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Lobi-Dagarti Peoples

Lobi-Dagarti Peoples

Orientation and Ethnonyms

The group known to French writers, following the usage of Labourer (1931) and Père (1988), as the "Lobi" are found distributed between 9°00 and 11°00 N and 2°30 and 4°00 W. They are divided among three contemporary nations: Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), in South-West Department; Ghana (formerly Gold Coast), in the districts of Lawra, Wa, and Bole; and Ivory Coast, in the districts of Bonduku and Buna.

The terms "LoDagaa" and "Lobi-Dagarti" (or Dagara) are used for a cluster of peoples situated across the frontier of Burkina Faso and Ghana, originally grouped together by Labouret, following the usage of Delafosse and other francophones. In this cluster, Labouret included the "true Lobi" (or those the Birifor call the "LoWilisi") around Gaoua, who (according to Westermann and Bryan 1952) speak a Dogon-type language (the inclusion of Dogon is disputed); the Birifor (or LoBirifor) to their east, who speak Dagara, a Mole-Dagbane language; and four smaller groups: the Teguessié, the Dorossié, the Dian, and the Gan. The Teguessié (or Tégué) speak a language of the Kulango Group and are sometimes thought of as the autochthons; they were Masters of the Earth in much of the area. The other small groups speak languages related to Lobiri, as do the Padoro and possibly the Komono; Dian and Lobiri (in the east) are more closely related, as is the western group.

Subsequently, Père (1988) adopted the francophone use of Lobi ("la région Lobi") to cover the peoples of the Gaoua District of Burkina Faso, including not only the Jãa (Dian); the Gaàn (Gan); the Teésé (Teguessié); the Dòcsè (or Dorossié, but also the Kùlãgo [Kulango]); the Dagara (divided into Dagara Lobr and Dagara Wiili [Oulé]); and the Pwa (formerly known as the Pugula or Pougouli), who speak a Grusi language. Indeed, because she is dealing with the region, she also includes the Wala and the Dagara-Jula in her account.

The problems of ethnic classification in this area are several. In the first place, names differ, depending on whether they are used by francophones or by anglophones. The Lobi described by Rattray (1932) include the Birifor as well as the Dagara of Labouret. Second, the names have changed over time. People who were known as "Lobi" in the Lawra District of Ghana at the beginning of the nineteenth century are now "Dagara." Third, the names themselves often do not describe distinct ethnic groups. There are many differences in custom and organization between neighboring settlements, and these settlements may be referred to by the two quasi-directional terms, "Lo" (Lobi, west) and "Dagaa" (east), to distinguish different practices (for example, the use of xylophones). A settlement may identify with its eastern neighbors on one occasion (as Dagaa) and with its western ones (as Lo) on another. This actor usage has led Goody to identify a spectrum of peoples, the LoDagaa, who use these names for reference to themselves and others. They are, from west to east, the true Lobi, the Birifor or LoBirifor, the LoPiel (around Nandom) and the LoSaala (around Lawra), the Dagara (around Dano), the LoWiili (around Birifu), both DagaaWiili (around Tugu), and the Dagaba or Dagarti. The Wala speak the Dagaba language and constitute a small state that has its origins eastward in Dagomba. That state established itself as ruler over the southern Dagaba and some Grusi-speaking peoples. In the west, a branch of the ruling dynasty extended across the Black Volta to Buna, where they adapted the local Kulango language. The LoPiel and the LoSaala are known to francophones as "Dagara" (or Dagara-Lobr), and they now generally use this term rather than "Lobi" for self-reference because they have been forced to classify themselves unambiguously for administrative purposes. That change is widespread because "Dagara" is often a more prestigious term than "Lobi." The latter is associated in many people's minds with the large lip plugs of gourd or metal that are worn in the west (the easterners wear thin metal plugs) and with the stress that the westerners place on matrilineal inheritance, about which modernizers (church, schools, law, some administrators) generally feel hostile and ambivalent.

Given these contextual, overlapping, and changing usages by the peoples themselves, actor names are rarely satisfactory to indicate "tribal" groups, by which we refer to larger groupings of settlements with relatively homogeneous practices. These groups can be distinguished, roughly from east to west, as the Dagaba or Dagarti (around Jirapa); the LoPiel (around Nandom) and the LoSaala (around Lawra), both "Dagara Lobr" in French; the DagaaWiili (around Legmoin and Tugu) and the LoWiili (around Birifu), both "Dagara Wiilé" in French; the Birifor or LoBirifor (around Batié and in western Gonja); and the Lobi or LoWiilisi (around Gaoua). There are, in addition, the smaller populations of Gan, Dorossié, and Gian, who speak Lobi languages, and Teguessié, and who speak Kulango. These groups can be collectively designated as the LoDagaa or Lobi-Dagarti cluster, there being no reason to exclude the other Dagara-speaking peoples once the Birifor have been included among the Lobi.

