The forgotten kingdom

The links between knowing history, media and political agency in northern Ghana.

Image credit Roland Mandiaya Sumani Seini.

Before the creation of the nation-states of Ghana, Togo, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Chad, and Mali many ethnic groups in these regions were politically organized as kingdoms or acephalous societies. In kingdoms, the king was the head and in many acephalous societies in Northern Ghana, the tindana was the custodian of the land. In kingdoms, there were visibly marked hierarchies, which facilitated the day-to-day running of the community. Acephalous societies were (at least conceivably) more egalitarian because they did not recognize the rule of a chief and the community rarely answered to a higher authority. The tindana managed the community by administering issues relating to land use by community members.

“It is these types of acephalous societies that Naa Gbewa met when he settled in Pusiga. He had children who later went on to found the Mamprugu, Dagbamba, Nanumba kingdoms and other ethnic groups that recognize him as an ancestor.

Roland Mandiaya Sumani Seini, who promotes African heritage, embarks on a project of self-discovery through his documentary film The Forgotten Kingdom? Chronicle of the North (released via free screenings in Tamale and later in Accra) which traces the roots, history and lineage of the Mossi-Dagbamba. This film maps the relationships among the Mamprusi, Kusaasi, Dagbamba, Nanumba, Mossi, Waale, Builsa, et al.

While in the postcolony, the creation of the nation-state and national identity have often been presented in opposition to ethnic identity (a category which existed before slavery and colonization), this documentary demonstrates the importance of knowing ethnic history and tradition to the self-actualization, self-rediscovery and agency of not just individual members of these groups but inter-ethnic relations as well.

Too often many Africans overlook the opportunity to learn about their lineage, roots, and history so as to reconnect with their ancestors and participate in the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation. This documentary is a first step on the ancestral journey of self-discovery and ethnic agency.

Through interviews with custodians of culture, such as chiefs across related ethnic groups, and historians in universities in Ghana and Burkina Faso, the film discusses the evolution of Mossi-Dagbamba ethnic groups from precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial times. While the Mamprugu Kingdom was founded in Pusiga around the 11th century, by the 15th century all the sister ethnic groups had crystallized into independent groups with recognized systems of governance, and developed languages. Despite the full development of these sister groups, various traditions and cultural items like the dress, food, and festivals like the Buɣum (Fire Festival) and Damba still bind these groups together.

The Forgotten Kingdom? traces the roots of the descendants of Naa Gbewa to Zamfara in Northern Nigeria, as well as to Chad and Mali, taking note of the survival of ethnicities, kingdoms, and cultures in the face of colonial violence from French, German and British imperialisms. The film disrupts the notion of imaginary borders that impose national identities on Africans while strongly encouraging them to suppress their ethnic identities.

By drawing on the knowledge of custodians of culture like chiefs and griots, Seini not only legitimizes indigenous oral epistemologies transmitted for several generations, but also participates in the documentation of these histories through mediated forms in the documentary film genre.

Seini embarks on a journey to dismantle the stereotypical images of Northern Ghana that Southern Ghanaian media often gleefully perpetuate in order to dehumanize the people of the North. These stereotypical images often mirror the Manichean images perpetuated by Western imperialist establishments to justify the (neo)colonization of the Global South. It is not uncommon to see Southern media frame Northern Ghanaian ethnicities and cultures as primitive, uncivilized, violent, resistant to Western modernization among others. This transnational mapping of ethnic histories and identities complicates the descendants of Naa Gbewa in the North and challenges us to re-examine the single story through which many Ghanaians have been socialized. Seini disrupts identities established by imaginary borders by nuancing the histories, cultures and lived realities of these inter-related ethnic identities in the colonially constructed nation-states of Ghana, Burkina Faso and Togo.

Although this documentary film is a timely piece, it would have made a stronger statement if it had embarked on dismantling the deeply patriarchal systems embedded in knowledge preservation by presenting the perspectives of priestesses, female chiefs, and female descendants of Yennenga (the woman who connects the Dagbamba and the Mossi). These societies were not built and maintained by men alone and therefore diverse perspectives should have been presented for us to see the ways in which women were part of building these groups, as well as their roles in the ethnic imaginary.

Seini’s stated goal in The Forgotten Kingdom? is to foster peace and unity among the people of the North. He also hopes to ultimately support the establishment of a university to continue the work of human resource development, knowledge creation and preservation in the region.

There is the need for more projects like this documentary film to “re-right” the history of Africans from the perspectives of Africans so that continental Africans and Africans in the diaspora are equipped with the tools to trace their ancestry and lineage in their own journeys of self-discovery.

Further Reading