The absolutely worst part of travel is the journey. And there are very few less comfortable trips than traveling from Perth to Nandom. Three planes totalling 20 hours of flight time plus the addition of another five hours or so waiting in various airports gets you to Accra.
Before I even left for Ghana, the journey proved tricky as I didn’t organise the so-called visa on arrival far enough in advance which meant I had to cancel my entire trip, reorganise flights and arrive two weeks later than originally planned. Luckily I got away with it at minimal cost due to very cheap flights between Asia and West Africa and refunds for the cancelled flights.
I arrived in Accra, got to my hotel and embarked on my first challenge for the day – getting a bus ticket. Now I start to get back into the swing of things Ghanaian. I take a ‘tro’ (by definition a minivan that is not roadworthy) to Circle. I walk through a bustling market and transportation hub attracting the attention of men wanting ‘to be my friend’ and children wanting a treat. I need to ask directions to the bus station and I remember to greet before asking any questions after the first woman I tried looked at me with disdain. There are many surly women in this country but I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume her displeasure with me was my rudeness in addressing her without a greeting and not her general disposition.
On the way back to the hotel, the taxi driver tried to convince me that I should take him back with me to Thailand at my own cost while overcharging me for the taxi ride. Oh how I have missed the playful banter with Ghanaian men who have never met me before!
The next part of the journey was the bus trip to Wa. This is a 14 hour (give or take three hours) overnight bus journey. The buses drive in convoy due to the possibility of robbery and there is an armed policeman on one of the buses. In the high risk areas, the buses drive by swerving from side to side across the road in order to increase the chance of avoiding an obstruction placed by robbers to stop the bus. In the low risk areas, the buses still swerve across the road but this is more about avoiding the deep potholes that never seem to get repaired. I was dreading this trip but it proved more comfortable than I remembered. A selection of Ghanaian movies was played through the night but not at the ear-splitting volume of my previous trips so I was able to sleep quite well.
A quick side note on Ghanaian movies. They typically include a lot of shouting, actors using googly eyes and other overstated facial expressions, unconvincing special effects and they consist of multiple parts with each part going for around 2 hours. Never-the-less, they can be entertaining even if you don’t understand the language! Got a spare six hours? Check out “I Want a Rich In-Law” below and you’ll never get those six hours back!
Now back to the bus trip.
A feature of Ghanaian bus trips is the reporting and departing times. These are in no way accurate. You can always add a minimum of two hours on to the so-called departure time and at worst allow for four or even five hours. I was pleased that my bus left just before 6pm and that I had a good book to read whilst waiting for the driver to finally report and the bus to get loaded with luggage.
Traveling in Africa Tip #1 – be prepared to spend a lot of time waiting. Always carry a book.
The next day I arrived in Wa which is the capital of the Upper West Region and the biggest city in that area of the country. It had grown a lot since I was there last but the essentials were the same and I had a lovely visit with Ruby, a fellow former VSO volunteer who now runs her own NGO in the area working on “empowering … women and girls through capacity and enhancement training in functional literacy, water and sanitation, health care, environmental protection and conservation and livelihood diversification in the remote areas of Ghana to contribute in nation-building”.
With Ruby, I caught up on all the gossip of the region including the fact that just two days before my arrival, the Americans had evacuated all their Peace Core volunteers from the region due to heightened security risks. I decided not to tell anyone at home this until I was back in Thailand.
Traveling in Africa Tip #2 – your friends and family may become alarmed at the choices you make whilst traveling in a country they have no experience of. Some things are best left unsaid until you’re back home!
The last part of my journey was to catch a tro to Nandom. I expected this journey to be more comfortable than the last time I had done it as I had learned that the road was finally paved all the way. At the tro station for Nandom, I sat with my book (see tip#1) waiting for all the tickets to be sold. Finally the last ticket was bought and all sixteen of us crammed into the broken down minivan that was built for twelve.
As we were driving I couldn’t help smiling as I passed all the familiar territory on the way north. I was so looking forward to seeing my old friends once again. The late Brother Nicholas (the former headmaster of the school I worked at in Nandom) has had a road dedicated to his name in Nadowli and the school he founded there is still operating. This made me happy as we passed by. Unfortunately, we passed via the Ko road which is more direct but is still unpaved so my hopes of arriving somewhat clean were dashed. My Ghanaian skirt was a bit dusty but it still impressed Ben when he picked me up at the station.
Traveling in Africa Tip #3 – wear at least some element of local dress if possible. People love it and it provides a great talking point too!
