The Ghana Tree

My journey to Ghana. An account of what I see, learn, feel, and experience. My Story and the Stories I come across.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


On my first day back in Tamale I had one of those experiences that erases all of the ugliness that I have encountered. While I was travelling around the Volta region Wallis was spending time in the villages identifying school children in need of scholarships and bicycles. This is a program sponsored by American University and one that I was involved in last year and am working with more directly with now. One of the students that he found was a young girl who had just completed her last set of exams in secondary school. She passed her exams and gained entrance into a Senior High School but her family did not have the resources to cover the registration and first year fees; about $200. This would also be an amount that would not be covered by the American University program so I decided that I would provide the scholarship. She was overjoyed because had kind of given up the idea of going to school. I initially met with her and her father but after I made the presentation of the money she kept leaving the room and coming back with different family members; first her mother, then an older brother, next her grandmother,  and finally her younger sister. For those of you that have donated money this is the type of thing it is going towards. Thank You. This was the perfect welcome home gift from Tamale.

I had spent the previous week and a half traveling around the eastern side of Ghana in the Volta Region. I had joined the two volunteers who were spending their last month in Ghana travelling around. We left on the morning of January 4th and took the STC bus to Kumasi. These are nice big coach busses that travel between the major cities and are a nice break from TroTro’s especially for long journeys. Reading the list of prohibited items on the bus is also a good activity , they include: propane tanks, sheet metal, full sized refrigerators, wardrobes, and double  mattresses. The one downside to these is that they play African, mainly Ghanaian and Nigerian, movies during the ride. These movies can only be described as horrible and are made much worse by the incredible volume at which they are played—this is made worse because horror films are a popular genre and they all include lots and lots of screaming. Kumasi is Ghana’s second largest city, the traditional capital of the Ashanti kingdom, and has been one of Africa’s most important trading centers for hundreds of years. And the first thing on the list was to visit Kejetia Market, the largest in West Africa. This is a sprawling mass of humanity in the city center and one must reimaging what an African Market is; it is not a market filled with handmade or antique cultural items but rather a massive outside Super Wal-mart where whole streets are dedicated to plumbing supplies, cloth, jeans, shoes, or movies. There are also several gigantic food markets where you walk among towering piles of fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh and frozen fish, whole cow carcasses, and women with bowls overflowing with giant snails. Plunging into this labyrinth of goods one just has to abandon any hope of controlling their destinies and simply follow their feet and see where they end up. We wandered through the different sections, passed down side streets choked with food stalls, side stepped the mountains of used clothing, and tried not to knock over anything—a difficult task when you are worried about what is piled on the street as well as what is piled on the heads of the women walking all around you.
 Central area in the market. The pedestrian bridge in the background is unfinished.

 The area in the background is a multi-story workshop area that looked like it was about to fall down.
 Kumasi Train Station
Guest House
After this we recovered and ate dinner at a popular ex-pat restaurant—all the customers were white. Following our meal, macaroni and cheese—this was exciting because Mac & cheese had been planned for Christmas dinner but was abandoned when the cost of cheese hit about $40. We then returned to our lodgings; the Presbyterian Guest House located in the old colonial mission house overlooking the market from the hilltop, to plan the following day.

Day two started out with a TroTro ride to Koforidua. This however was slightly delayed when Sabrina went to retrieve her phone from the front office, the only working outlets to charge a phone, and found that it was locked, the lady working had left to go to what was described as prayers and a meeting. We were told she would return within five minutes so we sat down and waited an hour. The TroTro ride was in a new Toyota van and is termed an “express TroTro,” this means that it does not make additional stops, is a new and functioning vehicle, and has air conditioning. It was a present ride. I believe that there are two different ways of looking at or choosing a TroTro. You can either pick the TroTro that looks well maintained or the one that looks in horrible condition. Most would assume you’d want to go with the well maintained or newer vehicle but I’m not always sure because the way I look at it the “nicer” the TroTro the faster it can go where if you have a barely running one you won’t be flying around corners or making questionable overtakes.

Once we arrived in Koforidua we set off in search or lunch. This also caused us to reflect on what has fast become our home, Tamale. While Tamale is the third largest city in Ghana it does not fell like it is—more of just a large village and the busy streets and multi-storied buildings of southern towns overwhelmed us. We also lamented the increase in the price of Pure Water—plastic bags of drinking water, and the disappointing number of fried yam pieces that 1 cedi will buy.

The plan for the afternoon was to visit the Boti waterfalls. A short TroTro ride later we were walking down over two hundred stairs to the base of a beautiful waterfall set within a rainforest. One the way down we also passed several signs warning us not to swim—“stay alive don’t swim. You have been WARNED!” Following a pleasant time we climbed back up all those stairs and waited by the roadside for a TroTro and when one arrived we piled in. About fifteen minutes later I turned to the girls and asked if we had asked where this TroTro was going. We hadn’t. But I remembered the way we had come from at a junction and we made the correct turn so we were headed in the right direction.