Demography. Exact population figures are not readily available because these peoples are divided among three nation-states. Westermann and Bryan (1952) derived the following data from Labouret, Rattray, and early censuses: Lobi, 211,000; LoBirifor, 48,696 plus 40,520 in Ghana; Dagari/Dagarti/Wiili, 75,000 in Burkina Faso, 119,216 in Ghana; Wala, 25,923; Teguessié, 2,000; Dorossié, 7,500; Dian, 8,380, and Gan, 5,350. These figures should probably be doubled.

It is difficult to reconcile these numbers with the ones Père gives for the population of the Gaoua "circle" in 1975, namely, 180,288, of whom approximately 90,000 were "true Lobi" (with about another 75,000 in Ivory Coast, according to de Rouville); 60,000 were Birifor and 18,000 Dagara (Wiili).

History and Cultural Relations

The Lobi-Dagarti peoples are without any overarching tribal organization or, strictly speaking, any territory. They move not as large units, but as family groups, sometimes into other ethnic areas, where they may be absorbed into the local population. Most of the groups to the west of the Black Volta claim to have been formerly settled to the east of the river, in what is now Ghana. From the eighteenth century on, they have moved across the river. There appear to have been Lobi as well as Dagaba in the Wa area when the ruling dynasty arrived; the Jãa were certainly settled in the Lawra area until, attracted by a sparsely populated region with plenty of farmland and forest produce and under pressure from other LoDagaa, mainly from the south and southwest (but even from west of the river), they crossed the Black Volta. A minority of clans trace their origins from other regions.

One of the factors leading to the movement has been the search for more and better land, following earlier hunting expeditions. Another factor has been the raids mounted by the states of the region (as well as by the occasional freebooters and adventurers) in their search for slaves, partly for their own use but mainly to supply the Asante and, through them, the Europeans in the south. The invaders on horseback terrified the inhabitants, who sometimes retaliated with poisoned arrows. Mainly, however, they fled, using the larger rivers. A number of characteristicstheir dispersed settlements of fortress-type houses, the women's lip plugs, their rejection of cloth, and their general aggressivenesshave been attributed to the effects of such raids. In the late twentieth century houses are smaller, the manner of dress is more "European," and less hostility is displayed.

The establishment of the international boundary has brought about a decline in east-west migration. The main movement of the Lobi in the late twentieth century has been of two kinds. The first has been from the Lawra District to the vacant lands southward on the road to Kumasi, which many men have traveled in the dry season as migrant laborers. Settlements that produce food for sale in the markets have grown up from Wa south to the northwest of Asante. The second movement, beginning in 1917, has been eastward across the Black Volta from the francophone territories to Ghana, where there were fewer calls by the government on labor services. Many Birifor moved into the sparsely populated lands of western Gonja, which had been decimated as a result of Samori's wars at the end of the nineteenth century. These migrants have proved to be much more aggressive, market-oriented farmers than their hosts, with whom there has been some conflict over taxes and representation.


Settlements in the area consist of named units that are usually centered on a specific parish or ritual area of an Earth shrine. These settlements are inhabited by members of several exogamous lineages housed in fortress-type compounds with 2.5meter-high walls, a flat roofs, and entrances reached (at least formerly) by wooden ladders to the roofs. These houses are some 100 meters apart and contain an average of 15 persons, but they vary in size, depending on the state of the developmental cycle of the domestic group. Around the walls lies the compound farm, which is fertilized by human detritus and is used by the women to plant their soup vegetables. It is adjoined by home farms; bush farms lie much farther away. The settlements consist of some 250 to 750 inhabitants.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The economy is essentially one of the hoe farming of cereals (sorghum, pennisetum [pearl millet], maize), together with some yams, especially in the southern areas that are occupied by migrants. In addition, people grow squashes, peppers, beans (including Bambara beans), groundnuts, and a little rice. Some of this produce is sold in the local markets, especially sorghum in the form of beer. Most compounds also possess a herd of cows, and some sheep, goats, guinea fowl, and chickens, which are mainly killed as sacrifices to be distributed.

