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Tiebele and the Amazing Houses of the Gourounsi People

Soon after our visas were ready we left Ouagadougou and set the GPS to Tiebele. We started our descent in Po, which is the gateway through arguably the wettest region of Burkina. As this is the wet season and august is the wettest month of the year, the combo yielded some endless downpours that soaked us for days. Pitching a tent under the rain is a bit of a hassle, but it was nice to be cold for a change. As depressing as grey skies might normally be, they are still breathtakingly beautiful in Burkina.

Breakfast in Po: omelet, tea, mutton soup.

Tiebele is reached via an offtrack piste. Over 100000 people live in 67 villages forming the commune of Tiebele. The area is famous for its architecture. The style is unique to this region, it is mud-brick, but very different from what we saw in Djenne.  The Tiebele vernacular can only be seen within a small “royal” compound.

The compound is home to 300 people, the 54 families forming the extended “royal” family. The Kasena people who are part of the Gourounsi, have created some of the most beautiful examples of vernacular architecture. Their traditional houses are built in bank (mud mixed with manure) and have smooth shiny facades decorated with unique frescoes. The married women from Tiebele use nere oil as a veneer to polish the outside walls, then apply different designs using all natural colors: laterite for red, basalt for black and kaolin for white. Unfortunately the traditional ways are still alive only within the compound, outside it s wall only a handful of homes bare the intricate frescoes that are modernized with black bitumen brought in from Ghana.

The entrance is the also the divination area, where the elders congregate and where animals are sacrificed for the benefit of the entire community. After this sacred area there is small field where the animists are buried in 15 people vertical graves. The closed graves are leveled and marked with a stone, the small …  are still “in use” with the pot serving as symbolic door.

There are two types of houses in Tiebele: rectangular (for unmarried young men) and figure 8-shaped (with an entrance salon, a room for the woman and a winter kitchen). There are no windows, only indirect lighting. The entrance door is so low that you must bend to get in and it is followed by a 60cm wall that would cause any intruder to stumble and be easily killed. The darkness inside and the nere veneered walls also support the defensive nature of the Gourounsi homes, which have karite wood roofing and terraces for drying the spices and grains.

Baobab flower

The buildings with straw roofing are granaries.

Huge clay pots handmade by women in the neighboring village of Boudou are used for cooking or storing

A display of typical Gourounsi symbols. From right to left: the fishing net; tribal signs (traditionally used as identity cards, now used as beauty marks by some women); macrame for the calabash pots.

Calabas pots

Handmade mill for millet (white stone) and for peanut paste

The Kasena woman on the roof is 82. Tiebele has a large population of elders pushing 100.

From Tiebele we continued east on the 18km piste, then turned left and rode 20km more to Zabre, where the massive downpours and the river had made the road impassable.  We took again a left turn and 25km later we were in Dondeou, still far from the sealed road, and too tired and too wet to continue riding through slippery mud and puddles.

As night fell, we set camp under a karite tree that offered us a tasty snack in the morning. The rain kept on going through the night, stopping miraculously for a brief while, allowing us to pack everything and hit the road again. This area of Burkina is beautiful and seldom explored, filling our hearts with nostalgia about a very improbable future return to Tiebele.


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