In my book, The Creation of Political Domination: From the Paleolithic to the Present I present scores of history and ethnographic cases describing how aspiring men fabricated symbolic representations to rise to power and attempt to stay there by controlling the flow of information.  This process of fabrication began with the advent of a storable-stealable-surplus roughly in the early years of the Neolithic and continues today. 

In this short article I want to outline the way in which this was done in the chiefship of the town of Tumu in Sisalaland Northern Ghana between 1918 and the present-day.  Interestingly, efforts to reinforce the authority of Tumu chiefs began with very traditional and mystical means and continue today in the same vein, to be sure, but it also has made its way to the World Wide Web and Facebook.

In traditional Sisala culture formal authority and control of public resources was connected to stewardship of ancestral shrines (vensing), which were traditionally composed of soul bracelets of all the dead men of the lineage, though the form of them varied from clan to clan (Mendonsa 1976, 1979, 1982).

The lineage headman was the custodian of shrines classed as vensing (s. vene) or social shrines for the lineage and there were vensing for the clan.  Being the custodian of ancestral shrines gave lineage headmen poleconomic control within their kin groups i.e., a headman could collect all grain crops grown under his authority and store them in a central granary.  The custodian of the clan vensing only received a small prime portion of any animals sacrificed on the vensing under his control.  In other words, the lineage was the primary work/consuming unit of Sisala society. 

Such ideas were fabricated over time providing lineage patriarchs with the right to control common resources and people.  In traditional Sisala society, custodians of these lineage shrines were leaders of mini-political economies.  Villages were more or less independent in a political and economic sense and were ruled by a council of elders.  One such elder may have attained the status of big man (kuoro), acting primarily as a primus inter pares.  However, he was not a hereditary chief.

Even as late as my initial fieldwork in the 1970s and presumably continuing today a big man could rise to power, if not authoritative office, by force of personality and/or the control of mystical means, which in Sisalaland usually goes by the term daalusung (medicine).  This “medicine” can be either botanical or supernatural in nature or a combination of the two.  Below we will see how the first Chief of Tumu, who was appointed chief by the British, set about to bolster his new office with both shrines and daalusung, some of which were held in secret behind the walls of his palace and others that were made public and served as displays of authority.  Both had the effect of augmenting the power handed him by the colonials.

Before the coming of the Europeans, there was no formalized paramount chief of the Sisala, which was composed of different clans scattered over the land (Mendonsa 1975; 2001).  But the basis of chiefship already existed in the gerontocracy, where elder men ruled over younger men and women in the lineage organization. 

In 1918 the British appointed a chief of Tumu, the largest and most important town in the region and he immediately set about to define himself as more than a European-installed chief; but as a leader according to traditional criteria.  He constructed a two-story “palace,” the normal abode of a big man and built in its courtyard a large shrine known as the Tumuwiheiya.  Other secret shrines, relics and medicines were kept behind closed doors in the palace.  In time, legend had it that this first chief became a powerful “wizard” (dalusuƞ-tiina or “owner of medicine”) and he used such beliefs to build a personal fortune and died leaving over sixty wives and hundreds of children and grandchildren.  It is instructive that when the first Chief of Tumu passed away, people did not believe that he could die and many missed his funeral thinking the death announcement was merely a rumor.

The point is that ownership of relatively benign objects in one historical-material condition can lead to opportunities for ambitious men in newly emerging historical-material conditions.  The Chief of Tumu surrounded himself with supernatural ideas and contrivances that legitimized his position.  No doubt big Sisala men did that in the centuries before the coming of colonialism, but the historical-material circumstances were not conducive to the transformation of mystical powers into formalized control of material resources beyond the lineage level.  Colonialism provided new favorable conditions.

In this new world, the Chief of Tumu seized on trade and commercial opportunities brought on by colonialism that enabled him to capitalize on being an installed chief.  Whereas in olden times, control of shrines gave a man limited control over about fifty people in the linage context; the Tumu Chief was able to use shrines and ritual apparatuses to catapult himself to far greater poleconomic heights (controlling thousands in a “tribe”) because new opportunities came along with European control of that part of Africa.

