Identification. The people now known as the "Mamprusi" occupy the East and West Mamprusi districts of northern Ghana. Their name is linked to "Mamprugu," the name of the kingdom with which they are associated. Until recently, "Mamprusi" was a term mainly used by outsiders. They called themselves "Dagbamba," a term also used by their southern neighbors, known in English as "Dagomba." Mamprusi called these people "Yooba" (people of the forest) or "Weiya," in reference to the marshy areas also occupied by these neighbors. Similarly, their northern neighbors, the Mossi, were named for the grassy bush (moo ) that characterizes the ecological zone to the north. Mamprusi usage of the term "Dagbamba" as an autonym, combined with their reference to their neighbors in terms of a characteristic habitat, reflects their view of themselves as inhabiting a central and civilized place in the universe of peripheral peoples. Since their southern neighbors have appropriated the name "Dagbamba" and its English equivalent "Dagomba," the former Dagbamba have become Mamprusi.
Location. The East and West Mamprusi districts (formerly the South Mamprusi District) extend west some 320 kilometers from the international border dividing Ghana and Togo. Some 80 kilometers separate the Nasia River, in the south, from the White Volta River, which marks the northern boundary of this area. In the northeast of the region, the Gambaga escarpment rises 450 meters above sea level at the southward bend of the White Volta River, and continues eastward into Togo. It is likely that in the precolonial period, the Mamprusi zone of influence followed this escarpment.
The region falls within the climatic zone of the Guinea Savanna. The rainy season falls between April and September, and there are no second rains. January and February are characterized by a harmattan season, during which a cold, dry wind sweeps through the country. South of the Gambaga scarp, wooded slopes contract with the arid land and lathyritic soils, lying immediately to the north, or the deforested continuation of the scarp to the northwest. In the south, southeast, and western margins of the districts, land is periodically flooded by tributaries of the Nasia, Oti, and Volta rivers. In the 1960s the Mamprusi districts marked the northern margin of the yam-growing region of Ghana. Deforestation, periodic drought, and increased population pressure have caused some damage to the environment since then, and yams are now said to be much more difficult to grow. Land-fallowing periods are generally shorter than they were in the 1960s, and there is less uncultivated land.
Linguistic Affiliation. Mampruli is one of a number of Mole Dagbani languages spoken in Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Togo. Many languages of this group are spoken by contiguous populations; neighboring peoples are likely to speak mutually intelligible variants of a common tongue. Given frequent intermarriage of Mamprusi with their non-Mamprusi neighbors, many Mamprusi speak several Mole-Dagbani languages. Those who have traveled south, in Ghana, often speak Twi. Many traders speak Hausa, and all schoolchildren learn some English. Familiarity with French is increasing. Muslims are learning to speak as well as to read Arabic.
Demography and Settlement Patterns. In 1960 the population of the Mamprusi districts was roughly 104,436 in an area of 7,790 square kilometers. Population increase has raised the density from 14 persons per square kilometer in the 1960s to over 20 in the 1980s. In the 1960s most Mamprusi lived in settlements of 500 persons or fewer, but, by the 1990s, several large villages with populations of more than 10,000 had emerged. The relative proportion of different ethnic groups in the population has remained roughly constant, with the exception of an influx of Yoruba and Mossi peoples, who were expelled from Ghana in 1973. The Mamprusi, although still less than a majority of the population, continue to constitute the largest single ethnic group. Mamprusi settlements, in contrast with those of neighboring peoples, are nucleated rather than dispersed; often they are clustered near a chief's compound. Larger settlements are divided into sections (foanna; sing. foango ). In the neighborhood of Nalerigu, the present capital of the Mamprusi ex-kingdom, there are the remains of an ancient wall that appears to have partially surrounded the king's village, leaving it open to the north and northeast, where the land rises rapidly, but protecting the lower-lying parts of the village. The wall enclosed streams and farmland as well as a residential area.
History and Cultural Relations
The Mamprusi kingdom is one of several related states founded in the distant past by descendants of Na Gbewa, who, legend has it, entered the area from the northeast in flight from a pursuing army. Mamprusi legend identifies this time as just shortly after the beginning of the world and identifies the people who gave the Na Gbewa refuge as the original inhabitants of the region. Historians suggest that a founder of Mamprusi kingship may have arrived in the area in the fourteenth century, at a time that would coincide with the collapse of Fulani emirates in what is now northern Nigeria and the dispersal of princes and their followers from that region. Mamprusi traditions are vague as to the birthplace of Na Gbewa but emphatic about the location of his burial site at Pusiga, northeast of the present capital. This is said to be where Na Gbewa first stopped and founded the original capital. When he was very old, the succession was contested and his favorite son slain by a rival prince. On hearing the news of his son's death, Na Gbewa disappeared—he was swallowed into the earth at the site of his palace, a place in the bush where sacrifices are still made to his spirit. In the course of the conflict that followed his death, his kingdom was divided; elder and younger brothers became kings of the Mamprusi and Dagomba peoples, respectively. Mossi kings are descendants of a latter Mamprusi king's daughter who eloped from her father's village at a time when the capital had been moved from Pusiga to Gambaga.
