I thought I was well-prepared for my visit to Ghana, but when I arrived at Kotoka International Airport, I began to doubt if I had really adequately informed myself about the country and its people!
I was met, fortunately, in the arrival hall of the airport by Simon. Pulling my luggage behind us, we pushed our way out of the airport building through a teeming mass of reckless porters. A big multitude of people, more than I had ever seen at any airport, was waiting outside. It occured to me later that the waiting lounge does not have the capacity to contain such a crowd. I was slightly irritated by the chaotic hustle and bustle that went on around me. Without Simon, it would have been impossible for me to find Lincoln in the excited but, nevertheless, friendly mass of people.
Five days after my arrival Lincoln and I left Accra by bus – STC (State Transport Corporation) destined for Navrongo. The long delay between our arrival at the main STC station in Accra and the final departure of the overloaded bus was an experience of its own. No space was vacant. There was luggage all over the place, even between the seats. The long delay was my first lesson in punctuality. It taught me what GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) really means – Ghana-May-be-Time. When the journey finally started, the driver’s seeming recklessness was the next new experience for me. But in all fairness, I commend his quick reaction which saved our lives when a heavy duty-truck hit the bus from the back in Konongo.
With some delay we arrived in Tamale towards mid-night. I was totally exhausted and not keen at all on travelling further. In the hullabaloo of Tamale’s mid-night market, which gave me a scare in a way, the harmattan welcomed me in full force. The dust-infested air was not only pungent, but also smoky , apparently from the bush-fires that were visible on the horizon in the distant background. I was seized by a bout of coughing and had difficulty breathing. My bronchial tubes itched, and I felt feverish and sick.
We arrived in Navrongo at about four o’clock in the morning and after waiting for more than an hour, Lincoln managed to get a vehicle to take us to Sandema – our final destination, twenty kilometres away from Navrongo. The journey, nevertheless, lasted nearly three-quarters of an hour!
It must have been about six o’clock or so when I was awakened by an unusual loud voice which I couldn’t immediately make out. Drowsy and exhausted, I was unable to make out the chant of the muezzin calling Moslems to their morning prayer. His voice could be heard all over the small town. It was only the next day that I realised that the morning prayer starts as early as five o’clock and that most people are usually up on their feet already. I was impressed by the tolerance of the non-Moslem population (in the majority) of Sandema. Having to hear the amplified voice of the muezzin several times a day demands more than the ability to accept the freedom of worship and the right to belong to a religious denomination of one’s choice.
Ghanaians, I observed, are a very tolerant and patient people. Apart from the experience I made at the main STC station in Accra, when we had to wait endlessly for the departure of the bus, I witnessed on several other occasions that passengers sometimes had to wait, seated in the lorries, for a good hour or more before the vehicles took off. Then, unless they were full – practically overloaded – they did not budge an inch from the spot.
Whenever I had to wait, as I had to do sometimes, I amused myself watching the loading of the vehicles; and the loads did not only comprise normal luggage, but also foodstuffs, cartons, plastic or metal cans, and even goats, sheep, fowls and guinea-fowls (loaded on top of the vehicle). It is a wonder how much and all that a vehicle can take in Ghana!
On such occasions, I had enough time to observe people, and the diversity in appearances is a delight to see; many cheerful faces, bright eyes, different kinds of tribal marks, sun-tanned and wrinkled faces (of certain old people) and beautifully and artistic hairstyles of girls and women.
I was totally amused when, on our journey back to Sandema after a short excursion to Paga, we (the women) had to make ourselves comfortable on sugar bags and the men sat on the roof of the vehicle. The two seats beside the driver attracted a fare of 500 Cedis, and their occupants didn’t only have to cramp themselves into too little space, but also had to put up with the smell of petrol and punches from the driver’s elbow each time he changed the gears, because the gear-box of the vehicle was located directly between the driver’s seat and the front-seat. The bad condition of most vehicles is perhaps an explanation for the many severe and frequent traffic accidents.
Market days in Sandema were the most fascinating events for me so far, and the New Year’s market on January 3, 1998 was a special eventful occasion. Shortly after sunrise on that day, I heard the sounds of drums and flutes – and I later observed that the musicians roam the market the whole day. Out of curiosity, I went out onto the Sandema “highway” and witnessed one of the greatest spectacles I had seen during my visit. Around the group of musicians was a crowd of people dancing heartily to the rhythm of the music and sending out best wishes for a happy new year to passers-by and onlookers. The women among them were dressed in colourful cloths with head-scarves artistically knotted at the back to match. While some of the men wore flowing suits of traditional smocks with huts of the same make, others were dressed in western-styled shirts and trousers. It was, in short, a treat for the eyes! There was music all over the place, and it was simply impossible not to be infected by the liveliness of the atmosphere. Even the most sober German would have felt an inner urge to join in the dancing. Young and old danced sleekly to the music, and looking at their movements you would bet they had no bones. Eric and I joined the dancing crowd and while we danced I hoped that none would laugh at my clumsy movements. Nevertheless, we enjoyed ourselves immensely.
