The yam festival which has lost its significance in Dagbon is the latter’s oldest festival which had predated the Bugum, Damba, Kpini and Eid festivals.
These festivals came in the wake of the Islamisation of Dagbon culture. The yam festival is no longer celebrated but the spiritual rituals are still performed in Yendi and many areas by tindaan nima.
The History Of The New Yam Festival
A few months ago I had a discussion on this issue with the Chong Na who is the chief traditional custodian of the deities around Yendi. His tindana lineage in the Yendi area predated 37 Ya Nas and that goes back to the time before Na Nyagse.
This means that the notion that Dagombas first migrated to the Yendi area at the time of Na Titugri is not the case. The tingbihi were there, worshipped the tingbana and celebrated the yam festival. He made an interesting distinction between tingbani and bugli.
The Chong Na has dedicated farms for cultivating yam. grain and okra used for the annual ritual. Traditionally, when the new yams are due for harvest, the Chong Na seeks the consent of the Ya Na to perform the appropriate rituals and sends a bundle of the new yams to the palace to formally announce the new yam harvest.
In the past, until this was done, no farmer was allowed to bring yams home for consumption. Any new yams that appeared on the market was confiscated.
Farmers could however eat the yam in the farm. This also applied to all places and were enforced by chiefs. The tradition is still alive but not enforced any more in towns. This may still be enforced in villages.
The Celebration: Yam Festival
During my sojourn in Sankuni it was rigorously enforced. The chief was the tindana who personally performed all rituals on the tingbani located outside the village. When the new yams were ready, he carried out consultations with soothsayers to schedule a most suitable date for yam ritual.
There was no specific month or day as the ritual depended on when yams were ready, depending on rain fall pattern. We looked forward to this day with great longing as there was a lot of meat to eat. The first yam was cooked, mashed, mixed with shea butter, salt and other spices and made into big yam balls.
The chief was accompanied at early sunset by his entire household to the shrine. Other villagers did not attend. He squatted in front of the deity with all of us squatting behind him. He administered the libations with a calabash of cold water by reciting incarnations as we clapped softly.
At the end of it, a he goat was slaughtered unto the deity. The liver was roasted and a piece of it kneaded up and added to one yam ball and placed on the deity. The rest of the yam balls and liver were distributed to us to eat.
Upon returning to the house, the goat was prepared for supper with the first sakolo which opened the way for the rest of the village to also pound sakolo the next day.
The entire goat was cooked. Not only that, the men set traps and hunted for whatever they could catch to be added to the goat.
Typically, the large soup pot would contain the goat, wild guinea fowls, quails and monitor lizards which were easier to catch at that time of the year. The preferred soup was man mahli as had been used from ancestral times.
Anybody who did not gorge on food and meat to his fill would never have the chance to do so until the following year. Even dogs knew it was a special day as they were thrown fleshy bones and plenty food. It was the only day there was food leftover on the dogs tree barks.
There are other cultures in Ghana that celebrate the yam festival big time. The Asogli yam festival in the Volta Region and the Odwira festival.
As Dagbon’s festivals are all muslim festival, the purely traditional yam festival could be revived and dedicated to agriculture, farmers, foodstuff sellers, restaurants, food vendors and exhibitions show casing food processing.
Damba is the responsibility of Yidan Moli to organise. The Chong Na is most suited to be designated to be in charge of the yam festival. This will break the monotony of being stuck with the same festivals.
Written By: Ambassador Ibrahim Abass