Tesano, Dzo-ho and Azonto: on being unqualified to write your master’s thesis

I’ve ended up doing a lot of field research in bars and nightclubs in Accra. This past Friday night, Yaa Pono pulled up chair at The Republic Bar, looked at me a bit sternly and said, “Sharon.”

I’d been out of touch with him. We were supposed to have an interview, a formal continuation of an informal conversation begun over a month ago at 3 a.m. after a live performance of his near Kwame Nkrumah Circle in Accra. Yaa Pono, I’d been told, is arguably the best Twi-language rapper in Ghana. This is not an uncontroversial opinion, but with my embarrassingly rudimentary Twi, I’m really in no position to judge. His performances are certainly spell-binding, though. He has a sort of edge about him, a sense of something seething just below the surface, and a kind of explosive energy onstage.

Yaa Pono peforming at Big in Ghana

Yaa Pono performing in Accra as part of the FOKN Bois’ Big in Ghana tour in September.

For the last few months, I’ve been running around Accra on my French-speaking motorbike interviewing artists like Yaa Pono, as well as producers, beatmakers, record label executives, managers, event organizers, DJs, music website moguls and other people associated with the popular music industry. Inspired by a doctoral thesis from a London School of Economics researcher on the Senegalese hip-hop economy, I’m attempting to write about cultural entrepreneurs in Ghana in relationship to creative economy theory.

I feel, to be honest, like a bit of an impostor. I mean, I like music. I’m a human being. But I’m not a serious aficionado, let alone a musicologist. And I’ve always liked economics, but unless you count my rabid devotion to NPR’s Planet Money podcast, the totality of my formal education in the field is one environmental econ course I took as an undergrad. (Lesson: The environment is a giant externality. This is a problem. Good luck solving it.) So now I’m trying to catch up enough on all this stuff to not only have an intelligent conversation with people who actually do this work but actually write a master’s thesis about it.

So I threw myself into it. And I’ve learned enough to be overwhelmed. Here’s one of my  attempts to break down some of what I’m doing:

My attempts to untangle the popular music economy

There’s a lot going on here in music, so much talent and activity. In Kyekyeku’s small practice room in the dark – the power was off that evening – he tried to count all the recording studios that had been springing up in his neighborhood, Tesano. “There must be a couple dozen,” he said. I ticked a couple off: Benjamin LeBrave’s Akwaaba Music and Kiki Banson’s E.K.B. Records. Lynx Entertainment, just up the street in Achimota. “Yeah,” he said, listing about ten more. Sewor, a Ghanaian-born repatriate who’s spent most of his life in London, has set up a brand new recording studio in Dzorwulu (roughly, “johr-WOO-loo”) just down the street from Pidgin Music. “I call this whole area Dzo-ho,” he tells me, talking fast and describing the creative energy in this part of the city.

In the 1970s, after the military coups when the government suddenly slapped strict curfews on residents, the popular music scene here – pulsing with highlife shows and early Afrobeats – suddenly and abruptly choked. But for the past ten or fifteen years, it’s been re-surging at breakneck speed, bringing growth and a lot of scrambling in a fragmented industry, and a lot of changes. Many artists are trying to ride the wave of Azonto fame dominating in Ghana’s nightclubs and shows and sweeping the world via the diaspora and Youtube. (A burning question: Will an azonto track get the same kind of insane viral fame of Korea’s Gangnam Style?)

Here’s THE classic azonto track:

 

Azonto’s ubiquity is both a matter of pride in the music community and a source of annoyance. Jeremie, a popular DJ at YFM, one of Ghana’s biggest radio stations, told me “I don’t believe 100% in azonto,” citing the pressure musicians feel to produce azonto tracks instead of developing more intimate acoustic performance-oriented styles. But a couple of sentences later she said, “Don’t get me wrong; I’m 100% proud of azonto. Because we finally got something that is our own, that we can call Ghanaian, recognized everywhere. So that’s pretty cool.” (The best article I’ve read on azonto is from Accra’s smart culture magazine, Dust.)

