Six things I wish I’d known about Tamale before I came here

20 11 2007

I’ve been asked by the VSO programme office in Accra to compile a list of “Six things I wish I’d known about Tamale before I got here” for the benefit of future volunteers.  I’ve done this bearing in mind that for northern Ghana Tamale is THE thriving, cosmopolitan metropolis. For anyone coming from London, Manchester or Brighton it’s a rural backwater. With that caveat here is my list:

1. Water
Tamale has water issues. In most areas the water will be switched off for several days at a time.  While this is happening you use stored water for washing etc and buy water for drinking.  A lot of people have 1,000 litre storage tanks which makes it a lot easier. I’m limited to a plastic dustbin full so I have to be careful about my water usage. This means frugal bucket baths and care washing up when the water isn’t flowing.

2. Shopping
You get most things here if you know where to look. Don’t expect Waitrose, but the Melcom store has most household goods.  As well as food the central market sells little treats like tin-openers and washing up pads. There are mini “supermarkets” around the town centre which sell a variety of tinned food and other goods, and I’ve seen proper cheese and reasonable wine in them. Exotic vegetables like cabbages and carrots are expensive but available and hawkers sell the usually street stuff. Petrol station shops contain surprising luxuries like mars bars and the only place I’ve seen novels for sale in Tamale was in a petrol station.

3. Restaurants and bars
There is a nice mix of restaurants here, from places with an almost exclusive white clientele which serve pizza and curry (for example Crest in the town centre or SWADD near the bolga road, by the Catholic guest house) through restaurants that serve foo-foo and light soup (for example in the STC bus station) to roadside chops and grills. Toilets can be an issue (see point 1). There are even night clubs for the more party orientated and finding beer in town near midnight is possible at the weekend.

4. Share taxis and transport generally
The taxis in Tamale operate in two modes, share and charter (or “dropping”).  The nearest I came to an argument with a taxi driver here was my fault not understanding that if I asked a taxi to take me and me alone all the way to my destination I would have to pay for the whole taxi, in effect all 5 seats and therefore 5 times the normal price.
The other transport issue are the longer distance travel.  For this you can either go for a scheduled bus, but these are not very frequent and tend to leave at 6am but are reliable.  The alternative are Tro-Tros.  These leave when full and can breakdown in the middle of nowhere (and parts of the northern region are remote in a way unimaginable to someone from England).

5. Noise
I used to live in central London, next to the South Circular road, above a row of restaurants and bars and near an ambulance station.  I miss the tranquillity.
From the 4am call to prayer to the local spot blasting out music into the evening Ghana isn’t quiet.  And nature conspires too – goats burp and bleat outside your window and cockerels serenade dawn, dusk and most other times.  The night chorus of frogs, grasshoppers and cicadas can be incredibly loud. Some volunteers even have bats nesting in the roof. I’m glad I brought ear-plugs with me. 

6. Money – foreign exchange and banking
There aren’t any independent foreign exchanges in Tamale, only banks (and dodgy looking individuals in the market).  Unfortunately the banks are shut at the weekend and I don’t trust the furtive fellows.  There are two international banks in town, Standard Charted and Barclays.  Both have ATMs that accept international cards, but the ATMs and networks can be unreliable.




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