Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The New Adventures of Old Tamale

On the road to Tamale
I’ve been counting down the days to this.  Not that thunderstorms, tigernut cocktails and weekend stays at oceanside eco lodges haven’t kept me busy – my stay in Ghana has been a fascinating combination of experiences both new (opening a coconut with a machete) and surprisingly normal (watching too many episodes of The New Adventures of Old Christine while dogsitting for a friend).  But I’m not here just to drive around with locals to chop bars with dancehall music blaring out the open windows to join in the cacophony of Accra streets.  Certainly part of the fun, but not the goal.

I’ve been talking up the Bankers without Borders program to MFIs across Accra, and this is finally my chance to watch it in action.  The Grameen Foundation asked me to shadow a BwB project for a partner MFI called Grameen Ghana in the northern city of Tamale (surprisingly no affiliation despite the shared namesake.)  A volunteer from an investment bank in NYC, Noah, is delivering training on a new financial model over a 4-day assignment.  This is only the second time this Grameen Foundation model has been passed on to another MFI, but BwB hopes this will eventually lead to a standard for financial projections across the industry.
Donkey by the Swimming Pool -
 now the working title of my first novel.

My role on the project varies depending on who you talk to.  BwB would like me to evaluate the project from both volunteer and client perspectives with an objective third eye.  Not having a chance to introduce myself during the kick-off meeting with the MFI, however, gave the director the opportunity to task me with a different role.  “And Noah has brought this pretty woman”, he announced to the team, “so everything we do will be prettier”.  Challenge accepted.

Tamale is a wonderland of NGOs, motorbikes and donkeys.  Okay, I’ve just seen the one donkey, but stumbling upon him and a massive turkey lounging near the swimming pool as I walked to my “hotel room” was noteworthy.  Londoners and New Yorkers would immediately understand what it’s like to leave the stress of Accra and feel the welcoming arms of the countryside.  The sky is bigger, the air easier to breathe, the day easier to enjoy.  The Northern region is predominantly Muslim and host to over 30 different ethnic groups, yet Tamale easily maintains the friendly and laidback life so characteristic of Ghana.

Four days is a short amount of time for a complex project like this, especially when the employees gleaned that Noah is a goldmine of information and asked him question after question about Excel.  While Noah was showing them a few shortcuts, I felt like I was at a party watching the popular guy do card tricks. You really don't hear “oohs” and “aahs” or laughter during Excel presentations at home. Early tomorrow morning we will travel three hours north to Bimbilla to meet with Grameen Ghana borrowers in the field.  Apparently the distance is only an hour’s drive, but the potholes really slow you down.  It will undoubtedly be an incredible day, even if my butt is bruised at the end of it.

As I write this, I’m watching the donkey from my little hut.  He’s using one of the pool umbrellas to scratch his head, making it look a bit like he’s wearing the umbrella as a hat.  It’s 5:30 in the morning, the sun is coming up and I can hear trucks and motorbikes passing by on the road from Kumasi.  I keep asking myself: in a few weeks’ time, will I believe I was ever here?

Mosquito bites: Still in the twenties.  Got a nice fresh set of 9 up and down my back.   Seems I'm single-handedly feeding the population here.
Waiting 10 hours for the flight to take off was surprisingly fun.
Best "only in Ghana: sight this week:  I showed up for my Antrak flight to Tamale at 4:30am as I was warned that the 6am departure could actually mean 5:30 (perpetually late Ghanaians manage to get flights off the ground EARLY??).  Sat in the departure lounge until about 5:30 when we were all shuffled through security (the pat down was so thorough I blushed).  After about half an hour in the gate, a man in a neon vest announced to the group that the flight had been delayed until about 1pm because of storms in Tamale.  Noah and I headed back to town, got some breakfast, went to the mall, and got back to the airport around noon.  We had a quick beer at the airport bar but made sure to get back to the gate in time for departure. An hour passed in the departure lounge. Then another.  Around 2:30pm, like sweaty cattle, we all made our way through security to the gate.  And sat for another hour.  Finally around 4pm, almost 12 hours after the departure time, we took off.  The most amazing thing about this whole process is that apart from the announcement I mentioned, not a word was said.  Noah and I were cued only by the sudden rush of people from one place to another.  How did they know?  What did I miss?  The views from the flight, however, were stunning.  Felt like I was in the back of Denys Finch Hatton's plane, looking down on the glorious greenery.

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