Industrial Arts and Trade. Lobi women produce a certain amount of gold, which finds its way into the hands of Dyula traders. Associated with earlier gold workings, it has been suggested, are the ruins of stone houses. Since the advent of colonial rule, the relative peace that it brought about and the cheaper iron tools that it provided have led to increased production, evidence of which can be seen in the markets. That increase is also true for livestock. Along with wage labor (performed either locally or as migrants), these developments have increased purchasing power. Whereas little was imported earlier except salt, now large amounts of cloth are brought in, and other manufactured objects, such as matches, bicycles, transistor radios, and household utensils, are used in considerable quantities. Local craft production consists of iron implements, brass bangles and other ornaments, musical instruments, some wood carvings, and woven mats.

Today migrationboth of the uneducated, seeking work as laborers, and of the educated, who generally work in the townsis frequent. The age of migrants is now much lower than formerly, and the duration of their absences is much greater. The result is that larger numbers of houses are inhabited by old men, women, and children who have to carry out the agricultural work without the help they would have received from the migrants. Thus, the sexual division of labor has been altered. The south, however, is beginning to lose some of its attraction as the international economy affects the recruitment of labor, potential recruits are frightened by tales of AIDS.

The LoDagaa (including the Lobi) were not themselves traders (except in the state of Wa), but major north-south trade routes of Dyula and Hausa merchants ran through the area from the forest to the Sahel.

Division of Labor. Farming was mostly done by men, but women helped with the planting and the harvesting. In some places, women would organize men to farm for a friend by brewing plenty of beer. Women cultivated soup vegetables, collected forest produce, carried loads, gathered firewood, fetched water, extracted oil, and prepared food and beer. Grinding grain, in particular, was a lengthy process. Their workload is now changing as a consequence of the introduction of wells and mills. Men carried out the heavy agricultural work, looked after livestock, and hunted. Both sexes took part in house building during the dry season.

Land Tenure. Land tenure took the form of a hierarchy of rights distributed within the lineage. At one level, land was "owned" by the wider patrilineage, and if any land was not being farmed, other members had a claim to use it. Use rights were exclusive and more important where land was scarce or especially valuable (because of water). Where population density was low, it sufficed to approach the local Master of the Earth, who would perform a simple sacrifice.


Kin Groups and Descent. Across the LoDagaa cluster, roughly from east to west, there is an increasing emphasis on the role of matrilineal descent groups. In the east, the Dagaba are organized on the basis of patrilineal descent groups alone. Several of these exogamous units exist in each parish. These lineages, which trace patrilineal relationships between their members, belong to wider named clans, segments of which are found in widely dispersed settlements, even those of different "ethnic" groups, roughly tracing out lines of migration. Groups to the west also have matrilineal clans, and all except the Wiili (and formerly even some of the LoWiili) inherit land and immovables agnatically and inherit movables (wealth, cattle) through the uterine line. Hence, the patricians are locally based, but the matriclans are dispersed. These groups are therefore variants of classic double-descent systems.

Patrilineal clans are numerous, each with its own prohibitions, often against the killing of a totemic animal or the eating of foods in a particular way. The clans are paired in joking relationships, and their ritual foci are lineage shrines. Among the Lobi and, to some extent, the Birifor, although patrilineal clanship is concealed, it is significant in landownership and in some ritual affairs, especially in the Dyoro initiations. The matriclans, right across the cluster, are basically four in numberSome, Da, Hienbe, and Kambire. The first two and the last two are paired in joking relationships, which are particularly important at funerals. These dispersed matriclans have particular loci where sacrifices are occasionally performed.

Kinship Terminology. In a double-descent system, one can refer to any kin either in the patrilineal or in the matrilineal mode. The patrilineal mode is Omaha, whereas the matrilineal one is Crow. The dominance of these different modes depends upon the strength of the relevant groups.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In the eastern groups, marriage is strictly virilocal and is effected by the transfer of bride-wealth in cowries and subsequently in cattle. The transfers take place over time, as the marriage is consolidated with the birth of children. Traditionally, the groom also had to bring parties to farm for his inlaws from time to time, although among the educated this practice tends to get commuted into a monetary payment. Each marriage invokes the construction of a new sleeping room and cooking hearth. Among the Birifor and the Lobi, when a fiancé comes to farm, he may eventually be allowed to spend the night with his future wife and, later, to have her visit his own house in return for further work. She did not usually reside permanently in her husband's house until after the birth of their first child. Initial bride-removal without bride-service, as in some cross-"ethnic" marriages, entailed a very heavy payment of five cattle, a form of marriage that is becoming more common. The children are members of both their patrilineal and their matrilineal clans. Nowadays marriage by elopement is more common, with the wife joining her husband straightaway and the bride-wealth being eventually paid.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit is generally built on agnatic ties, given that wives join their husbands at marriage, but among the Lobi and Birifor, men do extensive bride-service, and some young children may grow up with their mother's brothers before their mother leaves for her husband's house. In most cases, the farming group is small. A man and his sons may farm together for a longer period among the groups in which patricians dominate. The dwelling group that occupies a compound may consist of several farming groups, and each farming group may be divided into smaller eating groups.

