FEATURE: Festival of Sandema

In December every year since time immemorial, the chiefs and people of the Builsa Traditional Area in Ghana‘s Upper East Region celebrate their annual ‘‘Feok´´ festival at Sandema. Last December‘s durbar was both impressive and colourful, with chiefs richly dressed in their traditional smocks, amulets and talisman-clad headgear adding grace to the occasion.

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In attendance were people from far and near, including the Vice President of the Republic of Ghana, Alhaji Aliu Mahama, some Ministers of State, American Peace Corps Volunteers, tourists and other expartriates. Of course there were bouts of customary drumming and dancing, but what thrilled the audience most was the popular war dance.

The story of Feok is of great historical significance as it affects the destinies of millions of people not only in Ghana but also across the African continent and in the diaspora. The festival is celebrated to commemorate the defeat of Zambarima slave raiders led by a man named Babatu, by the ancestors of Builsa in the 1880s.

By simple translation, ‘‘feok´´ in the local Buli dialect means abundance of food. In this context, then, the festival becomes one of thanksgiving by which the people of the area express thanks to God, their ancestors and the earth shrines for seeing them through a successful farming season.

The climax of the celebration is a public gathering or durbar bringing together chiefs, war dances and singing groups from the surrounding villages in the Builsa area. The festival commences with the pouring of libation to invoke the presence of the ancetors and the shrines of the land for an uneventful and peaceful celebration.

This is followed by speeches by the Paramount Chief of the Traditional Area and key dignitaries present, interspersed by a variety of traditional musical performances. War dances representing various villages are given the stage to perform Armed with shields, spears, short axes, bows and arrows, they re-enact battle scenes from yester-year. Scenes of resistance and the eventual defeat of the marauding warriors of Babatu.

The Man Babatu

In the annals of Northern Ghana, Babatu stands out for his prolonged career in slave raids and his prominent role in the history of the slave trade in the then Northern Territories. Historical sources indicate that Babatu hailed from Indunga in present-day Niger Republic. Recruiting Hausa, Fulani, Moshie and Grunshie fighters, he embarked on a conquering spree. Within a short time, the area stretching from Ouagadougou in the north to the present-day Northern Region of Ghana fell under his sword.

However, the tide turned against him when he entered Builsaland. He and his warriors suffered a decisive defeat in the hands of the Builsa in the Battle of Fiisa, thus bringing to an end his two-decade career. (Fiisa is the name of a suburb of Sandema where the battle was fought).

Following this defeat, Babatu fled the Builsa area and took refuge at Yendi near Tamale in the Northern Region, where he eventually died. Thus ended the life of the notorious Zambarima slave raider whose name became synonymous with the infamous human trade in Ghana‘s Northern Territories.


Feok has become the most important traditional event among the people of Builsa in recent times, providing them with a true sense of identity and solidarity. This is in direct contrast to what pertained in earlier years during which Builsa society was characterized by mistrust, petty rivalry and intra-clan conflicts (a situation that rendered them weak, vulnerable and easy prey for slave raiders).

The festival has become a rallying point; an occasion that brings the people together annually, providing for them a convenient forum to express their collective opinion on important issues such as those embodied in the address delivered by the Sandem-Nab. ‘‘When we meet each year to remind ourselves of the courage and bravery of our ancestors, we are at the same time drawing upon our spiritual and physical strengths to meet modern day challenges that have replaced slavery,´´ declared the aged and venerable Nab Ayieta Azantilow, Paramount Chief of the Builsa Traditional Area, at last December‘s Feok celebration. ‘‘In place of Babatu and Samori, we have the twin brothers of HIV/AIDS and underdevelopment to contend with,´´ he continued adding that the challenges facing Builsa today are more formidable than maurading slave raiders.

The significance of Feok is not confined to the natives of Builsa alone, as some foreigners also view it as an event that connects them to the past. Most African-Americans for example, as well as other people of African descent outside the Continent, regard it as an occasion that enables them to come to terms with history and to identify more easily with their African origins. To the increasing number of them who attend the festival each year, Feok depicts victory over the collaborators of slave merchants. It is, indeed, a veritable story of emancipation.

Sources at the Sandem-Nab‘s palace relate that a growing number of expartriate and local scholars have been interviewing the Paramount Chief and his elders about the festival in recent times. Which lends credence to the assertion that Feok is rapidly catching the attention of the larger world public. This also brings into focus the tourism aspect of the festival.

Builsaland abounds with important landmarks of the slave trade era. There are the Fiisa Shrine consulted by the ancestors of the people before going to war in ancient times, the slave market at Doninga, swords, spears and other artifacts left behind by slave raiders, and many more attractions that would fascinate visitors both local and foreign. Unfortunately, however, this dimension of the festival has not been given the required level of development and publicity even though it is one area that is capable of generating revenue to help alleviate poverty among the inhabitants.

Any lessons to be drawn from Feok? Oh yes. With determination, unity of purpose and love for their nation, Ghanaians as a people can overcome the difficulties they are presently going through. The same way as the people of Builsa came together to defeat Babatu‘s army and redeem their land from the ever-present threat and insecurity posed by slave raiders.
Write the author:missahaq@africanewsanalysis.com