Blog | March 2014

From Accra to Bolgatanga and back: reflections on a month spent in Ghana

by Elena Gadjanova


Rarely would you have to rely on the kindness of strangers as much as when doing fieldwork in a country you visit for the first time. I spent a month between January and February 2014 traversing Ghana from South to North and back, talking to people, observing everyday interactions, taking in the culture, savoring the food, and basking in the warmth of climate and communities alike. “You’re welcome” is what I would be greeted with right after saying hello. Children would wave and smile. But the warmth should not be seen as a sign of servility, Ghanaians are proud and would promptly go about their business after a short interaction. “They like you to be different” – one of my interviewees told me, “they don’t want to be like you, but they want to see attention and sympathy” which aptly sums up the role of personal contact and aspiration in Ghanaians’ lives. Shaking someone’s hand is a sign of respect, showing interest is flattering and people gladly take the time to share experiences, opinions, thoughts. Aspirations are evident from the way people walk with a sense of striving and purpose, and from the importance they give to education. By far the most common answer to my question of what is important in their lives and what they most care about was education for their children.

These were some common themes against the backdrop of great diversity. Ghana is diverse both socially and in terms of climate and landscape. Having made the 15+ hours bus ride from Accra in the South to Tamale and Bolgatanga in the North (twice!), I could observe the change of climate and vegetation directly. The landscape went from hills and rivers with rich tropical vegetation - palm and banana trees, cocoa plantations and magnolias around Accra and Kumasi – to flat dry savannah in the North with a few tall baobabs amongst miles and miles of red earth. The symbolic watershed is the town of Kintampo in the Brong Ahafo region roughly in the middle of the country where all buses stop on the way up to the three Northern regions and Burkina Faso. A large market catering to the needs of travelers has spawned in and around the compulsory bus stops in Kintampo. You can buy gifts, sunglasses, sandals, fruit and vegetables, a vast range of drinks and snacks or you can sit down for fufu, joloff rice, freshly-made tea and boiled eggs. The travel-related retail is not limited to bus stops at Kintampo, however. A lot of economic activity is concentrated along the main Accra-Bolga road. Traders carry snacks, fruit and water, which you can pick up directly through the windows of the bus without getting off, there are numerous carts selling fresh produce, and in Kumasi the largest market for second-hand car parts in the country is sprawled right around the road. 

While the variety in landscape, climate, and vegetation in the country unfolds slowly and gradually as you cross from South to North, the linguistic and cultural diversity is immediate and striking. Although most people speak English, there is a plethora of local languages at various levels of aggregation – some common to entire regions (Akan, Ga, Twi, Dagbani) to others spoken in different communities of the same district (Frafra, Kassem). Listening to the radio where commentary was a mixture between English and the local languages, frequently within the same sentence, was fascinating. One might wonder how people get by in such an environment of linguistic difference, but it seemed that it was only a challenge to me; the locals switched between languages seamlessly and took it as a fact of life. Religious difference is also both striking and normalized. In the North, there are Pentecostal churches next to Mosques, frequently on the same street. A predominantly Muslim region is also home to the oldest Catholic Cathedral in Western Africa (situated in Navrongo). One of the chiefs I met was Christian but this did not prevent him from performing his traditional duties of making sacrifices for a good harvest or rain. This overlap of religious beliefs, ethno-linguistic diversity, and local tradition was at full display at a funeral I attended on my second day in Bolgatanga. The funeral was held for an elderly matron from one of the local villages whose children and grand-children had come back for the occasion from all over the country and brought their spouses. She was given a Christian burial, but tribal rituals were also performed and both chiefs and Muslims attended. In contrast to the West, where the funeral of a non-public figure is usually among the most private and exclusive of rituals, in Ghana it was an exercise in inclusivity and a demonstration of popularity, a site where communal differences could be showcased and performed in a very public display of the richness of diversity.    

Local government is a maze of traditional authority and administrative structures to mirror the Russian doll-like structure of languages and ethnic groups in the country. Some of the officials and chiefs I interviewed patiently explained the levels of traditional authority and government structures, how the tasks are divided, and the ways the two both mirror and depend on each other. How this influences service delivery and issue deliberation is one of the main questions my project aims to address. But it seems that the dual authority is able to provide an alternative for people to voice concerns and resolve problems and, when functioning well, one authority structure is able to check and balance the other. The same goes for the two political parties active in my field site in the North albeit in a slightly different way. There appears to be genuine competition for peoples’ votes through the provisions of “pork” during campaigns. Participants in a focus group I held sardonically called these “election projects” to signal their lack of permanence and strategic timing, but there were plenty of stories of how communities got two boreholes for water, two sheds for elders, and a road paved twice as fast because the parties aimed to match each other’s gifts. This practice has also paradoxically made gifts not sufficient for ensuring locals’ political support. Voters I interviewed shared that personal contact and showing concern matters greatly, as does the ability to deliver on campaign promises, so we have a mixture between politics of affection and performance. It was clear that having a viable alternative in the face of opposition parties was crucial for improving the accountability of the system. The frequent and peaceful turn-over of power in the country has led people to believe their vote matters and made them watch local politicians and government officials more closely and expect more in terms of service provision. This ratcheting up of performance expectations can only be positive.                    

On a less positive note, what also struck me about the country was the large and very obvious socio-economic inequality. Witnessing this is always difficult. The inequality was evident from the types of houses and other constructions to the differences in the predominant occupations and prices for a bottle of water across the regions. Economic differentiation within countries is of course common, but in Ghana the difference in the quality of life is very big – in parts of Accra one feels as if one were in a resort, while vast areas in the North still do not have electricity, paved roads, or running water. In stark contrast to the large residences in the big cities, it was not uncommon for people in the rural areas close to Bolgatanga and Tamale to live in clay huts. Development is patchy and uneven and somewhat random; it was striking that despite the poverty, almost everyone had a cell phone. Environmental problems often accompany development ones. In Ghana’s North, the amount of litter along the main roads is mind-boggling. The impression is further exacerbated by the constant winds, which pick up the plastic bags and spin them around in a whirlwind of tangible pollution. In a sign of attention to the issue, the Ghanaian government has appointed an environmental councilor in each local district, but a lot of work remains to be done.

In sum, after a month in Ghana, I am left with a lot of impressions and data, which I am only beginning to digest and analyze. The experience has been enriching and eye-opening in many ways and has given me unique insight and intuition. Things were not always comfortable or smooth of course, but I would gladly go back in the future.


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