NaJeringa Defense Wall

Built in the mid-1700s by a legendary Mamprusi king to defend the capital of Nalerigu, the ruins of this wall still stand today.

Often called Nalerigu’s “Slave Defense Wall,” there is a lot of mystery and myth surrounding why and how it was built.

History of the Nalerigu Defense Wall

NaJeringa (Naa Gyɛriŋŋa) was a Mamprusi king who reigned around 1740-1752. [1] He was the son of NaAtabia (Naa Atabiya) who is known for moving the chieftaincy from Gambaga to Nalerigu. [2]

At some point after his enskinment in the mid-18th century, NaJeringa commenced this massive project to build a wall around the western side of Nalerigu. It is said to have been originally 11 feet high, though now what remains is about 6 feet at its highest point.

We don’t know for sure why NaJeringa built the Nalerigu wall, but there are a few theories:

  • It was a defensive wall to fortify the capital of Nalerigu due to civil wars. NaJeringa’s father Atabia had reigned for 50 years and fought many wars. [1]
  • It was built to keep out hyenas. [3]
  • NaJeringa built it so that his name would be remembered because his only son had only one eye and was therefore disqualified from becoming a king. [4]
  • It was a defensive wall against slave raiders. The mid-18th century was the peak of the slave trade on West Africa’s coast.[5] Raiders would come up from the south to raid communities in the north and kidnap innocent civilians. Then would then march them south and sell them to European and American buyers. [6]

The Legend of the Wall

Nalerigu Defense Wall

In addition to the legend of the king’s lineage being unable to continue due to his only son’s missing eye, there are some other mythical stories about the wall.

While it is made of mud and gravel, some people claim that shea butter, honey, milk [2, 4], or even pito (local beer) [3] were added to the mixture as binding agents.

It is also said that wall was built by forced labor. Anyone who refused to work or because tired or ill during its construction was executed and their body was added to the wall. [2]

Visiting the Wall

The NaJeringa Wall is easy and free to visit. It is located just off to the right of the main road into Nalerigu on the west side of the town’s reservoir. There is no physical sign marking it but it can be found on Google Maps. It is located among an orchard of mango trees which were planted around it in recent decades to prevent erosion.

Please do not climb on or break pieces off of the wall. It is very old and in a fragile state!

Educational Video

This informational video was produced by William Haun in collaboration with TV Afrik

Location

Discrepancies in Dating the Nalerigu Defense Wall

One will often see information about the Nalerigu Defense Wall being built in the 16th century. This dating is based on an estimate that was made by Dr. Oliver Davies in the 1960s. [7] At the time there had been 18 kings since NaJeringa and he had estimated its age based on an average reign of 20 years (360 years).

However, there were several paramount chiefs in the 20th century that reigned for very short periods of time thus making his estimate inaccurate. Even R. S. Rattray noted that he met a man in Gambaga who had been alive through seven paramount chiefs whose reigns only spanned 65-80 years [3] (page 458). That’s a much lower average reign.

Additionally, historians have written evidence that NaAtabia died in Nalerigu in 1741, which means his successor NaJeringa would have taken the skins around 1742. [8]

Historical Resources

Oral Tradition

NaJeringa’s throne name means “viper” (gyɛriŋŋa), a particularly aggressive and venomous snake that will hiss and puff itself up when agitated. There is a Mampruli poem that children are taught to remember the story of NaJeringa. This poem reinforces the war theory as well as the legend that NaJeringa wanted his name to be remembered.

MampruliEnglish
Gyɛrimbeaa fuusiya sɔkpaŋŋa.
Ka sufu du tisi ka napɔnkpaasi du taaba.
Nini nyaya ka niŋŋa kpi zuga.

Tɔptuusiriba ŋmɛ n-kpɛ na,
N-nya goomni n yɛnni zoori
Gyɛriŋŋbeaa ka’ali soori.
Doo kuli ya ka u yuuri ku bɔrigi.
Wicked viper puffed by the road.
The heart rises and the heels jump together.
The eyes see and the body goes limp.

Warriors fought and came
And saw the wall and said it was a mountain.
The wicked viper had blocked the way.
The man has gone home but his name will not be lost.