The configuration of relationships among Mamprusi, Dagomba, and Mossi kingdoms that arises from this history is expressed in the Mamprusi view of Dagomba kings as their junior brothers and Mossi kings as grandsons of their own king. This amounts to an assertion of Mamprusi seniority. In the past, this presumed seniority was translated into particular forms of conventional behavior held to be appropriate among kin when Mossi, Dagomba, and Mamprusi met one another, particularly in market situations but also in political/ritual contexts.
East and West Mamprusi districts extend over five territorial segments, or provinces, of the former kingdom. Each of these, like the kingdoms founded by different descendants of Na Gbewa, is regarded as the inherited domain of a distinct patriline founded by the son of a Mamprusi king. (It should be emphasized that the notion of domain does not, in this context, imply exclusive rights to use or dispose of land, but rather political authority with respect to the population.) The central area includes the king's village at Nalerigu and other settlements where members of the kings patrilineage hold chiefly office. To the west, from north to south, are the provinces of Kpasinkpe, Wungu, and Janga. To the east, the province of Yunyo separates Nalerigu from the Togo border. The paramount chief of each of these provinces is political head of a corresponding patrilineage, which provides royal chiefs in that province. The Mamprusi king's title, nayiiri, (na = "king" or "chief"; yiiri = "house") is unique, and, unlike that of the provincial paramounts or those of the Mossi and Dagomba kings, it is not linked to the name of any particular territory. It implies his position at the very center of the polity, where he is the source of naam, the mystical aspect of chiefly power.
The precolonial history of the Mamprusi is as yet known only through the occasional written records made from legend. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Mossi, Dagomba, and Mamprusi kingdoms were invaded by British-, French-, and German-led troops. A first treaty with the Mamprusi king was made by George Ekom Fergusen—and contested by the French. Later, British troops led by a certain Capt. Stewart settled in Gambaga (1897-1902), where he negotiated with French officers in the Mossi kingdom of Tengkudugu to the northeast and with Germon officers to the east, across what is now the Togo border. A final settlement in Vienna in 1902 established the present boundaries between Togo and Ghana in the east, and between Ghana and Burkina Faso in the north.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Agriculture and animal husbandry provide subsistence for most of the population. Sheep, goats, pigeons, fowl, and guinea foul are kept by most households, and wealthier families have cattle. Chiefs may have horses for ceremonial use, but horses and donkeys (formerly important beasts for transport) are bred farther north, in Mossi territory. Increased population density has led to greater pressure on land. Grazing land, formerly used by transhumant Fulani herders, is now scarce. Fallowing periods are shorter, and, in some areas, drought has led to the destruction of ground cover. Traditionally, millet, guinea corn, and sorghum were the major cereal crops, but maize is now increasingly cultivated despite widespread recognition that it is of less nutritive value than traditional crops that require longer growing seasons. Rice, which has a long history of cultivation as a minor crop, has been introduced in new varieties as a cash crop.
Division of Labor. Mamprusi used to claim that their women did not farm, by which they meant that their wives did not hoe, as do women of neighboring peoples, but helped in the sowing and harvesting of crops; however, famine conditions during the early 1980s resulted in the use of all available labor in agriculture. Men and women now both participate in all phases of the farming cycle other than firing the bush and clearing land for cultivation, which is the work of men. Dawadawa pods and shea nuts, collected by women, are still an important source of food, and their elaborate processing is a task for women. Building houses is men's work. Women finish the floors and walls. Baskets, pots, and locally woven cloth are made by neighboring peoples, and certain foodstuffs (e.g., smoked fish) are also bought from neighbors rather than produced by Mamprusi. Literate adults who have been through the Ghanaian school system are employed by local government offices or work for foreign missionaries and nongovernmental organizations. Local salaries are usually insufficient, however, and farming is a necessary adjunct to most other occupations.