 Boti Falls

 Waiting for a TroTro

Once again the night was spent planning out the following days and we were given some advice from a group of Dutch travelers who were just returning from the area we were travelling to.

Day three was a travel day in which we would push all the way up to Hohoe and then from that point work our way back south. Before this we stopped at the Thursday morning bead market in town where there were dozens of stalls selling beads of all sizes and colors, some old and some new and made out of everything from glass to bone. Wherever they are stopped TroTros attract crowds of people selling everything you can imagine; mostly food but lots of other random items as well. The standard selling method in Ghana is to simply repeatedly say or yell what you are selling—the most common being “Pure Water” which is also always done in a very nasal tone.  However, while we were waiting for our TroTro to leave small elderly women came to the open door and began an elaborate sales pitch for a multivitamin she was selling which involved stretching, running in place and repeatedly touching her toes. It was really enjoyable to watch and she did sell several packages.

The destination for the night was a guest house next to the Wli falls and located about thirty minutes outside of Hohoe. After exiting the TroTro we found a shared taxi going to Wli. Shared taxi operators definitely understand that the more people they can fit into their vehicles the more money they make and we set off with six passengers in a very small and very old Toyota corolla—I shared the front seat with another passenger and the girls piled into the back seat. After a very uncomfortable and bumpy ride we arrived in the small mountain town of Wli—the area east of the Volta is very mountainous with many peaks around the 800-850 meter mark and all with bases shrouded in rainforests and many with waterfalls hidden away in canyons. When we arrived at the guest house we were surprised to see one of your friends from Tamale also staying there. He had been travelling separately down to Accra to drop his visiting girlfriend off at the airport. We did not know that he would be travelling in the area but we managed to meet up at the same guest house in a very remote section of Ghana.

We spent the afternoon relaxing at the hotel and enjoying the views of the waterfall across the valley. The following morning we would brave the hike to the upper falls. The Wli falls are the tallest in West Africa with an upper and lower fall both of which are over ninety meters high. The lower falls are accessible by a forty-five minute hike along the base of the canyon but to view the upper falls one must climb up to the ridgeline and then descend down again to the falls—a hike of approximately one and one half hours each way. The trail leading up to the falls was by far the steepest, most eroded, and badly made trail I have ever seen and I did it in flip flops but I made up and down without incident. The falls are beautiful and walking to the base of the upper falls the spray and wind makes it almost impossible to stand. In total our hike to the waterfall lasted about six hours and we were all exhausted by the time we made it back to the guest house.
 River that comes from the falls
 The upper falls
 The hike
 Opposite side of the canyon and Togo. The border is right behind the top of the falls
 Upper falls
 Looking back down the canyon

 Upper falls

Lower falls


We decided to spend another night at this guest house because it was so enjoyable. It was run by a German couple and was very nice and affordable and had by far the best service of anywhere in Ghana—service is notoriously horrible in Ghana.   

The next morning we were pushing back down south and the day started off with a very enjoyable TroTro ride. Upon our arrival at the TroTro station in Hohoe were quickly picked up by a TroTro which simply decided that where we were headed was where it would go. We got into an empty van and set off but within two minutes we were full. This TroTro seemed to operate as a more local service which meant that it picked up and dropped off passengers frequently. This was oddly enjoyable because when someone wanted out it usually caused at least half of the other passengers to get off and then back on. The driver also made several stops to buy everything from snails to phone credit—the snail purchase was a big hit with the passengers and the fist sized snails were passed around.

Our first stop for the day was the Tafi Abuipe Kente cloth village. After being dropped off by the TroTro we took motorcycle taxis to the village of Tafi Atome where we were told that we could rent bicycles to take to Tafi Abuipe. My motorcycle taxi was a rather fat and smelly man on a very old motorcycle, so not the most enjoyable ride. Once we arrived at Tafi Atome we were informed that there were no longer bicycles so we piled back on the motorcycles and set off for the other village.

Kente cloth is most commonly associated with the Ashanti region but local knowledge places the birthplace of Kente weaving in the Volta region and this village. The cultural tourism project has been set up by a series of Peace Corp Volunteers and is very well run and enjoyable. The village has about nine hundred weavers organized by families, with children learning to weave the simple patterns at age seven.

Next up following another motorcycle ride we flagged down another TroTro and set off for our next destination of Akosombo. Akosombo is the location of the Akosombo dam that created Lake Volta in the 1960’s—Lake Volta is the largest artificially created body of water in the world. And the town was constructed to house the builders of the dam and it is still essentially a factory town and is completely different from all other Ghanaian towns.

