The Dagaaba-Frafra Jokes

by: Wegru Joseph Yelepuo
Presentation Brothers
P. O. Box 385
Bolgatanga, U.E.R.
Ghana, West Africa

October 17, 1999

Introduction

This article is about the inter-ethnic humour among the Dagaaba and the Frafra in Ghana. I shall explore the aetiology and the development of the relationship between the two tribes. Then, look at the future of the relationship and conclude. The basis of the article, however, will be the synthesis of personal interviews and the results of some questionnaire on the subject. I shall also use relevant material from earlier works on the two tribes by other authors to enhance my presentation. These are shown in the bibliography.

It is a common knowledge that the Dagaaba and the Gurune (Frafra) in Ghana have a very admirable cordial relationship between them, both in public and in private circles. They are able to joke and tease each other publicly without either taking undue umbrage. They have mutual understanding as Mabia or playmates. A playmate, according to Collins English Dictionary, 'is a friend or a partner in play or recreation'. The Gurune (Frafra) and the Dagaaba have always regarded each other as good playmates.

Age, sex, religion, educational achievements and social status do not exclude one from enjoying the existing relational bond between the two ethnic groups. It is merely enough for one to be born into either of the two tribes in order to participate in the jokes. Active participation in the play is, however, not compulsory. There are some people who, for personal reasons, have opted out. Such individuals neither initiate nor participate in the jokes any longer but they do not prevent those who enjoy playing, to have a go at it. This point will be further clarified later.

In any case, who are the Gurune and the Dagaaba in Ghana? The Dagaaba (singular: Dagao) are predominantly an agricultural community, a little over one million people, located in the north-western part of Ghana called the Upper-West Region, and in south-western Burkina Faso. The people in this area speak a continuum of several dialects (Dagaare-Waala-Birifor). However, Dagaare appears to be the common language under which the other dialects are sometimes lumped together.

To the east of this language group, are the Sisaala people and to the south, they are bordered by the Gonja, Vagla, and Safaliba. To the west and north, this dialect continuum extends across the Black Volta and the international boundary into Burkina Faso where Dagaare is spoken in and around towns like Dano, Diebougou, Dissin, and Gaoua.

The major towns of the Dagaaba in Ghana are Wa, Lawra, Jirapa, Nandom, Hamile, Nadawli, Kaleo, Daffiama, and Tuna, which is in the Northern Region. However, due to high mobility, among other factors, the Dagaaba have spread beyond the limit of their traditional homeland to other parts of Ghana. Today, there are many Dagaaba communities in Accra, Kumasi, Cape Coast, and most major towns and villages throughout the country.

The Gurune (Frafra) on the other hand, like the Dagaaba, are also predominantly agricultural people in the north-eastern part of Ghana called the Upper East Region. Major towns of traditional Gurune speaking people include Bolgatanga, Bongo, Zuarengu, Somburungu, and other surrounding villages. There are also some Gurune speaking people (Nankani) in Navrongo District which other wise is a Kasem speaking area. In Burkina Faso, native speaking Gurune are found in the Nahouri province, Eastern part of Tiebele and in the region of Po.

Gurune, Nankani, Booni, Talni, and Nabt together with other minor ones are considered the major dialects of the Frafra people. However, Nabt and Talni may be appropriately considered as dialects of Mampruli. While, Mampruli, Kusaal, and Dagaare are considered as sister languages to Gurune. There are obvious linguistic similarities among these and the other Mabia language group as pointed out in Bodomo (1994).

Today, the Gurune can be found in many major towns and villages all around Ghana including Accra, Kumasi, Tamale, Sunyani and Cape Coast. They are also a people of high mobility. They usually travel down south to look for work during the dry season of the north.

