Gonja (also Ghanjawiyyu) was a kingdom in northern Ghana founded in 1675 by Sumaila Ndewura Jakpa. The word can also refer to the people of this kingdom.
The Gonja are a Guan people who have been influenced by Akan, Mande and Hausa people. With the fall of the Songhai Empire (c. 1600), the Mande Ngbanya clan moved south, crossing the Black Volta and founding a city at Yagbum. The Gonja kingdom was originally divided into sections overseen by male siblings of Sumaila Ndewura Jakpa including their children and grandchildren.
Under the leadership of Naba'a, the Ngbanya dynasty of Gonja was founded. The capital was established at Yagbum.
The Ngbanya expanded rapidly, conquering several neighbors in the White Volta valley and beginning a profitable gold trade with the Akan states through nearby Begho. By 1675, the Gonja established a paramount chief, called the Yagbongwura, to control the kingdom. The Ngbanya dynasty has controlled this position from its founding to the present day, with only two brief interregnums. The current Yagbongwura, Tuntumba Sulemana Jakpa Bore Essa, has held his position since 2010.
Precolonial Gonja society was stratified into castes, with a ruling class, a Muslim trader class, an animist commoner class, and a slave class. Its economy depended largely on trade in slaves from Central Africa and kola nuts, particularly through the market town of Salaga, sometimes called the "Timbuktu of the South."
The Gonja language is a Tano language within the Kwa languages family, closely related to Akan languages.
The Gonja people whose true name is Ngbanye (meaning Brave Men) derive the name Gonja from a corrupted Hausa phrase Kada Goro-Jaa (meaning land of Red Cola). There are over 285,000 Gonjas in Ghana. The Gonja people, are one of the twenty six or more Guan ethnic groups, appeared in modern Ghana very early in the 16th Century.
It is indeed common historical knowledge that the Gonjas or the larger Guan group were the first residents of the geographical area now called Ghana. It is worthy to note that Gonja history has been recorded by Islamic Scholars who were embedded in the Gonja army as it left ancient Mande in Mali and travelled through Segu in Southern Mali and approached the Bole area through La Cote d’Ivoire, the Sissala area and Wa in modern Upper West. Location in Country: Northern region, south; west central, upper branches of Volta Lake area; Black Volta River to White Volta area, both sides.(Source: Ethnologue 2010)
The Gonja language is a Kwa language spoken by an estimated 300,000 people, almost all of whom are of the Gonja ethnic group of northern Ghana. Gonja is related to Guan languages in the south of Ghana, it is spoken by about a third of the population in the northern region.
Several accounts of Gonja history have been published, all of them based very largely on the corpus of oral tradition which Jones (1962) has called the 'Jakpa epic'. Jakpa, so the story goes, was a mighty warrior 'from Mande', who fought his way across Gonja from west to east, and then, before he was killed in battle, shared out the lands which were his by right of conquest among his sons. By the end of his death the present Gonja Traditional Area was established fully as a centralized state under his sole leadership in 1675. The earliest recorded version of the Jakpa epic, in substantially its modern form, Is to be found in an Arabic chronicle written in the 1890s (El-Wakkad and WMks, 1962).
The Gonja people engage in cultivation of some fields with various kinds of millet and some maize. The Nchumuru people and some Gonjas also do some farming, but mainly hunt and fish. The main product of commercial value is shea-butter which is still exported down to the Coast and which can be found in every market, shaped like a sugar cone and wrapped in leaves. Shea-butter is very easy to make, the fruit is roasted, pounded and then boiled in large pots. The fat which swims on top is the liquid form of the product. In smaller quantities, sesame seeds are also exported from Gonja.
Gonja people are very religious. They are mostly Muslims and Islamic worshipers make up about 58% of the population.
Ethnic traditional religion worshipers constitute 38% of the Gonja population. The Gonjas has their belief in the Supreme Being, ‘Ebore’, nature spirits, and traditional powers.
The remaining 4% of the Gonjas are Christians.
The Gonjas have no distinct tribal marks of their own. Everyone has a different mark, either on the chest, on the cheeks or on his arms. Some Gonjas have a dark triangle tattooed between their eyes and ears.
The women have an especially large variety of tattoos on both cheeks. On some women I noticed deep elaborate markings on the neck, chest and right down to the stomach. Especially favoured patterns are stars and bows and often (in conjunction with these) three parallel lines.
Among the Gonja, chieftaincy occupies an important place in their lives. All Gonjas acknowledge one paramount who resides in the village of Yabum, the Yabumwura. Succession to chiefships is based on patrilineal descent. Such offices circulate among the descendants of Ndewura Jakpa, the reputed founder of the state. The process involves rotation and circulation between village gates. Gonja society is not however exclusively patrilineal. Patrilateral and matrilateral norms are at play in the affiliation of individuals to kin-groups. Kinship fosterage was practiced in the past and may continue to some extent.