This is a detailed survey of the socio-demographic patterns of the peoples who inhabit the Northern half of Ghana.
The author gives an account of the indigenous language patterns of the different ethnic groups, their social customs and distinctive customs.
Among the main ethnic groups discussed in the survey are:
(1) Dagbani – Nanuni and Moore;Gurma of Northern Region;
(2) Dagaare; Wali- Birifor of Upper West Region; and
(3) “Frafra”; Nankani, Talni, Bulsa, Nabit, Kusaal, and Grusi of Upper East Region.
Northern Ghana comprises the three northernmost administrative regions of Ghana: the Upper West Region, Upper East Region and Northern Region. These lie roughly north of the Lower Black Volta River, which together with its tributaries the White and Red Voltas and the Oti and Daka rivers, drain the area that comprises Northern Ghana. Northern Ghana shares international boundaries with the Burkina Faso to the North, Togo to the east and Cote D’Ivoire to the lower southwest. To the south Northern Ghana shares regional boundaries with the Brong Ahafo Region and the Volta Region.
In colonial times the area now covered by these three regions constituted the Northern Territories of the Gold Coast and were administered by a Chief Commissioner who was responsible to the Governor of the Gold Coast for its administration. The area and its people were designated as the ‘Tribes of the Ashanti Hinterland’ by the Gold Coast anthropologist, Capt. R.S. Rattray who wrote a two volume account on that title describing the social institutions of the communities in this part of modern Ghana. The effective colonization of this portion of Ghana came after the British had established their hegemony over the rest of the country. Ashanti it would appear had for long served as a buffer preventing direct access to the Northern parts of the country. The conquest of Ashanti at the dawn of the Twentieth century opened the way to the North. Even before then Britain had made efforts to control the area through the treaties that it made with local rulers and opinion leaders through George Ekem Ferguson. These treaties became necessary owing to a desire to control the commercial activities and the international trade that converged in Salaga in the precolonial period. Salaga was where savanna produce of various descriptions were exchanged for forest produce – principally Kolanuts. Whoever controlled this Northern emporium of Salaga was well positioned to control and exploit the International trade. Several European powers were in contention including the Germans, the French and the British. Initially they agreed on a neutral zone that extended northwards from the White Volta-Daka confluence as far as 10ÚN. and westward from 0Ú 33′ E. as far as 1Ú 27′ W. The agreement did not hold and although the British eventually came into possession of the bulk of the North, stretching up to the 11Ú parallel they did not control Eastern Dagbon including its capital, Yendi, the lands of the Chokosi (Anufo), the Konkomba, the Nanumba and other peoples straddling the now Ghana –Togo border in the North. These fell to the Germans. Between their defeat at the battle of Adibo in 1896 and the end of the First World War, the kingdom of Dagbon was partitioned between the British and the Germans. Unification of that Kingdom came in 1919 when Eastern Dagbon and some of the other northern parts of what used to be German Togoland were ceded to the British to be administered as part of the Northern Territories Protectorate. These parts eventually became part of Ghana after the UN plebiscite of 1957 in which most of the affected northern people voted to remain with the rest of Ghana.
Northern Ghana today is home to a number of different peoples speaking a variety of related languages and exhibiting considerable cultural similarities. Some of these peoples claim to be autochthonous while others like the dominant or aristocratic lineages among the Dagomba, Mamprusi and Gonja claim descent from warrior immigrant groups that invaded the area and imposed their rule over the indigenous peoples. They intermarried with these peoples whose daughters they took as wives and whose languages and social norms they eventually adopted. Their traditions of foreign origin and the associated exploits remain and are recited by professional court drummers and fiddlers. These have been recorded by modern historians. Thus, in the traditional states of Northern Ghana migrant groups and indigenes coexist. On ritual occasions the differentiation may be dramatized in rituals which highlight complementation and opposition. Migrant groups, usually the conquering minority have often adopted the local languages and absorbed the social features of the indigenes among whom they found themselves. The integration has in many cases been so effective that a visitor, unless told, could not possibly guess the differences. However, in some parts the differences between royals and commoners still matter in local affairs.
Many Northern people, though not all, had until recently facial markers that were either for ethnic and clan identification or for therapeutic and aesthetic purposes. By these marks it was possible to tell an individual’s ethnic origin. Though a few old individuals still spot facial features these marks are now rare and out of vogue. In some communities traditional leaders are campaigning against facial marks.
Much of Northern Ghana falls within the savannah vegetation belt. Rainfall is modest in many parts of the area and allows for the cultivation of cereal crops and legumes. Agriculture and agro-based industries still remain the main stay of the peoples of this zone. Varieties of millet and sorghum as well as rice are cultivated. Rice cultivation in the low lying areas close to the banks of the Volta and its tributaries is of some commercial importance. The rice industry may have declined somewhat from what it used to be in the 1970s but it still remains an important local industry. Tubers are cultivated as staples in the middle and southern parts of the area which today supplies the bulk of the country’s requirement for yam. Animal husbandry has since traditional times been an integral feature of agriculture in these parts of Ghana. The industry is declining however. In addition to agriculture trade and craft production are important to the people of the Northern zone.
