The Dan People


The Dan, also called the Yacuba, Mebe, Samia, and Gyo (or Gio), live in the border area between Liberia and Coˆte d’Ivoire and number around 350,000 in total. Most Dan live in Coˆte d’Ivoire with much smaller numbers over the border in Liberia. The Dan Maou and the Dan Kran are subdivi-sions of the Dan in Cˆote d’Ivoire and speak the same language also called Dan, which belongs to the southern branch of the Mande of the Niger-Congo phylum. The Dan are a farming people cultivating crops of cocoa, rice, kola nuts, peanuts, cotton, millet, and manioc as well as small live-stock. The region they inhabit includes for-est and savanna, giving them a wide variety of corps they can raise.

Historically, the Dan lacked any form of political cohesion until the 19th century when a common language and the prefer-ence to marry from within the Dan and not choose marriage partners from neigh-boring groups helped foster a sense of unity. Before the 19th century, individual villages were independent, and it was pos-sible to rise to the chieftaincy through suc-cess in farming, hunting, and through lavish gift-giving, which was subsequently institutionalized into the tin ceremony.

Social hierarchy was achieved through community recognition of hard work—and a person seeking such recognition needed to hold feasts and give gifts. Rela-tionships between Dan villages also involved lavish feasting and exchanges of gifts, which gave both leaders further social prestige as well as lessened tensions between communities. In general, the Dan have few oral traditions and no written record of their earlier history. They are, nonetheless, known for resisting Islamiza-tion efforts from the Kingdom of Mali in the 15th and 16th centuries. Even though they generally resisted the first efforts to convert them to Islam, the majority are Muslims today.

Even though the majority of Dan today are Muslims, they still have a strong attachment to their traditional animist beliefs. For the Dan, all people have a spi-rit called a du. When a person dies, part of the du will be reborn in a new person, but part of it will also remain in the forest joining the myriad of forest spirits. The spirits are not only in humans, but in ani-mals too, and were created by their god Xra. Any activity needs the cooperation of the forest spirits, and it is necessary to give them a physical form. When a living person is contacted by a du, usually during the initiation period, he must give the spi-ritaform,usuallyasamasktheperson then wears when in touch with the spirit. In addition to a mask carved by the person, he may also need to learn a special dance when using the mask.

Traditional Dan religion is compli-cated, and they have developed societies to deal with spirits. Since the 19th century, the most important and most wide spread of the societies is the Leopard, or Go, Society. The Leopard Society controls boys’ initiation and serves to regulate Dan life, since it also is charged with main-taining peace. It is a secret society, meaning that only initiates may know what happens at a meeting, the format they take, and any other information about them. Boys, when initiated, are taken into the forest for three to four months and are taught the secrets of the society. The influence of the Leopard Society is growing among the Dan, but vil-lages still today try to maintain a degree of local independence.

The Dan make a number of cultural items that have a ready international mar-ket. African art has a wide appeal, and the Dan make both masks and wooden statues, though statues are less common. Originally, the objects on the art market had ceremonial uses and the masks repre-sented du spirits, but some were worn for simply village entertainment. There are a wide variety of masks, but they fall into two main groups. The northern masks are known for having fine features, high, smooth foreheads, eyes set in the middle of the face, and a smooth, brown finish due to being soaked in mud.

Southern masks are less refined with protruding features, and the brown finish is rough, being brushed on vegetal pigments.Dan put on mask shows for tourists and are known for a number of masked figures that dance on stilts. In addition, Dan make objects such as ornamental spoons that are exchanged as tin gifts.The Dan are now among the labor force in Coˆte d’Ivoire’s cities, where they have a deserved reputation for hard work. Dan men work as lumberjacks, dockworkers, and domestic labor, where young people put the Dan belief in hard work to practice. They use their earnings to finance feasts and gift giving when they return home to gain social status.

John A. Shoup

Further Reading

Bacquart, Jean-Baptiste. The Tribal Arts of Africa: Surveying Africa’s Artistic Geogra- phy. London: Thames and Hudson, 2002.

“Dan Mask Art History.” http://www.rebirth .htm (accessed December 20, 2010).

“Dan Tribe: People of Africa.” (accessed December 20, 2010).