Category Archives: Ghana

s o u t h w a r d

[ 22:00 sunday 7 january – rosevear , st agnes , isles of scilly ]

since completing the previous chunk i’ve had supper (the remnant of seb’s excellent sugo from last week) , started making two loaves of pumpkin-seed bread and walked down to periglis to phone grandpa since today’s his ninety-fifth birthday (periglis is one of three places on the island where i can get a signal) .

as i write , david owen is on radio four talking about britain’s short-lived social democratic party , of which he was a founder . he comes across well . direct , statesmanlike and entertainingly prickly . the time i spent working with him on balkan odyssey seems distant now . i suppose that was my first proper break .

but on with the show .

my final visit to tamale was a brief one . i arrived in the afternoon and left early the following morning . time for some last goodbyes at the mandela development centre , particularly to the digital workshop team . one of the design trainees , mohammed sumaila , had painted a large canvas for me . i packed up my computer , my saxophone , the digital camera and my tailoring into a large bag and left it with the centre staff to send down to accra . then i said my final goodbyes to iddrisu , isaiah and hadi , who had travelled back from a drumming job to see me off .

i needed to be at the tro-tro station at six in the morning . the previous evening i’d bumped into a young taxi driver i knew so i’d engaged him to pick me up . he promised not to be late but ten minutes after the appointed time there was still no sign of him and i was getting nervous . afu amidu came to my rescue and offered to take me in on his motorbike . i felt a little top-heavy perched there with my huge rucksack on my back and the smaller one clasped between my knees but we got there .

and so i left tamale , just as the sky was lightening , squeezed into a decrepit minibus with perhaps fifty per cent more people than it was design to convey . a fitting departure . we proceeded south for a hundred miles along the worst road i’ve ever travelled . passengers gripped whatever solid fixtures they could find as the vehicle lurched and bounced from one chasm to the next .

eventually we arrived at makongo , a tiny settlement on the east bank of lake volta where fish were laid out in squares on the ground to dry . it was thrilling to be by water for the first time since leaving giglio in the summer . to north and south the vast lake stretched as far as the eye could see . after a while the ferry for which i and most of my fellow passengers were waiting arrived and lowered its ramp . i boarded and soon we set off to cross the seven miles to yeji on the west bank .

yeji was a larger place but notably unprepossessing . i wandered around with a young fellow i’d met on the boat , a son of the atebubu chief . several people invited us to share their lunch (my friend was recognised) but i was feeling tired so i excused myself and found a room where i refreshed myself with a bucket shower and slept for a few hours . i awoke to the sound of a whistle , which i guessed heralded the arrival of the weekly ship from akasombo at the opposite end of lake volta a couple of hundred miles south , my reason for being in yeji .

knowing that the voyage back to akasombo would take twenty-five hours and that the ship had only two cabins with beds (the alternative being a board in an open dormitory or the deck) i proceeded fairly swiftly to don my clothes and remove myself to the waters’ edge . there indeed was the yapei queen , an ugly vessel with a large open foredeck and three decks of superstructure rising behind . i went aboard , across the foredeck and up the companionways to the bridge deck . there i found a man who had the unmistakable air of an official . with my heart in my throat i asked about the cabins . to my great relief one was still available so i handed over the fare and promised i’d be aboard in time to sail at two the following morning .

the rest of the afternoon i spent talking to various people around the town , including the largest group of whiteys i’d encountered since arriving in ghana (seven of them , all tourists , who’d arrived on the ship) . as night fell a sound system started playing in a side street and investigation revealed … a street-dance ! by this stage of my wanderings in ghana i was completely uncontrollable when faced with a function of this kind and in no time i was grooving away . i even managed to persuade a couple of the whiteys to join in (one fellow from bavaria and another from norway , who danced in the manner known only to scandinavians) . oh , it was wonderful . but all too soon the pumpkin hour was upon me and i had to tear myself away , gather my bags and board the ship .

the voyage south was one of the most magical journeys i’ve been on . we stopped at four villages on the way down , mainly to load yams destined for the markets in accra and kumasi . the loading process was entirely unmechanised . farmers from surrounding area had piled their yams into great heaps near the water , each specimen marked with a splash of coloured paint to indicate its provenance . women transfered one bowlful at a time on their heads onto the ship , where they were expertly thrown up to boys who laid them layer upon layer in wooden crates , interspersed with layers of grass . it was not a fast or efficient process but there was no real need for it to be . wherever we stopped i took the opportunity to explore and meet people . different tribes , different aspirations , different problems .

by the time we left keti krachi , the last port of call , we must have been carrying more than a hundred thousand yams . there were also a couple of cows , half a dozen goats , a dozen chickens , a minivan , a sofa , a baboon and a couple of hundred passengers . what you might call a mixed cargo .

at night i stood wide-eyed at the front of the bridge deck for hours as we wove between densely-forested islands , the dark horizon sillhouetted by the menacing glow of huge bushfires .

all too soon the surrounding country grew more mountainous and we were approaching akasombo , with its vast dam and hydro-electric plant . the presidential motor yacht was there , moored somewhat incongruously beside decrepit oilers . we docked . i disembarked and started looking for a tro-tro heading towards accra .

