The New Dakpema

We had just finished our tour of the leather workshop in Zongo, when we heard the sound of drumming, quickly coming closer. And was that a gun shot? Hafiz, our de-facto guide for the day, ran over excitedly to us… “Let’s hurry! We can see the new Dakpema!” We followed him out to the main street, and ran smack dab into the most insane parade we’ve ever seen.


Much later, after the parade had ended and the dust (or musket powder) had settled, we quizzed Hazif, and learned that Tamale’s Dakpema is basically an unofficial chief, and cross-tribal leader of the town. The position is passed down ancestrally, and probably more respected among the townspeople than the government itself. Rather than put their trust in a court, the various tribes instead rely upon the Dakpema to mediate their disputes.

The previous Dakpema had died eight months prior, and only now was his son officially ready to take his place. A huge crowd was on-hand to escort him and his wife to the Dakpema Palace. Gorgeous and slender, with her head covered in white chalk and wearing sunglasses, the Dakpema’s wife rode on the shoulders of one of the larger celebrants, and looked as though she had emerged straight out of a music video. The Dakpema himself rode alternately upon shoulders and in a carriage, waving to the crowd, and occasionally shooting off a musket.

He was not the only one with a musket. This was a popular celebration item among the crowd, and each deafening boom made me jump. Those who weren’t carrying guns were waving machetes, or crowbars, or handsaws. And those who weren’t wielding some sort of weapon were carrying a freshly slaughtered animal across their shoulders, a chicken or a goat, its neck freshly sliced open and blood still gushing from the wound.


Painfully aware that we were the only white guys and the only non-Muslims in this crowd, we took a deep breath and joined in the procession, emotions wavering between terror and excitement, and followed it all the way to the Dakpema Palace. Here, the musket firing took on new intensity, as the new chief and his wife circled the grounds three times, before disappearing inside the complex with their court.

As the crowd dispersed, taking their dead goats and murderous weapons with them, we started to breathe again, not realizing until that moment how tense we had been. It’s understandable, of course. Even if we had known about the new Dakpema and had been warned to expect a crazy parade, this experience would have been intense. But having wandered into it by chance, without any chance to prepare mentally … it was a lot. We’d need some time to process what exactly had just happened. I’m still not sure we’ve recovered.

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