Last I wrote, Anatoli was off in the Upper East doing research on tindaanas, earth priests, and their relationship to the land. A month later and we are both sitting under the shade of tamarind and albizzia trees, talking about ancestors and bush fires, and photographing chiefs and tindaanas in their traditional regalia. This is the story of how Anatoli and I became a part of documenting the history of the Bongo district with the assistance of elder/historian/sculptor/retired school teacher Christopher Azaare, the inspiring Chief of Bongo and his warm and welcoming family.
Before making the decision to geographically expand my research to include the Upper East, numerous conversations with my contacts in Tamale made me think differently about food politics in Northern Ghana. Trees, for one, became a lot more important to my research. While there is a growing mango and cashew industry in the Northern Region that is of interest, I have become even more intrigued by the role of native trees like shea, dawadawa, zaaga (whitethorn)and the presence of sacred groves in supporting food production activities.Shea and dawadawa trees both are used directly in the preparation for foods. The shea nut is processed to extract oil that is then used for cooking. Dawadawa is used as a healthful flavoring agent for stews: “dawadawa is good for everybody” I was once told. Both of these trees are commonly found throughout the savannah and interspersed among farms.
The zaaga trees and sacred groves serve different, but very important, functions in the production of food. The zaaga tree, featured below, appears dead and leafless during the rainy season. Yet when the rainy season is coming to a close, the tree’s leaves begin to emerge and communicate to the knowing eye that the rains will soon cease. Sacred groves are patches of forests believed by traditionalists to be where their ancestors reside and, therefore, must be revered and protected. Since Ghana has lost 90% of its original forest cover, these sacred groves tell us the story of what Ghana must have looked like before rampant deforestation. While many Northerners practice both traditional religion and Christianity or Islam, some religious leaders are telling people that these places are not sacred and that nothing will happen to you if you enter. We have been told that this is leading to the destruction of sacred groves as the trees are being chopped for firewood and the forests littered with refuse. Soothsayers in communication with ancestors and many of the tindaanas we have spoken to attribute the incidence of drought as a consequence of the destruction of yabatias (ancestral trees).
What I have been examining in my research with Anatoli in the Upper East is the knowledge base that people draw upon when faced with different agricultural challenges. When there is drought or infertile soil, how do farmers address these problems? Do they draw upon experiential knowledge? Or do they look to scientific expertise? While the Northern Region has more entrepreneurial farmers with stronger ties to the global food economy, farmers in the Upper East still practice traditional agriculture. Whereas farmers in the Northern Region generally look to “Agric” (the Ministry of Food and Agriculture) to tell them when to sow and harvest and which seeds to plant, many farmers in the Upper East save seeds and rely more on experiential knowledge and the tindaana’s (earth priest) communication with the yaba tia (ancestral tree) to know when to begin these farming activities. The Upper East is a site that has been determined by policymakers to be “deficient” and in need of agricultural modernization. Yet many of the farmers and opinion leaders I have spoken to have expressed wariness regarding the use of modern agricultural technologies like tractors and fertilizers, due to concern over the impact on the region’s fragile soils.
The Bongo district, just outside of the regional capital of the Upper East, Bolgatonga, is a beautiful part of the country where massive baobab trees, rocks and red earth characterize this savannah landscape. The town of Bongo, and more specifically the Chief, Bonaba’s palace, has become a second research home because of the incredible hospitality of Bonaba and his family. Bonaba is the paramount chief of the Bongo district, and has considerable influence and authority in the Bongo district. He has used his power to issue a district-wide ban on bush fires. Bush fires are ignited in order to clear the bush after farming, catch bushmeat or rid the area of undesirable snakes and insects. Bonaba attributes bush fires to a decline in soil fertility—as the grasses are burnt and removed the soil is prone to erosion as the wind blows away the topsoil. He also identified bush fires as eliminating a once common grass, the vertivagrass, which supported peoples’ livelihoods in the region. The vertiva grass is used for basket weaving, a major source of income for people in the Bongo district, but now because of the destruction of these grasses they have to import them from Kumasi in the South. Bonaba says that although enforcement is generally difficult, people are beginning to witness the benefits of the 5-year ban as the quality of the soil has improved.
Christopher Azaare has been conducting research on tindaanas, the chieftancy and the history of the Bongo district (among many other things, he is incredibly prolific!) since the early 1980s. We got in touch with Chris Azaare through my fantastic research contact, Bakari Nyari, Chairman of the environmentalist non-governmental organization RAINS and Director of Public and Vested Lands in Accra. Chris is working on collecting this historical information so that it is not forgotten. As we’ve been told by many of our informants, traditional knowledge is oral and many of the bearers of this knowledge are dying. Chris has not only been working to publish histories of the Gurense people, but also has been building his own museum by himself! A man of many talents, he has also been creating the sculptures like the one you see here.
