The vast Northern Region of Ghana is the largest of the country’s ten regions and is different in many way from the regions to the south.
Tamale, the capital of the region and Ghana’s fourth largest city, is located at the crossing of three ancient trade routes and was influenced by the cultures and religions from the North. Most residents of the region are followers of moderate Islam, and there are many mosques in the region, including the Central Mosque in Tamale.
Due to its proximity to the transitional Sahel region and the Sahara Desert farther to the north, the Northern Region is much drier than southern areas of Ghana. The single rainy season begins in May and ends in October, and the dry season peaks in December and January when the dry Harmattan winds blow in from the Sahara Desert. The land is mostly low-lying except with the exception of the Gambaga Escarpment, where cliffs rise from the plateaus in the northeastern corner of the region near the town of Nakpanduri. The vegetation in the majority of the region consists of grassland and savanna dotted with clusters of drought-resistant trees such as baobabs or acacias.
The Komas were probably the earliest known inhabitants of the area now known as the Northern Region, and left behind exquisite terra cotta figurines and pottery that date back to the ninth century and have recently been unearthed. Many of the artifacts can be viewed at the museum showroom in Bolgatanga.
The Gonjas created the Gonja Kingdom in the area in the early 1600’s. Led by one of the greatest kings of ancient Ghana, Ndewura Jakpa, it was one of the largest kingdoms in the history of Ghana.
Led by the Dagombas, who trace their ancestry to Zamfara in present day Nigeria, the Northern Region later became part of the Kingdom of Dagbon, which controlled the three most northern districts.
With the arrival of the Europeans, the area was a key source for slaves that were sent to the markets along the coast and sold. Many reminders of the slave route can still be seen, including former holding and camp sites, water troughs, rivers where captured slaves were allowed to drink and bathe, walled villages for keeping the slaves in captivity, and caves that offered protection.
Things to See
Tamale is the capital of the Northern Region and the country’s third largest city. As the fastest growing cities in West Africa, Tamale is a bustling city with lots of modern amenities, but it still retains elements of its past. Visitors will find the only bicycle lanes in Ghana in Tamale, as well as supermarkets, new hotels, internet cafes. The new Tamale Stadium is a world-class football stadium built for the 2008 African Cup of Nations tournament. Yet, as a juxtaposition, much of the architecture still consists of round huts with conical thatched roofs. With a largely Islamic population, mosques both large and small are scattered across the city and its suburbs.
The Central Market in Tamale is a bustling, modern, commercial center where everything from groceries to motorcycles to handmade crafts can be bought.
Mole National Park – the land for Ghana’s largest national park was set aside as a wildlife refuge in 1958. It is situated in the heart of the Guinea savannah woodland ecosystem and is one of the largest elephant sanctuaries in all of Africa. Other animals include hippos, buffalo, warthogs, , baboons, crocodile, and many species of antelope and monkey. The park is a 4-hour ride from Tamale on rough roads, but the park has been developed with game viewing roads and a hotel with a swimming pool.
Bui National Park – this park is in the southwestern corner of the region and borders the Brong Ahafo Region. It’s a remote park that includes parts of the Black Volta River and is notable for its hippopotamus population.
Larabanga Mosque – this 13th century mosque is thought to have been built by Moorish traders and is a prime example of Sudanese architecture. A copy of the Koran that is preserved in the mosque is said to have descended from heaven, and the mosque is considered to be one of the holiest sites in Ghana.
Larabanga Mystery Stone – according to local legend, this mushroom shaped stone on the outskirts of Larabanga kept returning to its original place when slave traders moved it to build a road, so they were forced to build a road around it. Another legend is that no humans get injured in accidents near the stone.
Nalerigu Defence Wall – located 120 km from Bolga, this wall was built in the 16th century by Naa Jaringa, a powerful chief of the Mamprusi ethnic group, to protect the village from slave raiders. Local legend says it was built with stones, mud, milk, and honey. The wall initially surrounded the entire village, but now only a few ruins remain.
Gambaga Escarpment – the cliffs that form the Gambaga Escarpment rise of from the savanna and stretch from east to west for 60 km. and is one of the striking physical geological features of Ghana. Also nearby is the Gambaga Kings Palace, which was built on the site where Na Gbewa, a king from the 14th, was said to have been swallowed into the earth. Visitors can also see a witch settlement, where witches are sent to get exorcised after they are banished from their communities.
Daboya – located 90 km. west of tamale, the town of Daboya dates back to the Gonja Kingdom in the 16th century and is famous source for their hand made textiles.
Jintigi Fire Festival – celebrated in the town of Domango in the Gonja area in April, this festival includes a procession with torches into the bush from the towns and villages in Gonjaland. There are also Koran recitals that are used to forecast the coming year. Another version of the fire festival takes place one day earlier in Larabanga.
Damba Festival – this festival is actually celebrated in many town throughout the northern regions of Ghana. They coincide with the yam harvest and commemorate the birth of Mohammed. The two-day festival includes prayers and fasting along with a procession on horseback and drumming and dancing.
Bugum Chugu (Fire) Festival – this fire festival is celebrated in Tamale and throughout the Northern Region by the Dagombas, the Nanumbas, and the Mamprusis. It is held under the lunar calendar, usually in January. The main activity is the procession of celebrants with torches at night amidst music and dancing. The significance of Bugum is to commemorate the search for the lost son of an ancient king.