It may be interesting, at this point, to acknowledge how the name Frafra became the accepted name for both the people and the language of the area under discussion. The name Frafra originated from the first missionaries' interactions with the natives during the early parts of the 1900s. Each time the missionaries visited a compound and were leaving, the people always said, 'Frafra', meaning 'thank you' or 'well done'. Therefore, the missionaries started calling them 'the Frafra people'. The natives, on their part, did not take any offence or protest to being called the Frafra people. They accepted the 'new' name and also began using it themselves. That is how the term Frafra gradually became a general usage.

The concept of playmates is not confined only to the Gurune (Frafra) and the Dagaaba tribes in Ghana. Many other tribes in the country also have the concept and they exercise it among themselves. For instance, the Kasena and the Sisaala are playmates. They joke and tease each other whenever and wherever they meet.

There are even some playmates that are members within the same tribe. Playmates exist, in many cases, as a medium for resolving conflicts and restoring peace within and among community members. For instance, the Zage and the Naayile are two Dagaaba clans who are playmates. They joke and play among themselves without either taking offence. There are similar other groups among the different tribes in the country who are playmates and relate well with each other.

Nevertheless, the focus of this article is not on the broad picture of playmates but on that of the Gurune (Frafra)-Dagaaba relationship, which in recent times is gaining both national and international recognition. The Frafra-Dagaaba friendly football match played in September 1995 was telecast on GTV as part of the Sports Highlights Programme. The fraternity between these two tribes is a force to reckon with amidst the growing number of ethnic and tribal conflicts that plague the African continent today. It is healthy for the two ethnic groups to have a joking relationship with one another as playmates. One good thing is that it can diffuse tensions in potentially dangerous situations.

The Origin of the Relationship

The origin of the Gurune (Frafra)-Dagaaba relationship is very uncertain. Little is known about how it all started. People just accept the play as a normal practice between the two tribes and carry on with a strong desire that one-day the origin of the relationship would be revealed. Their general concern is the ability to enjoy the jokes and live in harmony. Nevertheless, the members of the two tribes have not stopped searching for the origin of the relationship. Some individual elders have fascinating stories or legends about the relationship, which are worth our consideration.

There is a legend, which tries to trace the relationship to its very roots. This legend suggests that, the Frafra and the Dagaaba have a link with the Dagomba. However, it does not account for the relationship with the other ethnic groups, which Bodomo (1994) indicate as belong to a common Mabia ancestry.

These other groups are the Birifo, the Mamprusi, the Nankani, the Kussasi, the Waala and of course, the Mossi. Bodomo (1994) rejects the hypothesis put forward by Tuurey (1982) and Herbert (1976) that the Dagaaba are a 'splinter group from either the Mossi or the Dagomba or both who moved into the present area and assimilated (or got assimilated by) earlier settlers and/or new arrivals'. As stated above, the work instead suggests all these belong to an earlier and larger parent group - the Mabia. My own speculation about these other groups would be that some personal/communal experiences, which they encountered during the period of the migration might have caused the splitting up of the originally single family.

It is believed that, long time ago, the Dagomba, the Gurune (Frafra) and the Dagao were brothers, or rather cousins. They lived somewhere in Southern Africa among the Bantus.

From Southern Africa, they began to migrate northwards through Zimbabwe, Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya. Then, turning westward, they moved to Sierra Leone, Northern Nigeria and finally onto Ghana.

In general, there are some cultural similarities, between the Dagaaba, the Dagomba and the Gurune (Frafra) and some of the people in the countries mentioned. Take for example, the way we get married, bring up children, respect the elderly, mourn our dead relatives and later honour them as our ancestors. The food we eat and the clothing we wear are also good enough indicators of our common origin with the people in those countries. There are other social and cultural similarities, which also seem to indicate the validity of the legend.

Phonetic similarities in some of the names of people in these countries also suggest the plausibility of the legend. For instance, the name 'Abongo' is common both among the Gurune (Frafra) in Ghana and among some of the people in Kenya. Another name like 'Bayuo' or 'Beyuo' is also common among the Dagaaba in Ghana and also among some of the people in Sierra Leone.

