BAGA Information

Location: Coast of Guinea-Conakry
Population: 60,000
Language: Baga (Mel)
Neighbors: Nalu, Susu, Maninka
Types of Art: Wooden figures, often worn or carried in the form of masks, are used by the initiation societies to educate initiates about the role of the spirits whom they represent. Large wooden serpent figures appear at initiations, and carved anthropomorphic figures are placed on shrines. The ancestors are represented in figures that embody both human and animal characteristics. Geographically the Baga belong to the coast, yet their art is more stylistically akin to that found in the Western Sudan region.
History: The Baga have lived in their current location since the 14th century. They migrated to this area from the interior highlands in upper Niger accompanied by several other peoples who share linguistic similarities, including the Landuma, Tyapi, and Temne peoples. From the 14th to the early 20th century they were repeatedly invaded by the Nalu, Susu, Djalonke, Maninka, and the Fulbe among others. In the late 19th century French domination led to colonization. Since independence, many Baga peoples have abandoned some of their traditional ways in favor of Guinean nationalism.
Economy: The Baga are farmers who primarily cultivate swamp varieties of rice in wet paddies along the coast. Cotton, gourds, millet, oil palms, okra, sesame, and sorghum are locally grown products that help to round out the Baga diet. Despite all of the hard work of farmers, crops still occasionally fail. The Baga believe that it is possible to encourage abundance by placing benevolent spirits embodied in carved wooden figures in specially constructed thatch huts located between the village and the bush. Coastal fishing also plays an important role in the local economy.
Political Systems: The Baga were traditionally governed through the initiation society commonly known to Westerners by the Susu term, Simo, which merely means sacred. Political power is invested in leaders who derive their power through their relationship to the ancestors traced through the matrilineal line. Having a direct connection to the ancestors buried in the land entitles the leader to control the distribution of that land. The leader of each community is attended by a council of elders. Baga homes are structured with connecting compounds, creating a strong sense of community both physically and socially.
Religion: Religious life among the Baga is focused primarily on lineage-based men's and women's societies. The creator god is known as Kanu, and the highest recognized spiritual being other than Kanu is Somtup, the male spirit who governs the men's initiation society. The female society is governed by a-Bol, the wife of Somtup. Shrines are also kept by individual families in an effort to remember and appease the ancestors. Elek are carved shrine objects, which symbolize the lineage and offer protection for the family.
Credit: McIntyre, L. Lee and Christopher D. Roy. 'Art and Life in Africa Online.' 1998: The Art and Life in Africa Project,