B is for Bolga

ActionMan subdues dangerous reptile at Paga

ActionMan subdues dangerous reptile at Paga

B is for Bolgatanga, the next stop on our journey north. Ghanaians call it Bolga, (sounds like Bologa), and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say its name in full. We liked Bolga. ActionMan liked the landscape, the houses and the weaponry. I liked the landscape, the houses, and the sense of history. We stayed three days before I went into a panic about money and we returned south.

On the return trip to Tamale I relieved the boredom of being stuck in the middle of the back seat of a trotro with limited views by thinking about all the b-words that go with Bolga. I didn’t plan to do this, but like the Rhine with its castles, caravans and cargo barges, certain things jumped out at me – baobabs, baskets and bikes, for a start. You can tell I’m having trouble with this alliteration addiction. The more I thought about it, the more there were. Here’s the rest of my list:

Bradt Guide, boulders, bows & arrows, brahmin bulls, basking crocodiles, border crossings, bonking porkers and books. The things I couldn’t bully into a b-word or b-phrase were: slaves, shea nuts, donkeys, catholics and Dagbani music.

We stayed at the Hotel St Joseph in the Street of the Bonking Porkers. Okay, I admit it, that’s not the street’s real name, but on our first evening there I spotted two amourous couples and lots of piglets within minutes of arriving. One looked doomed to failure, as the male was only half the size of his object of desire and she wasn’t interested anyway. This isn’t something I’d normally write home about, but they were the first pigs I’d seen in Ghana (AM tells me he’s seen some further south), and it seemed odd to see so many in what I’d expected to be a predominantly Moslem town.

However it turns out there’s a big Catholic population in the area. This was surprising not just because I’d expected more Moslem visibility, but also because Catholicism isn’t so obvious around Kumasi, where charismatic churches seem to be on every corner. I suppose I’d assumed there weren’t many Catholics in Ghana. There’s a big Catholic church in Bolga, (St Josephs) with school attached and several life-size sculptures of saints around the boundaries. There’s another big church in neighbouring Navrongo, which according to the Bradt Guide is worth attending for the music on a Sunday morning. We were in Bolga on Sunday, but I didn’t find out in time to organise a church excursion.

I borrowed the Bradt Guide, which is apparently the definitive Ghana guide for budget travelers, from some Aussies we met at our hotel. (Like pigs and Catholics, also the first I’d seen). Six young women on their gap year who’d finished a two month stint of voluntary work around Winneba and were now seeing the rest of the country before heading home or further afield.

We discovered, to our mutual surprise, that one of them was the daughter of a friend of a friend. It was she who leant me the Bradt Guide. I really wished I’d been organised enough to get one before leaving Australia, instead of deciding to rely on local knowledge and the internet when I got here, because it did have some useful information. Such as cheaper hotels in Tamale, and a warning about “the charismatic Al Hassan”, who lurks around the crocodile pond at Paga waiting to entrap unwary tourists and lure them into his rather run down compound, where he charges an exorbitant fee for the pleasure of enjoying his charisma and trying to avoid buying his over-priced and dusty crafts.

As you can guess, I was one such unwary tourist. But I got a lovely piece of (allegedly) indigo dyed cloth and AM got to shoot some arrows. He also did have some interesting stories to tell.

Although my Ghana Tourist Board pamphlets didn’t warn me about Al, they did have info about ‘authorised’ eco-tours such as the famous crocodile pond at Paga. Enter Basking Crocodiles. Apparently – I find this hard to believe – there are about 300 of them at this unfenced pond that’s not much bigger than a football field in the middle of the town. There is a whole mythology attached to why they are so used to humans, but I think the one we were photographed with was just too old and blind to be bothered about trying to eat us. The guides made sure the younger, more active ones didn’t come too close to us, but they were easy to control with words and gestures. I don’t think there was a lot of danger. But sitting on a croc makes a great photo and impresses the folks back home. In all the hype no-one mentions how soft a crocodile’s skin is. Not the hard, horny back of course, but the tender pale side of the tail near the back legs. Smooth and soft, with the resilience of a rare steak when you push it. Wow.

Charismatic Al told us that the crocs always leave the pond to defecate and to die so that they don’t foul their own waters, which is an admirable sentiment I wish the town could also embrace. The pond wasn’t full so we could see the storm water gullies that drain into it, clogged with plastic bags and other rubbish. Even when the wet season rains fill the pond, there’s nowhere for that junk to go but the bottom. It must be toxic. To be fair, the Ghanaian government is trying to address waste management and pollution, but with limited resources its an uphill battle.

As well as crocs, Paga is famous for being football star Abedi Pele’s home town. We even met one of Pele’s brothers while we were there. Bearing in mind that in Ghana the term ‘brother’ is far more flexible and inclusive than in Australia, I didn’t probe as to whether it was “same-mother/same-father” type of brother because in Ghana that distinction doesn’t matter that much, and took a photo for AM’s soccer-fan friends back home. His name was Achindiba and he was our guide at the Nania Slave encampment.

