Bulsa people



The Bulsa live in the north-central part of Ghana in a 2,000 square kilometer area. Most are farmers, with fields located up to five kilometers from the compounds. They raise crops like millet, beans, and groundnuts. Extra income is earned by making crafts, such as pottery, wooden stools, decorative hoe and axe handles, and woven grass baskets and hats.

The Bulsa are a group quite distinct from all their neighbors. They speak a language called Buli and have a proud heritage. When the slave-raider Babatu attacked them in the 19th century, they were able to stand against him and turn him back. That event is celebrated to this day with an elaborate festival just before Christmas.

The traditional Bulsa shelter is a compound of round and rectangular rooms, with courtyards and animal enclosures in between. The rooms are made of a mixture of mud, clay and sand. The roof is either flat, of the same mixture as the walls, or conical made of grass. These rooms last only a few years, and often collapse in heavy rains.

Each compound usually contains men who have a common father or grandfather. There are usually at least three smaller family units in a compound, each made up of about seven to ten people. Some compounds are very large, with over 40 people living there, while others may be very small. Compounds are normally three quarters of a mile apart.

The Bulsa have an open-side grass-roofed shelter outside the compound walls which is used for social activities. It is used as a gathering place for the family as a whole. Certain subsections of the family such as young mothers, children, older women, or men also make use of the shelter throughout the day.

Bulsa are known to be descendants of amalgamated ethnic groups including a Mampurusi prince Atuga from Nalerigu, Gur-speaking Kasena blacksmith (feok) known as Akana from Kurugu near Dakai in Burkina Faso who built Kanjag Pung (tanggbain) and some indigenous Koma people [kom dem, people of Kom] whom both Atuga and Akana came to meet on the land.

Bulsa are similar in many ways to the other peoples of the Region with whom they share borders, like the Kasena and Nankana people, and with whom intermarriages have been a common feature. A person from Bulsa area is a Bulsa and not Kanjaga as many Ghanaians mistakenly called them as the colonialists did. They speak a unique language known as Buli and their nation as Buluk (land of Bulsa). As a distinct group from their neighbours, the Bulsa have a proud heritage of abhoring slavery with great distaste and hiding terzug shrine to fight fiercely against slavers.

Bulsa people who were seen as the best epitome of warriors and were once the best soldier recruits from the Northern Ghana for the British colonial Gold Coast army, have a documented rich repertoire of erotic folklore in Africa (see: Bulsa Sunsuelima: Erotic Folktales of the Bulsa in Northern Ghana, Volume 1&2 edited by RĂ¼diger Schott).

The Bulsa people live in several chiefdoms which though related historically, were at one time autonomous of each other. Today, the paramountcy is at Sandema and the other chiefdoms seem to be ranked loosely and based on ancestral legends which now serve as a kind of charter. Chiefs coexist with the tenyono or earthpriests. Each Bulsa chiefdom is divided into clan-elements which are exogamous kin-groups. These perform joint rituals and in the past acted in a corporate fashion.

In the past, a traditional Bulsa person had facial tribal markers. Like other Upper Easterners the Bulsa are cultivators; growing grains and legumes on compound farms and keeping livestock and poultry.

The capital of Bulsa North District is Sandema, of Bulsa South District Fumbisi; other villages / towns of note are Wiaga, Fumbisi, Kanjaga, Gbedema, Siniensi, Kadema and Chuchuliga.



Buli is the primary language spoken by the Builsa people. It is used in most oral situations. Not until recently, it was rarely used for reading and writing as few materials are available and few people have these skills. It is linguistically related to Mampruli and Konni. Konni is the apparently the closest but little research has been done on Konni. Buli shares some roots with Frafra, but also has vocabulary that is no even remotely related. There are also some similarities of grammar, but again some very different feature as well.



The Builsa people are believed to be amalgamated descendants of  Gur-speaking Kasena blacksmith (kiok) from Kurugu near Dakai in Burkina Faso who built Kanjag Pung (tanggbain)."  Other version also relates that the Bulsa people are descendants of Mamprusi man  Atugafrom "Mampuruk."