It’s an amazing cast of characters with fascinating stories. There are the cliques: from the Tema crew that includes Efya, Sarkodie and Killbeatz, to Jay Foley’s energetic 2131 Group in Osu, to Pidgin Music’s eclectic combination of underground artists. There are the legends: Koo Nimo, Reggie Rockstone, Ambuley. There are the intrigues: scandals involving disputed copyright payments, payola schemes, politics in the musician’s union. There’s the rivalry with Nigeria. The telcomm schemes. There are the aspirations. And there is so much talent.

I’m trying to untangle all this while piecing together the economic structure of the industry. I hope I can do it all justice. I have some great intellectual guides in the work of the legendary John Collins and Sionne Neely’s extremely sensitive and nuanced recent history of Ghana’s music scene. And of course, the practitioners and commentators who have already so generously shared their perspectives with me.

P.S. Thanks, Lynette, for reminding me that folks back home were still curious about what I’m up to over here! I’ll try to do better at keeping you in the loop!

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African Views Radio…today!

Hey everyone!

Just wanted to let you know about a radio show that I got myself involved in:

It’s airing TODAY at 12 p.m. EST – or 4 p.m. for the lovely folks here in GMT with me!You can join via Skype (add “Africanviews”) or by calling (+1) 760-283-0850; just call in during showtime. If you have to miss it, you can find it in the archives here.

I’m co-hosting the show, called Youth InitiativesIt  focuses on the programs, social structures, and organizations either put to work for the benefit of youth, started by youth, or engaging with youth. And we’ve got a special eye on Africa: the platform is called African Views and was created just a handful of years ago by Wale Ajibade, a Nigerian, born in Vienna and former a finance guy in New York.
The primary host and founder of the program – Tully McLoughlin – is MY connection. He spent a year here in Ghana working on youth environmental radio initiatives with Ghana’s only agricultural development-focused radio station, Rite FM, and Farm Radio International. We met at a rooftop album release part in Accra.
Tully asked me to bring a few guests in, and I thought of a few Iowa Fulbrighters, so those of you from my home state might recognize a few of the names below…
TOPIC: Perspectives on Fulbright
 

Welcome
We’re incredibly excited to announce that Youth Initiatives will be broadcast live this week. Tully, your host, will be broadcasting live from Sitka, Alaska, where he is now. He will also be joined this week by guest co-host Sharon Benzoni, who has hosted public radio programs at KRUI in Iowa City and will be receiving her master’s degree in African Studies at the University of Ghana in the next few months. Sharon will be calling in live from Accra.
Details
    WHEN: FRIDAY, OCTOBER 12th, 2012
    TIME: 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM EASTERN STANDARD TIME (EST)
    TO PARTICIPATE BY PHONE: Call this number during the show:(760) 283-0850
TO JOIN BY SKYPE – ADD: africanviews (Call in during showtime)
    HOST: Tully McLoughlin
    GUEST CO-HOST: Sharon Benzoni
    Also broadcast live on WYBC Yale Radio (http://www.wybc.com/listen)
The Show
This week we offer an in-depth conversation with a several recent alums of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, who share their perspectives on living and teaching or researching abroad. Our panel of guests will be:
  • John C. Calhoun, who worked as an English teacher and education policy researcher in Kaoshiung, Taiwan. Also a former Marshall Scholar, John is currently studying for his J.D. At Yale Law School.
  • Lauren Reynolds, who taught university-level English courses in Rize, Turkey, and is currently earning her master’s in Literature in Spanish at the University of Virginia.
  • Cliff Missen, who worked with Fulbright in Nigeria, which led him to co-found The WiderNet Project, which aims to improve digital communications systems for individuals and communities around the world. He currently serves as its Executive Director.
  • Sarita Patnaik, who studied Classical and Moroccan Arabic, as well as contemporary Moroccan Art, in Morocco.
  • Eli Bildner, a 2010 graduate of Yale University.
  • Sangeeta Tandon, who was on a US Fulbright in Togo this past year. She holds a doctorate in pharmacy from Iowa and now works at Johns Hopkins Hospital. 
What is the value of doing research abroad or teaching abroad – for the student, for the communities? What are the expectations that people have of Americans or American researchers, and how are those expectation imposed upon everyday interactions? What are the greatest challenges of integrating into a new culture, learning a language, and trying to answer specific research questions at the same time? Is this the manifestation of an outdated concept of aid or a strong fellowship of scholars, teachers, students and professionals who have an opportunity to change the world for the better?

