The long goodbye

Tafi Atome and Hohoe, Ghana

I readily admit to burning out. At Mole National Park, I stressed over my next destination: northern Togo? Transport was possible to Kara, but to Natitingou, Benin from there? Having to negotiate everything in French? Not knowing how frequent (or rather, how commonly people take the route, given how vehicles only leave when full unless you charter the whole thing) transport leaves and whether I’d be stranded? The possibility that I would have to arrange my own costly private transport? It turned me into a little ball of stress.

With Carlo’s description of the Volta Region of Ghana enticing, I considered it as another option. But even then, there were two routes, each of which would take two days of long rides. One would be shorter but take me to the middle of nowhere on unpaved roads, the other would force me to backtrack to Accra and switch there. Neither option sounded particularly appealing.

But then (with the help of Jessica and Felix) I realised: I’m on vacation. Why would I do something I’m dreading? If I’m enjoying Ghana, why leave so soon to Togo? And why would I want to leave the fun company I have? So, since they were headed back to Accra, a long journey back to Accra it was. Departing at 3 am, we took a dusty 4 hour bus ride back to Tamale, an 8 hour minivan ride to Kumasi, and a 4 hour comfy bus back to Accra.

Ghana’s overt religiosity is on full display during long rides. Ghanaian films, strange and somewhat unintentionally hilarious to me at times, are a pretty big thing and capture the rapt attention of all passengers, myself included. Over the 2-3 hours of a 4 part film, films often begin with a tragedy involving a family, break into religious song (like Bollywood, minus the dancing, but either with a Christian or a Muslim message) every so often, then maybe come the end of part 2… something supernatural starts happening involving ghosts, people casting spells and curses on each other, animism, magic… add in some odd brutality making the tragedy worse and worse and worse, then all of a sudden, after the film climaxes with the worst tragedy, they do a “two years later” fast forward and everything becomes fine. Whaa? No, it’s not the melange of the supernatural that bothers me (I genuinely think that most people in West Africa believe in the supernatural and occult, in spite of their religious beliefs), it’s just the abrupt jump to a happy ending without showing how it happened!

When there aren’t films, there are preachers. (There’s apparently even buses with “no preaching” signs, but I didn’t encounter any.) They’ll preach a message for maybe half an hour, lead the bus in song, lead a prayer… I did take issue with some of those sermons though. In between the page-flipping and cherry-picking of verses and passages, how are you going to convince anyone of the veracity of the Bible if your only point is “because the Bible says so, and if you don’t believe you’re going to hell”? Ehh. People on the bus seemed to like it, at least, but of course that meant preaching to the choir. Sermons were usually in Twi, though I think a few preachers specifically switched to English to “accommodate” the foreigners on the bus.

Despite initially dreading a return to the big city, returning to Accra felt like returning to a welcoming home base, with Erik and Nana still at the hostel and a heaping portion of Indomie with my name on it. I had already stayed longer than intended in Ghana at this point, and needed to move on at some point to visit Togo and Benin…but little extra time in Ghana wouldn’t hurt, eh? With good company around, I decided to stick around an extra day and headed to the Shai Hills Reserve (not far from Accra, but still took us 2 hours to get to) with Felix and Jessica. Supposedly home to many baboons, parrots, hornbills, antelope, and crocodiles… I suppose we were unlucky. We saw one small group of baboons, a few hornbills from afar, and some ostriches from eastern Africa in an enclosure. The lack of wildlife was, however, slightly made up for by a nice hike with a view.

Having not eaten all day, we stopped in a restaurant — an empty restaurant at 4pm in the middle of nowhere, where there were five or six guys drumming, singing, and dancing so loudly and boisterously that the restaurant’s workers seemed mildly annoyed. They kept it up for what must’ve been the whole hour we were there, as we sat a bit mystified. On our way out, we saw them dancing outside…and decided to (well, Felix and Jessica did, I just kinda tepidly) joined in. Hey, they enjoyed the novelty — a couple of them filmed us with their cell phones (and I must’ve looked downright embarrassing cause I can’t dance). When we asked them what was going on, they said it was a funeral! We should’ve known — it was Saturday, the funeral day, and they were all dressed in black and red. Pretty cool that they celebrate the life of the deceased. After politely pretending to not have a phone number, we caught a tro-tro back to Accra.

It would have been lovely to stay longer, I know that. Before Jessica, Felix, and Nana went off to buy and slaughter their goat (and later call me to tell me what I missed out on), we said our heartfelt goodbyes and I decided to part ways and head to the Volta Region.

In contrast to the rest of Ghana, the Volta Region is mountainous, next to Lake Volta, and lush full of vegetation. Due to the harmattan wind blowing in late this year, everything was unfortunately obscured during my tro-tro ride, and the haze never faded away during my stay. Oh well.

Before heading straight to Wli Falls, I took Nana’s advice and decided to stopover in Tafi-Atome, off the main road to Hohoe. Monkeys, he said. Having little idea what to expect, I alighted my tro-tro at Logba and immediately found a motorbike-taxi into Tafi-Atome, 4 km away. I pay my admission and night’s stay, and next thing you know, I’m staying at Vinolia’s inn/house and taking a bucket shower outside in the garden. A nice change of pace — seriously.