: cH

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

e l e k t i o n

[ 17:18 friday 1 december – mandela development centre , tamale ,
northern ghana ]

today has been decreed a national holiday so that everyone can spend the day praying for peaceful elections next week .

some of my informants have been getting a bit nervous . there is a feeling that the ruling ndc has too many skeletons in the closet after twenty-something years in power to be able to afford to lose . the president , mr rawlings , apparantly has troops (the sixty-four batallion ?) which are loyal to him personally . this , i am told , has alienated the regular army which is increasingly inclined towards the main opposition party , npp . there is a growing stream of squabbles about who has the right to announce the results and it now looks as though several groups are likely to do so independently . there are already whispered allegations of vote-rigging , bribery and electoral corruption .

meanwhile , it is said , the economy is on the verge of collapse or may have collapsed already . inflation is out of control and fuel prices have been kept artificially low in the run-up to the election . it is suggested that the subsidy may be as great as 50% by now .

none of this is encouraging , yet my impression is that the ghanaians are peaceful people . i am sure there will be a few scuffles but i think it is unlikely there will be anything worse .

ironically the americans donated some computers to ensure a “accurate and smooth” election . ouch .

this’ll probably be my last mail from ghana . unless i can’t resist taking the wretched computer with me on my travels .

: cH

b e a s t i e s

[ 19:48 wednesday 29 november – mole national park , northern ghana ]

the amber sliver of moon seems held aloft by a cacophony of insects and nightbirds . from time to time the indignant screech of a monkey echoes through the trees .

this is my final night here at mole after five days of immersion in nature . i’ve been staying in the small government-run hotel perched on an escarpment above two waterholes on the southern side of this large (5000 square kilometre) reserve . the savannah stretches to the horizon in every direction . each morning i awaken in my cabin and open the door onto my balcony to see warthogs scampering about , herds of elephants playing in the water , antelopes grazing . i recommend this to anyone who wants to wind down a bit . there’s also a swimming pool which feels absurdly decadent .

yesterday i went on an eight hour foot safari with zak , one of the wardens . we set out at seven in the morning when the air was dewy and cool . it did not remain so for long . we covered a lot of ground literally and metaphorically . more learning for me . this was the first day of rammadam so zak blithely went the whole day sans water .

yesterday three students from the czeck republic arrived . one of them is an entymologist specialising in diving beetles . he spends most of his time crouched beside the swimming pool fishing things out and peering at them .

i didn’t intend to bring the computer with me … but i wanted to keep going with the circus constitutions i’m working on and this has proved to be a good place to do it . being away from email is retreat enough .

a couple of days ago i spent the afternoon in larabanga , famous for its mud and stick mosque which may or may not date from the fifteenth century . i spent a lot of the time talking to the salia brothers , who seem to have organised something of a revolution in the village . previously most income from visitors would go straight to the imam and a few “guides” . now the majority is directed to community funds which have been used to rebuild the school amongst other things . it’s caused some ripples though . an interesting visit .

i leave for tamale at five tomorrow morning .

: cH

t e r m i n a l

[ 01:40 friday 24 november – jisonayili , northern ghana ]

oh , the time has flown . tomorrow is the final day of my work here . in the afternoon i’m hitching a lift to the mole game reserve , where i’ll stay for a week or so amongst the plants , beasties and the delicious absence of mechanical noise . then a brief return to tamale to say goodbye to everyone before heading south for a couple of weeks’ adventuring .

on monday and tuesday last week adverts went out on the local radio offering to train someone in computer-based graphic design and interactive design . applications came in through the week , accompanied by a surreal selection of samples . musah and i ploughed through them on saturday and made a shortlist . seven people were interviewed on monday . the result was announced on monday night . i didn’t have the heart to restric it to one , so i made offers to two people . the training started on tuesday .

