I am told that British diplomats are taught to ask “How is the development in the north?” whenever there was an uncomfortable pause in a conversation at a cocktail party or official event. They are told that this works in almost every developing country as very often the north is less developed than the south.
I cannot speak for the rest of Africa, but this is certainly the case in Ghana. Ghana is divided into ten regions (see note below) and the further north you go, people – on average – are financially poorer and have less formal education. I had the opportunity to visit the northern region of Ghana as a part of a successful programme put on by the World Food Programme to present scholarships to talented young ladies who have excelled at the Junior High School level. The intent of this programme is to keep the girls in school through Senior High School.
I flew to Tamale, the capital of the northern region. The drive is 9 hours and the roads are not consistently in good condition along the way. On arrival, I found the vegetation to be wonderfully lush. I was told that I was lucky to have visited in the rainy season as the climate in the north is one of extremes: while the wet season is very wet, the dry season is extremely hot, dry and dusty. As we drove out of Tamale towards the village of Yendi, I noted many carefully planted teakwood forests. I don’t recall seeing this tree before but the leaves somehow reminded me of sea grape plants and I was immediately home sick.
The scenes along the drive reminded me of Tanzania and more specifically Zanzibar. The road was dominated by two-wheeled vehicles, bicycles and motorbikes. Most of the four wheeled vehicles were four wheel drives, owned, I suspect, to a large extent by NGOs and UN organizations present in the north to provide assistance to this needy area.
As we drove outside of the town, there was a preponderance of mud huts, neatly-built, well-kept compounds, some with beautifully woven straw fences connecting related houses.
The Northern Region of Ghana is predominantly Muslim and in a mix of religion and tradition, many men are polygamous. The compounds therefore comprise a square building belonging to the husband and several round huts for the women and children that they bear.
The ceremony that I attended was held in a village called Yendi. It
is believed to be one of the largest villages in West Africa, and one which might be better developed were it not for a spotty political past.
We were taken for an audience with the village chief, to inform him of our presence and purpose in his village. We were taken to his secondary home, a pink brick compound with many, many, round brick huts. Normally when one enters the presence of a chief, one must remove ones shoes, however, we were exempt from this, possibly because we were accompanied by the Regional Minister.
We entered a circular hut. About 10 or 12 men were seated bare-footed on the floor, facing a huge flat screen TV. These, I was told, were the chief’s councilmen. Behind them I saw a man that looked as if he was in his very early 30s. sitting on a large, elevated, cushioned chair. I guessed that he was the chief and I was surprised at his youth, especially since I had counted 24 huts outside, each for one of his wives. The wall behind him was covered with large, framed photos of the chief, his father, his mother and others, including a portrait featuring all 24 wives.
My experience there was quite interesting. I had my first (and last) taste of the kola nut, a very bitter nut eaten extensively in West Africa and used to make coca cola. The highlight of the trip was the pride on the young ladies faces as they came forward to receive their awards. I was also impressed by the number of fathers who came to witness the ceremony. In a land where daughters are traditionally viewed as less valuable than sons, this was a wonderful step forward.
Regions of Ghana: