It’s easy to sit in the newsroom in the national capital of Ghana, Accra, and receive reports from correspondents based in all ten (10) regions of the country, and think that I really know so much about these areas and the issues that emanate from there.
For the reason that radio deploys loads of adjectives, I could tell the story of the Nankpanduri conflict with ease, and let listeners know how volatile the situation is, and how many people have died or were injured in that conflict. It is easy, based on the reports filed by the correspondents, to present the news about how highway robbers attacked passengers on a Metro Mass bus traveling from Navrongo to Tumu. But from my cozy air-conditioned office in Accra where I respond to the title journalist (senior is added to it occasionally), I wouldn’t know that these towns that I had pictured to be huge, are merely a small collection of huts with a single borehole usually dotted at the center of the community. So when I took my annual leave in 2017, I decided to embark on a 10-day private unofficial trip to the three regions of the north. I called it #TourGhana.
I arrived in Tamale by air on a Wednesday, and decided to tour the city a bit. I longed so much for the popular ‘dawadawa’ jollof, but sadly couldn’t find a joint that sold some at the time of my arrival. Instead, I settled for roasted guinea fowl which I chewed as though I had spent a century wandering in a desert.
When I showed my proposed route on the Ghana map to my host in Tamale for advice, he looked at me in a way that suggested I was embarking on a Mission Impossible! I was to travel from Tamale through the eastern part of Ghana’s Northern Region, penetrate the Upper East Region, turn westwards later to the Upper West Region, before descending southwards home. I was doing this by public transport and had no anticipated persons awaiting my arrival in any of the towns. I spent Wednesday afternoon touring Tamale’s various suburbs and visiting a base for a popular youth group where they served me a local beverage called ‘ataya’ and more roasted guinea fowl.
Before sunset, I rode on a motorbike to the main Tamale station to assess my bus for the next journey. I am met at the entrance of the bus terminal by beautiful and air-conditioned Accra and Kumasi bound buses. As I walked through the sea of vehicles to the back of the terminal, the quality and quantity of buses continue to reduce… at the far end of the terminal, two men (a driver and his mate) are holding spanners and other equipment as they lie under a huge bus. There was a huge hole in front of the bus that would make one think it had no engine. That broken down bus was going to be my only mode of transportation on the journey I planned for the following day. I shook my head and went back to rest for the journey ahead.
With a plastic bag full of porridge and some ‘bofrot’, I watched the early morning sun rise from the horizon as the bus roared out of the station early Thursday morning on the two hour or so journey to Gusheigu. I am not the type who sleeps on long journeys but even if I wanted to, this was definitely not the time. From my back window seat, I watched as our bus picked up more and more passengers who have been waiting along the road all morning to catch the already full but only available bus from Tamale to Gusheigu for the day. The road itself was a cloud of dust and with the passing of every on-coming vehicle, the interior of the bus looked like a wee smoker’s den.
Although it is slightly bigger than the sister town of Karaga which we passed on our way, Gushiegu looked too small for the image I created for it from my newsroom back in Accra. The road at the entrance to the town looked like someone hurriedly poured bitumen on it when he heard the roar of our bus from the distant fields.
The market square which is also the lorry park had barely 5 vehicles (these were mostly trucks carting away goods and traders) when I got there. Dusty, tired and hungry, I made for the only appealing food joint I could spot around and for the first time in a long time, I bought a whole meal of ‘waakye’and a sachet of water for just Ghc 2. In Accra, I’d be out of my mind to even think of buying a meal for that low.
In Accra, you just flag down a ‘trotro’ and connect to anywhere at any time of the day or night. Interestingly, in these parts, when you miss the Market Day bus, you may have to rent a room in the town and wait for a few days or a week for the next bus. That was the unfortunate situation I found myself in. I had two options: stay here for the next few days or join the Tamale bus I alighted from not long ago and go back to the regional capital. I was determined not to spend the next hour in this dusty car park, but was told the bus to Nalerigu was long gone. Out of desperation, I went to the District Assembly offices. My famous name on radio could help transport me out of this place, I hoped. Indeed, almost everyone knew me in the District Assembly offices, but no one was headed my way. I looked like a dejected homeless man as I pace on the corridors of the office. By now, the Tamale bus had left and this compounded my problems.