The influence of the Hausa language in Dagaare is another obvious example. The word barika for 'thank you' in Dagaare is, in actual fact, a Hausa word, not to mention the derivation of tuo zaafi and fitoo (pito) which are, respectively, the staple food and drink of the native people of Northern Ghana.

It is high time we started acknowledging our common origins. They have the potential of uniting us into one harmonious family and initiating peace in our rather troubled society today. It makes no sense if Africans in the Diaspora are returning to their roots and we at home continue to discriminate against one another. We are all Mabia, and therefore, brothers and sisters. Warring African countries should stop fighting and live together in peace. We are destroying ourselves and increasing our poverty. War creates more problems and makes us worse off.

Upon arriving in Ghana, the family settled somewhere in Damongo, south of Tamale, where they exercised their trade in hides and skin. They would usually travel, in turns, to Upper Volta, now Burkina Faso, to buy the items and come back to sell.

The Dagomba was the first to go. He went, bought the items and came back. This suggests the etymological origin of the Dagomba. Da in Dagaare means 'buy' and gbang means 'leather'. Literally, therefore, Dagomba means 'the one who goes to buy leather'.

Next to go was the Dagao. He went to Burkina Faso, but did not return. He rather got married and settled there. He became both the chief and the landlord in the locality. In other words, he acted as both the Naa and the Tendaana or the Tengansob in the area where he settled. Etymologically again, Da means 'buy' and gao means 'to lie down' or 'to sleep'. Therefore, Dagao literally means 'the one who goes to buy and sleeps'.

After a long time waiting in vain for the return of the Dagao, the Dagomba decided to send his brother, the Gurune, to Burkina Faso to look for their other lost brother.

In Burkina Faso, he found the brother happily married and doing very well in life. He was the owner of a vast property of farmland and animals. In other words, he was well established and could afford to marry up to fifty or more wives. Having many wives at that time was a status symbol in society.

When the two brothers met to discuss the purpose of the visit, it turned out that the visitor, like the host, was not to return in order to give account of his journey to their other brother at home. The Dagao prevented him from doing so. This act of prevention somehow suggests the etymological meaning of the name Gurune. Literally, it means 'the one who is prevented'.

Consequently, Gurune settled with his brother and the two worked together in Burkina Faso. They were both prosperous and hard working. Gurune also got married and the two families continued to live together in harmony.

The Dagao who was, by this time, both the chief and the landowner, decided to share his authority with his brother. He gave the chieftaincy to his brother Gurune but retained the land-ownership. According to tradition, the office of the landowner is more important than that of the chieftaincy, due to its spiritual nature.

A time came when they wanted to perform a thanksgiving sacrifice to God for being so kind to them in their settlement. The Dagao, who was the Tendaana, consulted with the ancestors as to the best victim they were to use for the offering. As a result, a dog was adjudged to be the best victim for the sacrifice. They were to perform the sacrifice at dawn before sunrise on the chosen day.

Knowing very well that it could be difficult to kill a dog at dawn, they decided to kill it in the evening before the appointed date of the sacrifice. They needed only the head and the entrails of the victim for the occasion. The whole victim was not needed. So, those essential parts were removed and kept aside for the next morning.

When everybody was asleep during the night, the elder son of the Gurune went and stole the hidden items. He was busy munching his meat when suddenly; the elder son of the Dagao appeared on the scene. The two young men ate all the meat, but decided to hang the skull of the animal at the family shrine.

In the morning of the following day, when all the elders of the family had gathered together for the sacrifice to begin, the Dagao went to retrieve the items, but they were no where to be found. It was a great mystery. The items had disappeared. The whole house was searched and the compound swept but to no avail. They found only, what seemed to be the remains of the lost items, the dry bones, hanging over the shrine. They were all drowned in fear and perplexity and wondered what to do.

Then the youngest son of the Gurune appeared with his eyewitness story. He had seen his elder brother and the cousin eating the meat last night. Do you think that the Dagao would accept that his son was a thief? Not at all and far from it! So he rather accused the Gurune's son of stealing the sacrificial items.

