Off to Bimbila, again starting out at 4am, which is imperative if you want to get anywhere. Missed the first bus to Yendi, which bizzarrely left an hour early at 4.30, and had to wait till 7 for the second. Then found the next bus to Bimbilla, which turned out not to be a bus but a farm truck. Farm supplies, with people and luggage on top. They wouldn’t let me get in the back with everyone else, apparently due to my whiteness, which I think translates as my ability to pay double to sit in the cab with the driver. This gave me the opportunity to meet Suli, a yam farmer who instantly proposed that I should come to his village and marry him because he worked hard and if I married a guy with lots of yams, I would never go hungry. He has a couple of wives already, but apparently he can keep all of us in yams. I declined politely, but I think he’s still expecting me on market day.
The truck takes along its own mechanics, who almost outnumber the passengers. The road, generously described as ‘rough’ by the truck’s owner who sold me the ticket, rattled the truck so hard it was difficult to remember to breathe. Then there was a tornado (no idea why, but a tornado about the width of the road). If you have to meet a tornado, do so in a large farm truck with about 50 people packed in the back. It could have been a nuclear blast, we weren’t going anywhere. The red dust, though, when kicked up by a tornado, has to be experienced to be believed.
Then there was the guy who flagged us down wanting to put his cow on board. All the mechanics jumped off to help him get it in the back. The cow wasn’t convinced, but got on anyway. Suli smiled at me and drew his finger across his throat. ‘Bimbilla’, he said. I took it the journey wasn’t going to end well for the cow.
Bimbilla, at 12 noon. Walked around to find the internet cafe, then into town to find a stationer’s to interview (comparison group for the study), then to the bus, then a two-hour wait for the bus to go. Hotter than can possibly be imagined. Got a good Dagbani (local language) lesson from the old guys at the bus station though. It’s one of those languages that varies according to who is teaching it to you, since local dialects abound. I draw blank stares when I try out the Dagbani I know, but some of the basic stuff works and I’m building on that. Moru Babatu and his posse mainly taught me to say things about being English, which didn’t seem the most useful phrases, but you have to take what you can get.
Most conversations involve me saying something in Dagbani, and the person saying ‘yes white, now give me your number and your address so I can come and visit you in England.’ I think I need to learn how to say semi-rude things in Dagbani next. ‘White’ is my name here, or Selmina, which means white. I prefer Selmina, it takes a moment to process and so is less of a shock. Getting yelled ‘white!’ at by every second person is something to be believed. By the end of the day, I was so hungover from heat and dust that I started to ignore people who yelled ‘white’ at me, and they were genuinely offended. It’s like people at primary school telling you you have big feet or freckles, you’re supposed to have a response.
There are ghosts here, too. Coming back on the night bus from Yendi, because today just took forever, I watched the stars through the open window, smelled the sweet nighttime smell of the savannah and the smoke from people’s fires along the road, listened to Tinariwen in the darkened bus, and watched the lightning a hundred miles away to the south. The road I travelled today, all seven hours of it, was part of the old slave route to the coast.
You can still hear the Arabic of the slave traders resonating in modern Dagbani (ask me to speak some when I get back and you’ll think it’s Arabic), and see the baobab trees that they used to tether the slaves to in the village markets along the road. The slaves were Ghanaians and Burkinabe from this area and just north of here, where the communities are smaller and people had a harder time getting together to defend themselves. The traders were Arabs, following the same route used for all the merchandise they traded across Africa. Knowledge and ideas came this way too, with the merchants – Muslim scholars and Islam itself arrived on this road. The main slave market was at Salaga: I go there next week.
Today the route is peopled with fairly happy, though very poor, villages. People are hanging out (it’s the hanging out season – mangoes and no rain yet), kids are in school, things are chugging along. These kids followed me for about a mile in the midday sun, instead of going home for lunch. They came into the internet cafe and the 20-something guys watching pirated Angelina Jolie movies shooed them out. I should have taken them on as research assistants, they were great.
I am done with the intense travelling for a few days. The last week has left me feeling like a wet rag. It’s been a beautiful, unspeakably exhausting one, and if I do any more I will get sick, so I’m going to ride a motorbike around Tamale and work here until Monday.