On arrival in Nandom, I looked around to orient myself once again. There were changes but the place was overwhelmingly familiar. Oh how I had missed it! Ben drove me to the Guest House where he had arranged for me to stay. We met up with Doris for a bottle at the Guest House Annex down below. Then I walked the kilometer from the town to the school. On the way I met a number of people whom I hadn’t been in direct contact with so were surprised to see me and I felt so terrifically welcomed. It was a wonderful walk!
The next few days were a whirlwind of greeting, church, greeting, market, greeting, greeting, school visits and more greeting. At church, I didn’t feel comfortable sitting with the choir I used to belong to as I no longer recognised any of the faces. I sat a few pews behind them near a man I did recognise called Linus. He however, was not sure about me. He knew two white women – myself and Ruth. Ruth had introduced me to the choir and the church and although I never claimed to being catholic and instead was upfront about being a ‘free thinker’, through her introduction, I was welcomed into that community and it made my experience of living in Nandom that much richer. Ruth is still famous in Nandom as being the nasapla (white person) that could speak the language as proven when she read at the service on two separate occasions. So when Linus approached me as we left the church and politely asked me if I was Ruth, I shouldn’t have been surprised! I said, “No. I’m the other one. Merilyn.” He said “Oh. How is Ruth? Is she fine?” “Oh yes”, I said. “She is fine.”
Traveling in Africa Tip #4 – white people all look the same. Expect cases of mistaken identity!
I spent a lot of time in Kogle, a village outside of Nandom, where I visited the grave of my dear friend Basil and the home he had built for Eunice and (black) Merilyn. Here I enjoyed one of my favourite dishes – TZ with jojo. Frankly, I can take or leave the TZ but the jojo is really tasty and superbly prepared by Eunice. I asked Merilyn what her favourite dish is to eat. It’s rice and beans! That was one of my favourites when I lived there too and the only dish I still cook outside of Ghana!
I had some chance encounters during my visit too. I went to meet Lutetia and Georgie-bear for a bottle at one of my old favourite spots and I found Lutetia waiting for me with a couple of her friends. She introduced me to them and one I remembered from living there. I said that I recognised him and that I remembered he was the electrician and I had employed him to do some work for me at the school. He was amazed that I remembered him and he offered to give me his number. I then blew his mind by saying I didn’t need it and proceeded to call him on the number I had saved 10 years ago. He couldn’t believe I had kept the number!
Another chance encounter occurred when I was sitting under a tree (something I did a lot of) and found the former assistant headmaster of Nandom Secondary School, Samson, (now retired) coaching two contenders at this local game which is an adapted form of draughts.
I hardly got to wear my hat. I got sunburnt on the first day largely because my hat and sunglasses were frequently removed from my possession by both children and adults alike who enjoyed putting on these novelty items. I don’t think they realise I wear them out of necessity and not purely for fashion.
The longer I was staying in Nandom, the more of the language (dagaare) was coming back to me. At first I was hopeless and couldn’t even remember how to say good morning properly but it wasn’t long before I was throwing out phrases that impressed all like…
Te bere ayi – two days (means it’s been a long time since we met)
N ba ter sera – I don’t have a husband!
Fo cop be song? – How’s the farm? (It’s farming season and this went over like gangbusters with the elders I met in the village).
My biggest triumph was at the school though. My friend Georgie-bear took me to the staff room that was packed with staff only one of whom was working there when I was. So Georgie-bear explained to the crowd who I was and what I was doing there. He did this explanation in English as that is the language of the school although the majority of the teachers would speak dagaare as their mother tongue. I smiled and nodded and answered a few questions in English until it was time to leave when I hit them with “N na zeli ni sore” which means “I am begging my leave”. The crowd went nuts the way only Ghanaians can go and they declared me a true Nandomi!
Traveling in Africa Tip #5 – couple the local dress with a few well-timed local phrases and you’ll never go hungry (or thirsty) during your visit!
Every trip back to Nandom is tinged with sadness as I condole with families over old friends who have died since my last visit. As I mentioned earlier I went to the grave of Basil who died in 2017 after complications from a motorcycle accident. It was with great sadness on this trip that I discovered that Mr Viiru from down below was very sick. I visited each day I was there with him and his family. The family had been a great source of advice for me when I was living there and were always happy to include me as part of their family. I was very sad to hear once I was back in Bangkok that Mr Viiru died on the day I left Accra to head back to Thailand. I’m very grateful that I got to see and greet him one last time.
Finally, it was time to leave Nandom and head back down to Accra via Kumasi. This portion of the story will not be accompanied by visuals. Keep reading and you’ll discover why.
