Sacred Trees in Ghana

by Christopher Anabila Azaare Issue: Fall 2016 Special Issue on Forests

Transcribed and introduced by Anatoli Ignatov

The following are selections from The History of Pioneer Clans in Bolgatanga, Bongo and their Satellite Towns: Land Ownership and Sacred Places (November 1999), a 150-page manuscript by Christopher Anabila Azaare that draws on extensive personal interviews and fieldwork, oral histories, and archival research to document, survey, and map the sacred places of the Gurensi people in the Upper East Region of Ghana.

Ranging from oversized school notebooks and folding genealogical tables and maps to fading typewritten bundles of paper, Chris Azaare's manuscripts come in an array of formats and sizes. They form tall piles stashed on his old and rickety desk in the darkest room in his museum in Gowrie. Most of the manuscripts are handwritten in black and blue ink and show visible stains, marks, and brittle corners. A few of his books have been typed at various times by a faculty member at the University of Ghana, Legon, as well as by the school girls who work at the Internet center in Gowrie. The latter now bear the mark of Azaare's multiple edits and revisions in pencil and ink.  Red dirt permeates the pages of most manuscripts, connecting the wealth of Gurensi knowledge chronicled in their pages to the vibrant materiality of the ancestors' abode, tinga (earth).

The electronic version of the manuscript on sacred groves is the conjoint product of several people's effort over many years. I have typed and edited a significant part of the manuscript, both in the US and in Ghana, where Chris sent me the present version of the manuscript via a VVIP bus driver who delivered it to me in a yellow envelope in Accra, the capital city of Ghana. I have spent hours incorporating Chris Azaare's handwritten edits and revisions of the 1999 version, which overlay the typewritten text in black ink.

4. Gurensi Sacred Places

4.2 The Religious and Social Significance of Sacred Places

When a Gurensi is asked for the reasons that underlie the observance of certain trees as sacred, he would answer that they are an old practice that we have inherited from our fathers and we cannot abandon. At the root of this reverence is not only the fear and admiration for these sacred trees. This is also a way for the Gurensi to trace their origins, because the traditional Gurensi believe that certain members of their families pass after death into trees, forests, uncultivated grasslands, caves, mountains, hills, rivers, ponds, and so on. As a result of these beliefs, the Gurensi set aside such physical features for worship, a practice that has been maintained to date.

Almost all the towns and villages that compose the Gurensi abound in sacred places. During my field trips to the Gurensi towns and villages in 1986, I could count no less than ten such places in each village.

The traditional Gurensi call these sacred places tingana (plural) and tingane (singular), which means “the greatest of all trees.”

Tingane is a broad term referring to those trees that have been singled out and dedicated to the dead parents and ancestors. They are regarded as the most sacred places of the people. They are holy places.

The oldest abode in which the spirits of the ancestors live is the Earth (tinga). It is also [in] the bosom of this Earth that farmers sow their seeds. Accordingly, it is not surprising that the gods of the Earth came to rule over the souls of the dead that are laid in the Earth, as well as in the seeds, which sprout from the Earth. Hence the name “tingane.”[1]

The Gurensi have three different types of gods, which may be referred to as tingana. These include the Yaba-tissi (ancestral trees), the tingane proper, and the tinkuuga (land spirits).

Tingana need to be appreciated as:

          i.   Gods, as well as totems, to certain families. In one story the founding father of a clan went to the bush to hunt                     and shot a bush cow. Following the infliction of the pain by the arrow, the animal came running towards the man                 and just as it was about to charge him, he crept under the garden aqualis (Gurene: dozunka), escaping the bush                   cow. This was later to become a totem tree of his clan.

        ii.    Second to God (Nawine), the creator of all things.

         iii.   The ultimate receiver of what has been offered to the smaller gods and the ancestors.

      iv.     The dwelling places of the powerful ancestors, spirits of great chiefs, founding fathers, lesser gods, and pseudo                     spirits such as the kuleka-arisi, ghosts (kugro), fairies (kinkito/sinsito).

        v.    The providers of protection to the living descendants against evil medicine, magic, witchcraft practice and other                   diseases. In this case it is regarded as the village guardian. It is also believed that the gift of prophesy was                             accorded to men as well as to women by tingana.

      vi.     The medium through which the living communicate with God.

