Taneka, Benin: Walking Together for the Future

On a rocky hill in a remote area of northern Benin, there are four villages which share an interesting feature. The inhabitants arrived here in the second half of the eighteenth century from different regions of Togo, Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Niger.

They were all running away from the gangs of slave hunters coming from the Kingdom of Dahomey and the Ashanti Empire. The refugees found a natural fort in these hills, steep and rocky, full of natural caves, and with a commanding view of the surrounding area. They built their villages, living with the other ethnic groups without fear. All paths leading to the villages are blocked by stone walls, built to stop mounted hunters and offer defending archers a shelter from which to shoot their arrows undisturbed. In time, they became known as the Taneka.

The Taneka have always been aware of their origin. They are proud of it, and do not forget the traditional rituals of the different places they come from. At the same time, they developed a common culture. Among them, respecting the elders is still an important value. The Taneka kept their traditional dress; but they also wear modern clothes like t-shirts. And even though rectangular buildings with metal roofs are now common, no one would dream of celebrating significant life events in them. Only round huts, built according to the traditions, are used for such celebrations.

Up on the hill, overlooking the villages, there is a cave called Varun. It is a sacred space; sacrifices are offered there. A legend holds that during the slave raids, the people hid inside the cave. They were from different tribes and spoke different languages initially — but when they left the cave, they all spoke one language. The metaphor is clear: the spirit of solidarity and the will to live together moulded them into one people, overcoming the differences that distinguished each group. The Taneka are proud of their different backgrounds; but this potentially divisive feature is alleviated by the mentoring system in place. In this system, people of the same age are grouped together, and their friendship keeps them together irrespective of ethnic origin. Each Taneka chooses a godson — from a different clan — and begins a mentoring relationship that will last until the older person’s death. Throughout their lives, the two meet regularly, looking to each other for mutual advice and support. In this way, more interweaving links are created.

The Taneka do not have an origin myth. They are very aware that they are the product of a historical evil — one that could be defeated only through unity. But they do have a plan for the future. Alongside the common rituals, the feasts, and the prayers, each person clings on to the dances and funeral rites of the ethnic group they belong to. And so departing from this world becomes a passage that finds its roots in a long-gone past. When you make a basket, they say, you interweave reeds to make it strong. By interlocking their histories, their rituals, and their relationships, the Taneka have formed a new people. They founded a society where each has a place equal to the others. A society founded on a common pact to walk together for the future.

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