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.


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.


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