In the southeastern region of Ivory Coast, near the border with Ghana, there exists a village called Alépé. In this small town situated along a dirt road just off Route Nationale 6 lives a group of craftspeople who have been using their ancestral skills to build simple furniture for even longer than anyone can remember. These artisans are members of the Senufo people , and they have survived the cultural conversion from hunter-gatherers to farmers by selling their wares to local folks. Nowadays, these items include chairs and tables commercialized under the name Alépé.
The Senufo people, who mainly inhabit the area in and around Alépé, are not strangers to change. First they had to abandon their nomadic ways when French colonists came into the region in 1895. The tribal members then became cultivators of the land, taking up subsistence farming in order to survive. They continued this way for nearly 70 years until crop prices dropped too low by 1970's standards; at this point many people began travelling away from their villages to find work in cities like Abidjan or even further afield, like France or America. During this time period is when crafts entered the picture as an alternative means of earning money. Today Senufo artisans have crafted traditional objects that include drums, chaise table and the infamous senufo stool.
The senufo chair was created by an artist named Aboubakar Sidiki Coulibaly in 1980. It is based on the artisans own unique design for a stool, which was originally intended to provide seats for women while they were working over hot cooking fires. The chairs are all hand made from local hardwood trees like Afzelia africana and Khaya ivorensis, which are chosen for their durability and long term strength. Nowadays, each piece is sanded down with sandpaper before being treated with palm oil to give it that signature shiny finish. Up until this time period, all of the designs have been simple yet elegant due to their practicality during Senufo daily life.
One of the most common items is a simple straight back chair with arm rests. However, there are also more intricate designs like the Adjatado stool which features curved arms and legs to support its elongated design.
While Senufo people may have taken up different trades over time, it is clear that they still value their heritage today. The people in Alépé continue to be proud members of their tribe and they want everyone else to know about all of the interesting things about themselves. Now, this business venture offers an opportunity for others around the world to learn more about them while at the same time supporting local artisans who work hard every day to produce these chairs by hand. By buying one of these unique pieces of senufo stools and senufo chairs, you are not only supporting the artists but also sustaining a tradition that goes back a century.