We are helping Chris achieve his aims by assisting with typing and publishing his written work, photographing and printing pictures for both the Chiefs and tindaanas we have visited as well as for Chris’ museum, and by covering what I will term the “intoxicants budget” (the Schnapps, aperteshie, pito, and kola nuts we buy for the traditional authorities and elders that we visit). Typing and printing Chris’ written work is mutually beneficial for both Chris and Anatoli—Anatoli has been learning a tremendous amount about the Gurense people he is studying and Chris gets his work typed and printed for free. Because of Chris’ 30-year dedication to this research, we get special access to these traditional authorities and elders. And because Chris wants to have their photographs in his museum, they all don their best outfits for me to take pictures of them!
When we visit the chiefs and tindaanas, we normally go via motorbike. Anatoli rides with Chris, gripping the back of his slow-moving Honda antique, and occasionally having to hop off when the vehicle gets stuck in the sand. I’ve been able to ride with Abu or Ibrahim on Abu’s much more comfortable and capable motorbike, but at the end of the day, despite the relative comfort of this bike, my ass hurts from the many, many bumps and I am caked in dirt. When we arrive at a chief’s palace or a tindaana’s home, it is customary to take off your shoes (either to show respect to the chief or to protect the delicate earth in the tindaana’s home) and sit under the shade of a tree. We are then typically offered a plastic chair to sit and a glass of water that is shared among us (I take a long time taking a short sip). Chris serves as our interpreter (in addition to being our teacher) and informs the traditional authorities and elders of the reason for our visit. Our interviews are recorded in both Gurene and English (and also in donkey, guinea fowl, rooster and baby goat since the contributions of these animals are very prominent—sometimes overpowering—in the interviews). Having three different sets of questions has contributed to the richness, and length, of these interviews. Chris asks questions concerning the ancestral lineage of the tindaanaship or chieftancy; Anatoli asks questions about land ownership and the traditional roles of tindaanas and chiefs; and I ask questions about the harvest and how to address agricultural challenges. In this way, I have learned not only about farming in the Upper East, but also the way by which traditional knowledge shapes relationships to the land and impacts farming practices.
Bonaba has been very supportive of our research with Chris, and has sent us to some of the villages in one his personal cars, driven by his son Ishmael, a prince. Bonaba has been eager to see a history of the Bongo district published so that school children in the area can learn about their history. Bonaba also invited us to be his special guests at the annual Azembenne fire festival that took place at the end of November. On the first day of the festival, he welcomed us inside the family compound to witness sacrifices to his father’s and grandfather’s shrines.
We later learned that when Bonaba was speaking to his grandfather’s shrine, he was recalling how his grandfather, a freed slave, returned to Bongo with a white man, Captain Nash. He was telling his deceased grandfather that the white man had returned (he’s referring to us!) and was here in the family compound. We felt very special to be included in his communications with his grandfather. A ram, as well as several guinea fowl and fowl, were sacrificed on the earthen shrine of his grandfather. Lots of blood and feathers ensued. As we watched the sacrifices being performed, we were served pito (an alcoholic beverage made from sorghum, brewed like beer and served warm and fermented, bubbling, in a calabash) and sat next to his father’s ancestral tree that sprung from the grave of his father. Akane, Bonaba’s sister, is the master pito brewer.
Before the night’s fire festivities, we were brought into the family compound where we were served a delicious roasted guinea fowl prepared by Bonaba’s sister Sheila. When we thought that was all, Joyce came by with a bottle of French wine (!) and Sheila arrived with plates of dirty spags!! (For the uninitiated, “dirty spags” is what my Italian-American stepfather calls spaghetti prepared with anchovies and garlic). It was a riot to be treated to this lovely Italian second course enjoyed in the middle of a traditional earthen compound! After dinner, we then went out to the entrance of the Chief’s palace were the fire festivities were about to begin.
Part of the purpose of the sacrifices is to ensure that people stay safe during the fire festival. Once I understood the way in which fire travels during the festival—through bushels of dried stalks of grass tied tightly and then passed one lit bushel to another—and then is swirled around the top of your head a few times, I was very appreciative for the protective rituals. Exciting and mildly terrifying, fire is passed along towards the riverbed in honor of the first settlers of Bongo who used fire to drive away the Busansis from the area. In one of the most exciting nights in my stay in Ghana, we marched the streets of Bongo in a procession of drumming, chanting and dancing. It was an unreal experience.