When I arrived in Sisalaland in 1970, the Tumu Chief, Luri Kanton, was the wealthy owner of a trucking company and rode around his domain in a brand new Chevrolet Impala.  He also presided over secret rites within the walls of his large compound, information about which “leaked out” beyond the walls and he also officiated at public rites held at the public Tumuwiheiya shrine that existed, and still exists, in the outer courtyard of his palace.  From then until the time of this writing this office has been a powerful one and the Kanton family is the wealthiest and most prominent family in Sisalaland as a result of the establishment of chiefship in the region by the British.

The actions of the first British-appointed chief of Tumu was about the invention or borrowing of traditional supernatural ideas or sacred objects to establish credibility for his new office and to reinforce in the minds of the people that he was a legitimate leader.  Subsequent chiefs have continued the reinforcement of these ideas.  To this day the chiefly shrines are still used and the public shrine in the chief’s courtyard, the Tumuwiheiya, is still the focus of publicly-witnessed rites.

But there are new and modern ways in which the office of chief is being formalized and reinforced, this time in the minds of both average citizens of Sisalaland and those educated Sisala who have access to the internet.  A Sisala Heritage Foundation has been organized that now appears on Facebook (!/sissalaheritage).  It is a site that promotes Sisala culture and, at the same time, focuses on the chief of Tumu through articles and photographs.  Apparently, the foundation has constructed a statue in Tumu of the first “paramount chief” of Sisalaland, Wokorei (a.k.a. Wogeri) Kanton. 

I put the office in quotations because there are other chiefs in Sisalaland who contest the paramount aspect of the office of Tumu chief.  The attached plaque reads: “In memory of Kuoro (chief) Wokorei II who ruled Tumu from 1918 to 1951.”  On the 8th of May, 2010 the statue was unveiled by a Ghanaian government official who was visiting the area for the commissioning of an FM radio station, providing further reinforcement from the federal government of the chiefship in Tumu. 

Wokorei Kanton died on the 29th of January, 1951 at his palace in Tumu.  Each year this date is now ritually and ceremoniously observed by the people of Tumu as a remembrance day.  

The Facebook site also has several pictures of the incumbent chief of Tumu in all his royal finery surrounded by his courtiers and the elders of Tumu.  In viewing this photograph, one notes that the chief is also not only dressed in royal clothing, but has his “linguist” or official translator by his side (holding staff of office of the linguist) and another courtier holding the chief’s staff of office, none of which existed in the years before the British instituted the office of chief.  The chief is also holding a grand cow-tail switch and is being fanned by a woman, a sign of bigmanship in traditional culture.  There are also photographs of the “talking drums” that are ceremonially played each Friday morning in the courtyard of the chief.  These can be used to call the people to the chief’s residence, though these days I am not sure how many people would recognize their “drum name,” but in olden times it was said that that was the case.  I suspect now that the sound of the drums being played at any time other than Friday morning would indicate a special but generalized calling to those within hearing distance.  More importantly for our point here is the ceremonial nature of the drums, which reinforces chiefly authority each time they are used. 

There is even a Facebook website entitled: Kanton Family Reunion ( that has photographs of all the chiefs of Tumu to date, including the present Tumukuoro who was installed under the “skin name” of Kuoro Richard Babini Kanton VI.  Terminology used to describe his installation as a chief is indicative of the colonial legacy e.g., he was “called to the throne” and the “coronation attracted no less a person than His Excellency the Vice-President of the Republic of Ghana John Dramani Mahama on the 12th of October, 2009 at the durbar grounds of the Tumukuoro.”  In addition to colonial words like “coronation” and “durbar” the Facebook site also notes that the chief was “enskinned” and the chief is shown sitting on a large cow skin, an invented symbol of high office. 