Excerpt from Salifu Wundow’s “Mamprusi Beginnings” (1992) [2]

Naa Atabiya kum nyaaŋŋa, u bii Yamusa, Naa Gyɛriŋŋa, n daa zinni u gbana maa ni. Naa Gyɛriŋŋa daa mɛ la goomni n-gyiligi Naaleerigu nti ta’ai u niriba zaŋŋi n-kyaŋŋi u dindaandima zugu. Naa Gyɛriŋŋa daa kyɛka u niriba zaa la’am la tanni, siiri ni kpaam ka ba daa zaŋŋi a m-paasi m-mɛ goomni maa. Goomni maa ka ti boonni “BIRIN GOOMNI” la. [9]

Naa Gyɛriŋŋa bii yinni Alaasani daa mari la daŋŋa, ka lala zugu daa ku kyɛka u paai u ba yiri. Naa Gyɛriŋŋa ŋɔn daa baŋŋi lala maa, u daa zaŋŋi u n-diisi la Wuŋŋu. Ŋɔn daa n nyɛ WunNaaba Alaasani la. U daa na zaŋŋi u bii yinni yaasa, Fuseeni, n-diisi Kurugu.


Naa Gyɛriŋŋa gba daa ka ni la Naaleerigu.

————————–
After NaAtabiya’s death, his son Yamusa, NaJeringa, sat on his skins. NaJeringa built a wall around Nalerigu to protect his people from his enemies. NaJeringa had his people gather dirt, honey, and shea butter [literally, oil] and they added it to the wall. The wall was called “Birin Goomni.”[9]

Alaasani, one of NaJeringa’s sons, had a wound and because of it he couldn’t attain his father’s post. When NaJeringa realized this, he took him and enskinned him “Wungu.” He then became WunNaaba Alaasani. He likewise took his other son Fuseini and enskinned him as Kurugu.

NaJeringa also died in Nalerigu.
————————– Translation by William Haun

Excerpt from R.S. Rattray’s 1932 “Tribes of the Ashanti Hinterlands, Vol. ii”, page 547 [3]

Atabea’s son, Yamusa (alias Na Jarena, Red Snake), succeeded his father. He built the wall round the town of Naleregu because he did not wish hyenas to enter it. The clay with which the walls were built was mixed with honey and beer which he made his subjects bring. He sent North, South, East, and West and collected one thousand girls and one thousand youths and paired them off in huts and gave them clothes, but said they need not do any work. One of his sons, Asani, became Chief of Wunu; another son, Shaene, was made Chief of Kurugu. Yamusa died and was buried in his house at Naleregu.

Excerpt from Dr. Anthony Naden’s “Small Texts” (GILLBT)

NaaGyɛriŋŋa doo yɛla ka teaari. Ŋɔn daa kyɛ ka ba mɛ goomni n-gyiligi Naleerigu. Goomni maa na zɛ lugaluga n-gyiligi ka, kani ka ba boonni ‘Birimi’ la. Bɔ n daa lee n-kyɛ ka ba mɛ ka maa?;

U daa mari la biiya, bii maa min daa mari la nimbiri yinni. Ŋmampurigu kaari, nimbiri yinni daana bu diri naam. Dinzugu ka u daa dooni n-teesi nti gbaari la goomni maa meebu.

Ba yɛliya, ni, ŋɔn daa mɛ goomni maa nti yɛnni, ni, u gyɛ ni; ba daa yi zaŋŋi u ni n-gyɛri tanni maa ni m-paasi m-mɛa. Tanni, ni siiri, ni bisim ka ba daa zaŋŋi m-mɛ goomni maa. Ka na zɛ pampaŋŋɔ n-gyiligi Birimi.  

————————–
Chief Jeringa is famous man. He had them build a wall around Nalerigu. A wall still stands in places surrounding it, the one they call ‘Birmi’.[9] What happened that caused this wall to be built?

He had a son, and the son only had one eye. In the custom of Mampurugu, a one-eyed person cannot be chief. And he lay down and thought and formed the plan of building the wall.

They say that anyone who built the wall and then said he was tired, they would take him and mix him with the ‘sand’ and build. They used mud, honey and milk in the building.

To this very day it still stands today around Birimi.
————————– Translation by Tony Naden, William Haun

Notes by Dr. Oliver Davies, circa 1960s [7]

NALERIGU WALL

The wall was built in 10 years during the chieftainship of NAJARINJA. It is said that he had 333 wives but only 3 children; wishing to perpetuate his name, he decided to build this wall. So he called in people from all over his kingdom, which is said to have extended as far as Navrongo and Wa.


The present chief (NAYIRI) of Mamprusi is the 18th since Najarinja; assuming average reigns of 20 years, the wall would date to circa 1600.

The wall encircled Nalerigu and was heavily fortified during the civil wars. Maintenance was abandoned during the reign of Nabariga who was chief for 29 years, and still in office when the British arrived. So the abandonment started circa 1890.

