B is for Bolga II

Farm land in Tongo Hills
Farm land in Tongo Hills

We thought there were lots of rocks at Nania, but we hadn’t then seen the boulders at Tenzug in the Tongo Hills. Tenzug is another eco-tourism project, famous for hill shrines and a chief’s palace housing 300 people. You can see the Tongo Hills on your right as you approach Bolga on the Tamale road. Up close they look as though ancient giants have cast aside the oware stones they’ve been playing with – massive piles of red stone heaped up on top of each other. Grass and trees have grown up through the cracks between, and at this time of year it’s all a vivid green. We hired a taxi to take us there on Sunday, passing through more of the productive farmland we were now familiar with.

The Tenzug shrines are another eco-tour, i.e, they benefit and are controlled and approved by the local community, you can take pics almost anywhere you like without having to ask or tip, and they give you receipts. For a small cost a guide shows you around a ‘model home’, the chief’s compound, some natural caves and the shrines themselves, at the top of a hill formed of a mass of tumbled rocks.

I was very pleased at the opportunity to see inside a model home, because although we’d briefly checked out Al’s compound the day before, he’d been more interested in showing us broken carvings than in explaining the domestic arrangements. The model home was like those we’d been seeing along the road on our journey north – rounded earthen rooms connected by walls, surrounding a small courtyard, except that unlike south of Tamale, the roofs were not thatched but flat, with a rim around the edge to stop you falling off if you slept up there. You climb up via a ladder cut out of a tree branch. In the model home, you entered each room by crawling through a small aperture at the base. No fun for someone with arthritis, let me tell you! I think these days people build walk-through doors.

Some elderly women were fixing leaks in the roof of a room that’s used for tourist accommodation. At five Cedis per night it’s very cheap for budget travelers but also very basic. Authentically poor I guess, but not inviting. I was glad I hadn’t taken the plunge and booked ahead. I’ve slept in village rooms plenty of times, and the smell of mildew and the dirty foam mattress reminded me unpleasantly of the things I don’t like about them.

I reckon for a small outlay they could make it prettier with some of the gorgeous Sahelian* crafts – mud-cloth curtains and bedding, carved wooden furniture, bolga basketwork mats, a painting or two – and they could bump up the price to 10 cedis and be turning people away from the door every night. But that’s just my addiction to comfort speaking. I don’t really know what it’s like to stay overnight there. It could be a fantastic eco-tourist experience even without these material trimmings, and certainly is one of the few ways western tourists can get to find out more about what Ghanaian’s lives and homes are really like. Give it a try and tell me.

* Techincally, I don’t think Ghana quite makes it into the Sahel but it’s pretty close, both geographically and culturally).

After the model home, we ambled past the millet fields to the chief’s compound, stopping along the way under an overhang of rock where they used to have the local school. It was lovely and cool.

ActionMan was waiting for us at the chief’s compound. He’d had a melt-down at the tourist centre. It was too hot, we hadn’t been able to find any breakfast beyond biscuits and mangoes (don’t go to Bolga on a Sunday!) and he really didn’t want to go on a long hot walk around boring historical/cultural things. He took one look at the proposed itinerary and map and started to moan and lean on me, so the alarmed taxi driver offered to take him to the chief’s compound where he could buy a drink and possibly food.

A view from a roof in the Chief's compound at Tenzug. There were rooms all around us in other directions.
A view from a roof in the Chief’s compound at Tenzug. There were rooms all around us in other directions.

We arrived to find his mood hadn’t much improved. There was no food, the coke was warm, and where had I been all this time? (Interrogating our guide, that’s where. I like to get bang for my buck.) Fortunately for everyone, he recovered rapidly not long after our tour of the compound began. The chief’s compound is part of the Tenzug tour because it’s impressive. It houses around 300 people in a compound that’s basically a maze of model homes all glued together and connected by courtyards and open corridors. Unlike the croc pond, I could well believe the population claim for this place.

There’s also a couple of large 2 – 3 story rectangular concrete buildings, one of them with solar panels and a satellite dish. So I assume the current chief doesn’t live in a small round room with a tree branch insulated roof and a hole for a door.

We only saw a small number of the buildings inside the maze, and some shrines and tombs just outside, but we did get to climb onto the flat roof of one of the bigger buildings for a commanding view of the whole complex and surrounding farmland. A woman was gathering up shea nuts from the roof, perhaps in anticipation of the storm that was rolling in from the south west. The red and green of the surrounding country were vivid in the pre-storm light against the bank of dark cloud.