Online:http://www.africanviews.org/component/content/article/1016-youths-perspectives/49208-perspectives-on-fulbright#content

 

Lots and lots of overdue updates will have to wait…hope you can join us!

Microcredit in the Volta

Nicholas Kristof’s editorial on microcredit in the New York Times last week reminded me that I’ve been wanting to post about a microfinance organization here in Ghana, Lumana Credit.

With 700 clients mostly in the Volta Region of Ghana, Lumana is a relatively small organization, but it’s grown fast since it was founded just four years ago by Seattle native Sammie Rayner. In 2008, Sammie first visited the town of Anloga in the Volta Region. In just a few months, she put together a pilot project that served 30 entrepreneurs, a project that became the basis for Lumana’s success.

View of a lagoon near Anloga

The area around Anloga is in a low-lying plain near the ocean with beautiful lagoons.

I met one of Lumana’s co-founders, Cole Hoover, and their Director of Operations, Justine Levesque, on a mutual friend’s balcony one evening in April, and promptly invited myself out to see what they were up to. A few weeks later, I was taking my first long motorbike trip out to see them, complete with a friend on the back and payment of the requisite bribe at a police barrier. (It was an unusual bribe, however: half a watermelon and three cedis. Why watermelon? The Volta seems like the place where all watermelon come from; there are piles of them for sale along the road for miles. We couldn’t resist. And neither could the police.)

Lumana is based in Anloga, a village in the beautiful south of the Volta region, about two and a half hours by motorbike from Accra. It was a beautiful area, and though I didn’t get a chance to meet many of their clients, I could see from the many lengthy greetings on our trips around town that they are well-known and well-loved by the community. You can meet some of Lumana’s clients on their website.

"Melody Praise Financial Services"

Lumana’s competition?

They did, however, show me a great time:

Meet Me There Hostel

We visited a hostel nearby called Meet Me There, which is run by a group of Brits. Not surprisingly, it’s chock full of characters. They have a private lagoon and on the other side of the sand is the ocean.

Dzibodi bar

The local “spot” (bar): Dzibodi. It’s pronounced like the country Djibouti (Jah-booty).

Breakfast

We cooked an epic brunch the next morning….

Justine told me they were especially excited about their plans to fund a larger-scale project for a man named Cena, who bottles tomatoes. With his new canning facilities, he will be able to produce many times more tomatoes to supply local schools during the dry season, when fresh tomatoes, a staple of Ghanaian cuisine, are in short supply.

Farming

Farming…Lumana funds some small-scale farmers in the region, though most of their work focuses on women who have trades such as sewing or food preparation. I saw a lot of folks up early, hauling buckets of water from wells for irrigation. This irrigation system was the most advanced I saw.

I’ve been rather infatuated by microfinance since 2005, when Dr. Rangaswamy Rajagopal, and University of Iowa professor, enthusiastically introduced my environmental policy class to the concept. Always excited and always inspirational, I distinctly remember Raj waving his hands and telling us about Muhammed Yunus’ brilliant idea to give a small loan to one of the women selling petty goods near where he worked. I was fascinated by the idea, and intrigued by Yunus’ bold assertion that credit is a human right.

Raj took me and a small band of Iowa students on a trip to India later that year to study a microfinance institution based in Tamil Nadu. Like Yunus, they used a group solidarity method to secure the loans; all members of the group agree to pay the debts of any other member who defaults, creating peer pressure to repay the loans. And because of data showing that women are far more likely to repay their loans and use the extra income for the benefit of the family, they loaned exclusively to women’s groups.

Lumana is fairly similar in approach, but though their clients are mostly women, they do also loan to men. They also help their clients save money and give them business education and mentoring. Their interest rates – about 24% – may seem steep, but they’re in fact quite low for the industry: without microcredit institutions, these borrowers would have to resort to loan sharks who charge 60-80% or more on their loans.

