The people who would eventually become the Dagomba did not originate in Ghana, but rather in what is now northern Nigeria.
These people traversed the Sahel, moving from Nigeria through the present day countries of Mali, Ivory Coast, and Burkina Faso before settling in Ghana. Toha-zie, the Red Hunter, is the ancestor who led the final southwestern migration from Bawku, at Ghana’s northeastern border, to present-day Dagbon. His grandson, Naa Gbewaa, is considered the common ancestor of the Dagomba and two related groups, the Nanumba and the Mamprusi. Sitobu, Naa Gbewaa’s son, is the father of Dagomba and the man who begat the royal lineage of the chiefs of Dagbon.
The Dagomba, or as they call themselves, Dagbamba, are an ethnic group based in the Northern Region of Ghana. Their kingdom, called Dagbon, was established centuries ago and dominated an area near the Dagomba capital of Yendi. Yendi was located east of the White Volta River and north of Tamale. In the 1600’s, the Gonja people began to attack Dagbon from the west, pushing the Dagomba across the White Volta and forcing them to abandon their capital. Yendi was soon renamed Yendi Dabari which means “ruined Yendi.”
By the end of the 1600’s, however, the Dagomba pushed eastward, establishing a new capital for their kingdom (also called Yendi) and located east of Tamale near the border of Togo. In the early 1700’s, the Dagomba rallied against the pressuring Gonja and succeeded in driving them back. Today, the Dagomba remain a powerful people. They speak Dagbani, which is a Gur language.
The modern-day nation of Ghana is divided into ten geographical regions. The traditional kingdom of Dagbon in Ghana predates colonialism, but in terms of today’s administrative boundaries, Dagbon encompasses the Northern region districts of Tolon/Kumbungu, Savelugu/ Nanton, Tamale Municipal, Yendi, Karaga, Gushiegu, Saboba/Chereponi, and Zabzugu/Tatale, and covers an area of 8,000 square miles of dry savannah.
One of the major and most conspicuous features of Dagomba society is chieftaincy. There has been a line of paramount chiefs that stretches back to the days of Naa Nyagsi, the son of Sitobu. Their system of chieftancy is very hierarchical, with the Yaa-Naa, or paramount chief, at its head and a tiered system of rulers below him. In Dagbon, chiefs traditionally sit on a stack of skins. For this reason, when a person assumes a chief position, they are said to have been “skinned,” rather than enthroned. As an example, to say that so-and-so is “sitting on the Savelugu skin” means that the person is chief of the town called Savelugu.
Chieftaincies are generally associated with towns or villages and are categorized by who is eligible for them. Staniland outlines 5 levels of chieftaincy, the first four of which he labels “royal” chieftaincies. Royal chieftaincies are only available to those who can trace themselves through the male line back to Naa Nyagsi. If a man is not appointed to one of the royal chieftaincies, his descendants lose their royal status. The first group of chieftaincies is reserved for the sons of Yaa-Naas. The second group of chieftaincies is for grandsons of Yaa-Naas. The third group is reserved for daughters of Yaa-Naas. The fourth group is for sons of the sisters of Yaa-Naas. The fifth group, which are not considered “royal,” are for court elders. These often have some specific responsibility attached to them. For example, the chief of Tolon is traditionally the head of the Dagbon’s cavalry.
Chiefs are generally chosen by the Yaa-Naa who is aided by a council of elders situated in Yendi, or in the case of smaller town chieftaincies by the divisional chief above him. The Yaa-Naa is chosen by a set of elders and chiefs from around the kingdom, referred to as the kingmakers. Because a person’s ability to become chief depends on the level achieved by their father, competitions for certain chieftaincies can become very fierce. Something else that contributes to the intensity of this competition Dagomba society is polygynous. As powerful men, chiefs tend to have many wives. As a result, a chief can die with a large number of surviving siblings, children, and nephews, all of whom have a vested interest in who ascends to that position. Once a man dies without having reached a certain position, his line becomes ineligible for that post and his descendants lose some of their status. This has the potential to generate immense conflict when it comes time to skin a new chief and often does.
Many of the history stories on this site deal with how specific men came to sit on their skins. The proverbs attached to these dance-drumming compositions are often warnings to would-be challengers of these chiefs. They have demonstrated their power by attaining their position, and to go up against them would be considered foolish for most men to attempt.
The Dagomba have a rich, intricate musical and oral tradition that has allowed them to preserve their history and origins in the form of what can be referred to as “dance-drumming.”
Many of these dance-drumming compositions, including the majority of the ones presented here, tell the stories of important events or people in the history of the Dagomba. As is the case with many societies in Ghana and throughout Africa, music has an integral place in the ceremonies and day-to-day lives of the Dagomba, and it is through their music that they remind themselves of who they are and from whom and where they came. Drummers play an important role in the village, for they not only are musicians, but also are court historians. They must learn and retain much information. In most cases, a drummer’s son follows in his father’s footsteps, becoming a drummer and learning from his father the origin of the people and their kingdom.