I lived in Nandom between 2008 and 2010. During that time, I travelled extensively through Ghana, Burkina Faso and Mali. Since leaving in 2010, this was my fourth trip back. I’ve never had a problem when returning to Ghana and I put this down to a very robust host of gut flora. Despite this, I normally travel with a range of medications just in case. However, due to my lack of planning and an over confidence in my ability to eat and drink anything thrown my way, this trip I carried nothing.
Whilst in Nandom I ate fufu (pounded casava), light soup (tomato based soup with meat), TZ and jojo, kose with leaves (small deep fried cakes with onion and leaves added in) and I nursed more than one calabash of pito (locally brewed millet beer). I was fine. As I expected I had no problems. This added to my confidence so that on my last day in the north, just hours before embarking on a 10 hour bus trip to Kumasi, I happily accepted and drank the water offered me in the village. I knew the water had come from the well and not a treated source but I had been celebrated as a true local for a few days and I had started to believe it.
Traveling in Africa Tip #6 – never drink the water. No matter how tough you think you are, it is not worth the risk!
I started to feel ill about halfway into the bus journey. I put it down to travel sickness so when the bus stopped for the dinner break, I thought I would just eat something and that would make me feel better. Well, it didn’t.
Twenty minutes later, my fried noodles and cabbage made another appearance. I wasn’t able to access the plastic bag I had in my travel bag quick enough. Luckily the airconditioning was set to sub-artic temperatures so I had my two yards of cloth laid over me like a blanket and therefore caught most of my dinner.
Traveling in Africa Tip #7 – always carry two yards of cloth with you. This is a versatile piece of travel equipment and can be used as a blanket, towel, a modesty curtain, a skirt, a pillow or a makeshift bundle in which to hold your stomach contents!
I sat for the next several hours with a bundle of sick on my lap, shivering from the a/c and puking into the plastic bag every 20 minutes or so. I was miserable but I knew I just had to hang on until we got to Kumasi and I could get to the room I’d booked at a guesthouse. By this point, I had stopped deluding myself that it was motion sickness. I knew I had food poisoning from the water and I knew what was going to come next.
We were 20 minutes outside of Kumasi when there was a large bang as one of the tyres exploded and the bus was forced to pull over. I couldn’t believe my misfortune! Things were getting desperate and I knew I didn’t have time for a tyre change. I assessed the situation very quickly and decided to abandon the bus and catch a taxi the rest of the way directly to the guesthouse. I collected my things from the bus including my devil’s bundle but left the plastic bag of puke tied up under my seat. It wasn’t a classy move but I didn’t care.
I asked a taxi driver how much it would cost to take me the rest of the way and he gave me a figure that I should have bargained down but I didn’t have the time or the energy. I said “let’s go!” and my things were put in his boot and off we went. I think because he knew he had overcharged me and I didn’t look (or probably, let’s face it, smell) well, Prince the taxi man turned out to be really helpful. By this time it was midnight and my guesthouse was not in a good part of town. He helped me with my things (not my devil’s bundle though – that was for me alone) and came inside with me to the guesthouse to make sure I was safe.
Traveling in Africa Tip #8 – this tip applies everywhere, not just Africa. Don’t be afraid to trust strangers when you need to. People are overwhelmingly good in my experience. You would be extremely unlikely to come across someone who wouldn’t help you if you were in trouble.
I made it to my room just in time. Luckily the sink was very close to the loo so I could sit with my arse on one and my head in the other and there I remained for the better part of what was left of the night. Needless to say I was pretty weak the next day. Luckily, I had arranged to meet Albert, a fellow ex-Nandom Sec teacher, and he brought me some fruit and rehydration salts. I would have preferred to have a proper sitting with Albert which included a nice meal and a couple of bottles but I could only manage to sip a lemonade and even then being out in the heat was too much for me. We only had a short time together but I managed to look chipper in the photo we took on the ride back to the guesthouse.
I spent the rest of the day sleeping. I woke early the next morning to catch the bus to Accra and then the flight home to Bangkok. My very last night in Ghana was spent in the company of Ruby, Lina and Ben. By this time I had recovered enough to eat again and we had dinner at a buffet restaurant although I took it easier than I normally would have at such a place!
My visit is now done, my material that I was gifted or that I bought at the market is at the seamstress in Bangkok and all the pito is out of my system. All there is left to do is wait for the two week incubation period to go by and hope that malaria does not kick in. After this trip though, even if I do succumb to the parasite, I have taken precautions!