The main market-place in Sandema is located behind the store-buildings, opposite the parking lot for most of the market lorries and trucks. This is the part of the market which fascinated me most. Under straw sheds and trees, the sellers displayed their wares, arranged on tables or trays, in various kinds of fanciful patterns. The tomato sellers exhibited this skill par excellence, and it was fun to see the little towers they built out of their tomatoes. Those selling smocks hang their wares from ropes tied to poles and tree branches; spices were offered for sale in little transparent plastic bags arranged according to colours, while the yams were classified and displayed according to size. Carrots (thoroughly washed clean) were arranged in the same order, not to mention the juicy and delicious peeled oranges. It was a delight to look at these scenes, and definitely more interesting and exciting to see than watching a film on television. The scenes were diverse: I heard the tittle-tattle of the market women, the ringing of bicycle bells and dialogues in which buyers and sellers bargain for better prices and payment; children shouting “obroni” behind me, and I also saw groups of young men walking leisurely – or better, majestically – from place to place. In my mind, I still hear the sounds of the Sandema market place, see its scenes and smell its air each time I look at the photographs I made there.
However, not all that I saw was pleasant. I observed that many people, in both urban and rural areas, live in difficult circumstances and lack some of the comforts we in Europa are used to.
Things like electric vegetable mixers, televisions, stereo sound-systems, video recorders, microwaves, electric and gas cookers, washing machines and computers – most of which, to the majority of German families, are taken for granted as being part of the normal facilities of the household – fall under the category of very special luxuries in the parts of Ghana I visited. Cooking is still done in iron or clay pots and on coal-pots or open fires of wood surrounded by three stones onto which the cooking-pot is placed. Clothes are washed by hand. Executing household tasks must be burdensome in such conditions.
It also struck me that many people wore the same things day in and out – and these (the clothing) were often thread-bare or shabby. And it was not uncommon to see people wearing a “pair” of trousers with one leg missing. When I asked after the reasons I was informed that not many people can afford buying decent clothes. They also lack money for the proper maintenance of the ones they manage to buy. However, most young people – the educated ones especially, are an exception here, and favour western-styled clothes, particularly sporting clothes and shoes from big names and labels like Adidas; Nike or Fila.
On many occasions I went for a drink in the company of some of my friends – Lincoln, Pascal, Theodore, Eric or Timothy. A number of times we went drinking pito – a delicious drink brewed out of sorghum, but which is quite intoxicating. The best pito for me was obtainable in the bar behind Old Brown Abakisi’s house (I can’t remember the name). On some evenings we went for a beer in pubs like Paloma, Peace and Love or in one of the many bars in the town.
With regards to food, I must confess my mouth waters each time I think of certain types of meals. There was no need for me to slowly condition my stomach to the food in Ghana, as advised in information contained in some of the guide books I read before going there. As early as the second day after arrival, my stomach could accommodate most meals: fufu (with bush-meat – simply delicious!), banku, kenkey, roasted plantains, rice (prepared in various variations, e.g., jollof with guinea-fowl meat – a real delicacy!). Like it was with the food, I had absolutely no problems with the drinking water- and didn’t need to buy distilled bottled water. It is needless to mention that, like my hosts, I always ate with the fingers. It is the practice in Ghana!
During the sight-seeing trips I made to the outskirts of Sandema, I was able to acquaint myself better with the landscape and vegetation of the area. Big shady trees line up the sides ( up to nearly four kilometres) of the main road leading out of Sandema towards Wiaga and further to the south of the district to vilages like Gbedema, Fumbisi, Wiasi, or Gbedembilsi. I also saw a Flame Tree (Flamboyante) in its beautiful fire-red blossoms, and without leaves!
The surrounding fields were dry, and the sparse grass eaten up by goats and cows, which I could see combing among the yellow elephant grass in search of more green pastures. Some parts of the fields were burnt down, so that the dead weeds can make way for new ones when the rainy season begins, I was told. The strong contrast between the green shady trees along the road and the dry yellow fields in the background conveyed a grotesque picture to my eyes.
