The last post

13 07 2009

Tim is no longer in Tamale, nor anywhere in Ghana so I think I ought to stop blogging as “Tim in Tamale”. Instead I’m blogging elsewhere, contact me if you want the details.

If you’ve been following me for a while, thank you and I hope I’ve managed either to  entertain or inform you.

If you’ve just stumbled upon my blog and want to find out what it’s like to be a VSO volunteer in Northern Ghana, then jump back to an early post (like this one) and work your way forward (at the bottom of each post you’re offered links to the posts chronologically either side of the current, the right hand one is the future). If you’re interested in reading about my life before I volunteered read from the start, here, but I feel it took me a while to get used to blogging

I hope you enjoy what I’ve written and continue following the new blog.


Tamale Tips

4 07 2009

Tamale - Bolga Rd

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.

First Tamale Sunset

Goodbye Ghana

1 07 2009

Ada Foah sunsetI didn’t actually cry, but I was close to it saying goodbye to people who’ve become close friends. And now I’m sitting in my mother’s dining room listening to a couple of Ghanaian hip-life tracks and thinking fondly about the noise, heat, colour and chaos that is Ghana. I’m also trying to avoid thinking about the next phase of my life looming ahead.

For years I was nervous about visiting Africa, partly because almost everyone I knew who had visited came back claiming to have “fallen in love” with the continent. I was a bit dubious about how one could fall in love with an entire continent, especially when they had usually only visited a single country. But, generally averse to forming strong emotional connections, I wasn’t going to take any risks. My initial impressions of Ghana lulled me into a false sense of security; the litter everywhere, the low, nondescript houses and the lack of impressive scenery left me cold. However Ghana (and I’d never dream of speaking for Africa) is a subtle seductress, wiling her way into your affections through subtle charms. Her flaws are so glaring that after a while you stop noticing them and the humour and good nature of the people, the vibrancy of colours and crowds as well as the heat that engulfs you like a comfort blanket all start to wear down your resistance. Add to that the companionship of a network of fellow volunteers who are kind, witty, clever and engaging as well as sharing most of my values (and some of my interests) and I will admit I was beguiled. I’ll miss Ghana, but I’ll miss my friends more.

Xmas DancingSome great memories will include travelling through the rural Upper East Region on the back of Agnieszka’s motorbike, dancing at the Navrongo St Patrick’s party, spending time in Salaga and with the old Salaga crew, possibly my best Christmas ever on the coast, dinner parties at the Peace Corps house with Kim, Fred and random Peace Corps vols, visiting schools in Bongo, helping with the distribution in Walewale, travelling up and down between Tamale and Bolga by tro-tro (including one dramatic breakdown), interminable Nigerian movies on interminable STC bus trips to and from Accra, learning to be patient while explaining what seems to me to be the obvious, teaching a class of 24 about Word and Excel with only 8 computers (some of which had Danish keyboards to confuse things), smiling children shouting “hello” and waving, discussing random things for hours with Fred and sitting in a spot with a book and a beer. The best aspect has been the other volunteers, perhaps the worse not having enough to do. I’ve learnt to cope with not having flowing water, dodgy electricity and having to burn my garbage (nearly killing Fred in the process).

Ghana hosted the Cup of African Nations and held an election while I was here. Both were spectacles and both went well (although Ghana coming 3rd in CAN was a bit of disappointment). I also attended VSO’s bi-annual volunteers’ conference which was a good chance to meet and discuss with other volunteers, plus a chance to Scottish dance and generally enjoy myself.

In my final trip around Ghana she revealed what a beauty she actually is. In four weeks of fairly constant travel we still missed whole regions, but were able to enjoy scenery and wildlife as well as history and architecture. We missed the beaches of the Western Region, the hippo sanctuary in the Upper East and I never got to set foot in the Volta Region, rumoured to be the prettiest in Ghana. I won’t talk about what we did see as I’ve done that in previous posts.

If you’re interested please read the blog (perhaps starting from from here) or look at my photos here

Goodbye trip photos – 4

28 06 2009

I’ve put a bunch of photos on Flickr, but thought I’d share a few here. Previous posts showed the first stages of the trip

After the ferry and a night in Tamale we headed to the pottery workshop in Sirigu
Sirigu Women's Organisation of Pottery & Art

Then on to the traditionally decorated church in Navrongo
Navrongo Cathedral

The next day we spent the morning in Bolga market
Bolga Market Donkeys

Followed by a “spot crawl” in the evening

No photos of the time I spent in Tamale, nor of the chaos of Kumasi but a few of Lake Bosumtwi (or Bosumtwe depending)
Lake Bosumtwe Bridgr

Where they can’t fish from boats
Lake Bosumtwe Plank fishing

Goodbye trip photos 3

28 06 2009

A sunset at Ada Faoh
Ada Foah sunset

Then upto Ghana’s electricity supply
Akosombo dam

Where we caught the ferry
Lake volta ferry

Up Lake Volta
Lake volta sunset

In fact we caught two ferries over Lake Volta, but one was smaller than the other
Yeji ferry
(The guy with the loud hailer is selling patent medicine)

