Up at 3 to catch the early bus to Wa, which stops at Damongo. In Damongo there is a new internet café run by a guy called Prince, who set it up after winning a business plan competition run by Google.org and Technoserve, two fairly major international organisations. The café is in Damongo’s market square, along with the bus station, so when you get off the bus after two hours of road that’s so bad your entire body continues to vibrate for hours, the first thing you see is a huge sign for an internet café. It all feels a bit postmodern. Then you go inside, and it’s less so. There are huge incentives to start up cafes in remote locations these days, since there are international grants available and the government offers a ten-year tax holiday to anyone doing so.
However, there appear to be three factors involved in starting one – first a sense that it’s a business proposition, i.e. someone will actually be literate enough to use it; second, that it’s a benefit to the community, and third, that you know how to use computers, and have some elementary knowledge of how to network and configure them. I have met a very few people with all three, but mainly it’s the first two. I’ve had a café owner ask me if I knew how to make something appear on the internet, and have had several tell me that they started their businesses with no knowledge of computers at all.
The best story I heard was from Hannah, who attended a college-level computer class when she was living here a few years ago. A student asked the teacher whether computers could catch viruses from people. The teacher’s response was, “I haven’t heard of it happening, but I wouldn’t rule it out.”
Bizarrely, Google and Technoserve didn’t check whether there was any technical knowledge at play when they made this grant, so the poor guy is pretty much on his own. At the beginning a Peace Corps volunteer arrived to use the café, found only one computer was connected to a server, and generously networked the place for them. Since then, no help of any kind. On from Damongo to Mole National Park, where I had heard the Mole Motel, the only hotel in the park, had a new internet café. I arrived to find it had already been shut down, three months after starting up, because the owner was disappointed with the returns. Apparently he had bought 20 computers and a single GPRS modem (which runs at 480kbps, i.e. the speed dial-up was running in England in the early 1990’s, when you had to wait five minutes for your Hotmail account to load), and was attempting to sell internet time to tourists who wanted to upload photos. Needless to say, the customers were not impressed. As I speak, my own GPRS modem has been trying to load my gmail account page for the last 37 minutes, at a speed that I am coming to accept as standard. And this is at 4am, when the signal is strongest. So as a plan for providing a commercial service, this was not the smartest. The place is currently shut, pending the owner’s run for the District Assembly, but the manager, Salisu, is smarter. He’s 18 years old, with less than a high school education, and grew up in a village that gets entirely cut off for three months when it rains, but he has figured out how to use and network computers, and is trying to reform the place and get it a satellite connection so people can use it for other things than an exercise in zen.
(An update: after 45 minutes of asking me whether I’m sure that “google.com” really exists and that I have typed it correctly, my browser has now loaded a blank page and proudly says ‘done’. )
Mole National Park is beautiful. The guesthouse is set on an escarpment above a waterhole where, as I arrived, elephants were drinking. There are eagles, baboons by the pool, (a pool, which is also quite impressive, although the water is so murky you can’t see the bottom, which is good because there are things down there), and families of warthogs wandering around the restaurant. One of the girls staying here and I asked the receptionist if we could do something local in the afternoon, and he and his cousin took us down to Mognori, a village 7 miles away, on their motorbikes. Give a young Ghanaian a dirtbike, he’ll speed.
Give him a girl to sit on the back, he’ll go so fast you convert to Islam. But we got there safely, covered in red dust.
The village was remarkable – in this part of the Northern region, the living compounds get more Sahelian, with square houses whose walls are intricately decorated by the women who live there. They are also organised as an eco-tourism area, so you can take canoe trips upriver with the local fishermen.
There are a lot of Fulani living around Northern Ghana – originally from Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, they are cattle herders by trade and when Ghanaian farmers buy cattle, they hire Fulani to look after them. So the Fulani end up living permanently where they are hired. They also know how to make really nice cattle pens from thorn trees.
We went out in a canoe paddled by Charles Kwame Layaman, who gives his name very proudly when asked. I can see why, it sounds impressive. It was very quiet and cool down on the river, the water was high from a recent rain, hiding all the crocodiles.
Then we went to Larabanga, where they have the oldest mosque in Ghana (purportedly). Our guide claimed it was built in the 1460’s, but the books say it’s most likely mid-17th century. Larabanga is a tough place – it’s very poor, and very close to tourism because of its mosque and the nearness of the park. There’s a lot of scamming from tourists, a lot of poaching from the park, and the chief isn’t getting his people organised to try the eco-tourism option like Mognori, the other village. It reminded me of Brooklyn, where the proximity of the rich and the poor make for some very bad relationships. But the mosque is really beautiful, especially at sunset when the kids have been throwing balls on the roof and climbing all over it to get them back.