On the following morning, we returned to the Chief’s palace to see the Muslims read the Koranic predictions for the year. This gathering of Islamic leaders, elders, chiefs and the Bonaba’s family made for a spectacle of print and color as everyone wore their special festival regalia. Chiefs and elders were adorned in smocks of stripes of many colors, women wore textiles in gorgeous, vibrant colors. Later in the afternoon, people gathered to hear speeches given by the Bonaba and the District Chief Executive and listen to local Fra-Fra musicians perform.
On the day after the festival, Anatoli and I returned to the Chief’s Palace in the morning to thank Bonaba for his incredible hospitality before we returned to Tamale. Upon arrival, we were brought into his personal compound where Bonaba was sitting and drinking with his traditional council and listening to reggae. Not even 10am yet and we were brought two tall Club beers (breakfast!), and got to chat with (the normally very busy) Bonaba for over an hour. We got insights into his views on development, the importance of education, his environmentalist community-based organization Green Bongo, and he played for us his favorite Jimmy Cliff song that warned against politicians (“fancy talkers”). Meanwhile, the powerful Chief of Medicine, Ba Na So, who we had met the day before, ordered a guinea fowl to be prepared for us. Talk about special treatment!
We have since returned to the Bongo district and delivered the photos to the chiefs and tindaanas. It was a very special experience watching them admire their photos. The Chief of Vea, upon receipt of his photo, exclaimed that “I should have no problem getting a second wife. There is now no disputing that I am a handsome man!!” and kissed his photo. By the end of the week, we had been given three guinea fowl, two cocks, guinea fowl eggs, a bag of groundnuts, and a round of drinks to thank us for our efforts. Fortunately the owner of the guesthouse did not find it too odd for us to arrive with a live fowl for him to cook for us!
One of the last trips we made was to visit Ba Na So, the Chief of Medicine, in Bongo Soe. We took the trip with Spooner, Bonaba’s son, and Uncle Musa, who is one of my favorite people to talk to. In preparation for our trip to Ba Na So, we picked up a six-pack of Guinness Foreign Extra-Stout (tastes really foreign, not at all like a Guinness if you ask me). We had been told that Ba Na So possesses special powers and that he is a very effective traditional healer. Ba Na So does not charge people for his work, but when he heals the afflicted they give him what they feel is appropriate. Well, if the car, fancy liquors, and the many horses, goats, cattle, and fowl that have been given to him for his work are a reflection of his abilities, then he surely must be effective. While we are waiting for Ba Na So, we are sat in front of a large earthen shrine with a leafless tree growing out of the center of it. One of the limbs of the tree is wrapped in rope and on top of the tree a white egret is perched, staring down at us. Around the base of the shrine is an astonishing amount of bones, feathers, blood, brass bracelets, and large shells.
We sat with Ba Na So inside a well-decorated, modern room with comfy couches for nearly an hour as we asked him about his work. He was surprisingly open as he told us how he had inherited the spirits from his father, who was a traditional healer, when he passed away. He told us how people from all over Africa come to him to be healed. He treats people using the roots and herbs that he forages in the forests and the knowledge of the spirits that tell him how to treat the different ailments he encounters. We are told by Uncle Musa and Spooner that if we had come during the week we would hear the spirits murmuring to him. It was Sunday, however, and this is the day when the spirits leave him. We then asked about the tree in the middle of the shrine. He says that the tree is a “medical record” and that the rope that is wrapped around the tree limb marks every sacrifice that has been made to heal a patient. When a sacrifice of an animal is performed, rope is wrapped around the neck of the animal and stained by the blood of that animal. The sacrifice is necessary for healing, as the ailment that brings the patient to Ba Na So is the sign of a spiritual affliction. The spirits want to take this human body, but the sacrifice of an animal, if done by a healer like Ba Na So, can be offered in replacement. Ba Na So tells us that he works alongside doctors that respect his abilities to treat ailments that cannot be treated by Western medicine.
In the beginning of our visit I had gotten the sense that he was studying us as much as we were studying him. I believe he must have decided we were cool because we were invited into the special room where he sees his patients. Anatoli, Uncle Musa, Ba Na So and I all crawled inside of this little room with a shrine covered in white feathers in the corner, bottles of fancy booze, and a warted calabash full of money and cowrie shells. Ba Na So then offers us some Scotch that we pass around. After taking some Scotch, we exit the little room. We are then presented with a guinea fowl that we attach to the motorbike and are thanked for our visit.
Our research trips have been utterly fascinating and eye-opening. I feel very grateful to get the kind of access we have enjoyed with these bearers of traditional Gurensi knowledge. We are now headed to Burkina Faso for the New Year where we will visit Ouaga, Bobo and Banfora, enjoying fabulous Burkinabe music and the beautiful natural surroundings of Banfora!
Happy New Year!