Friday, October 27, 2006

Northern Region Trip

We’ve returned from our longest trip in Ghana, a study trip up to the Northern Region. It involved lots of bus travel, of course, but iPods help pass the time, and it’s handy that they come with two ear plugs.

Our first day’s drive took us up to Tamale, the largest city in the Northern Region. While in Tamale we visited the World Vision site located just outside of town, and were impressed with the organization and vision of that NGO. We also spent an afternoon exploring Tamale on rented bikes. Its a great way to see the city, as it’s one of the few cities in Ghana that is truly bike friendly. There are wide pedestrian/bike paths on every major street, so it is possible to fly around on bikes without having to dodge large trucks and buses. Tamale is a great place to visit—the pace of life is a bit slower than Accra, the streets aren’t quite so crowded, and the people are lovely. The Northern region has a high percentage of Islamic folks, so there are lots of interesting mosques to see, as well as a large central market with all sorts of interesting stuff to explore.
The next day we drove up farther North, to Bolgatanga and then on to Paga, a town close to the border of Burkina Faso and a major truck route through Western Africa. We stopped in Bolgatanga for lunch, and had our first taste of Guinea Fowl. You know what? It does taste just like chicken! Some of us had it in ground nut soup, a soup made with peanuts and assorted vegetables, and served with a large ball of cooked rice on the side. And in Ghana this soup is correctly eaten with one’s fingers. One takes a chunk of rice and uses it to scoop up the soup. But of course, the weather is extremely hot, and the soup has just come off the stove, and the rice is really hot too…it’s a bit of a challenge to Western eaters! But well worth the trouble, as it’s really great stuff.

Then we went on to Paga…

Paga is in the far north of Ghana, and is the location of an old slave camp: a place where slaves being brought down from areas farther north were held until slavers from southern areas came up to purchase them. So we visited the site where the slaves were held. There are still shallow bowls ground into the rocks there, used as bowls for feeding the slaves. We saw the pile of rocks that served as a lookout tower for the slavers, and the burial site where slaves who died from the brutal travel or from punishment were buried in mass graves. We also got to hear a recreation of the drumming that the slaves would do in the evening. There’s a particular rock balanced on top of other rocks that must have some hollow spots in it, as striking different spots on it creates different sounds. Slave traders would make some slaves drum on the rock and sing, while the rest of the slaves were asked to dance on a grassy flat plain just below the rock. The songs they sang told the slaves that if they didn’t dance, they wouldn’t be fed—the slavers wanted them exhausted so they’d be less likely to try to escape. Seeing the actual location of the camp really makes the reality of it come alive—what a horrible, horrible part of human history.

After the slave camp we moved on to another aspect of life in Paga—the crocodile pond. The citizens of the town of Paga see the crocodiles who live in their lake as part of their family in a way—they claim the crocodiles don’t harm either the people or the herds of cattle and sheep that live there. So they called a crocodile out of the water for us to see, let those who wanted to touch it (the REAR end, mind you) and fed it a chicken. It appeared to enjoy its snack quite a bit.

Then back to Tamale for the night, and on to Yendi the next day. Yendi is a village in the northeast of Ghana. While staying there we learned about an Islamic NGO called BIRDS that emphasizes education, especially for girls, who are particularly at risk of dropping out of school, and the development of women’s micro-industries. We visited a Women’s Shea Butter Collective, where the women who run the business explained the process of producing shea butter (a product a bit like cocoa butter used for skin care products and lots of other things.)

This was one of the women in charge of the collective, explaining to Kathy and Melissa how some of the processes work. Yendi also contains a palace where we visited the regent (they are currently without a male chief) and a female chief, one of a very few female chiefs in Ghana. It was a busy day, as Fridays are the days when citizens visit their chiefs in Yendi to raise issues of concern. People waiting for visitng hours are dressed in beautiful clothing, and the courtyard has musicians, playing gonje fiddles (a traditional one-string fiddle) and rythm instruments.

We also were fortunate enough to have a Gonje fiddle performance arranged for us, and were treated to music and dancing…and then asked to participate in the dancing ourselves. The laughter that kept breaking out among the Ghanaian folks as we danced suggested that perhaps we weren’t doing it right (okay, we really already knew that!) but it was a wonderful evening and we were warmly received by our hosts.

After Yendi we traveled back to Tamale and then on to Mole National Park, the largest wildlife refuge in Ghana. What a place to visit!

These warthogs were photographed grazing right in front of one block of guest rooms. And did you know warthogs kneel down to eat? Funny things—and herds of them were trotting around the place. I saw a hotel maid, hanging up laundry, kicking a couple out of her way so she could reach the lines.
But it wasn’t just warthogs wandering around the hotel grounds—the next morning an elephant came strolling through the hotel, stopping to grab a potted plant for a snack on his way through! Here’s Annemaria’s view of him as he passed by:

Quite amazing. This particular elephant is named “People’s Friend” as he’s so comfortable and gentle around people. We later saw him strolling through the houses where the tour guides and hotel staff live. A woman with a bucket took one look at him and started running away—she wasn’t afraid, the tour guide explained to us, but if she stood still he’d come over and drink all the water in her bucket and she’d have to get more. While at Mole we went on a game walk, and saw monkeys, Bush deer, Water bucks, lots of interesting birds, and the gorgeous scenery of Northern Ghana. The guide told us that if we came in the dry season, when the lake by the hotel is the only water around, we’d see even more animals as they came to drink.

Then we said goodbye to northern Ghana and drove back down south, stopping overnight in Kumasi, and then arriving back at the university on Monday afternoon. It’s good to be back in familiar surroundings, and back into the rythm of the university calendar—but the trip was something none of us will ever forget.

Posted by Ruth Groenhout on 10/27 at 07:08 AM

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