Exploring Northern Ghana

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Africa » Ghana » Northern » Tamale
November 17th 2009
Published: June 23rd 2017
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Geo: 9.4072, -0.83935

The border crossing on the Burkina side was, once again, relatively humourless but efficient, but much less so as we tried entering Ghana. We had our visas for Ghana but that didn't seem to speed the process. It was difficult to determine which official was accountable for what and they all seemed to want to talk to us about something- once they found out that DH was a police officer, an unscripted commotion erupted with no identifiable purpose. DH didn't even get the normal response from the brotherhood when she flashed her tin- no expedited process, no secret handshake, no free ride, nothing. They did seem very concerned that she was coming into the country on official business which, given the reputation of the Ghana police for corruption, may have been the issue du jour.

Once inside Ghana, we were immediately struck by two things; the unconstrained friendliness of Mali and Burkina was gone (the waving stopped replaced by a quasi name-calling- we were either “hey white man” or “obruni”. I don't think there was any significant ill intent behind the name calling but neither was there any point- once they had your attention there was no follow-up question or comment) and the English speaking paradise that DH had been hoping for did not happen (although to be fair, DH had expanded her French vocabulary to include “bon appetite” although she often used this when people weren't eating). In the north Ghana, English was not widely spoken and when spoken, was very difficult to understand- I was actually having a harder time communicating here than I did in French speaking Mali & Burkina.

Just south of the border was the town of Paga and the local guide we had picked up was very keen to show us their famous sacred crocodile lake but having had our fill of that in Burkina we opted to visit the slave camp just outside of town. We knew we would be seeing the slave castles on the coast in a few days so we wanted to see something of the origins of the slave trading tragedy. The camp, as expected, had only the scarcest reminders of its gruesome past but it was enough to get one thinking of the capacity for cruelty that man has. In its day, the camp itself was run by three black African slave traders who would trade slaves through a series of these camps that would lead to the coast where many of the European powers would purchase slaves to work in their colonies overseas. Although the locals had understandably destroyed a great deal of the site, portions have been salvaged to provide a stark reminder of a thoroughly horrible past. There was no shelter at this camp and only the most basic of conveniences- slaves were fed in bowls that were carved into the rock with groups of five slaves sharing one bowl (this led to an obvious survival of the fittest which apparently was the intent)- it was the first demonstration of just how little value was placed on human life at the time- if a slave were a precious commodity, there would have been efforts to make sure that all were fed and kept alive but this camp and the horrors ahead seemed to ensure just the opposite. There were a couple of punishment rocks, one of which was positioned right next to an area of mass graves with the implied conclusion that death was all but a certainty. There was also a grouping of rocks that was used for drumming, a lookout post (apparently there were attempts to both free and steal the slaves), and other items of interest, but this was a historical site that was compelling through the stories associated with it. Standing in the open area you could almost feel the anguish of the lost souls that had been here before.

From this emotionally draining stop, we made our way to the Paga Pias Royal Palace just south of town whereupon I just about got us kicked out as I bypassed a group of elderly gents who appeared to be sleeping off the party from the night-before under the delicious shade of a couple of robust trees. Apparently, before moving to the entrance we were supposed to show appropriate respect to the Kings elders- we regrouped as best we could and, with mumbled apologies, the Kings son (17th in line) began showing us around. The compound was fortress-like with curving mud/earthen walls- the one thing that struck me was how excessively warm it was inside any of the buildings- its not a wonder that people spend the entire day outside and sleeping on the roof is common. To wrap the visit, the chiefs son asked for our address information- this has happened much more frequently on this trip and I still haven't figured out what the point is- it will be interesting to see if anyone actually sends us a note (the address info we provide is very non-specific so it really can't be used for ill intent).

From Paga we make our way to Bolgatanga. I had asked the guide we had here to get us to the Tengzug for the Ashanti spirit rocks and the Gambaga Escarpment home to a ‘witches' camp (which serves as a prison/sanctuary for women accused of witchcraft- and yes, it is still active today. Apaarently what the guide heard was “ignore what I want and go ahead and take us wherever you want to go“. To be fair, our first stop was an audience with the local chief who had to give us permission to visit the sites (although how someone would verify that we had this permission was very much a mystery). The chief kept us waiting although we were entertained by his elders and others who had obviously been waiting for an audience much longer than us. With the royal permission firmly in hand, I thought we were off to Tengzug but somehow backtracked to a Kusaasi chiefs compound that was very near the Burkina border. It was an interesting visit with each of the chiefs many wives getting their own hut within the compound (with a different ‘lucky lady' enjoying the favours of the chief each night). There were a number of additional differences in this particular compound- larger livestock roamed freely throughout, the huts were larger, there was a hole within the fortress wall that was used to remove dead bodies (the dead are not allowed to use the same entry/exit point they had used when they were alive).

Not the sights I had wanted to see but all-in-all an interesting day visiting different tribes who are living as they have for hundreds of years. We don't, however, have time to linger so we make our way, in the dark- not always a smart thing to do in West Africa, to Tamale. Along the way we pass through an inordinately high number of police checkpoints, with numerous hints at a bribe. There was only one blatant/hostile demand for a bribe but we refused and waited out the local constabulary with DH hanging her head in police brotherhood shame. Eventually the Ghana police tired of us and we made our way to Tamale.

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