Inheritance. Among the Dagaba and the Wiili, a man's property passes first to his full brothers, if they are farming together, and then to his sons. Among the LoPiel, the LoSaala, the Birifor, and the Lobi, land passes in the paternal line, whereas movable property is transmitted first to uterine siblings and then to sisters' sons, leading to earlier splits in the domestic groups and to tensions between a man and his mother's brothers. A woman's property generally goes to her daughters if it is sex-linked, but livestock may go to her sons.

Socialization. Young children are looked after by their mothers and are breast-fed until they can walk and talk, when they "become humans" and are thus entitled to a proper burial (see "Death and Afterlife"). Later on, they are cared for by elder sisters or relatives, who involve them in their play. Boys go off in groups to herd cattle, whereas girls play more domestic games around the compound, helping their mothers from time to time by fetching water or grinding and pounding cereals. Among the Lobi, girls also look after cattle, although boys and girls pass this responsibility to their juniors when they are initiated into the Dyoro society.

Sociopolitical Organization

Political Organization. Except for the Wala and the Gan, the peoples of this group lacked chieftainship and central political organization until the coming of colonial rule. Before that, settlements were basically parishes, ritual areas under the supervision of a Master of the Earth, who conducted expiatory and other sacrifices in a sacred grove on behalf of the community. Particularly severely reproved was the shedding of the blood of any member of the community. In addition to the Master of the Earth, there was a leader in armed conflict (and the hunt), the Master of the Bow. The Earth priest was always advised by the heads of the constituent lineages of the settlement, who made up an informal moot and entered into complex patterns of reciprocal action in funerals and on other ritual occasions. A powerful man in the settlement might, on occasion, build up both riches and a following, and thereby temporarily gain influence over community affairs. On some of the trade routes running north and south, Muslim merchants established settlements and engaged in local as well as long-distance trade. Today all areas have had chiefs imposed upon them by the government authorities.

Social Control and Conflict. In earlier times, the absence of central authority meant that the feud played an important part in the settlement of disputes. Men always traveled equipped with bows and poisoned arrows, a practice that early colonial administrators tried to modify with varying success, especially in Lobi country. The main causes of conflict were rights to women and access to forest products. Within the parish, conflicts of this kind were rare because of kin ties and respect for the Earth shrine. Strong sanctions existed against adultery, theft, and other delicts, which were settled within and between local lineages. More recently, local chiefs and headmen have exercised supervision on behalf of the government, and local courts of law have been established.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The religion of the LoDagaa cluster centers on the Earth and the ancestors. The worship of the Earth (which is conducted by the Master of the Earth on behalf of the parish) relates to the fertility of the soil and, indeed, to all of its uses; it would be offended by having anyone who suffered a bad death interred within it or by having the blood of any member of its congregation shed upon it. The Earth looks after the community, but the ancestors supervise the lineage and are concerned with matters relating to the household and kin, that is to say, with a very wide range of human activity. Whereas the Earth is propitiated at a stone in a sacred grove, the ancestors are worshiped at anthropomorphically carved wooden shrinesone for each male who leaves behind sons; these are kept in a corner of the byre where the cattle are stalled.

There are a multitude of other supernatural agencies, the most important of which is the rain shrine, which draws its strength from the power of thunder and lightning. Most of the "medicine shrines" circulate throughout the region, and a selection will have been acquired by any of the more established housesand even by distant clients. In the long run, their popularity waxes and wanes.

As intermediaries between humans and these deities, there is a body of beings of the wildhill and water spiritswhose home is the bush (as that of humans is the cultivated lands) and whose flocks are the wild animals. In their rooms, most senior men and women have shrines to these spirits, by whom they have been "caught." They are associated with divination because they can reveal the truth through dreams and in other ways. They are also the ones who have, with the blessing of the High God, introduced humans to the main aspects of culture: the growth of crops, the making of food, the smelting of iron, hunting, and so forth.

The High God is characteristically "otiose" and has no altar, no means of communication. Muslims and Christians in the area are characterized as "praying to God"; for others, such a God is too far removed from human ways. Nevertheless, the myth of the Bagre society emphasizes the High God's role as Creator, and members of various syncretic cults, together with those who were converted en masse to Christianity, emphasize that potentially this God could play a greater part than was traditionally assumed.