Microfinance is nothing new to Ghana: Yunus’ Grameen Bank is active here, among many others, but there is still a huge amount of unmet demand. Despite the negative effects that the recent decline in the value of the Ghana cedi has had on the economy, Lumana is still doing well and even expanding. They’ve set up an office in Accra to handle the microfinance clients they’ve absorbed from other institutions who haven’t fared as well. (Which means I get to see them a lot more often!) And as recent development literature has pointed to the importance of small and medium enterprises to economic growth, they are starting to focus on more clients like Cena, who can scale up and employ people as they grow.

My visits to Lumana have made me fall in love with the southern Volta; I can see why they like it there:

Keta Beach…the beach is actually really steep here, which creates a wicked (but exciting) undertow. Swimming is an adventure.

Wedding at Keta beach

Women dressed up for a wedding party at the beach.

Soccer

Football in a churchyard

Doctor Garlic

Doctor Garlic. Herbal and traditional medicine are still widely used in Ghana; sometimes as a supplement and sometimes as a substitute for modern medicine.

Military House

Military House.

Lest we forget the history of the slave trade on the Gold Coast…

 

Dobet Gnahore and Acoustic Africa

Last night, one of my favorite West African musicians, Dobet Gnahore, an Ivoirian singer, songwriter and dancer, performed at Alliance Francaise. She has an amazing voice and range and her stage performances are wildshe’s known for her leaping dances and passionate drum solos in addition to her incredible vocal work.

Dobet dances so fast you can’t even see her. Kareyce Fotso is behind her.

She was onstage with two other West African divas – fellow Ivoirian singer-bassist Manou Gallo and Cameroonian singer-songwriter Kareyce Fotso – along with several other amazing musicians as part of “Acoustic Africa,” a show which has toured the world a few times.

The malaphonist is Aly Keta, also a famous musician

It was incredible to watch these women – all three extremely talented and famous in their own right – perform together onstage. Here’s a little sample:

Ok, that’s all I’ve got for commentary; check out these ladies and support their music if you dig it!

Chale Wote Street Art Festival

I’d be terribly remiss if I didn’t mention Chale Wote, the annual street art festival started last year by Accra[dot]Alt, a collective of young and entrepreneurial artists based in Accra who are doing awesome things to promote the arts in Ghana.

The Chale Wote festival is an extravaganza of collaborative art-making, music, and performance held in Jamestown, a historic and relatively poor area of Accra. I love their philosophy that art has an important place in public space and that it should be accessible to everyone.

I went to the festival with my roommate, Rich, and our lovely and talented friend Jojo Abot, who also sang at the festival. (Seriously, so lovely. So talented. Check out her music.)

As promised, there was cool art.

"Women on Bike"

Street art by Zohra Opoku, a Ghanaian/German artist. She was riding around on her bike all day looking awesome.

Street art

And impressive performance art.

BMX performers

BMX performers doing their thing. We met this cool group of guys from Brooklyn who are making a documentary about them.

Also, lots of art activities and workshops for the swarms of children.

Kids getting down.

And great food and drinks. (I had an amazing veggie burger! Not an easy thing to find in Ghana..)

And Rich and I took a tour of the Jamestown Lighthouse, with its spectacular view.

Jamestown lighthouse

Jamestown lighthouse

Jamestown from above

Jamestown from above

Chale Wote from the lighthouse

Chale Wote’s main stage from the lighthouse

Generik Vapeur was the feature act, held at the end of the afternoon. I’ve never seen artists work with performance space and audience participation in the way they did; they used the street, barrels, shipping containers and the onlookers themselves to create performance space and manipulate the response of the audience, doing things like rushing forward with the barrels in front of them like battering rams, forcing the audience to  run alongside, moving the entire performance space down the street at full clip.

Generik Vapeur

Generik Vapeur

This may be a stretch, but some of the imagery they used – like the men carrying the barrels in single file, hunched under the burden, and one man lashing a barrel that had been made to resemble an animal with a chain and shouting orders – reminded me of images of slavery. Jamestown is the location of one of the most significant slave forts from the Gold Coast slave trade, and the arc of the performance itself seemed to suggest some of the contours of the slave trade’s history.

After Generik Vapeur’s climactic finale and a couple of hours of messing with uncooperative electronics (the power went out), Jojo performed three beautiful songs. Here’s one that I recorded, an original called “Heavy On The Inside”:

And I found out that Ghana has a rock band, or so say the members of Feint Medal, which is as far as I could tell sort of a party onstage with a sort of Limp Bizkit sound, plus some rap, some emo and some awesome Ghanaian cultural references.

