Sunday, December 09, 2007


In Tamale, I lived in a neighbourhood called Moshizongo. I became friends with some of the young men who lived in this densely populated area in the heart of Tamale. We would often sit together at night, preparing tea. One of my friends was Abass, the Chief of Youth, appointed by the Chief of Tamale to oversee the activities of young people in the neighbourhood.

Abass and the others wanted to “enskin” me as a chief of the neighbourhood. When I decided to transfer to Malawi, this enskinment became the perfect goodbye ceremony.

This blog entry describes how I became Malgunaa: Chief of Settling Disputes.


At about 3:20pm, I head over to Abass’s house. The ceremony is scheduled to start at 3:00pm, but a little buffer time is always in order for this kind of thing. My phone is ringing non-stop with people trying to find out where the event is to occur and at what time.

Abass welcomes me to his room in his family’s compound house, located a 3 minute walk from my own.

Abass’s role of Chief of Youth isn’t a full-time gig: he’s also trying to register with the Ghanaian army, and most days he sports a western-style outfit of t-shirt and pants.

But today, as Chief of Youth, he must dress for the occasion. He is putting on several traditional smocks: large robe-like tops worn by the people of northern Ghana. He places a hat made from a calabash on his head, a belt with horse-hair tassels around his waist and several charmed necklaces around his neck: all designed to grant him powers. (“No one can shoot me,” he once claimed. “The bullet could never strike me.”)

Outside, the drumming starts. Chief and his friends have hired luunsi, local drummers. Five of them start sounding the call to ceremony.

Chief’s friends dress me in a smock, and a handle with tassels of horse hair. I’m told that my name will be Malguuna, the Chief of Settling Disputes. It will be my duty to solve conflicts among the youth of Moshizongo.

The drumming outside is growing louder, more insistent. I ask my friend Lukman how many people he things will come. “Uncountable,” he responds.

As soon as I exit Chief’s room, I’m confronted with a throng of kids and a wailing woman. This is a ceremonial way of greeting me as a soon-to-be chief. They lead me outside to a dusty clearing in our neighbourhood.

I’m seated on a sheep-skin (the ceremony is called an enskinment due to the use of this skin), and Chief sits behind me on a chair. My friend Ishmeal sits to my left: he’s to be my sub-chief.

The crowd is gathering. There are at least a hundred and fifty people standing in a broad circle, mainly children and adolescents. Within the circle the luunsi drum and dance. A ceremonial rifle is fired into the air, startling everyone. The atmosphere, as Sarah Grant describes it, is “intense.”

The heat is also intense, especially while wearing a thick smock and sitting in the afternoon sun. A young girl is assigned to fan me. I’m embarrassed, and Sarah laughs at me.

Finally, when the heat and the energy are at their peak, the enskinment begins. A sub-chief approaches me with another smock. He bends down before me, and places the smock over my head three times. Each time he proclaims something loudly in Dagbani, the local language.

Ishmeal translates: “By the Chief of Men, we proclaim you to be Malgunaa!”

I’m then asked to stand and dance within the centre of the crowd. “You have to walk like an old man,” Ishmeal whispers. “You’re now a chief.”

As I shuffle around, people run up to me, sticking coins to my sweaty forehead. These coins are collected and given to the drummers. Dust is kicked up, the sun beats down, and my Dagomba cap is knocked from my head. After a few short moments, I’m led back to my sheep skin.

It’s now time for more dancing. The luunsi approach people in the crowd, drawing them out one by one to dance. The dancers request collect coins from all the chiefs in attendance. Then they move within the circle, kicking and twirling to the music, pushing or pulling the drummers with them.

Each dance has a particular meaning, Ishmeal explains to me. “This is called Kondoya, a dance for witches,” he says. Another dancer performs a hunting dance.

Sarah Grant and Josephine Tsui are both invited up to dance. The crowd goes crazy for these salimingas, rushing forward with coins for their foreheads.

Finally, over two hours after it began, the ceremony winds down. I’m made to stand, and a procession leads me to my house. I move slowly, as per instructions.

A final loud gunshot marks the end. I push through the crowd of people into my house, and enter the relative silence of my room.


I already miss the intensity and rawness of Dagomba culture. In order to provide some context, I should point out that this kind of event didn’t happen all the time in my neighbourhood. Moshizongo is a generally quiet neighbourhood, filled with large family houses, motorcycle mechanic shops, food sellers and provision stores. People go about their daily business, visiting friends, heading into town to work, welcoming visitors.

But periodically something like this would happen, reminding me of the strong pride that people have in their traditional culture. I was privileged to not only have been given a close window into it, but to actively participate in it.

Chief prepares his jewellery

I'm briefed on the ceremony procedures by Ishmeal.

Chief and his friend, prepared for the ceremony.

Ishmeal and me (Chief in the background).

Chief dancing.


Kyle said...

Congratulations Chief! Looking forward to your updates from Malawi.

Liam Whitty said...

Congratulations Chief Luke - it couldn't have happened to a better Saliminga! Thanks for describing it for us - it takes me right back and makes me wish I could visit your family compound again.

Best of luck in Malawi - keep up the blogs!

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