Tefalipitya (Champion Cultivator Staff)


By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


Before 'gamification' was a word, the Senufo of Ivory Coast were already leveraging its principles. In an effort to introduce competition, sport and fun into the arduous task of farming, young men work the land, swinging their hoes to the beat of drums, all in a bid to outwork their competitors, prove their power as labourers and demonstrate their speed and dexterity. The first to finish working his trench is declared the champion cultivator (sambali)—the 'master farmer'.

The prize? A tefalipitya (meaning 'hoe-work-girl' among the central Senufo; called tyekparipitya among the Fodonon) staff. Not only do champion cultivators win the staff itself, it is said that the staff (representing pitya—a young, unmarried, and physically beautiful woman) is also a symbol of the future reward of the most beautiful girl in the village as his wife. There is no greater honour for a Senufo man than to be known as sambali, a title that stays with him until his death. Upon the death of a sambali, his tefalipitya staff is placed outside is home to guard his spirit.

Tefalipitya staffs have additional uses and meaning in Senufo communities:

  • They are said to be used during Poro ceremonies as awards for initiates that have mastered the secret language of the society;
  • They are held by kpelie masquerades during harvest festivals;
  • They are used as weapons of Katieleo (meaning 'earth-mother') to ward off evil spirits that aim to disrupt ritual ceremonies.

Distinguishing Features

Common features among all tefalipitya staffs:

  • Carved in one piece of wood
  • Geometric of naturalistic styles
  • Made up of two parts:
    • Small seated female figure
      • Figure is proud and upright in bearing
      • Calm repose
      • Full breasted
      • Bent arms
      • Hands resting on hips
      • Figure sat on four legged stool
      • Sometimes two front legs of stool replaced by figure's legs
      • Figure sometimes wears white cowrie shell clusters attached to waist and/or neck
    • Long slender staff

Regional variations (Korhogo style):

  • Elongated hair crest
    • Crest descending on forehead between the eyes
  • Wide hole sometimes at back of coiffure
  • Concave facial plane
  • Jutting chin
  • Conical breasts
  • Hands marked by series of parallel grooves on arms

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