Lab Project

Guabuliga – Well by the Thorn Tree

Living together apart. Forms of sociality in a Kasena house
Ann Cassiman

Family life in the compound house of the Kasena of the Upper East Region is organised around modes of being together and living apart, of sharing and dividing, of revealing and concealing. These divergent dynamics are shaped by the material layout of the house, which is not only inspired by a social blueprint that informs the relations between the inhabitants and visitors, kin and allies, and the younger and older generations, but is also embedded in a worldview and ontology that is rephrased in every house’s founding story.

The large earthen compound house is called songo (in Kasem), which refers to a physical earthen structure consisting of an amalgam of rooms, walls, open spaces, and terraces, as well as to the residential group of families living there. A songo carries the name of its founder or an eminent (male) lineage member, and includes an extended family consisting of two to four generations (sometimes up to 60 people): a man and his brothers with their wives, their sons plus wives, unmarried and divorced daughters, and all of the grandchildren still too young to marry. Usually it is the eldest man of the songo who is the head of the house. Important decisions are taken in consultation with all of the men of the house, but the songo alone carries the final responsibility for all the house matters, for the care of the house ancestors, and for representing the house to the larger clan. He is an authority on important ritual matters and watches over collective possessions such as cattle and land, and he makes sure that the distribution, inheritance, and exchange of these possessions proceeds fairly for everyone in the house. His senior wife is endowed with a comparable authority among the women of the house. She acts as the senior sister to all of the women. In ritual matters, she organises the women of the house and takes decisions concerning concrete arrangements. When a funeral takes place in the house, when important visitors come, when large amounts of food are to be prepared, when millet beer is to be brewed, and on a thousand other occasions, she oversees and controls the ongoing activities. In more private matters, such as conjugal quarrels and educational troubles, she may interfere as well.

In a living house, there is always someone there to receive the unexpected visitor. Usually it is the head of the house, who stays behind to guard the house when the other members have left for their farming lands or the market. In the hot days of the dry season, the head of the house is sheltered under a shed, a millet-stalk roofed structure pitched in front of the entrance to the house. Lying in this airy place to rest, possibly joined by other men of the house, or by playing children and elderly women, he keeps an eye on everyone who enters or leaves the house. The shed is erected in the front yard of the house and serves as a public place for gathering and receiving visitors.

Each house consists of a number of rooms and these rooms are ordered in groups of three to four with a kitchen and bathing place, arranged around an open yard. A yard is the smallest unit within the social organisation of a kin group, consisting of one household, that is, a woman with her children, sometimes with a (classificatory) sister who stays with them. It is comparable to a nuclear family. The primary concern of a household is the care of children and the catering, including the collecting of firewood and water, and the provision of clothes, school materials, medical help, and so on. Each yard does its own separate cooking, farming, and eating, and a man receives a bowl of food from each of his wives. Children however shop around and eat from whichever cooking pot is full. The yards are clearly differentiated from one another by lower walls or narrow openings that connect the rooms around the central cattle kraal.

The whole house is composed of a variety of larger and smaller constructions, as well as round and rectangular rooms, all orchestrated around the open central cattle kraal. As one penetrates the house, the physical outline of the house creates a gradient in regard to the accessibility of the different areas. The voluminous vertical granaries, as well as the various smaller constructions in the cattle kraal and the courtyards, fragment the view one has of the dwelling units. The high walls enclosing the house, and the lower walls surrounding the cattle kraal and the courtyards, protect the inside from exposure to occasional intruders, and shield it from the view of curious neighbours, meanwhile imposing a phased access to increasingly intimate spaces.

A senior woman normally owns several kinds of rooms, arranged around the open space of the yard. In one room she keeps her food and cooking utensils (pots, calabashes, baskets, and mats). If she has the respected status of grandmother or senior wife, she might be the proud occupier of a ‘twin-room’. This space consists of a double or two-lobed room that can be accessed through a single entrance.

Transitory spaces regulate access to a room. The accessibility of a room is also symbolically indicated by the form and size of its doorway, called ‘mouth’ (ni). The size of the twin-room’s doorway indicates its private and intimate nature. Shaped in the form of a keyhole, the door opening is kept very low. Immediately behind the opening, a knee-high, semi-circular wall is erected; this constitutes another barrier to the woman’s dimly lit ‘sanctum’. The foetal form of the twin-room indicates the extent to which the intimate sphere of the house is associated with the maternal womb. The shape of the door also evokes the twin-room’s double meaning: the room symbolises both the belly as well as the womb of the owner.  Normally, only the woman’s husband, her children, and close intimate friends may enter her rooms. It is only during the chaotic context of a funeral that other people may also enter the female realm, as during a funeral all spatial prescriptions and conventional social rules are momentarily suspended. The first room is the outer room or portal room, where the owner sleeps and stores her personal belongings. In this dim room, an impressive pile of polished pots is carefully arranged against the wall of the room. The pots and calabashes testify to a never-ending accumulation of belongings by the woman, her mother, and her grandmothers. They bear witness to the women’s accomplishments and skills, and represent the core of female power and knowledge. The portal room gives way to the head-room, a round space with a flat roof pierced with holes serving as chimneys. The indoor cooking activities take place in this room. The rooftops of both rooms are used as terraces for nocturnal meetings or for sleeping purposes.

