"there's no through trail" —Han-Shan, translated by Gary Snyder

Sacred Trees and Earth Shrines: An Interview with Elder Christopher Azaare in Gowrie, Ghana, on the Role of Tindaanas or Earth Priests

Chris Azaare’s Museum

Issue: Fall 2016

Introduction and Interview by Anatoli Ignatov

August 2012. In the smoldering heat of the afternoon sun, I walked slowly down the narrow footpath winding through fields of overgrown guinea corn. I was on my way to Gowrie, a village in the Upper East Region of Ghana, to meet Christopher Anabila Azaare. Like many African elders, Christopher Azaare was renowned for his command of a rich body of traditional knowledge. I arrived just in time to catch the tail end of a house tour that Chris was giving to three European visitors, including a German NGO volunteer at a nearby school. Chris was dressed in navy-grey, muddy sweat-shorts and a blue shirt that was discolored by the sun. He walked with a noticeable limp from an old injury. While showing me around the house, he would occasionally burst into the hearty and enthusiastic laughter that interspersed his engaging stories and teachings. Chris introduced himself as a researcher and retired school teacher who was still teaching part-time in two local schools and serving on the Parent-Teacher Association. It soon became apparent, however, that Chris was also a well-known public intellectual, a trained meteorologist, a professional soccer referee, a long-term custodian of his family gods, a sculptor, a devoted reader, and a prolific writer. Since 1976 Chris Azaare has been collecting and writing down the histories, genealogies, and socio-cultural practices of the Gurensi and Boosi people of the Upper East Region. Chris has compiled intricate genealogical maps of whole villages and clans in the Bongo and Bolgatanga Districts. He has written multi-volume manuscripts on topics such as Gurensi taboos and totems, village and clan histories, proverbs, as well as studies of Gurensi oral traditions. Chris is currently building a museum of Gurensi history and culture in Gowrie, which will display his research and the beautiful cement sculptures and miniature earthen compound that he has constructed to honor traditional art and housebuilding practices.

Chris Azaare’s museum in Gowrie

After the customary exchange of greetings, I sat down with Chris in his museum to discuss the transforming offices of tindaanas (earth priests) and chiefs, as well as the relationships of these two forms of customary authority to earth shrines in the fluid context of development in Ghana. The office of the tindaana (earth priest) is widely spread over Northern Ghana and is bound up with the custody of earth shrines.  This section of the interview explores topics such as how tindaanas and chiefs understand their obligations, their relationships with one another, the role of earth shrines in community life, and the various interdependencies between shrines and social identities.

Anatoli Ignatov: What do tiηdaana’s responsibilities entail? Do any of these responsibilities overlap with the responsibilities of someone else in the community?

Chris Azaare: Yes, it overlaps in the sense that I am telling you about the shrines.

AI: The shrines?

CA: The tiηgana. A tiηdaana can as well be a family head and perform sacrifices to the family gods and at the same time to the community gods. You know the gods in the tree are of the whole community and that is taken care of by the tiηdaana.[i] Then, we have the clan that is your section,[ii] your family. The tiηdaana can be the oldest within that section, so he has to perform sacrifices to your family tiηgana. Then, if he is the landlord of the house, he is the landlord[iii] of that house so the gods are held by the tiηdaana. So you see, the tiηdaana can have three overlapping responsibilities.

Tiηgane (sg.), tiηgana (pl.) are the Gurene names for earth shrines. Gana means “skin.” You know the tiηdaana wears the skins so that is from the animals, and since he controls the ancestral gods, his sacred materials are skins.[iv] The ancestors’ place[v] is like a skin and when you step on it you can easily break it. The tiηa is like a skin. It is very delicate. Walking on it, if you are wearing shoes, if you are wearing heavy things, you can easily break it because it is very thin, it is like a skin. So tiηa is like a skin.

