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  • Reflections on the Oral Traditions of the Nterapo of the Salaga Area
  • J. Ako Okoro


This paper presents initial thoughts on the historical, linguistic, and archeological significance of the oral traditions of Nterapo communities in the Salaga area. As members of a minority, and a commoner group in the Gonja traditional sociopolitical system, the Nterapo have not been recognized as relevant as the Nchumuru and Nawuri, who have been highlighted in historical works as autochthones. Historians, cultural anthropologists, and archeologists on Gonja have often failed to identify the Nterapo as being critical for research.

The Nterapo represent a group whose history goes beyond the time of the introduction of Gonja rule in the Volta Basin from the sixteenth century. There is reason to think that the wars of Gonja expansion in the second half of the sixteenth century were particularly brutal ones, in which welltrained cavalry were pitted against local peasantries poorly equipped to withstand the invaders (Wilks et al. 1986:15). Despite this, the Nterapo survived the invasion by accepting and adapting to the process of state formation and emergence of greater sociopolitical complexity in east Gonja. The settlement history and cultural lifeways of the Nterapo can provide insights for the production of premises, conceptual frameworks, and methodological approaches that would create a deeper understanding of human experience in the Salaga area.


Historical method is a systematic body of principles for gathering, critically examining, and presenting the source material of history (Garraghan 1946:33). [End Page 375] Written accounts and the spoken word are two important sources of historical information used for historical, anthropological, and archeological research and writing. In a broad sense, any source of data on the past such as oral traditions, archeological records, photographs, maps, even the nature of the landscape on which a settlement stands, may legitimately be described as a “document.” All or any of these can be used to outline culture history and to reconstruct and understand past cultural processes.

In Africa oral traditions are a major source of information about people in the past. The modes of reference and strategies for the communication of oral traditions can be done directly using word of mouth or speech (poems, folklore, music, stories, and proverbs) or indirectly, using drum language, horn blowing, and the like. These modes of communication of oral tradition are not mutually exclusive. They combine in various ways to provide the frameworks for expressing, recollecting, and experiencing the past. As a verbal form of historical communication, oral tradition involves a two-way interaction that gives it a unique appeal and value.

The use of oral tradition is subject to many qualifications, but no full understanding of a people can be gained without consulting them (Vansina 1965:1985). In order to interpret the oral historical traditions preserved in any community properly, an understanding of the value attached to its recollection and delivery is important (Vansina 1965, Henige 1974, Wilks et al. 1986). Historians in Ghana have always placed a high premium on oral traditions in the reconstruction of the past. Similarly, Iron Age archeologists in Ghana have had to resort to oral traditions as an aid to archeological explanation of cultural development (Boachie-Ansah 1986, Anquandah 1982, Effah-Gyamfi 1974).

Like any source, oral tradition has limitations and shortcomings. While the written evidence transfers the information onto paper, or other forms of permanent material, oral tradition is a heritage that requires retention in human memory for its continuity. Because memory is in the head, conditions that affect a person such as ill health, old age, lack of interest and low intellectual capacity, do impact on the ability to recollect and narrate oral history. When oral tradition is written or recorded, it ceases to depend on the human memory and assumes a permanent identity. As a result, the death of the custodian whose memory serves as the repository does not result in an irreplaceable loss of oral historical information.

Arabic historical works (sometimes of local authorship) bear witness to the prior existence of a cycle of orally transmitted stories about the creation and consolidation of the Gonja kingdom (Wilks et al. 1986:21). The savants of Gonja committed to writing information that...


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