A Trip to North-East Ghana

My previous introduction to the North-East Ghana (officially the Upper East Region) had been a trip via capital Bolgatanga on the way to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and back. I had however come across a journal article ((Lund, C. 2003. ‘Bawku is still volatile’: ethno-political conflict and state recognition in Northern Ghana. J. of Modern African Studies 41(4): 587-610.)) a year or so ago about the conflict in the region between two major ethnic groups – Kusasis and Mamprusis regarding the chieftaincy issue, while doing some background reading on Ghana. The article centred around the town of Bawku, where I was going on this trip to identify some research sites for the project.

Bawku is not only known for its conflict-ridden past but also for being one of the most densely populated towns in Ghana, with 169 persons per sq. km. ((Ghana Districts Info [http://www.ghanadistricts.com])) The area looked distinctly familiar even though it was my first trip there. It didn’t take long to realise that it was because of the landscapes with hills all around, rocky terrain and difficult-to-cultivate lands – much like the Nepali mid-hills. The similarities extended further with huge areas of millet on the rocky fields on the hillsides (often on slopes without any terracing). The type of millet here looked slightly different from Nepali millet however. There were some maize fields, where the crops were struggling to survive due to the lack of water. In fact this area has been luckier than most in Northern Ghana, for it had received some rain last week – reason why the maize weren’t completely dead like I saw in many fields around Tamale. The valleys where there was some water available were cultivated with rice (or being prepared for rice cultivation). Also saw a row of women planting rice at one of the fields, just like I had seen so many times in Nepal.

outside Bawku town
Image 1: A faraway hilltop seen from one of the research sites

Our first destination was a research station just outside the Bawku town, to meet the regional director of a research institute who we wished to work with in this part of Ghana. He turned out to be a PhD-holder from a UK university, which meant few minutes of introduction turned into a lengthy conversation about studying in England as an overseas student, scholarships, job-opportunities, and the satisfaction of returning back to the home country and apply the skills acquired in England for local benefits. He promised to provide as much help in our research as his office possibly can over the duration of our research project. And indeed he was immediately very helpful in finding us a technician who could help us locate and identify appropriate sites for our research.

close-up
Image 2: The hills…close-up

Before we drove towards the potential research sites (communities outside the Bawku town), we decided to have lunch. We first went to a restaurant suggested by the regional director, only to find that the local food we wanted was not available. So after going around a few eateries, we found one place by the roadside (like Indian dhaba!) where we settled to have lunch. One of the Ghanaian colleagues and I choose to have fufu (with meat sauce) – my favourite Ghanaian dish so far!

After lunch, we headed towards the communities where we could find the sites we wanted. Struggling with sleepiness in the hot afternoon after quite a heavy lunch, we found a community that could provide the sites we wanted. We talked to a few villagers, found out who the chief was and where he lived so that we could go and greet him and explain our business in his community. The traditional hierarchy and governance structure is very important in these parts of Ghana, and all outsiders who want to work in a community is usually advised to first inform the chief of their intentions and seek approval. We decided to go to the chief’s house first thing next morning before coming to the community, and arranged time with the villagers accordingly.

Our base for the night was the research institute’s guest house (payable of course, with no provision of food, unless we cooked ourselves in the kitchen!). We decided to go back to the restaurant that we first went for lunch – this time to eat non-traditional dinner. On the way back, we stopped at a small shop to buy provisions for the next morning’s breakfast – instant coffee sachets & biscuits! I though I would instantly go to sleep for it had been a tiring day – how wrong I was! I stayed awake almost all night, almost finishing the novel (The Bastard Boy by James Wilson) that I had brought with me from Tamale and had started only the night before. It was such an interesting book that I couldn’t put it down. At the end, I ended up sleeping only about an hour before getting up to start the day early!

By 6:30am, we were already heading towards the chief’s house. When we got there, we found out that the chief had in fact gone to the regional capital Bolgatanga the day before and spent the night there (somebody joked about the flexibility this chief apparently enjoyed, for in many communities the chiefs are never allowed to leave the community for the night!). So, we just informed the chief’s sons about our visit and headed towards the main settlement (the chief lived just outside the main settlement that we were interested in). The villagers had already gathered (mainly the community elders) and we began our work – the technicial (turned out he was from the same community!) acting as out interpreter. In less than two hours, we had identified (on paper) all the sites we wanted, and acquired permission from the farmers who managed those fields (or fallow). Afterwards, we headed towards physically locating the sites and meeting the farmers on-site. Within another four hours, we had completed our day’s assignment, just in time for lunch before we headed back to Tamale.

Shea parkland in North-Eastern Ghana
Image 3: Maize field with Shea trees

In one of the fields identified as appropriate for locating our research plot, we met an old farmer planting soybean in between the maize crop that had germinated only a few weeks ago (again I remembered seeing my own parents plant soybean in between the maize). His field was in a low-lying area, probably suitable for rice cultivation if they had received rain soon enough. Now that he has planted maize and soybean, I fear he might lose his crop if there is a big rain and the field gets flooded (which looked very likely given its location in the landscape).

shea fruits
Image 4: Shea fruits

Our research focuses on one of the most important (economically, culturally, traditionally) trees in these parts of Ghana – Shea tree (karité in French) ((Scientific name Vitellaria paradoxa)), which are dotted everywhere in the fields and fallow in these parts (Image 3). Even when most other tree species are cut down to make way for farming, these trees are usually left standing, which often gives the impression of Shea plantation – whereas in actuality, these trees are rarely planted so the impression of plantation is merely the result of intensive management of these trees along with the farmlands.

shea fruits
Image 5: Shea fruits – close-up

The Shea fruit (see Images 4 and 5) is very much like Chiuree ((Scientific name Diploknema butyracea (?) )) found in the Nepali mid hills. Even the uses of these two plants are uncannily similar – fruits can be eaten (and no surprise – shea fruit tastes very much like chiuree fruit), the nuts are dried and the kernels inside are used to produce butter (like that from chiuree – although I must admit I have only seen chiuree ghiyu but never seen the process of making it). I have seen the traditional process of making Shea butter, which is quite labour-intensive.

on way back
Image 6: Leaving the hills behind…on the way back to Tamale

Anyway, after a successful trip to Bawku (and a community nearby), we headed back to Tamale (after lunch). As we were just about leave the town of Bawku, our driver remembered that we had actually off-loaded the spare tyre from the back of the jeep to make space for some villagers when we were taking them to show us their fields. So we had to return back to the village (probably 40 km round trip on a dirt road!) to get the tyre back before we could head back to Tamale. It was probably during this leg of our journey that the vehicle developed some fault. For when we were on the main highway, there was some noise coming as soon as the driver tried to go above a certain speed (may be around 60 kmph). So we had to return back at around that speed all the way through.

Crazy-Load-Lorry
Image 7: Crazily loaded lorry I

Apart from narrowly avoiding some precariously loaded lorries (Images 7 and 8), and having to pass through a section of highway under heavy rainstorm (water seeping into the vehicle from the cracks on the front windscreen!), we managed to arrive back in Tamale safe. It was dinner, drink and sleep back in now familiar Tamale…and oh, a few remaining pages of The Bastard Boy.

Crazy-load-lorry-2
Image 7: Crazily loaded lorry II