     vii.     The custodian of public morality.

    viii.     The pillars of truth. In court and during serious arguments, a person swears oaths in the name of the tingane to                     establish the truth and falsity of his/her statement made.

       ix.    Promoters of unity, solidarity, and communality.

         x.   Portraying the belief and existence of spirits, Gods, and ancestors living in another world.

       xi.    The causer of diseases or epidemics, especially those of sudden, unexpected or unaccountable kind such as                           cholera, smallpox, etc.

     xii.     The centres of important and known towns and markets such as Ayia (in Bolgatanga), Abongo (in Bongo), Avea                    (in Vea), Abalunga (in Balungo), Akanseriga (in Kanseriga), and Apatanga (in Apatanga or Agamolega).

   xiii.     The natural home of medicinal plants.


4.3 How Tingana Came to Be Created

According to some old men, when the first settlers moved to establish new settlements, they would look for a particular tree where to keep their artefacts, bangles, and other metal objects.

Apart from storing their artefacts, whenever a clan wanted to fight another clan, they would look for a tree and hang their weapons of war (arrows, quivers, spears, cudgels, knives, bow protectors, etc). Such trees were given the name Pɛintɛre tia/tissi (meaning “warfare trees”), e.g. Akunvuke Tua (in Kumbosigo) and Ayeleya-ah-voga (in Yipala). In both cases, prayers and sacrifices of animals and birds were performed on such chosen trees with the aim of enticing the tree to help them defeat their enemies.

At some intervals, the head of the group or family would approach the tree and put a little of whatever they ate or drank on the tree stem. This chosen tree was later bound round with calco and surrounded by heaps of moderately sized stones. At some point of time, every generation came to know the religious significance of the tree as did other extended families. It was regarded as the village guardian, which protected people and cattle from disease.

No one dared to disturb these trees. Animals, reptiles, birds, etc. that came to live in the area were not disturbed because they were the dead parents who have come back in that form.

In the course of time, when the land could no longer survive the expanded population, the group was compelled to split again. Some travelled to create new trees and farmlands for themselves. Others remained close to the old sites.

When anything of which the cause was unknown happened, the soothsayer was approached for an explanation. The soothsayer would identify the old tree as the source of their problem and will prescribe some small sacrifice to ward off the wraths of the tree spirits that disturb them. The prescription was unanimously followed by all the lineages of the community, no matter their relationship with the group that settled there first.

To a later generation, the tree which was set aside for sacrifice was known by them as Yaba-tia (ancestral tree). In the course of time several trees grew around the Yaba-tia. But the original tree was singled out as the greatest of all the trees that circled it. This gave it the name “tingane.”

In another explanation, some trees usually spring up from the graves of diseased chiefs or the founders of clans. In those days when the head of a family or a chief died, he was buried inside the family compound while the less prominent members were buried outside. His successors were also [buried] beside his grave. In this case, the family of the diseased will endeavor to set up a pot at the base of the tree. And a metal, usually iron, is placed on the top of the lid, the pot being the object with which the diseased was identified during his lifetime. During one of my field surveys in 1986, I was shown a number of trees that sprouted from the graves of diseased chiefs. Such trees are known by names of the dead chiefs.



During times of distress, libation offerings are made to the trees. The actual place of sacrifice is usually a flat stone on which the blood of the victim is poured and the feathers of the birds stuck. Some of the trees have at their bases piles of roundish stones of various sizes and texture.

When travelling around the Gurensi communities, one would notice trees around which rags have been tied, evidently for some religious purposes. The tree may be one which the soothsayer has identified as the one around which the family should be built. This is a Yaba-tia by implication. In the majority of cases, the Yaba-tissi and tingana proper have been founded based on the belief that people’s ancestors have taken residence in trees (Avea in Vea), boulders (Agongobono in Gowrie), mountains (Apusariga in Bongo), ponds (Asabia in Sumbrungu) and rivers (Yarigatanga in Gowrie).

Furthermore, the origin of some tingana and Yaba-tissi is often traced to some event in the past, in which the tree has aided the pioneer settler or creator. There are some tinagana that have been created at the instigation of a soothsayer who may have detected some evil influence that prompted the distressed man to consult the soothsayer. In this case, the sudden appearance of bats, egrets, python snakes, and a particular tree near a compound are indications that the tree is a tingane, e.g. Azorebisi in Sumbrungu and Gungaranabisi in Vea.