This annoyed Gurune so much that he decided to pack out of the house so as to go his own way, with his family. On leaving the house, he threatened his brother that he was going to the east and would prevent the sun from rising.

Fearing what his brother might do, the Dagao also decided to move his family to the west so that he could prevent the sun from setting. That is why the Gurune are found in the east, the Dagomba in the south and the Dagaaba in the west of Northern Ghana.

This legend, in the first place, provides a possible explanation to the existing Dagaaba-Frafra jokes involving 'the dog head'. Secondly, it provides some ideas about certain social institutions like the roles of the Tendaana and the Naa among the three ethnic groups - the Dagaaba, the Dagomba and the Gurune.

A legend may not provide us with factual information, yet it has the capacity to entertain and stimulate critical thinking of its audience. Therefore, It would be worthwhile if more research were done in the history of our own people or tribe.

The Growth and Development of the Relationship

The uncertainty about the origin of the relationship did not prevent it from growing among the members of the two tribes. They have accepted and nurtured the relationship down the years, though at times not very consciously.

Participation in the jokes has several inherent benefits, which both parties enjoy. It seems to come naturally and spontaneously regardless of place, occasion, circumstance. The jokes are always the same in content and context, be it at the market place, the pito bar or at the funeral house. It is usually a one-to-one informal play and it takes place whenever and wherever members of the two tribes meet. In fact, knowing the other person to be a Frafra or Dagao gives one a feeling of brotherhood or sisterhood as the case maybe. One can go ahead to play, fraternise even if that is the first time of meeting the other person.

The idea of brotherhood or sisterhood seems to be the main purpose of the jokes between the two tribes. Through the jokes, practical social and moral virtues like love, peace, understanding, hospitality, generosity, concern for others, communal feeling, to mention but a few, can be developed. The members of the two tribes have always supported each other during good or bad times. They attend and take active part in each other's celebrations - marriages, funerals and many other important occasional community celebrations.

The jokes also help to lower initial communication barriers, establish some measure of trust and make it easier for members of both communities to approach each other. Consequently, sharing is facilitated and it takes place in the atmosphere of peace and trust. One feels at home with the other person and both enjoy the play. Moreover, the general public also enjoys the humour created by these two tribes whenever they meet. Sometimes, 'foreigners' want to participate in the jokes but one has to take caution before drinking from a cup which is the preserve of the Mabia.

As mentioned in the introduction, the Gurune and the Dagaaba are very mobile people. They travel down the southern part of the country in search for employment during the dry season when they have harvested and stored away their crops. This makes them allies and probably contributes in keeping the relationship alive between them.

Another significant development worth mentioning is the joint sports activities between the Frafra and the Dagaaba living in Accra. These friendly games have become very popular in recent years, catching the interest of the general public. The games are fostering unity, peace and love among the members of the two tribes in and around Accra. The last jamboree was held on 4th September 1999 at the Elwak Stadium in Accra. The occasion was well attended by the members of the two communities and drew a large crowd of cheering spectators in the metropolis.

The joke is also popular among members of the two tribes who are Catholic priests or religious in the Navrongo-Bolgatanga diocese. During their annual Christmas and Easter picnics, a dog is usually killed and the head carried around in jubilation to show their unity and solidarity.

Up to this point, one may be tempted to conclude that the Gurune (Frafra)-Dagaaba relationship is all roses and no thorns. Unfortunately however, there had been some few isolated cases of conflict and misunderstanding in the past because of the jokes. Some individuals have been hurt and as a result have opted out of the play. Sometimes, the jokes are too narrowly focused on teasing about only the negative tendencies and not edifying or brotherly addressing. For instance calling somebody 'an ugly dog head eater' will be an insult rather than a joke. As such, people can be hurt and have been offended in the past. Expensive jokes can create animosity between the best of friends. Therefore, participants have to be sensitive to the feelings of others when cracking a joke.