There are quite a few slave sites that you can visit in the far north, because the north is where most slaves were captured. Achindiba told us the story of three slavers, one of whom was a local man, who went out hunting humans in what is now Burkina Faso and other parts of Northern Ghana. The Nania site at Paga was a good spot to keep the people they captured and sell them to dealers who came up from Salaga, a big trading centre south of Tamale.

Achindiba showed us the trees where people had been chained, the holes ground into the rocks, from which they ate, the lookout rock, the ‘punishment rock’ where they were flogged and the stones which marked mass graves. He told us a Black American some years back had sought permission to confirm their stories and excavate the grave site. He found bones, which he hastily reburied.

ActionMan and Achindiba demonstrate the use of Punishment Rock at Nania slave encampment.

ActionMan and Achindiba demonstrate the use of Punishment Rock at Nania slave encampment.

Acheampong and I were much affected by these stories; ActionMan just bounded up and down the rocks like a mountain goat. It’s probably one of the most beautiful prisons in the world, and lots of fun to climb over when you’re not in chains. I think he absorbed some of it though. Achindiba got him to demonstrate how you were made to sit on Punishment Rock.

The spot that I was most shocked by was the musical rock. Well, not so much shocked as gobsmacked. Captors assembled their prisoners down below the rock on a grassy area and made them dance to the music they made pounding the rock with stones and singing to them about the much better life they could expect when the white men came and took them to foreign lands. So cheer up guys. How’s that for early propaganda? A group of local men gave us a repeat performance. If you weren’t worried about your future, or about trying to video the performance, you’d really enjoy it.

Before we left Paga we visited the Burkina Faso border and I gazed longingly for several moments at another country. It had totally slipped my mind to bring our passports, and we don’t have multiple entry visas anyway, but now we were there, looking at it, I really wanted to cross. I learned later than you can pay for a day pass. Legal or not, I don’t know, but next time, I’m going.

Except for the rocky outcrop of Nania, the area around Paga is fairly flat and every square centimetre is packed with agricultural activity. Recently planted crops, livestock roaming free or in herds, donkeys grazing or pulling drays.

The north is famous for cattle. DadaK would like to purchase a small herd to take down south, but he may not be able to afford such a big investment. Acheampong inquired about the price of cattle from every single person we met – taxi drivers, market beggars, tourist guides, the man who knocked on my hotel door at 8.00pm selling ink drawings and a tour of his home town. I think it was around GHC15 – 200 (1.5 – 2 million in old currency) for a yearling and nearly everyone had a brother or cousin who could help us. Acheampong made many promises to return with DadaK and his cash.

Given the value of cattle, it’s no surprise that the taxi driver who took us to Paga slowed right down to a crawl when a bull ambled across the road. It was in no hurry, in fact I think it paused as it approached the middle of the road. Cattle, goats, sheep and chooks have right of way on Ghanaian roads. People get no such respect from drivers, they have to get out of the way fast.

Some Paga cows, seen from the top of Al Hassan's compound.

Some Paga cows, seen from the top of Al Hassan's compound.

The cattle are very small compared to those in Australia. I think of them as Brahmins, because they resemble those Indian cattle, with their curved horns, humps, usually dirty white colour and scrawny sides. They wouldn’t win prizes at the Royal Easter Show’s Hoof & Hook, but could well get the National Heart Foundation’s seal of approval. Good exercise for the jaws too, in my experience.

On our way back from Paga in the late afternoon we passed a crowd of men stripped to the waist, a couple even in their undies, jogging and shouting. They looked like they could have been a football team or two in training but that explanation didn’t seem quite right to me, and it wasn’t. They were actually transporting a corpse, wrapped in a long grass mat, back to family in Bolga. Apparently a body can’t remain where the person has died, it has to be returned to its home. They still had a long way to go when we saw them.

Parts of the road were lined with an avenue massive trees that reminded me of river red gums. In the shade beneath them, young men held out half-calabashes to passing cars, full of eggs and what looked like limes. I learned later that they were the fruits of the shea nut tree. Shea nuts are rich in oil (shea butter) which is traditionally used in African skin and hair creams. In various places during our Bolga visit we saw the small brown nuts spread out to dry. They are the same pinkish brown as drying cocoa seeds. However at the markets a day or two later I learned that you can also eat the fruit, a very thin layer of sweetish pulp around the nut. Like many flavours in Ghana, I can’t really compare it to anything in Australia. I took some back to Kumasi as a snack, but no-one liked them.

That’s it for now. Baskets, baobabs, books, bows and arrows and photos coming soon.

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3 thoughts on “B is for Bolga

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