Navrongo Architecture

Navrongo architecture is not only elaborate in terms of function and building technology; it also presents, as a reflections of the people and their spirit of independence, a variety of forms and design principle which continue to astonish foreign observers. Writings of European explorers in the past have repeatedly described these compounds as "fortresses," "castles," and "citadels." These associations reveal that, in addition to their impresseive elaborateness, the habitations are also striking for their highly defensive aspect. Considering Navrongo's historical background and social structure, this is hardly surprising.



Navrongo compounds consist of related individuals from several generations and vary in size. The smallest can house a single family (2-6 people) while the largest can hold many dozen distinct but related families (up to 180+). The mean population of a compounds is 12 individuals. The basic structure of the compound involves several distinct but related families that have walled-off indoor and outdoor structures surrounding a common yard. Here's an bird's eye view of a typical family compound.

This enclosed yard ("nandènè") seen above safely stores cattle and grain belonging to the families of the compound. During the day the animals are let out to forage for food. Each separate family section is accessable through the enclosed yard and other private entrances. The main compound buildings are built with adobe and log supports. Most living quarters have flat roofs. These flat roofs are used often for drying grain and for sleeping during the hot season. Access to a flat roof-top is accomplished by using a log step-ladder or adobe steps.

Most buildings have at their entrance at small semicircular wall (galséga) which may be as high as a meter. It requires that one stoop down, head for the dark in this position, then, immediately upon entering, stand up halfway to stride over the small semicircular wall. The height of the "galséga" corresponds to the degree of privacy of the interior space; it remains, however, always lower than the entrance arch apex to allow a person squatting inside to look outside without being visible. It has several practical purposes such as keeping out the elements and intruders.



Outside of the main entrance is the "pönga" which is where the compound senior man rests and receives visitors during the day. The "pönga" is well shaded with straw mats under a tree with a bench shaped from logs. The senior man maintains cohesion of the compound as its head. He determines the allocation of dwelling spaces, the building of new units, and the destruction of older ones- the compound tradiationally grows in accordance with the size of the family or the addition of brides and offspring. He guards and superintends the main entrance of the compound. In the religious sphere, he functions as priest of all family shrines, particularly the ancestral shrine, maintaning close communication with the ancestors-the custodians of the laws abd customs of the tribe-influencing thereby their intervention, while consulting with them on all family affairs. Summed together the head man acts as a moral and spiritual force that often serves to regulate the conduct of the group members.


Two conical earthen pillars sometimes define the entrace ("yanga") of the compound. Upon entering, one is met on both sides with circular thatch-roofed constructions called "zongo." These serve as animal shelters (goats, sheep, and donkeys). Also in the "nandènè" are large adobe granaries. Seen at the right these tall structures store all the compound's grain supply from the previous years harvest. To prevent water and rodent damage they are supported on rocks and are covered. You must use a log-step ladder to climb into the granaries and stand on the granary's log cross-bar supports. An "ancestral zongo" also shares an important role in funeral customs with the outer space preceeding the compounds entrance and the two ancestral pillars near the senior man's "pönga." An ancestral "zongo" is often painted with black markings and white fillings and will serve as a sleeping room for the senior man when he grows old. Small night-time shelters for chickens are built into compound walls dividing a family section and the "nandènè.


In each family section there are separate buildings for the husband and his wife(ves). The senior wife in each family section oversees everything that goes on inside her domain and is in charge of all the women within the group. The woman's dwelling unit is usually composed of a packed earth courtyard surrounded by an outdoor cooking space covered with millet stalks ("danga"), an indoor cooking space ("saraga"), and a storage-sleeping space ("diga"). No visitor would enter the "diga" wihtout her consent. This choice of space defines the degee of social interact between guest and host.The man's building is made up of a sleeping chamber ("bongo") and an antechamber ("bopaka") for receiving guests.

Most compounds are erected on a site sloping downward from west to east, and positioned so as to have its main entrance on the higher point of the slope facing west and its oldest dwelling unit-usually the senior woman's, hence the most important-on the lower point of the slope, directly opposite this entrance. Such an entrance orientation is due to the high northeast trades and harmattan, and the heavy rains that beat east, often with hurricane force. The incline of the compound further prevents the active erosion of the bases of its walls by facilitating the outflow of rainwater, which smoothly drains off through holes from the internal packed-earth courts instead of stagnating around the constructions. The hard-packed courts are constructed with adobe mixed with laterite gravel. It is then generously sprinkled with a locust-bean pod mix and tamped with a wooden mallet. Clay pots can often be seen around the compound.

The semicircular adobe serrated "sideboard" with rounded depressions to the left stands out as one of the most striking features of Navrongo interior design. It is referred to as chira yuga, or "face of the deceased." The "sideboard" holds a woman's prized pottery collection. Mats are rolled and stored on rafters suspended from the ceiling beams.


On the left is the "ebranga" (grinding platform). It is used for preparation of various grains (millet, sorghum) grown on the family farm. The pounded grain is first roughly ground on the ebranga with a granite stone and then on the smoother stone for a finer texter.


One of the most stricking features of Navrongo compounds are the wall designs. They are either painted, incised (with a pebble), or molded as base-reliefs. Incised motifs break the flow of rain into smaller steamlets to prevent a localized ersosion of the walls. They often cover façades looking out ot the courts ("zinzaka") but are almost always found around the frame of doorways and on interior walls and furnishings. Painted motifs usually come in three colors: black, white, and red. The black pigment is traditionally obtained from grouond black schist. The white color, employed mainly for filling in the designs, is produced by rubbing a kaolin stone on the specific area. The red pigment is developed from boiled vegetative material. Each design motif has its own repertoire of significations whose articulation depends on the context in which it is situated in the compound.



Back to the Main HomePage
Back to the Culture Page



Last updated on March 9, 2004.

©2004 All Rights Reserved