The visual fragmentation, and the play of visible-invisible, of seeing and being seen, is central to the Kasena spatial experience. The more one penetrates the hidden insides of the house and the more one accesses its secrets, the more one is empowered. The differentiation between men’s and women’s worlds, or between elders and young people, is regulated by (the denial of) visual access. In some clans, for example, in the first days following a child’s birth, the newborn child and a specific relative (this can be the father, the grandfather, the maternal grandmother, or the brother and sister) are not allowed to see one another. When the relative and the child (represented by the mother) finally meet, they blow ashes towards one another to lift the taboo, while whispering, “I have disclosed you” (a piire mo). The same ritual of disclosure is performed upon the discovery of a young woman’s first pregnancy, or at the end of a parturient’s period of seclusion, when she ‘comes outside’ (o nongi poone). Leaving the room of seclusion and opening her eyes to face the outside world ritually introduces a parturient to her new status as a mother and the new relation to the world inherent in this status. Whereas female power is constructed through forms of concealment, the power of men reveals itself in the public domain. The public realm is referred to as poone, meaning ‘outside, open, luminous or illuminated space’, ‘where the wind blows’. Nongi poone (lit. ‘to come outside, to appear in the public space’) indicates a person’s successful transition into a new identity or self.

While seeing is shaped by the house’s materiality within an almost sensuous geography, the house’s soundscape surpasses this phased spatiality and binds the various yards: the rhythms of pounding muffled by the earthen walls, the rustling sounds of cracking groundnuts, the low voices from nearby yards, the sounds of a neighbour’s stirring stick, and the sweeping broom of a co-wife. Some sounds are indicative of special events. For example, when a bride is brought to the settlement of the clan, shrill ululations will penetrate the tranquil night. Similarly, when a funeral starts in the middle of the night, a sad grieving voice, loudly calling out to the deceased, initiates the collective wailing of mourning relatives. Throughout the whole funeral, the horn player’s wistful melodies punctuate the silence of the night. Conjugal quarrels may invite house members to intervene, but when money matters are discussed, or rumours are shared, one goes to the intimate interior of the room.

Adult sons and unmarried or divorced daughters are allowed to build a room in their mother’s yard. It is becoming more and more common to marry at a later age and consequently, children live in the mother’s yard for a longer time. Nowadays, some sons and daughters engage in higher studies and therefore keep a room in the maternal court, which they occupy when they return home. Often, these rooms, built in a single line and with roofs made from corrugated iron sheets, are constructed as a semi-autonomous appendage. Sometimes the layout of these rooms reproduces the design of the twin-room: first one enters a reception room, where another door gives way to the next, more intimate space. Such rooms usually have a large veranda, which functions as an open transitional space between the yard and the rooms. In today’s architecture, the veranda has become a popular attribute of the room. Female rectangular rooms in particular often make use of the transitional space of such a veranda in order to create a deferred access into the intimate realm of the room. On the veranda, women prepare soup for the evening meal, or they peel groundnuts, mould pots, pleat their friends’ hair, or feed their children. A visiting close friend or relative will be given a seat on the woman’s veranda.

Heavy rains or harsh climatic conditions regularly destroy parts of the rooms and cause cracks in the walls. Each year, this damage is repaired again. The plastering of the rooms adds another mud layer to the house, which the women then meticulously polish with round pebble stones. They are responsible for the cyclical renewal of the house’s skin. Some senior women (especially in eastern Kasenaland in Burkina Faso) apply geometrical figures to the plastered surface using white kaolin stones or black and red vegetal paint. These figures show a woman’s status and authority, as well as her skilfulness and sense of beauty. At the same time, the drawings also display themes and patterns that symbolize core values in the Kasena lifeworlds.


ANN CASSIMAN is an associate professor of Anthropology (University of Leuven, Belgium). Her research looks at dwelling, sociality, and material culture in rural Northern Ghana and the urban setting of Accra, focusing on rural-urban mobility and new modes of urban place-making among women and youth in the zongo migrant communities.