8 May

World Cultures: Kassena Earth Houses

By Chiara Ryals

In Burkina Faso and Northern Ghana, the Kassena people have long practiced the tradition of elaborately painting houses with geometric shapes and drawings. Houses are made entirely from local materials including dung, clay, wood, and straw. The colored mud and chalk designs serve both cultural and practical purposes. Shapes and colors symbolize cultural beliefs and stories, while some images are taken from everyday life. The designs, usually done before the rainy season, provide waterproofing and help structures last longer. Oftentimes, the most embellished structures are mausoleums for the dead.

The practice is a communal endeavor, and the process is carried out with traditional knowledge passed down through generations. Vernacular architecture shapes habitats in a way that can adapt to changes in social and environmental conditions. Compared to concrete, which is widespread due to its low cost, traditional materials used in Kassena houses are more resilient to extreme heat. Thick walls and small doors also help to keep houses cool. With climate change, using local knowledge and materials in construction proves to be ever more important in building resilience.

The village of Tiébélé, home to the royal court of the Kassena tribe, is especially known for its rich architectural heritage. Located near the Ghanaian border, Tiébélé is a circular village of around 3 acres. Kassena earth houses continue to be maintained by the community today, though consistent weathering means that the buildings require regular renewal. With rising costs of renewal, some villages have seen a decline in the preservation of traditional practices. There is hope that Tiébélé could eventually be classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site which could help to preserve the Kassena cultural tradition.