Feint Medal

Feint Medal, Ghana’s rock band.

This is a good post to mention that there are tons of amazing bloggers here in Ghana, and many of them also featured stories, photos and video about Chale Wote. Check them out if you want to see more:

Eighty Percent

A few weeks ago, my roommate, Rich, invited me to the launch of a new tech business, Saya Mobile. The founders are a team of young Ghanaians who’ve received support from a technology incubator associated with the non-profit Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology, where Rich is a professor.

Saya launch banner

Saya is a mobile phone application that lets you send messages for free to other users of the service. Right now, most people pay per-text with pre-paid credit, and texts can really add up fast. I have a serious texting addiction, unfortunately, and recently a Ghanaian friend of mine commented that I must have a lot of money to waste with all that texting. (Mom and Dad, I promise I do not text while riding my awesome new motorbike.)

Saya launch

So Saya is filling the gap, allowing their users to send messages to one another for free, and earning revenue by sending them advertising messages. Users pay only internet data rates, which are generally much lower than the rate to send an individual text message. Saya also has some other cool services, like Facebook chat and something called “Streetchat,” which lets you connect with other users nearby.

The Saya team – and many of the other budding tech entrepreneurs I’ve talked with at Meltwater – cite a staggering statistic for their choice to develop a mobile phone application: 80%. That is, it’s projected that by the end of 2012, 80% of Africans will own cell phones.

Man on cell phone

Just a wild guess: "where r u?"

This gets development people and business people alike very excited. They talk about the phenomenon of leapfrog technology: people skipping both landlines and personal computers in favor of cheap, portable cell phones that give them access to both communications networks and the internet. Development folks see this technology as a critical tool in battles against poverty, infant/maternal mortality, agriculture, climate change, the common cold, etc. etc. For example, despite relatively high development indicators in other sectors, Ghana has an abysmally high maternal mortality rate. So Grameen Bank has an initiative, in cooperation with the Ghana Health Service, that calls or sends text messages to  expecting mothers about important pre- and post-natal care.

Development research has found many more examples of tangible economic benefits to cell phone access:

In Mali, residents of Timbuktu can call relatives living in the capital city of Bamako—or relatives in France. In Ghana, farmersin Tamale are able to send a text message to learn corn and tomato prices in Accra,over 400 kilometers away. In Niger, day laborers are able to call acquaintances in Benin to find out about job opportunities without making the US$40 trip. In Malawi, those affected by HIV and AIDS can receive text messages daily, reminding them to take their medicines on schedule.

(Aker and Mbiti 2010)

Cellular technology is also filling another gap: the cash economy. (“Cash and carry” is a phrase that finds its way into many a wry joke here; think ambulance service and you get the idea.) Many Africans don’t have bank accounts or credit cards. The transactions they need to make are relatively small. Cell phones allow them to do this electronically through various mobile banking applications. In Ghana, MTN’s Mobile Money is the brand most people are familiar with.

Businesses like Saya Mobile, of course, are taking advantage of the huge amount of money flowing into the cell market by developing mobile applications. And the cell companies themselves are the biggest beneficiaries. In Ghana, cellular companies are probably the most visible advertisers. When my friends Sean and McKinze visited me a couple of weeks ago, Sean commented that he saw green everywhere; green is the color of the newest campaign by Glo, which just launched in Ghana.

When I first arrived everything was yellow: MTN’s color.

MTN banners

MTN banners on the main square in Cape Coast for the big yearly Festival - Fetu Ahaaye

But despite all the money the cell companies are raking in and spending on advertising, many Ghanaians I’ve talked to are very unhappy with their cell phone service. Many people have several sim cards, each from different companies, to use when there are service outages, as well as to take advantage of promotions within the same network. When I first met President Ben of my Rotary club in Tema, for example, he had two cell phones rubber-banded back-to-back.  And I’ve had to temper my texting addiction because my service provider, Airtel, somehow manages to lose my texts in the ether for hours or days at a time. Sometimes I can’t call my friends who have MTN for hours.

