The Dagombas are a Gur ethnic group of northern Ghana, numbering about 931,000 (2012). 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 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 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.
Na Gbewa is regarded as the founder of Dagbon. Dagomba are one of the ethnic groups with a sophisticated oral tradition woven around drums and other musical instruments. Thus, most of their history, until quite recently, has been passed down via oral tradition with drummers as professional griots. According to oral tradition, the political history of Dagbon has its origin in the life story of a legend called Tohazie (translated as "red hunter").
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.