Tafi-Atome is a recent Peace Corps project-turned-ecotourism village. The locals are accustomed to visitors and go about their business, but they couldn’t be friendlier; I was able to walk around freely (and ended up in many family yards by accident), smile, take photos even, and chat at length. One family laughed while I admired their goats and marvelled at the sheer amount of palm oil they were preparing.

That evening, I met up with Nelly, the motorbike-taxi driver who took me into town, and he gave me a quick joyride to the other half of town along with his friend Alfonse. With the ecotourism dollars and some NGO funding, they’ve been able to bring electricity further into town (though the other half isn’t connected to the grid yet), construct a computer lab, an orphanage, and a library. Unlike other “ecotourism” ventures I’ve seen, this one seems to be directly benefiting the community. It was refreshing to see that Nelly (and the other locals) enjoyed and appreciated having visitors, that it was something positive for both tourists and locals contributing to better living conditions.

That isn’t to say that everything’s rosy. We pull up to a bar, and Nelly treats me to a beer as we discuss the current state of Ghana, in his perspective. (Power’s out, so everything’s by candlelight and the beer is warm.) While Ghana seems to be one of West Africa’s biggest success stories, with a stable democratic political system, a higher level of development, and plenty of foreign investment, it’s become too expensive for the locals. Gasoline is the same price as it is in America, a little over $1/L, and a slight increase in the price of gasoline yesterday just caused the prices of everything else to increase too. This was a complaint I heard from many others. Also, inflation is quite high; the cedi has lost over half its value in 6 years, going from US$1 = GH₵1 in 2008 to ₵2.5 now. Ghana exports gasoline to the neighbouring Francophone countries, which all use the CFA (West Africa’s version of the euro, a shared currency). Since its value hasn’t changed, the export is of diminishing returns. Nelly’s solution? Join the CFA zone. An interesting proposition, but I don’t have enough understanding to have an opinion; it would definitely facilitate trade though.

We did talk about more light-hearted topics too. The Volta Region is distinct from the rest of Ghana, and not much different from Togo — a result of the British/French split of German Togoland after WWII, and the vote that caused British Togoland to join Gold Coast upon its independence (as Ghana) from the UK. Names of towns are similar or twinned across the border. The people are and speak Ewe, but the Ghanaian side speaks English and the Togolese side speaks French. There had been rumblings many years back about Ewe reunification and the Volta region annexing itself to Togo, but that talk seems to have died completely now and Nelly tells me that both sides get along fine. He touched a little on religion, how the Ewe people believe in the deity Mawu, which somehow melded with Christianity and coexists peacefully.

The next morning, the monkeys came out, hanging out like kids skipping school. A group of us were taken by a guide who brought along a ton of bananas…normally a dangerous proposition, but these monkeys were cool! Incredibly cute with their blue-grey faces and baby-like squeals (they’re mona monkeys), completely non-aggressive and accustomed to living amongst people, they eagerly came out when they smelled the bananas, literally flying between trees, but never approached us unless we offered them, eating them directly from our hands. Of course, lucky me, I ended up with two monkeys jumping on my arm instead…

tafi-atome

After a short ride to Hohoe, I found that there were no tro-tros to Wli as it was a Sunday and not a market day. Pressed, I called up Migi, a motorbike driver that Carlo had recommended to me, and we were off! Children’s cries of “obruni, obruni!” fade to “yovo, yovo!” as we cruised alongside some villages nestled among beautiful farmland, smothered in harmattan haze. Migi told me there was the yovo song… I was to find out what that was a few days later. We’d speed by someplace, kids would start running after our bike, “yovo, yovo, ….!” Couldn’t quite hear the rest of it.

At Wli, I paid for a guide, Jonathan (a local farmer in his 60s), to take me to the upper falls, and we had a very steep but rapid 1-hour hike (seriously, props to Jonathan for being speedy) up where we encountered exactly zero other people on the trail. Wli is on the border between Ghana and Togo, a border delineated by the mountains. There’s one little pedestrian-accessible border post near the upper falls, but the rest of the border is basically porous. It’s a common smuggling route for gasoline from Ghana to Togo, but it involves an arduous hike through the mountains, with whatever the smuggler can carry on his person.

While the harmattan wind prevented me from seeing much of the mountain scenery around, nothing could possibly obscure the spectacular view of the falls, the highest in West Africa. And with no one around, I had the entire upper falls to myself to swim under — the magnificent sensation of a cold, cold waterfall pounding on your back after a drenched, sweaty hike in humidity — so wonderful that after the 1-hour hike back down, I swam at the more crowded lower falls as well. Worth it!

I wanted to stick around longer, perhaps hike Mount Afadjato and see Lake Volta, but the harmattan made any sort of other sightseeing in the mountains a moot point. Alas, with time ticking and a haze that would take days to disperse, I couldn’t wait, so I had to say goodbye to Ghana for now…

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