According historian and anthropologist Captain R S Rattery the origin of the town Kanjaga town makes it abundantly clear that the Builsa people came from Burkina Faso. In his work "Tribes of the Ashanti Hinterland" (vol.2, p.400), Rattery writes "History of the 'town' of Kanjaga as told to me by the descendants of the original founder: 'The name Kanjaga is derived from two words "Akana" and "jaga" or "gyaga," to flutter like a tired bird. Akana was a blacksmith (kiok). His grandfather came from Kurugu near Dakai, in the Haut Volta. He was a Yullo (Kasena). From Kurugu, our grandfather moved to Chakani near Po. .. From Chakani he came here and built a compound on the side of the hill now known as Kanjag' Pen. (Kanjag' rock). Our ancestor got his name, Akana, in this manner. People heard him calling his wives in his language, 'Akana', 'Akana' (Wife! Wife!). It was a long way over the plains to his compound. And before people reached there they used to be so tired that they were rolling about (gyaga). Hence the name Akangyaga (Kanjaga)."

(John-Parsons p. 38): Atuga was the son of a Nayire [Mamprusi King]. He quarrelled bitterly with his father, and was banished from the Mamprusi state. With some followers Atuga wandered to the west...

He passed through Naga and at last found a good place for a farm [in Bulsaland]... (p. 39) ...in time Atuga married the daughter of a man named Abuluk.
One day Atuga decided to name his sons, so he killed a cow and called the boys. When the cow had been skinned and cut up he told each boy to take the piece of the cow he liked best.

Atuga named his four sons according to these chosen pieces of the cow. The eldest chose the shin (karik) and was named Akadem. The second son chose the thigh (wioh) and was named Awiak. The third son chose the chest (sunum) and was named Asandem. The fourth son chose the bladder (sinsanluik) and was named Asinia. After Atuga’s death "Akadem stayed on his father’s farm and gave it his name [Kadema]." The three others founded the villages of Wiaga, Sandema and Siniensi.

Only a few population groups who lived in the Bulsa area before Atuga are mentioned in Parsons’ text (p. 40): "They are the Gbedemas, the Yiwasis, the Bachonsas and the Wiesis, who together [with the Atugabisa] form the Builsa tribe."

Hististorian R.Schott  in his work "Sources for a History of the Bulsa in Northern Ghana" also narrates that "Whereas Rattray 's informants told him that AKANA, the founder of Kanjaga, was a blacksmith and originated from the Kassena in Upper Volta, my informants all said that AKANJAG or his father AKUNJONG came from 'Mampuruk', i.e. the country of the Mamprusi in the east." On how Kanjaga town came by its name Schott posits "It is said that one day Afindem was hunting in the bush on some personal errands when he discovered a man in the hollow baobab tree. This man was asked by Afindem to come out of the hollow tree, but he said that he would not because he did not want his body to be wrinkled. Afindem persuaded him hard and he took him to a place where he, Akanjag, as he was called according to his expression that he did not want his body to wrinkle (Buli: kan = not, jagi = to wrinkle)...[from being exposed to the sunlight], would not wrinkle (Schott, n.d.: 2).

Judging from the two historical accounts, it is imperative for one to come into conclusion that Bulsa people were an amalgamation of Kasena and Mamprusi people hence the unique nature of their language which is neither of Grusi kind nor Mole.Dagbani form. However the history and origin of Bulsa people can be understood from the complex nature of the various founders of their villages.



The traditional Bulsa shelter is a compound of round and rectangular rooms, with courtyards and animal enclosures in between. The rooms are made of a mixture of mud, clay and sand. The roof is either flat, of the same mixture as the walls, or conical made of grass. These rooms last only a few years, and often collapse in heavy rains.

Each compound usually contains men who have a common father or grandfather. There are usually at least three smaller family units in a compound, each made up of about seven to ten people. Some compounds are very large, with over 40 people living there, while others may be very small. Compounds are normally three quarters of a mile apart.

The Bulsa have an open-side grass-roofed shelter outside the compound walls which is used for social activities. It is used as a gathering place for the family as a whole. Certain subsections of the family such as young mothers, children, older women, or men also make use of the shelter throughout the day. This is also the traditional place to receive visitors.



Their economy is based mostly on Agriculture. All Bulsa are farmers, using farms as the main source of food. The main farming season extends form May through November. During the rest of the year other tasks which support the farmer take place. These include house building, funerals, hunting, and other work.

Most source of income generation is also through rearing of domestic animals and cultivation of ash crops. Other people may work at government jobs or engage in trading of Crafts, shea butter.

Products / Crafts; Two of the most common crafts are hat weaving (men) and pottery (women). Varying degrees of skills are acceptable and both are bought by other Bulsa people in village markets. There is not much income made from these or other local crafts. They merely enable the people making the item to recoup what they have put into it and earn an extra cash.

