The Peoples of the North

The Peoples of the North

Apart from the Guan-speaking Gonja, the Kyokosi or Chokosi (an Akan-speaking fragment), and the Mande-speaking Busanga in the northeasternmost part of Ghana, the ethnic groups to the north of the Black Volta speak Gur or Voltaic languages of the Niger-Congo linguistic family. Three subgroups of Gur languages--the MoleDagbane (sometimes called Mossi-Grunshi), Gurma, and Grusi--are represented in this region. Of the three Gur subfamilies, MoleDagbane is by far the largest, being spoken by about 15 percent of the nation's population. Its speakers are culturally the most varied; they include the Nanumba, Dagomba, Mamprusi, Wala, Builsa, Frafra, Talensi, and Kusase.

For centuries, the area inhabited by the Gur has been the scene of movements of people engaged in conquest, expansion, and northsouth and east-west trade. For these reasons, a considerable degree of heterogeneity, particularly of political structure, developed here.

The structure of many small groups, varied as they are, suggests that most Gur-speakers once lived in small, autonomous communities and that the links among these communities were provided by kin groups, which in their larger extensions cut across community boundaries, and by intermarriage. The salient figure was not political but ritual--it was the priest (tendaan; a Mole-Dagbane term) of the earth cult and shrine. Although primarily a religious figure, the tendaan's influence was keenly felt in kin-group and community decision making.

In some cases (for example, that of the Talensi), an independent community or chiefdom was aware that others like it shared the same culture and social structure, and there were occasional common rituals that brought independent communities together. In other cases (for example, the Dagaba), political and cultural boundaries were not sharp, and there was no sense that an ethnic group included some communities and excluded others, although shifting distinctions were made based on various cultural traits. In the case of the Dagaba, the most important or recurrent of these distinctions seemed to be, and in the mid-twentieth century continued to be, whether inheritance was exclusively determined in the patrilineal line or, at least in part, followed the matrilineal line.

In a few cases, some Mole-Dagbane people developed societies of larger scale under a ruling dynasty. These included the Dagomba, Mamprusi, and Gonja, who, like the Akan to the south, were known to have founded centralized states. Rulers of the centralized MoleDagbane societies were believed to be related to those of the Mossi kingdoms of Burkina and the smaller Nanumba kingdoms of Ghana. Historical research suggests that migrants imposed their rule on peoples already settled in the area. In some cases, these migrants extended their rule to other groups, at least for a time. Thus, many of the Gurma-speaking Konkomba were subject to Dagomba control. The ruling groups still maintain a clear sense of their own distinction and some cultural and linguistic peculiarities, but in general they speak the local language.

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