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Senufo

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West Africa

Senufo art inspired 20th-century European artists such as Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger.

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About the People

The Senufo people are a West African ethnolinguistic group spanning northern Ivory Coast, southeastern Mali and western Burkina Faso. They speak four distinct languages and dozens of dialects and number more than 3 million people. The southern Senufo are the largest group, numbering over 2 million. In the 18th century, they allowed Muslim traders to settle and actively proselytize in their communities. Today, about 20 percent of the southern Senufo are Muslims.

Senufo villages consist of small, circular mud-brick homes. The Senufo are predominantly an agricultural people cultivating corn, millet, yams, peanuts, cotton and other cash crops.

They are regionally famous as musicians using wind, string and percussion instruments. They are also superb carvers of wood sculpture, masks and figurines. Senufo art inspired 20th-century European artists such as Pablo Picasso and Fernand Léger.

Like many West-African groups, the Senufo people are traditionally a socially stratified caste-based society that distinguishes people based on hereditary occupations and whether they are descended from slaves.

Senufo people are predominantly animists who worship ancestral and nature spirits. Each village has a male secret society called Poro with elaborate initiation rituals practiced in a patch of forest they consider sacred. The initiation rituals involve masks, figurines and ritual equipment that the Senufo people carve. The secrecy around this practice has helped the Senufo people to preserve their culture in the times of wars and political pressure.

Historically, the Senufo people were both victims and perpetrators of slavery. They themselves bought and sold slaves to Muslim merchants. For a long time, slave trading was the most important economic activity across the Sahel and West Africa.

People-Group Facts