There are some benefits one could get just by having the right group of followers on social media, and this worked very well for me. With a single SOS tweet, I had a motorbike commandeered for me by a follower who hails from the town, and before I could say 140 characters, I was cruising at 120km/h as the pillion rider on the motorbike on the dusty route to Nalerigu. Yusif, the popular Gushiegu butcher who gave me a ride on his motorbike for the more than 2 hour journey can’t communicate in English. So after handing me his helmet and starting the engine, I knew the next word to be uttered between us would be “thanks” when we reach the final destination. As a tourist, I desperately wanted to ask questions on the way but it would have been a useless attempt. I wanted to share a joke with him about how awkward it was for a butcher to be carrying a cowboy on a road in the savannah, but I was very deficient in Dagbani so I tweeted my joke instead.
With a collection of huts interconnected by roads that looked like footpaths, the Minister for Local Government and Rural Development Hajia Alima Mahama, clearly has a huge task on her hands proving a point with her own home Constituency, Nalerigu. The roads were a dirty patch although the town hosts one of the biggest health centers in that part of the country.
A quick tour of the Nalerigu Hospital revealed over-populated wards and overwhelmed staff. I was determined not to sleep in the jurisdiction of the Northern Region on this day so I headed out. But of course, the reality again dawned on me, that travelling in these parts isn’t done at the instance of the traveler, but at the availability of vehicles. Movement here is usually one-directional, and clearly, there was no car moving out of town towards my next destination so once again, I became stranded. Then again, through my announcement on social media about my presence in town, a staff nurse offered me a ride on his motorbike on the hour-long journey to Nakpanduri.
Prior to travelling up north, Nakpanduri is a town whose name I had read several times in the news. This is mostly because of recurring conflicts in the town which claim lives and led to the destruction of property. From Accra, I painted a picture of a huge town with a lot of resources worth dying or killing for. But as our motorbike descended on the town from the several hills and mountains that separate it from Nalerigu, I started questioning the sense in the conflicts. We were welcomed into the town by a military post (apparently for enforcing curfews and the law) and as I stood at the intersection in the heart of the town, the only structure of value I could spot was the wood shop which sheltered me from the heavy rain that began pouring immediately without warning. From this wood shop, I scan Nakpanduri and could swear it wasn’t any bigger than my village, Asutsuare Junction.
I noticed that although Nakpanduri had a fuel station like my village, it lacked a simple thing like the vibrant taxi rank and okada station my village boasts of. It was 5pm, and although the lack of vehicles became an urge for me to sleep in this Northern Region town despite my initial intent not to, the lack of a proper guest house in town spurred me on to find an escape route.
Vehicles were practically non-existent on the four major streets exiting Nakpanduri, so when my pal negotiated with the rider on a Togo-bound motorbike we had flagged down, I did not only look desperate but also, very prayerful. I think the rider noticed and after discussions with his colleague motor rider in a language I didn’t understand a word of, they agreed to give me a ride to the next town.
In my days as a cowboy, I have embarked on scary and risky journeys such as taking the cattle out to graze in the fields at midnight and having to fend off cobras and scorpions on my daily exploit to feed my beasts. But the fear in me that night as I rode into the darkness with these strange language-speaking Togolese men on two motorbikes was unimaginable. Looking down deep into the valley below as we rode atop the steep Nakpanduri escarpment, so many thoughts went through my head. What if these guys stopped, robbed, injured or even killed me and rode off after tossing my corpse off the cliff? Who would know? Who would tell my family back home? Who can trace and connect them to my murder? No one knew them, and I couldn’t even communicate with them in the language they were speaking.
It had rained, and the untarred road in the pitch dark night posed an even bigger danger because it was as slippery as okro soup in an ‘asanka’ (Earthenware). More than twice, our bike skidded off the road and it took my long legs to save me as I jumped off onto the muddy road. Even in his attempt to manoeuvre our bike through the slippery road, my rider was holding a loaf of bread in one hand which he bit every now and then in the course of the journey. I was trembling from cold and fear. At I point, I thought of jumping off the bike. But where would I go if I jumped off into the dark? When I spotted a car’s headlight from behind us, I thought of jumping off the bike and kneeling in the middle of the road to flag down the driver, but I quickly dismissed the thought when the consequence of that car speeding past came to mind.
