Life in Northern Ghana


Situated in Western Africa, Ghana is bordered by Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Togo. The border on the south coast is formed by the Guinean Sea. Stretching over a maximum of 672 (north-south) by 536 (east-west) kilometres, Ghana approximates the size of Great Britain with a population of 18 million inhabitants. The capital of Accra is situated on the coast of Southern Ghana, as well as the international airport. As Ghana has a tropical climate, temperatures are around 30-35 degrees Celsius. Seasons in the North of Ghana consist of the rain season between May and October, the hot season between February and April with hotter daytime temperatures and the Harmattan season between December and January, which brings a strong, dusty wind and cooler night temperatures around eighteen (18) degrees. Southern Ghana has more rain than Northern Ghana, resulting in more fertile land and a greener environment with forests. Northern Ghana has a savannah landscape with a considerably lower standard of life than the South. However, Northern Ghana has short and drought-resistant trees with large rocky outcrops. This landscape and the traditional villages cause the region to be different from the southern part of the country. The shea-nut, dawadawa and baobab are important commercial and medicinal resources for these regions. Northern Ghana consists of three (3) regions: Northern region, Upper East region and Upper West region.

Northern Region

Northern region is inhabited by the Dagomba, Nanumba, Manprusi, Kunkumber, Gonja and Bimoba tribes. However, Tamale, the regional capital, is inhabited by the Dagombas who speak Dagbanli. Their leader or paramount chief bears the title of “Ya-Na” and lives in Yendi, 60 kilometres east of Tamale. The Islamic faith is dominant, but there are also Christians and Traditional worshippers.


Tamale, the Northern Regional capital, lies at approximately 500 km north of the coast and 200 km south of Burkina Faso’s border.
Tamale is a small town with a rural, friendly atmosphere. It doesn’t boast many tourist attractions, but is a nice city where you will soon feel at home. Houses are typically one storey high and made of concrete and aluminium roofing sheets. Electricity is available in most houses, as well as inside plumbing. Several guesthouses, bars and restaurants are situated in the city centre, as well as a market place, small shops, schools, a hospital and several smaller clinics, internet cafés and bus-stations with buses that travel to many other Ghanaian cities. A network of shared taxis serves as public transport to surrounding villages. Tamale is the place to be for items such as fabrics, medical items and snacks or films and batteries. Many NGO’s and volunteer organizations that serve the Northern Region are based in Tamale, which makes its city centre an excellent place to meet other foreigners.

Upper East Region

Upper East Region is located in the eastern part of northern Ghana. In the north it borders on Burkina Faso. It covers an area of 8,842 sq. km and has a population of 920,089. Upper East region is inhabited by the Gruhi, Bulsa, Grushi and Kusasi tribes. The regional capital of Bolgatanga is inhabited by the Gruhi who speak Grune. Their paramount chief is entitled “Bolga Naba” and lives in the capital. In Bolga, Christianity, Islam and Traditional worship are the main religions.


Bolga, the Upper East Regional capital, lies at 100 miles from Tamale and borders on Burkina Faso. Bolga, though small, can boast some tourist attraction areas, e.g. Paga crocodile pond, slave camp, Tongo hills etc. Houses in Bolga are also mainly one storey high and made of concrete and aluminium roofing sheets. In the capital there is electricity and pipe-borne water. Access to health centres, markets, shops, internet cafes and schools in Bolga is no problem. You also have access to commercial transport facilities at very affordable prices.

Upper West Region

The Upper West Region, the youngest region of Ghana with a total land area of 18,476km square and a population of 573,860, lies in the extreme west fringes of northern Ghana. The people that live in Upper West region are the Wales, Dagabers and Sisalas. The regional capital of Wa is inhabited by the Wales who speak Wali. Their paramount chief is known as “Wa Naa”. In Wa there is freedom of worship so you can be a Muslim, a Christian, or a Traditional worshipper.


Wa is a 150 km drive from Tamale. It was a centre of the slave trade for more than 300 years and this has left landmarks in many places. Cultural routes include sites such as slave caves, and mysterious foot and finger prints on trees and rocks. There is also a hippo sanctuary. Furthermore, there are health centres, markets, shops, internet cafes and schools in most parts of the region. As Wa is the newest region, it has a lot of ongoing development projects.