That night we went to a restaurant for dinner but as we pulled up in a taxi the employees were just about to leave but they happily opened back up for us and set out a table overlooking the lake. It was a very enjoyable dinner.

The next morning we met up with two other volunteers from Tamale—both American, a welcomed relief after a week with two very patriotic Belgiums.  The plan for the day was to take boat cruise on the lake whose turn around point was a small island. The ride was enjoyable and there was a decent live band and a good lunch was served. The island wasn’t that enjoyable because the boat is very touristy and the island stop consisted solely of children asking for money.

That afternoon the five of us set of for the Shai Hills Resource Reserve. We spent the night in a very large and very empty hotel. For the past week the three of us had been staying in double rooms to save money and we figured we would try this again with five people. The hotel did not seem pleased with this idea but we thought we could work it out. We ate dinner and then I talked to the receptionist, she said that she couldn’t allow it without talking to the manager who was not there. She gave me his number and I called him and he said that he would be there shortly and that then we could talk about it. He did arrive for several minutes and dropped off a new receptionist but simply ignored me when I tried to talk to him. So we just went back to the room. While watching a movie there was a knock on the door. When I answered it I met the receptionist along with two Ak-47 holding police officers. We took a second room.

The next day I said goodbye to the girls as they continued south to the coast and I returned to Akosombo to catch a ferry up the lake to Tamale.

The ferry was set to leave at four o’clock Monday afternoon and arrive late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning in Yeji. The ferry left at eight thirty with around three hundred and fifty passangers and a deck full of cargo. Part of the delay involved trying to load a large fishing canoe, this was unsuccessful and it was eventually just tied to the side of the boat. I had purchased a second class ticket which in theory allowed me to sleep in the dining room of the boat. There were two decks worth of “dining room” and this was all occupied by Ghanaians by the time I made it on to the boat but I pushed on up to the top deck where most of the other white people had settled. This was a much more pleasant place then in the cramped interior of the boat so I settled in for the night. There were a few benches but I grabbed a bit of floor along the side of the boat. While I was happy with my position, especially once the Ghanaian movies and music videos started, I was in for a rather cold, windy and uncomfortable night. Before I got on the boat I made a stop in the market and had a sleeping mat, pillow, and blanket in hand but then decided I didn’t need them—a very big mistake. By morning I had put a pair of running shorts over my pants and was wearing every shirt I brought; one long sleeve and three shirtsleeve light weight athletic shirts—one of which was pulled up over my head in an attempt to block the wind. The metal deck was also very uncomfortable. The next morning a German, who had secured one of the two cabins, asked why I didn’t just snuggle up with one of the large Ghanaian mothers that were camped out in my area.

The next day was spent reading and sleeping. It was so hazy that I was rarely able to see the shoreline, with visibility often being less than five hundred yards, every once in a while I fishing boat would pop into view. We also made one stop during the day to take on more passengers and cargo. Later that night we made a stop at a small island where villagers had to wade out into the water to board the ferry or off load cargo such as salt.  Four more stops such as this one were made throughout the night. I had secured a bench during the day and hopped that this would provide better sleeping conditions. It didn’t. It actually might have been even windier then my previous location. I slept good for the first part of the night but gave up around three o’clock and spent the rest of the morning alternating standing next to the door to the engine to stay warm and standing at the front of the boat watching bats swoop into the lighted and bug filled deck of the boat every time we passed close to an island. The boat had a compass and charts for the lake but its gps and radar was not functioning and it navigated the lake mostly by the captain’s memory, and light signals from the shoreline or islands indicating a need to change headings. This man made $300 a month  and weekly had the lives of hundreds of people in his hands.
 Waiting for the ferry
 The line
 Lake Volta

 Sleeping quarters the first night. Towel was my sleeping pad
 Sail boat
 Ferry's deck
 The infamous canoe. This guy spent a lot of time bailing. In fact every boat I saw on the water had someone bailing in it.

 Off loading at Yeji

We arrived in Yeji around seven o’clock Wednesday morning and then had to wait for another ferry that would take us to the other side of the lake where the road to Tamale started. This ferry only had one working engine and made the crossing at four kph, a speed that was so slow it was often hard to tell if we were moving.
 Local Ferry
 Morning swim, or bath
 Second Ferry

While on the boat I met a fellow American who has been working in Ghana since the mid 90’s for Chevron and now imports heavy machinery. He was a very interesting person and not your typical oil man; he lives in country, has a Ghanaian wife, and I overheard him tell one Ghanaian, “I’m not a Ghanaian but I should have been born one.” He also had a Land Rover in which he offered me a ride which I was very thankful for once a saw the road which was horrible and would have made for a very uncomfortable and dangerous TroTro ride. And after four hours on the road I arrived back in Tamale.
 Overheating. It was about 95

I apologize for the delay in posting this and I should be back into a regular posting schedule. Thanks once again for the support.

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