I was very dirty, tired, hungry, wet, scared and down-spirited when I arrived in Garu! Not the best way to enter the Upper East Region for the first time. Garu was the biggest town yet since I began my travel from Tamale. I got a decent guest house to lay my fragile body for the night as i conclude day one of what I expect to be a tortuous journey ahead. On Friday morning, I made an appearance on the local radio station where I challenged duty bearers to fix basic infrastructure for the district. I was taken to meet a man who insisted, after hearing me on the local radio station that I should be made to see him at all cost. It turned out; this man would be the first Fulani pastor I was meeting in life.
The Fulani people are mostly Muslim and all those I’ve ever known practiced Islam. It was surprising meeting this medical director who spoke fluent Fulfulde with me but worshiped as a Christian. My dad would be shocked to hear that story. The things travelling can reveal!
A journey via minibus to Bawku was noisy as passengers spoke a language I’m later told was Mampruli, engaged in a chat over something I had absolutely no idea about. I sat by the window on the back row and observed the greenery in the valley being fed on by donkeys. I attempted to make sense of the landscape, and read names of towns inscribed on wooden boards by the road side. Having traveled by motorbike on bumpy and scary roads and tracks for the better part of the previous day, this minibus, although over loaded, was much more comfortable to travel on. For a stranger travelling without a guide or any specific destination in mind, my plan was to just hop off the vehicle at the last stop, walk around, observe a bit, and hop onto the next bus heading west… But due to my regular updates with #TourGhana on social media, I was received triumphantly into Bawku by some great fans I would be meeting for the first time.
Bawku itself looked lovely although the thought of the recurring violence in that town sent shivers down my spine. I kept wondering if a conflict may erupt suddenly while I was still on the tour and whether I would catch a flying bullet. I didn’t blame myself for those thoughts because the name of the town was often featured in the news for the wrong reasons. A benevolent fan who owns one of the biggest pharmacies in town played host to me. He drove me round and showed me places. We headed towards the Burkina Faso border.
The trip lasted barely 10 minutes, but I counted more fuel stations on that stretch than I would have counted between Accra and Kumasi. Ours was the only vehicle on the road but as I looked through the window, I saw station attendants idle about near the pumps.
These pumps, I was told, are avenues for smuggling fuel into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Togo. We drove through Kulungugu where I took a photo by the defaced statue of Kwame Nkrumah and offered Friday prayers at the big mosque in town.
It was instructive to note that the untarred road I travel led on from Bawku ended just at the border. The stretch beyond the border to Bittor in Burkina Faso was tarred and smooth. I shook my head and returned.
In the afternoon, I took the front seat of a 207 benz bus bound for the regional capital, Bolgatanga. It was a bumpy ride as expected and loved to read the names of popular towns and villages… Zebilla, Zuarungu and the like. I entered Bolgatanga after dusk and loved the night life the city had to offer. I yearned to visit the dog market but was told it was due in 3 days so I went to see the Paga crocodile pond instead, where I mustered the courage to take photos by the heavy jawed reptiles as they rest by the pond.
Again, I noticed a proliferation of fuel stations on this stretch- apparently, another loading bay for fuel smugglers.
I changed some money into the CFA francs and joined a car headed for the Burkinabe capital. The road was smoother than the Tema motorway but very. It was uncomforting having to show papers to gun wielding Burkinabe gendarme (soldiers) at checkpoints dotted along the 3 hour journey into Ouagadagou. In Accra, I boasted of being a polyglot, but in Ouagadagou, I found how useless my seven languages were. No one understood a word of the English I spoke and not even my Fulfude and Hausa saved me.
Over here, the language of communication was either French or Moshie. Frustrated, I walked around for a while, attempted unsuccessfully to read inscriptions on billboards and followed my bearings back to the station where I hopped onto the next available vehicle back to familiar territory.
