In a small community near the Ghana-Burkina Faso border stands one of the only two remaining slave defense walls in Ghana. This historical monument in the Ghana’s town of Gwollu is a reminder of the dark history and dangers of the slave trade in the remote northern “hinterlands.”
The History Behind Gwollu’s Slave Defense Wall
While Nalerigu’s famous wall was built in the 18th century (and probably for different reasons), Gwollu’s was erected in the 19th century; this was decades after the slave trade was abolished in 1807 in the United States and England. While the transatlantic slave trade had (almost) come to a complete stop, there was still a demand within West Africa and local slave raiders were still an issue. The regions that form today’s northern Ghana were plagued by raids from two particularly notorious war lords named Babatu and Samori.
In response to their incessant attacks, the Sisalla chief Gwollu Koro Limann built the wall – actually a double-ringed wall – to protect the town. The thick inner wall protected the homes in the community and a second outer wall encircled their farms and water sources.
The wall was built voluntarily by the community (unlike Naa Jeringa’s wall in Nalerigu) and it was built of simple, yet sturdy, mud & grass bricks. Triangular spaces were left in the wall to allow lookouts to see through. According to oral tradition, each wall took two to three years to build and was a success a deterring the raids.
Visiting the Gwollu Slave Defence Wall in West Sissala District
The biggest obstacle to tourism in Gwollu is its remote location and lack of infrastructure. It’s about as far north and close to the Burkina Faso border as you can get in Ghana. Only three of the other 253 districts capitals are farther north – Paga, Bawku, and Pusiga.
The easiest way to reach this town (“easiest” being a relative term) is from Navrongo to Tumu to Gwollu. That’s about 150km of driving and the roads are so bad that it will take 4-5 hours. If you aren’t in a private vehicle and take local buses and trotros, I imagine you’re looking at nearly 8+ hours of travel with all the stops, waiting and delays.
When visiting, one must first greet the chief and request permission for a tour. If you’re lucky you can have a chat with the very amicable chief and learn a bit about the history and the community. A small donation is requested for the upkeep of the structure and a libation offering may be suggested (but not required) for the grave of former president Dr. Hilla Limann which is located inside the chief’s compound. Photographs are permitted of the slave wall but one must ask permission to shoot within the chief’s palace as there are several shrines and tombs that are off limits.
Preserving the Slave Wall
In addition to seeing and photographing this important historical site in Ghana’s north, I was also interested in finding out how the community came to protect it. As the images show, a portion of the wall is fenced and covered; protecting it from rain and animals and, frankly, humans too! Nalerigu’s own historic defense wall is crumbling and in ruin. I am very interested in duplicating the success of Gwollu to preserve Naa Gyɛriŋŋa wall.
The first thing I noticed that is favorable to the Gwollu wall’s preservation is that it is located immediately next to the chief’s palace. That means it is constantly under the watch of the community leader. Nalerigu’s wall is located on the outskirts of town with very little traffic around it. Without watchful eyes, it has been susceptible to damage.
On my visit I met with Kuoru Kuri-Buktie Limann IV, the Paramount Chief of Gwollu. He told me that in the mid-2000s US Ambassador to Ghana Pamela Bridgewater visited the site and pledged funds to protect and preserve the site. Through the Ghana Museum and Monuments Board, the US Embassy funded the construction of the fence and roof.
On the one hand, I was glad that my country contributed in this way to preserve the Gwollu wall. However, I was also disappointed to discover that it wasn’t a grassroots endeavor initiated by the local community. The idea of owning, protecting and preserving historical artifacts is a challenge all across West Africa. People living in poverty have more pressing needs that they prioritize.
I’m always reminding myself and other Westerners that before we judge, we should realize that preserving historical monuments is a luxury that we enjoy in the West. I’m so grateful for my own country’s incredible National Park Service that preserves and protects our historical treasures as well as educates future generations about our heritage. I hope that one day GMMB doesn’t have to depend on foreign aid to protect and preserve Ghana’s national treasures and can educate all Ghanaians about the incredible heritage they have in their hands.
 Natalie Swanepoel wrote a wonderfully detailed article entitled “Living with Heritage: The Potentials of and Pressures on the Heritage Landscape of Gwollu, Upper West Region, Ghana” about the challenge of encouraging the community of Gwollu to care for their rich archeological treasures in the Journal of Field Archaeology (Vol. 35).