The wall is built of swish with gravel insertions. Shea butter and honey are said to have been used to bind it instead of water, apparently to enhance the chief’s prestige. There was a ditch outside, now no longer visible. The wall seems to have been built on foundations about 6′ wide. Most of it is now only 2′ high, but on short stretches it still reaches 8′. It is said to have originally been 11′ feet high. … some kind of plaster of which no trace remains. It is said that anyone…

“The Nalerigu Walls” from D. St. John-Parsons’ Legends of Northern Ghana (1958)

The most famous Nayire (Paramount Chief of the Mamprusis) was probably Naa-Dzaringa. He had one great sorrow; his only son had one eye, which, by tribal law, prevented him from ever becoming Nayire.

Naa-Dzaringa was a great warrior, and won many battles. But he knew that, when he died, his name might be forgotten. So he made up his mind to build himself a monument by which he might be remembered for ever. One day he called his elders and said to them :

“You know that I have been a great chief, and that my armies have gained many victories. Even so, we are still surrounded by enemies. NaaAtabiya, who reigned before me, also won many battles; and those he defeated would like to take revenge. Our enemies would like to take our town of Nalerigu. To help to keep them out, I am going to build a wall to enclose the town. This will be a fortress against our enemies, and it will also be a monument to me, Naa-Dzaringa, so that my name will not die “

The elders listened, and then the senior said, “You speak good words, O chief. Let us build the wall and when our children look at it in years come, they will say, ‘That is the wall of Naa Dzaringa.'”

So the chief ordered his slaves and captives to begin the building of the wall. He sent out messages, too, for his people in the surrounding country to come and help. Of course they could not all come at once, for the farms had to be cultivated and the cattle tended, and the hunters still had to find meat. So the Nayire organised the people in groups, each group working for a short time.

Naa-Dzaringa wanted the walls to be very strong, so they were built of laterite, shea-butter, sand, milk and honey. The walls were very thick at the base, but became less wide at the top. The Nayire was a very strict ruler, and he wanted the walls built quickly. One day he heard a worker say to the overseer, ” I am so tired. Let me rest for a while.”

The Nayire strode forward and in a terrible voice cried, ”Your request is granted. You need never work again. Guards, seize this lazy man, bind him with ropes, and build him into the wall. There he shall rest for ever.” The man fell on his knees. “Mercy, mercy, great chief,” he implored. But the Nayire had no mercy, and he stood watching while the man was bound taken to the wall, and buried in the the foundations.

After this nobody ever complained of feeling tired. Even so, if the Nayire saw anybody not working hard enough, he would order the unfortunate man to be buried in the wall.

When the great wall was finished the chief had strong wooden gates built into it. These gates were guarded by soldiers. From dawn to sunset the gates were open, ‘ but at night they were shut and barred. The Mamprusi people could pass in and out freely, but any stranger was taken prisoner. If he was found to be a spy, he was put to death. If, however, he had a good reason for leaving his tribe he was allowed to stay in Nalerigu; but he could not leave the town again without the Nayire’s permission.

Naa-Dzaringa’s wall was very well built. If you go to Nalerigu to-day you can still see the foundations, and in several places the wall is still over six feet high.

Note: D. St. John-Parsons was a British Secondary School Master in Tamale in the 1950s. He notes that he collected the legends from his school children in the Northern Region. Occasionally he mentions a specific source, but in the case of “The Nalerigu Walls” he does not give one.

References

[1] Davis, David C. “THE MOSQUE AND THE MARKETPLACE: AN EIGHTEENTH CENTURY ISLAMIC RENAISSANCE IN WEST AFRICA.” Islamic Studies, vol. 35, no. 2, 1996, pp. 135–163.

[2] Wundow, Salifu., Ŋmampurugu Piiligu Yala. Tamale: GILLBT Press, 1992

[3] Rattray, R. S. The Tribes of the Ashanti Hinterland, Vol ii,. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932, p.547

[4] Davis, David C., “Themes in History of Dagban and Mamprugu”, 1979

[5] Between 1701 and 1800, over 625,000 slaves were sold and shipped from the Gold Coast. Source: https://www.slavevoyages.org/voyage/database

[6] The town of Gwollu in the Upper East Region has a similar wall built in the 19th century as a defense against slave raiders (particularly Samori and Babatu). It is often confused with the Nalerigu wall and may be why some assume the Nalerigu wall was built for the same reason.

[7] Personal notes at Ghana Museum and Monuments Board by archaeologist Oliver Davies from his time of service in Gold Coast from 1951-1966.

[8] Kitab Ghanja is an 18th century Arabic chronicle that notes that in 1741 or 1742, “Atabya, the king of GhBGh (Gambaga) died. It is said that he reigned fifty-odd years.” Original Arabic published with translation is available from Cambridge Univ. Press.

[9] “Birni” means “walled town” in Hausa

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