Since the colonial era many of the settlements of the area have developed in rural towns and even metropolitan areas. This is particularly true of the Regional capitals like Tamale (the Northern Regional capital which was also headquarters of the erstwhile Northern Territories), Bolgatanga (capital of the Upper East Region and the erstwhile Upper Region) and Wa (capital of the Upper West Region which was carved out of the Upper region). District towns have also gained in importance as commercial, administrative and educational centres. Notable among these are Bawku, a large commercial centre about 85 kilometres east of Bolgatanga, the Gonja towns Salaga (once a very famous settlement that attracted visitors from far and near), Damongo and Bole, Gonja towns, Yendi, the traditional capital kingdom and seat of the Yana, King of Dagbon, Gambaga (a historic town lying next to the seat of the Nayiri, king of Mamprugu, and also the first headquarters of the Northern Territories), Navrongo (a significant British colonial district headquarters for the West Mamprusi district and the seat of the fist Catholic missionaries to the Northern Territories) and Tumu, the capital of the Sisala district. The University of Development Studies has its campuses spread between Tamale, Navrongo and Wa. Regrettably the North lags far behind the rest of the country in terms of literacy rates. The social organization of the peoples of Northern Ghana is informed by patrilineal descent ideologies which differentiates these people from the Akans of Southern Ghana. There are however differences in the application of patrilineal norms. Corporate groups of kin or relatives exist whose members trace putative ties to common ancestors. Property rights and succession to traditional positions would be based largely on paternal ties. Sons succeed fathers or failing sons siblings succeed and inherit property. In some respects Northern peoples like the Dagomba and Gonja and a few others seem to accord more or less equal importance to relationships traced to maternal and paternal relatives. Among the Dagomba extended family groups have been identified which bring together individuals who are related by either maternal or paternal ties or a combination of both.
In many Northern Ghanaian communities marriages are exogamous and are forbidden between relatives. As a condition for the formalization of a marriage the bride or his family has to make transfers of prescribed goods and services to the parents and relatives of the bride. The quantum of goods and services and their types seem to vary between northern societies; in some communities the transfers are no more than symbolic. In some communities livestock were used and still continue to be used although this is being resented by would-be grooms.
Communities in Northern Ghana have known chieftaincy prior to the era of colonization. For peoples like the Dagomba, Mamprusi and Gonja the culture of chieftaincy goes far back in time to the 15th Century. From these sources chieftaincy as an institution has spread to other parts of the North either by persuasion as formerly acephalous peoples welcomed immigrant princes fleeing from dynastic disputes or by imposition. The British have also been responsible directly or indirectly for promoting chieftaincy in parts of the North where in pre-colonial times chiefs were either unknown or of not much importance. The Northern chief, it will be observed, sits on a pile of skins unlike his southern counterpart. It is therefore customary in Ghana to refer to the skin polities of the North where chiefs are ‘enskinned’ or enrobed rather then ‘enstooled’, as is the case in southern Ghana. In a number of respects Northern chieftaincy differs from what obtains in the south of the country. Succession is patilineal rather than matrilineal and among the Dagbomba peoples a person cannot succeed to a chiefly office that is higher than the one that his father once held in life. In a few communities (for example Gonja) offices equivalent to queen motherships were traditionally recognized but not in the majority of Northern communities. The office of magazia (a term of Hausa origin) is the local women’s leader. She is elected and need not have kinship connections to the chiefs. There are however female chiefs among the Dagomba and Mamprusi groups.
In many communities the office of tendaana (earthpriest) coexists with that of chief. It is suggested that earthpriestships predated the institution on chieftaincy in most parts of the North. While chiefly families do not claim any autochthonous status earthpriest lineages often do. Eathpriests are essentially priestly figures who supervise ritual activities concreted on the earth. In addition to their priestly duties or as a consequence, they usually serve land owners who apportion land for building and farming purposes. These rights have been taken over by chiefs in some communities.
The traditional religious beliefs still count for much among the peoples of the North. There is frequent recourse to the ancestors and the divinities in accounting for incidents in the lives of people. Sacrifices are made to invite the intercession of the ancestors and the local gods. It is even believed that humans can themselves through witchcraft harm their neighbours and kin. However, in some of the communities Islam has taken deep roots which date back to precolonial times. Islam is particularly strong among peoples like the Dagomba, Mamprusi, Gonja and Wala. Not only do we find people bearing Moslem names the recognized Moslem feasts such as Eid UL Adha and Eid UL Fitr are celebrated, even if the actual celebrations are not devoid of traditional non-Islamic features and people pray faithfully five times a day, and attend the mosque on Fridays. Islam was introduced via the trade that brought Hausa and Wangara traders to these parts. Where and when the ruling elites espoused Islam many of their subjects followed suit and Islam was on its way to becoming the religion of the state.
Christianity arrived in the decade that coloniasation was introduced in the North. Of the Christian dominations the Catholics seem to dominate in the North, particularly in the Upper Regions. It is worth noting that the centenary celebrations on the coming to the North of the White Fathers, a Catholic missionary society, are scheduled for 2006. The Catholics were able to establish a firm foothold here and it would appear that the colonial policy of reserving particular areas for particular religious denominations was a factor in the predominance of certain denominations in the area.