Tiηa means earth. In Tale[vi] it is spelt teηa (η is used to represent “ng”). Daana means caretaker, owner. I told you the other time, the earth is a womb, the womb of a woman, and you see how delicate the womb of a woman is. So we are all buried in that like a child lies in the mother’s womb. Any small thing can perforate the womb. So we refer to the earth as the womb of our ancestors. When you step on it you can easily damage it, and that is why the owner of the land controls the ancestors. And that is the womb. So when you step on it you can easily break it. So when you are going to the tiηdaana’s house, you don’t wear anything… So it is not any place at all that you shouldn’t wear – what is it [shoes] – but the womb of the community where the whole burial, the spirits of the community are hiding. It’s in the earth. That place is a delicate place.

AI: Are tingana identified by the soothsayer?

CA: Yes, that’s what I said before a tree is…there are certain areas you see some bats…plenty of them are coming to sit on a particular tree…So that tells you that your ancestor is inhabiting in that tree, so you see the community or that family performing sacrifices to the tree. You see some snakes inhabiting one tree. It is the ancestor that has turned into those snakes, and they are inhabiting that tree. So that place becomes the tiηgana. But the tiηgana is actually by promotion because your ancestor, or your yaba,[vii] has gone into that tree. And then he is now the one who communicates between you and god…If the living are praying, they don’t pray direct…you perform a sacrifice to your father, your father cannot take it direct, so it has to go to your ancestor, and then your ancestor, your yaba, will take it to the tiηgana.[viii]

AI: So yaba is the word for ancestor?

CA: Yes, exactly. So your ancestor then resides in a particular tree. He can now communicate directly with god. Your grandfather or your father cannot communicate directly to god. So any time they are performing a sacrifice, they say that “we’ll take it to the tiηgana, the tiηgana should take it to god.” That’s how they traditionally say always. So they feel their father cannot speak directly to god, so you take it to the tiηgana. That’s why they feel since the tiηgana is nearer to god,[ix] then he’s equal to god. So you can only get your prayers through the tiηgana. So each family has a tiηgana. The tiηgane is your ancestor that is residing in it.[x] But if it is the whole community, your grand-grand-grandfather, that becomes the Tiηkugere[xi]…But at the ordinary level it is just your father – when he dies he can go into a tree, and they refer to it as tiηgane. Others refer to it as yabatia (ancestor-tree). It could be a baba tree, it could be the native ones, not the exotic trees[xii]…Baba means tua…i.e. baobab. But I am saying in our tradition,[xiii] it is tua. In Gurene, baba means tua… when a child is delivered to you, is born to you, you can name the child after your ancestor, the ancestral tree which is the baba. So you can name the child Atua.[xiv]


AI: You always put an A?

CA: Yes, A, to identify a name from an object. You always put A to identify the thing from an…

AI: So Atua personifies it, makes it a human person?

CA: Exactly. And that should be an ancestral tree. Your name means… the name of your ancestor…Either Aba – Aba could refer to the bush-dog –but you can say Ago. Ago refers to the forest. …You can also have Abua. Bua means goat. So Abua to distinguish from the goat. But if you simply say Atia, it means you are referring to any tree. But a particular tree has its name, that’s why we say Atua.

AI: If your name is Atua, is the tree a part of your identity in a certain way? Does this name exercise power in the way other names do?…My advisor, for example, is from Guinea. He comes from the rainforest, and his name is Grovogui, which means “chimpanzee protector.” So he says that when a chimpanzee dies in the community a part of his personality dies in a certain way. I wonder if your name is Atua and a tree gets cut down, does this affect your personality in a certain way?