If an ancestral spirit takes refuge in let’s say a baobab tree, ebony tree, ficus, Tamarindus indica and so on, which stands close to a house or far away in another clan, all lineages associated with it will observe it with special reverence and veneration.

A great number of Gurensi names are derived from Yaba-tissi and tingana. The common names given during child birth are Atua (derived from the baobab tree), Apusiga (derived from the Tamarindus, Akinkanga,derived from the ficus tree) and Atingane (a name sought from the Earth-God).


5. The Nature, Form, Appearance, and Characteristics of Sacred Trees (Tingana)

5.1 The Nature and Form of Tingana

During a survey of the tingana in the Bongo and Bolgatanga divisions of the Frafra district in 1986, I observed that [the] majority of them appeared in the form of [a] collection of trees (groves) or some piles of stones. A few were some large holes believed to be the dwelling places of the ancestral spirits, tigers, pythons, and other wild animals. Some are tunnels which serve as hiding places for crocodiles.

Among the collections of trees, there is usually one main tree which is worshipped. Some of these trees are decorated with pieces of gray-baths, which in most cases are the gifts of those who have worshipped them.

They are plastered with blood and feathers of birds and animals which have been given to these trees and sacrificed. At the bases of tingana or large holes are found pots and vessels of all sorts and sizes, containing infusions of roots and herbs, which are the medicine to be drunk by those asking the shrines.

Handles of hoes and axes, bones of animals, feathers of birds can also be found scattered over the precincts of the Earth-Gods.

Most of the tingana appear to be dirty and badly kept. They are, in fact, often kept in perfect neglect and are only swept during times of sacrifice.


5.2 Characteristics of Sacred Trees (Tingana)

The following are the characteristics of tingana (tinkuga, Yaba-tissi, and tingana proper). These are all regarded as symbols of clan or lineage unity and cohesion. Because they are believed to contain the soul of the whole community, they represent the ancestors:

a)   The tingana are believed to contain very powerful spirits, some of which perform specific functions

                      i.  For instance, some have miraculous powers of conferring fertility on barren women and the powers of                                  granting good rainfall

                    ii.   Some have the power of determining whether an individual has sworn falsely or an individual accused of                             witchcraft is guilty.

                   iii.   They have the powers of making someone rich by making the person have plenty of children and rise to a                            position of distinction.

b)   There is a widespread belief that whenever a community reaps a bumper harvest, or if in a particular year many of the beneficial trees bear abundant fruit, the livestock increase in number and there is plenty of catch from the rivers, it is from the blessings of the tingana. At the “Mdan Koya” and Bugum (fire) festivals, prayers are offered to the Earth-Gods and ancestors.

c)    Some of the characteristics (although malignant) are that the tingana cause people’s troubles, misfortunes such as cattle diseases, sterility in women, protract labor, and so forth.

d)   There are also situations when the spirit of a particular tingana in a village gains reputation due to the remarkable cures being worked at the shrines. Some are entrusted with the healing of special classes of maladies.

e)    At the commencement of the cultivation of a farm, offerings of fowls and grain are made to the Earth-Gods.

f)     A chief swears by the tingane at his enskinment.


5.4 Taboos Associated with Sacred Trees and Groves

There are many taboos and restrictions pertaining to Gurensi tingana. Some of the taboos are universal and some are only specific to certain tingana coming under the jurisdiction of particular clans.

All people who live within the locality where a tingane is situated are bound by its taboos and obligations.

What I noticed about the tingana is that whether they are large or small, the area around each of them is the domain of the spirits that reside in the trees.