The traditional village

Traditional villages consist of compounds with cabins made of mud and straw. The cabins are small, round or square, and connected to each other by low walls. The space around which the cabins are built is used for cooking and other daily activities. A compound is inhabited by two up to twenty people with an average of ten inhabitants. Their culture is organized in a patrilineal way, meaning that a man, his wife or wives, his unmarried daughters and his sons typically inhabit compounds with their wives and children. Although men traditionally are allowed to marry as many wives as they can support, most men will stick to the Islamic rule of a maximum of four wives, with two being the most common.

Structure of a compound

From the age of twelve, a man will live in his own square cabin in the compound. Women live in round cabins, which they share with their children. Married couples without children share the husband’s cabin; unmarried daughters and sons up to the age of twelve will sleep in their mother’s cabin. One cabin serves as entrance to the compound and is not inhabited. This entrance cabin is used to receive visitors and for meetings. Another cabin functions as provision cabinet and cooking place in case of rain. Between cabins in the compound there are huts to house the animals and unroofed cabins for bathing and urinating. People also relieve themselves in the forest. The open space in the middle of the compound is used for cooking (unless it rains). The mother of the family will cook until her sons’ wives take over, typically after they have given birth to their first child. If there is more than one wife, each will cook two days in a row. The wife that cooks sleeps with her husband that night.


Villages depend largely on agriculture and the most common crops are yam (a potato-like root), corn, cassava, rice, peanuts, beans and to a lesser extent some vegetables. Domestic animals are chickens, guinea fowl, goats, sheep and cows. Agricultural produce is mainly used for own consumption and sometimes sold at the market. Men build and repair huts. Women cook and take care of the children, make Shea butter or other products to sell at the market. Children will assist their parents in most activities from the age of 4 or 5. Some children also attend school.


There is no shared household money in Northern families. Instead, each member has his or her own income and financial responsibilities. Men are responsible for the main ingredient in meals (yam, corn, cassava or peanuts) and for main expenses such as housing, school money and hospital bills. A woman is responsible for buying the ingredients for soup on the days she cooks. Extra income, usually earned at the market, is spent on clothing for herself and her children.


Breakfast consists of leftovers of yesterday’s dinner or Koko, a porridge made of fermented corn with sugar and pepper. Lunch and dinner typically consist of TZ (thick corn porridge), with soup made of dried okra, peanut or a spinach-like vegetable. Rice and beans are typically served between meals, as well as fruits or other snacks. Meat is usually served on holidays or in the case of celebrations or special visitors.

Organization and management of the village

Each village has a chief and a council of elders (all men), a Tindaana and a Kamana.

The chief

The chief is responsible for the general management of the village. For example, he decides who is allowed to own a piece of land and at what cost. He instructs the council of elders to hold meetings about village affairs and approves or disapproves their decisions. New visitors to a village are required to visit the chief to announce their visit and clarify the purpose of their visit.

The council of elders

The council of elders consists of a number of men, each with their specific status and function. Functions may be chairman, judge, guard et cetera. The council serves the chief and the Tindaana and helps them in executing their responsibilities. Council members can be consulted by the chief or the Tindaana at any time of the day or night. Each member is responsible for a piece of land and is allowed to use the pods of a specific tree for various purposes. During meetings, each council member is seated in a specific seat in the chief’s hall, depending on his status. The title of council member is connected to certain families and is therefore hereditary. A council member’s specific tasks depend on his personal characteristics and qualities.


The Tindaana is responsible for all spiritual matters concerning the land belonging to the village. He secures the approval of the land spirits by performing rituals and by making sure that taboos are not broken. Happy spirits ensure a good harvest, sufficient rain, peace, fertility and the well-being of all the people and animals of the village. The Tindaana receives dreams about village matters. If a sacrifice is required to solve a matter that concerns the entire village, each house will contribute to this sacrifice. When the village is connected to a female sacred forest, the Tindaana is a woman who is called “tindanpagba”. In such villages there are no chiefs because the land spirits will not accept male leadership. After previous attempts to inaugurate a chief in such villages, candidates met with a sudden and mysterious death soon after.


The Kamona is the chief of warriors, who will go out to battle in case they are at war with other tribes. He is also the one who mediates in conflicts between inhabitants of the village.