Ghana is often considered the safe option in Africa. It is politically stable and its lack of civil wars has led to little ethnic strife; also its large number of ethnic groups prevents one or two from dominating the others and creating conflict. The internet and tour books tell of its safe streets and overly friendly people and on first glance this is what one sees—the people you meet on the street are overly generous and nice. And of all the safe places in Ghana, Tamale is often considered one of the safest without the crush of people like Accra or the constant influx of foreigners in Kumasi, the major trading city for Ghana. All reports suggested that this was still the case in Tamale but as I arrived I began to see a different story.
The vast majority of volunteers that I met had been robbed at least once. This appears to be a relatively recent phenomenon with volunteers who have been here awhile, or ones that are returning for a visit saying that it used to not be a problem. The robberies usually consisted of two men on a motorcycle ridding by and grabbing purses. I was soon to join this club when I and another volunteer were robbed by two men one night. Everybody generally follows the same rule of just handing stuff over because they tend not to be after anything else besides your money and phone.
As the weeks went by there were more and more incidents and they did become a bit more aggressive with at least the threat of violence; with knives being shown, guns being threatened and people being hit. In response volunteers stopped walking or biking after dark and made sure they were home earlier than usual. Purses were also left at home with phones, money, and keys being stuffed into pockets and bras.
We celebrated New Year’s Eve at Luuc’s house—which was becoming an even more popular hangout with its walls, gate, and watchmen. After we rang in the New Year we decided to go visit a restaurant and bar that was just down the road, and since we were a large group we decided to walk the short distance. After just a short time we left for home again and as we turned off the main road onto Luuc’s we were surrounded by eight men wielding machetes. They searched us and stole our phones and money and ran off.
While most people only lost a few Cedi and a cheap phone these types of events are very distressing with two things being the most frustrating: the fact that there will be no justice served and not really knowing the identity of the attacker—it’s a sad but true fact that on a dark street it is impossible to tell the difference between Ghanaians—and knowing that you could meet again on the street and not know it, but he will. The only real reason to report a crime to the police is if you are filling an insurance claim and need a police report. You are simply left feeling completely helpless.
You also realize the fact that you were only targeted because you are white; you rarely hear about thefts or robberies happening to Ghanaians but you can always hear a story about a white volunteer being attacked. Residents in Tamale appear almost ambivalent to the problem because when you tell them they are always shocked and simply can’t believe that would happen in Tamale.
Being a volunteer you want to believe that everyone else knows that you are here to help and that they will respect you but it is the opposite. It’s also easy to say that there is crime everywhere and that these are just a few bad individuals but this situation feels distinctly different. There is already a huge sense of fighting a losing battle when doing development work and the fact of crime just compounds it—you feel hemmed in on another side. With the majority of Ghanaians caring little about the plight of the poor in their country plus a few people who want to harm those who are trying to help it’s hard to find a reason to be here.
While there is frustration over these incidents there is also a sense of not giving in—the idea of leaving because you were robbed feels too much like quitting and few volunteers leave but as these incidents worsen it will become more and more likely that volunteers will leave northern Ghana. Even if you do stay it drastically changes your mindset, that bond of trust has been broken. The good news is that so far no one has been seriously hurt and now that the problem is becoming more known hopefully there will be fewer incidents as people take more precautions.
Like every difficult situation I encounter here it is important not to let it affect me too much. I need to see the difference between the men that robbed me and the people I help in the villages. This is becoming increasingly difficult as I delve deeper into the local culture. Even before the robberies I had almost completely discounted Ghanaian men due to their attitude towards women and now I defiantly have since so far all the robbers have been male and the female volunteers always seem to be targeted or singled out in the groups. So it will just incline me to direct my work even more heavily in the direction of the disadvantaged women and children and realize that the work I am doing to empower and educate women and children will ultimately be the solution to this problem.
I will be traveling around the Volta region of Ghana for the next ten days and will update upon my return, once again adding pictures to the posts. Thank you once again for the support and Happy New Years.