Trade. Women are expected to trade as an extension of their domestic duties. Traditionally, they received cereal from their husbands to make the staple porridge but were expected to collect or trade for ingredients to make soup to accompany the porridge. Shea butter and dawadawa flour, firewood, and millet beer were prepared by women, both for domestic use and trade. Some women are engaged in large-scale trade of grain and yams, cooked food, beets, kola nuts, smoked fish, and imported manufactured goods. Mamprusi men may engage in trade as a full-time alternative to agriculture. Specialists trade in salt, kola, cattle, yams, and, now, manufactured goods. Although women own livestock, they never buy live animals themselves; even hens and guinea fowl are bought and sold by men. Local markets are held either on every third or every sixth day, and specialist traders follow particular sets of markets, which constitute local market cycles. Major market towns have a permanent market site, daily markets, a few small stores, and beer bars. Smaller villages have only periodic markets.
Land Tenure. Traditionally, Mamprusi have regarded land as belonging to the ancestors and to future generations; hence, the sale of land is considered an offense against the ancestors. In urban areas, houses are sold, but this is considered sale of the construction alone. Use rights to cultivate land belong to the person who has cleared it. Usufructuary claims to land may be inherited within a family, but unused land reverts to the community, to be allocated by village chiefs and elders. Until the late twentieth century, there had been relatively little pressure on land, and the only major conflicts over land use occurred between neighboring village communities. Formerly, these conflicts might be resolved by the movement of farmers to unused land and the relocation of village communities. This has become more difficult with increased population density and capital investment in unmovable village infrastructure (e.g., school, clinic, government office, market, church/mosque, water pipes).
Kin Groups and Descent. The calculation of patrilineal descent is significant at both the domestic and political levels. The royal patrician descended from the first king, Na Gbewa, is constituted at present by the five patrilineages that articulate the territorial framework of Mamprusi political organization (see "History and Cultural Relations"). Each royal lineage provides a chief for the capital village in its respective province; the centrally localized lineage provides the king. Chiefs of the capital villages in each province are selected and installed by the king and his court, but they, with their courts, in turn select and install village chiefs within their provinces. Although each lineage is localized in a corresponding province, its constituent segments are dispersed throughout the many small settlements of that territory. Villages may contain a variety of commoner kin groups and one or more segments of a royal lineage, or they may be made up of a single extended kin group consisting solely of either royals or commoners.
The patrilineages that form the royal clan are subdivided into "gates" (zanoaya; sing. zanoari ); many commoner lineages are similarly organized. A gate consists of agnates who trace connection through three generations of deceased patrikin. Within a gate, office is inherited, and gate numbers cooperate in the performance of funerals. Members of the same gate sacrifice together to their common ancestors. The distinction between royals (nabiisi ) and commoners (tarima ) depends on patrilineal filiation, and Mamprusi claim that all patrilineal descendants of kings, however distantly related, are royal. Large numbers of commoner gates probably have royal origins. Although it is said that royals should not intermarry, neither at clan nor at lineage levels are Mamprusi royals an exogamous group. The exogamous unit is the gate. Beyond this range of patrikin, marriages occur, although one or both partners may relinquish royal status in establishing the union. Where intermarriage occurs between members of different royal lineages or different gates of a single lineage, one segment will be regarded as royal, while the other will be classified as commoner. If royal descent is not reaffirmed by tenure of royal office, royal status is eventually lost. Thus, the commoner population consists of descendants of royals who have lost claim to royal office as well as immigrants from a variety of different ethnic groups, most notably Tampollensi, Tchokossi, Kantonshi, and other neighboring peoples. Some commoners claim autochthonous origins. Commoners hold office as elders in the chiefly courts and may also hold chiefly office, although their chiefships, unlike those of royals, are not ranked; they are regarded as nonresident elders of a royal chief's court.
