unarmed in Bawku

Off to the dodgy bits today – Bawku, Garu, and the far east of northern Ghana, towards Togo.  Bawku has had a tribal conflict going on for a long time – depending how you reckon it, either from the eighteenth century when the Mamprusi came south to settle the Kusasis’ land and the Kusasi were never compensated, or from the 2000s when they started to kill each other in the streets with homemade pistols and AK’s and G3’s of unknown origin.  I spent the day talking with the locals about this, and they all assured me that every household in the area is armed. This does not lead to peaceful behaviour in an area plagued by vendettas.

While I was in Accra earlier this year, there was fighting and people died. One man was stoned to death in the market. News permeates the rest of the country when something happens up here, but does not stick because the North and South are so divided – people in the South tend to think of the North as backward and the dispute as a little crazy. I found out when I got there that while I was away in England during the last few weeks, violence broke out again and ten people were killed. Bawku itself is under a military curfew, so I didn’t plan to stay the night.

Getting off the 6am bus from Bolgatanga to Bawku, I met Jacob, an electoral commission official who works in Garu, the next town down the line. As we walked to the Garu bus together, he told me that during the 2008 election, which was a tough one and exposed a lot of social fault lines in the North in particular, the ruling party had expected to win. When the votes were counted and he announced that the opposition had won, a crowd gathered to come and take the ballot boxes. He had to sleep in the polling station with the army guarding it, while the town rioted outside with automatic weapons. ‘This is a tough place,’ he said wearily.

This is my second brush with a country making the transition to democracy, and again I am surprised and impressed at how, in a place where citizenship can sometimes be an unrewarding and difficult process, some people step up to make the process work, even at the risk of their lives. As Jacob and I drove around, I discovered he has a minimum of three jobs to make ends meet because the government does not pay him a living wage, but as an electoral commissioner, he is rock solid.

Garu has an internet café. It consists of a single computer in the local priest’s office, running off a GPRS modem. The place is pristine, possibly the nicest café I have been to yet. Unfortunately the profits go to the church, so unless I can swing an interview with the Pope, I can’t count it as one of my target population. Nonetheless, Garu was worth the trip.

I also met Dan, who works at MTN (the mobile phone network) in Garu. The phone companies post their younger employees in the remotest places, then after a couple of years they can ask for a transfer. Dan is the most bored person I have ever met. Garu does not have a bookstore, he has no internet connection at the office, and he didn’t even speak the language when he arrived. Plus people keep shooting each other. Overall, not a great first job. He is hoping to study banking when he gets out – I promised to send him books if I could to break the tedium.

Then back to Bawku, where in the town’s only internet café I met Bernard, a young man who studied a masters in diplomacy at Amsterdam and was hoping to come back and apply his knowledge to his hometown’s problem. However, Ghana appears to have rejected him. He has been applying for jobs for a year, and cannot get so much as an internship either with his own government or with foreign NGOs. He is baffled. He thinks the only way to go is to take a PhD and work internationally instead, so we talked about options in Europe and the US. He wants to research ways to resolve the Bawku conflict.

It is bizarre that the Ghanaian authorities are not using him. In a town where people get burned and stoned to death at regular intervals, where people look at strangers as if they are spies, and the children don’t play in the streets any more, there is a trained diplomat who grew up there and wants to help provide a solution. He is smart, he is multi-lingual and multi-cultural. He could probably actually have some kind of impact. And he can’t even get a job making tea. In Ghana, if you don’t come from a powerful family who can place you, a job is hard to get. Most good jobs are sinecures, given to people who are not qualified but know somebody. Meanwhile someone like Bernard stands on the sidelines, waiting and applying to colleges abroad.

Back from Bawku to Zebilla, where there is a small café teetering on the edge of disaster in a town where there are not quite enough literate people to support it. It’s a lottery – will it create a customer base before it goes bust?

Outside Zebilla on the way back to Bolgatanga, a small handpainted sign by the side of the road says:

NO WATER

NO LIGHTS

NO VOTE.

Possibly the most reasonable political discourse I have heard since coming here.

The country is beautiful at this time, as the rains are starting. Everything goes bright green, in contrast to the red roads and sand. There are kids selling shea fruit by the side of the road. The fruit look like gooseberries, taste like shea butter and make your fingers smell sweet for a day after you eat them.

Zebilla to Bolga

Zebilla to Bolga

A long procession of guineafowl make their way across a rice field, looking very important.

A sign by the side of the road with a huge photograph of elephants: ‘Northeast Migration Corridor: all animals have the right of movement.’ The animals are migrating to find food and rear their young, and some international organisation has paid for a big sign to state their right to do so. I am tempted to go to the Libyan coast where the small boats set sail for Europe, and post a huge sign stipulating that people have the right to do the same thing.

I finished my day at the internet café in Bolga where my online survey is supposed to be happening, but mysteriously has not been showing any results. Mystery solved: it seems the manager was worried that if people took the survey, I would have to spend money paying for the free time online that I offer them in return. I explained that this was the point, and she was amazed. Now, hopefully, there will be responses.

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One comment

  1. Hi. I’m the Project Director of African Turning Point Foundation in Zebilla, which runs the internet cafe and business centre. I don’t understand your comment about the cafe ‘teetering on the edge of disaster’ and ‘not quite enough literate people to support it’. The role of the cafe is to help and encourage people who are not literate, not just to support literate people only and further disenfranchise less-able people. We run training programmes for adults and also school children, which helps them with their ICT curriculum. Because we also provide typing, printing and copying services, used mainly by the public sector organisations in the town, we make a small profit which is then used to improve the facility and increase the number of training programmes we run. So, though the town may have a high portion of less literate people, the cafe encourages individuals and groups to improve their eduction, especially as we are soon to embark on a girls and women’s literacy project. If you’re ever in Zebilla please feel free to call in and hear of the other work we are doing.

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