The Kanton Family Reunion site also has a page recounting the history of chiefship in Tumu.  It begins with the life and “enthronement” of Wokorei and describes the lives and duties of subsequent Tumu chiefs down to Kuoro Richard Babini Kanton IV   

At a more regional level, chiefship has also been formalized in the institution of into the Upper West Regional House of Chiefs located in the city of Wa to the west of Sisalaland.  There, on the 9th of June, 2011, the present Tumukuoro was “sworn in” in a “formal” ceremony by the federal government’s Regional Minister in the presence of “other dignitaries.”

The list of Tumu chiefs is:


Wokorei Kanton II (r. 1918-1951)

Luri Kanton III (r. 1951-1973)

Yakubu Luriwie Kanton IV (r. 1973-2001)

Gilbert Badzoe Kanton V (r. 2001-2009)

Richard Babini Kanton VI (r. 2009 – present)


This is the history of chiefship as written on the Facebook website Kanton Family Reunion is as follows[1]:


Wokorei Kanton in his private life was a farmer and hunter. During the construction of the Tumu-Navrongo road, he was a labourer and later he became a headman and interpreter whenever the Whiteman came round for their inspection.  He interpreted in a sort of English that was combined with sign language.  He was enskined Tumu Kuoro in 1918 and was elected head chief of Sissalas[2] at the Kunchogu convention of 1924, which was organised by the colonial masters to elect “a first among equals” among the Sissala divisional chiefs.  In this new position Kanton worked hard to unite the then weak divisions of Sissalas into one strong Sissala State [note the use of “state,” a political division not part of the traditional Sisala imagination before colonial times].

In recognition of his able leadership, the king of England awarded him with a K.M.C (Kings Medal for African Chiefs) in 1939.  Wokorei Kanton became the Jantiina of Tumu when Benado Yaljia died [this is the office of head of the ancestor cult or Venetiina].  He, however, made Siguol Bayan to act in his place.

For administrative purposes he invited two divisional chiefs at a time to come to stay in Tumu on monthly basis to assist him in taking decisions on pertinent issues and to judge cases.  By this he practiced a participatory traditional government at the local level and this confirms his firm belief that “two heads are better than one”.  This was certainly democratic [I would say that this is a very selective reading of Sisala political history].

Wokorei Kanton never went to school himself, but he showed great interest in education in many ways.  He was personally involved in encouraging Sissala children to be schooled in Tamale and Lawra schools as there was no school in the Sissala area.  He also got able men to escort these vulnerable children to and from school to ensure their security and welfare.  He also gave support and encouragement to all Sissala pupils in Tamale and Lawra schools regardless of which community they hailed from; he was a father to all. 

Wokorei Kanton II, in his capacity as the head chief of the Sissala fraternity, was instrumental in the opening of the first ever educational institution in the Sissala area- the Tumu Primary Boarding school, which he personally opened on the 1st of February 1945 in the presence of Mr. R.K. Talbot, the district commissioner for Lawra-Tumu, all the divisional chiefs of Sissala land and Imoro Egala, a division 3 teacher who was the acting principal teacher.[3]  The pupils in attendance that day numbered 35.

In recognition of his unique role in the development of education in the Sissala land, the first training college; KANCO, in the district was named after him and when the college was changed into a secondary school in 1972, the name was still retained.  The school is now Kanton Senior High school.  A house in the Tumu College of Education is also named after him

Kanton II died on Monday 29th January 1951 at his palace in Tumu.  The 29th of January each year is observed by the people of Tumu as a remembrance day.  The celebration is being gradually developed into a festival.



Kuoro Luri Kanton, the eldest son of Wokorei was born in 1909.  He, like his father, was also a farmer and a hunter.  In the early 1930s, he went to Tamale and learnt to be a driver.  His father bought him a vehicle and he was based in Tamale as a driver cum transport owner.

He left Tamale and came home when he realized that he should be around his aging father.  He became a wad foreman and paymaster on the Tumu-Lawra road.

He was actually doing payments on the 29th of January, 1951 when they reported his father’s death to him.  Luri was enskined Tumu Kuoro in 1951 and he was elevated Paramount Chief of Sissala in 1958 and was elected 1st  Vice President of the Northern Region house of Chiefs.  He was an advocate for the creation of the Upper Region and was elected 1st President of the Upper Region House of Chiefs for two consecutive times.

