and to serve as an intermediary between the ancestral and the living worlds by means of appropriate sacrificial acts. Land in a typical Senoufo village may be divided between independent, interrelated farmer and artisan residential settlements (and each settlement's agricultural land), public meeting spaces, and collective agricultural lands harvested by the village as a whole. Each Senoufo village also has at least one sinzanga, or sacred grove, situated on the outskirts, perhaps marking the location of the original settlement, and used for socialization rites and various religious activities.


Kin Groups and Descent. Descent in Senoufo culture traditionally has been matrilineal. An average village may consist of numerous residential settlements whose members belong to the same ethnic group and whose leadership is identified with a particular matrilineal clan segment. Although Senoufo society is patrilocal, meaning a Senoufo woman who marries outside of her matrilineal clan would reside with her husband's matrilineal clan, that same Senoufo woman would still remain a part of her own matrilineal descent group. Traditionally, a woman's sons answer more to their maternal uncles than to their own father. The sons may be called upon to work in the maternal uncle's fields, or as adults, to take over the maternal uncle's household. Post-colonial Senoufo society has witnessed an increasing shift to a patrilineal system due to increasing Islamic and Western influences.

Kinship Terminology. The matrilineal nature of Senoufo society is illustrated in certain dialects where the generic word for "ancestors" is the same as the kinship term for maternal uncle.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Marriage is a universal institution in Senoufo society. From a young age, Senoufo youth are socialized to assume roles as spouses and parents, and both sexes are circumcised in preparation for marriage. Senoufo exhibit a strong concern for the decorum of unmarried youths, and many rules circumscribe interactions between the two sexes as adolescents. Traditionally, Senoufo marriages were polygynous and were arranged by families of the betrothed, with a Senoufo woman marrying the same way that her mother married. Two primary types of marriages exist: loborgho, or marriage for wealth or status, which is usually arranged by the two families, and tamaraga, or marriage for love. The loborgho usually is negotiated between the two household heads. The man is required to work in the fields of the female's family several days a year from the marriage proposal through the marriage and sometimes through the birth of the first child. A large dowry must be paid to the bride's family (traditionally in cowry shells). In these marriages a wife's right to leave her husband is largely circumscribed.

In a tamaraga, the couple themselves can decide to marry, with or without the involvement of the wider families, but a lesser work and monetary obligation is owed to the bride's family. Less frequently, one finds marriages in which the groom "kidnaps" the bride (even a woman who is already married may be kidnapped), in which case no work obligation is owed to the bride's family. A kidnapped bride has a right to leave her husband but, if the bride stays with her kidnapper when she was betrothed or married to another man in a loborgho, then any offspring conceived with her kidnapper husband would belong to the ex-fiancé or ex-husband. In some sub-groups, it was fairly common for a Senoufo man to marry the first-born child of his childhood sweetheart. Whatever the marriage type, postmarital residence with the husband's family is the norm, although the wife remains an integral part of her matrilineal clan's household.

Domestic Unit. The katiola, a residential and cooperative work unit whose members share not only the same general living space, but also the food harvested from communally worked land, is the true cell of Senoufo society. A large katiola will house the extended family, and may even include several households. A typical katiola consists of the head of the household (the oldest male); his wife and children; his brothers and their families; his sisters, aunts, and cousins who are not married or widowed; the children of this last category and, historically, the freed descendants of former ancestral captives. Katiola members can be likened to a clan with most of its members having the same common mythical (animal or human) ancestor name. Political management of the family is left to males whereas females largely manage spiritual affairs.

Inheritance. The matrilineal clan, not the deceased's spouse, traditionally inherited the deceased's property. Children inherit through their maternal uncle, not through their father.

Socialization. Senoufo socialization cuts across kinship lines and household ties and constitutes a stabilizing and unifying force at the community level. The Senoufo use secretive age-grade associations, the Poro or Lo society for males and the Sakrobundi society for females, to preserve Senoufo folklore, teach its customs, instill self-control through rigorous tests, and prepare Senoufo youth for adulthood. The youth's education is generally divided into three seven-year periods, the passage of each marked by initiation and ceremonies that may involve circumcision, isolation, instruction and the use of masks. Poro is a continuously active institution used universally for the socialization of Senoufo males whereas Sakrobundi is active only at key points in the initiation cycle.