CA: It affects your personality in the sense that…if somebody is coming to cut down your ancestor…so it is the spirit of that ancestor that is inhabiting in that baba tree, and that is a tree that has [your name] …[Y]our parents will give [the shrine] a child to take care of it so that the shrine is taking care of the child. So when it is cut down it will have that effect on you, on your life. If it is an animal and it is killed it is the same way. That’s why you don’t eat that animal if you are named Aba. You don’t eat that animal because your name is picked from it. You don’t eat dogs. There are others who are named Aboηa, meaning donkey. This is how some of these totems arose, because that animal has influence in you so you tend to taboo them. You don’t eat them. So equally it is not an ordinary tree you are named after. It is your ancestor that is in [the tree], and that is how your name is derived. So you do not allow anyone to cut the branches or the roots or what not. So those trees are usually guarded heavily.

AI: If your name is Atua, you obviously cannot cut or fell the ancestral tree. Would the person abstain from cutting any tree?

CA: Anyone at all would not even go near that ancestral tree. Your family, your father would not allow you to cut the tree down because it is your tiηgane. You are named after the tiηgane. And your tiηgane is the inhabiting place for your ancestor or your grandfather. So it means…if I have been in living in a house, some of the trees that the ancestors [inhabit] might grow within the yard just like this one here (he points to the yard). They can grow within the yard and that tells you that this is the ancestor that has come back to live with the family. There are other trees – you see the bats that gather, the doves coming to inhabit [them] –that tree is your ancestor, it will tell you at once it is your Yaba that is inhabiting those [trees]. So that’s how it is. So you cannot just go and cut. Because that is your life. That’s why I said the earth is just like a womb. All people are buried in it…So that’s why we say the gane is just very thin. It is not all that very strong, and that’s why the tiηa because we are buried in it… it is very thin and can get damaged. And that’s why you cannot walk into a grave…  because people are buried there so that is the womb of the dead. So we have been told that because of that you cannot just start removing sand – like the contractor comes, and then he starts removing sand from the earth. The tiηdaana will not allow it.

AI: You mean digging for sand?

CA: Yes, digging. It could be a burial place. You have to consult before they give you the go ahead. That’s how delicate it is. So removing sand and cutting certain particular trees will not be tolerated by the society.

AI: Can pesticides and chemicals also puncture or hurt the earth?

CA: Exactly.

AI: There is the quarry around Tongo and quarries all over. Do you think that, in the tindaanas’ view, it is appropriate to have a big mine where people are extracting earth and sand?

CA:  Tindaanas will tell that they would not even compromise with anyone who comes to make a quarry…Chiefs, politicians, and Christians  tend to say “that is development,” but the traditionalists would not like anything of that because they perform sacrifices to the shrines. They feel that their ancestors are hidden in these sacred areas. So any damage caused will also damage the living.

Jacqueline Ignatov: So what kinds of consequences are there for this kind of building?

CA: So the consequences are just that…they cause droughts, they cause disasters, diseases, what not. The tiηdaana will trace it out, and they say: “Oh, because they have come to damage the earth. And that is why they are running helter skelter, and they are blaming the living that have caused these wounds …” So you see so many deaths happening, and the tindaana would attribute it to the damage that is caused to the earth. So here actually the traditionalists would not allow any quarry to take place in their village. So they are suppressed by the government, they are suppressed by…what not…by the literate folk who always think by way of development. Others –the developers even come to dig in our graves, to remove the gravel and what not for road constructions. So certain deaths may be occurring in the village, and they say: why are people dying? The interpretation is that maybe part of the ancestral womb has been damaged. And that is the earth. If there are trees – you know the tiηgane as I said, if they are two or three, you have so many trees within, that’s where you can even refer to it as tiηgane – but if it is one tree, they refer to it as the Yaba… But you know power is when … the unity of the community is found by, or as you say the unity of the tiηgane is found by so many trees surrounding the main tree…You see a grove…a sacred grove…that is the tiηgane, there is no difference. That is the English interpretation, but it is just one, when there are so many trees surrounding the main tree. That is the tiηgane. But if there is a tree, you see a pile of stones, representing the ancestor – that is the Tiηkugere. But a tree can grow after the Tiηkugere in the future, so it becomes the tiηgane. Many trees can grow where you have piled these stones. It is mostly stones.[xv] That’s why you refer to it as the Tiηkugere.[xvi]

AI: What kind of power do tiηgana have over people? Do they exercise power over the community?