Kinship Terminology. The Mamprusi classificatory terminology distinguishes three generations, and great-grandparent/great-grandchild relationships can be described. In Ego's generation, men distinguish senior brother (bere ) from junior brother, who is classed together with sisters as junior sibling ( tizoa' ) . Female ( tizo-pwa'a ) and male ( tizo-doo ) junior siblings can be identified. Women class their senior sisters and brothers together (bere) and their junior brothers and sisters together (tizoa'). In the first ascending generation, Ego categorizes siblings of the same sex as a parent, depending on their age relative to the parent. The categories senior father (bakpema ) and junior father (bapura ), or senior mother (makpema ) and junior mother (mapura ) include all persons for whom Ego's parents use sibling terms. Special terms distinguish a mother's brother (nyahaba ) and a sister's child (nyahanga ). A father's sister (piriba ) refers to her brother's child as child (bia ). Ego refers to his own children and to those of persons he calls by a sibling term, as child (bia); male child (bi-dibiga ) and female child (bipunga ) may be distinguished. The child of any person called child will be called grandchild (ya'anga ), for which the reciprocal is female grandparent (yapwa'a ) or male grandparent (yadoo ). The term for grandparent (yaaba ) is also used for ancestor. Affines distinguished in Ego's generation include husband (sira ), wife (pwa'a), sister's husband (datyia; pl. datyisi ), and brother's wife (pwaatia; pl. pwaatyisi ). A woman calls her husband's brother "husband" (sira) but usually specifies his relative age with respect to her husband (sira-kpema = senior husband; sira-pira = junior husband). A man calls his brother's wife, wife (pwa'a). All the above terms are used both in address and reference and replace personal names in most contexts.
Marriage. In theory Mamprusi royals must marry commoners. In effect, they seek to spread their matrimonial alliances as widely as possible. Among royals and commoners members of the same gate are forbidden to marry, and marriage to patrikin with whom precise genealogical connection can be traced is frowned upon. Matrilateral cross-cousin marriage—that is, marriage to a cross cousin who is not the child of a parent's own sibling—is regarded as a good marriage, particularly by Mamprusi Muslims. Men aspire to polygynous marriages. Chiefs and important commoners have many wives. Mamprusi frown upon sororal polygyny, saying that marriage with two women from the same house leads to quarrels among the wives and difficulties in management for the household head. Marriage is established by gifts of kola. Two prestations of kola are sent by the head of the husband's gate to the head of the wife's gate. Both are sent via the chief or chiefs of the villages in which the partners reside. The first, message kola, establishes that the woman has spent the night with her future husband. If this kola is accepted, the pardon kola follows. The marriage kola is distributed to members of the woman's gate, and a portion of both prestations is taken by the chief or chiefs and distributed to elders. Chiefs thus involved will subsequently mediate in disputes arising within or from the marriage. The exchange makes children legitimate members of the father's gate. A son-in-law acquires important ongoing responsibilities with regard to his wife's kin. He must attend the funeral of senior members of her gate and give her grain, a sheep, and cash to contribute. He must raise a group of dancers and gun bearers to celebrate the deceased. A husband's failure to provide the requisite funeral contribution is grounds for divorce. When, as frequently happens, Mamprusi men marry women of neighboring ethnic groups, they follow the woman's group's customs for establishing the marriage.
A determined woman can now leave a marriage she dislikes. This is said to be the result of modern government intervention, but it seems likely that even formerly, it was not impossible for a woman to leave one husband for another. It is more difficult however, for her to return to her kin. Men also cannot easily dismiss a wife of long standing. Although marriage is unstable in the first years, it becomes more stable after the birth of children. After a husband s death, his widow may choose to marry one of his brothers, but cannot be forced to do so against her will. Young widows may return home and accept gifts from suitors, which they will use to trade. They are then supposed to choose a husband and return the gifts to the rejected suitors. An elderly widow is household head if she has a married son with whom she lives in her deceased husband's house. A widow without sons will reluctantly return to her own kin.
Domestic Unit. The core of the household is the patrilineal family. Royal households normally include a polygynous household head, perhaps with his younger married sons and unrelated dependents. Commoner households more often include older married brothers with children, and often three generations of agnates reside together. Older men are often polygynous; important chiefs and wealthy commoners have many more than the maximum of four wives permitted Muslims. Marriage is invariably patri-virilocal. A woman retains membership in her natal lineage. Although she normally will be buried in her husband's house, a final funeral is performed for her in her natal home.
Although women observe an etiquette of respect when dealing directly with their husbands, and the male household head is treated with deference by resident family members, women control the domestic domain. Significantly, a male household head is said to be subordinate to his father's sister if such a relative is in residence. The internal hierarchy of the household is based on the ranking of women in polygynous marriages. A senior wife has authority over junior wives, and their children sleep in her room. She supervises their collective performance of the major domestic tasks and may also organize trading enterprises. Mothers-in-law have authority over their husband's wives.
