Much of the day is wasted just hanging around to pick up our 4x4 in a dreary suburb of Accra. When it finally arrives, it turns out to be a brand new Nissan 4x4 complete with a very smartly attired driver. A bit too VIP for my taste, but Avenger clearly wants to impress his folks by arriving in style, and I reluctantly agree that it will be handier than using public transport. Around 5pm we; (that's Avenger, Baba and another brother, myself and the driver) leave for the north, churning through Accra's potholed streets and crazy traffic. One nice thing about being the oldest in the party is that I get to sit in front. Once we get out of town the roads improve.
The first stage of our journey is a three hour drive to Kumasi, Ghana's second largest city, where we put up for the night at St Patrick's hotel - a comfortable, cheap, well-run and justifiably popular hostelry for many travellers to Ghana. Just as we are relaxing with a beer outside in the courtyard, a huge thunderstorm arrives, with dramatic lightening and torrential rain. It's fun!
Up at 4:30 am - on the balcony - to watch over the city rooftops as dawn breaks. The loudspeakers from the minarets are already calling the faithful to prayer as the sky gradually lightens to a perfect African dawn.
We are away very early. This is a long day's travel - initially on excellent roads. Imperceptibly the scenery changes, dramatic escarpments with rugged sandstone cliffs come into view, smaller and less frequent roadside villages, the denser tropical vegetation giving way to scrubbier savannah with wider views.
We stop on the impressive bridge over the Black Volta to take some pictures - a few boys fishing and ladies washing their clothes on the rocks by the bank. It's funny, you can spend a lot of money on a bridge but a creaky old ferry would be more appropriate in this location.
We reach Bolgatanga in time for the first beer of the day, and after a little shopping around the craft market, ( I buy a fine big straw hat and it never leaves my head for the next two weeks) find a pleasant enough bar with outdoor thatched roof huts to enjoy the shade. Sitting at the next table is a young Canadian, Amanda, looking very much the independent traveller, brown and fit, with a cute silver ring through one side of her nose. It turns out she's been on a botany field trip from her college and is now touring the country. She didn't need much encouragement to come along for the ride, and we drove over to her digs to pick up her backpack.
So we all squeeze into the Nissan and hit the increasingly rugged dirt road to Tumu. This is hold-onto-the-seat-of-your-pants driving, really rough. The scenery and bush reminds me of long-ago travels in Australia. Magnificent savannah forest. The plateau is peppered with rocky outcrops, ravines and caves. There are frequent picturesque kraals of primitive but elegant mud, stick and thatch huts in protective walled enclosures. The villages are surrounded by vegetable gardens enclosed by tough thorn barricades. Now, during the rainy season, there are vibrant green pastures for cattle in all directions, and the animals are fat and contented. We stop at the first village in Sissala territory to pay our respects to the chief and elders, relaxing in the shade on a large communal shelter made from unhewn logs. There are plenty of smiles, but also a degree of bafflement - I don't expect they get many unannounced European visitors in these parts. Women are pounding cassava or yams in huge wooden mortars , there are guinea fowl, turkeys, chickens, dogs, sheep, goats - it's a thoroughly rustic and idyllic setting.
That evening we finally arrive in Tumu, just a few miles from the Burkina Faso border. Tumu is the most isolated administrative centre in Ghana, situated roughly midway between Bolgatanga and Wa on a 250 mile stretch of rugged red dirt track that traverses the Sahel from east to west.Even by small town standards, Tumu is distinctly rural in ambience, with animals roaming apparently freely around the dirt alleys of mud huts and tin-roofed breeze-block shacks. There is almost no rubbish or stink of refuse – the hungry animals and poverty-stricken inhabitants see to that. Everything is recycled, old pieces of tin turned into imaginative toys for the children. The people are the friendliest in the world, they may be cash poor but they are a proud people whose culture has largely remained intact: the children are well cared for and English is widely spoken.
We check in to the Dubie Hill Top Hotel, a fairly modern building in a large compound. The rooms are large and comfortable, but staff seem a bit sullen and quiet, and the service is poor.
That evening we go to pay court to G.B. Kanton the Fifth, Chief of the Sissala people. He lives in a fine mansion in Tumu, and we are met by his Linguist, ( a key household official). We take off our shoes, and are asked to wait downstairs whilst the Chief is briefed on our purpose by the Linguist and decides whether to see us. There appears to be some minor embarrassment that important visitors have arrived unannounced on the evening that the head drummer - a key part of all important occasions - has had the day off to attend another event and is therefore unavailable, and the chief has also only just arrived home from travels. We are also greeted by Aye, a daughter of the former chief. After a respectful wait of 15 or 20 minutes, we are ushered upstairs to a large balcony level. The Chief arrives, and welcomes us. He is a distinguished-looking gentleman with a dignified countenance - every inch a Chief. It's immediately clear from the dialogue that he is an educated and articulate man with excellent connections and knowledge of the world. As titular chief, his powers are largely symbolic - Ghana enjoys a stable modern democracy with excellent civilian local government systems probably inherited from the British. Nevertheless the support of Kanton V is clearly vital to our purpose, and the meeting is consequently cordial and mutually respectful, but also direct and to the point.
