n o r t h w a r d

[ 17:35 sunday 7 january – rosevear , st agnes , isles of scilly ]

it’s three and a half weeks since i returned to soggy old britain , despatched the briefest of notes and promised to write more in “a day or two” . with every day that passes i find myself with more to write and less idea where to begin .

there’s still so much to say about ghana . probably i need to get some of it out of my system before i can move on . rather than a single giant mail i’ll break it into more digestible chunks . so if you’re sitting comfortably …

after a week of blissed decompression in mole game reserve i returned to tamale and took a tro-tro north to bolgatanga , capital of the upper east region , hard against the border with burkina faso . a remote place where the harmattan was more pronounced than in tamale . the nights were crisp and chilly , the days dusty and hot . i liked it a lot .

from there i ventured to tongo , a remarkable landscape of granite carns (to use the cornish term) and rocky hills . this was the least-changed part of ghana i visited . even christianity and islam had made only marginal inroads and each cluster of huts had a pillar on which the soothsayer would make sacrifice when a god’s favour was sought . before i could walk in the area i had to secure permission from the paramount chief . he was dozing in the sun when i arrived at his compound but arrangements were hastily made and soon he was ready to receive me in his palace , the interior of which was hung with goat skulls and drum-heads from the annual festivities .

i introduced myself , made some general purpose flattering comments about the chief and explained my request , with one of the chief’s sons translating for me . then i presented the tribute of kola nuts i’d brought along . this was received without comment . after a slightly awkward silence the son explained to me that it was customary also to offer some cash for the chief and his elders . so i pulled out my wallet and handed over a decent wad . this was inspected and tucked away , then everyone looked at me again . the son said “that was for the chief – now you need to give some for the elders” . with a little less grace than before i pulled out my wallet and handed over a few more notes . after this i was invited to take a photo and told i was welcome to explore the area . the audience was then at an end and the chief left to resume the important business of snoozing after another profitable day’s business .

after a respectful interval i too left the palace with the chief’s son and several others , all of whom were clearly going to accompany me whether i liked it or not . as we were passing through the compound an elderly lady clambered out of a little doorway . this was the senior wife , it was explained , and i was welcome to have a look in her room if i wanted . not wanting to offend i crawled through the doorway and cast my eyes around the gloomy interior , furnished with a few blankets . the old lady and translator-son came in too . there wasn’t much to see . i made a few token appreciative noises and turned to leave . “you should make a tribute to the senior wife” it was helpfully suggested . so i handed over some more notes .

with some relief i exited the chief’s compound and set out for the hills with my entourage of four , all too aware that i would be expected to dash every single one of them (dash being the standard african term for a “reward”) .

we proceeded across the irregular-shaped fields , skirting several of the little mud compounds which dot the landscape . arriving at the foot of the hills we began to ascend . it was tough going , with tangled thorns and big boulders , but as we got higher a wild exhilaration began to rise in me . after weeks in the flat plains of tamale it was exciting to be climbing and my guides moved through the terrain at a challengingly rapid pace . i was determined to keep up with them . the view over the surrounding countryside was incredible . the whole structure of social and economic organisation was revealed in the pattern of field boundaries and arrangement of hut clusters .

from the top we could see for hundreds of miles . once again my compact binoculars came into their own . indeed they made such an impression upon my guides that it was suggested i should make a present of them . but i think even they realised this was pushing it and there was no argument when i firmly declined . i tarried there for perhaps half an hour , reluctant to descend . but the shadow of the hill on the land below was lengthening and i didn’t fancy going down in darkness .

once we were back on the flat the expected requests for dash started . i gave what i assessed as the minimum acceptable and emphatically resisted further requests . i felt increasingly dispirited as the demands continued and really just wanted to get away . therefore my heart dropped when it started to emerge that returning to bolga was not going to be easy . it was the evening and there would be no more vehicles . the spectre of being dependent on these people for overnight accommodation and prey to further fleecing was not attractive . mercifully , after an hour or so , the manager of the local quarry hove into view in his pickup . i have rarely been so relieved to see a car . of course , there were many others wanting a lift into bolga and i had to hand out copious dash to secure a place but i hardly cared . the quarry manager was an intelligent and kindly man from the south . a catholic . he spoke scathingly of the locals and their “primitive” beliefs . what’s more he was familiar with the camborne school of mines , a splendid institution situated about five miles from where i grew up in cornwall , which delighted me no end .

after another day in bolga i returned to tamale for the last time .

: cH

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