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


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


8 05 2009

Hygeine SpotI spend a reasonable amount of time at the local hygiene spot. Oddly this isn’t to keep clean but where I drink. The hygiene spot is my local bar (it’s outside the school of hygiene and spot just means bar, hence the name). Like most spots in Tamale it’s a converted transport container with one side cut away to form a couple of steel doors that are bolted shut at night. During the day they’re flung wide open in a gesture of hospitality, and in the evenings large speakers entertain the district with the local radio. Drinks are kept in a large chest fridge, if you ask for something at the bottom there’s much clanking and clunking of glass as the bottles stacked on top are moved. The till is a plastic tub holding the money. The toilet is open air, a pile of charcoal around which a basic fence has been erected. Seating is basically outside, with the choice of a shaded area behind or watching the road (and my house) on the open area in front. I’ve spent a good few pleasant evenings with a book or chatting while watching the world go by.

Most volunteers have a local spot and get to know the staff to varying degrees. When I’m in Bolga the staff of the “Feel at Home” spot make me feel at home by knowing my drink of choice is Club. They also have some of the best spicy goat kebabs going. In Accra I used to hang out at Isaac’s and there were only a couple of decent spots in the whole of Salaga.

Since Fred moved in I’ve got to know the staff better. Apparently for the first year I was considered stand-offish and unfriendly. Can’t imagine why, I always said hello before reading my book. Fred is the master of charm, to the extent that when our gas cylinder ran out while I was cooking our porridge one morning he sweet talked them into finishing it on their charcoal burner. He’s also persuaded them to deliver beers to our house on occasion. While my usual tipple is Club beer (Fred drinks Star – he has no taste) I am occasionally able to enjoy a gin and tonic. The major problem isn’t gin (a bottle of Ghanaian gin is less than half the price of 100g of cheese) but tonic. We’ve had repeated arguments that while it does say Schweppes on the bottle bitter lemon is not tonic.

Another Photo of the Hygeine spot:

The Spot

And another spot:
New Spot

Naming an NGO

28 04 2009

Sign ForestThere are roughly 15 million NGOs based along the 7 or 8 kilometres from the centre of town to my house (I haven’t actually counted them so I might be exaggerating slightly). I know this from the profusion of signs along the road pointing to the locations of these various organisations, and they all seem to have very similar names, I reckon that if I selected 3 or 4 random words from the standard set and I think I’d have a believable organisation. Unscientifically I’d say the vast majority of the organisations have at least one of these words:

Alliance, Northern Ghana, Network, Coalition, Integrated, Development, Social, Community, Co-operative, Development, Women, Youth, Health, Education, Organisation, Rural, Action, Rights or Children

Grazing another world

21 04 2009

I’ve abused the generosity of several private sector ex-pats in the last couple of weeks, and got a glimpse of another life. A week after the whole spit roast pig party with the employees of a water company I was drinking wine and swimming in a private pool belonging to commercial shea nut buyers (after a rowdy karaoke session). I was swimming fully dressed and it was five o’clock in the morning, but I didn’t get much wetter than I had when I’d been caught in a tropical storm earlier. A few days later the executive of a telecoms company bought me lunch and dinner and provided good company. Interestingly two of the connections were made as a result of my internet presence, and the third was a random “kidnapping” (we thought we were getting a lift into town, they decided we were joining their party).

Each was a glimpse into another world. The parties were thrown by Europeans living in houses in Tamale a world from the house Fred & I share. Water isn’t worried about, there are backup generators, air-conditioning, satellite TV, good food and great booze (in apparently unlimited quantities). The buildings appear to be structurally sound but surrounded by high walls with razor wire and goats seemed totally absent. It did seem a little jarring being driven home the morning after looking at the poverty on the streets as we were travelled in big air-conditioned 4×4 blearily recovering from the excesses of the night before.

At first glance it seems wrong that such opulence should exist amidst such squalor, but distance shouldn’t make inequality more or less acceptable. The houses I visited weren’t that different in essence from the homes my friends and family live in back in the UK – why is acceptable to enjoy wealth in Europe but not in Africa? And the people whose generosity I was abusing are actually here, creating jobs, sharing skills and improving infrastructure. That they’re doing at commercial rates rather than charitably doesn’t change that they are making a difference – probably a more significant difference than I’ll achieve after nearly 2 years, and I’m extremely grateful for all of their hospitality.

A majestic storm

2 04 2009

Gathering stormLast night I watched a storm creeping towards me. It was a spectacular sight, starting as a white, anvil shaped, cloud about the size of my fist. Over the course of the evening the cloud grew, with almost continuous flashes highlighting different facets of its mother-of-pearl like texture. Occasionally a jagged white line scarred the surface for a moment. As the cloud got large I started to hear the occasional rumble of thunder. Finally, after several hours, all of the stars had been obscured and the first large drops of rain began to fall. It took 30 minutes or so for the rain to really get going, giving me (and friends) time to get home from the restaurant we’d been in, and I tried to go to sleep to the roar of a tropical storm on a tin roof and almost continuous thunder and lightening. Once I did get to sleep I was woken up by an immense flash and simultaneous crash of thunder – I have no idea where was hit, but I suspect the radio mast opposite. This morning the rain had reduced to a gentle drizzle and now all that’s left are dark, brooding clouds.

It wasn’t the first storm of the season, or even the most destructive. There was a storm a few weeks ago that was preceded by a massive dust storm that left tree branches, road signs and small shacks scattered around. What was impressive about last night’s storm was the sheer majestic elegance of the build up, an unworldly light show that I will remember for a log time, and an aspect of Ghana I’ll miss.

[Photo taken last year, doesn’t do justice but the best I have]

Crime wave

24 03 2009

For the vast majority of the time I’ve spent in Tamale it has felt like a really safe place to be. Sadly this is no longer true. Since I got back after Christmas it seems that a gang of thieves have moved into Tamale and are targeting the white community. I’ve personally been robbed and been present during another attempted robbery. I’m also aware of at least 8 other robberies this year, one of which involved violence when the victim resisted. That compares with just my wallet going missing in the entire previous 14 months.

Tamale has a huge “voluntourist” population, with lots of young Dutch and Belgian women in their early twenties paying to work in orphanages “giving the babies the love they wouldn’t otherwise get”. Sadly someone has realised that they (and the other, older, volunteers and white staff) present a lucrative and easy mark. The thieves lurk near restaurants popular with the volunteers and sweep past them on a motorbike after they leave, grabbing any bags they may be carrying. Worryingly they seem to be changing their behaviour and may have started to abandon their motorbikes and simply resort to threats. An interesting feature of this is the disgust of the locals for the thieves, to the extent of the widespread call for their deaths. Sadly the beating to death of a captured thief before the police can arrive is an occasional feature of Ghanaian life so the crooks may be risking more than a jail sentence.

For anyone reading this in Tamale, most of the robberies seem to be happening round the Choggu/ Agric forest area, so near Swad, TICCS and the Mariam hotel. Personal I’m seriously considering avoiding those restaurants after dark.

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