There has been a lot of stress up here about tribal politics lately. I asked Latif to explain what was going on, since the updates in the news here are only useful if you know the background, and I don’t want to walk into a tribal dispute by mistake. According to him, the poverty and isolation of many of the rural areas here make people vulnerable politically as well as in more visible ways. The chieftancy of the Dagombas, based in Yendi, alternates between two leading families so that each time a chief dies, the head of the other family takes over. However, the national ruling party in the 1990s got a little irresponsible in its search for votes, and promised to support the family-in-waiting in a bid to get the chieftancy early, resulting in a riot in which the sitting chief was killed. The ex-ruling party was due for a break – they also apparently started distributing the standard bags of rice to buy votes at last year’s election, except that they put guns in with the rice, like those superheroes you used to get in the cornflake packets.
So, the tribal rules say that if the chief doesn’t die naturally, the throne passes to his son (the worst outcome for the other family, as the son will live a long time and their access to power will be delayed even longer). So lots of violence has ensued, and the son is still regent after more than a decade. The new government has promised to resolve the case within its first 100 days, which are nearly up, so hopefully people will stop smacking each other around soon.
I have also been starting to observe the small things that make life here function, or rather that stop it functioning if you don’t participate in them. For instance, when you take the bus between towns there are numerous police checkpoints, where a sleepy well-fed policeman drags himself up from his chair to accept a handshake from the bus attendant, then pockets something as he lifts the barrier. It’s 5 cedis for a bus at each checkpoint, meaning that a driver has to find 20c just to get from Tamale to Yendi, which presumably decimates his profit since he is only making 1.5c per person, and there are about 25 people on the bus. If the police weren’t asking for most of his profit, he’d make a living and even maybe be able to make his bus less of a deathtrap. So not great.
I also discovered why most people haven’t officially registered their small businesses. The benefit of registering is that you can get a bank account in the name of your business, and you can invoice people formally for the work you do. To register you have to travel to Accra (700 miles or more), stay for three days, and pay 150c, which is much more than a month’s wages for the average small businessperson. This is just to submit the forms – if you want someone to actually stamp them you need to slip the civil servant another 50c to go to the front of the queue, ahead of all the people who can’t afford the 50c. Fortunately, the local government double-taxes businesses even when they aren’t registered, so you can be treated unfairly promptly and locally.
Word for the day: takachi. It means doing it the hard way – like learning how to fix a computer by breaking one repeatedly. Or doing a census of small businesses by taking the bus from village to village. It takes longer but you learn more.
And finally, a random shot of some of Tamale’s small fashionistas, who matched each other perfectly:
Ok, I’m off now. The guy sitting next to me is spitting.