May the devil be out of coverage area

"May the devil be out of coverage area"...no problem with service like this. Photo credit: Sean Fredericks

And of course, it’s worth noting that that 80% is a very uneven 80%. Though a 2009 article in the BBC cited a growth rate of 550% in cell phone ownership, cell phone ownership rates vary widely by country and demographics. South Africa and Nigeria, at 84% and 71%, respectively had the highest rates of cell ownership last year, while Ghana came in fourth at 59%, according to a Gallup survey of seventeen African countries. The Central African Republic came in last at 17%. (Every time I cite a statistic, I realize how FAST these numbers as changing.) And of course there are huge differences in ownership rates between urban and rural populations, as well as by gender, age and education level.

Africans are clever folks though; they have ways of getting access to cellular technology even if they can’t afford a phone themselves. I’ve heard about “village phones,” when one or a few people in a community have a cell phone and charge a small fee for other people to use them. (Yet another example of the incredible importance of social networks in Africa, a topic I really must get around to writing about more broadly.)

And just like in the US, cell phones also serve another universal social purpose: marking status. The wealthier Ghanaians wield their Blackberries and iPhones like…like……well, a good metaphor is escaping me at the moment, but you get the idea. I, on the other hand, can’t hold onto a cell phone to save my life – I’m on my third – so I only get the cheapest, most indestructible kind.

I’ve been doing some interviews with the brilliant young entrepreneurs at Meltwater, and hopefully soon I’ll have more to share with you about technology entrepreneurship in Ghana – and a vision of Accra as home to the next Silicon Valley.

A village in the back

Nothing makes you feel like Indiana Jones like riding around in a Land Rover Defender.

The Defender on a hill, looking magnificent. Our new friend Charles surveys the vehicle.

Mel and Joel, my friends from way back in the days of the Accra half-marathon, invited me to spend the weekend with them in Tamale, in the Northern Region of Ghana. Mel, also a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar, is doing field research on water resources in the region. She needs to take samples from all over the basin, roads or no roads, so they bought the Defender.It is widely admired. It also suits Ghana. It’s an older vehicle without all the fancy electronics of newer cars, so the ingenious Ghanaian mechanics can always manage to find a way to repair it with spare parts when something goes wrong. Which it always does on roads this bad.

Mel and Joel in Luxury Bar

Mel and Joel sitting in Luxury Bar, where we waited for the power to come back on.

Tamale is the capital of the Northern Region, a huge sprawling area far to the north of Accra. The region is dry and dusty (it’s technically in the Sahel, the ecological zone bordering the Sahara), and sparsely populated. It’s also the most undeveloped region of Ghana, so it has attracted a lot of aid: Many of the international NGOs in Ghana do the majority of their work there, earning Tamale the name the NGO capital of Ghana.

Mel and Joel live in a small house with awesome local neighbors.

Mel and Joel's neighbor kids

Some neighbors dropping by for a visit. Joel was teaching some of the kids how to play chess earlier in the day.

The day after I arrived, Mel took me out – in the Defender, of course – to one of her collection sites, where the White Volta River meets the Bolgatanga River. After about 30 minutes of smooth driving on the highway, we turned off onto a dirt road and bounced our way to the river…where we found some folks making use of the local ferry service for their motorbike.

Motorbike on a boat

Motorcycle ferry. Motorcycles and bicycles are ubiquitous here, and Tamale has wide shoulders and bicycle lanes - making it the most bike-friendly city in Ghana, according to Wikipedia. Good old Wikipedia.

There was a surprising amount of action at the river, so after taking some samples – with the assistance of some of the folks hanging around – we decided to sit back, relax, have a mango and observe the proceedings.

Mel sampling with some help

Mel titrating while our motorbike friends supervise.

Cattle at the White Volta

Having a drink

Women bringing washing to the river while the men load up for the ferry

Women bringing laundry to the river to wash while the men load up the next ferry boat.

A lot of the people we saw were crossing the river on the way to the market in Savelugu, a town about 24 km from Tamale with a population around maybe 3,000 according to some sketchy internet statistics.

Men bringing goats up from the ferry

Men herding goats....they were destined for the market at Savelugu.

There were two men herding goats, a not-very-efficient undertaking, since the goats, tethered together, each had their own agendas. Soon the men started carrying the goats instead.

