Dagomba people


Dagomba / Dagbamba / Dogamba

Dagomba, also called Dagbamba, the dominant ethnic group in the chiefdom of Dagbon in the northern region of Ghana; they speak Dagbani (Dagbane), a language of the Gur branch of the Niger-Congo language family. Subject to the Dagomba are a number of peoples and parts of other ethnic groups, among them the Konkomba and Chakosi.

The Dogambas (Dagomba) are one of the larger of the Mole-Dagbanegroup of peoples and are a Gur ethnic group of northern Ghana, numbering about 931,000 (2012).

Dagomba people map

They inhabit the Northern Region of Ghana in the sparse savanna region below the sahelian belt, known as the Sudan.

The Dagomba ethnic group speak the Dagbani language which belongs to the More-Dagbani sub-group of the Gur languages. There are around 1 million speakers of Dagbani.

The Dagomba are historically related to the Mossi people. The More/Mossi now have their homeland in central present-day Burkina Faso. The homeland of the Dagomba is called Dagbon and covers about 20,000 km2 in area.

The Dagomba inhabit a traditional kingdom known as Dagbon and speak a language called Dagbani or Dagbanli. As Professor Locke is fond of saying in class, “the Dagbamba speak Dagbanli in Dagbon.” Dagbani is part of the More-Dagbani subgroup of the Gur languages, a group that stretches across the Sahel from southeastern Mali to northwestern Nigeria. As of a census taken in the year 2000, there are about 656,000 Dagombas. Islam was introduced into Dagomba society towards the end of the 1700s, and while it has exerted a strong influence on their customs, they still retain many of their pre-Islamic beliefs; Islam can be seen in the way they practice their tradition and likewise their tradition is evident in the way they practice Islam.



The Dagomba are farmers, their chief crops being sorghum, millet, corn (maize), yams, and peanuts (groundnuts). Most farm work is done by men; women often assist in harvesting. Dwarf shorthorn cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, and guinea fowl are kept; hunting and fishing are also practiced.

The villages live mainly on agriculture, although the conditions of prolonged aridity in the savannah are not always the best conditions for the cultivation of cereals and vegetables.



The Dagomba occupy compact walled villages, each household consisting of related men and their wives, children, and other dependents

The houses of the Dagomba people consist of huts of raw clay, with thatched roof supported by a central wooden pillar. Recently they tend to use also some concrete, especially for the floor, to improve the comfort of the structure and to reduce the maintenance. The "refrigerator" of the house consists of a clay jar normally placed near the window, without any "active" system that produces cold.


Dagomba culture

The Dagombas have an elaborate system of oral traditions. They pass their history from one generation to another through word of mouth. Traditionally, the people had a social organisation governed by chiefs. It is customary for the leader to sit on a pile of skins made in the form of a royal stool called Gbolon. Also, the person given the power and authority to lead the people does not have a throne.
Before an individual can become a Yaa Naa, the elders adorn him with the royal insignia. It consists of a hat that once belonged to Tohadzie and a smock. He also gets a calabash, beads, gourd, and several spears.

Dagomba culture is heavily influenced by Islam, brought to the region by Soninke (known as Wangara by Ghanaians) traders between the 12th and 15th centuries. Since the time of Naa Zangina, Islam has been the state religion and Islam seems to be growing rapidly ever since. The reformist activities of Afa Anjura in the middle of the twentieth century caused entire communities to embrace the Islamic religion en masse. Inheritance in the Dagomba people is patrilineal. Important festivals include the Damba, Bugum (fire festival) and the Islamic Eid festivals. The main settlement of the Dagomba is Tamale, which also serves as the Northern Region's capital.

The Mossi and Dagomba states are among the great West African medieval empires. Beginning in the 12th century, they eventually ruled the lands of the entire northern Volta basin, which today includes all of northern Ghana and Burkina Faso. During their second northern expansion, the Mossi invasion reached eastern Maasina and Lake Débo c. 1400, Benka in c. 1433 and Walata in 1477-83 (these empires were in present-day Mali). According to Dr Illiasu (1971) in his work The Origins of the Mossi-Dagomba states, the second period of the Mossi-Dagomba success came to an end with the restoration of Imperial Songhai power towards the close of the 15th century. Although the Mossi-Dagomba states have the same grandfather (Na Gbewa), the Dagomba are traditionally regarded as "senior" to the Mossi states of Ouagadougou, Yatenga and Fada N'Gourma.


History of the Dagomba tribe

The Dagombas migrated to their present occupancy from Lake Chad in the 13th century. They settled in a small village where they experienced drought, and the only source of water was a river known today as the Black Volta River.
As a people, the Dagombas were farmers. It was an activity that men did while women helped during the harvests. Furthermore, the people were livestock breeders and kept cattle, chickens, sheep, goats, and guinea fowl. Despite living in a desert, they also practised hunting and fishing.