The cool weather revived ActionMan, and so did the maze of rooms and the vista of flat interconnected roofs. He wants to build a paintball stadium / parkour course modeled on the structure of this place and from the moment he entered the maze, was bubbling over with enthusiasm and plans, explaining possible gaming strategies to me.

If the dream ever becomes reality it will almost definitely be the first ever paintball complex modeled on a Dagbani chief’s compound. If someone does it before him, we’d like royalties please. And tickets to the opening.

He was frustrated that he couldn’t start leaping about on the buildings, and when we sheltered from the rain in the shrine caretaker’s compound, he did climb around a bit and explore until we reminded him that this was actually someone’s home (and a very pleasant one, too. I’d stay there over the model home any day, even without any mud-cloth curtains).

Climbing up to the hill shrine.
Climbing up to the hill shrine.

After the rain cleared a little, we climbed up the hill to the shrines and it was ActionMan, who is agile as a mountain goat, worked himself into a lather of worry over my safety on the slippery rocks. I had to remind him that although I’m middle-aged and arthritic and currently out of condition (too much ampesi, no gym!), I am a capable climber and perhaps he inherited his agility from me.

I didn’t go into the shrine itself. You have to strip to the waist and I wasn’t prepared to embarrass ActionMan to that extent. However the Aussie girls we met had all done so. There’s safety in numbers. I told them why I didn’t and one of them laughed and said, “oh yes, I wouldn’t like it if my mum did that …”

I wasn’t that interested, to be honest. The view from the hillside satisfied me. There were some shrines to ancestors around the chief’s compound, and I found them a bit creepy.

While I was waiting for them to come out it started to rain again and we all got saturated before we could get back to our waiting taxi. But it wasn’t very cold and was fun to run through the rain. Well, AM and I thought so, perhaps not Acheampong. The rest of our day was spent drying off, reading, and trying to find a restaurant that was open on a Sunday. When we finally found a chop bar (as they’re called, but not a chop in sight), AM bolted down two plates of rice and stew, then wandered outside to make friends with a couple of young men on motorbikes.

Bikes are everywhere in Bolga, both pushbikes and motorbikes. Crossing the road you’re in more danger from bikes than from cars, especially at intersections where thetraffic flow becomes quite eccentric. On Monday, our last day in Bolga, we saw people transporting improbably loads to market by bicycle. Baby goats in baskets on the back, chooks suspended upside down from the handlebars, and piles of the baskets for which Bolga is famous.

You can buy Bolga baskets from fair trading shops, but you won’t get the glorious variety that’s available if you go to Bolga. After a breakfast of my favourite waakye (rice & beans with salad, chili sauce and a boiled egg), we went to check out the Bolga Cultural Centre and I splashed out on two beautiful baskets.

A stall-holder at Bolga Cultural Centre demonstratng the use of thumb-bells. It was an excellent sales strategy. I also bought the blue-green basket near his right elbow.
A stall-holder at Bolga Cultural Centre demonstratng the use of thumb-bells. It was an excellent sales strategy. I also bought the blue-green basket below his right hand.

The Bolga Cultural Centre is a new complex, tucked away behind St Joseph’s Catholic Church. The stall-holders complained to us that they weren’t doing good business since they’d been moved to the centre from their previous site adjacent to the markets. So to the few handfuls of people that are reading this blog: Go there if you can, and spend lots of money! It’s easy to do. As well as the baskets I bought some beads and some small thumb-bells that make a beautiful, resonant sound.

Acheampong nearly bought some sandals but they didn’t have the ones he wanted in his size. He also checked out Batakaris, another item for which the north is famous: big, stripy handwoven smocks. I was hoping AM would want one, but he didn’t. Perhaps its just as well, because I’d already made enough trips to the Barclays Bank ATM by then. (My problem was, I was waiting for a deposit into my account, so I had to watch the cash flow carefully while up north).

ActionMan finally made the purchase he’d been longing for: a wooden bow and a leatherwork quiver full of arrows. We asked the shopkeeper to remove the lethal metal arrowheads, but he missed out on two, which AM then used to shoot baobab trees around the large and mostly empty compound, and playfully threaten the various livestock that wandered through. (Have I mentioned before that there are very few spaces in Ghana that you’re not sharing with at least poultry, and probably goats and sheep as well. The only completely animal and chook free zones I’ve yet encountered is the university, and the middle of the city.)