Amongst the common taboos and restrictions pertaining to sacred places are the following:

a)   One must not cut or gather fuel wood from the tingana. And one must not set fire on them. Like totem animals, there is a belief that if anyone is impudent and cuts the dry branches of a tingane or intentionally sets fire to it, he/she may get lost and or not be able to find her/his way back home. In the event of such [an] unfortunate incident, the offender is charged a cow and other customary articles as propitiatory sacrifice to the tingane.

b)   One must not kill any reptile (crocodiles, python snakes, water lizards, monitor lizards, etc.) found within the precincts of a tingane. They are believed to be the children of the Gods.

c)    One must not fish and catch fish from a sacred pond or river, e.g. Asabia (in Sumbrungu) and Abulugu (in Gowrie-Agongobisi). The belief is that, if ignored, the river spirits, in anger, will cause the offender to get drowned.

d)   One must not appropriate any unclaimed iron object found lying on the ground because it is [the] property of the Earth spirit.

e)    Worshippers as well as petitioners must not approach the tingana with sandals or clothes on the body.

f)     It is forbidden for a woman to perform sacrifices to a tingane.

g)   No food preparation meant for the spirits of the earth must contain pepper.

h)   One must not farm close to [a] sacred grove.


5.6 Procedures for Petitioning a Tingane for Help

The practice among the traditional Gurensi is that when one fails to achieve his goals in life he will resort to the tingane for help. The tingane could be located in the person’s own village or outside it.

A ritual covenant which is made by a person to a particular tingane or even a Yaba-tia, whether by day or night, is spoken as: “A binge la noore” (which literally means “he has put down a mouth”).

For instance, when a man is unable to have children or he wants a job or he wants to rise to a top position in his place of work or he wants to become a village chief, he will approach some known tingane or Yaba-tia, which he will see as likely to receive his prayers and will establish a covenant with it.

People travel far and wide to some known tingana to seek their assistance.

The procedure (this may vary with each petitioner) to follow in establishing a covenant with a tingane may be the following:

·      The distressed person will approach the tingane of his/her choice and lay down what is worrying him/her while promising something in the form of a fowl, a sheep, a dog, a goat, a cow and so forth if his/her petition is answered.

·      The gift to be given – say a bird or an animal – is usually identified with colors and can be red, black, or white.

·      Later when the petition is granted, the person follows up to the designated priest or to the tindaana in charge of the particular tingane and present him with the gifts promised to the tingane.

·      Before giving out the gifts, the petitioner will narrate the reasons and the circumstances that compelled him to seek the help of the tingane.

·      When the tindaana receives the items, he will in turn kill the animals and pour the blood on the tingane. When their meat is roasted or boiled, some specific parts such as the thigh, liver, intestines, stomach, etc. are cut and placed on the object of worship.

·      The rest are consumed by those who may be around to see the sacrifice. It is forbidden for the petitioner to partake in the food and meat. Even if the petition is made on his behalf by a father or a relative, they must not eat the meat. At times, when the petitioner makes a promise of a live animal, after obtaining his desire, he will pull the animal to the tingane and leave it there for the spirits to consume.

·      By implication he has fulfilled his promise and the tingane has also accepted the offer.

The belief is that when a petitioner fulfills his obligations to the tingane by acting promptly to its request or he/she is able to honor his/her promise, he/she will receive the needed protection.

If, on the other hand, the petitioner fails to meet her/his obligations to the tingane, this constitutes a deceit, which, of course, is a sin. This failure of a moral obligation to a tingane can lead to a strain of relationship and the withdrawal of protection and help.

The most common punishment, of which I am aware, for those who fail to honor their obligations, in accordance with a covenant made with a tingane, are madness, diseases of all kinds, and deaths in a family.

There is a story which I secured from some old men during my visit to a village under Bolgatanga. According to this story, some man could not get any recognition from the people in his town because he was childless. As a result of public ridicule, teasing, etc. the man decided to approach an influential tingane in Gowrie called Abongo and promised it a goodly gift if she would make him get a child so that he can gain respect. Fortunately, few months later his wife became pregnant and brought forth a baby boy. This child grew up and became the chief of his town. Both the man and his son became important persons in the town.

The man had promised the tingane a black cow every year.

The man derived his son’s name from the tingane, Abongo, and so the name Abongo-So or Abongo. There are also names such as Atongo derived from the Tongnab fetish.

According to another belief, in the olden days when the Gurensi wanted to undertake a war with a neighboring village, they would sacrifice a black cow to the tingane and their ancestors and prayed: “Behold a sacrifice for you. When we go to the battlefield be our keeper and help us defeat our enemies.” The natives maintain that such strategy has never failed them and the majority of them believe it openly.        



[1] The Mother Earth (tingane) is a goddess, who is petitioned to bless fields and houses. Sacrifices are offered to her at the festival of the dead.

Christopher Anabila 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.