Update 16 – 10th May 2005 – Tamale, Ghana

It seems a long time since our last update from Bobo in western Burkina Faso.  Since then, we’ve seen a herd of elephants at close quarters and experienced the first rains of the wet season – which have given us some spectacular sunsets.  While Anna flew home for her sister’s wedding, Luke had an eventful fortnight in Ouagadougou in the company of the capital’s expat community!  We have now reached Tamale in Northern Ghana, and everything is looking decidedly greener as we approach the rainforest belt of the south.

  Leaving Bobo just over a month ago, we climbed up onto a long escarpment – thankfully the tarmac was smooth and traffic-free, even if the gradient was a little unwelcome in the 40 degree heat!  At the end of a long but very scenic day we arrived in the dusty truck-stop town of Hounde, where the heat was so oppressive we found it hard to sleep in spite of tiredness.  About another 70km down the road came a turn for the Deux Bale National Park, where (we had read) it was possible to see elephants roaming.  Just as we turned off Luke’s back tyre burst in spectacular fashion and Anna had to zoom back into the nearby village to find a new tyre.  Thankfully every little village in West Africa seems blessed with at least one bike shack and so we were eventually on our way again after a bit of a fight to fit the new tyre.  By now it was mid-morning, and the sun was blazing down on the bright white clay “road” – actually a barely-discernible rough piste leading to the park HQ.  Very sweaty and coated in dust we arrived and sought refuge on the shady balcony-bar over the river, then discovered all the rooms were booked for a party of French schoolkids about to descend on the park!  Suddenly our plans for a peaceful few days of wildlife watching seemed in peril…  Actually it turned out very well, because we got to sleep on the balcony with a mozzie net and benefit from natural “air conditioning” as the breeze circulated from below between the planks!  Local toads were obviously benefiting from this eco-tourism lodge as well, busily gobbling up moths that had strayed too close to the bare lightbulb and crashed to the floor.  The next morning the maungy teenagers departed with a ranger to try and find the elephants.
Meanwhile, the elephants themselves had other ideas, and came, en masse, to the lodge!  There were about 40 individuals, ranging from huge matriarchs to diminutive calves, sheltering underneath their mother, the four sturdy legs of the adult forming a sort of living playpen around them.  It’s hard to get a sense of perspective when you see elephants on the TV, but there’s no doubting their enormity when you are separated by a mere thirty metres!  Thankfully there was a deep ditch and a wall between us as well, so you felt you’d have enough time to get out of the way if one went on the rampage!  We watched and took photos for over an hour, before the herd, having filled up with water, moved off into the bush…just as the troupe of dishevelled schoolkids returned!

The rangers described a short-cut back to the main road through the park, which we took.  They added as an afterthought that we should drop the bikes and run if we encountered the elephants and they came towards us.  We weren’t sure if they were joking or displayed a singular lack of understanding when it came to the relative speeds of running vs. cycling…whatever, Anna jumped at every cow emerging from behind a baobab and we were both quite relieved when we espied the tarmac!  The tarmac continued uninterrupted all the way to Ouagadougou – where it was, incredibly, even hotter than the rest of Burkina.

We had, by great good fortune, managed to meet up with some friends of friends – Katrina and James.  The pair are currently writing the Bradt Travel Guide to Burkina Faso and have been living in their flat in Oudi – a suburb of the capital – for the last 6 months.  They took Luke in, while Anna flew back home for two weeks.  After nine months on the road, Anna was looking forward to a few luxuries while at home and had been feeling sorry for Luke, stuck in Ouaga.  Then the emails from Luke started rolling in reporting embassy dinners, a front row seat at a concert and Anna began to think perhaps he was not doing too badly after all!  Having not felt very well for a few weeks, Anna went to the doctor while she was home and discovered she had Giardia lamblia – a gut parasite – and so had to take a course of antibiotics.  What with that and the cold weather, home didn’t seem quite as sweet as in the imagination.  Except, of course, that she got to spend some time with her family, and have a proper conversation for once, which you just can’t do when separated by 10000km of savannah and desert.

