Spanning the departments of Donga and Atakora, the Atakora Mountains lie in the northwest of Benin and run on into Togo and Ghana, where they are known as the Togo Mountains and the Akwapim Hills, respectively.
The area’s largest settlement is the Atakora Department’s capital Natitingou or Nati, which serves as fine base for overnight stays when visiting the earthen architectures of Koutammakou, those of the Taneka, or on the way north to Pendjari National Park. The main ethnic-linguistic groups are the Otomari (also known as the Batammariba), the Dendi, and the Waama, though there are many other groups, including the Taneka. Islam and Christianity are the predominant religions, with Voodoo and other traditional animist belief systems constituting just over a fifth of the population. It is common for families and individuals to accommodate different religions.
Like Pendjari to the north, the climate in the Atakora Mountains is sudanian savannah, so a sub-humid dry climatic zone. A biodiversity hotspot, the mountains are home to a range of species of flora, some endemic to the area. Unfortunately, illegal settlement, certain agricultural practices, logging, and drought have resulted in the depletion of many species. A study in 2015 found that no less than a 117 ‘woody’ species are threatened and advised that mitigating interventions utilise local traditional ecological knowledge systems.
The various Atakora Mountains’s peoples are renowned for their vernacular earthen architecture, though perhaps none more so than the Otamari or Batammariba of Koutammouka. A 50,000 hectare ‘cultural landscape’, Koutammouka is found mostly in Togo, but also in north-western Benin, and ‘Batammariba’ translates as ‘those who model the earth’ and perhaps even more poetically as ‘the good masons’. The fortified earthen houses of the Otamari are composed of five designs, whereby ‘each space,’ argues another study, ‘has its own function, linked to specific activities of the day and night and each of the seasons’.
These functions are technical and symbolic as well as practical, and relate to societal structure, to land management techniques, and to the tie between people and land. They are, in short, three-dimensional descriptions of the kind of relationship we once all had with our immediate environment. Little wonder, then, that the architecture of the Otamari and others have attracted interest from planners and architects looking at more sustainable alternatives to modern ‘hard’ architecture. They are, notes the same study, ‘pretty outstanding with regards to the United Nations 17 Sustainable Goals’.
Equally fascinating are the traditions and customs of the Taneka, a much smaller non-indigenous collection of three ethnic groups that fled the machinations of the slave trade. Banding together as a means of better defending themselves, they made the mountain region (of what is now the northern part of Donga Department) their home, the co-mingling of traditions, practices, and languages of the Kabye, Bariba, and Gourmantche giving birth to the Taneka, which in turn subdivided into two groups, theTanéka Béri and the Tanéka Koko – named so after their villages, which are similarly composed of earthen houses. Like others, Taneka traditional ways of life are under threat, though especially so, the usual deleterious effects of modernity compounded by the existential threat of a loss of its local water supply.
When visiting the Atakora Mountains we currently use Pendjari Lodge or Nati for accommodation.