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.


Back in Ghana!

I had a really nice visit home, and effectively missed Harmattan, though a residue of dust on my clothes and books proves it was here in my absence. It was wonderful to see friends, enjoy the luxuries of good public infrastructure, share Christmas with my family and wander around New York City.

Unfortunately, I was so busy enjoying myself that I forgot to take pictures.

I also got to talk (a lot) about life in Ghana. Two old friends, Vik and Matt, invited me on their radio show, American Reason, where we chatted about wild animals and African feminism, among other things. It was a really fun conversation; you can download it for free in iTunes here (it’s the episode from 1/1/12).

And a wonderful reporter from my hometown newspaper interviewed me and somehow managed to string together a story from the disarray of my commentary.

I also got to spend a few days in Istanbul, which I visited last year on my travels. It’s one of my favorite places in the world, with an amazing blend of modern and seriously ancient.

Istakal Street, Istanbul

Istakal Street

Turkish sweets

And some of the best food I’ve ever had, especially the classics: mezzes, small plates usually eaten as appetizers, and raki, a clear anise liquor that is usually mixed with water, which makes it cloudy.


I’ve been back in Ghana now for about a week, and I’m glad to be back. It’s warm, for one thing. And though it’s true that I’m missing some of the conveniences of life at home, I hadn’t even realized how much I missed how really amazingly friendly Ghanaians are. I stepped off the plane to a chorus of Welcomes and more help with my luggage than I could possibly need. Even when I’m haggling over prices with a taxi driver, it’s almost always a light, fun conversation.

I moved out of the University of Ghana dorms into a neighborhood in nearby East Legon. I’m sharing a house with an American guy who is here teaching entrepreneurship – more on that later – and it’s so nice to have a room of my own, a kitchen, and reliable internet.

And a place for friends to hang out…

Friends on the couch

We invited friends over for dinner; they took over the couch.

I have a lot of projects and plans to make the most of the last half of my year in Ghana. Lots more interviews, serious traveling, climbing, socializing… and of course trying to keep up with the reading and writing required for graduate school.

Perhaps most exciting: my dear friends McKinze and Sean, who are in their second year of service as Peace Corps volunteers in (the Republic of) Georgia, are coming to visit me in a month! These two are great adventurers; it’ll be fun to show them around.

My first palanquin

We talked about palanquins in class. I was astonished. Delighted. Real palanquins?! I don’t think I’ve ever had occasion to actually use the word, except when singing along to The Decemberists, so I had to be sure I had the right meaning; “A palanquin is a litter, right?”

Yes, it is. And last weekend, I saw one. More than one, actually. Regina and I went to Fetu Afahye, the big yearly festival of the Fanti people. The festival takes place in Cape Coast (Oguaa in Fante), which is both their main city and the site of the infamous Cape Coast Castle.

Women walking by Cape Coast Castle

Cape Coast Castle

The symbolism and ritual significance of festivals in Ghana is rich, and unfortunately much of it is still lost on me. They have a ritual aspect and a public aspect, and the two are intertwined. They reflect and reinforce – but also sometimes invert and mock – the traditional social order, and often span days. Fetu Afahye lasts a week, events and rituals gradually building to a climactic procession on Saturday.

That’s what we went to see.

We got up early, having heard that the procession started at 7:30 a.m. We were informed otherwise by people on the street. So we had some egg sandwiches at Janet’s Spot. They were to die for. And then we explored.

The Main Square

The Main Square in early morning, all decked out with MTN advertising. MTN is a big cellular and internet provider, and they seem to be the dominant advertisers here.

Cape Coast street before the procession

Before the procession

Regina and clowns

These clowns were everywhere. They would ask for money and then either dance for you or do some stunts. Pretty much everyone would give them a coin or two.

After we’d found a good place to watch the procession, we fortuitously ran into a really nice young man who worked at our hotel. (Actually, there were no rooms available at our hotel, so we stayed in a tent. It was really very nice.) He invited us to join his clan. They were hanging out in a back alley, preparing to join the procession. We shook hands with a couple of chiefs, told the queenmother she was beautiful (she was), and asked lots of questions. Then suddenly we were all pouring out of the alley into the street, where everyone began clapping and singing and dancing.

The chief

Me with the chief of our adopted clan, and a stunned onlooker.


And the striking queenmother…

Enthusiastic man

This man really wanted me to take his picture.

And then came the palanquins. With spinning elevated umbrellas.

The chief in his palanquin

A big chief in his palanquin

The chiefs in our adopted clan were sub-chiefs, so they walked instead of riding in palanquins. Apparently, at social functions, status disputes sometimes arise in various symbolic acts (like arriving in a palanquin vs. a car) between chiefs; there’s a whole mess of protocol to be observed. That’s what we’d been talking about in class when palanquins first came up.

I was there!!!

Each chief has his or her (yes, there are some female chiefs) entourage. Women dancing in front, the chief’s linguist walking seriously with his staff, drummers walking behind.


Part of the entourage. All of the dances, movements, gestures, clothing have significance. I’ll get into that later, as far as I’m capable.

There were all sorts of interesting characters. And way too much going on to begin to recount it all. Drums, dancing. Acting. Flag-spinning. A guy on stilts. I got a sunburn.

Flag dancing

Flag dancing. Among the Fanti, each clan (there are seven, I’m told) has its own flag. The applique tells a story unique to each clan.

Some kids dancing

This kid is awesome.

A vegan

There was even a hipster.


A festival’s not a festival until you throw your hands in the air.


The tables are turned….this guy saw me snapping him snapping me and started laughing, then came over and asked to take some together.

I couldn’t resist the urge to collect lots of sounds and pictures, so I’ll post more later, along with a (slightly) more in-depth look at the significance of some of aspects of this festival and Ghanaian festivals in general.