Other locally made item include carved wooden stools used by the market traders, hoe and ax handles, calabashes made from cleaned and smoothed gourds, quivers made from the skins of small bush animals, and two kinds of baskets. All of these crafts can be made by anyone who has the inclination and the desire for small supplementary (and often temporary) income. There are blacksmiths and there were brass casters in the long-ago past, but both of these activities are more in the line of professions or in these days small-scale industries.

Trading Partners: Trade is done through markets the majority are local, but some Bulsa travel as far as
Kumasi to trade for rare items. There are also traders (Bulsa, Kantosi, and from other people groups) who go between major Bulsa markets and Navrongo, the nearest large non-Bulsa town.

Trade partners: Frafras, Kasenas, Dagombas, Ashantis, Kantosis.
Modernization / Utilities There are several farming co-operatives in the area and at least one blacksmith cooperative. Ploughs, tractors and mills are all being used.


Family Structures

Family structure is basically the same as in other groups in northern Ghana. It is patrilineal but weakened by a greater amount of independence for women in the household. Because the bride price is low initially (a few gifts) men marry easily, but it is harder to keep a wife than it is to marry one. If a couple remains together, the husband is required to pay more animals to the wife’s family and organize work parties to help them in the farming season.


Authority / Rule

Authority in the household is with the presiding elder. A group of related households make up a clan which also has a clan elder. Several clans may be grouped in a section with its elder who sits among the chief’s advisors. The sections make up a village, which has a chief as its authority. The Paramount chief of the Builsa people is the Sandema naab.

There is a tendency then for Builsa women to keep whatever personal wealth they may accrue in their own father’s house. Men live in their own family houses with elders from their father’s generation and "brothers" of their own generation and any sons and their families. Cases are sent upward through the authority structures. A case is expected to start at the lowest applicable authority and pass up only as necessary as far as the village chief. If it is still unresolved it may be reported to the Police and enter the national justice system.


Social Habits/Groupings and Recreation

Visiting, especially between an individual and his mother’s family is a common pastime. Attending the market is another social activity. Within a compound, the open sided, grass-roofed shelter outside the compound walls is a center for social activity. It is a gathering place for the family as a whole or groups with a common interest (young mothers, children, older women, men) at different times of the day. It is also the traditional place to receive visitors. The courtyards of nuclear families within the compounds are reserved for the activities of that small group or for private matters with visitors. Older men gather under trees to enjoy their Pito and play games (oware, cards etc). Some also hold discussions, including politics, sports etc.

Within the house, storytelling is an activity which is enjoyed by the entire family especially the grandparents and the smaller children. Children have a variety of games which they enjoy, but they also like to visit with friends and relatives. Activities which might be regarded as recreational by other societies are not considered as such in the Builsa culture. These include hunting, gardening, pottery making and other crafts, singing and dancing soccer, radio, dancing, drumming etc.


Ngarika ceremony

Nagarika is Bulsa clitoridectomy ceremony that young Bulsa women go through before marriage. It is a form of rite of passage. Nagarika comes from the verb Ngari which means "to take, grip, pluck, break off, or circumcised." According to ancient Bulsa tradition, excision of clitoris must be carried out before a girl may marry and engage in sexual intercourse. A a girl may only gain a status of maturity (marriageable woman) when there has been a ritual removal of her clitoris (ngarika). It must however, be emphasized here that this cultural practice was banned in 1960s when Ghana`s first president Kwame Nkrumah was at the helms of affairs and it is still illegal in Ghana. But many people in Bulsa still adhere to this ancient practice and wont let go.
After Ngarika a woman is now fully mature for a marriage. Suitors begin to inquire about the opportunity to marry them or find a means of capturing her. When a Bulsa man sees a woman that melts his heart, he will usually carry her away before to his house. This form of kidnapping usually occurs with the willing consent of the woman. After a short time frame which normally takes a day or two, the man would send a "go-between" (sanyigmo) to the parents of the woman to reveal to them the where-about of their missing daughter. This custom is called "a ka yaali ale wa bo dela" or "a ka yaali ale wa bo ka dela" (do not search, for she is here) or simply "yaali." When the sanyigmo is sending the "yaali" message to the woman`s parent, custom demands that he add some amount of money (a token) and tobacco along. At this juncture, if the parents of the woman really accept the carrying-off of their daughter. they will accept the gifts; otherwise they will send the sanyigmo back with the gifts.

