Five Weeks under the Harmattan: Reflections from Tamale

[Note that I tried to add photos but they wouldn't load on my connection. Just google Tamale, Ghana and look at the pictures. I don't have anything special except for that I'm probably even whiter than most of the peace corps volunteers.]

In February I moved to Ghana for ten weeks as part of a study on smallholder crop farmers in the Northern Region. I’m based out of Tamale, the second-biggest city. Coming with American eyes (or even eyes from many other African cities, my colleague tells me) you wouldn’t know it was so large. Modern structures are a minority here, with many tin roofs around and the city surprisingly sparse outside of a tiny nucleus at the center.

It’s very dry and dusty – I arrived here during the season known as “Harmattan,” when the wind from the Sahara blows so much dust into the reason that the sky turns brown and the sunlight is dimmed. After a couple rainstorms the dust has now descended to make way for the hottest month of the year, March. It struck me as odd that March is the hottest month – I figured seasons should match what I’ve experienced before in the Northern hemisphere (June-August) or Southern hemisphere (December-February).

I don’t have a clear answer on why March is so hot but I think it’s a few things. a) “Heat” really has to do with rain. My best nights of sleep recently have been after it rained, which cooled things down. b) In the Northern hemisphere’s summer, the equator is slightly south of the closest point to the sun. It’s the opposite in the Northern hemisphere’s winter. Since Ghana sits on the equator, the hottest time is in between.

That said, while it’s dry and dusty, there are beautiful mango and other varieties of trees dotting the ground, and they provide a nice contrast from the North American foliage that I’m used to.

There are a few things that have struck me here. I’m about halfway through my time here and have been reflecting today while reading Ghana Must Go, a novel by a Ghanaian immigrant to the U.S. (and fellow Yalie).

   1) People relate to each other very differently from in the U.S. I’m surely biased since people notice me more and are constantly curious about me (see point 2), but except perhaps in the busiest parts of the city, people acknowledge each other much more than in the U.S. or at least the Northeast. You’re expected to say good morning (“despa”), good afternoon (“antille”), or good evening (“annoula”) when you see someone. You respond “na”, and while the word may not sound beautiful to English ears, people often lengthen the word “na”, saying it with an expressive tune. I never thought a word like “na” could be said in so many different and melodic ways. If someone trips or drops something – even across the room from you – you are expected to say “sorry”.

People do not walk around as if they are in completely separate spaces like in New York City. They acknowledge and receive each other’s presence. I’ve mentioned to a number of Ghanaians the scene in Borat where Sacha Baron Cohen frantically chases people around the street trying to say hello to them. That’s what would happen if you deployed Tamale etiquette in New York City. I wonder how much of it is how urbanization changes people’s behavior. Given that Tamale is the fastest-growing city in West Africa and cities like it are likely to grow substantially in the coming years (which is creating all sorts of infrastructural challenges), it’s going to be interesting to see if this culture changes at all.

   2) Being a white person here attracts widespread curiosity. When walking down one of the emptier streets, you’ll see children – even toddlers – run out into the road, jump up and down, and eagerly shout “Siliminga hello!” Siliminga means white person. (“Siliminga goodbye” quickly follows.) It’s pretty adorable. I’ve gotten used to it, though, as everyone eventually does, and after a point it starts to get trying. Adults do it too but less often.

When you’re not being enthusiastically greeted by children, you attract widespread curiosity – sometimes fear – from people around you. In my experience, though this may differ for women, young men often approach me and ask for money, help buying them food, or even my phone number. If one of these young men gets your phone number, even a cab driver you’ve made an arrangement with, you can expect the phone to ring constantly. It seems people here fight to have white friends.

I think it provides a window, albeit with a very different power imbalance, into what it’s like to be the only person of your race on the street. Obviously I’m still the one with power here and the one that others are afraid of, but the experience of having people constantly gawk because you look different is not a pleasant one. I can only imagine what it would be like when you also have less money and privilege on top of that.

On a side note, I asked a Ghanaian friend of mine how people would react here if they saw someone, say, from China. He said they would react the same way they react to a white person, would consider them white, and would assume they spoke English.

    3) Apparently scientists have found that people from richer countries are more likely to cry, and after being here, I can see why. Many, many things we take for granted are at least inconsistent here. Water and electricity go in and out, of course, as does the Internet, which is entirely based on cell networks. Don’t think there’s A/C in many places to take care of the heat (and even if there is, it doesn’t work without power)! This is all from someone with as much money as you reasonably could use here to spend. So you’ve gotta hold your tears here if you’re going to survive.

It’s interesting to see even in this novel Ghana Must Go how similarly a family of Ghanaian emigrants reacts when they return to Ghana. I’m honestly not sure there aren’t some benefits to having a bit less convenience and a bit more of a dependence on the weather and the natural world.

    4) The culture around animals here is radically different from in the U.S. Everywhere you look, even in the most urban parts of town, there are goats, sheep, chickens, and guinea fowl. Occasionally there are cattle, all emaciated from a lack of water for much of the year. People feed animals when they’re young so they return regularly but otherwise they have to feed themselves. Merchants cut them up right in the middle of town. It’s interesting how the West has invented far more shocking ways to torture and kill animals (though slaughter here is nothing to be in awe of) but most Westerners would recoil from the sort of displays you see here. Sheds interesting light on theories by anthropologist Timothy Pachirat about the “Politics of Sight” and animal agriculture.

    5) Foreigners from the U.S. and Europe who are in Ghana are an odd bunch. In my other stay in a developing country, in Peru in 2011, I didn’t have the experience of being around many Americans there. Ghana Must Go talks about the loss of “context” for a family of Ghanaian immigrants and the way they lose aspects of their heritage. I feel a similar thing among Americans and Europeans in Ghana. It feels like there’s something missing, some lack of grounding and passion that generally gets covered up with beer.


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