The Incredible Tata Somba Houses of West Africa’s Tammari People

The Somba or Tammari people of Benin, known as the Taberma in the adjoining areas of Togo, occupy the chain of Atakora Mountains and have lived isolated lives there for centuries. The name ‘Somba’ refers to them as “good masons” and they are harvesters and cultivators.

Famous for its incredible two-story fortified huts, called Tata Somba, the area in Benin and Togo has been named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Tribal wisdom has it that the area between two Tata Sombas is the distance an arrow can be shot between them, but I know of no absolute measurements of this. The Somba believe the west is the direction of life, so all doors open in this direction.

There is much symbolism within the construction of the house itself as well. Each house has life in it, divided into shade and light, masculine and feminine. As each house is a symbol of fertility and fecundity, the woman of the house honors and decorates it by drawing grooves in the wet mud before it dries, giving it its horizontally ridged appearance.

These architectural treasures have two floors; the first or ground floor is used for housing livestock at night and also contains alcoves for cooking and other tasks.

The top or second floor has a rooftop ‘courtyard’ used to dry grain, as sleeping quarters, and as granaries. This unique design evolved by adding a closed roof to the cluster of huts typical of Gur speaking areas, joined by a connecting wall.

The people’s religion is animist and each house has one altar in front of it, or many. There is one altar per person so you can easily tell how many are living in the house from the outside. The people worship a voodoo deity at the altar and pray there. The symbolism is similar to that of Catholics with their niches to the Virgin Mary. Perhaps here in the West we are not so far apart from the people at all.

With both the areas in Benin and Togo considered World Heritage Sites by UNESCO, their unique architecture and way of life have some protection. If you check out the Pendjari source (number 2 below), you will find a drawing that shows an above down view of the inside of a typical Somba house.

Sources: 1, 2