Goodbye travel photos – 2

28 06 2009

In the central region we visited Ghana’s first ever cocoa farm (near Kofridua)
Cocoa Original tree

On the same day we visited Ghana’s botanical gardens in Aburi (which contains a helicopter for some reason)
Aburi helicopter

While we were staying in Koforidua we visited the waterfall in Boti
Boti Falls

We then went to the beautiful place of Ada Foah and stayed in a nice hotel:
ada Foah hotel

And watched the locals paddle by
Ada Foah boat

Goodbye trip – some pictures (1)

28 06 2009

I tend to put pictures on my flickr account but thought it might be nice to blog them for once. Apologies to those with a slow internet connection.

We started in Accra, this is independence square:

Accra Monument

And this is Nkwame Nkrume circle, a fairly important travel hub
Accra Circle

From Accra we caught an STC bus to Cape Coast where we explored the towns and forts in Cape Coast and Elmina
Cape Coast Castle

Elmina Beach

Elmina from Fort Jago – a fort we explored almost totally alone
Elmina Gun View

A little north of Cape Coast is a fantastic treetop walkway through the rainforest
Kakum walkway

Goodbye travels (part 2)

24 06 2009

You’ll have to forgive me if this post sounds a bit like it was written by the Ghana tourist board, but I’m writing this sitting inside a huge meteorite crater on the edge of a lake where it’s taboo to fish from boats so the local fishermen are paddling out perched on planks of wood. There’s no internet access so it won’t get published until I get back to Kumasi.

Lake Bosumtwi is an incredibly peaceful place, with the sound of the water lapping and insects chirping while the crater rim is swathed in tropical jungle. It’s nearly the end of my goodbye tour, tomorrow (Thursday) we go to Accra and we fly out on Friday, and I’ve been really impressed by how much there is to do and see in Ghana. Travelling has been reasonably easy, if not always totally comfortable, and the Ghanaians on the whole have been eager to help and direct. We have been hassled, but nowhere near as much as a pair of white people travelling in other poor countries might be. After four weeks of fairly continuous travelling I’m as much amazed by how much I’ve missed as how much I’ve seen.

This isn’t the first beautiful and peaceful spot we’ve found on our travels; there was Ada Foah on the mouth of the river Volta – a retreat for rich Accra residents (Accraians? Accraites?) with a Mediterranean feel sandwiched between a mangrove swamp lined lagoon and the palm fringed Atlantic bursting with bird and insect* life. A place where the wealthy water-skied while locals paddled dugout canoes. There was also Atimpoku, a small town clinging to the Volta river just below the Akisombo dam, where the river flows through a forested valley and under a fairly impressive bridge. I mentioned hans cottage, Kakum and Boti falls in my last post and there is a beauty (especially in the rainy season) to a lot of the other places we’ve been to.

We got to see a fair bit of lake Volta (apparently the largest man made lake in the world) from the ferry we caught that travelled the several hundred kilometres from the dam at Akisombo to the northern township of Yeji. The 26 hours took us through a remote area of Ghana and an incredibly spectacular lightning display. The lightning was followed by the predictable rain, but fortunately for us we’d got one of the very few cabins available. The rain showed how well our fellow travellers had chosen their patch on the deck to sleep. The small band of white people who’d chosen to sleep on the top deck to get the best view regretted their decision (and understood why the locals let them). The next day was hot and sunny so everyone dried off while the ferry stopped at tiny mud hut villages to load and unload.

Yeji was probably the smallest town we stayed in, but also possibly he noisiest. We arrived on the evening a local radio station was holding a dance competition in the main square, so hip-life music was being played at a deafening volume. To describe Yeji as a one horse town is probably overestimating the number of horses. It seemed to consist of just three streets and Rhona described the precarious dugout canoe out as the best thing about Yeji. The trip from Yeji to Tamale (via Salaga) was punctuated by the bus breaking down near a pretty little town that happened to be having it’s market day, complete with visiting Fulani tribesmen. The exoticism of the local market impressed the 3 Canadians and 3 Germans who’d also been on the ferry but may have given them a false idea of northern Ghana. It was probably the only time I’ve actually appreciated the bus breaking down here though.

The week or so we spent in the north gave me a chance to say some final farewells and for Rhona (a friend visiting from the UK) the chance to see some of what my life has been like here. Hopefully she was impressed by the pottery and arts centre in the little village of Sirigu and the beautiful decorated cathedral in Navrongo. Rhona loved Bolga’s colourful, noisy, busy (and searingly hot) market and in the evening we joined several volunteers on a “spot crawl” through Bolga that included a chance to drink the local brew “pito” in a traditional pito base.

