I’ve had a handful of emails from people heading to Tamale asking what it’s like and what they should bring. Since I’m at heart a lazy soul I thought that rather than answering each one individually I’d have a go at answering most of the most common questions in one go. Some of these answers are specific to Tamale and some apply to all of Ghana.
Bring earplugs, torch(es) and suntan lotion. Ghana can be surprisingly loud and tends to start early. Quite a lot of Tamale doesn’t have street lights but does have open storm drains. The locals don’t really need sun protection. A “swiss army” style knife can be useful but not vital.
Don’t bring anything it would hurt you to lose.
When it’s dry it is very, very dry in Tamale. When it’s wet it’s very, very wet. It is always hot, anything below 30C is cool. There’s almost no rain from October to April, colossal amounts fall in August.
Ghana has some of the most spectacular thunderstorms I’ve seen, sometimes preceded by a strong dust storm an hour or two before the rain starts. Unplug electrical stuff if you think the storm will be close. In the big storms you basically have two choices – get in or get wet. I strongly recommend getting in; everyone else (including taxi drivers) does so with remarkable speed. The really big storms can be very destructive, ripping roofs off building and branches off trees.
The Harmattan wind in January and February brings fine red dust down from the Sahara. This will get in everywhere and turns white clothes an interesting brown colour. At its worst visibility can be down to 10s of metres but that’s unusual. During Harmattan nights get quite cold (below 20C which will feel cold when you’ve been there a bit).
Expect to be smart for work. Not jacket and tie but men should wear shirts with collars and reasonably smart trousers. Shorts are not appropriate for work for men or women. Outside of work there is a fair amount of leeway, especially for white people but on the whole Ghanaians expect clothes to be clean and ironed. It’s probably best to keep your legs covered at least to the knees. In the rainy season (and anytime in the south) long trousers and sleeves are a good idea just to keep the mozzies off. In more rural areas people are more conservative so women should take more care to cover flesh, but no-one expects a non Muslim woman to cover her head. Personally I tended to wear a hat in the sun to protect my head. You’ll be bucket washing your clothes (and possibly yourself) with strong detergent so don’t bring any clothes that won’t survive fairly rough treatment.
Women will get regular proposals of marriage. On the whole it’s best to take these with humour and as the compliment they’re intended as, no-one seriously expects you to marry a stranger. Wearing “provocative” clothes may make things a little worse.
The electricity supply in Ghana is supposed to be the same as the UK – 240V and square three pin sockets. Unfortunately the reality can sometimes vary, bring a surge protector if you bring a laptop or other delicate electrical equipment. Short power cuts (lights out) are reasonably regular but longer ones have been less common while I was there. If the rains come late so the level of Lake Volta drops a system of “rolling” weekly power cuts have been introduced in the past. The other problem with electricity is that electrical goods sold in Ghana may have been intended for different markets, so there is the whole range of plugs. It is probably a good idea to bring a universal adapter.
Lots of volunteers bring their laptops with them and they can be really useful for watching DVDs and you can buy external modems that use the mobile phone network to connect to the internet, these are probably worth it unless you’re a short term volunteer. Bear in mind though that the heat and dust are not kind to computers and there is crime in Ghana, volunteers have been robbed and burgled, so don’t bring anything that you can’t afford to lose.
Mobile phones are ubiquitous; if you bring yours it can be unlocked and used with a local SIM. It’s a lot cheaper but don’t expect the same quality of service.
You can buy all the basics in Tamale as well as a few luxuries (e.g. Pringles, cheese or cheap wine). There are a couple of second hand bookshops, one in town behind the main tro-tro station and the other just off the Bolga road at the Jasonaayilia junction (several km out). You can get almost anything in Accra (e.g. bacon, real coffee etc) if you’re willing to pay.
Tamale is flat with wide roads and wide sidewalks making it pretty good for cycling. If you’re going to get a bike it may be worth bringing out safety gear like flashing lights, reflective bands and a helmet. Not all motorbike riders believe in either using lights or keeping off the sidewalk so being seen is useful.
There’s no need to bring dollars unless you want to stay in upmarket hotels (which sometimes quote prices in dollars and convert to Cedis). Bringing a float of sterling might be useful until you get paid. In theory you should be able to use your credit/debit cards in Ghana if you warn your bank first. In practise the banks sometimes flag West Africa as a high risk area and make you confirm again once you’re there.
On the whole Ghana is safe, especially the north. Saying that there is crime (it seems to come in waves). Violence is rare but robberies happen. The biggest danger is probably from road traffic accidents. The advice is to avoid travelling at night if you can. Not always possible but I try not to use tro-tros after dark.