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   The People - Ethnic Groups
The Peoples Of Northern Ghanapdf print preview send to friend
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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 south-west. 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 pre-colonial 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 10˚N. and westward from 0˚ 33’ E. as far as 1˚ 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 11˚ 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.
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