The king (nayiiri) sits with his court in his palace (nayiini ) at the village of Nalerigu, roughly in the territorial center of the former kingdom. Although aspects of the kingship are replicated in the paramount chiefship of each province, only the king's palace contains the regalia used to install the king and to invest the heads of the other royal provinces. Each king is regarded as embodying all preceding kings, and his court is, directly or indirectly, the source of kingship/chiefship (naam) throughout the kingdom. It is the most elaborate and largest court containing offices represented in smaller numbers in all other royal courts. Of these, the Master of Horses (wudaana ) and the Master of Spears (kpanaraana ) are most common. Courts also include gun bearers, drummers, and local earth-priests, as well as Muslims. Also numbered among the king's elders are all the household heads of a settlement, special drummers and officeholders responsible for his clothing and regalia, successors to the titles of former executioners, and eunuchs.
Courts allocate land and deal with disputes arising from land claims and litigation arising from marriage, as well as other domestic and civil disputes. Most disputes are dealt with first in a chief's court rather than in government courts. Chiefly courts deal with funerals and succession to office, organize annual cylindrical celebrations, perform sacrifices on behalf of the community to earth and ancestor divinities, and mediate between the local communities and national government. Special commoner-chiefs deal with witchcraft accusations and have custody of convicted witches.
Commoner elders in the king's court play a crucial role in the selection of each new king and are involved in the selection and installation of royal chiefs. Succession to royal office is competitive; numerous candidates present themselves, and, through gifts and persuasion, attempt to influence the court in their favor. Office should circulate through the various gates of a royal lineage, and a son should not succeed his father in office. The participation of commoners—as king/chief makers and as followers of rival princes in competitions for royal office—balances the hegemony of royals and acts as a check on the abuse of power by one segment of the royal lineages. All offices are held for life; therefore much of the court endures beyond the reign of a particular king or chief.
Since 1957, numerous local institutions have been set up in the Mamprusi districts by the Ghanaian government to extend the processes of technological and social transformation begun during the colonial period. Police and army units represent the central government, as do schools and local government offices. Roads, a postal system, telephone communication, and bus transport connect the Mamprusi districts with the rest of the world. Increased trade with southern Ghana has resulted in the expansion of markets and increased distribution for commodities made elsewhere.
The north of Ghana has been the scene of numerous small-scale conflicts since the late 1960s, most of which have not involved Mamprusi. One of the longest-standing conflicts involves people resident immediately to the north who claim Mamprui identity and are descended from royal Mamprusi who emigrated to that area prior to the British conquest. They speak Hausa or Kusal rather than Mampruli, and, although they consider themselves Mamprusi, they should be considered separately from the ethnic group residing in the Mamprusi districts.
Kingship. Mamprusi kingship is both a religious and a political institution. The king and royal ancestors are held responsible for the fertility of land and people. Respect for a village chief is a manifestation both of political allegiance and reverence for the kingship. The king embodies the royal ancestors and owns all the land and everything on it; royal chiefs replicate his powers on a more limited scale. The living king and royal chiefs delegate responsibility to members of other king groups, which have other divinities, and those, too, are regarded as having a part to play in providing for the general welfare.
Commoner Divinities. The ancestors of commoners are called upon to support the polity during certain annual ceremonies and in other circumstances that affect the polity. During natural disasters such as drought or political trauma such as the interregnum and—particularly important—at the installation of a new king, commoner-elders request support from their ancestors for the wider community. After his installation, the king should provide animals for sacrifice by commoners at earth-shrines and elsewhere. At the village level, local commoner priests ritually ratify a chief's investiture, which is performed by a royal court, and sacrifice at local shrines on his behalf.
Islam. The historical connections between the Mamprusi and Islam are unclear. In major market towns and the capital village, a few Muslim families are clearly distinguished from other Mamprusi. Muslim men marry non-Muslim women, and their wives tend to adopt Islam. They trace their origins to royals who did not achieve office or to immigrant traders. The oldest Muslim community is located in Gambaga, a major market in the precolonial period. Muslims there provided services for the caravan trade and were, until the late twentieth century, dyers. The king's liman resides in Gambaga. Liman Baba, who acted as a go-between for Na Barga, the reigning king when the British arrived, is also mentioned in reports from Kumasi. He clearly was an important and literate figure of the period. At present, Muslims participate at court and in domestic rituals performed at death and naming. It is traditionally forbidden for the king to be a Muslim, but, during the late twentieth century, kings have been converted to Islam. Since the 1960s, evangelical Muslims have been active and the number of mosques and the diversity of Muslim communities has increased in the Mamprusi area.
Christianity. The first Christian mission in the Mamprusi region was probably the Assemblies of God, established around 1925. After independence, the Baptist Mission Hospital was built in Nalerigu, the king's village, with funds from the United States; since then, both British and U.S.-based missions have established themselves. Ghanaian churches have also founded congregations.
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