Luri Kanton III was one of the two-member delegation of Ghanaian eminent Chiefs sent on a good will visit to Cairo Egypt as part of the arrangements for Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Prime Minister of Ghana, to marry Madam Fathia of Egypt.

Soon after the 24th February, 1966 coup that toppled the Nkrumah regime, the Sissala Traditional area was turned into a confederate state with the Presidency rotating among the five Divisional Chiefs annually, the Tumu Kuoro’s Paramountcy state was, however, regained among others during the I.K. Acheampong regime.

Luri Kanton III died at the Bolgatanga teaching hospital on the 27th December, 1973 after a protracted illness.  Luri Kanton III did not only die as a Kuoro but also as a “Jantiina” (landlord [traditional owner of the land in a religious sense]).



Kuoro Alhaji[4] Yakubu Luriwie Kanton IV, another son of Wokorei Kanton II was born in 1914.

He had no formal education and took up to hunting with a locally manufactured gun [muzzle-loading musket] at an early age of about 13 years. When his father realized his capability in hunting, he chose him and another member of the family Puso Jua Kazare Dimmie to stop farming and do full time hunting to bring bush meat for family consumption and for sale.  Senior citizens of Tumu cherish happy memories of the days when the bush meat brought by these young hunters was actually a food relief package during the lean famine season.

Dr. Morris, who was a keen hunter, recruited Luriwie into the Tse-tse Control Department.  Luriwie learnt a lot about hunting from this white master.  The Tse-tse Control Department was re-designated as the Wildlife Department and Luriwie as a pioneer game scout was instrumental in the survey and demarcation of the Mole National Park in Gonja land and later the Gbele Game Reserve in the Sissala land.

As a game scout he gave practical training to officials like Drs. Assabey and Punguseh who later became Chief Wildlife Officers heading the department.

His duties as a game scout included mainly elephant and other wildlife control when they were found to be a threat to people’s life and property.  A story is told of how he saved the lives of one Mr. Tooth and his wife when one smart bull shot brought down a wild elephant that was charging on the couple.  He rose to the rank of a senior game scout.


Luriwie Kanton was enskined Tumu Kuoro on the 4th of March, 1974.  In accordance to custom he was also ordained the chief fetish priest [jangtiina] of Tumu on the 7th of March 1993 because he was the also right man to inherit that position on the death of Yalgia Babugu of Niafajan (a section of Tumu).  Because of his position as the Tumu Kuoro, however, he got one of his grandsons; Adama Bajor, to act as his proxy when sacrifices were to be performed

As a Muslim, he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca in 1980 and the following year, he went to Bulgaria on a goodwill visit.

During his reign, he revived the “Paari-gbiele” festival which he celebrated within his traditional area.[5]  He is also remembered as one who encouraged and maintained the Sissala cultural values.  He became a life patron of the Sissala Union.

Luriwie Kanton IV advocated for the creation of the Upper West Region and was elected 1st Vice President of the Regional House of Chiefs of the young region.

As Luriwie Kanton advanced in age, there was a corresponding decline in his health so he gave up hunting and took to farming and tree planting until his death on the 25th of January, 2001 in his palace after a short illness.


Gilbert Badzoe Kanton, another son of Wokorei Kanton II, the first literate Tumu Kuoro of the Kanton Dynasty was born in 1931.  He attended Lawra Primary Boarding School from 1939-1943 and then proceeded to Tamale Government Middle School 1944-1947 and came out with a standard seven certificate.  He did a year’s pupil teaching in the Tumu Primary Boarding School in 1948.

Young Gilbert had a certificate “B” teachers training from 1949-1950.  After his training, he never went back to teaching.  He went into local government as a treasurer of the Tumu District Council from 1950.  He proceeded to the local government school in Accra and came out with a London certificate for local government workers.  He was promoted clerk to Tumu District Council from 1958-1961.

