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The Pottery of Northern Ghana

Anna Craven, ethnographer/independent researcher (Africa, SW Pacific)



The article discusses continuity and change in pottery in Northern Ghana based on the author's collecting field trips one in 1964 and the second in 2007. It considers techniques of manufacture of different pot types and their use for cooking, water carrying and storage, beer brewing, as furniture and for shrines and related functions. Finally it looks at some new developments; in one case an individual maker, Afia Pariba and the SWOPA Project set up as a visitor centre to preserve older ways and market craft products.

Key words: Ghana pottery; pottery as furniture; SWOPA; National Museum Accra




In 1964 I made a collection of pottery from villages and markets in the north of Ghana for the University of Ghana Department of Archaeology. It was to form the basis for comparison with archaeological material. In 2006 on a visit to Ghana and the department, I found the collection stored away and on revealing its existence, was asked by the head of department, Dr Kodzo Gavua, if I would return to make another collection. A grant awarded by the British Academy enabled me to do this in September/October 2007, forty-three years after the first. (Fig.1) I also learnt by chance that a colleague, Barbara Priddy, had made a collection in the north (and elsewhere in Ghana) during the 1970s when she was working for the National Museum in Accra. Both she and I fortunately kept copies of some of our notes and a few photographs. From these, other ethno-linguistic accounts, and the three collections of pots, it should be possible with a detailed photographic study of the pots to produce a useful analysis of pot design in the three regions (Northern, Upper West and Upper East), to relate potting traditions to ethno-linguistic links, and to show how design and construction may have changed or remained the same over forty-odd years.

The aim of this descriptive summary is to make accessible photographs of potters, pots, techniques and markets, from the 1964 and 2007 projects. Time spent in the field in both years was about twenty-eight days, and inevitably not all villages and markets visited were the same. In 2007 I was assisted by graduates Daniel Torbi, who speaks nine Ghanaian languages which enabled him to interview people across the north, using a lengthy questionnaire I had devised, and Eugene Akuamoah who helped with basic documentation. This freed me to record pots in their environment, and to explore the domestic interior world of the women potters to which the men would not have had access. (Fig.2)


Potting traditions in northern Ghana form a continuum with those across the borders into Burkina Faso to the west and north, Ivory Coast to the west and Togo to the east. Languages and people cross these borders (for instance Lobi and Dagaaba into Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast), and traders bring pots to peripheral markets (e.g. Basari traders from Togo to Tatali market, Northern Region). Potting is a specialist skill practised mainly by women, but in 1964 and the 1970s it was also the second profession of men in the Yanga, Busanga and Bimoba ethno-linguistic groups of the north-east, farming being the first. Male potters of those three cultural groups across the border in Togo may be thriving, but in 2007 in the north-east of the Upper East Region of Ghana during our very brief visit to Widana we found only a couple of elderly Yanga men who had retired from potting. Barbara Priddy in her 1970/71 reports describes the techniques of male potters in this area as being very different from those of women, although both might be working in the same communities, as amongst the Bimoba. Unfortunately she had no camera to record the differences.

Over the last forty years the population has grown throughout Ghana to over 20 million people, and access to education has greatly increased, but in the north ‘development', as it affects the prosperity of individual subsistence farmers and their families, is limited. In spite of the Volta hydro-electric scheme, electricity is not universal and often interrupted as the contracted supply to industries in Togo takes precedence; nor is piped water available to every household. The style of house-building has changed in many communities, round mud-walled thatched rooms replaced by rectangular buildings roofed with corrugated iron. A notable exception is the Kusinaab's palace southeast of Bolgatanga with decorated walls. (Fig.3, Fig.4) The pottery of the Kusasi people echoes the traditional buildings with its exuberant designs. (Fig.5) In comparison, on the western side of the north where thatching grass does not grow, the architecture of closely interconnected rectangular rooms with flat roofs of timber and earth persists, with the occasional addition of an iron-roofed building. (Fig.6)


Movement and trade

Pots are acquired by householders from the potters direct, either on commission or immediately after firing, or from the markets which still function in cycles of 3- (Upper East), 6- (Upper West and Northern), or 7-days (exceptions to the others e.g. Nandom, but these towns may have ‘small’ markets during the week). (Fig.7, Fig.8) Some potters sell all their production from home, others sell from home to traders who take the pots to a succession of markets, or potters themselves take items that have not sold at home to the nearest market. Standard household ware is still available in most markets, in larger quantities in the dry season (roughly November to February), when potters are not farming and find it easier to fire their pots. Some of these will have been stock-piled awaiting suitable conditions. (Fig.9) Yanga men in the east did not make pots at all until the dry season when farming had finished (Barbara Priddy, 1970).