Since a Poro society often involves various katiolo or clans, Poro plays an essential role in the cohesion of social and political life of a Senoufo village. Using the sinzanga as a school, a political meeting house, a place of worship, and a dressing room where initiates prepare for ritual and theatrical performances during the three phases, Poro teaches the male initiate, according to one source, '"to walk the path of Poro,' leading to responsibility, wisdom, authority, and power. From the children's primary grade of 'discovery' through the long period of training and service that is highlighted by the initiate's ritual death and spiritual regeneration to the final graduation of the 'finished man,' Poro is preparation for responsible and enlightened leadership." In the first phase, obedience and tradition are taught through song and dance. The intermediate phase teaches the adolescent about the moral integration of the individual into the community, for whose sake an initiate must thereafter be willing to sacrifice himself. At this stage, the initiate joins in communal work, learns ritual songs and dances, is introduced into army service, and undergoes a solitary period lasting several weeks. After this he graduates with his cohorts into the adult phase. Major ceremonies in the last phase teach the initiate a deeper understanding of mythical and religious tradition, the special language of lo, incomprehensible to outsiders, and the initiate's definitive secret name. Final graduation from Poro generally occurs after age thirty when the graduate becomes part of the ruling gerontocracy consulted on important religious, social, and political matters and freed from agricultural labor (other than certain tasks such as nocturnal harvesting of millet, considered a privilege). Traditionally, if a man did not graduate from Poro, he was virtually an outcast, excluded from village affairs.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Senoufo society can be best described as an occupationally caste-bound society. Traditionally, the Senoufo have viewed the six or so distinct artisan groups who live intermingled with the farmer groups, particularly the blacksmiths, as part of a divinely ordained social order looked down upon and feared by the population because of its special powers and indispensable skill. Respectful apprehension of artisan groups has meant that artisans occupy a lower position in the social hierarchy, well below that of the farmer, and even traditionally below that of the slave. The blacksmith is the most distinct caste. To be a blacksmith is a birthright; a blacksmith occupies a special place because of his inseparable and magical ability to harness fire and the forces of the earth inherent in the extracted metal. The blacksmiths have their own katiolos (and historically their own villages) as well as their own Poro societies with rites similar to the farmers' Poro. Graduation from Poro for blacksmiths takes place earlier (at around age twenty-five) than it does for farmers.

Political Organization. Representing the interests and rights of their respective katiolos, the male elders of each katiolo in a Senoufo village constitute a type of village council. The village chief, who must be a male of matrilineal descent from the village's founding family, is the titular head of this council of elders. Traditionally, the village chief also served as an earth priest responsible for assigning land for cultivation and for ritual purification of village lands contaminated by bloodshed or accidental death. While Senoufo males dominate in the political arena, they do not act without the support and guidance of female elders and Sandogo members, the women's spiritual leadership society.

Social Control. Before colonization, conflicts within the culture, whether intra-village or inter-village, are said to have occurred over marriage and family relationships, tensions between matrilineal and patrilocal tendencies, or over land. Often, such conflicts could be mediated and solved through intervention by the elder councils or the Sandogo diviners.

Conflict. The Senoufo experienced some level of conflict historically with their local neighbors, particularly the Mande population. Colonization and Islam further increased tensions in Senoufo society by imposing patriarchal structures on a traditionally matrilineal culture, as well as by introducing cash crops into a traditional subsistence economy, and forcing Islam or Christianity on traditional animists and private property rights on a communal society. Inevitably, these tensions have manifested themselves in some bloodshed, violence, and corruption over time. The more widespread result, however, has been syncretic traditions and practices within all aspects of modern Senoufo society.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Senoufo practice richly varied series of divination, initiation, and funeral rituals designed to strengthen and protect their community. Traditional Senoufo society is animist. Religious practice, worship, prayers, and sacrifices seek to restore and maintain healthy relationships with the hierarchy of spiritual beings, which consists of the deity, the ancestors, and bush spirits. Senoufo also believe in magical and impersonal sources of power that an individual can appropriate, by means of acquired knowledge and ritual, for his or her own or others' benefit. Central to Senoufo religious belief is the concept of a bipartite deity called Koulo Tyolo in its aspect of a divine creator god and Katyelééó, or "Ancient Mother," in its aspect as the protective, nurturing goddess. The divine creator is responsible for the original creation, while the Ancient Mother watches over the Poro societies and the community in general. The bush spirits inhabit the lands surrounding a village, and are constantly being disturbed by Senoufo as they go about their daily activities. Bush spirits can influence people's lives for good or evil. The souls of the ancestors complete the pantheon of supernatural forces revered. Islam has been increasingly influential in Senoufo society.

