Discovering the beauty of Ghana while volunteering.
The 4×4 trundles along the dirt path strewn with rocks, the odd shoe or tire lining the route underneath blossoming orange trees. austere mud houses, primitive graffiti and obscure parliament benches where locals hang out and the obligatory spot where beer is sold – these symbols typify the community of northern Ghana – a red striped land of dusty fields devoid of moisture but blooming with possibility.
A UK government development project brought me and four other volunteers here to West Africa for three months. We witnessed the immense beauty of Africa, the debilitating poverty and the beneficial development work being done.
Situated between Cote d’Ivoire and Togo, Ghana (meaning “Warrior King”) sits underneath the desert sands in Sub-Saharan Africa with a stretch of coast nicknamed “The Gold Coast” by the Portuguese. There are still remains of the colonial European forts and architecture dotted along the south coast, however Ghana, the first African nation to gain independence from colonial Britain, is a country very much standing on its own feet.
That is not to say it doesn’t have its fair share of problems. It has two seasons, a rainy and a dry and most of the economy is based around agriculture during the wet season. Much of the population in the northern part of the country depend on the rain for their year-round livelihood, and if there is a poor harvest then that is simply tough luck. The poverty is noticeable everywhere you turn, from the state of the roads to the mud-built houses to the blind beggars defying the intense sun.
Yet, there are gems amongst the dust. Three hours from Tamale, capital of the northern region, is Mole National Park, the biggest nature reserve and safari park in Ghana. All around the central Mole Motel – a pleasant hotel enjoying monopoly inside the park – are acres of lush vegetation stretching to the horizon. We took a private tro (minibus) there from Tamale. The guidebook warnings of a terrible road are unfounded – the two and a half hour trip was pleasant enough. On arrival elephants were bathing in the nearby watering hole and huge eagles were circling overhead. The hotel staff were helpful in organizing our tours and making our stay as comfortable as possible.
For roughly USD75 you can stay in a comfortable air-conditioned room, go on an open top jeep safari, convene with elephants, antelopes, baboons and many species of birds and enjoy Ghanaian and international dishes in the restaurant. The jeep safari takes roughly two hours and you are pretty much guaranteed to see one or more of the 400 or so African elephants that roam within the safety of the park. It has got to be the best value safari in Africa.
Working in Development
We were based in Bolgatanga, three hours north of Tamale, the capital of the Upper East Region where over 70 percent of the people were unemployed in 2010. Incomes in the Upper East are traditionally based in and around agriculture; however varying environmental factors mean that this is an increasingly unreliable source of money. TradeAID (www.tradeaidgh.org), the NGO who we were working with, seeks to address this by promoting alternative revenue streams by facilitating the trade of the local craftspeople – which includes anything from the basket weaving that Bolgatanga is so well known for to leather work and traditional ‘smocks’- great woven garments worn usually for special occasions.
Working with smock makers, fabric and basket weavers and craftswomen with disabilities, it’s easy to see the benefit of development projects in people’s lives. In the couple of months we’ve been here, we’ve seen the profits of the craftswomen with disabilities grow week by week because of business planning and monitoring training we’ve introduced. The basket weaving groups working with TradeAID also enjoy 265 percent more profit compared with selling at local markets. Poverty reduction can be sustainable, and development organizations like TradeAID are making it happen.
An area 15km outside Bolgatanga steeped in ancient beliefs is Tongo Hills. A private taxi will make the return trip for about USD10 and even the journey itself is worth it as the rolling hills unfold over the dusty savannah.
The ancient shrine is the focal point of a trip to Tongo. Reminiscent of the vision of The Lion King, a ledge overlooks beautiful plains and the White Volta River far down below where the local community’s spiritual shrine is positioned. It’s a peaceful spot where everyone entering must remove their shirts – men and women alike.
Locals consult the shrine through the medium of a soothsayer, sacrificing varying sized animals based on the shrine’s instruction and the gravity of the problem they’re trying to solve.
The nearby Chief’s Palace is a labyrinth containing his 18 wives and all their offspring, the mud walls adorned with bones of sacrifices to their ancestors. It’s not unusual in these parts of Ghana for men to take multiple wives, but even locals in Bolgatanga laugh that the Tongo Chief’s 18 is excessive!
A tour of the area and an invite into the Chiefs Palace will cost you a few dollars for a guide and although vegetarian tourists may be slightly uncomfortable with the remains of animal sacrifices strewn around, the people are accommodating and happy for you to snap photos.
Beach Break Musings
Although there is still much development work being undertaken, Ghana is one of the most developed of the West African nations in terms of political stability and wealth. The south of the country enjoys relative prosperity and has reduced unemployment figures drastically over the past 20 years. It is definitely a country moving forward and with increased tourism will continue to do so.
One such tourist destination is Busua Beach on the south coast, further east than its larger and more hectic counterpart, Cape Coast. Busua is an arching bay with one strip of five to 10 establishments and one tiny high street, a calming paradise set amongst the forests on the headland. It’s reachable from the capital Accra by tro in a few hours or a gruelling 12 hours by bus from the northern region towns of Bolagatanga and Tamale.
The arduous journey from Bolgatanga was worth it as the water is warm and the tide barely changes, a topaz colored ocean under the African sun. Varying hotels range from a couple of basic beach huts where you may be woken by a monkey through the window to two comfortable hotels, all ranging from about USD4 per night to USD20.
Black Star Surf Club provides the entertainment with music blaring and monthly surf competitions for locals and tourists alike. In the interests of impartiality, tourists visiting Busua may be asked to officially judge the surf contest, being plied with beer for the service. They also organize bi-weekly jungle parties with guest DJs providing the soundtrack for the jungle clearing half a kilometre from the beach.
For those who want to enjoy peace and tranquillity, it’s only a short walk down the deserted beach to find a quieter spot along the coast. You can explore the rocky headland and arrive at untouched coves, taking in the scenery while musing on the disparity of a country so seemingly divided.
While Ghana certainly doesn’t evoke the images of commercials where starving children wither away, there is still an obvious need for development. The silver lining is that there is much being done, and not by huge organizations bearing down on Africans, telling them what to do.
The majority of the projects we encountered were organised by local people, building local enterprises to assist their communities. Take Samuel for example, a nurse at Afrikids Medical Centre who uses his income to fund his own orphanage. Or Nicholas, the Executive Director of TradeAID, who began his work with craftspeople in Bolgatanga over 14 years ago and is now one of the most revered men in the community.
Ghana is not a country in need of handouts. It’s a place to be admired and cherished – with lessons to be learnt from the locals’ laissez-faire attitude to life. Even with over 70 percent poverty in the Upper East the people are more than happy to go out of their way to help you, traversing vast markets to find the things on your list, chasing you half a kilometer through town to give you your change and the simple, constant smiles and shouts of “you are welcome!”
That is the overarching memory to be taken from the northern region – the wide smiles and giddy laughs. Even when times are hard it’s all the more reason to smile, laugh and look to the sky. And that is why Ghana is definitely a country on the up.
Images by Jonathan Rebours