In the 1970s Priddy noted certain trade routes for pottery within and between Upper East and Northern Regions, particularly going south up and along the escarpment to Nakpanduri, Nalerigu and Gambaga where there is no clay.1 (Fig.10) In Tamale market we did not see any black ware from the Bolgatanga area which in earlier years was trucked down the main road south. In 2007 throughout the north, all markets we visited had fewer pots on sale of all kinds, in spite of improved transport. Potters can truck their wares into market as long as they can pay the cost, but for many women head-porterage remains their only means, helped by daughters and other members of the compound. Any unsold pots are left in the market area, or with friends nearby, until the next market day. (Fig.11)


Pottery from the south of Ghana does reach the north, but not in any large quantities and restricted, as far as we saw, to pinky-red graters favoured by southerners who live and work in the northern regions seen in Wa market in UWR, and Tatali market on the Togo border. (Fig.12) Barbara Priddy noted a few women potters from the south who had established limited markets in the 1970s (mainly in the east of the Northern Region). We did not come across any.


Pot types

The broad category of household ware found in markets today include round-based cooking pots with and without lids, for the main staple tuo zafi (from the Hausa), a porridge made from maize, millet, or guinea corn flour, or maize flour mixed with cassava flour; smaller round based pots for cooking soup, to be eaten with the ‘TZ’ served in bowls which may have feet. (Fig.13) These compete with large metal ‘cauldrons’ for cooking food (and beer) which some housewives have acquired, but often they stand alongside earthenware cooking pots. These cauldrons with small triangular handles have been available for at least a couple of generations, and are made in Ghana from recycled aluminium, painted to improve the appearance. Prior to independence they were of iron, imported from Europe. It was explained that food tasted better from earthenware pots, but cooking was faster in the metal ones.


Flattish graters for extracting vegetable juice, rougher than their southern counterparts, are not always available in markets but are part of kitchen equipment. (Fig.14) Sieves or strainers are mentioned below. Wide-mouthed bathing bowls are used for washing babies, and smaller ones for hand washing before Moslem prayers. In areas where hearth-pots are used instead of stones to support cooking pots over the fire (Dagaaba area of Upper West), they are available in the market, sold in pairs. (Fig.15, Fig.16) There are pans for roasting shea nuts, multiple-dish griddles (or patty-pans, melaa or mahala) for small cakes of masa, found across the north (Fig.17), flat frying pans (sold in Babile market, Lobi/Dagaaba area), oil lamps (e.g. Dagomba), free-standing coal (or charcoal) pots, and for the large round-based storage pots kept in her room, a woman must have several potstands. Yankawo, head of a compound of Konkomba potters in Kpanjamba village in the eastern part of the Northern Region, had equipped her newly married daughter with some; the daughter also suggested she make her a coal-pot, new to her repertoire so Yankawo felt that this was an innovation. The potstand we bought she repainted with cold vegetable dye. (Fig.18) Potstands are also made by Dagomba potters (e.g. in Kukuo and Jekariyili) available in Tamale market.


Essential in the range of household pottery are the various storage pots, from large to small, for water, pito (local beer brewed from guinea-corn), grain, and shea butter processed in season from shea nuts. Ceramic storage pots do not spoil the taste of drinking water, and so their continued manufacture does not appear to be threatened by plastic containers, which do affect water quality and have no cooling properties. As long as there is no piped water to most rural villages, just the occasional communal standpipe, households have to collect and store water. All married women have in their rooms several water storage pots, or coolers, first acquired on marriage: these do not often need replacing. The Dagaaba build beautiful spherical burnished black pots with relatively narrow mouths which restrict evaporation. (Fig.19) Pito brewing pots are larger; along with big water storage jars they are kept outside in the compound: once positioned they are rarely moved. (Fig.20) One potter estimated such a pot might need to be replaced once a year, but we saw many pots throughout the north which would have been several years old. To supply the water there have to be water-carriers, fairly narrow mouthed to stop the water spilling, but not nearly as large as the storage jars. An elderly Yanga man sold us a pot he had made specifically for training small girls to carry water from the river. (Fig.21)


Pito brewers need plenty of pito servers for their clients: small black globular measures (in the Dagaaba area, UWR) can also be used to accustom small girls to carry water containers on their head. (Fig.22) In the eastern side of the country, however, large plastic containers (some like colourful dustbins), plastic mugs, and calabashes have replaced the more refined pots for pito selling. Potters (in the Konkomba area around Wapuli) failed to teach the younger generation, and as they aged and died, sources of new pito pots became scarce: brewers found they had to walk far to villages in their search for large pito pots. For transporting pito to markets it was much easier to purchase plastic containers which are considerably lighter.


  1. Not confirmed in 2007 as routes were blocked by floods and broken bridges. back to text

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© The copyright of all the images in this article rests with the author unless otherwise stated

The Pottery of Northern Ghana • Issue 10