Africa / Community Tourism / Ghana

An Audience with the Chief

Chief Zotentaar-Suhbazaa of Tengzuk sits beneath a vast baobab, squinting at us through his orange-tinted aviators. He is an extraordinarily powerful and respected man, as his entourage and his ceremonial walking stick suggest, and so, presumably, does the neon-streaked beach towel he has draped casually around his neck; a warming, Western cape defying the stifling desert heat and the fact we are 600km from the sea.

The chief of Tengzuk, Tongo, Ghana

The Chief of Tengzuk with his entourage. His brother is on the left, and the guardian of the shrines on the right. His interpreter, in the football shirt, sits at his feet.

We have come to enjoy an audience with him, to find out more about what life as a chief in modern day Ghana entails. Half of the village has turned out too, yet they are not here to observe the Chief, but us – a group of visitors from the UK. As we watch the Chief, cameraphones are pointed in our direction, and the villagers snap away, gazing at our exoticness.

Tradition and modernity bump  into each other constantly in this dusty little village close to the border with Burkina Faso. While mud compounds remain the architecture of choice in Ghana’s Upper East Region, aluminium roofs have gradually replaced the traditional palm leaf thatch, which needs replacing every few years. But not here in Tengzuk; to the Tallensi people, aluminium roofs are taboo, and the palm thatch of the circular huts signifies strong ties with the Chief. In fact, the village looks much as it must have done many centuries ago, when the labyrinthine compounds standing against a backdrop of boulder-strewn hills would have offered a hiding place for those fleeing slave traders. In the clearings, beside the compound walls, hanging outside the huts, are shrines – places of sacrifice, where many a chicken, guinea fowl or goat has been slaughtered. Clumps of feathers stick to the tops of these shrines, fluttering in the dusty harmattan breeze. Streaks of dried blood stain the mud walls, a gruesome reminder of the sacrifices made to ensure a good harvest, sufficient food, a swift recovery from illness. The names of ancestors must be mentioned before drinking water at the shrine to ensure your request is granted. These shrines – and the assurances offered by them – are pivotal in the Chief’s role and his influence in Tengzuk; he does not personally provide food for the village’s six thousand inhabitants but through the shrines, which allow him to communicate directly with the spirits and the ancestors, he can ensure they are well fed.

Inside the Chief of Tengzuk's compound, Ghana, wife

Inside the Chief’s compound. Blood streaks down the wall beneath a shrine.

Sacrificial shrines, fetishes, northern Ghana, chief's compound

One of the many sacrificial shrines around the compound and the village

Sitting in a semi circle around the tree, around the Chief and his entourage, we are greeted with zaare – ‘welcome’, and are invited to ask  the Chief questions about his role. We learn that chiefs here must earn their position; it is not hereditary. Our chief has been in his role for eight years, having assumed power aged 75, following the death of his predecessor. Given Ghana’s relatively low life expectancy, I can imagine how reaching such a great age alone might earn you the respect of your neighbours. But the respect given to the chief is not just down to his title or his longevity. In Ghana, he explains to us, money does not equal wealth; you don’t gain respect for being a rich man. Your wealth is counted by the number of people you are responsible for, the impact you have on other people’s lives. We visitors ponder this thought, and murmur in agreement; it sounds like a respectable way to form judgements about someone – in order to gain wealth, you must behave responsibly toward others.

But as it turns out, the Chief isn’t simply referring to his ‘subjects’ in Tengzuk, to his support for their harvests, his presiding over their disagreements. He has 22 ‘official’ wives; an impressive number even in this polygamous society. And when we ask how many children he has, he shrugs. I’d asked men in Ghana about their families before, and had been vaguely amused by their fairly noncommittal answers. One man, when asked how many children he had, replied “about six”. At which point, I wondered, did he lose track?

Chief's wife Tengzuk Tongo Ghana in traditional mud compound

The Chief’s first wife emerges from one of the buildings within his compound. The hut is adorned with a number of cattle jaws and goat skills.

But the Chief doesn’t even attempt to name a figure – though we are told that the local primary school is pretty much kept afloat by the his offspring. The justification for the high number of children isn’t the 22 wives – it works in reverse. He has 22 wives, he tells us, “because one wife could not possibly be expected to produce all the children that are necessary to represent my power.”

This Chief explains that he is one of many chiefs, and he is not even near the top rungs of the hierarchy. But his great number of wives and children, the fact he is responsible for more people than even the highest chief of all, means his status is greatly elevated, and despite being the head of a remote, rural village, his name is known across Ghana. People travel here from across the country – and beyond – to ask him for favours, and to make sacrifices at the shrines, as he is so unusually powerful.

Guardian of the shrines, Tengzuk Tongo northern Ghana

The guardian of the shrines. He may only wear animal skins and loose textiles, never clothes.


His role, he told us, often involves resolving conflicts – between neighbours, or between communities. If a man needs a dowry (usually a hefty four cows) in order to marry , the Chief may step in  to help. He describes himself as the “engine for development in the community” – overseeing local schools, the construction of roads, health initiatives, the provision of water. He is the pivot; the wellbeing of the community revolves around him.

Before we depart to explore his maze-like compound, we present the Chief with a bottle of red wine. Alcohol is the Chief’s preferred gift – along with cash. He beams broadly before eyeing up the bottle, analysing its label, perhaps checking its vintage. I wonder if he will share it over dinner with whichever wife is lucky enough to be the chosen one this evening, though I suspect the many women in his life will be bound up with other chores.

Tallensi chief, Tengzuk, northern Ghana

The Chief approves of his Merlot

Chief Zotentaar-Suhbazaa’s parting wish is that we should consider how best to support him in the ongoing development of Tengzuk – in particular the education and care of the village’s many children, so that they could become as bright and inquisitive and well spoken as the British children that were with us on our visit. The Chief is a very old man, but with an unusual energy for his years, and – despite the fact he is only a chief due to the upholding of very ancient traditions – a keenness to move forward and do what was best for the village. Aluminium might be out but mobile phones are in (he interrupted our meeting more than once to answer his), and while a great number of Tengzuk’s children are the result of his encounters with his 22 wives, he also understands the great need for education – with all the threats this may bring to Tengzuk’s traditional way of life. I liked the Chief. For all his power, he is not a wealthy man, but he does seem determined to put his great authority, his ability to commune with the spirits, and his wide influence to good use. I wish him luck.

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