NW Ghana – Cities of Loneliness

My foot is nicely grilled by the heat from the engine blasting through the thin, worn, metal sheet that pretends to act as the floor, even when we come to rest at another of the interminable stops in the middle of nowhere to let people on, off, or just to mill around for ten minutes for no apparent reason. I can’t easily ask what time we’ll arrive as their French is not much better than mine. In my mind I keep wondering – will all this hassle of the last couple of days be worth it? Have I done the right thing in breaking into unknown Burkina Faso, or should I have turned back?

It’s actually strange to think, but I’d already done part of this journey before. Having arrived in the small town of Hamile the previous day, my plan was to cross the border and head directly to Bobo-Dialassou. I’d asked a couple of people I’d met which way the border was, and they’d all told me ‘straight on, you can’t miss it’. From passing by shacks and stalls, the sandy, dusty track had opened out onto litter-strewn mounds. Motos passed me from either direction, and, having walked a couple of minutes through wasteland, I came past a small mosque and onto a long straight road with stalls lining either side. I figured this must be the pre-frontier market area, and I clarified with a couple of the locals that the border to Burkina Faso was straight on. Yes, Burkina was that way, they said.

6km later, having walked through countryside under an unforgiving sun, I reached a small village called Ouessa, where the road ended, not at a frontier post, but at a junction. Confused, I saw a police station and wandered inside. After a short conversation in broken French, it had turned out that I’d missed the frontier completely, those stalls were indeed a pre-frontier market but from the other side, and I’d accidentally managed to cross into Burkina Faso illegally.

I headed back up the road; fortunately a passing moto gave me a lift back to the mosque. My problem now was that I would have to illegally cross the border again, and because I knew that’s what I was doing, it felt somewhat scarier. I took the first tentative strides onto the sandy path to try to retrace my steps.
– “You want Ghana?”
He was a toothless man, probably late forties but looked much older, wearing a Chelsea football shirt, as seems to be fairly ubiquitous in Ghana. Normally I’m loath to get help for such a short distance but this was an unusual situation, so I gladly let him lead me back to Hamile. He pointed out the Ghana border post in the distance – indicated by a huge arch that would be blindingly obvious to anyone taking the correct route.
Apparently, crossing the border ‘illegally’ happens all the time, and the guards don’t seem to worry too much about it, but he was surprised that they wouldn’t have noticed a tall white man with a backpack.

By now it was about 3pm, and I’d decided I wasn’t going to go to Bobo today, so I had to think of alternatives. My guidebook suggested Hamile had a hotel, but nothing was advertised anywhere; I asked around and was pointed just off the main square, to a pretty nondescript building. The only way in seemed be down one of the side roads; a swing gate that led into a large sandy courtyard, lined on all sides by rooms. All locked, with no-one seemingly around. I called out twice, but no response. I assumed it had been closed long ago and was now being used as storage, or even a house, and left.
A passing local wondered what I was up to. He spotted, scrawled above one of the outside doors, a phone number, and offered to call it when I told him my phone was pretty much not working. “The proprietor is on his way”, he announced; ten minutes later I was inside one of the rooms – a dark, cell-like place with bare floors and windows that opened only a little, but for 25 cedis, it was the best option; despite the outside squat toilet overflowing with rubbish, and home to two cockroaches the size of my middle finger.

Unnamed hotel, in Hamile
The inside of the “hotel” in Hamile. It reminded me of a derelict farmyard, for some reason.

The other solution would have been to take a tro-tro back to Wa.
Wa is the main town in the North-West of Ghana; it’s a fairly nondescript town that’s quite a bit off the tourist trail. It had been a long trek to get there in the first place; three or four hours on a long coach from near Mole National Park, packed with people, big bags of rice, and boxes of live chickens – the stereotypical African journey really. As the bus plodded along, I began to feel more and more … ‘lonely’ I guess is the word, like I was leaving everything familiar behind and headed to a completely unknown world – although in part this was because my guidebook didn’t have a map.
My initial plan was to pass quickly through the town and head for the Burkinabe border, but by the time I got there it was early afternoon and knew realistically I needed an early start, so I found a cheap hotel just off the main street and had a bit of a day of rest. The town isn’t large but it’s quite linear, meaning that it’s a long walk between places of interest – the bus station and the hotel were about a 20 minute walk along the same road, with the nearest internet café a further 10 minutes beyond that. The hotel was almost empty, the local population seemed surprised and a little afraid of me – I guess solo tourists rarely come up this way – and I just started to feel a bit miserable. Other things weren’t on my side either – I wasn’t sure if I had enough local money to cross the border with, and the battery on my new phone wasn’t charging at all; as this was my alarm clock too, this was a problem.

Street in Wa
Seems I didn’t take many pictures in Wa; this street scene is about the only record I have of the town. Typically Ghanaian, really.

The next morning I headed to the bus station, buying a cheap battery when I got there, and getting a local minibus bound for Hamile. The journey took around four hours and felt like four days; the road there being a nothing more than a sandy, rutted, rough gravel trap where I kept being thrown about, passing endless grasslands and barely any villages. The bus breaking down twice in the hot mid-morning sun didn’t help matters.
The thought of having to do the return journey in the same conditions, and not getting back to a hotel in Wa until maybe 9pm, persuaded me to risk overnighting in Hamile.

Dead Tro-Tro
The tro-tro that took me from Wa to Hamile. This picture taken on a country lane nowhere in particular, during one of the ‘breakdown’ stops.

So here I was, in the middle of nowhere, on the edge of English-speaking Ghana and about to head into French-speaking Burkina Faso, a country still coming to terms with a coup at the start of the month, about as far away from my comfort zone as I’d been so far on my journey, and feeling unaccustomedly lonely. My decision was – should I take the plunge and cross into Burkina Faso as I’d originally planned, or turn back and stay in Ghana; an easier choice but one tainted with the feeling of ‘failure’. It depended on the visa.

Hamile Bus Station
Hamile Bus Station. Yep, bus station. Really.

At the hotel, I was ‘harangued’ by two locals enquiring about my travel plans and my money situation – the Burkinabe visa was only payable in local currency (CFA Franc), rather than Ghana Cedi or hard currency, which meant I’d have to change some. One of them physically went to the border whilst I waited and confirmed that the visa was 24,000 CFA (about £30); although reasonable, this meant I’d have to change some hard currency as well as my Cedis. The only rate I was offered was a meagre 4 Cedis/£, rather than the 4.8 I’d managed to negotiate in Tamale (the real exchange was around 5) – apparently ‘it’s hard to change currency up here because no-one knows what it is’. Yeh, right.
Except that when I got to the border the next morning, I found out that 24,000 CFA would only get you a 3-day transit visa; the full entry visa was 94,000 CFA (over £100). This caused a bit of consternation; fortunately I still had a ‘fixer’ with me from Hamile, and a weird tri-lingual discussion ensued. A transit visa wouldn’t do me any good at all, unless I were going to Mali – not somewhere in the current climate that’s on my list – as it would take longer than 3 days to cross the country from here.

In the event I paid for a transit visa and decided to worry about it later; overstaying my visa is probably not too much of a crime here (!). However, on closer examination of the visa while waiting for the minibus to Bobo, I noticed there was neither an exit date nor a time limit on the stamp in my passport …

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One Comment

  1. Chris

    Sorry you felt miserable and lonely, but for me as a reader, it was great.

    Certainly seems like an off the beaten track experience, a true adventure!

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