Two months in Tamale

30 11 2007

I’m a bit of a glutton when it comes to books. If I were to be honest I’d admit that I can be a bit of a glutton when it comes to food too. But if I’m enjoying a book I like to gobble it up as quickly as possible. Much like a meal really. Anyway I obtained books recently from a number of sources and I’m afraid I pigged out on them, somewhat to the detriment of this blog, and a few other administrative tasks. Mind you, I know a lot more about the recent history of Africa and have hugely enjoyed the first three novels in the “No.1 Ladies Detective Agency” series. I eagerly await my next shipments, hopefully from Claire and my Mum, to satisfy my cravings. I will have to eek out my few remaining books to make them last.

But that was a bit of an aside. This post is supposed to be a review of my first two months in Tamale. It doesn’t seem like two months. Whilst it feels like a lifetime since I was in Accra, let alone London, it also feels like no time at all has been spent in Tamale. In some ways the last two months could be spilt into 3 interleaved strands – my work, personal and home lives.

My home life is that of a single man rattling around in a huge, empty house that still has a poor water supply. In many ways water has been the main issue in this strand. The “poly-tank” has been erected, but I suspect has simply added to the problem. I’ve only had water for a few hours early one morning last week over the last 11 or 12 days. I don’t think there is enough water pressure to fill the tank, which is now between me and the mains, on those occasions that water is actually flows. If nothing else I’ll come back with a much bigger respect for water. And smelling of the disinfectant that I’ve decided to add to the stored water I use for washing myself and my clothes. On a more positive note I’ve ordered some shelves for my storeroom so hopefully my food won’t be kept on the floor much longer. I’m getting some drawers too so I should be finally able to stop living out of my suitcase.

My personal life is far more positive. I still have the “Good grief, I’m in Africa, what the blazes am I doing here?” moments, but I’ve made some great friends amongst the volunteers and my colleagues at work are very friendly. In Tamale Rik and Dinie (a Dutch VSO couple who’ve been here nearly a year) have been incredibly friendly and helpful. They’ve a car and have ferried me to their carpenters as well as giving me first taste of cheese for three months. Oddly cheese is the thing most volunteers crave the most. Dr Steve has proven to be great company when he’s in Tamale (I’ve always been a sucker for a PhD). Not to mention Dean – despite the name a very pretty Filipina woman – who is supposed to be based in Tamale but has become somewhat attached to Dr Steve. There are several other volunteers I could give an honourable mention to (Marco, Agniezka, Vicky etc.) but I won’t.

In addition to the volunteers I’ve also been fortunate enough to see some glimpses of some of my colleagues. Most noticeably I was honoured to be able to go to Wahab’s wedding. This was quite an experience, although we were only there for an hour or two out of a wedding that lasted several days. We were greeted by drummers. The compound was full of colourfully and elegantly dressed people, with the men and women mostly split into different groups. We were escorted to a room where we were served food by Wahab’s (male) friends before being led to meet his female and then male relatives. All the time tribal drummers were wandering around beating marvellous tunes. I was introduced to far more people than I could possibly remember, but they all seemed genuinely pleased I was there.  After the introductions we left the main building and entered an area where drummers expected people to dance. I watched as ISODEC’s director danced to the drums followed by one or two other members of the group in turn. As each danced the crowd (including me) placed coins and notes on their foreheads – presumably to see if they were sweating enough to make them stick – and swarms of small children dashed in to pick the money as it fell to the ground. I found myself pushed forward so I made attempts to dance, to the delight of the crowd who cheered to see a white man making a fool of himself.

After the wedding we went to a local hospital to visit Abdullah’s wife and new child. Abdullah, ISODEC’s driver, became a father the day before we went to the wedding. The maternity ward was basic but clean. Abdullah’s wife and daughter were on a mattress on the floor waiting for a doctor to discharge them.

The following weekend was the naming ceremony. The actual ceremony happened during morning prayers so we missed it, but the whole day was in effect an “open house” so we visited for a while to see the baby and congratulate the parents.
After paying our respects I had to pay my electricity bill. Paying bills is one of the differences between visiting a place and living there. When I got to the offices of the VRA they seemed like bedlam, with a huge queue and a large group of people shouting at the assistant. I have no idea what was going on but it calmed down and I joined the end of the queue in the hot office. After about an hour, and having moved about half way, a lady from the VRA asked if I wanted to be taken to the front, ahead of everyone else. As far as I could see this was simply because I was white, but it didn’t seem strange to anyone else in the queue. Obviously I refused and eventually reached the front of the queue in the conventional manner, credited my card with 5 Ghana cedis’ worth of electricity and returned my home to the light (and fridge to the cold).

As for my work life, well it started very optimistically and a little too enthusiastically. I was given a clear set of achievable goals which I set to with gusto. Of course ignoring everything I had been taught at Harborne about the importance of process versus task, and the need to collaborate. Fortunately I have an older brother who constructively pointed out that it might be a good idea to work out what ISODEC need rather than simply giving them what they’ve asked for. It was the bridge building exercise all over again (a VSO training thing). So I’ve spent time reading, talking and thinking about information and sustainable solutions. Unfortunately the key person I need to talk is Wahab, who was in Accra for a meeting for a week and then inconsiderately got married and went on honeymoon. Now he’s back he is very busy doing the work that has piled up while he’s been away. As a result I’ve been left thinking about training – but with training dates that keep being pushed back and an excellent self learning package that Rik gave me the training seems less than pressing. Despite that I’ve written an introduction to computers, how to use the internet for research, a guide to solving computer problems and I’m working on a guide to viruses and mal-ware and one on images, memory and file size.
My other work strand is to coordinate with the chap in Accra who is ISODEC’s IT officer to get an office strategy. He, for whatever reason, has not been very helpful so far.
As a result I have felt at times in the last couple of weeks that there isn’t sufficient work for me to do, and that it ma be a waste of resources my being here. I realise that that is partly a result of the initial euphoria wearing off (as VSO said it would), partly a result of frustration and partly having to adjust to a slower way of doing things. I also realise that some of my problems would go away if I was more assertive, but I find that extremely difficult – especially when the people I work with are busy doing the core stuff that ISODEC should be doing.

Overall I’m still happy that I’ve done the right thing. This is an incredible experience and I’m learning lots, and hopefully changing. The VSO pre-departure training has proved to be more useful than I expected and the other volunteers are great.

Whether my contribution here is worthwhile remains to be seen, but perhaps my victories are small ones – helping other (more useful) volunteers with their laptops and other problems, giving little bits of help to the staff here, providing the self learn CD-ROM as well as learning what life is like here and communicating that to people back home. And at least I don’t have to put up with the Jubilee line each morning.

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