History has it that the Gonjas appeared in modern Ghana very early in the 16th Century. Currently, their language is spoken by an estimated 300,000 people, almost all of whom are of the Gonja ethnic group of northern Ghana. Ghana`s former President, John Dramani Mahama, is a Gonja.
The Gonjas belong to the larger Guan ethnic group (also known as ‘Kwa’), with the oldest written historical records. Also called ‘Ghanjawiyyu’ and ‘Ngbanye’ (the latter means ‘Brave Men’), the Gonjas derived their name from a corrupted Hausa phrase, ‘Kada Goro-Jaa’ (meaning land of Red Cola).
The Gonjas had their history recorded by Arab Muslims and Islamic scholars who accompanied them to this part of the world.
According to Arabic manuscript and oral tradition, the Gonjas, who were originally Mandingo (also known as Mandinka), migrated from the country of Mande, that is, from the Mali Empire, many years before the Hejra Year 1000.
They travelled through Segu in Southern Mali, and then approached the Bole area through La Cote d’Ivoire, the Sissala area, and Wa in modern Upper West Region.
Although Gonja is related to Guan languages in the south of Ghana, the Gonjas are mainly located in the Northern Region, southern Ghana, west central Ghana, the upper branches of the Volta Lake area, and from the Black Volta River to the White Volta area (both sides). Gonja is spoken by about a third of the population in the Northern Region.
The founder of Gonja was a man called Ndewura Jakpa. It is believed that he fought his way across Gonja from west to east, and then, before he was killed in battle, he shared out the lands which were his by right of conquest, among his sons. By the end of his death, the present Gonja Traditional Area was established fully as a centralized state under his sole leadership in 1675.
The earliest recorded version of the Jakpa epic, in substantially its modern form, is to be found in an ancient Arabic chronicle.From 1567 to 1712, there was a power struggle between two groups of Mandinka, the Manwura and his clan,and the Lata Ngbanya whose leader was Lata (Lanta) Jakpa.
As Ndewura Jakpa embarked on the conquest of the current vast Gonjaland and even beyond, he cultivated the practice of installing his sons in what has come to be known as divisions.
These divisions which have survived conflicts, European rule, and even modern governance are Wasipe (Daboya), Kpembe, Bole, Tuluwe, Kong, Kadia, and Kusawgu.
To this day the paramount chiefs who head these divisions refer to the Yagbonwura as their father.
One of the oldest surviving documents written in an African language is the Isnad of Al-Haji Muhamed from about A.D. 1736, a Gonja.
During the period of the great Wolof state, many small chieftaincies had been formed among the southern Serer.
A little before the first Portuguese arrived, Mandinka, migrating from N’gabu (Portuguese Guinea) region, settled among them and took over the chieftaincies of Sin, Salum, Baol, Uli, Niani, and N’gabu, which were linked by various political ties with those of the Wolof.
The ruling class of Mande origin (known as ‘gelowar’ in Sin and Selum and ‘garmi’ in Walo, Kajo, and Baol) are said to have been Muslims of a sort when they took over the Serer states, but they soon lost their Mande characteristics and became pagan.
The most important Serer states were Sin – situated on the right bank of the Salum river – and Salum, adjoining Sin inland, whose authority at one time extended to the River Gambia.
The tiny Serer states of N’Dukuman, Kungeul, Pakalla, Mandak, Rip, Legem and Niombato generally paid allegiance to either Sin or Salum.
Greater initiative was shown by the Mande trading element who were definitely Muslim and spread Islam into upper Guinea and upper Ivory Coast.
This region is peopled by Mandinka in the West (Beyla founded in 1763, Kankan c. 1690, Kurussa and Odienne region) and Senufo (Sienne or Sienamana) in the centre and east.
Other Mandinka migrations came from the west, from the Upper Niger and upper Milo (Wasulonke, Futanke and Dyomane).
These immigrants were pagans, but the trading classes among them were Muslims and Muslim Mande spread over the regions of Kankan and Beyla (in the east of Guinea) and in Odienne, Tuba, Man, Kong and Segela (upper Ivory Coast), Wa and Salaga (modern Ghana), and in Mossi country.
THE MANDINGO EXPEDITION TO BONO MANSO
At some time between 1550 and 1575, the great Askia Dawud of Songhay found that the supplies of gold from the southern country were getting smaller. The main reason was that Akan gold producers had begun selling some of their production to Portuguese and other European traders along the Seaboard.
Askia Dawud accordingly dispatched a force of Mandinka armed cavalry to see what could be done. Dawud’s armoured horsemen, the bulldozing tanks of these times, rode south from the neighbourhood of Jenne until they reached the Black Volta bend of modern Ghana.
These horsemen were the ancestors of the present day Gonjas. The horse riders were armed with swords and iron spears. In war the horsemen acted as cavalry. The Gonjas discovered that cavalry could not operate in the dense forest where the Akan lived and smelted gold.
The Kuntunkure traditional drummer in some of the verses he recites gives us some information about the battles fought, including those fought with the Akan.
In the verses entitled ‘Chari’, the Mo-wura’s (Manwura) appellation, we are informed thatthe Gonjas were traditionalist Mandingos and were converted to Islam by Mallam Mohamed Labayiru, who came to be known as Fati Morukpe, after their victory over the Kolo (Kawlaw) army. The Gonjas were partially converted and have remained nominal Muslims to this day, because the majority of them still worship idols, and it is a taboo up to this present day, in eastern Gonja at least where the Gonjas are more conservative, for a Gonja Chief to enter a Mosque to pray. The Gonjas were partially converted to Islam because they were impressed by the miraculous routing of the enemy at Kawlaw and wanted to keep the Muslims to make prayers to Allah for them so that they could continue to win victory in all their wars.
This was to enable them to establish their own Kingdom and thereby increase their fortunes by accumulating more worth.After their conversion, Chari Manwura asked Mallam Mohammed Labayiru (Fati Morukpe) to take service with him and offer prayers for him to Allah,in order to divert mishaps and evils which might tend to bar his advance. Chari Manwura promised to reward him if he were successful in his adventure. An agreement was made at the camp, which was sealed by an oath taken on the Quran, binding both parties to keep the agreement. The agreement was:
i. That Fati Morukpe should go with the Ngbanya (Gonja) army and implore God for its success;
ii. That the articles of reward comprised:
One hundred slaves (men and women),
One hundred cattle,
One hundred horses,
One hundred donkeys,
One hundred sheep,
One hundred goats,
One hundred gowns.
(Ndewura Jakpa, 1675-97)
Watch out for Part 2….
Ethnologue 2010, History and Traditions of the Gonja, by J. A. Braimah; H. H. Tomlinson et al.