Kingdom of Dagbon

The homeland of the Dagombas is called Dagbon and covers about 20,000 km2 in area. Much of the area was occupied by Konkombas before the formation of Dagbon Kingdom. It forms part of the Northern Region of Ghana, which includes the Mamprusi, Nanumba, Gonja, Mossi, Gurunsi (in particular the Frafra and Kusasi peoples), the Wala people and Ligbi. The area constitutes fourteen administrative districts in present-day Ghana. These are the Tamale Metropolitan, Yendi, Savelugu and Sagnerigu municipals, and Tolon, Kumbungu, Nanton, Gushegu, Karaga, Zabzugu, Saboba, Sang, Tatale and Cheriponi districts. The king of the Dagbon Traditional Kingdom is the Ya-Na, whose court and administrative capital is at Yendi. Dagbon as a kingdom has never been subjugated until it was incorporated as a territory of the Gold Coast government. The Dagbon Kingdom has traditional administrative responsibilities hitherto acephalous groups like the Konkomba, Bimoba, Chekosi, Basaari, Chamba, Wala, Gurusi and Zantasi. The seat of the Ya-Na or king of Dagbon (literally translated as "King of Absolute Power") is a collection of lion and cow skins. Thus, the Dagbon or its political system is often called the Yendi Skin (not throne or crown or stool). Another characteristic of the Dagomba is that their houses are arranged in a certain order, where the chief or elderly man has his hut built in the centre.



One of the major features of Dagomba society is chieftaincy. Their system of chieftancy is very hierarchical, with the Yaa-Naa, or paramount chief, at its head and a tiered system of rulers below him. In Dagbon, chiefs traditionally sit on a stack of skins.

The population is divided into commoners and chiefly families. The patrilineage is the basis of social organization among the commoners. Matrilineal descent is recognized and credited with the contribution of an individual’s spiritual attributes. The patrilineages are divided into hierarchically arranged segments; lineage heads, as custodians of ancestral shrines, exercise moral authority. The ancestral cult and an earth cult are the major features of Dagomba religion, although Islam and Christianity have had some success in the area.

For the chiefly class, the important kinship unit is a descent group known as the dang, composed of all descendants of a single grandfather or great-grandfather. In the centralized Dagomba state, only the sons of a previous paramount chief, the ya-na, may rise to that office, which is filled in rotation by one of three divisional chiefs.


Dagomba traditional dance

Like many other tribes in Ghana, the Dagomba have a robust and intricate musical tradition. Through their music, they have been able to pass their oral traditions from one generation to another, thus preserving their origins and history. The Dagombas achieve this through dance-drumming.
Dance-drumming in the Dagomba culture tells the stories of significant events in their history. Music has played significant roles in their festivals and periodic lives. It is through the dance that they remind themselves where they came from, their identity, and the values they hold.
Generally, the Dagomba have many music styles. The people compose music specifically to accompany or facilitate dancing. But it is the drumming that is central to the Dagomba dance because it represents a rich culture that they possess. Whenever they play the drums, they are making a musical sound and speaking words of wisdom.
The ethnic group holds drummers in high esteem. They consider them storytellers and keepers of the Dagomba history. The drummers understand the various relationships within their communities and can form songs of encouragement and teachings. Although today they embrace and incorporate modern music, traditional music and dancing are universal in congregations, formal gatherings, and other ceremonies.


Dagomba festivals

Dagombas have many festivals throughout the year. But one that many parts of the world recognise is the Bugum Chugu or fire festival. Bugum Chugu is usually the first festival of the year in the Dagomba tribe.
People celebrate it on the ninth day of the first month to remember the lost chief son. According to the tribe’s oral traditions, the festival began many years ago when one of their kings lost his son. They searched for him through the night and found him sleeping below a tree.
Later, he called the community to burn it and ordered them to commemorate the event every year. Whenever the Dagombas march to the evil tree, they play and dance for the tindaamba or land priests. Even today, some of them dress as warriors during this festive.
Another one of the many Dagomba festivals is the Damba. The Damba is a festival celebrated by the chiefs and people during the Dagomba lunar month of Damba. It corresponds to the third month of the Islamic calendar known as Rabia al-Awwal.
They celebrate it to mark the birth and naming of Prophet Muhammad. However, its content tends to glorify the chieftaincy and not Islamic motifs.


Dagomba traditional dress

The Dagomba traditional dress is known as the smock. Before they started wearing the smock, they used to dress in animal skins. But after the introduction of trade networks, they started wearing clothes, and this is where they invented the smock.
The smoke is a fabric made from cotton. Traditionally, it is the women that process it into threads. They then stretch and dye the threads into different colours. The men then come in wove the yarns into strips on handlooms.
Each strip is four inches wide, which they sew together and make the smock. Women of the tribe wear a locally made cloth called Bin maŋli. They wear it on special occasions, including festivals, funerals, and weddings, among others.
Other types of clothes worn by the Dagomba include:

Each of these clothes has a unique history in the culture of the Dagombas.