Luke, meanwhile, was making the most of his time in Ouaga…  Katrina and James had made lots of friends in the expat community, and the three of us were invited to dinner at the German Embassy, courtesy of Victor, the Ambassador’s son.  Victor was just finishing an internship with UNDP and was trying to decide between a career in development or in the travel industry, so it was interesting to compare the travel industry in Germany with Luke’s experiences in London, and to hear about development projects in Burkina and elsewhere from the other UNDP staff.  Later in the week, we decided to check out one of Ouaga’s cinemas – Katrina and James had covered FESPACO, the African film festival, for Reuters, so were well up on the film scene there, but we hoped to catch something in English.  “Hotel Rwanda” was an excellent insight into the atrocities in that country, but was, unfortunately for us, dubbed into French – so gave us an added challenge!  Another great evening was spent at a concert forming the opening night of “Ouaga Jazz”, fronted by Malian legend Ali Farka Toure.  We’d somehow managed to blag press invitations, so ended up in the front row, next to the American ambassador, and got some great photos of the musicians…  Living in one place for a couple of weeks was quite a strange feeling, but provided great opportunities to get to know a few local people, from the wonderfully cheerful but non-French-speaking security guard to the manager of the computer shop downstairs, who had become James and Katrina’s self-appointed assistant, making sure bills were paid on time and so on.

Slightly worried we would not be able to hack it after almost three weeks off the bikes, and still recovering from a big night at the Dutch Ambassador’s residence celebrating their Queen’s Silver Jubilee, we hit the road again on 2nd May.  Our packing skills were certainly a bit rusty – not helped by the mini-mountain of goodies Anna brought from home – so it was 1pm by the time we set off.  A hard day battling against a headwind brought us to the town of Po where we took refuge from the impending thunderstorm.  We then branched off onto a piste to take us deep into the Gorounsi country, and the village of Tiebele.  En route to Po we had been a bit too close for comfort to a lorry when one of its tyres blew out and it careered down the road spraying rubber and gravel in its wake.  As we scrambled off the road it rumbled by, scarring the tarmac with an inch-deep gouge as the rim scraped along the road!  So somehow it was far more pleasant to be on a “low-tech” highway again, where you generally share the gravelly red surface with nothing more dangerous than wobbly donkey carts and inquisitive goats – though admittedly the latter can imperil your lunch.

Tiebele was a fascinating place, with just as much architectural and social interest as the Dogon Country, but a fraction of the tourism.  Compounds grow organically as the size of the family increases and put you in mind of a honeycomb, with cell-like rooms added to a central courtyard.  We found ourselves a space on the roof of the Royal Court (a rather grand name for the residence of the chief’s extended family) which gave us fantastic views over the whole higgledy-piggledy warren of dwellings and passageways, not to mention unintended visual access to the neighbouring washing and toilet cubicles!  From up here, we could see and hear that something was going on in a nearby millet field.  Streams of people went by playing flutes, drums and percussion instruments, and carrying baskets of millet, live goats and other offerings including, rather bizarrely,

a stuffed cat, held aloft by a grinning boy!  Our host explained it was the culmination of a three-day funeral feast and said we would be welcome.  Burial generally takes place soon after death but the funeral ceremony is set apart, sometimes by a few months.  We had no clue as to the meaning of the singing or dancing, though it looked at times like the griots (hereditary musicians) were acting out stories or battles.  With skull caps encrusted with cowrie shells or curving horns, flowing tunics of blue and white striped cotton, long spears and quivers full of pom-pom tipped arrows, the troupe made quite an impression!  In between “acts” the crowd of perhaps 300 villagers, waited in the shade of a few huge silk-cotton trees, quenching their thirst with mille beer, known as chapalo or pito.  This is made and sold by the women (as in the Dogon) but drunk by the men, especially by the men of Tiebele judging by the way they were weaving about and slurring their words!  We couldn’t even manage half a calabash between us – it’s reddish, cloudy, and a bit like rough scrumpy.  I suppose it’s not made any more palatable by the fact that it’s warm – refrigeration not being easy in the middle of a millet field!  We eventually slipped away before another drummer could hook his curved drumstick round Luke’s neck – traditionally this means you make a contribution to the griot – a bit like a busker handing round his violin case – and they certainly have a nose for a foreigner with a pocket full of change!  We walked back through the deserted village, where pigs and goats were making the most of it, wolfing down grain and overturning abandoned cooking pots without anyone around to stop them!  In the playground, a couple of keen schoolkids were busy hurling themselves over a piece of rubber stretched between two poles – a high-jump competition without the safety net of a mattress on the other side!  The long-legged and athletically slender girls were winning hands down…

A few strains of flute music were still wafting over as darkness fell and we settled down on our rooftop for the night.  Nocturnal wanderings to visit the loo are not recommended in a Gourountsi household!  In the pitch black, Anna managed to trip over toddlers, kick a few cooking pots and disturb the guard dog as well as nearly falling down the ladderlike steps leading down from the roof.  Perhaps we should have brought a potty on this trip…