G.B. Kanton[6] was the District Census Officer for Ghana 1960 population census and also the 1961 industrial census.  He became the treasurer/clerk of the Upper Region House of Chiefs from 1961-1964 when he returned to Tumu as the bursar of Kanton Training College from 1964-1969.

G.B. Kanton became the Managing Director for Sambali Ltd; a distributor for British America Tobacco Company and was stationed in Wa, Bolga and Tamale respectively until he was enskined Tumu Kuoro on the 28th of May, 2001.  He was called to eternity in the early hours of 17th February, 2009 in his private house after a protracted illness.

During his life time, Kuoro G.B. Kanton V served on several public committees which include:

  1. Member – Upper West Region Consultative Council
  2. Member – Upper West Region House of Chiefs
  3. Member- National House of Chiefs
  4. Member- Upper West Region Police Council
  5. Chairman- Upper West region health council



Born in 1955, Babini Kanton attended primary school at the Tumu United Primary School in 1962 and proceeded to the Tumu Middle Day School.  He then moved to the Nandom Secondary School for two years and completed his secondary school education at the Kanton Secondary School.  He was among the first batch of students when the Kanton College (KANCO) was transformed to Kanton Secondary School.

Having completed secondary school he joined the Customs Excise and Preventive Services Training School (CEPS) and passed out in 1981.  He was first posted to the Kotoka International Airport as a B2 officer and later to the Tema Port as a collection Assistant (CA2).  From Tema he moved to the Accra Collection as an assistant collector after which he came to Tamale Collection still as an assistant collector.  At Bumprugu, his next station, Babini Kanton survived a gunshot to the chest by unknown assailants at his residence.  This attack was as a result of his unbending resistance to smuggling activities.  After this incidence the service had to transfer him back to Tema for safety purposes.  By this time he had risen to the rank of Collector.  He later became A Senior Collector and was transferred to the Headquarters in Accra.  Currently he works as a Principal Collector at the Accra Collection.

He was called to the throne and enskined the 6th Tumu Kuoro on the 1st of August 2009 after the death of his elder brother the late Kuoro Badzoe Kanton V.

In his private life Kuoro Richard Babini Kanton VI is a lover of music and dance and is an ardent lover of soccer.


In the Early Neolithic those aspiring to formulate the institutions of power began to create ideas, symbols and structures to further that end.  We see the Sisala people using the Internet and Facebook to continue to shore up the institutions of chiefship that were established under the colonial umbrella in Northern Ghana at the beginning of the 20th century and they are doing it with 21st century technology.



Mendonsa, Eugene L.  1975.  Traditional and Imposed Political Systems among the Sisala of Northern Ghana, Savanna 4, 2, 103-115; 1976.  Elders, Office-Holders and Ancestors among the Sisala of Northern Ghana, Africa 46:57-65; 1979.  Economic, residential and ritual fission of Sisala domestic groups, Africa 49:61-79; 1982.  The Politics of Divination.  Berkeley: University of California Press; 2001.  Continuity and Change in a West African Society: Sisala Elders, Youth and Women. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.


[1] I have made some changes of spelling and grammatical errors.  I have retained the British spelling.

[2] Sissala is an alternate spelling to mine, which is Sisala.

[3] He was a big man in Sisalaland and later went on to be a Minister in the Nkrumah government.

[4] It is interesting that with the rise of Islam in Sisalaland (about 78% in my 1998 study) that a practicing Muslim and one that subsequently went to Mecca on a pilgrimage, was made chief of Tumu).

[5] This is a durbar or festival held at Tumu.  The various Sisalaland chiefs come to pay homage to the Tumukuoro and observe drumming, dancing, a bow & arrow competition, games and other cultural activities.  Sacrifices are made to the ancestors to thank them for the last year and prayers are offered to help insure a good upcoming year.  My thanks to Kanton Mohammed for his comments about this festival on facebook.

[6] As he was known to those of us who had the privilege of knowing him.

Views: 462


You need to be a member of Open Anthropology Cooperative to add comments!


OAC Press



© 2020   Created by Keith Hart.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service