Nestled at the base of a hill, overlooking the Savannah, lies Tiébélé—an African village in Burkina Faso. First settled in the 15th Century, the 1.2-hectare commune is home to the Kassena people, their chief, and royal court—together making up one of oldest ethnic groups in Burkina Faso. In 2009, photographer Rita Willaert and travel blogger Olga Stavrakis were lucky enough to be some of the few people ever allowed to visit the isolated site.
Willaert’s photos document the villagers’ untouched, unique way of living, where local traditions have been protected for centuries. Stavrakis recounts their experience, explaining how before they arrived they were even given a dress code: “We were told in advance that we must not wear anything red and we may not carry an umbrella. Only the chiefly noble family is permitted that privilege and to do so would constitute a great affront to our hosts.”
Although a royal village might sound opulent, this village is anything but. The Tiébélé royal residence is made up of a series of small clay houses that are hand-painted in different geometric patterns and symbols using clay paints. These patterns are one of the visual indicators that differentiates the royal homes from that of the “ordinary people.” Another difference is the huts’ door sizes: the chief for example, has the house with the smallest door, for protection. While most of the structures are homes, some of the most elaborately decorated are mausoleums, where the dead are laid to rest.
Inside the royal clay homes are simple kitchens kitted out with just a few clay and iron pots. “Most meals are cooked in one pot over a brazier,” explains Olga, who says meals usually consisted of “a starch foofoo or thick paste like porridge which is then dipped into a sauce of vegetables and peppers. The richer the family the more goes into the sauce.”