CA: What they can do is: One, if a woman is not giving birth, they can approach  the tiηgana to plead, and they are in a position to…assert your plea and the woman becomes pregnant; they have powers to refuse you rain – that’s why droughts usually occur in certain areas, and they have to get the tiηdaana who, in turn, plead with the ancestral spirits in the trees that there are rains; there are others – you plead with them for riches, for wealth.I don’t have any goods, and then they give you the good, and you’ll see it multiplying – that is from the tiηgane.

[i] The tindaana is usually the custodian of the community gods but, as Chris explains, if he happens to be the eldest member of a clan or family, he also has to take custody and perform sacrifices to the clan and/or family gods.   

[ii] Section and clan are often used interchangeably. The former describes a territorial section of a town or settlement whose residents belong to the same clan.

[iii] “Landlord” is a common way of translating into English the Gurene term for a head of the household.

[iv] The skins are both animal skins and sacred materials; that is, material and spiritual dimensions of the same thing are being named here.

[v] This place is a physical location – grove, tree, stones, etc – regarded as the present abode of the ancestors.

[vi] Tale is the language of the neighboring Talensi people.

[vii] Yaba is another word for ancestor.

[viii] There are conflicting interpretations of people’s relationships to the ancestors–so-called smaller gods–but the idea usually is that one cannot directly petition the supreme god. One has to petition the dead ancestors, usually a dead father or grandfather, who are the nearest to the living, and who are presumed to the pass the petition along to the older ancestors up the chain of seniority.

[ix] Many elders, including Chris, refer to the tingane both as a shrine and as the Earth Gods.

[x] The tingana is a tree in which resides an ancestor, and the tree and ancestor together are an earth shrine. But the exact set of relations is difficult to specify. Or rather, the tingane is the ancestor is the earth shrine…

[xi] The main earth god/shrine that serves the whole community is the tinkugere (land spirits)– a circle of stones arranged on the ground, usually without any trees around it.

[xii] Baba is a local term for the baobab tree, a majestic native tree, in which the ancestors frequently reside. Chris means that the ancestors always reside in native trees and not exotic ones.

[xiii] He means in Gurensi tradition here (implying that the Talensi or Nabnam nearby might use different terms for the baobab tree).

[xiv] Tua is the Gurene name for a baobab tree, Atua–the human name derived from it.

[xv] The trees can grow after the burial of the ancestor, the burial initially signified by the stones. This is another way in which a sacred grove (tingane) can originate (out of the Tinkugere).

[xvi] In this whole section Chris reiterates the definitions and distinction between Yaba tia and tingane within the system of promotion of Gurensi earth shrines. A single ancestral tree is always called Yaba-tia, but if other trees grow around the Yaba-tia, the shrine becomes promoted to a tingane, a sacred grove.

Chris Azaare

Christopher Anabila Azaare is a public intellectual, elder, trained meteorologist, professional soccer referee, and retired schoolteacher from Gowrie, Upper East Region, Ghana. His writings include A History of the Bongo District, 500 Taboos of the Gurensi People, Tindaanaship amongst the Gurensi, and numerous other volumes on Gurensi genealogies, histories, and oral traditions of thought. A selection of his 6-volume manuscript Recollections of Past Events of British Colonial Rule in Northern Ghana, 1900-1956 will appear as a book chapter in Politics of African Anticolonial Archive, ed. Isaac Kamola and Shiera Malik (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield International, February 2017).

Anatoli Ignatov is an Assistant Professor in the Sustainable Development Department at Appalachian State University, Boone, NC 28608. His research reworks Euro-American political theory through ethnographic encounters with African ecological practices and knowledges.