Avenger commences by explaining our purpose. Kanton V promptly interrupts to ask why the festival was taking place in Avenger's home village of Pulima (as opposed to the more central and important town of Tumu itself). "Perhaps as a relatively youthful albeit enthusiastic member of the tribe you fail to grasp the complexity of the tribal politics ?" Rather tongue in cheek he continued: "The failure to bring a bottle of whisky from Scotland also implies disrespect!"
Kanton V's advice is to pay a visit to the civil administration to smooth any practical matters, but whilst happy to pass the buck he is broadly supportive of the plan. When he asks about Amanda's role, she is rapidly promoted from hitch-hiker to a key member of our management team - Avenger certainly knows how to improvise when needs must!
We are dismissed after half an hour or so, well satisfied with progress.
The main stage for our drumming and dance auditions is not in Tumu itself, but a small traditional mud-hut village called Pulima some five miles away by a rough road, Suleman’s birthplace.
Here in his village of Pulima, Avenger is on his own ground, a young and incredibly dynamic tribal chief in action organizing a growing crowd of nearly a thousand people. They are wearing a kaleidoscopic admixture of gorgeous traditional dress and shabby western cast-offs. There are huge jungle drums and antique wooden xylophones being assembled and moved into place in the shade of the giant mango and acacia trees. I watch him cutting deals with the local worthies over a few thousand Cedis (the Ghanaian currency comes by the plastic bag load, being worth 16,000 Cedis to the pound), organising catering for hundreds of people, dancing and swaying with the crowd, always in motion. His many brothers (and I cannot fathom the utterly confusing family relationships in this complex polygamous society), are soothing fraying nerves, paying off the minor players, haggling with suppliers, managing the complex transport arrangements; using runners, mobile phones, motorcycle couriers and even the traditional drums to maintain some semblance of order in what to a stranger’s eyes appears utterly chaotic.
Meanwhile the broad principles of the proceedings are becoming clear. A large number of local dance groups and traditional musicians have been invited to Pulima village to show us what they can do, along with the tribal elders, local government officials, hangers-on and scroungers, women, children, mullahs and even a soothsayer, and we are trying to select the best individual musicians and dancers from the talent on display. There is division in the judging camp – some of the best performers, including all the women, are under 18, and whilst we would prefer a mixed group, we do not really have the resources to chaperone vulnerable teenagers for six weeks in Scotland, whilst we take in a series of major and local festivals and events. We decide to put off the decision and choose around 30 of the best to stay overnight in the village and audition again on the next day.
We are exhausted, and head back to the hotel for a beer. Just when we think it's safe to relax, the District cultural officer, A.S.K. Balloh, and his deputy, Latua J.S. Basing (known as Sasco) who is the District Cultural Co-ordinator (dance) for the Ghana Education Service, arrive for a meeting. Balloh would like a camera. We make pleasing noises.
The two officials plead that we have touched something essential to them - they wish to appeal not to forget about them. Advice, help and continuity are needed. There is too much pressure on Avenger's chosen local organisers (like "T"), too many people saying different things. "We are here to help you unearth hidden talents..the problem is poverty, money is needed! ..If the team is formed they wish to maintain them as a standing group.
Avenger responds by saying that his brothers here and in Scotland (meaning me) know what they are doing (if only!) - that the group is well developed and very explosive. We need to develop all these groups, find them contacts. The discussion continues, wandering into a ten year strategy to groom new talent. the name of Tahiru is called on, as someone who can support us.
Costume appears to be an issue, and they need to be groomed to perform at district and national level. Certificates of participation are required". It's all getting rather silly, and we are very weary. I'm sure these guys are well meaning, if a trifle venial, but really I just want to go to bed. Eventually they leave and we all heave a sigh of relief. We aren't in the least interested in their grandiose committees and procedures, this is strictly freelance risk enterprise, but we attempt to remain polite. These are drowning men clutching at straws...realistically our agendas are very different.
Sunday dawns, and already the dancers and musicians are hard at it. Slowly the sun rises to its zenith, and the dancers are still going through their paces, muscular ebony torsos glistening with bright beads of perspiration, bare feet pounding the dirt. The drumming is inexorable and compelling, subtle changes of beat signifying the transitions from one routine to the next. Slowly as the afternoon draws on the most promising individuals are picked out, one by one: the funny guy, the whistle man, the master xylophonist, the best drummer, and then finally the strongest young dancers who are still pulsating with energy whilst the others start to flake. The heat is intense, and even the judges are flagging. This is gruelling stuff, the survival of the fittest. By the end of the afternoon only the best are still standing, dripping with sweat, and as the light starts to fade the group leaders and dancers are called in to a meeting to announce the winners. Reluctantly we have decided to exclude the teenage girls and boys on the grounds of their age, but they take it in good humour. Their chance may come again, someday. It’s been another great day, and at 7 pm we head for home. I’m utterly shattered.
