When I rolled into Tamale after 12 hours on the road, my thoughts were focused on important priorities: should I bring vodka or wine for my hosts? I pulled into Quality First to make my purchase, cutting through the pedestrian and bike zone into the parking area, per normal Tamale traffic conventions.
Immediately, a police officer converged on me and pulled my keys from the ignition, yelling at me for driving in the bike lane. He then ran off to grab keys from two other motos--like I said, I was following Tamale traffic conventions.
Most official traffic laws are never enforced in Tamale. Residents are left to develop their own traffic code that allows everyone to move around efficiently and mostly safely. However, every few months the police pick a rule to enforce. Wearing helmets is a common one. All of a sudden, riders who haven't worn a helmet for a year will find themselves dragged into side streets, paying one or two cedis to a police officer to avoid going to the police station and getting cited for riding helmetless.
The enforcement is not to actually get people to follow the rule-- it's an opportunity for the police to supplement their income. That's why enforcement is sporadic, and the rules enforced constantly changing: if people actually started following them, the money-making opportunity would be gone. (I actually love it when they do the helmet law, as all the survey staff suddenly comply with our mandatory helmet rule.)
Three police officers rounded up three of us bike-lane offenders, to take us "to the station". Of course, they actually took us to a back alley. Two of the officers seemed like good-natured guys who would be happy for a quick cedi. One of them pushed my bike to the alley; his struggle to handle the extra weight and higher center of gravity caused by my bags detracted from any intimidating aire he might have had. The third officer had fake Oakley sunglasses on, despite the fading sun, and was clearly on a power trip. I decided I wasn't playing.
"You were driving in the bike lane. We are taking you to the station", they told me.
"Sorry," I said, "I didn't know." Of course I knew. Everyone knows; nobody follows it. But it's just what you say. It's what I say next that deviates from the normal script.
"You are right. I did it wrong. So let's go to the station. You bring the moto." We all know that if I go to the station, they get nothing, except maybe some extra paperwork. Plus, somewhere up the chain, someone is going to think it's ridiculous that they brought a white girl to the station for driving 10 feet in a bike lane to get to a parking spot. I admit I am a bit curious about what the fall out might be if I spend a night in jail for this. Also, the officer pushing my moto looks like he might faint. The station's not that close.
The third officer confers with officer Oakley in Dagbani.
"We want to give you consideration," he says. "Where are you coming from?"
"Kwame Danso," I reply casually. It's actually an impressive answer; very few Ghanaians would ride so far in a day. Except maybe highway robbers.
"Okay. We want to give you consideration because you are coming from Kwame Danso." I'm pretty sure I could have gotten consideration for coming from Hands of Love drinking spot.
I leave more cynical, but with all of my cedis still on my person.
I spent March 15 in Kwame Danso, the district capitol of Sene, in Brong Ahafo. I wouldn't recommend it as a tourist destination. It's about a 1.5 hour motorcycle ride off the paved road, assuming you've got a decent bike and a decent amount of experience riding on sand.
Once you are there, the town has one paved road (it's not clear what for), one filling station, and about 6 guesthouse rooms. My survey team had maxed out the rooms, so I ended up crashing on the cement floor.
After meeting with my team, I was glad to be on my way to Tamale the next morning. I left with the sunrise, and was in Yeiji to make a bank transaction by 10am.
From Yeiji, the moto and I had to cross the Volta River to get to Tamale. We waited for a couple hours for a boat. When it landed, people poured out, running up slope from the water and shouting for joy. I'll admit this made me a little nervous. The boat was essentially a very large canoe. There is a proper ferry, that can take cars and lorries, but it goes less frequently.
I paid 10 GHC for me, my moto, and my bags. Five men loaded the bike with apparent ease, lifting it over the side of the boat. They refused any dash for loading. The people were loaded less gracefully. We waded into the possibly bilharzial water, then climbed what must have been an old pool ladder to get into the boat. In the boat, passengers sat on cross bars, their feet dangling above a pair of small boys using buckets to bail water out of the bottom of the boat.
The ride across the Volta took a little over an hour. Or, it would have, if the motor had not stopped in the middle of the lake. We drifted for about 20 minutes. I was seriously contemplating going for a swim when the engine was coaxed back to life. We corrected our course, weaving through fish nets tied to floating soft drink bottles.
After arriving back on shore, it was back to the dusty road. It took about an hour to get to Salaga, and 2.5 hours to go from Salaga to Tamale. The road was in better condition than I have ever seen it-- which isn't saying much.
On the way, I came across a broken-down motorking with a cow in the back. I stopped to ask the group of men walking near it if they needed help. They declined and told me I shouldn't stop for people on the road. I laughed and asked them what robbers would be doing with a cow and a spoiled motorking.
Coming in to Tamale was a relief. I had sun-burned my hands the day before, and the hot wind on them felt like taking a hot shower after a bad burn. I was in for one more adventure, though-- a shake down from the friendly Tamale neighborhood police. Details in my next post.
I have worked in economic policy and research in Washington, D.C. and Ghana. My husband and I recently moved to Guyana, where I am working for the Ministry of Finance. I like riding motorcycle, outdoor sports, foreign currencies, capybaras, and having opinions.