Music plays a central role in Dagbon. It is in musical form that Dagomba history has been preserved over the centuries. At events called sambanlunga,
What are their lives like?
The Dagomba make their living primarily through farming. Much of the land of the Dagbon is infertile and requires that a farm be left fallow for up to five years; therefore, Dagomba villages are somewhat small, leaving room for farms to be widely separated. Farmers use much fertilizer from the manure of the village cattle, and eventually the soil does become quite fertile, enabling the farms to be used year-round. However, farms located in the bush are used only for two or three years and then are left fallow. Since yams are the specialty crop, the Dagomba plant over 32 varieties. Farmers also grow crops such as maize, millet, rice, peanuts, and beans.
The Dagomba are not only skillful farmers, but also are fishermen and hunters, and some even engage in administrative and managerial work. Dagomba craftsmen are skilled tailors, traders, and makers of ropes and mats. Some also specialize as blacksmiths, butchers, and barbers. Parents send their young sons to be trained by these craftsmen. Through observation and practice, a boy will gradually learn a trade and assume his role in the new occupation.
In Dagomba society, villagers arrange their houses in a particular order. The chief (eldest man in the village) locates his dome-shaped hut in the center. His hut stands out above the rest. The village is divided into wards or quarters, all facing the chief’s home. A quarter is identified by its head or by its dominating specialist group. For example, there may be a soldiers’ quarter or a butchers’ quarter. The commoners are scattered throughout the village in round or rectangular huts (for female and male, respectively); there is no physical separation of the commoners from the ruling class.
The Dagomba have a wide variety of arts. Bark cloth was used for clothing before weaving was introduced using cotton and silk. Women usually pick the cotton and spin materials into thread, while men take on the responsibilities of weaving the cloth. Different patterns in weaving are used to represent social status, a clan, a saying, or the gender of the one wearing it.
Pottery is a skill that is taught to a daughter by the mother. There are many stages to making pots and there are many colors of clay available. The Dagomba also excel at woodcarving and metal casting.
To the Dagomba, the family and the mother’s clan are most important. A child is said to inherit the father’s soul or spirit (ntoro) and from the mother a child receives flesh and blood (mogya). This relates them more closely to the mother’s clan. The Dagomba live in an extended family. The family lives in various homes or huts that are set up around a courtyard. The head of the household is usually the oldest brother that resides in the individual courtyard. He is chosen by the elders. He is called either Father or Housefather and is obeyed by everyone.
Boys are trained by their fathers at the age of eight and nine. They are taught a skill of the fathers’ choice. Boys are taught to use the talking drums. Talking drums are extremely important to the Dagomba. They are used for learning the Dagomba language, in ceremonies, rituals, and spreading news. Girls are taught cooking and housekeeping skills by their mothers, including control of the household budget. They also work the fields and bring in necessary items, such as water, for the family. Wild bee keeping is also practiced by the people of the Dagomba.
Marriage is very important to Dagomba communal life. Women in the Dagomba culture will not marry without the consent of their parents. Many women do not meet their husbands until they are married. Interestingly, divorce is very rare in the Dagomba culture and it is a duty of parents on both sides to keep a marriage going.
Although almost half of the Dagomba follow the Islamic faith, many also believe in and worship additional spirits and gods.
Islam was introduced into Dagomba society towards the end of the 1700s, and while it has exerted a strong influence on their customs, they still retain many of their pre-Islamic beliefs; Islam can be seen in the way they practice their tradition and likewise their tradition is evident in the way they practice Islam.
Each village sacrifices to its individual ancestral gods and the entire society collectively worships the more powerful gods. The Dagomba also practice witchcraft and consult diviners to rid themselves of curses.
The Dagomba honor their ancestors with a festival called Bugun, which means “fire” or “hell.” The celebration begins with a great feast and culminates when the people gather together with lighted torches near a tree outside the community. There they recite the names of their ancestors and throw their torches into the tree.
The Dagomba religion is a mixture of spiritual and supernatural powers. They believe that plants, animals, and trees have souls. There are a variety of religious beliefs involving ancestors, higher gods, or abosom, and ‘Nyame’, the Supreme Being of Dagomba. The Dagomba also practice many rites for marriage, death, puberty, and birth. The golden stool is sacred to the Dagomba. There is an elaborate legend surrounding it that is told by the old men of Dagomba. The golden stool is very carefully protected. As a Dagomba symbol, the golden stool represents the worship of ancestors, well-being, and the nation of Dagomba.
The Dagomba are a peaceful people who live with a respect for nature. A beautiful and proud people, who are willing to share their culture and their wild Molé honey with the world.