Tenzug - Tallensi settlements

Date of Submission: 17/01/2000
Criteria: (i)(ii)(v)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Ghana Museums and Monuments Board Government of the Republic of Ghana
Coordinates: Lat. 10°40' N ; Long. 0° 49' W Upper East Region, Bolgatanga
Ref.: 1392
Cultural landscapes


The Tong Hills, a rocky granite outcrop rising from the savannas of the Upper East Region of northern Ghana, are one of the most important cultural sites in West Africa. Located only sixteen kilometers from the regional capital, Bolgatanga, the hills are the sacral epicentre of the Talensi (Tale people) and an area of outstanding natural beauty and cultural richness. This unique landscape is home to numerous sacred shrines—to the earth (tongban) and to the ancestors (ba'ar). Paramount among them is the ba'ar Tonna'ab, nestled in the cliffs above the village of Tenzug. The hills also provide a stage for some of the most colourful and vibrant festivals in Ghana. The Boaram, which takes place in October, is a harvest festival centred on the ancestor shrines. Gologo comes at the end of the dry season and is focused on the great earthshrine, Noo. Majority of the settlements are within the hills. Despite the physical challenges the Tallensi have mastered their environment by way of an effective use of land for agriculture and animal husbandry which engages about 98% of the population. The Tallensi house is more than a material entity, it articulates in its form and use facets of Tallensi life. The anatomy of a typical Tallensi compound house shows a net work of foot paths encircling it to various places. In front of the compound is a Shaded area which houses the Ancestral shrines. It also serves as a social space mirroring social relations and moral ideology. Their architecture serves to create order out of a chaotic, undifferentiated environment. Space is a social product. The architectural space therefore create intimacy permitting communication flow by means of interconnected spaces. Tallensi architecture has exhibited in no uncertain terms, dynamism relating to design and placement of structures in a spectacular way to serve man's social needs. Tallensi architecture is unique in every sens e and has be en preserved over the centurie s and therefore needs listing as a world heritage landscape. The house mirrors social and ideological relations among the Tallensi. The foot paths, the shade spaces, ancestral shrines and groves with the cattle kraals and granaries mirror in the Tallensi cosmological system and the socio-political structure. The cluster of ruin related compounds standing against the ambience of the hills and groves produces a landscape of unique beauty and tranquility exemplifying the interpendence between nature and culture. The ingenious deployment of modular and oval principles in the architectural form is intentionally intended to blend into the total Tallensi cultural landcape. The Tenzug Landscape bears a very close resemblance with the Motopos Hills of Zimbabwe. Because of their uniqueness in that area, the site has also been nominated for inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Because of the area's topograpy, which both isolated ancl protected its inhabitants from the incursionsl of others, the precolonial history of Taleland reinains obscure. Oral traclitions suggest that the Tong Hills were of broad religious significance long before the first British troops marched into the area. For centuries they formed part ol`a l`iontier belt between zones ol`centralized state forination. The conquest states of Dagbon and Mainprugu lay to the south and those of the Mossi kingdoms to the North. Its dense population of agriculturists offered rich pickings for predatory slave raiders from the surrounding cavalry states. A large proportion of slaves in the Akan forest kingdoins originated liom these tiontier communities. A final surge of southbound captives was generated by the activities of the Dyula einpire builder Samore and the Zabarima free-booter Babatu in the 1880s-90s. That long-terin dispersal of population is likely to have facilitated the spread of religious belief out of the Hills. Clearly, by the coining of colonial rule at the end of the nineteenth century, the Tong Hills were widely recognized as an established site of sacred power. They were also among the last areas in Ghana to submit to British rule. The ancestor shrine, Tonna'ab, served as a refuge for and potent symbol of those who resisted "pacification" and it was only in 1911 that the British finally moved to end that resistance. A military expedition stormed the hills with the aim of destroying the religious complex. The Tale were evicted from the sacred Tong Hills and all access to religious sites was banned. Yet only four years later, British officers realized that many people were returning clandestinely to the hills and that the shrines had been "reactivated". Colonial forces mounted a second assault on the shrine precincts in 1915, but by the 1 920s it was clear that the great ancestor shrine, Tonna'ab, was again flourishing. From the summit of the Tong Hills, Tonna'ab has dominated the religious topography of this part of West Africa for countless generations, attracting pilgrims from surrounding populations—for example, Guruni, Kusasi, Builsa, Dagomba and Mossi. It has also been viewed historically by the Akan peoples (Asantes, Akyems, etc.) as a site of potent ritual power. Visiting the Tong Hills in 1928, the pioneering British ethnographer R.S. Rattray was astounded to encounter wealthy Asante businessmen and women who had journeyed hundreds of miles north on the new motor road to consult with Tonna'ab. As colonial rule brought new problems and anxieties, which demanded new ritual solutions, increasingly diverse numbers of people turned to innovative indigenous beliefs with origins in the northern savanna belt. By the 1930s, "satellite" shrines emanating from Tonna'ab had begun to appear in the south as "Nana Tongo" emerged at the center of a process which remapped ritual and religious space throughout Ghana. No longer were supplicants from Asante, the Gold Coast and beyond required to make the arduous pilgrimmage north to the Tong Hills - the shrine had come to them. Kobbina Assifu, from the Akyem area, was the first man to take the "shadow" (yiehiyi~g) of the shrine south. He established a thriving center of ritual healing near Suhum, which attracted believers from throughout the south. By 1931, the Gold Coast colonial government, concerned by the growing number of adherents, began measures to ba "Nana Tongo". A few months later, J.B. Danquah, the famous Gold Coast nationalist, intervened on Assifu's behalf. From distant precolonial beginnings, Tonna'ab/Nana Tongo was thus incorporated into the unfolding narrative of Ghanaian national history. The Tong Hill achieved another kind of fame above and beyond their Reputation as the centre of a powerful religious complex when in 1934 the social anthropologist, Meyer Fortes, began fieldwork among the Talensi. Fortes' work enshrined Taleland as a model of complex social organization where no centralized state ever existed. His pioneering monographs, The Dynamics of Clanship among the Tallensi (1945) and The Web of Kinship among the Tallensi ( 1949), secured a place for the Talensi in the corpus of British functionalist anthropology. Subsequent writers, like the generations of pilgrms to Tonnatab, have continued to be drawn to the rich heritage of the Tong Hills: Its ritual complexity, its religious vibrance, its pivotal role in shaping the cultural landscape of an expansive area of West Africa.