Since the 1930s, mass conversions to Catholicism have taken place, beginning among the LoPiel population around Dissin. Since then, the religion has spread widely; churches and hospitals have been constructed and priests trained. Until the late twentieth century, Protestant sects had made little headway in the area, but conversions have recently been made among the Lobi. Islam was formerly confined to small trading settlements and to the major towns, such as Wa and Buna; it has made a few converts in the villages but remains largely identified with the states of the region.

Religious Practitioners. Practically every adult is an officiant at some shrine or another, but the main figure is the Master of the Earth. Some individuals develop special reputations as diviners. All are involved in sacrifices to the ancestors, to the beings of the wild, and to medicine shrines.

Ceremonies. Annual ceremonies are performed at household shrines, especially at the end of the farming season. It is toward this time that, among the central groups, neighbors dance in the marketplace to celebrate the flowering of the guinea corn. Not long afterward, lineages perform special sacrifices to clan deities, a time when they also poison their arrows. Traditionally, success in the hunt also elicited special ritual performances, as did killing someone in war, whether friend or enemy.

Birth and marriage were accompanied by little ceremonial. Death and burial, on the other hand, were occasions; the funeral ceremonies, which resulted in redistribution of the property of the dead (including sexual rights) and the creation of an ancestor shrine (if there were offspring), lasted for many months and brought mourners from far and wide.

The major ceremonial sequences, however, were those associated with secret societies: the Bagre in the east and the Dyoro in the west. The Bagre is performed by lineages when they have sufficient neophytes (and enough grain) to carry out a performance, with the participation of their neighbors as officiants. During the course of the long sequence of rites, the neophytes are placed under a series of taboos, from which they are gradually released. The rites are accompanied by an extensive recitation concerning the creation of culture. The Dyoro ceremony involves a visit by patrilineages to special centers, where the ancestors lived before reaching the banks of the Black Volta and where the principal rites of initiation take place. Indeed, the ritual reenacts the long-ago migration of the patrician and so preserves a little of its history. In the ceremony, which takes place every seven years, the initiates are killed off and revived.

Arts. Labouret noted the general features of the culture of this area (except for that of the Muslims). Clothing was absent except for the penis sheath for men and leaves for women (although this has largely changed). Women wore lip plugs and practiced excision, but there was no male circumcision. Separate flat-roofed compounds were constructed of clay and served as small fortresses. The spectrum of peoples in the area have similar techniques of metalworking and pottery making (including the lost-wax process); use bows, quivers, and arrows poisoned with Strophantus hispida; make three-footed stools, sometimes carved; and maintain secret societies and the use of the bullroarer.

Different types of xylophone serve as ethnic identifiers, but the social systems have many common elements. Most significant are the similarities and variants in social organization, in political systems, in religion, and in kinship.

The LoDagaa have expert xylophone players who perform at funerals, at the Bagre, and for dances of various kinds. They produce some carving: ancestor shrines, beings of the wild, deities, stools, and walking sticks. The Lobi formerly made masks based on Baule designs, at the instigation of Commandant Labouret. The LoDagga make many large clay sculptures of beings of the wild and of minor deities. There is virtually no painting, except for the application of white clay on the human body during funeral and Bagre ceremonies. Some practitioners carve figurative and decorative patterns on gourds.

Medicine. There are no specialist herbalists among the LoDagaa, although some men and women are recognized as knowing more than others. Some curative medicines ("medicines" are used for different purposes) are associated with shrines, others are "invented" by individuals going to the woods, and still others have been of long-standing use and are known to most households. Women's knowledge centers mainly around medicines relating to childbirth and female complaints.

The medical system is open-ended, and there has been no problem in assimilating European cures, especially pills and injections. Today there is a wide network of government and missionary hospitals and clinics. Many tropical diseases have been more or less brought under control (for example, cerebrospinal meningitis, leprosy, and sleeping sickness), but malaria has made an unwelcome comeback.

Death and Afterlife. Death, particularly of infants, was frequent. Those who have not yet been weaned are not mourned in the usual way, except by their mothers, because they are deemed to be wandering spirits, rather than humans. Precautions are taken against their return to this earth. For all others, however, the funeral rites are long and complex, and they involve the participation of many people. The burial performance takes three or four days, depending on whether the deceased is a male or a female, and that performance is followed over the next year by a series of rites that gradually release the widow (or widower) and the property and personality of the deceased and dismiss the soul to "God's country." The dead travel across the river of death with the aid of a ferryman; during the trip, those who have led evil lives may be punished for their misdeeds. In the course of the series of funeral ceremonies, a dead man also becomes an ancestor, with a shrine that will thereafter receive regular offerings of food and drink from his descendants, especially from those who have inherited from him.


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