I didn’t see many people in the outskirts of Sandema. But here and there I saw some women carrying loads on their heads: fire-wood, pots and buckets of water or baskets of cow-dung and market wares. There are more mud and thatch-roofed compounds to be seen in the outskirts than in the centre of the town. The traditional compound – consisting mostly of a cluster of round buildings with a big open space in the middle – houses the members of the extended family of the clan, and it is not uncommon to have up to three generations living collectively in one compound, helping one another. Social relations, strong and of great significance among the Bulsa, are grounded in the well-knitted extended family and clan and their friends, as I observed.
As far as architecture is concerned, I find the emergence of more and more so-called modern rectangular houses with iron-sheet and aluminium roofings an unfortunate development and a threat, somehow, to the traditional compound which I find is better adapted to the climate and landscape of the savannah.
My first impression of Fumbisi was that of a deserted village. I saw very few people outside on our arrival there. Mr Eric Ayaric (Lincoln addressed him with the title Master, one of the positions the seventy-two year-old educationalist had held before his retirement), who I was visiting welcomed us warmly and had us served first with food and refreshment before we could enter into conversation. Afterwards we exchanged news and information, seated in the shade of a tree in front of his house. Mr Ayaric asked after his son, Ghanatta, and his grandson, Anabiik, who both live in Germany, and gave me a message (recorded on tape) to be relayed to them (by ordinary post, letters sent from the Upper East Region of Ghana where Fumbisi is located, take up to three weeks to arrive in Germany). I made photos of the old man and his family for Ghanatta. Before we left, Mr. Ayaric showed us round his house and took me to the open terrace of one of the rooms, from where I commanded a very good view of the market-place and the surrounding houses and fields.
Back in Sandema, Lincoln showed me more of the town during the next days. Among other places I visited the school in which he works as teacher. The school consists of two old buildings standing among trees, and around and between them (the buildings) is a large space. The buildings, I observed, were in bad condition. Some parts of the roof had been ripped off, so that when one looked up from the interior of the classroom, one saw the sky. Like the roof, some parts of the walls had fallen apart. Where walls had stood, I saw iron sheets and woven straw fences in their place. That the remaining walls were still able to hold blackboards was a wonder to me. Teaching material and other inventory were virtually lacking and from what I gathered from Linclon, most of the teachers were in one way or the other compelled to buy some of the material and teaching aids they need from their own pockets, but given their low salaries and the difficulty of making ends meet financially, this was hardly possible.
Unless the information I got from Lincoln was intended as irony, I can hardly believe that his school was held as a model educational institute in the district by both politicians and officials of the Ministry of Education who access the conditions there as favourable for effective teaching and learning! The conditions visible to the eyes must be misleading, perhaps!
In the two weeks of my stay in Sandema, I never really felt like a stranger. Nevertheless, I was embarrassed in some situations where old people bowed to me in greeting or shook my hand in a condescending and submissive manner.
This unfortunate sense of inferiority complex must have its roots in the phenomenon of colonisation when whites depicted (and some still do, unfortunately) themselves as superior and unjustifiably imposed (and some still try to impose) this distortion on other peoples.
But in all I can say that I enjoyed my short sojourn among the Bulsa very much. It was always fun to be in the company of my hosts who were always cheerful, lively, friendly and above all very hospitable. We had many interesting conversations and discussed issues ranging from culture to society and life generally, and I was impressed by their broad-mindedness. I still have contact to some of my friends there.
Ghanaians are very open to foreigners and would approach you friendly and try to get into conversation with you, wanting to know about your country, your person and family background. The interaction with people in Sandema was facilitated by Lincoln, who I observed is quite known there.
Having met nice people and made some friends, it was quite difficult for me when it was time to say farewell. I left Sandema with a heavy heart.
I cannot end my recollections of the nice time there, without mentioning some special people: Lincoln, Theodore, Pascal, Jennifer, Eric, Greg Akanko (who lives in Acra) and Timothy.
It was really a delight to be in their company, and through them I learned about Bulsa customs, culture and society, which I appreciate very much. Without Lincoln’s invitation, I would probably not have travelled beyond Kumasi, and that would really have been unfortunate.
I hope it was not my last visit to Ghana and to the Bulsa in particular. I reminisce on my visit with pleasure, nevertheless, also with a longing to see the country and its nice people again.
I brighten up each time I tell freinds about my visit to Ghana or look at the photos taken there.
However small the context my visit to Ghana was a useful contribution towards fostering understanding among peoples.
I thank you Ghanaians and people of Bulsa for your tolerance and openess, above all for your selflessness and hospitality. You are a wonderful people: It was simply great to be with you!
Renate and her friends at Sandema Market