On my first ever visit to Ghana in 1993, one of DadaK’s ‘sisters’ – possibly a Maame Yaa Version 1 – was assigned to be my guide and escort on a trip to the north of the country. We were aiming for the northern border. We got as far as Tamale (not pronounced like the Mexican snack; both a’s sound more like the ‘a’ in TimTam), about 200ks short of Burkina Faso.
It was a fairly miserable trip. Rose clearly wasn’t interested in any of it and we had a lot of trouble communicating. She also didn’t want me to spend any money, with the result that we stayed in a hotel where I believe you could have fried an egg on the floor at midnight. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so hot in my life, and it was so awful that I canceled my plans to travel further north to Bolgatanga.
It can’t have been all bad, because I do have some good memories. Seeing a man dressed in full desert garb on a camel in the middle of town was a highlight. It was a Friday, there was a big Moslem festival, and he’d come down from somewhere much further north of Ghana to celebrate it. I also came back with some great souvenirs from the markets: a cane fan and hat, a leather bag, a leather cap for DadaK and a batakari, the distinctive coarsely woven striped smock that northerners wear. Anyone whose children attend the same school as our boys has probably seen DadaK wearing that batakari at some point in the last eight years.
It was also my first experience of akosi, fresh from the hot, reddish coloured oil in which a market woman was frying them. Spicy, salty and fluffy, I couldn’t believe they were made of beans. Ghanaian Australian Dorinda Hafner has a recipe for them in her book, Taste of Africa.
I’ve never gone north again on subsequent trips, either because of illness or lack of time, but this time it was a priority. There’s something about going as far as you can, to the boundaries or beyond, that inspires me. If I went nowhere else in Ghana, I had to get as far as Bolgatanga. DadaK’s brother-in-law Acheampong was lined up to go with us and once ActionMan was fully recovered and Akwasidae was over, we set off.
For a change, and with the goal of greater comfort, we took a private bus to Tamale, rather than a trotro. The bus station was much quieter than Kejetia, but there were still enough hawkers that we were able to get breakfast, plus – as I’d planned – towels and soap, while waiting to board our big orange Metro inter-city bus. I also saw a mobile barber for the first time: a young man, his gear in a small shoulderbag, drumming with a comb on a signboard under his arm as he walked around the station. The signboard was painted with pictures of haircuts. A shoeshine also worked the crowd, tapping his box of polish with a shoe-brush.
The northern road out of Kumasi reminded me of Parramatta Road in Sydney because a long section of it was lined with used car yards, spare-parts on display and mechanics’ workshops. These gave way to the usual lush farmland and forest all the way to Kintampo, which is about the halfway point. From Kintampo going, as Ghanaians would say, the landscape changed. The trees shrank, the grass grew thinner, farms became more structured. We were entering the savannah. Some areas were like parkland, with close-cropped grass shaded by mango trees, in other places there was low scrub and a visible horizon.
It was the beginning of the rainy season here and very wet. Some areas looked boggy, and there were brown-water dams carved out of red clay banks, just as you’d see in rural Australia, and even the occasional lily pond. Fine grass that looked like rice grew in flooded areas. Also like in Australia, there were bare dirt spaces between the patches of vivid green; a dead give-away that it’s not always so lush.
It was also green because people had started planting their crops of millet, corn, yams, and groundnuts (peanuts). Not a plantain in sight. Often the seedlings were planted right up to the earthen walls of their rounded compounds. Another sign of difference to the south: round buildings connected by smooth curving walls, with scarcely a tin roof in sight. All were thatched. I learned later that the building material is clay mixed with cow dung, but when I got up close to one it didn’t smell bad at all. People with more money have concrete homes. I’m not sure if it’s just the surface or they are concrete all the way through, but the basic design is the same.
The homes and villages didn’t exactly exude an air of prosperity. I felt this was a poorer area than that around Kumasi, until we approached Tamale, where you could tell there was a bit of money around.
