Two Bassari women with a calabash of Fonio. Fonio is one of the many valuable assets that the Bassari have carefully protected and improved over the years to be enjoyed by the whole world. Photo: Pape Moussa Ciss/ RLS Dakar.

The Bassari are a small ethnic group who are believed to have originated from southern African countries and are relatively unknown to the world. To this day, the Bassari have managed to meticulously preserve their culture, traditions, and customs despite all the hardships they encounter in living away from the hustle and bustle of big cities. The isolated villages in the Republic of Guinea (specifically in the communes of Ethiolo and Oubadji), and in the Kédougou region of Senegal.

A Bassari traditional dance in Kedougou, Senegal. Photo: Pape Moussa Ciss/RLS Dakar

Even in the face of Jihad wars that have converted a small portion of their community (the Boyine), most Bassari continue to hold on to their traditions. They are close to the Bantu people, who have rejected Islam and fled to neighboring countries like Guinea, Senegal, and Guinea Bissau in an effort to preserve their traditions. Like the Bantu, the Bassari have refused to convert to Islam, opting instead to maintain their traditional animism.

The Bassari once lived a nomadic life of hunting, gathering, foraging, and fishing. However, as their communities continued to evolve, they settled down, building stonewalled homes with thatched roofs and adopting agriculture as their primary food source, thus becoming farmers. 

The Bassari live on some of the most beautiful natural real estate on the planet. Photo: Pape Moussa Ciss/RLS Dakar

Their staple food is fonio and other grains of the millet family. In fact, it is thanks to their guardianship that fonio in its many different varieties has survived to the point where we get to enjoy them today. The Bassari cultivate over twenty different varieties of fonio and millet that do not exist anywhere else on earth. It is really a race against time to gather and preserve some of the rich diversity that the earth still offers us so that future generations also get to experience what we still enjoy today. 

The Bassari cultivate over two dozen different varieties of Fonio and Millets. Photo: Pape Moussa Ciss/RLS Dakar

As farmers, the Bassari quickly realised that good harvests required good soil; they needed fields rich in humus and natural fertilizers. Living in their thatch-roofed homes in the middle of the thick bush, they were quick to understand that everything they have was given to them by the grace of the land that hosts them. Therefore, they consider themselves men of the forest, meaning that they themselves are elements of nature. Being one with nature means that the Bassari have an intrinsic duty to defend and protect the environment they rely on.

The streams are getting smaller and the bushes drier. Photo: Pape Moussa Ciss

Improper environmental education is closely linked to damaging agricultural activities, natural resource exploitation, and other harmful activities such as honey harvesting. Unlike most other communities, the Bassari children are taught to embrace nature at a young age and to always do things in the least harmful way. They are taught how to properly clear fields so the soil stays fertile; how to cut trees in a way to not only avoid killing the tree, but also allow it to regrow. 

Young Bassari are taught from an early age that bushfires are strictly prohibited and are only allowed special with permission from the landowner and the spirits of the sacred Anet mountain. They learn how to harvest honey using smoke from animal dung instead of fire to avoid destroying bee colonies and hives. As such, harmony with nature is integrated into their way of life very early on. 

Ibrahima Thiam enjoys a calabash of cold water in Kedougou. Photo: Pape Moussa Ciss

Like the rest of the world, the Bassari have been severely impacted by climate change. This is what we all have to realise: it does not matter where you live; climate change will impact you one way or another. The Bassari’s staple crops - groundnuts, millet, and fonio - require a lot of water and therefore, lengthy rainy seasons. Climate change is forcing some Bassari to choose short-cycle crops such as sorghum that are not as nutrient dense but also do notproduce as much yield at the end of the harvest. 

Their architecture is also affected. The Bassari use straw to thatch their roofs. However, with the onset of shorter rainy seasons, the straw in their community has been losing quality and density. Just two decades ago, straw thatch roofs used to last 4 years before having to be replaced. Today, they have to be renewed every year.

Most Bassari are animists and masquerade daces are an important part of their culture. Photo: Pape Moussa Ciss/RLS Dakar