Ghana is a home to several ethnic groups. These ethnic groups are found in different parts of the country, which is divided into sixteen administrative regions. Most of these ethnic groups are found in the northern part of the country which houses five of the administrative regions, namely; Northern Region, Upper East Region, Upper West Region, Savannah Region and North East Region. The ethnic groups who inhabit these regions are believed to have descended from one ancestor, and as such, one would find similarities in most of the things they do. However, they still have their unique identities and practices that distinguishes them from other ethnic groups. This article would focus on the Builsa ethnic group and bring to bear their history and some of their cultural practices and their contributions to Ghana in the past and present time.
It is believed that the Builsa people, currently located in the upper East Region of Ghana descended from a man called Atuga who was a Mamprusi Prince. Atuga, migrated to the present Builsa kingdom with his family and small entourage after a family dispute. He came from Nalerigu, a town in the present-day North-East region and home of the Mamprusi tribe. The migration of Atuga must have taken place around 1770 or 250 years ago. On arrival, he lived south of Sandema in an area that is still called Atuga Pusik, close to today’s Sandema Senior High School. After settling between Wiaga and Sandema, both towns in present-day Builsa district, he met a man called Awulong who spoke a language called Buli. The two became friends and Atuga denounced his tribe through an oath. Atuga married the daughter of his Bulsa friend, Awulong and had four sons; Akadem, Asam, Awiag and Asinieng. His sons founded the villages of Kadem, Sandema, Wiaga and Siniensi all in present day Builsa land.
Builsas are predominantly farmers, located on a geographical area with short grasses and shrubs and not too tall trees, known as the Savannah; Builsas grow crops that generally do well with regards to this geography. They cultivate maize, millet, sorghum, beans, groundnuts and rice. The northern part of Ghana where Builsa’s are located has one primary farming season, the rainy season, unlike the southern part which has two. Due to this, apart from Builsas being farmers or doing farming alone, they migrate to the south to do menial jobs during the dry season. The Shea and Dawa Dawa trees are the main cash crops of the Builsa people. Builsa women process Shea butter while some also engage in trading. Builsas usually farm around their houses. Builsas live in scattered settlements. They have large pieces of lands around the houses for cultivation. Large scale farming is done far from the houses. They are done in the “goya”, a forest that is usually miles away from home. However, in recent times, with emphasis being placed on formal education, most Builsa’s have acquired formal education and work in the civil service and also occupy key positions in the country. For example, a number of Builsas are in the police service and other security services as well as the health sector as nurses and other health workers.
In the past, Builsas, have served mainly in the security services due to their stature. Most Builsa men were tall and physically strong and played great roles in the quest to achieve independence for the country. Mention can be made of John Kanjaga’ who fought in World War 1, the “bloody battle of Verdun in 1916”, and was awarded many war decorations.
Builsas eat what they grow. Most of the crops used in food preparation are cereals which are processed into different food types. The major staple in Builsa communities is ‘saab” also known as tuo zaafi (TZ) which can be served with any vegetable soup. The TZ is now adopted in many different communities in Ghana due to its nutritional values. Among the vegetables grown in Builsa land are kanef, alefu, bean- leaves, okro, pumpkin leaves and others. Builsas also keep livestock (cattle, goat, and sheep) and poultry such as guinea fowls. The cow’s fresh milk is a drink most Builsa kids who grew up in a traditional Builsa household have enjoyed. Also, “zom” made from millet and pepper is a part of the Builsa culture that cannot be ignored. It is used in welcoming guest and making them feel at home.
In past times, Builsas were known to have worn attires made out of special leaves and animal skin. In fact, in present day Builsa homes, the animal skin still plays a significant role as it is worn as a symbol of authority by the head of the household. However, in the advent of clothes, the smock is a well-known attire of the Builsas as well as most tribes in the north. “Grarug-gila” or “gangg” (smock) for males and females respectively, are woven from threads of different colours by hand. They are worn on special occasions such as wedding, naming ceremonies, festivals, funerals. The Builsa smock, signifies prominence and status. Smocks come in different shapes, sizes and come with a hat. Depending on the shape, size and hat worn it reveals the identity of the person wearing it. For instance, a king can be easily identified by the kind of smock he wears. Hats are worn in different styles to communicate different messages. For example, a person of power such as a king or chief, may wear his hat with the top-most part up standing to signify that he is the boss of the place. However, a young man would have to fold the top of his hat when he finds himself in the presence of the chief. This is a sign of respect and to also show that he is a subordinate.
Builsas celebrate “Feok”, which is a harvest festival. The festival signifies the defeat of slave raiders “Babatu and Samori in Builsa land. Many a time when the story of slavery is told, it has been presented as though the African willingly sold his relative or brother, but you find from such important occasions such as the Feok festival, that, in fact, that assertion is not true at all. Tribes waged wars and defended their villages against other tribes. Such is the Feok story. Babatu and Samori, were notorious slave raiders who tormented Builsa land. However, the king at that time, Anangkum gathered his men and waged a bloody war against them and defeated them. Feok festival is celebrated every year in December to signify this defeat and also to mark the end of a farming season and to celebrate a good harvest.
Builsas are peace loving people. This accounts for their peaceful coexistence with other tribes. In addition, Builsas are also hardworking. So, anytime you find yourself in the beautiful land of Ghana, make time to visit these wonderful, warm and kind people in the Upper East Region and experience a culture stemming out of a great history with great food, clothes and festival that would leave you yearning to stay for the rest of your life.
Photo Credit: Enoch Appiah Jr.