Sunday, July 15, 2007

Tourist for a Day

Last weekend we had our midterm retreat for all the Ghana JFs in Damongo, West Gonja district. An excellent time was had by all and sufficient amounts of sleep was experienced by very few. On Saturday, we took a day off and did a tourist-y trip to Mole National Park and Larabanga, a small community between Damongo and Mole that boasts the oldest mosque in Ghana.

Mole

To start our day, we did a “safari hike” with our tour guide PK and were fortunate to get a glimpse of several different animals – elephants, kobs, water bucks, bush bucks, baboons, monkeys, and a crocodile… well, the eyes and nostrils of a crocodile floating on the surface of a watering hole. There’s not much more to say so I’ll just direct you to a few photos from the hike: http://picasaweb.google.com/ewinchiu/20070707MoleNationalPark.

After the hike and a quick lunch, we relaxed for a short time, enjoyed the beautiful view, and narrowly missed getting run over by a warthog. Lesson of the day: don’t find yourself caught between a bag of delicious mangoes and a pack of hungry warthogs.

Getting over the excitement of the warthog chase, the majority of the group decided to trek over the Larabanga while the rest chilled out by the pool at Mole.

Larabanga

After a peaceful 6 km walk from Mole to Larabanga, we were ready to dive into some history and see the mosque. Our group was quite large so we split off into smaller packs to tour the town. Having been told that the town is quite accustomed to tourists and the fake tour guides are aplenty, my group decided to bypass everyone and head straight over to the mosque. Gwen used her excellent Dagbani to greet the Chief Imam and we understood that a gift would be expected of us – normally something like kola nuts should be given but cash would do since we didn’t have any kola nuts handy. We strolled towards the mosque and were instantly surrounded by people. Some were children telling stories about how they want to go to school but can’t afford books while others were reciting the history of the mosque in hopes that we would compensate for their efforts. Non-Muslims aren’t allowed to enter the mosque, but our group didn’t even tour around the building because of a misunderstanding with some men demanding 20,000 cedis from each of us. A donation for upkeep of the mosque and development of the community is understandable, but they couldn’t show us one example of how past contributions had been used. While we went to discuss the situation with the Chief Imam, a few other JFs encountered some very hostile community members yelling at them for taking a picture and, presumably, also demanding money.

After all this excitement, we waited outside a guesthouse for the rest of the group to come with the rented bus from Mole. The guesthouse is owned by the Salia brothers, twins that have apparently done wonders for Larabanga in terms of tourism and also having a hand in the establishment of a junior secondary school. We told Al-hassan, one of the brothers, about our experience at the mosque and apologized on behalf of the community, although he had no place in the apology. He was nothing but gracious and had some interesting things to say about how tourism has affected Larabanga. There’s no doubt that people in the community have benefited from all the tourists coming into the town, but “money that is given where unwarranted” has brought out the worst in some community members, including the ones we met.

With the Ministry of Tourism trying to capitalize on Salaga’s historical role in the slave trade and turn the town into a mecca for tourists, I worry that the same thing will start to happen to people in this town I’ve grown to love. The town's economy would certainly get a boost with lots of people and money coming through, but will it be worth it if people start seeing nothing but dollar signs? I have faith in my fellow Salagarians to keep their values in check, but there's no denying that new Ghana cedi bills will have a strong pull on many in this town.

"The value is the same!"

Speaking of "new Ghana cedi bills", another big event that’s happened in recent times is the currency change from cedis to Ghanaian cedis that started on July 1. “The value is the same!” claim all the posters and commercials put out by the government to inform the public. With the old currency, the largest bill you could find was 20,000 cedis ($2.50!), so taking out money from the bank produces big stacks that couldn’t possibly fit in a wallet. One new Ghanaian cedi is worth 10,000 cedis, i.e., GHc 1 = 10,000 cedis, and they come in the standard bill amounts up to GHc 50. It’s supposed to be “faster and easier transactions,” but the ATM machines are all distributing GHc 1 bills which is a smaller denomination than the previous 20,000 cedi bills. Now we’ve got twice the amount of bills for the same amount of money! Hopefully the Bank of Ghana will start producing more GHc 5 bills (50,000 cedis) to lighten the load. I am quite curious about how many GHc 50 bills (500,000 cedis or $63) they’ll be producing… it’s hard to imagine how many people will be using that bill on a daily basis. GHc 50 is enough to buy a bicycle and is about half the monthly salary of a teacher fresh out of training college.

Yep, a teacher earns anywhere from $100 (for those with nothing higher than a secondary school certificate, which happens to be the majority) to $300, depending how long he or she has been teaching. It may be easy to say that this type of salary is plenty when I’m paying 50 cents for a big loaf of bread and $6.25 a month for rent, but I don’t need to worry about getting clothes on my children and food in their bellies.

Note: I just checked oanda.com and found that the exchange rate is sitting at about $1 CAN to 9045 cedis. I’ve been using $1 = 8000 cedis since I got here (and will continue to do so in order to stay consistent and save brain power) so any dollar values I give will be a bit off base but not enough to really distort anything. I mention this now to quell a burning (anal) desire to put “ish” after every value in this post and those to come… did I just say “burning anal desire”?! One can just imagine the strange medication ads – or worse – Google’s AdBot will link to this post!

2 comments:

Michael said...

Wow, great updates! You certainly are getting your experience up there.

The pictures are lovely. If you check the March section of my blog, you'll see that Mole was a very dusty, grey affair compared to yours! Larabanga was a bit much - that's what happens when you isolate your government's tourist industry from the local community, I suppose. At least everyone knows the Salia bros.

Good luck with the new currency. In the French countries, changing the $20 bill (1000CFA) was an enormous hassle.

Keep on updating... Hope you find a suitable husband soon!

gien said...

So happy to be able to share your Retreat with wildlife ~ take care and enjoy the secapades ~ bpz et al