on monday neither of the learners (sumaila and moses) had ever touched a computer . as of thursday evening both of them are producing work in adobe photoshop and possess a basic facility with macromedia dreamweaver . i suspect this is some kind of record .

several of the other shortlisted candidates came and hung round whilst the training was going on and i didn’t see any reason to send them away .

i’ve finished editing the film i made with the girls . the combination of a decent laptop and a minidv camera is fantastic . this is my very first attempt and i am very eager to do more . i am quite pleased with the result .

i returned to zayuri last friday with my saxophone and spent the night playing dagomba songs with the two old trumpeters and a couple of drummers whilst the villagers danced and the orange moon rose . oh , it was a dream come true .

on sunday i went to two weddings , as a bit of a counterbalance to so many funerals . separate celebrations continue at the family compounds of bride and groom . once the necessary courage has been summoned a delegation from the groom’s family travels to the bride’s compound where they must negotiate the bride-price . on the bride’s side this is normally handled by a senior aunt (qualities like toughness and stony-facedness are clearly advantageous) . if a satisfactory agreement is not reached the bride will not be released , simple as that . expectations vary from region to region . up in the far north it can be as hefty as a couple of cows , and if the wife ever wishes to leave her husband her family will be expected to repay . in practice this effectively means the wife becomes the property of the husband , not a very liberal arrangement . here in tamale the bride-price is more tokenistic , just a few hundred thousand cedis . but it still seems to be quite a traumatic negotiation for the bride , whose value is being debated in front of her . the day after the wedding the bride moves into the groom’s family compound . there is a widely-believed superstition that she will drop down dead should she ever again pass through the threshold of her former home .

on tuesday night i had my first drumming lesson with hadi , a supremely talented young man who is the leader of a troupe of drummers in kanvali , a village famous for its drummers . i cycled with iddrisu and isaihia to hadi’s hut , from where we cycled on to a further village called tunayili . here there was no electricity . a couple of kerosene lamps set on the ground illuminated the celebration which was in progress . a lunga (drum) was strapped to my arm and i was shown my rhythm to play amongst the other five drummers whilst the dancers continued their routines . joy .

i returned to hadi last night and had my second lesson in his hut (again accompanied by iddrisu and isaihia , who interpreted for me) . he had me play a single rhythm for about twenty minutes , by which time it was sounding natural . then he moved on to something which i found completely unintelligible until i grasped that it was a quintuple grouping . it was not quite so simple as this even . whereas european music is essentially rational in its meter , african music is not . pulses are not placed in a regular fashion , they are placed in ways which seem to relate to the rhythms of movement of the human body . so although i could play this new rhythm once i understood its structure , it took another twenty minutes to begin to play it correctly . at this point hadi began to play some complex counter-rhythms against what i was playing and *bingo* , we were making music ! it was very exciting .

hadi is not only a tremendous drummer , he is a fine teacher . i feel suitably privileged to have these experiences .

every drummer makes his own instruments . hadi has made six throughout his career , all of which he still uses . he has agreed to make a seventh for me . the construction consists of a hollow wooden core , shaped like an hour-glass . cured goatskin is sown to each end to form the heads . more goatskin is cut into a long spiral of thin string , which is threaded back and forth between the heads . the instrument is held under the arm with a strap going over the shoulder . the thumb is hooked into the strings . it is struck by a hooked wooden mallet (whose name i forget) . squeezing with one’s elbow and pulling with the thumb results in the heads being stretched tighter and the pitch rising . a skilled drummer can make the drum “talk” with the inflexions and rhythms of spoken phrases . thus can such drummers communicate from one village to another . prior to my second lesson hadi played a complex sequence lasting several minutes explaining to others in the village that he was about to give a lesson to his white man friend and he was sorry if it was disturbing their sleep . he was particularly pleased with the sound of “anula salaminga” , meaning “good evening , mr whitey” .

this evening i had my third lesson . i was taken to his father’s hut (also a drummer , as were countless generations of forebears before him) who wanted to tell me that i had done well last night and would be able to achieve a high standard if i remained and worked at it for another year .

hadi took a bench out into a clearing between huts and our lesson began . we started with the rhythm with which we ended last night . people started drifting up to watch . someone started dancing . another drummer joined us with a big bass guanguan and added an appropriate rhythm. then hadi started playing an astonishing counter-rhythm which i concluded was based around a subdivided duple grouping set against the quintuple grouping i was playing . he indicated we should swap parts and i did my best but really it was far too difficult .

his father had been sitting there watching us , occasionally throwing in a comment which iddrisu or isaihia would translate for me . now he came over , took the guanguan from its owner and started playing a different bass rhythm , trying to help me . after half an hour i was beginning to feel more secure .

i shall have a final lesson when i return from mole .

how straight-laced , how mechanical , how self-conscious , seems our european music . i have book two of my bach 48 (in the verlag edition) on the offchance i should find a piano . i love and revere this music but the experiences i have had here in ghana have altered
my perspective .

gosh , it is far too late . i must end here and sleep .

ps – my digital camera vanished inexplicably on tuesday . irritating .

