KASSENA Information

Location: Northern Ghana
Population: 30,000
Language: Kassena
Neighbors: Mossi, Winiama, Nuna, Bwa, Lobi
Types of Art: The most recognized of the Kassena art forms are magnificent wooden masks. In addition anthropomorphic figures sculpted from clay and wood and various personal objects, ranging from jewelry to wooden stools, are created to honor the spirits. Kassena build spectacular adobe homes.
History: Kassena peoples belong to a larger subset of peoples in the area of southern Burkina Faso and northern Ghana collectively known as Gurunsi. This term is applied to these peoples, who share common histories, languages, and political structures, but it also carries pejorative overtones in local usage. Most of Gurunsi live in modern day Burkina Faso, and the degree to which recent Kassena history differs from their northerly neighbors, such as the Nuna, Bwa, and Winiama, is because they live in modern day Ghana. These differences arose during the colonial period in the early part of the 20th century, as French and British colonial systems differed in their administrative practices.
Economy: Kassena are primarily sedentary farmers, growing millet, sorghum, and yams. Maize, rice, peanuts, and beans are grown in addition to these staples. Farmers throughout the region practice slash and burn farming, using fields (keri) for approximately seven or eight years before they are allowed to lie fallow for at least a decade. In the family fields close to the villages, women grow cash crops, including sesame and tobacco, which are sold in local markets. Men participate in hunting during the long dry season. This is important for ritual reasons, since it is during this time that men may interact with the spirits that inhabit the bush. During the dry season, when food supplies are running low, some fishing is practiced in local swamps.
Political Systems: Kassena societies are comprised mainly of farmers without social or political stratification. They are not divided among occupational castes or groups since most of them simply till the land and engage in occasional hunting. They had no internal system of chiefs, and all important decisions were made by a council of elders consisting of the oldest members of each of the village lineages. Religious leaders maintain some political authority, determining the agricultural cycle and parceling out land for cultivation.
Religion: Belief in a supreme creator being is central to Kassena beliefs. A shrine to this god occupies the center of every village. An element of this creator god is Su, the mask spirit which is enshrined in the oldest and most sacred mask in the community. The spirit of Su can be harnessed to benefit the community or to cause harm to their enemies. When Su is properly appeased communal harmony is achieved. He is responsible for human fertility and is recognized for his role in the continuity of life. Each extended family maintains its own hut, in which the lineage magical objects are kept. The objects allow the family to maintain contact with the vital forces of nature. These objects are the communal property of the lineage, providing protection and social cohesion among all members of the family.
Credit: McIntyre, L. Lee and Christopher D. Roy. 'Art and Life in Africa Online.' 1998: The Art and Life in Africa Project,