Voltaic Cultures

Voltaic Cultures

Voltaic cultures are found in northeastern Côte d'Ivoire, northern Ghana, and Burkina Faso. They share cultural similarities with the Mandé peoples to their west but have not influenced the political history of the region to the same extent. Northern Voltaic peoples--such as the Mossi, who are based outside Côte d'Ivoire--built large empires, but the Sénoufo and the Lobi are organized into small chiefdoms based on unilineal descent.

The Sénoufo occupy north-central Côte d'Ivoire, Mali, and Burkina Faso and are also known as the Seniambélé and Siena. Sénoufo is a Juula word meaning "speaker of Séné," but language is among the few culture traits that unify this heterogeneous group. They have several myths of origin, each popular in a different area. Several of these involve an ancestor known as Nangui or Nengué, who left the Juula capital of Kong to establish the Sénoufo city of Korhogo, which means "heritage." Sénoufo history refers to Juula traders as early as the thirteenth century, when Islam arrived in the region. The territory was raided by Samori Touré in the late nineteenth century, and the resulting decline continued into colonial times.

The Sénoufo economy is primarily agricultural. Commerce is well developed in the area, but in most cases it is conducted by Juula rather than Sénoufo traders. The close relationship between the Sénoufo farmer and the land is emphasized in religious observances and mediated through the lineage. Each lineage has a mythical ancestor, often identified with an animal that is said to have helped found the lineage. This animal, or "totem," occupies a special niche in the Sénoufo worldview, as the subject of a ritual taboo and symbol of social unity. The head of the lineage exercises moral and religious authority and is believed to propitiate local gods and ensure good harvests. Aside from the lineage head, status distinctions are relatively few, although many people kept slaves from other societies until well into the twentieth century.

Villages are unified by male age grades, uniting youths close in age within secret brotherhoods known as poro in this region and parts of Sierra Leone and Liberia. Poro societies have survived in part because they help maintain order, especially in times of social upheaval. They also serve as repositories of social customs and religious values, providing a conservative balance against the rapid acculturation in Ivoirian society as a whole.

Akan influence is fairly strong among the Sénoufo, some of whom have adopted matrilineal descent systems resembling that of the Akan. Villages were unified under the authority of an appointed chief during colonial times, a practice that drew villagers into the national system but also disrupted established channels of authority and was resisted by many of the culturally conservative Sénoufo people.

Adjacent to Sénoufo territory are the Lobi, Koulango, and several smaller Voltaic societies. They inhabit an isolated, relatively undeveloped corner of the country. They probably arrived in the area from the east and organized themselves in autonomous villages. They resisted the spread of Islam, which was brought by Juula traders and teachers over several centuries. More recently, they have rejected many aspects of European acculturation and lack the overall fascination with economic progress that characterizes much of the nation.

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