Dagomba food

The Dagombas have a unique type of food known as Wasawasa. It is a dish made from dried yam leaves that the people grind into flour and then steamed. When serving the food, they eat it with spicy or garnish it with some vegetables. In other cases, they accompany the cuisine with raw groundnut oil and fried fish or served with sliced onions and shea butter oil.
Apart from being a traditional food, it is healthy food and provides lots of nutritional benefits. That is because of the various ingredients used to make it, including yam flour, freshly ground pepper, salt, onions, groundnut, or shea butter oil. They also use water for steaming.


Dagomba religion

Islam is the religion that influences the Dagomba people. Islam has grown tremendously among the ethnic group. According to oral traditions, the Soninke brought it to the region in the 12th and 15th centuries. Islam has also been the state religion since the reigns of Naa Zangina.



Drumming and Drummers

The Dagomba have a variety of types of music and to discuss them all properly is beyond the scope of this site. Suffice it to say that while the drumming discussed here plays a major role in Dagbon, it is only a portion of the rich musical culture possessed by the Dagomba.

Music plays a central role in Dagbon. It is in musical form that Dagomba history has been preserved over the centuries. At events called sambanlunga, knowledgeable storytellers weave together intriguing narratives that can stretch from sundown to sunrise the following day and go deep into the history of Dagbon. At the more routine level, drumming is used to remind people of their familial connections. Dagombas can trace themselves back to important figures in their past and swell with pride upon hearing the praise-names of an important ancestor.

Dagomba drums are referred to as “talking drums,” a term attributed to drums across much of West Africa and the rest of the continent. The drums are not just making musical sound, but are speaking literal words. Dagbani is a tonal language, which makes it conducive to being played on drums. While not the only ones, the quintessential drums associated with Dagbon are the lunga and gungon.

Drummers enjoy a special status in Dagomba society. The story of how drumming began in Dagbon is another deep, intricate narrative that is not supposed to be discussed freely. Therefore, please recognize that the following story is a distilled version appropriate for this forum, and know that I put this here because I believe some context is helpful. According to the oral tradition, the first drummer was Bizung, a son of Naa Nyagsi whose mother died while he was young. As a motherless child, he had no choice but to wear torn clothing, was only given leftovers to eat, and was picked on by the other children of the household. His only solace in this miserable existence was the pleasure he found in banging on a calabash drum outside the family compound. Eventually, Naa Nyagsi offered Bizung the paramount chieftaincy but Bizung declined and asked only that he be allowed to play his music in peace. Naa Nyagsi appointed him as the court historian and the role of the drummer in Dagbon was created. All drummers today trace themselves back to Bizung, who they call “grandfather.”

Because Bizung was offered the paramount chieftaincy but declined, the drummers, or lunsi, consider themselves royalty, and have a hierarchical system of chieftaincy that parallels the royal one. Every chief in Dagbon has his own set of drummers. In the olden days, a chief would not walk or go anywhere without an entourage behind him, including drummers. When a chief is on the move, his drummers play to announce his presence and ancestry to those within earshot. The relationship between drummers and chiefs is reciprocal; drummers convey an air of power to the chiefs, and the drummers also receive prestige from their status as important figures in a chief’s court.

Drummers in Dagbon are first and foremost storytellers and keepers of history. In written literature, such musicians have been termed griot. While musicianship is also an important component of the drumming, a primary charge of the drummers is to preserve the history stories, which are stored in musical form. Drummers know and understand the relationships between the people who live in their towns, and know for example can look at a person and know who their parents and grandparents are. The most prized drummers are those whose hands are quick enough to make the music enjoyable and whose minds are capable of remembering large numbers of people and their extended family trees.

The clichéd saying that examining the past allows us to navigate the present and predict the future pertains to the role of drummers in Dagbon, who serve as advisors to chiefs and the general populace. It is their job to be aware of people who are behaving in ways outside of accepted social norms and through the use of talk, music and proverbs to remind that person of what proper behavior is, or remind them of the consequences of another person who behaved in a similar way. An example of this can be seen in Jenkuno, in which the drum language talks about the eternal relationship of cats and mice. The drum language in Jenkuno refers to a mouse sneaking into a room where there is a cat that appears to be sleeping. The ambiguous ending implies that the cat eventually catches the mouse and eats it. This song was composed as a warning to a figure in a chief’s court who was using his control over access to the paramount chief as a way to extort money from people trying to visit him. Frustrated with the situation, people eventually tried to sneak around this man. The song chastises both the man, or “cat,” for trying to cheat people and the people, or “mice,” for violating traditional protocol. While the people for whom this was originally composed are no longer alive, the moral of the story is easily applicable to current situations.