The Watch

Koutammakou, Land of the Batammariba

Benin and Togo

The Batammariba people of modern-day Benin and Togo first arrived in the mountainous savanna region that has since been their homeland during the seventeenth or eighteenth century. On the move to escape the threat of subordination to other groups, the Batammariba brought with them a sense of independence and strong cultural identity, anchored in their building traditions. The Batammariba name, a name used by the Batammariba themselves, means “those who are the real architects of earth,” pointing to the foundational place of earthen construction traditions for Batammariba society and culture. They are in evidence in the takienta, the Batammariba house, and the setting for all Batammariba life. The takienta consists of a cluster of mud structures—the typical house contains around eight—girdled together by a continuous mud wall. Each structure has a dedicated function, housing kitchens, bedrooms, store rooms, and granaries. The mud walls are built in layers, resulting in a pattern of horizontal stripes. Some buildings have flat roofs behind a low parapet, while others are surmounted by a thatched roof. The sikien—plural of takienta—depend on periodic renewal of their smooth exterior plaster, which protects the earthen core from rain. Whenever a takienta becomes unfit for habitation, Batammariba tradition requires that its old earthen core be incorporated into the new dwelling. Scholars have documented how the Batammariba conceive of their dwellings in anthropomorphic terms, likening them to men and women and naming their components after the parts of the human body.

On the Togo side of the border the Batammariba houses have become icons of the Togolese state, which sought to protect Koutammakou through inscription on the World Heritage List as a cultural landscape, completed in 2004. But legal protections, and the traditional principles of heritage management, are alone not enough to ensure the perpetuation of a living cultural tradition underpinned by indigenous knowledge. The 2020 World Monuments Watch calls for new focus on the Batammariba people’s livelihoods and the factors that are contributing to social change for this indigenous community. It is only by understanding and mitigating the factors that are inhibiting the transmission of traditional knowledge related to house construction that the takienta building tradition will endure as the living product of a distinctive cultural expression.

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