: cH

h o o t s

[ 01:26 wednesday 15 november – jisonayili , northern ghana ]

i’m just back from another funeral (that sounds terrible !) , this time the other side of jisonayili . more drumming and dancing . i first dropped in on this one on sunday evening but things were far more furious tonight . the lead drummer was quite exceptional , a young fellow by the name of hadi . he’s agreed to give a me a few lessons . i now know that the big bass drum is called the gunguan and the under-arm one with the flexible tone is called the lunga .

immediately prior to this i was in a village called zayuri a few miles north , where i tracked down a couple of trumpeters with the help of iddrisu . he and isiah cycled up there with me and acted as interpreters . we picked our way between the clusters of huts in the moonlight until we found the right one . a few minutes later a lamp had been lit and we were all sitting round on stools . the two trumpeters , of whose names i am uncertain , were clearly masters of the tradtitional dagomba song repertoire . i had my saxophone with me and asked them to teach me a few songs . they confered then played through a short tune twice over . i played it back , not perfectly but pretty close . there was laughter and nodding . the first test had been passed .

they proceeded to teach me a further three songs of varying length and complexity . it soon became clear that i was not going to be permitted to get away with the slightest error . several of the songs had notes which repeated four or five time at various points . these would be easy to get right if one had the words of the song in mind , but without them they were infernally difficult to remember . it’s a long time since i’ve had to concentrate so hard !

when we left i was invited to return on friday night when there will be a larger celebration with drummers and singers . i gave them money to buy some kerosene for it .

as i write i’m listening to minidisc recordings from this evening’s funeral , which have come out magnificently . i also got some great sound and photos at a political rally into which i got swept on sunday afternoon . that was for npp , the main opposition party . i spoke to one of their mps and have hopefully secured a grandstand position to film their president , mr kufuor , when he comes here for their regional uber-rally on the twenty-third of this month .

music and dancing seem to permeate so many areas of life here . in complete contrast to the traditional practices i’ve witnessed i joined in the monthly street-dance in the centre of tamale , where a sound system and a couple of thousand revellers displace traffic for most of the night . it was pretty damn wild , and i was glad to have iso and jonah there to take care of me , but i had a terrific night and the music was excellent . hiphop , highlife , hiplife , reggae , ragga and a bit of calypso . the crowd’s reactions made me suspect it had been a long time since a whitey had been seen there . the low expectations they have of us were revealed by the many amazed (but inaccurate) exclamations of “you can dance !” . i got some good photos .

: cH

f i l l u m

[ 18:20 tuesday 14 november – giddipass cafe , tamale , northern ghana ]

this afternoon i got all the girls at tamale girls’ secondary school together and started planning a short film with them . the school is something of a pioneer organisation , the only one in northern ghana focusing on girls’ education . it’s currently housed in fairly decrepit buildings with the main road on one side and a car repair yard on the other . there’s no guarantee that the landlord won’t evict them if a more profitable tenant comes along . the girls come from far and wide but there is not enough dormitory space for all those who must stay so some classrooms are seconded as sleeping-quarters at night . others become waterlogged in the rainy season .

feminist issues have never been of particular interest to me but i have been very much moved by my experiences with these girls . in a society where everything is stacked against them they have somehow found the confidence to demand a future on their own terms . i find them rather inspiring and i hope i can be of use to them .

the school was one of the first projects ann and camfed supported here in ghana , providing uniforms , books and food to girls who would otherwise not be able to enrol . but a plan is now afoot to build a completely new campus better fitted for its task and in a more suitable location . for this a considerable amount of money must be raised .

what i want to do is to help the girls (there are about sixty of them) to use digital video to send a direct message to funders in europe and america , communicating who they are , what the school means to them and why they need support . today’s discussion kicked off that process .

the girls will be in charge of the whole process and going by today’s discussion the result will be impressive .

in my view this is the real transformative potential of digital communication technologies : their ability to empower marginalised people and communities to speak for themselves . this belief underpins much of the work i am doing and is central to the digital workshop model .

: cH