Tamberma ethnic group of Togo and their fortified villages

7th December 2017 

Northern Togo is known for Tamberma people, an ethnic minority living in fortified villages, with homes resembling miniature castles. What are the reasons for this particularly unusual architecture? We will try to answer this question during an excursion to a Tamberma village.

Baobab tree Tamberma people
Northern Togo is dominated by an endless savannah, a rather hostile environment that sees a particularly long dry season. The landscape is dotted with majestic baobabs, while farmers transport millet and sorghum, almost the only cereals that can grow in such harsh conditions, on their head.
Fortress made by clay Fortress house in Togo
Tamberma valley
Fortified house in Togo Clay house
Tamberma traditional house Fortified house
Miniature castle Fortress house
This region of Togo, along with some others in West Africa, has one of the most unique and interesting architecture of the entire African continent. Like other ethnic minorities in Benin, Mali and Burkina Faso, the Tamberma people of Togo live in fortified houses resembling miniature castles, built almost entirely with raw clay, straw and wood. This architectural style originated in the seventeenth century mainly for defensive purposes towards soldiers of kings of other tribes, sent to forcefully collect people to be sold as slaves to the New World. After a walk in this Tamberma village, we will enter one of these fortified houses to better understand its structure and functions.
Tamberma ethnic minority
In this region of West Africa, baobabs are a constant presence and can be found even among the houses of the villages, creating a picturesque atmosphere.
Tamberma ethnic group Traditional granary
Traditional ladder in West Africa

Among the houses of the village, visitors will usually see large containers used as a granary, which can be accessed through a traditional staircase (made by carving the steps into a single wooden trunk). Instead, at the beginning of the dry season, it is not uncommon to find a large quantity of seeds left to dry on the roofs of the various buildings.
Tamberma village
A typical scene in a Tamberma village among fortified houses, smaller huts and barns.
Kitchen of the fortified house Warehouse in the fortified house
Fetish Fetishes
The fortified houses of the Tamberma ethnic group usually have two or three floors. The ground floor is used as warehouses and kitchen, while fetishes are hanged near the entrance: they are made with skulls or other parts of animals and, according to animist religion, they protect the courtyard, the house and its occupants, from negativity and from evil spirits.
Roof of the fortified house
A staircase leads to the roof of the fortified house. The large hatch with the lid, visible at the bottom-right corner of the photo, was used to attack from top the enemy who tried to enter the house. This was an important strategy, trying to defend the occupants of the fortified house, from the soldiers of other tribes looking to catch people to be sold as slaves to the Westerners.
Seeds left to dry
Millet and sorgum

The roof of the fortified house is the ideal place to expose the seeds of sorghum, millet and other cereals, to be dried before storing them in the granaries.
Some of the granaries are found on the roof, along the corners, of the fortified house and are made of clay and straw. They are accessed through a traditional ladder, with the steps carved into a single piece of wood.
Tamberma in Togo Village in Togo
The roof of the fortified house and the panoramic view that can be seen from the terrace. Although it is mainly made of raw clay, the construction is very robust and the terrace can support the weight of many people. The armament is made of wood, while the clay is mixed with animal dung to increase its compactness. The waterproofing is obtained by spreading once a year a tamarind infusion directly on the exposed clay.
Access to bedroom in a fortified house
The access to the bedrooms is granted through through a tiny door through the roof.

This is instead the door that connects the roof of the fortified house, with the kitchen on the ground floor.
Fortified house
A Tamberma fortified house.
Huge baobab
Baobab trunk

A huge baobab not far from the village, formerly used as a dwelling.
Inner part of baobab trunk
Inside a baobab trunk

The interior of the baobab's trunk, with enough space to accommodate an entire family.
Millet field
A beautiful baobab in the middle of a millet field.
Cotton field Cotton plant
This is instead a field of cotton, a plant that prefers a dry climate and therefore ideal in such environment.

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