Monday, 1 April 2013


Bolgatanga is hot. It is doubtless many other things, but it’s hard to appreciate them in such intense heat. The stifling, windless air feels like it is slowly cooking you; plastic chairs burn your legs; the heat rising from the dirt roads passes through your sandals and warms your feet. To confirm, it’s hot in northern Ghana.

Shrines at Tengzug
Luckily the Sand Gardens hotel, on the town’s outskirts, has several large mango trees in its spacious grounds. After arriving from Tamale in a Flintstones-era bus – complete with holes in the floor for your feet – Hannah and I headed instantly for their shade.

Faced with these options – blistering sunshine versus cool shade – it was tempting to spend both of our days in ‘Bolga’ hidden at the hotel. But describing the drinking of various soft drinks in a hotel would make for a fairly dull blog (insert joke here). So early next morning, we slapped on the factor 50, bought loads of water and hired a taxi to take us to the nearby Tongo hills.

The chief's palace
The village of Tengzug is the site of several shrines. Ernest, our guide, met us as we arrived and took us to greet the village chief. After a smile and a wave from the big man, we climbed to the roof of his house to admire his compound. It’s reputedly the largest chief’s dwelling in Ghana – and he needs it, having 18 wives and 350-odd relatives to share it with. Valentine’s Day must take a fair bit of planning in Tengzug.

Various dead animals
We went to explore the small, mud-built houses, one for each family group. The dwellings are all built into each other and connected by a labyrinth of narrow passages. And outside each house is a shrine – a stone stump plastered with chicken blood and feathers, or occasionally decapitated livestock stuffed with leaves and various charms. They looked vaguely sinister but were also intriguing – it’s not every day you see a headless goat with leaves up its bum. 

Discussing Barcelona in the shade
Ernest then took us to the cave shrines among the ‘whistling hills’ – so-called because of the sound the wind makes as it passes through the rock formations during the Harmattan. As we walked, our conversation turned to the forthcoming Champions League games, and at the first shrine, Ernest’s efforts to inform us about his community’s traditions were betrayed by his love of football.

‘This is the donkey shrine, where people leave the skulls of their dead donkeys.’
‘Why do they leave the skulls here?’
‘To represent hard work by their animals. Tomorrow, you will see that Barca are still the greatest’.
‘Yes, but they struggled against Milan in the last round. Who comes to visit the shrines?’
‘People come from very far, from many lands. But with Messi, anything is possible.’

Donkey skulls
I could pretend this was frustrating and ruined the authenticity of the visit. But most people reading know that I am far more interested in football than rural Ghanaian traditions. By the time we reached Ba’ar Tonna’ab Ya’nee, the most important shrine at Tengzug, we had given up on local history and were fully focused on the shortcomings of the Ghana national team, particularly how the manager was a corrupt fool who favoured Ashantis.

A Tengzug kitchen
Ernest refocused sufficiently to remember tradition, so we left Hannah by a rock – no girls allowed at the shrine – and removed our shirts and sandals before climbing over the scorching rocks to the cave that holds the shrine. Inside sat the priest, wearing scruffy grey shorts and nothing else. Filling much of the cave was the biggest pile of dead chickens I have ever seen. I was asked if I would like to make a sacrifice, for wealth or to help my family prosper; I wasn’t sure of the vegetarian position on chicken sacrifice, so declined.

The priest then said something to Ernest, who translated for me: ‘He would like to know if you are a Barcelona fan’. Lying topless with two other men in a cave full of dead chickens, discussing Barcelona with a tribal priest, must count as one of the most surreal moments of my life (and I lived in Brighton for five years). I told the priest I supported Liverpool, wished Barca luck for their game against PSG, then made my way down to the relative normality of the Tengzug chief with his 18 wives and collection of leafy-bum goats.

The Whistling Hills

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