I’ll admit there was a tear in my eye as I said goodbye to Tamale, Fred and my VSO life, and as I struggled with the various pieces of luggage I’m manhandling home (one because I’ll miss them and the other because the strap was hurting my shoulder). An early morning bus ride to Kumasi would have shown more of Ghana had I stayed awake (up late trying to get my suitcase to close) and was followed by a chaotic wander around Ghana’s busiest feeling city and the obligatory meal in Vic Baboo’s. On Saturday morning I’ll be back in Britain, with all this as fading memories.


*Sadly the insect life in Ada Foah included the most aggressive and numerous mosquitoes we encountered on our trip as well as stunning dragonflies and butterflies.

Goodbye travels (part 1)

10 06 2009

The thing that has struck the most about our travels is just how much there is to do and see in Southern Ghana.  So far we’ve spent a few days acclimatizing in Accra (and visited Mekola market, Osu, James town, sat on La beach as well as meeting various other volunteers).

From Accra we travelled to Cape Co. Cape Coast and its sister town of Elmina are little gems with hideous pasts. Each has a stunning colonial castle, shining white perched on palm fringed shores that were the scenes of the industrialised evil of the slave trade, 10s of millions suffering immense cruelty and injustice that resulted in most of their deaths and exile and slavery for those that survived. Both castles are well worth visiting and Cape Coast and Elmina have various hidden treasures scattered around that reward the intrepid explorer.

Outside Cape Coast is Kakum national park. This is a fantastic place that offers a walkway though the rainforest canopy, 45m high in places with stunning views. We stayed in the nearby Hans Cottage Botel I’m still not sure what a botel is). This is great with tame crocodiles that can be stroked and a huge variety of bird life incude a huge colony of bright yellow weaver birds (the males build an elaborate nest that the female destroys if it isn’t up to scratch) as well as kingfishers and other avian delights.

From Hans Cottage Botel we traveled to Koforidua, where my friend Richard lives. This is a lovely little town nestling in jungle covered hills. Yesterday we went to Ghana’s original cocoa plantation and a great botanical gardens in Aburi. Today was spent visiting local waterfals and walking in the countryside.

Reasonable weather and travel so far. Tomorrow we’re off to the Volta Region coast. I’ll post photos when I get a chance.

Leaving ISODEC

1 06 2009

My actual final day was a bit of an anticlimax, but these things often are. Most of my colleagues were “travelling”, a word that can be used to describe almost any reason for absence from the office. In this case they spent the last two weeks of my time with ISODEC visiting partner local NGOs scattered around northern Ghana. Their absence meant that my last fortnight was, to say the least, slow. But I did get to mark my departure in a few ways, and as a result I feel a bit better about going. I’m proud of the two main things I made happen, although in both cases other people did the actual difficult bits. I’m either getting better at delegation or just lazier.

The penultimate weekend was mildly frenetic. I had my grand leaving party on Saturday – a staggered event (if that’s an appropriate word) starting with the my Ghanaian friends and colleagues arriving bang on time and the non-Ghanaians arriving fashionably late (and me flapping that no one would arrive). I persuaded our spot opposite to lend us most of their chairs as well as a couple of cooks for the afternoon so I was able to meet the Ghanaian expectation of something to eat and a bottle of something (soft mostly) to drink. There were the mandatory speeches and presentation and I was given a beautiful hand stitched white smock with a black felt, floppy hat as well as a signed photo of my colleagues. I was genuinely touched. As the evening progressed the Ghanaians tended to leave (on the whole they aren’t night birds) and more westerners arrived. A surprising and flattering number of my fellow VSOs travelled down from the Upper East Region and at about 10.30 a mixed group of expats arrived to give the party that little boost it needed to last till about 3am. Personally I had a great time, although at points it felt like I was jumping from group to group without doing anyone justice. In true VSO spirit the cleaning up had been done by the time I woke up.

The Monday was a public holiday (African Union day) but I’d cajoled and bullied other departing vols into attending a self organised “leavers’ conference” in Bolga. VSO are supposed to organise a workshop for volunteers before they depart to consider “reverse culture shock” as well as other practical aspects of leaving the volunteer life. For budgetary reasons VSO Ghana decided not to organise one this year so I decided that northern vols would have one of their own. I spent a few weeks emailing and negotiating then dumped the task of actually organising the day onto people I knew would make a far better job of it, which they did. It did mean though that the day after my big party I had to jump onto a trotro to Bolga and then rush down Tuesday morning to be in work for the afternoon.

Despite, or maybe because of, the rushing around I felt a weight had been lifted from me for the rest of the week. One of the VSO programme officers did my leaving interview Friday morning and left me feeling more positive about my achievements and now I’m no longer a volunteer, NGO worker or general well meaning do gooder. For the next 4 weeks I’m a plain honest, tourist bringing plain, honest tourist dollars to Ghana.

The party:
Evening Party

The leavers conference:
Leaver Conf

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