The bow and arrows proved controversial. Not many people grasped that he didn’t actually intend to shoot anything that breathed, and ActionMan didn’t seem to grasp that however benign your intentions, you don’t point loaded weapons where they might do harm. Akonta promptly confiscated them when we returned home, and after he was persuaded to give them back, DadaK forbade him to shoot anywhere but a narrow unused space behind the house, and all but one of the (point-less) arrows mysteriously disappeared from the quiver. I was less concerned about the B&A than I was about the knives, because you can control the environment in which bows are used, but he has a tendency to brandish knives recklessly, so there’s a total ban on them except when he’s peeling yams for lunch.

AM is frustrated because here in Ghana all the weapons of the fantasy novels he reads and video games he plays, are freely available for a few cedis, but he’s not getting the chance to play with any of them. Why, oh why can’t he be more interested in harmless team sports instead?

But still in Bolga, he enjoyed shooting the baobab in the rain for half an hour while I looked through the small museum. I hope Ghana’s economy improves to the point where it can put more money into its museums. So far they’ve all been very interesting but the contents are poorly conserved and the lighting is usually bad. A guide showed me around this one, which contained clay models of a housing complex in normal and in funeral mode, cross-hatched ink drawings of traditional activities, some hair-raising photos of amazing feats such as holding snakes in the mouth and others which I have blotted from my memory, and a few artifacts such as a battle dress and jewelry.

I came outside to find AM tasting baobab fruit. Like the shea fruit, which we tasted when we ducked into the market later that morning, it was pithy, bland and sweet with big seeds. The people hanging around in the shelter of the museum entrance who’d opened it for him told us it was high in vitamin C. You see the swollen, elephantine grey trunks of baobabs everywhere around Bolga. This one was big, old and magnificent, with large white fleshy flowers as big as a child’s head, and fruits at various stages of ripeness. The one we tasted was elongated and brown, looked a bit like a long kurrajong pod, but the unripe versions were light green ovals, hanging by long threads from the branches.

The last B on my list is books, because on our way to the cultural centre we got sidetracked by the first bookshop we’ve yet seen that wasn’t a specialist Christian bookshop. So of course we had to stop. The store had 19thC English classics, modern African novels, an assortment of children’s educational books and picture books, and several carousels of airport doorstops. I bought tow short novels by Ghanaian women writers (they were very good), and AM bought three crime/horror/thrillers which all turned out to be way too adult for his taste. But hey, it was exciting at the time.

We’d decided not to linger around Bolga. There’s more to see, and the people we met were staying longer, but there’s a limit to how many cultural complexes and landscapes you can drag a 14 year old boy around to, and both stay sane, so after the cultural centre, museum and bookshop, and a quick look at the water-logged markets, we headed back to Tamale for a much cheaper hotel and a more expensive meal at an ‘obruni’ restaurant. AM was craving European food. I was told there were white people in the kitchen at this place, the name of which escapes me, but something got lost in translation as it was clearly a Hindu outfit. The large number of curries, scorching hot spag bol and total absence of beef from the menu gave it away.

Our plan on Tuesday was to go back to Kumasi via Makongo and Yeji, with a ferry ride across the Volta, but we missed the only Metro bus to Makongo from Tamale on Tuesday morning. I was fresh from a chat the night before with a Kiwi who told me trotro horror stories, and Acheampong was developing diarrhoea, so instead of a trotro to Makongo, we caught a direct bus to Kumasi and were back by early afternoon.

Oops, I nearly forgot the Dagbani music. I was thrilled, when I ventured into the market and bus station a few times, to hear that haunting Sahelian rythm that I’ve only before heard on world music CDs. Just ordinary people in their shops playing it on the radio or their cassette player. The bus from Tamale to Kumasi also played a variety of sounds, from Dagbani to Ghanaian gospel to Joan Aramtrading and the like. I sent the women next to me into hysterical laughter when I asked who the band was. They didn’t know, or weren’t composed enough to tell me. I seem to have that effect on people often. Saying me dasi (thank you) is amost enough to get some people rolling on the floor laughing.

So that’s it – our big expedition north. Short but fun and interesting. I was thinking of trying to get back there without ActionMan, if DadaK goes north to buy cattle, but that plan looks like it may not come off, and I’ve got plenty of other things I want to do before leaving. Besides, you’ve got to leave something for next time.

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