As they walked back and forth with armloads of goats, another man struggled with huge sacks loaded with sand. To sell for road construction projects, Mel guessed. He was loading the bags in the back of a seriously old truck. He’d devised a really ingenious way of stacking the bags and using a tire as a spring so he could get them to the right height to carry. We offered to help, but he turned us down. No job for ladies, in his estimation. He did, however, enlist the men with the goats for the last two bags, as well as a push start.

Truck

Sand truck. I felt bad taking the man's picture while he actually had the bags of sand on his back; it just didn't seem right to photograph someone working so hard. He was the personification of persistence.

An old man with a basket strapped to his back scrambled up the bank while all this was going on. When I pointed and asked what was inside the basket, he sat down next to us to let me see. Guinea hens rustled inside the wicker. He started talking to us in Dagbani, the most common local language in the Northern Region, spoken by the Dagombe people. Mel and I, unfortunately, have about four words of Dagbani between us. Another man who’d made use of the ferry for his motorbike came over to help. He introduced himself as Charles. The old man, he explained, thought we might like to buy some guinea hens. We declined, but we wanted to offer the old man a ride to market. After some miscommunication, and at least one marriage proposal from the old man, I think we got our message more or less across. It was agreed that the old man would meet us at the top of the bank, but that we would not be marrying him when we reached Savelugu, as delighted as we were by the offer.

Charles followed us back to the Defender, asking us questions about ourselves and about the car. When he saw it, he seemed very impressed, as you can see from the photo at the top of the post.

Ten minutes later, the old man had yet to appear. A goat escaped and we helped catch it, though in the process I accidentally almost provoked a bull into charging me. (Luckily, he was tethered to a tree and I was just out of reach.) We tracked Charles down, where he was still laughing about the escaped goat fiasco, to ask him about the old man. Just at that moment, the old man appeared with a bicycle, and Charles informed us that we would be giving a ride to some of his “colleagues.” The old man seemed content with his bicycle, so we went, a bit suspiciously, with Charles, about 200 meters up the road. A bunch of people from the village nearby were gathered under a shelter. Charles spoke to them, and suddenly everyone was racing for the Defender.

In the end, ten adults, a few children and some babies strapped to their mothers’ backs piled in the back of the Defender. Several of them also had containers with things to sell at the market.

The back of the defender, stuffed full of people

The man sticking his head forward told me that he was always very serious in photos. He couldn't stop grinning while he said this, so I took a picture and showed him. Now be serious! I told him. I got off this shot during the millisecond before he started grinning again. He approved of this version.

We slammed the doors (a necessary precaution to keep them from flying open), and started off. I asked for a head count, snapped a few pictures and turned on some azonto music. When we got to the market, they asked us how much, we told them not to worry, and they all shouted their thanks and exploded out again.

People walk a long, long way to market, Mel told me as we continued to Tamale, passing more people on bicycles, motorbikes and on foot, and she gives rides pretty often.

It goes without saying that life here is very different than in Accra, the huge and congested capitol city. It’s more pastoral, of course; most people eke out a living in agriculture. And though the infrastructure in Accra may be flawed, it’s much less reliable in the North, where it exists at all. Most communities rely on boreholes and well water, which sometimes run dry, especially in this season. The North and South are culturally very different as well: the Dagombe and other ethnic groups are mostly Muslim and most speak little or no Twi, the dominant language in the South. There are beautiful mosques and the call to prayer blares out over PA systems (when the power is on) at 4 a.m. Islam has been in this region for a long time; I’m studying its history in Africa in one of my classes this semester, so it was interesting to be in a majority Muslim community in West Africa for the first time.

Small mosque in Tamale

Small mosque in Tamale

Amadhiyya Mosque in Tamale

Ahmadiyya Mosque in Tamale

Another highlight was a table tennis tournament which included a performance by a traditional Dagombe music and dance performance group. One of my colleagues is a Dagombe drummer of some status, so I’m excited to talk to him about it.

Dagombe performance group

Dagombe performance group

Also, though we didn’t buy the old man’s guinea hens, I did have grilled guinea hen in the end – it’s something of a specialty in Tamale – and it turns out they are pretty delicious.