The only bus heading out of Bolgatanga to the Upper West Region town of Tumu belonged to the Metro Mass Company, and it moves once a day at 3pm. At 2pm, I arrived at the station to check in. Barely 10 people were in the bus when we headed out of the station, but at Navrongo, a crowd of passengers got on-board carrying plenty wares from the market which overloaded the bus in the process.
When after my frequent enquiries about our journey, the bus conductor discovered I was a journalist, he ushered me to the front of the bus to afford me a better view and an opportunity to take photos and videos. It was when I got to the front of the bus that I noticed a man seated behind the driver. He was dressed in mufti with a black cap.
In between his legs and under the seat, a shotgun wrapped in a sack lay handy. I panicked!
I went back to the rear of the bus to inquire from the conductor who told me the man I was afraid of was a plain-clothed policeman planted on the bus to protect us against armed robbers who frequent these areas. It was the first time I was living the reality of highway robberies. I turned round to look at all the passengers crammed together peacefully and prayed no armed robber boards at the next turn and guns us all down for our valuables. The fear of what laid ahead made me blink extra-quickly in order not to miss any hooded figure that may be wielding an AK47 on the muddy path ahead.
Part of the route itself is gravel, and the other part is sand. It moved through the thick bushes as we made our way out of Upper East Region into Upper West. It was getting dark, and ours was the only vehicle on the road. I engaged in a conversation with the policeman who told me how road blocks are mounted by highway robbers who shoot and kill the police escorts before robbing the passengers. I was on siting on tenterhooks throughout the journey and kept praying silently for it to end. I dreaded what was ahead with every mile covered. It was at that time I realized I didn’t have a pre-planned accommodation and it was close to 10:00pm.
I looked around. I was confused and worried. My seat mate stared back. “Hello”, I said. “I’m a tourist. Can you help me when we get to Tumu?” It turned out, this lady was born and bred here, and her uncle owns one of the only three Guest Houses in the town. When we alighted in the dark after 10:00pm, she asked me to follow one of her junior brothers who was waiting for her by the road. The boy took me to the Guest House located at the extreme end of town.
The following day, I unsuccessfully tried to ride on a donkey cart, so I settled on a motorbike for the tour of the town. Tumu is located in a forest and looks beautiful. The dam in the middle of the town could be put to good use. The roads of course, are begging for a lot of attention.
By midday, I was on a rickety minibus on another bush road headed for the Regional capital, Wa. On the journey, I saw how deplorable, constituencies represented in Accra by prominent politicians were. The Jirapa township was just a collection of houses and dust. Nadowli/Kaleo, whose representative wants to be President, has little to show in development. Upper West looked like an orphan to a father called Ghana. Wa is an average town; far less in development than Bolgatanga, and doesn’t look as busy. I spent two days in the Radio Waa newsroom where I took journalists on a training session.
I presented the evening news with the station’s star presenter who kept beaming at me because he couldn’t believe he was doing this with a “star from Accra”. I used the opportunity to speak to duty bearers and challenged them to put our taxes to good use. In the Studios of Sungmale Radio, I spoke about the importance of education and charged parents to send their children to school. I was chauffer driven around Wa and visited all the nice tourists’ sites including the WaNaa’s Palace. I felt like a President on a regional tour. Lol.
With a beautiful smock gift in my luggage, I caught the Damongo bound bus. A Nigerian movie blurring from the TC screen in the car served as good company to the passengers. I descended into the Northern Region where I spent a night in the Mole National Park playing with warthogs and elephants. I entered the ancient Larabanga mosque and performed the ritual of giving lose change to the children who gather around to beg from tourists. I noticed no official fee is charged for the maintenance of this national monument.
The same thing happened at the popular “unmovable stone” where all one needed to do was tip an old man lying nearby before entering – Such a terrible way to run our beautiful tourist sites.
I spent the last day of my tour riding in Tamale before flying back to Accra. Over the past ten days, I made stops in over 15 towns and villages during, and boarded countless vehicles, motorbikes and two airplanes on a journey that took me to two countries.
As for the love from fans, it made me think of contesting the presidency because such thoughts only occur on #TourGhana.
By: Umaru Sanda Amadu/citinewsroom.com/Ghana
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