First impressions of Tamale

1 10 2007

I’m just completing my first fortnight “in country” (dreadful phrase) and am now ensconced in my new pad in Tamale.  The house I’ve been allocated is in a military district of town which (apparently) makes it much sought after.  Despite being out of power for 16 years the military still get looked after here and thus this district is less subject to “no lights” (i.e. power blackouts) and the water being cut-off.  I’m told that water shortages are a real problem here – especially during the Harmattan season when hot dry winds come off the Sahara.  This lasts roughly November to March and everyone prepares by storing water for washing etc.  Flora (a fellow VSO vol who’s been here for a year) said that if I survive Harmattan I’ll survive anything Ghana can throw at me.  It seems really quite an unpleasant prospect.  Hey ho.

On a more cheerful note Tamale (Tam-a-lay) seems pleasant enough at the moment.  My house is a large (5 bedroom) bungalow which actually has electricity and (cold) running water (not in the kitchen though) and ceiling fans in the bedrooms and living room.  This makes it extremely luxurious compared to the digs that some of my VSO colleagues have got.  Apart from a tenant who only lasted a month I’m the first person staying in the house, and it has been empty for a while.  I’m not sure why.  I can even listen to the local radio station courtesy of the bar opposite who have it blaring out at high volume.  I was quite relieved when there was a power cut last night during a colossal thunder storm and we were plunged into silence for the first time.  I say silence but the night here is naturally noisy with cicadas competing with frogs and toads while the goats bleat away, plus the thunder rumbled away.

Actually there are goats everywhere.  They wander blithely onto the road and nibble the weeds in my garden.  There is livestock even in central Tamale, giving an extremely rural feel to a city of 300,000.  In fact the whole town has a bit of a market feel to it with small shops all selling the same products lining the streets and street hawkers carrying goods on their heads.  If I want oranges or OMO washing powder I’ll have no problem.  My shopping here is a bit random at the moment and I’ll be having fried eggs, fresh pineapple and malt biscuits for tea tonight.  I cooked spaghetti with tomato and “garden egg” (a local type of mini-aubergine) sauce for lunch.  That I cooked at all is a miracle given that when I arrived on Friday I couldn’t work out how to connect the gas cylinder to the camping style burner I’ve got and I had no pots, pans, plates, cutlery or utensils, much less any actual ingredients.  My lunch was a tribute to the help I got from local Ghanaians and from Flora, my fellow volunteer who guided me through the mysteries of Melcom.  I still have plenty to buy (e.g. cleaning materials and a pillow) but can survive now.

Tamale is very flat (as is most of Ghana) and most of the buildings are bungalows, with a few mud huts scattered around plus shipping containers that have been converted to small bars or shops.  There are a few taller, colonial style, buildings in the city centre but the biggest buildings are probably the mosques.  People in Ghana tend to be very devout, whatever their religious persuasion, but also extremely tolerant.

Getting around isn’t too difficult here.  The local taxis are more like buses, following a set route and picking up passengers along the way.  When you hail one you say where you’re going and if it’s one their way you join the others in the cab, telling the driver where you want to be dropped off.  My “address” is the Bolga road, school of hygiene junction (n.b. NOT my postal address).   I intend to buy a bicycle as I’ve ended up in the only town in Africa with bicycle lanes, and work is a simple bike ride away.

Unlike Accra there isn’t any need to haggle in taxis, the trip from my house to town is always 30Gp (Ghana Peshwars, about 15p) and the one time the driver had to divert he let me out within walking distance of my destination but refused payment.  In fact the Ghanaians seem mostly extremely honest, with people following me to give me my change and correcting me when I get the amounts wrong in their favour.  In fact one of the things I’m finding hard to adjust to is just how friendly and helpful the locals are.  Obviously there are exceptions and we were warned by the high commission of a few scams here in Tamale, but on the whole people seem to genuinely just want to say “Hello, how are you?” and are delighted to get a response.  The children are really sweet and a little wave from a person with a white face gets them giggling and shouting “Hello”.

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