At the hotel the officials are waiting for us. Again. Same people, much the same agenda.
Sasco has defined the programme: four representative dances: Yung Daasi, Gugo-Yiila, Tangpani and Jenyila. The discussion is now about the practicalities: Accommodation, rations, letters of invitation, costume, transport. Avenger dodges all the hard questions but I back the officials: realistic answers are needed. The mood gets very heated. Eventually the answers come: the group will be accommodated at Pulima, where a training camp will be established. The dancers and musicians will be put up by the village and Avenger will pay the bills. Local weavers will be commissioned to produce the costumes. Smocks and T-shirts will be made. The group will train from the 17th, bus to Accra on the 23rd, and fly out to Scotland on the 26th. The dancers are sent home for a couple of days to pack.
That night we party like crazy: its a riot and we finally get to bed around 2 am. To add to the general hilarity, "T" has made a serious pass for Amanda, and declared his undying love. Sad, but funny too, she has eyes elsewhere.
Another busy day. In the morning, meeting with DCE (the Director of Education) - I suggested that I go around the schools to meet the students. In the afternoon, Baba runs his motorbike into a cyclist. This is a serious crisis, he's a key member of our team. His injuries look bad, he's been taken to Tumu hospital which has very limited facilities for testing, and Avenger is urgently considering evacuation by private ambulance to the nearest large hospital for a CT scan. That's a few hundred miles, not a cheap option. My NHS management experience proves useful. I head to the hospital that afternoon, talk to the wonderfully starchy matron in full frilly cap and blues, view the patient (who is sedated and comatose) and finally arouse the young Cuban doctor out of bed 9in his nearby bungalow to interview him about the diagnosis. My conclusion is that the risks of moving the patient are roughly equivalent to bed rest and observation, so I recommend taking a watching brief for 24 hours - no point spending a fortune without a clear medical advantage. Avenger, relieved, concurs.
Visited Kanton Pulima Junior Secondary school with Amanda, and had a great time meeting the staff and children. Address: PO Box 36 Tumu, Upper West Region Ghana. I've included the address in case you have any spare books or pencils to send them, they are desperately short of basic resources. Amanda and I take four classes, told stories, sang songs, and handed over a large pile of books donated by my colleagues at West Lothian Council
On Friday they reassemble for an intensive series of rehearsals for the main representative dances which have been chosen. Yung Daasi: (slave sticks): Gugo-Yiila and Tampani (drum dances): Jenyila (xylophone dance). Once again we hear the primal rhythms of the huge Tampani and Gugoni drums under the blazing African sky. Whilst the four dances selected represent only a fraction of the Sissala repertoire, and just assuming that we can overcome all the remaining official hurdles and reach Scotland intact, Gandawi are as dramatic, authentic and vigorous an ensemble as anything Scotland has ever witnessed.
Like many border towns between amicable states, the atmosphere in Tumu is easy-going and there is little evidence of police or military presence except an unmanned check point on the main road and a deserted barracks probably dating back to colonial days, with crumbling 10 feet high walls and a vast parade ground now overgrown with weeds. Signposts point to the “Slave Walls” and the locally renowned “traditional bone-setting centre” in Gwollu. Trading across the border in commodities like rock salt, dried fish, cola nuts, sun-dried tomatoes, magic charms for snakebite and spices is a vital part of the local economy. There is a vibrant weekly marketplace, where hundreds of small farmers bring their produce in bullock carts, donkey carts, mopeds and bicycles, and come to chat and gossip. Muslim and Christian faiths are practiced in a relaxed and tolerant atmosphere, whilst traditional tribal beliefs and superstitions are everywhere evident and co-exist with the more recent religions in apparent harmony.
The temperature outside is 32C. In my hotel room, in this bleak concrete folly on the edge of town, where the best en-suite double rooms with air conditioning cost £8 a night, there is little but the whirr of fans to disturb the tranquility, because there are few other guests. The electricity and the water supply are intermittent. To operate the laptop I have to disconnect the ancient Hotpoint fridge with its dwindling supply of ice cold Star lager, wrapping the bottles in a towel to preserve their cool for a precious hour or two, whilst praying that the power will stay on.
The rains have arrived, colossal thunder and lightening illuminate the night sky, and this normally dusty and arid land is alive with lush green grass and seasonal ponds pulsating at night with the croaking of a million frogs and the teeming sounds of thousands of other species of birds, insects, reptiles, crocodiles, smaller and larger mammals. Humans, predators and prey are symbiotically locked into the battle for survival in these marginal sub-Saharan lands which depend utterly on the coming of the rainy season. It’s a good place to reflect on the potentially disastrous impact of global warming and the urgent need for the world’s leaders to protect this diverse but fragile ecosystem by stemming the southern expansion of the Sahara desert. The cultural and economic survival of this unique and complex land and people is now in the gift of the developed world.
News: project receives £10k Big Lottery grant : Gandawi to visit UK in summer 2007!
Ghana blog continued
© Rob Kay 2005