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Friday, August 5, 2016

TIA (This is Africa)

The brilliant motto of Leo’s character in Blood Diamond has kept coming back to me during my time in Tamale so far. The culture shock isn’t as monumental as I’d feared, but there are moments which arise every day which can only be replied to with the phrase “TIA” – “This is Africa”.

This isn’t to be considered a negative thing, and life in Tamale is definitely a far cry from the world portrayed in the film. It’s very peaceful in the outer areas where my host house is situated, and the people are incredibly friendly. My host family, along with many friendly strangers on my walks to work or around town, have jumped at the chance to teach me more Dagbani, and the grins and welcoming arms which my (probably badly pronounced) attempts always generate are easy to feel comfortable around. Any UK volunteer can attest to the regular shouts of “Siliminga” from the children as you walk around and, from my experience at least, being regularly tailed by a crowd of young children laughing, shouting and trying to hold my hand as I walk through the local neighbourhood, which can’t help but brighten up the morning. And it surpasses momentary greetings and chats as well. By this point a number of UK volunteers have been invited to weddings and birthday parties and have made friends amongst the locals who keep us up to date with the best places to go or events going on. And this is without even mentioning the in-country volunteers, our Ghanaian counterparts who have been so welcoming and answered any questions and given any advice they can to help us feel more comfortable.

Even the busy aspects of life are far more relaxed in Africa. Everyone from shopkeepers to taxi drivers in the city centre reply with a grin when you greet them with a “Dasiba” or “Antire” (that’s my best guess at the spelling). In fact, life here feels a bit like being a minor celebrity. In our recent visit to a local school we attracted a small crowd as soon as we walked in, as the smaller kids especially crowded around to say hello. We thought we’d found the most attentive crowd we could hope for and were looking forward to getting started. However, as geared up as we were to give a talk on youth in development, the TIA theme soon kicked in. It quickly became clear that the kids, aged between 11 and 15, had no intention of sitting there and listening to us talk. These kids were bright and ambitious (we had hopeful future lawyers, doctors and presidents in the crowd!) and they weren’t just interested in learning from us, they also wanted to show what they knew. Before long we had answers and discussion being shouted from the crowd and, especially as our Ghanaian volunteers Victor and Queeny got into full swing, the classroom resembled a lively debate hall more than a lecture theatre. The enthusiasm for education and knowledge was a far cry from the days I remember of daydreaming through classes and, although our original plans were completely derailed, the improvised replacement we ended up with was far more interesting.

                             Victor teaching a class about their role in security development 

TIA is also relevant when it comes to making plans in Tamale, although it’s joined here by a sister phrase “GMT” or “Ghana Man Time”. Here it’s the local’s own friendliness which gets the best of them. It’s easy to caught in up conversation in the street here; from people chatting to you about where you’re from, to others trying to teach you more of the language (Dagbani, mainly), to shopkeepers convincing you that you’d look really great in this shirt. At some point you’ll realise that you still have somewhere to be and have to hurry off. GMT is what happens when this doesn’t occur to you. I’ve heard it best explained as the fact that, to Ghanians, people are more important than time, so if you have to be somewhere at 9, but this person wants to talk now, delaying your journey is a matter of course. This is a brilliantly friendly mind-set and means you can easily while away the time chatting in bars, cafés or just in the street. However, when you’re the person they’re supposed to be meeting at 9 and (rookie error here) you turn up early, you can probably expect to be waiting for a while

                 A classic example of GMT - people, and friendship, are more important than time!

Overall, the experience of Tamale as a visitor is best understood with that phrase in mind; TIA. It’s hectic but coordinated. It’s unusual but always full of friendly faces. It’s crowded and noisy but so many of the shouts are of welcome. It’s Africa.

Author: James Aiken
Editors: Victor Ekissi/Sian Johnston

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