The Frafra Kusasi, Nabdam, Tallensi People
In the east parts of the Upper East Region of Ghana are found a number of ethnic groups speaking very closely related Oti-Volta languages and exhibiting remarkable similarities in their cultural traditions. These are the Frafra (also called Goresi) of the Bolgatanga and Bongo Districts, the Tallensi of the Tongo District and the Nabdam of the Nangodi District. These people could pass for Frafra as far as other Ghanaians who care not so much for local distinctions are concerned. In recent times they have fudged a wider politico-social association that goes by the name BONABOTO. The Kusasi are a large, though perhaps not so homogeneous, group in the Bawku and Pusiga Districts of the Upper East.
The towns of Bawku and Bolga are now metropolitan and commercial centres. Bawku is easily the largest town in the Region. Bolgatanga the Regional capital has developed from a tiny settlement in the 1950s to a large administrative centre today.
Unlike the Dagbamba people the peoples in question were not known to have had powerful kingdoms or systems based on strong certralised authority ideologies. They exemplified communities that anthropologists would describe as ‘acephalous’. This does not mean that they lived in anarchy. If there were chiefs they were not powerful ones capable of maintaining law and authority beyond their clan. In the pre-colonical past the functionary with power and authority seemed to have been the master of the Earth, a priestly figure who wielded ritual rather than physical sanctions that derived from his/her religious role and the perceived power of the earth to punish the community and kin-groups for any violations of the laws of the land. Interestingly enough the earth forbade bloodshed. The earthpriests, tendaana, held sway and served as the focal point of a community’s social and religious life.
In later times individuals acquired chiefships from the Mamprusi people and set up as chiefs, albeit without the full power and authority to govern as kings. In some instances exiled princes from neighbouring kingdoms were known to have presented themselves to the communities among whom they sought refuge and to have been accepted as chiefs. In many communities a contrapuntal relationship existed in which mandates and responsibilities were shared between autochthones and migrants.
Their history does not suggest that the states in this zone, such as the Dagomba and Mamprusi, actually ever subdued them nor did they succeed in incorporating them into the established empires. Villages continued to maintain their independence and clans acted as political units in the defence of their rights when these were seen to have been infringed by others. Clans might in the past exploit various alliances to secure a peaceful existence such as territorial and propinquity ties, clanship ties, joking relationships, ritual collaborations, congregational ties and others. They seemed to have maintained their independence until the era of British colonization, and the British did seem to have had a hard a hard time subduing some of these peoples.
Their independence manifested in their ability to harass traders using the pre-colonial trade routes that connected the Salaga emporium with Moshie country in present day Burkina Faso. Nevertheless, their reported ‘truculence’ did not stop enterprising individuals from visiting the court of the Nayiri (his title translates roughly as ‘fountain source or home of chieftaincy’) on their own accord and acquiring ritual prerogatives of soliciting investiture by the Mamprusi kings. Many chiefs still trek to the court of the Mamprusi king to seek installation whenever a vacancy occurs. It becomes an essential chieftaincy rite of passage for an eligible candidate (prince) to make this journey to Mamprugu and to make stops at the historical point where predecessor chiefs in this time rested on their journey to Mamprusi king’s court in Nalerigu. Such chiefs, until the advent of the British who gave them effective authority backed by the might of the colonial power, were more ritual figures than effective political leaders who commanded any authority in their communities.
The absence of political centrality in the past had its down side. The acephalous peoples of the Upper East were not only free booty to the centralized states they were also at the mercy of the slave raiders who terrorized the area towards to the end of the nineteenth century. To this day the memory of Samori, Gazari, Babatu and other slavers still lingers in these parts.
Much of the Upper East where these people are found is dry savannah with impoverished soils that featured granitic outcrops and lateritic profiles. The land supports grain crops – millets and sorghum, legumes and potatoes in a good year when the rains are on time and adequate in quantity. The vegetation which comprises a carpet of short grass interspersed with short trees supports livestock rearing. The population density has however been relatively thick, especially in the Frafra country. Security concerns in the past, it has been suggested, might explain the settlement pattern and the occupation of hilly areas, especially in the case of the Tallensi, who in the past sought refuge from their enemies by hiding in the Tongo hills. The slave traders operated on a considerable scale until the arrival of the British who put a stop to slave raiding. Maximum use is however made of the available land and compound farming has been the norm since time immemorial. Upper Eastern people differ in this respect from the other Northern peoples such as the Dagbamba. In the post colonial era emigration had become a coping strategy for these people; they used to migrate to the urban centres in search of jobs on the cocoa farms, the mines and wherever jobs were available.
The Frafra People
The term “Frafra” which derives from a greeting in the local language is a term by which the people found in the Bolgatanga District and neighbouring Districts are known to the rest of Ghanaians, especially in Southern Ghana. These people might call themselves in the language as “Gorse”. This leads to some confusion with the ethnonym Gurunshi by which the Kasena-Nakana are known outside their villages.
Today they are farmers cultivating grains and legumes like millet and sorghum and maintaining poultry and livestock – cattle, goats and sheep. Farms surround the compounds and land is scarce. The same plot is cultivated perennially; the use of livestock droppings and household refuse however helps to make the farms relatively fertile and able to support agriculture on continuous basis. Unfortunately Frafra country is rocky and in short supply. The Frafra are also well known for their artistic craft products: straw articles like hats and baskets as well as feather products. Their products can be found all over Ghana in the major towns that tourists visit. Since the colonial era Frafra youth have been compelled to emigrate to the southern parts in search of menial jobs.
The Frafra people are scattered in their clan settlements each of which in former times was autonomous of the next and each under the jurisdiction of its clan elders and earthpriests. The clans which still maintain different legends of migration to their present locations are mostly exogamous. The people are patrilineal. Marriages are exogamous and high bridewealth is taken by the families of pubescent girls when marriages are contracted. The legal guardians of the girl could demand as much as four heads of cattle from the wife-takers. Perhaps as a result of the high bridewealth marriages were usually stable in the past although this did not prevent separation of the married couple. Formal divorce could imply the return of a portion of the bridewealth. In some societies how much or what is refunded on divorce depends of whether the wife has given birth to any children for the husband and how many.
The typical traditional compound homestead among these people is one that combines huts that are thatched with mud and those that are roofed with grass. Huts are circular and the grass roofing is pyramidal in shape. Compounds differ in sizes often depending on the wealth and status of the master of the compound. The average Frafra compound comprises several dwelling quarters arranged in circular format with a single gateway. These days those who can afford it are likely to roof their huts with metal format with a single gateway. These days those who can afford it are likely to roof their huts with metal sheets.
Bolgatanga is not only the main urban centre and commercial town of the Upper East, but also the main Frafra town. It has effectively supplanted the near town of Zuarungu which used to be the seat of the District Commissioner in colonial days. Bongo, the District headquarters of the Bongo District is growing in size but remains just a rural town with a spread of government buildings.