Religious Practitioners. Senoufo women, to a far greater degree than men, assume roles as ritual mediators between humankind and the supernatural world of deities and spirits. The Sandogo or Sadow society is a powerful women's organization that unites the female spiritual leadership of the many extended household units and clans of the village. There is only one Sandogo society per village, its head called the Sando-Mother. Participation in Sandogo is not universal for women; rather, each katiolo is represented by at least one Sando, a term referring both to any member of Sandogo and to those members who become divination specialists. Sandogo membership is primarily hereditary, although it can be divined. Consecration of a female to Sandogo may happen at any time, from birth to middle age. Sandos' responsibilities are both social and religious. The bush spirits are thought to be the chief source of the Sando's power and the chief cause of her client's problems. Sando seek to prevent death and sustain life through ritual communication with the spirits. They also protect the sanctity of betrothal and marriage contracts. As diviners, they act as an interpreter and intermediary between the villagers and their deity, the ancestors, spirits of twins, and, in particular, the bush spirits.

Ceremonies. As discussed, every aspect of Senoufo culture is permeated with ceremonies, whether Poro, Sandogo, hoeing contests, weddings, or funerals. Ceremonies often include song, dance, and masquerades that display male pride and political power.

Arts. Senoufo are, above all, sculptors renowned for their masks and ancestral man and woman sculptures. The Poro and Sandogo societies are the chief patrons of the arts, but neither deity is ever represented in art; only the lesser spirits as well as the ancestors are shown as figural sculpture. In fact, the most pervasive theme in Senoufo sculpture, ornament, and decorative arts is the bush spirits. The term Madebele, which means bush spirits, has come to be synonymous with figurative image in graphics or sculpture.

Medicines. Certain Senoufo sub-groups possess an ancient and widely renowned society of healing specialists, known by some as Nökariga, who use traditional medicine to cure ailments.

Death and Afterlife. Death does not necessarily qualify one for ancestral status or for a proper ritual funeral. The death of anyone but an initiated adult of considerable age is considered abnormal and thought to be caused by supernatural or magical intervention. Senoufo believe illness resulting in death results from witchcraft, evil spirits, angered ancestors, bush spirits, or violation of taboos. Such a death results in a simple burial, rather than an elaborate ritual funeral.

Juxtaposing art, drama, ritual, and individual loss against community, continuity, and communion, the Senoufo funeral is a final rite of passage that seeks to mark the completion of the spiritual, intellectual, and social formation of the individual member within the group and to create the necessary conditions under which the defunct can depart from the living world. Through the funeral's sculpture, dance, music, and song, the deceased is transformed into a state of being that is beneficial for the community, thereby ensuring a sense of continuity between the living and the dead. The Senoufo believe in reincarnation. Seven year's after the deceased's death, he or she will either be reincarnated or join the ancestors.

For other cultures in Mali and Burkina Faso, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 9, Africa and the Middle East.


Coulibaly, Sinali (1978). Le paysan senoufo. Abidjan: Nouvelles Editions Africaines.

Glaze, Anita J. (1981). Art and Death in a Senufo Village. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Goldwater, Robert (1964). Senufo Sculpture from West Africa. New York: Museum of Primitive Art. Greenwich, CT: Distributed by New York Graphic Society.

Holas, Bohumil (1966). Les Senoufo (y compris les Minianka). Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Rondeau, Chanta (1994). "Espaces de liberté et changements chez les femmes senufo." In Les Paysannes du Mali, 27-127. Paris: Éditions Karthala.

Spindel, Carol (1989). In the Shadow of the Sacred Grove. New York: Vintage Books.

Internet Sources

African art Senufo (Senufu, Senoufo) ethnic group.

Les ethnies du Mali: les Senoufo.

L'habitat Senoufo.

Peuple ivoirien: Les Senoufo.

The Senufo Land.

Senufo (Senari) Language Page Handbook of African Language Resources (ASC)(MSU).