Besides having been balkanized into several countries and divided into myriads of ethnic groups each speaking its own language and having its own cultural heritage, West Africa caste system constitutes yet another layer of its social structure. The West African caste is a form of hierarchical social classification of individuals into groups, based on the then automatic hereditary transmission of lifestyle and occupation from one generation to another.

Caste in West Africa has similar traits with contemporary conceptions of race because of its hereditary nature and its association with endogamy. Exogamy, defined as marriage outside the confines of one’s social group, is not permissible between what has been referred to as casted and non-casted people. 

West African Caste System showing Clerics and Kings on the top of the hierarchy, Farmers and Warriors beneath them, Fishermen on the third layer, Weavers and Leatherworkers on the fourth layer and Smiths and Griots at the bottom layer.

This entails that the frontiers of the West African castes are rigid and cannot hence be crossed. In other words, an individual is, at birth and for the rest of his life, associated with his parents’ caste and nothing can change this fact. 

When did it all begin?
No formal documented account exists to this day as of when this social stratification of West African societies exactly started. The account that mentions the existence of an artisan with a role similar to that of modern days griot is from Ibn Battuta, the great Berber and Moroccan explorer. When he visited the Mali Empire in 1352 and 1353, he did in fact note that the King always spoke through a spokesperson who was also in charge of arranging and supervising all musical, dance, and acrobatic performances. 

Even though this testimony does not provide an exact date of when this social stratification has started, it at least allows observing that special status artisan is indeed an old phenomenon, which dates back to at least the first half of the fourteenth century. 

How did it all begin? 
The origin of the West African caste system, just like its starting period, has not been established by any formal documented account. However, evidence from the names attributed to different castes suggests that division of labor might have been the originating factor. Roughly translated into English, some names ascribed to these castes are fishermen, warriors, smiths, courtiers, counselors, leather workers, farmers, clerics, etc. 

As it tends to be the case in most societies, people with different occupations will have  different skills, possess different types of knowledge, have different income and different socio-economic status. Likewise, different stereotypes will be associated with each occupation. 

Castes and Stereotype
Statistically speaking, non-casted people make up about 70% of the population while casted-people make up the remaining 30%. The stereotypes associated with different castes indeed derive from occupation in and of itself. Non-casted people were primarily landowners and practiced agriculture for subsistence. Their default sense of superiority was associated with their ability to remain independent and to sustainably provide for themselves throughout the year. 

Casted-people or special artisan on the other hand were never landowners and relied on a dual mode of subsistence, on relying on their craft and off relying on agriculture. They were also viewed as people who transformed material objects into functional and stylistically pleasant objects for their patrons, the non-casted folks. 

For example, the Griots were viewed as people who, through their verbal and musical abilities, transform words into pleasant and beautiful poetry and songs to praise their patrons. The Smiths were viewed as people who, through the magic of fire, transform iron into beautiful and stylistically shaped objects and tools for their patrons. 

Specific Stereotypes

The stereotypes associated with different castes may show regional differences within West Africa. In order to provide, however, an idea of what these might be, here are some stereotypes associated with various castes among the Tukulor of Senegal as identified by Roy D. M. (2000).

Clerics, affiliated to religion, are said to possess healing powers through religious practices. They have a profound sense of their own superiority over the other social categories. They claim to possess a sense of honor, pride, and self-esteem, something that the other social categories lack.

Courtiers and counselors (Griots) are said to possess the ability of understanding quickly and have the reputation of being brilliant conversationalists, gifted with the capacity to maneuver themselves into the presence of patrons or rulers. 

Warriors, bold and fearless, are sometimes looked down upon for being ill bred.

Fishermen are believed to master the realms of water; their intelligence is, however, associated to that of a fish, a way to draw attention on their lower mental abilities.

Smiths are thought to be dangerous because their occupation is often associated with magic via the use of fire. They are also looked down upon for having the potential to stain freemen. 

Weavers are credited with little intelligence despite their ability to arrange things with delicacy and finesse. 

Leatherworkers are viewed as impure because of their association with a debasing occupation, which deals with skins somewhat viewed as rotting meat. 

Among the above-listed occupations, ambiguities exists a propos of the social status of some of them. For example, while fishermen are considered to be non-casted people, certain negative stereotypes are still associated with them. For that reason, the caste of fisherman does indeed have an ambiguous status. 

Even though I originally described the boundaries of these social categories as impenetrable, it is worth adding that a change in occupation during the evolutionary stages of these castes would also mean a change in status and therefore a change in caste. However, since these notions have passed on through generations as social norms, they have become adamant and part of West Africa tradition gaining a fetish-like status. 

Looking into the Future 
As of this date, the notion of caste is still a reality in much of West Africa and it still determines who one can marry in many instances. However, its future is at stake due to the growing influence of religions such as Islam and Christianity, which forbid discrimination on grounds, such as the ones alluded to in the caste system. Moreover, despite the use of patronyms to identify members of different castes, it is increasingly becoming difficult to determine an individual’s caste on the sole basis of their name. In urban areas in particular, more and more people are no longer taking caste into consideration in their decisions to get married. 

One thing we do have to keep in mind though is that social categories naturally form as a result of a people’s attempt to define the Other. This Other is most likely to be determined by the social and cultural realities of a time. In this regard, every epoch would have its own Other within every society. 

Today, our social and cultural factors are still determining who the Other is. We don’t have to look far to notice the Them-US divide. We all certainly have people we reference as THEY or THEM as opposed to WE and US. These are the realities and the burden of our time. That said, it would even be a graver mistake to not only bear the burden of our time, but also the burden of our forefathers. 

For more in-depth information, read:

Tamari, Tal. (1991). “The Development of Caste Systems in West Africa” The Journal of African History, Vol 32, 2. P. 221- 250. 

Roy, D. M. (2000). The Question of Caste in West Africa with Special Reference to Tukulor Craftsman.  Anthropos Institute. p.149 -165.