The akayaali payment is not a dowry but a mere customary practice of accepting gifts or something to serve as an evidence of the parents acceptance of the capturing and the willingness of making the man part of their family. This is so because in Bulsa society as it is obvious in other African tradition, marriage is a union of two families and the akayaali payment represent the cementing of that union.

After the akayaali, the man then send gifts  to his "nagchob" (in-laws) to in order to close the gate or the entrance their compound (lig nansiung). This gift is the one that serves as the powerful evidence and culminates in the final and irrevocable sealing of the marriage bond. The gifts in this regard include a  hen, a hoe-blade, tobacco and some amount of money. In a case where the woman has already been impregnated or given birth to a child in a marriage, then instead of a hen, a goat or sheep shall suffice. In traditional bulsa marriage if a lig nangsiung payment has not been paid then there is a sufficient ground for suspecting that the marriage had not yet been contracted.

The husband`s obligation towards the wife`s parent does not come to an abrupt end with the customary payments of akayaali and lig nangsiung gifts. Unlike their other northern people, in Bulsa tradition there is no by-force utilization of livestock (cows) as a bride price. However, the son-in-law is obligated to offer assistance to his in-laws in the clearing of their farm as well as harvesting from time to time.

Apart from these, what is of absolute importance in Bulsa marriage is the complete participation and assistance in the funeral ceremonies that takes place in the compound of the in-laws. A man who intentionally reneges on this obligation cannot expect his wife`s parent to come to his aid when the wife divorce him, cheat on him or run after another man. This is why greeting the in-law at their house when someone die and also greeting at the funeral in Bulsa society are very important. Greeting the family and the funeral involves payments of gifts or in some instances cash to support the in-laws in their funeral and burial cost.

In Bulsa tradition when a wife of a man dies, it is obligatory upon the man to carry out the funeral at his own compound. As long as this action has not transpired, a man, he cannot make a legal or customary claim to doglie (a woman who would take her deceased sister`s place as a wife to the widower).



The main Bulsa religious concepts are related to gods of earth (teng) and sky (wen or Naawen), also sacrifice of animals. Everyone believes in a Supreme Being, the creator of life and the moulder of  destiny.  Since Weni`s  power is beyond limitation, he stands alone, and is usually not to be approached by  mere mortals. No one seems to have imagined an  appearance for him, but he apparently lives in the sky  or sometimes is the sky itself or the sun. With no  priests to inculcate doctrine there is, of course, much individuality of thought.

In Wiaga-Zamsa (Bulsa area) people "hid" two terracotta heads under the big stones of an earth shrine. The time of the visit, the earth-priest (in the middle with calabash helmet) offered sacrifices only to the earth-shrine.

The word teng (earth-god) has a wide semantic field, denoting land, but also village, in an abstract sense also the origin and cause of things. Teng is not only a self-explanatory act but also the influential religious power: every violation of the customs of ancestors "spoils the land".

A man cannot propitiate Weni' a belief in fatalism alone would lead to such  reasoning but one can appease the gods of the earth.  These are many, and all have different names. They  are invisible and abide in natural phenomena, such as  clumps of trees, rocks of remarkable size or appearance, ponds, etc. Generally, however, the clumps of trees are the holy places.

The tindana (priests of earth-god), whose office is hereditary, performs the ceremony, which varies in size. Every year, however, there is a general sacrifice, cows or sheep being slain which are the proceeds of the sale of the baskets and calabashes of grain paid by the people to the tindana as rents for their farms. It would seem that there is no rule fixed as to the amount of rent to be paid. These holy places  tangbai. It does not necessarily follow that a tangbai was there in the beginning. For instance, in Sandema there is a clump of trees of quite recent growth. It is said that the trees sprang up suddenly round a man's compound. One can see the midden to-day.

The tindana has many other duties besides allocating land. He selects and marks out the sites of new compounds ; arranges for the annual sacrifices ; introduces new Chiefs to the Earth-god ; is the chief peace-maker when wars break out ; orders the sacrifices when blood is on the ground or vile offences such as incest (i.e., adultery with a female of too close a consanguinity or marriage connection) pollute the soil ; appoints the day when the new crops may be eaten generally by the community at large, since one is always free to cut an ear or two of grain to stave off starvation ; in short, regulates all matters touching his deity.



A wrap cloth for women with scarves and rubber slippers. Men wear smocks or locally purchased trousers, hats and sandals. The preferred colors for locally woven hats and smocks are black and white.
Western style second hand clothing is worn for farm work.



