Wednesday, 3 April 2013

A tale of two villages

There are an increasing number of village tours available in Ghana. These offer visitors the chance to experience rural life, see traditional crafts and peek into people’s houses. They often provide a fascinating glimpse into a part of Ghana that most people don’t see. But some are better than others.

Crockery sets
Zozugo village is located behind Asempa Lodge on the outskirts of Tamale. At the suggestion of the lodge staff, Hannah and I went on a tour before leaving for Mole National Park. Christopher, our guide, was wearing his school uniform when he collected us from the lodge. But despite his age, he was an excellent guide, explaining every little detail of his village.

We started at the village’s cotton tree near the mosque, from which the village’s weavers get their materials. He found a pod, cracked it open and explained how it was harvested.  

Next he showed us around a traditional homestead. One room was stacked from floor to ceiling with different crockery sets and cooking pots. These are owned by women, enabling them to accumulate wealth in a way that stops them from running away with it – so the men are happy. A little misogynistic? Maybe, but it also prevents the husband spending the family’s money on palm wine and pito.

We met the village’s oldest weaver, a smiling 98-year-old lady who showed us how to spin the cotton harvested in the village. We visited two women who process shea butter and sell it in Tamale. And then we visited the village midwife’s home, where the realities of rural life in Ghana seemed less cosy and photogenic.

Weaving cotton
Just four miles from Ghana’s fourth-largest city, a young woman was giving birth on a stone floor in a mud hut. The midwife was tending to her with a collection of herbal remedies, but there was no bed, no evident sanitation, and no emergency response if things went wrong. The rate of maternal mortality is still high in Ghana, and medical conditions in rural areas are a factor. It all felt a long way from the shiny clinics of Accra (and even these are only available to the fortunate few).
Shea butter

It was a confronting end to the tour, but it was still hugely enjoyable. Christopher was helpful, informative and friendly. As we shared a drink back at the lodge, he explained how the tour fees of 15 cedis per person are shared between the guide and the community. He then caught a tro-tro to school in Tamale while we headed off towards Mole National Park in our hire car.

Larabanga, situated just outside Mole, is better known than Zozugo. It gets far more visitors, being so close to Ghana’s most popular National Park. But much of its notoriety comes from the many guidebooks and websites that rate the village’s ancient mud-and-stick mosque as one of Ghana’s most disappointing trips. This is mostly due to the amount of hassle tourists receive from local people.

It was little surprise, therefore, when a smartly dressed young man approached our car when we arrived that afternoon. He introduced himself as Abe, Larabanga’s ‘official tour guide’. Without pausing for breath, or even asking if we were visiting the mosque, he pointed us towards it and told us where to park.

People in Larabanga are aware of their bad press. At the small tourist office, Abe explained how things had improved recently. He had noticed our Bradt guide, in which Larabanga gets slated for its pushy guides and hangers-on asking for money. ‘We have official guides now, to make things better’, he said.

So has the experience improved? It’s hard to say, having only visited once, but to me there is still some way to go. Abe knew a lot about the mosque’s history, but interspersed his tour with several references to how poor people in Larabanga were and how many visitors liked to give donations to the village. Not a direct request, but fairly unsubtle.

Larabanga mosque
Throughout our tour around the mosque – visitors aren’t allowed in –three of Abe’s friends followed us silently. They weren’t aggressive or pushy, but it was a bit off-putting to have them stood directly behind us the whole time. I asked Abe why they were with us. ‘They don’t have anything else to do’, was his honest reply.

As we wandered back through the village, Abe showed us kids playing games and picked a local fruit for us to try. He made a genuine effort to make the tour interesting, and his friends also relaxed a little, asking us about Ghanaian politics as we headed to our car.

And then it started. As I paid Abe the seven cedis each for the tour (half the tour fee for Zozugo) his friends started producing clipboards with sponsorship forms, asking for contributions to school fees, the village football team and other vague community funds. We jumped into the car and drove off quickly, as they continued to call after us. It felt very different to the morning, when we had shared a leisurely drink with our guide in Zozugo.

A plastic teapot
This is just my perspective, of course. Ask the people in Larabanga, and they would likely bemoan the fact that wealthy tourists turn up in shiny 4x4s, take lots of photos on expensive cameras, and then whinge online when they are asked for a very small amount of money. The midwife in Zozugo could reasonably question why I chose to write about the conditions she works in, rather than do something practical to help.

Still, tourism relies on recommendations, good reviews and word of mouth suggestions. I would encourage anyone to go to Zozugo; I would advise people not to bother with Larabanga. If Abe really wants to improve the experience for visitors to Larabanga, he ought to visit Zozugo and see how a community tour should be run.


1 comment:

  1. Dear Tim,

    happy to hear that the tour to Zozugu has been a good experience! It is a nice traditional place, very close to the lodge and indeed the income goes the community which we support in any way we can.

    It was a pleasure having you!