first steps

Four cafes surveyed yesterday, three so far today. I am writing this from the fourth. All very small businesses – under 10 employees. They pop up and disappear a lot in Tamale, people tell me, mainly because the internet business looks like a good opportunity but the population is not that literate here yet (about 30%) so that finding clients is tough. The goverment has given the sector a kick in the pants by decreeing that all school registrations for middle and secondary school must be done online – but in this region the local controller started off by contracting with a single internet cafe (at 7 cedis a child, because most people didn’t know how to use the internet and thus had to use ‘secretarial services’ from the cafe as well), which made a ton of money and had queues day and night of children lining up to register. Children from outside Tamale were coming to town and sleeping outside the cafe in question for two nights in the queue. Finally the other cafe owners got together and protested, and the monopoly was ended. But it must still be difficult to register your kid for school if you live far away from an internet cafe.

Most of the cafes I’ve surveyed so far are very small – 3 employees or so. They are entrepreneurial but highly precarious, as the margins are small, equipment and broadband are expensive, and most of the business (apart from school registrations) depends on attracting the 20% or so of the region who are literate. Here is Hannah, who set up a business with her brother this January:

Hannah at her cafe

Hannah at her cafe

She barely breaks even, and needs a loan to get more computers and expand the business. But credit here, even the formal kind, starts at around 30% interest, so she is unlikely to be able to get any.

It is going to be tough doing the census work. There’s always a long hike between businesses, and sometimes people send you in the wrong direction just because internet cafes pop up and disappear so fast, they may remember using one a few months ago but it no longer exists. Meanwhile I have walked a mile or so in 100 degrees. It’s hot by 7am here – I stood waiting for my morning ride into town today, and noticed that my skin actually hurt where the sun was falling on it. Perhaps a burqa is the way to go…

And the whacking continues. A friend here tells me that primary school kids are beaten if their parents fail to pay their school fees on time. A guy came up to me in the street yesterday wanting to have the standard conversation about where I am from, what I am doing here, and what my phone number is, and when we can go out together, and because I had just walked two miles in a hundred degrees and done four interviews, I was not in the mood so I just politely told him I was busy. Who would want to chat me up looking as I do after I’ve walked two miles in 100 degrees of heat is another matter – it indicates that it’s less about my personal charm and beauty, and more about my being the equivalent of a walking ATM. Unfortunately this made him feel as if his manly reputation was at stake, since he had chosen to chat me up in the street in front of everybody, so when I refused to talk he picked up a stick and started beating the nearest girl selling water (the bottom of the mercantile pecking order here). She just moved on as if it were normal, and everyone went about their business.

Despite all the everyday irritations, when you stop moving for a moment there are consolations. There are hummingbirds that look as if they’re made of cobalt, and pink, white and yellow bougainvillea everywhere. The earth is red, and mostly dust since it’s the dry season. The older houses are either colonial or round huts made of mud and brick, arranged in groups with walls running between them and little alleyways where people sit and do laundry, sew, and talk. It’s beautiful, in a spare, sun-baked way.

blue house, tamale

blue house, tamale


houses in tamale

houses in tamale

so, onward and upward.

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