A variety of foods are such as Tuo Zaafi, yam with stew are available. The diet is mainly millet porridge with a variety of sauces including okra and bean leaf. A drink called flour water , bean cakes, fried millet cakes yams, groundnuts, and plantains are also eaten. Generally the diet is more on the side of starches than vegetables and meat.


Tourism and festivals

There are several important tourist sites in Builsa District. One is the place where the wife of Babatu, the notorious slave trader, was abandoned by her husband in the face of a heavy military defeat, and where she finally died. It is called “Akumcham”, meaning the creeping shea tree, metaphorically referring to Babatu’s wife’s agony at the spot, which is just opposite the Farmers Demonstration Centre on the Wiaga road at Sandema. When Babatu fled, he also left some of his soldiers behind who were captured and executed. Their weapons were collected and are preserved till today at the Fiisa Shrine. Fiisa is a small village about 5km from Sandema. The potential of this place is enormous, because even in its current undeveloped state, it was visted by over 200 blacks from the Diaspora in 1998.


Feok festival

The story of Feok is of great historical significance as it affects the destinies of millions of people not only in Ghana but also across the African Continent and in the diaspora. It is on this score that the event cannot be allowed to pass without some reflection. Normally, the festival is celebrated among the Builsa around the third week of December each year, to commemorate the defeat of Zambarima slave raiders led by a man named Babatu by the ancestors of Builsa in the 1880s.

By simple translation, “Feok” in the local Buli dialect, means abundance of food. In this context, then, the festival becomes one of thanks-giving by which the people of the area express thanks to God, their ancestors and the earth shrines for seeing them through another year and a successful farming season.

The climax of the festival is a public gathering bringing together chiefs, war dancers, and singing groups from the villages in the Builsa area. The festival commences with the pouring of libation to invoke the ancestors and shrines of the land for an uneventful and peaceful celebration.

This is followed by speeches by the Paramount Chief and key dignitaries present, interspersed by a variety of musical performances. War dancers representing various villages are given the floor to perform at this stage. Armed with shields, spears, short axes, bows and arrows, they relive battle scenes from yester-year. Scenes of resistance and the ultimate defeat of the marauding warriors of Babatu.

Babatu stands out for his prolonged career in slave raids and his prominent role in the history of slavery in the Northern Territories. Historical sources relate that he originally hailed from Indunga in present day Niger. Recruiting Hausa, Fulani, Mossi and Grunshie fighters, he embarked on a conquering spree. The area stretching from Ouagadougou in the north to the present day Upper East and even parts of the Northern Region of Ghana fell under his sword.

The tide, however, turned against him when he entered Builsaland. He and his warriors suffered a decisive defeat in the hands of the Builsa in the Battle of Fiisa, bringing to an end his two-decade career. (Fiisa is the name of a section of Sandema where the battle was fought).

Babatu fled the Builsa area following this defeat, and later took refuge at Yendi in the Northern Region, where he eventually died. Thus ended the life of the notorious Zabarima slave raider whose name became synonymous with the human trade in the Northern Territories.

Feok has become the most significant event in the Builsa area in recent times, giving the people a true sense of identity and solidarity. This is in direct contrast to what pertained in the early years of the Builsa which were characterised by mistrust, petty rivalry and intra-clan conflicts (a situation that rendered them weak, vulnerable and easy prey for slave raiders).

It has become a rallying point, an occasion that brings the people of Builsa together, providing them with a forum to express their collective view on important issues as embodied in the address often delivered by the Sandem-Nab. “When we meet each year to remind ourselves of the courage and bravery of our ancestors, we are at the same time drawing upon our spiritual and physical strengths to meet modern challenges that have replaced slavery,” declared the aged and venerable Sandem-Nab Ayieta Azantilow at the recent Feok celebration last month. He said, “In place of Babatu and Samori, we have the twin brothers of HIV/AIDS and underdevelopment,” adding that the challenges facing Builsa today are more complex than marauding slave raiders.

The impact of Feok is not confined to natives of Builsa alone. Outsiders too view it as an event that connects them to the past. African-Americans, for example, regard it as an occasion that enables them to come to terms with history and to identify more easily with their African origins.

To the increasing number of them who attend the festival each year, Feok depicts victory over the collaborators of slave merchants. It is in deed a story of emancipation.

From palace sources, a growing number of local scholars and expatriates have been interviewing the Paramount Chief and prominent elders in Sandema about the festival in recent times, which lends credence to the assertion that Feok is rapidly catching the attention of the larger world public.