There was also another occasion in Bolgatanga where pieces of packing foam were mixed with scrambled eggs and served to some Dagaaba as food for their breakfast. Such jokes are very insulting and should therefore be avoided and discouraged.

In addition to the above, is the increasing level of individualism and competition among different tribes in our Ghanaian society today. Many people are becoming self-centred with little or no concern for the welfare of the larger community. The language we understand and speak today is all about 'me' and 'myself' and no other person. No wonder the much so talked about extended family is no longer working, in many cases, in Ghana.

The Future of the Relationship

There are many indications from both tribes that they want the relationship to continue despite the few isolated cases of misunderstandings that have occurred in the past and might still occur in the future. They all want to know the history of the relation and pass it onto their younger generations.

The two tribes also want to continue with the joint sports and cultural activities initiated by those living in Accra. Through such activities, personal differences would be resolved and the comradeship strengthened.

Cross-cultural sensitisation in the school curricular and joint exchange projects between both teachers and pupils of different regions could also be organised. The value of such cultural and social activities cannot be overemphasised. They have the potential of reducing hidden prejudices and/or complexes between the two tribes. Invitation to and participation in each other's annual festivals are also examples of educational activities with social values. Through the joint activities, conscious efforts can be made to study the linguistic similarities between Frafra and Dagaare. Public debates on reforming the jokes can also be organised.

All these activities can help reduce the uncritical and whole sale acceptance of the jokes and make them more edifying. Participants can also go beyond simple teasing of each other to pertinent socio-economic and political issues like justice, environmental cleanliness, and functional literacy and poverty elevation.

To further strengthen and maintain the already existing cordial relationship between the Gurune and the Dagaaba, inter-marriage should be encouraged. This is already happening and will need to be encouraged. In fact, some bachelors and spinsters have got married through the Frafra-Dagaaba jokes. These couples are still happily married today. Traditionally and also in Christian Scriptures, marriage is considered as cement which binds together two families and make them one. 'What God has joined together; let no one put asunder' (Matthew 19:6).

With these proposals, let us now consider something, which is a serious concern for some Dagaaba. The Gurune now have less distinguishing tribal marks! How can we identify each other? This is a real anxiety. However, the solution does not lie in advocating that the people in question continue to mutilate their bodies for the sake of fraternity. Rather, we need to re-examine the content of our jokes and do away with any dehumanising elements, which may hamper the dignity and the welfare of the group. The relationship has the potential of being a tool for conflict resolution. Participants need to treasure and nurture it to grow into proper maturity.

Conclusion

This article has attempted to answer the frequently asked question on the origin of the Dagaaba-Frafra Jokes. It has also sought to stimulate the interest of the reader and invite further research in the area. Ask the elders and they will tell you, search the libraries and you will be amazed at the treasure they possess. Then, put pen to paper and you will be laying a solid foundation for future generations to build on. With combine and sustained efforts, we are capable of translating our rich oral traditions into well-written and preserved history.

In a nutshell, the members of the two ethnic groups need to consciously work at reforming the relationship so as to make it more acceptable, enjoyable and dignified. They should continue to work together and organise more joint cultural and educational activities at all the levels of society (district, regional, national and international) to include their confreres in the neighbouring countries.

Bibliography

  1. Bodomo, A.B. 1994 'Language, Culture, and History in Northern Ghana: An Introduction to the Mabia Linguistic Group' In Nordic Journal of African Studies Volume 3 (2) University of Helsinki Press, Finland.
  2. Bodomo A.B. 'Dagaare Language and Culture' Navrongo and Lawra Home Page: http://users.erols.com/johnston/lawra-language-culture.htm
  3. Constancio Nakuma 1998 'An Introduction to Dagaare Language' On the DagaareLinguists' Home Page: http://www.hku.hk/linguist/staff_ab.DagaareLinguist.html
  4. Ed. Grimes F. Barbara Ethnologue: Languages of the World (SIL International, 1996-99)
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