The drive on the back of the motorbike from Korhogo turns out to be easy, despite the fact that there are several checkpoints and our rider is actually stopped a couple of times, but somehow always manages to talk his way out of it. We are happy to leave the tarred road behind: the rider has to slow down, and we finally feel we are on the way to something special. After parking his bike next to one of the huts in the old, traditional part of Niofoin, our guide starts explaining how people live in this village. He shows us the container huts, adobe constructions where crops are stored after harvest, so small that kids are sent up to make sure as much as possible of the harvest fits inside. Apparently, the container huts can store the harvest to last for a year, until the next harvest is done.
We then see a construction made entirely from sturdy branches and trunks: the house of Kafounda, where problems are solved. This is the female version: life in Niofoin is largely separated between men and women. Close by, we see a special hut with what looks like a crown on top of its thatched roof: this is where a women is laid down after passing away. She will lie for two days, which gives those who live further away the opportunity to come and attend the funeral. Our guide now shows a typical compound for a family in Niofoin: circular huts where women live, and square huts for the man of the family - polygamy is the norm; the women would come to the hut of the man if she feels like it. Children sleep with their mothers. For someone coming from a monogamous society, this incites questions: how does this work? How do women deal with sharing a man between them? How do the children of these different women see each other?
We now arrive at the most interesting and intriguing part of Niofoin: the sacrificial hut of Diby. With an incredibly thick thatched roof, pointing sharply towards the sky and much higher than the roofs of the huts of the village, this is the ceremonial centre of Niofoin. The roof actually gets a new layer every year: its thickness will only grow over time. Every Friday, or after someone passed away, people come here to sacrifice an animal, to cope with bad things, and also to incite rain and a good harvest. In front of the hut, we see small platforms: this is where masks are placed, as they are not supposed to touch the ground. The exterior of the hut is decorated with snakes, humans, other animals, sculpted from the adobe wall. Here and there, we see human hair stuck to figures: those bitten by snakes are shaven and their hair placed here, while the sacrifice will cure them. Some of the human figures are pregnant women. No one is supposed to touch the wall. Only a designated person can add decorations to the hut, while another person is allowed to enter to make the sacrifice. Any animals, bar pigs, can be sacrificed: even dogs are not safe. Judging from the amount of necklaces hanging next to the door, scores of dogs have been sacrificed. A sacrificed animal will be cooked on the huge fireplace next to the hut. There is dancing and music around. A special hut next to the Diby house is where deceased men are lied down until their burial. Only those initiated can attend these ceremonies: the sacred forest where it takes years to reach initiation lies just outside town. The guide enthusiastically tells us about all the traditions and ceremonies performed by the animist villagers of Niofoin before we make our way back through the village. Despite the fact that he has an agreement to give away lots of sweets for the kids, and a fixed payment for the village for our visit, even the Chief secretly asks us money behind the back of our guide. Back at the motorbike, we notice a string of skulls hanging from a door: the family have their own sacrificial hut, much smaller than the main one we just saw. On the way back to Korhogo, we have a lot to think about what we just heard and saw, and wonder how long these centuries-old traditions will survive in a changing country.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Niofoin (Ivory Coast). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Niofoin. Read more about this site.