Karl’s Chronicles Article 13 Tamberma Country
Driving into Tamberma country contained all the splendour of entering a national park. With the tourism kiosk behind us, the landscape took on a wilder outlook void of people and houses. Just bush and grass swaying up to patches of trees clinging on to the exposed yellow teeth of rock faces. Baobab trees abundant with hanging fruit grew closer to the road under a clear navy blue sky. There were no clouds to mask the power of the sun which baked the land like a giant pie. Eventually, we pass sporadic figures on the edge of the road, bounding along, undeterred by the heat. The motorbike is somewhat shaky, struggling to grip with the tiny chippings of stone. I presume the difficulty arises with the guides unfamiliarity of the machine. Claude turns off the road joining a dirt path through the bush. In front of us, sitting in the shade of two baobabs are a dozen villagers of Bassamba. Children cradled by their mothers, young boys- half dressed are playing in the dirt. A pale yellow dog sits at the edge observing, just out of reach from a child’s assault. Laid out on the ground are several souvenirs, little wood carvings, jewellery, swing balls, pipes made from hedgehog skin, Viking styled hats with attached antelope horns and rings of cowrie shells. A young soldier soon turns up on a motorbike, an AK47 slung over his shoulder, dismounts and takes a seat nearby. Before touring the takientas (traditional houses) both the guide and myself venture to the rear and greet the chief who is resting under a wooden bench, shaded by a horizontal trellis weaved with trailing plants.
The takienta is utterly unique, a house and fortress merged into one. A series of small rooms, some accessed only from the roof with corner granaries and secretive storage cells. Designed with defence in mind, the style has remained the same despite old threats of being besieged having long since passed. Constructed from mud, clay, wood, and small stones with high smooth outer walls and a single slim door at the front. There are no windows, a couple of tiny portals for ventilation in the kitchen. Narrow wooden ladders, in fact, a heavy wooden pole with notches for foot grips access the granary towers whose conical roofs come off like a lid from a teapot — three chambers inside separate the various grains of millet, maize and maize flour. One can not conventionally enter the bedrooms, there are no doors or doorways, just tiny portals where one shifts in backwards and vertically. There are moments when I think the entrance is too small, jammed like an oversized key in a lock — another reminder of how they took defence seriously. Any outsider trying to access the rooms would put themselves in a vulnerable position. The roof, aside from drying out husks of corn and red chilli’s doubled as a look-out post.
The Tamberma, a group, belonging to the Batammiriba, migrated northwest in the 17th century, fleeing slave raids from the King of Abomey in Southern Benin. The Dahomey Kingdom, established around 1600 by the Fon people was a vassal to the much bigger Yoruba Oyo empire in Nigeria. King Houegbadja is generally seen as the foundational King, being responsible for the construction of the royal palaces, striking out in successful raiding campaigns beyond the Abomey plateau. However, it wasn’t until a century later, under King Tegbesu (1740-1774), driven to rebuild his floundering economy that the slave trade took on greater importance and provided a substantial wealth.
Having resettled, the Tamberma, lived in isolation for several centuries, their customs having remained largely unhindered by outside influences. Due to the constant perception of threat, the takienta always gave defence priority but were also highly functional. Each being self-sufficient and generally built apart in comparison to standard properties with their walls and compounds. The takienta stood alone, segregated by millet or maize fields projecting a more harmonious relationship between the Batammariba and the land. Originally the rooms downstairs were to hold the livestock if under attack and grain stored in the roof granaries. Their self-sufficiency allowed the Tamberma to with-stand long sieges- holding out for several months. The unusual but clever architectural style of the takienta and the cultural landscape became a UNESCO world heritage site in 2004.
Today the front room is used as a sleeping area for the women and children. Several fetishes hung from the wall among a line of old animal skulls. Comprising gnarled teeth and broken skulls jangling against pouches of feathers and vertical horns. Shrines are frequently placed around the house, lined along the bedroom floor and built into the walls. Outside the front entrance, resembling something between a bee-hive and a termite mound are several altars assigned for spiritual protection. A calabash fixed to a pole holds the remnants of a recent chicken, feathers stuck around the rim. Their strong beliefs included the god of the sun and a goddess of the land responsible for fertility. The Tibent, (the drumming dance) is an elaborate funeral rite, tasked with honouring the dead. A specific set of people who represent the dance, govern over the ritual with lights, themes and auspicious timings. The deceased home is covered, and a circular flat stone, generally used as a table is required instead as a tombstone.
Clustered to one side are several granaries, conical with straw roofs like witches hats and similar to those of the Dogon in Mali.. We make our way up the hill, flanked by flowering tobacco plants and tracts of cotton that’s ripe for picking. A further takienta stands proud at the end of the path, looking across the trough to the road in the middle. No one is around up here, only the presence of three hens shuffling through fallen leaves. We make a short circuitous tour, descending through purple-headed wheat back towards a sacred baobab tree. A holy man is outside the narrow entrance and before I can enter into the baobab I must make a donation. I drop a 500cfa note into a calabash mounted on a vertical pole. The gap is narrow and takes some shifting to squeeze through. Sunlight radiates down through a hole higher up the trunk. It is like being in a cave, and the marbled browns of the interior resemble damp rock. One of the villagers who had escorted us up the hill earlier has shimmied up the inside to the same opening and pulled himself through onto a neighbouring branch. It’s a surprise to see the tree so alive, covered in leaves and long-stemmed fruit hanging like Christmas baubles.
I wonder about the soldiers who have been polite but consistently in my shadow. The proximity of the Benin border must have something to do with it. Of course, it could be to prevent me from slipping across illegally. Claude mentions that a couple of tourists were injured years ago from falling from a rocky ledge behind the village, but I can not see that as a reason for a military escort. Before, you could drive across from Nadoba to Boukoumbe and make a circuit through Natitingou to Tanguieta and back to Togo at Datori. Completing it without a Benin visa, but times and security have changed. With trouble in Burkina Faso, the army was maintaining a greater vigilance on the borders in the North. Here was no exception and I was happy for the company.
The nearest town is Kante or Kande (French colonial name) roughly 25 kilometres away. You can hire a zemidjan (motorbike driver) for the journey and its essential to negotiate. Around 8000cfa would be fare with waiting times. Though when I visited, the guide from the tourism office took over the vehicle, and the driver returned to Kande. A private taxi is also a possibility, and the road into Tamberma Country, though unsealed is accessible. Drivers will start with an inflated price, so its essential to haggle. Wednesday is market day in Nadoba, ten kilometres further on from Bassamba where taxi collectives will be in greater use.
In Kande, the Auberge la Cloche has simple rooms with fan and communal showers for 4000cfa. The compound has an attached bar but no food. In the centre, there are several cafe/ bars. The Cafe Delice is an ideal spot for coffee and beer as well as reasonable food like spaghetti and omelettes. A cluster of evening street stalls and further bars can be found around the central garage – from where you pick up transport to Tamberma Country as well as vehicles heading north to Dapaong and south to Kara.
In the village of Nadoba, there are a couple of basic places to stay.
The tourism office also runs an auberge, built-in replica style as a takienta, located halfway between Bassamba and Nadoba. A bed is 2000cfa per night, and the care-taker can organize meals — 2000cfa for dinner and a 1000cfa for breakfast. An outside pit toilet and bucket showers make for a more down to earth experience. (Take your drivers number if using a taxi or zemidjan so they can come and pick you up the following day). You can also sleep on the roof of a takienta for the same price in Bassamba. Though I doubt the villagers would give you much peace.