The Dagaaba people (singular Dagao , and, in northern dialects, Dagara for both plural and singular) are an ethnic group in the African nations of Ghana, Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire.

They speak the Dagaare language, made up of the related Northern Dagaare dialects, Southern Dagaare dialects, a number of sub dialects. In northern dialects, both the language and the people are referred to as Dagara. They are related to the Birifor people and the Dagaare Diola. The language is collectively known as Dagaare (also spelled and/or pronounced as Dagare, Dagari, Dagarti, Dagaran or, Dagao) and historically some non-natives have taken this as the name of the people.

One historian, describing the former usage of “Dagarti” to refer to this community by colonials, writes : “The name ‘Dagarti’ appears to have been coined by the first Europeans to visit the region, from the vernacular root dagaa . Correctly ‘Dagari’ is the name of the language, ‘Dagaaba’ or ‘Dagara’ that of the people, and ‘Dagaw’ or ‘Dagawie’ that of the land.” Although sometimes divided into Northern and Southern Dagaare speakers, their combined population was estimated in 2003 at over one million spread across the Northwest corner of Ghana and Sud-Ouest Region in Southwestern Burkina Faso.

The Southern Dagaare are a people of around 700,000 living in the western part of Upper West Region. The Northern Dagaare speakers, with an estimated population of 388,000 (in 2001)  live primarily in Ioba Province, but also in Poni, Bougouriba, Sissili, and Mouhoun provinces. In Ghana, several waves of internal migration, beginning with the start of colonial rule in the late 19th century (but possibly having been begun sooner) and spiking in the 1980s, have brought a sizable Dagaaba population to towns in the southern part of the nation, notably Brong Ahafo Region.

In modern Ghana, the Dagaaba homeland of the Upper West Region includes the Districts and towns of Nandom, Lawra, Jirapa, Kaleo,Papu, Nadowli, Daffiama, Wechiau and Hamile. Large communities are also found in the towns of Wa, Bogda, Babile, Tuna, Han and Nyoli. The source of Dagaaba communities in the pre-colonial era remain a point of debate.

The evidence of oral tradition is that the Dagaaba are an outgrowth of the Mole-Dagbani group which migrated to the semi-arid Sahel region in the fourteenth century CE. They are believed to have further migrated to the lower northern part of the region in the seventeenth century. From well before the appearance of Europeans, the Dagaaba lived in small scale agricultural communities, not centralised into any large state-like structure. Ethnological studies point to oral literature which tells that the Dagaaba periodically, and ultimately successfully, resisted attempts at conquest by states in the south of modern Ghana, as well as the Kingdoms of Dagbon, Mamprugu and Gonja in the north. One thesis based on oral evidence is that the Dagaaba formed as a break away faction of Dagbon under Na Nyanse.

The colonial borders, demarcated during the Scramble for Africa, placed them in northwestern Ghana and southern Burkina Faso, as well as small populations in Ivory Coast.

Dagaaba communities have occasionally come into conflict with neighbouring groups, especially over land rights, as recently as the 1980s with the Sisala people and at earlier times with the Wala people. The latter, in alliance with the Wassoulou Empire of Diola Samory Toure, conquered much of Dagawie in the late 1890s, under the generalship of Sarankye Mori. Within the Dagawie homelands, the Dagaaba have traditionally formed sedentary agricultural communities.

Modern Dagaaba lineages consist of ten clans encompassing over one million people.

Traditional Dagaaba communities are based on the “Yir” subclan or household group, a series of which are clustered into the “Tengan”, an earth deity shrine area.

The Tengan system, a constellation of roles usually inherited within the same household group, is called the tendaalun . The head of these shrine area systems, the tengan sob (sometimes tindana ) fulfilled the role of community elder and priest, along with the tengan dem , the ritual custodian and maintainer of the ritual center. Other priestly/elder roles within the tendaalun include the suo sob who performs ritual animal slaughter to the earth deity, the zongmogre who performs rituals at the sacred market centres, and the gara dana or wie sob who is ritual leader among hunting societies.

These remain living forms of community in much of Dagaaba society, and influence, among other things, the community perception of land as held in spiritual custodianship, and different community resources falling under the custodianship of different authorities, lineages, and/or spiritual forces.

Until the latter part of the nineteenth century when institutional chieftaincy evolved (and was latter imposed by colonial administration), broader Dagaaba communities functioned under a system of councils of elders.
Some Dagaaba communities maintain traditional ceremonial chieftainships, sometimes contesting.

As recently as 2006, the “Council of Elders” of the Dagaaba community of Ghana attempted to unite various factions with the appointment of Naa Franklin Suantah, Principal Librarian of the Saint Louis Training College of Kumasi as chief of the Dagaaba community in Ghana.

Dagaaba communities historically have practiced Traditional religions, as well as Islam and Christianity. The Ghanaian Dagaaba have traditionally had a Cousinage/Joking relationship with the Frafra (Gurunsi) people.

The Dagaaba, before the influence of the colonialist, were self-reliant in iron production and were very successful in mixed crops farming. They also developed sophisticated musical instruments including gyle (xylophones).

Communities in Dagaaba homelands remain primarily small scale agricultural, with family farming plots tilled by the family themselves. In the modern era, off-farm wage income is often used to supplement trade income and subsistence from farming.

Fishing communities of Dagaaba persist along the Black Volta, a de facto boundary of Dagaaba lands. Because the communities are found along historic coast-to-Sahel trade routes, trade has long been an important occupation, but largely in local goods. Markets in larger towns are on Sundays, with others on a six-day cycle.

Some contemporary Dagaaba communities of northern Ghana are notable as the last West African communities to still use Cowrie shells as currency, alongside the modern Ghanaian cedi. Cowrie are used not only for traditional ornamental and ceremonial purposes (as other West African communities do), but also as an inflation proof form of internal savings and as a safe medium to trade across national (and currency) boundaries which may divide Dagaaba communities.

Oral literature has a long tradition with Dagaaba communities, and remains a living vehicle of education and acculturation in Dagaaba society. There are two main types of literature in Dagaaba society.

They can broadly be categorised as secular literature consisting of stories, tales, proverbs and other oral genre and the sacred literature produced during ritual and religious services. The most important of these are bagr mythical narratives recitations and orations produced during initiation rituals and other religious services.

The Dagara people of West Central Africa successfully categorize their members into five different categories: fire, water, mineral, earth and nature. These are shown above on the African Wheel with the colors the Dagara normally associate with each type. Each of the five types of people play a very specific role.

Some shady contentions have it that”Every person born into this world comes from one of these categories in order to help fulfill the kind of function hat category of people is supposed to fulfill in order to keep the community together”.

By: Charles Wundengba

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