The next day we had a lovely ride through a green and brown landscape of rolling agricultural land, with views occasionally interrupted by a mammoth baobab tree, a tumbledown abandoned compound or a pile of rounded boulders.  It’s lovely countryside and our greeting of Din Le was returned by every passer by with a warmth and enthusiasm not encountered since the Guinean highlands.  The morning was slightly marred by a wrangle with an idiotic Burkinabe policeman who insisted we needed papers for our bikes!  It took a full twenty minutes of “discussion” before he let us go, finally realising that time was of no more importance to us than to him and that we weren’t going to pay him off to get our passports back.  Then it was over the border into Ghana and on towards Bolgatanga.

Bolga is the capital of Ghana’s Upper East Region (UER) which, because of the vagaries of territorial acquisition by former colonial powers, actually lies north of the Northern Region… This is a poor and often overlooked corner of the country and also happens to be one of the areas of Ghana where Link Community Development have been working for the last five years.  We tracked down Laura, who we knew from days spent stuffing envelopes for mail-outs in the Cambridge Link office!  We then spent a very enjoyable evening with Laura and Victor, a local man and Director of the district education authority.

Ghana was the first African nation to attain independence – in 1957.  Although Ghana was in a better financial state than many former colonies at the time, it suffered at the hands of a leadership largely concerned with assisting other newly-independent African nations and investing in prestige projects.  As a result foreign reserves dwindled, and debt accumulated, leading to a coup within a decade of independence and a prolonged period of political instability.  The country – and how often have you heard this said of an African nation – has great potential but is still suffering from years of economic mismanagement and a lack of continuity in government.

In fact, Ghana’s education system, established by the colonial administration, was one of the country’s strengths with a higher-than average enrolment in schools and universities and a literacy rate of 25% among adults by 1951.  Nowadays, annual school fees are remarkably low compared with some of the other countries we’ve pedalled through – 6000 cedis per year per child.  Working out at roughly 40p, we’re hardly talking about sums equivalent to British university top-up fees!  But even this amount is seen to disadvantage poorer families and so the government has waived payment for children in the UER.  Victor explained that they nonetheless suffer because of curriculum changes which require new textbooks that the schools simply cannot afford to buy.  In addition, there’s a chronic shortage of teachers – Laura remembered visiting one school where a single teacher was struggling to cope with six classes of children.  She also mentioned that class sizes easily exceed 100 kids…and then people wonder why teachers suffer from a lack of motivation!

Link is helping by providing logistical, management and financial support.  Often this is something as basic as a grant to cover the fuel costs for teachers to get to a school.  A newly qualified teacher in UER earns under £40 per month, which doesn’t leave a lot spare for petrol!  Recently, Link launched “Jump on a Bike” – a scheme providing teachers with a bike, which they make a contribution towards over the course of three months, paying £12 in total.  If you’re no longer reliant on public transport – in rural Ghana it’s even less reliable than the London Underground – you stand a better chance of getting to school on time, and by paying something towards the bike you’re more likely to take care of it and not treat it as a “hand-out”.  There’s much more about Link’s work on their website ,www.lcd.org.uk, if you’re interested.  If you want to support them and show your admiration (ahem!) for our two-wheeled journey at the same time, go to www.justgiving.com/africabybike and pledge a few pints/capuccinos worth of cash.  Thanks to you lot, we have already raised almost £4000.  It’s a difficult one, the question of aid and we are not really any nearer finding an answer than when we set off.  On the one hand we hear of mismanagment of charity funds, or straight embezzlement, coupled with inappropriate schemes and a growing dependency on foreign aid money, from the level of the individual to goverment.  Anyone reading these updates regularly will know that we have been plagued by locals demanding “cadeaux” and money, tellingly most often where tourists are common and not where poverty is most severe.  Having said all that Link does seem to have got the balance right and as far as we can work out, their achievements are changing lives for the better.

So, we hope spring is breaking through at last in the UK – keep those emails coming, at least one of us got a chance to catch up with lots of you in person but an inbox full of emails from home always makes us happy!  From here, we head east to Mole National Park and then south to Bui National Park so the next update should be full of wildlife photos!  In the meantime Anna will celebrate her quarter-century.  Ghana seems to be full of culinary colonial relics – British-style white bread, shandy, baked beans, Horlicks…so we are hoping this extends to chocolate cake so that we can celebrate her birthday in style.  The chunk of delicious wedding cake Anna flew back with disappeared in a matter of hours, and we fear we won’t taste anything of that quality again for some time!


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