One of the reasons for this impression, which may well be false, was the dearth of roadside produce stalls and hawkers along the way. After Kintampo it was rare to see goods on sale by the road. The exceptions were huge piles of charcoal and wood. Clearly this is a key industry for the area. other obvious primary industries are mangoes – big piles of mega-mangoes for sale in baskets – and livestock. Cattle, goats and sheep grazed in herds beside the road.
The only places that hawkers clustered around the bus were when we stopped briefly at the crossing of the Black Volta at Buipe, and the white Volta a little further on, where women offered trays of cooked fish, peanuts and boiled eggs. Luckily we weren’t relying on street food to fill our tummies, we’d had a good lunch at the Metro bus stop just north of Kintampo.
Another notable change was the gradual disappearance of churches. They didn’t vanish entirely, but they did become much less prominent and instead, towns were dominated by the decorative towers of mosques. Prayer mats were displayed outside shops instead of signs inviting you to evangelical meetings. People’s clothing also indicated the presence of Islam. Many men wore elaborately machine-embroidered trousers, knee length tunics and of course matching skull caps; women wore gauzy veils over their heads but otherwise dressed much as any other Ghanaian women in long, brightly printed skirts and fitted off the shoulder tops. I’m sorry to have to say that the men’s outfits reminded me of curtain material. Nice curtains, but curtains nonetheless …. It’s a very popular fabric here for both women and men.
I’m going into so much detail because I was fascinated, and didn’t want to miss any of the gradual changes of scenery, ecosystem and culture in this beautiful countryside. It was far more inviting than the dense vegetation of the rainforest zone I was used to.
I remembered very little from my previous trip. In fact the only thing I really remembered was turning up my nose at Rose buying fried fish at what was probably Buipe, but it’s hard to tell because I’m sure it didn’t have such a good bridge as it does now.
The approach to Tamale also seemed vaguely familiar, but here too, the road was much improved. It even had a special lane for bikes! Talk about enlightened. This extra lane was used by pedestrians, bicycles and motor bikes, of which there were many. On other roads the bikes were mixed in with regular traffic, and although this time there were no camels, I did see a woman driving a motorbike with her baby wrapped on her back in the traditional manner, which was less exotic but just as much of a surprise. And more of a worry.
We rolled into Tamale to the tune of the same music as that which was playing on the bus when we left Kumasi: “Jesus is my portion ….”. It felt like a last defiant blast of Christianity as we entered the Moslem zone, but perhaps it was a coincidence.
Tamale was much bigger than I remembered. I remembered the big square multi-storeyed mosque, but that was about it. It also seemed much more prosperous. Certainly I’d take women on motorbikes as a sign that there’s plenty of cash around.
My own cash, however, vanished rapidly, starting with a hotel that was really out of my budget. Some men on the bus had recommended it to Acheampong, and he wasn’t yet clued up that traveling with an obruni means people make extravagant assumptions about your budget. However, it was comfortable and I decided to go with the flow, which seems to be becoming my motto. It had air con that worked and ActionMan got very excited about his first non-Ghanaian meal in over a month: steak and chips followed by crème caramel. He was happy.
It felt very weird to have spent more on a hotel, albeit for three people, than I did on Nana’s wheelchair, which I’d bought the previous day. This is the kind of confusion and guilt that occurs regularly for me here, in a way perhaps in it wouldn’t for people who are here as tourists and just traveling in one income band or another: wealthy or budget. But AM and I keep stepping in and out of different economic environments, and I always feel a financial responsibility to the people I know who are struggling.
The day I bought the wheelchair, our neighbour Boahemma didn’t attend school because her mother didn’t have the 80 pesewas she needed for transport and lunch. And here was I handing over enough to keep her at school for the better part of a year, so that we could have steak and chips, air con, flush toilets, internet and a gated compound. Acheampong appreciated it though (well, not the steak and chips, he ate millet and soup), and so did the staff. We were virtually the only guests. So I figured, whatever money I spend here is going to benefit someone. The problem of inequality is bigger than me, angst is not going to solve it, and I do what I can. Relax.