Stories from the North

Last week our group returned from spending ten days traveling around the Northern regions of Ghana. Ghana is about the size of Indiana and it took us two days to travel from Accra on the southern coast of Ghana to Tamale the capital of the Northern Region of Ghana. This shows how difficult it can be, at times, to travel on roads here in Ghana. Especially as we moved more and more north the roads became more and more dusty and filled with potholes. We were very busy through the trip visiting several NGOs, (including a day with World Vision) observing the production process of shea butter and pito (beer brewed from millet), and even passing into Burkina Faso for a short time. I thoroughly enjoyed myself during this latest excursion. In fact this may have been my favorite trip I have taken so far in Ghana. I really appreciated the richness of our experiences, the fellowship with our group, and the time away from my ‘normal’ life back in Accra.

-Markets-

While traveling north we spent the night in the bustling city of Kumasi. Kumasi is a city comparable to the capital city of Accra except it is right in the middle of the country. It is a historic trade stop between the interior of West Africa and the coast. One attraction located in Kumasi, of particular interest to me, is the Central Kumasi Market. This market, the largest market in West Africa, spans almost three miles across in some places.

In the morning I walked by myself down to the market with intentions of just walking around and observing how things happen in this market. One particularity interesting observation is seeing the clustering of shops that sell similar products. This is not a characteristic only seen in the Kumasi market, it is a phenomenon I have seen almost everywhere in Accra. What happens is shops that sell a product, say cell phones, will all be clumped together. So what ends up happening is all the cell phone shops, for example, are in one section of the market.

As someone who studies economics this raises interesting questions. Are these shops operating inefficiently for refusing to band together and create one larger shop? I asked one of the shop owners how he procured his products. He sold steel pots along with over thirty of his neighbors. He told me he goes all the way to London to buy his pots! It seems to me that it would be much more efficient to set up a system where one person travels to London, procures the pots in large quantities, and travels back to Ghana to sell them. Rather than having thirty shop owners all travel to London and buy relatively small quantities of pots only to sell them in essentially the same location. The demand for the products is obviously there due to the quantity of the shops. It seems to me that due to this apparent inefficiency the prices are higher than they should be and the profits are lower than they should be. So why hasn’t anyone set out to industrialize the selling of these goods? Is everyone acting irrationally? Or are there some unseen hurdles preventing the shop owners from exploiting economies of scale? I guess this is my outsider, western, analytical mind working. I obviously don’t have enough of the details to make any real suggestions. It is however, very interesting to me, and something I will continue to question and wonder about.

-Witches Village-

One day we traveled to the town of Yendi about an hour east of Tamale in the Northern Region. We were to meet up with an NGO that works a bit with a “witches village”. We had very little information about what this title indicated. Do the individuals believe they are witches? Are they sent there involuntarily? Or do they willingly come to live in the village? Needless to say we were all excited about learning about what goes on in this “witches village”.

We stepped out of the bus and were immediately mobbed by small children, as what happens in all rural villages we visited, all looking to grab the hand, or finger, of one of us as we walk to our destination. We walked down a path between maize and cassava fields toward the middle of the village. We sat under a large shady tree where the majority of the community was already waiting for us. We had a conversation with the members of the witch village through two translators. It was slow moving but we eventually found out that the members of this community are here by choice because their home communities have ostracized them. In a world where science and technology are not an integral aspect of life, phenomenon of modern science must be explained somehow. The only way to explain deaths from diseases like malaria or typhoid, for example, is to blame someone for bewitching the diseased. All the members of this witch village all have been blamed for some unfortunate event in their home community. This village offers them a place of acceptance and a chance to restart their life. The tragedy is all of these people are of course innocent and have done nothing wrong. Life in the witch village is difficult. The only people who live there are the alleged witches and their children. There are children no older than 12 and adults no younger than 30. There is a huge gap in ages among the community members.

Before leaving we presented the community with a gift of soap, to show our appreciation for them spending the morning with us sharing their stories. We were told that soap was the best gift to give them because it was the item they needed the most. It was an odd feeling passing out the soap. I realized that this was most likely the poorest community I had ever set foot in. I looked around taking in the reality of the situation. Not only were the resident’s poor in monetary terms; lacking food, water, clothing, and shelter. They lacked the freedom to pursue a life of self-valued dignity and worth. It was hard but an important scene to witness.

-Climate Change-

While sitting under a large shady tree in a village in Northern Ghana I learned of the environmental challenges facing farmers today. We spent a morning with the Ghanaian NGO, Presby Agric. They are a Christian development organization managed and funded by the Presbyterian Church of Ghana and focusing on fostering agricultural activities in Northern Ghana.

As we sat there under the tree, which was giving us refuge from the oppressive sun and heat, the thought crossed my mind, “How does anyone farm in this weather?” The fact is however; Ghanaians have been farming in this environment with sweltering heat and sporadic rain for many years. They know how to do it. It is quite amazing. Through our conversation with the farmers, which was again through two translators, in the past few years environment has been changing. The rainy months have been extended into November. When I initially heard this I thought, “Oh good, I bet they could really use the extra months of rain.” I was wrong however. We were told that the extra rain is drowning and killing their crops. This is devastating for these farmers who rely on their farming for their own food, but they also sell it in order to earn income to buy other necessities.

After hearing these stories it is clear that climate change is also an issue of life and death. Without the yield from the crops they farm, these farmers have no income to provide for their families. Climate change kills more than plants and animals, it kills humans too.

-Burkina Faso-

We spent two days in the northern-most region of Ghana, the Upper East Region. While here we spent time with a woman who the Calvin groups have developed a relationship with over the years. We visited a school.  We visited a community where we observed and participated in the process of producing shea butter. (Shea butter is an ingredient found in many hand lotions.) We also stopped at a compound where we were shown the process for brewing pito. This is a local beer brewed by fermenting millet. It was actually quite refreshing.

One day while driving in our bus we saw a sign for Burkina Faso, the country bordering Ghana to the north. We reasoned it would be silly to come all this way and not attempt to cross the border and all add one more country we have visited. So even though we didn’t have our passports on us, we decided to ask if we could quickly walk across the border. Sure enough they said we could quickly, but we couldn’t take any pictures of the government buildings, a stipulation all of us had no trouble keeping. So we walked across “no-man’s-land” and hopped the fence indicating the beginning of Burkina Faso territory. We spent about half an hour taking pictures, attempting to read the French signs, and eating French bread before we thought we should begin heading back to the bus. It was a successful adventure, and now I have been to Burkina Faso!

-Mole National Park-

Our final stop on our trip was a bit of a vacation stop for all of us. Mole National Park is a protected animal reserve located between Tamale and Kumasi. The hotel we stayed at is within the national park grounds and overlooks a huge watering hole where many animals come daily to drink water. While sitting relaxing we saw a family of elephants walk out of the woods and enjoy a drink in the lake. It was quite a sight. There was also a pool that all of us enjoyed greatly. We went on two safari hikes, one in the evening and one early in the morning. We were able to see many animals including antelope, baboons, alligators, monitor lizards, and many elephant footprints.

The morning hike was the best in my opinion, we didn’t see as many animals but the weather was much cooler, there was still dew on the grass, and the sun was just rising over the horizon. I think I could go on a hike just like that hike every morning for the rest of my life.

The next few weeks are open for us all to plan our own traveling around Ghana. Many of us are spending significant time on various beaches along the coast. However some of us are going on hikes. Others are spending time at an orphanage. While others are just relaxing in Accra.

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