Tamale – City of Surprise

Visited: 24-25 November 2014

“Hotel will be expensive; you can stay at mine.”

On this trip so far, I’ve not been pre-booking accommodation. Mainly this is because I’ve not had internet access, however it would have made little difference because very few small hotels have an email address, and my guidebook being 5 years old means that they probably don’t exist anyway. This came to a head here in Tamale…

They do say in all of the guide books that asking taxi drivers to take you to a hotel is fraught with potential – mainly financial – dangers, especially around bus stations, and, being an obvious foreigner, the stereotype is for taxi drivers to clamour for your services and do exactly that. I thought of this later that night when I was lying on a fold-out camp bed in a 2 room annex of someone’s house in the Western Suburbs of Tamale; the resident of the annex, a moto-taxi driver, snoring away next to me; this is so much out of my comfort zone.
This was Latif, an ‘over-eager to please’ moto-taxi driver who accosted me at the bus station, and then, after taking me to 2 guest houses that weren’t suitable, he suggested that I just spend the night at his place. For free.

Latif, my guide to Tamale.

(Well, not quite ‘free’, but it was definitely a cheap deal. He did ‘suggest’ that I pay for his fuel, and I also ended up paying for drinks and some food over the course of the evening, but certainly I’d have spent more had I stayed in one of the distant hotels.)

I’d arrived in the town centre mid-afternoon after a bumpy 6 hour ride on yet another over-crowded minibus; the few guesthouses listed in the guidebook all seemed to be quite a way out of town, in different directions, and a quick wander through the streets didn’t reveal any others. I trekked North along the main road for about 3km, popping into an empty internet café en route only to find no computers switched on, and confusingly the lady said she had no plans to switch them on …
On my arrival at the guest house I was aiming for, I was told that it was full – odd, really, considering everywhere I’d stayed thus far in Ghana had been no more than a quarter full -, and the other listed guesthouse nearby I couldn’t find. I did then pass a sign for another cheap hotel hidden away in the back streets but when I got there the owner seemed to be very confused at my presence, made a phone call and then claimed that the one room on offer was booked who was booked by ‘someone who was on his way’. I then caught a shared taxi back to the centre of town to contemplate my next move, which was when I was accosted by Latif.

I ended up seeing a lot of Tamale that even the few tourists who come here rarely see – we introduced me to his friends and family who all lived in different parts of the city. Many of their homes were single-storey (barely more than single-room) yellowy, fairly ugly, buildings in the suburbs, off the beaten track and down dusty, stony trails that served as roads but were in reality nothing more than wide unpaved, undulating, potholed, alleyways. Of course I was warmly welcomed everywhere, even if here the locals’ knowledge of English didn’t stretch to more than ‘meetings and greetings’.

Tamale by Night
Tamale, by night, from the top of the ‘Crest’ bar. I was experimenting with my camera exposure settings, and thought it turned out quite well!

The evening was spent at one of the city centre bar/restaurants; “Crest”, pretty central and built on three floors with a balcony that overlooked one of the main streets, with around 10 of his friends. I was, I’ll admit, feeling a little grumpy and introverted (read: ‘anti-social’) at this point so after a few beers I did suggest that I ought to head off home – Latif stayed out and partied hard, returning a couple of hours after I did.

The next morning, we took a road trip into the countryside, to visit some local villages, but not before taking a tour of the building sites of Tamale. See, I’d let it drop not long after meeting that I worked in the energy industry, and he then spent most of the next 24 hours telling me how he wanted us to set up a green energy company, probably solar power, to supply the energy needs for all of the local villages in the Northern region – not that I’d encountered any electricity related issues since Cape Coast. So first thing that morning he even to took me to where they were building the new council house and offices so that I could see the viability of sticking solar panels on the roof, much to the confusion of the workmen who were just arriving at site to begin the day’s shift.

Village huts just outside Tamale
Village huts, on the roads outside Tamale.

The villages were exactly what Westerners expect when they think of Africa. Small mud-brick, thatched huts built fairly arbitrarily just off the main road – a red stone-covered surface stretching straight through endless flat fields. Hordes of local children watching and following us; as if my just being there was the biggest and most exciting thing they’d seen in months. These children were dressed in all manner of random clothing, although replica football jerseys were pretty common, along with an orangey shirt that I presume was some kind of school uniform. No shops, just a small church.

Village children
Children from the village. Spot the outsider … :p

While some of the people living here did work in Tamale, the majority spent pretty much their whole day in and around the villages, working the land. En route we passed through a huge herd of cattle being driven along one of the roads, from one field to another. Not that much other than dry grasses grow in this fairly arid landscape – it’s not quite the Sahel; that’s a couple of hundred km further North – but it’s certainly much drier here than the verdant rainforest on the coast.

Cows on the road
Typical local traffic jam in the villages outside Tamale.

Barefoot Backpacker on the road
All the roads were this bright red colour, and very stony. Still life with ‘Baby Ian’, my travel companion.

We spent a few hours wandering the country lanes before heading back into town. I’d booked a ticket for the daily coach to Mole National Park; one of those rare African beasts which ran to a set timetable rather than just departing when full, or when the driver or passengers get bored of waiting. However, even more so than the buses between Mansfield and Nottingham, this particular timetable would, as all the locals knew, be more classed as ‘Utopian Fiction’ than Reference, so while my innate ‘Just in case, let’s be on time, you never know’ clashed with Latif’s ‘It’s always late, don’t worry’, I knew I’d probably be waiting around a while. We were still having lunch at the due departure time (1.30pm), although in a compromise, he did agree to eat it in a café close to the bus station.

Tamale Bus Station
‘Baby Ian’ waiting for the bus to Mole, at Tamale Bus Station.

The coach finally departed around 5pm, earlier than he expected. In the meantime, coaches and buses were departing to all manner of obscure places across Northern Ghana (some of which I’d only heard of in despatches from the FCO indicating places to avoid because of local civil unrest, like Yendi), and the station was a hive of trading activity, catering for all the people waiting around – the station had around 12 bays, and pedlars and stallholders milled amongst the front of most them, while would-be travellers sat around watching clips from Top Gear on the small screens on the front walls separating the seating from the bays. My bargaining skills were tested to the limit when I enquired about the price of a small hat.
– “How much?”
– “10 Cedis.”
– “Uhm, okay…”
– “No, you’re supposed to bargain.”
– “Okay, er, five?”
– “That’s right. Okay, five Cedis, thank you.”
Not quite sure if that was the way it was supposed to happen, but I now had a hat that should satisfy my friends’ worrying about my burning up in the heat…

Tamale really took me out of my comfort zone, in terms of social interaction – this was the aspect of West Africa that I knew beforehand I’d find most challenging. But I certainly saw a great deal of the city that I guess most travellers passing through wouldn’t even know existed, so I guess it was worth it.

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