My last blog as a VSO volunteer

My time in Ghana has come to an end – I flew back to the UK 2 weeks ago. Today is also my last as a VSO volunteer. I continued to volunteer remotely since arriving back, although to be honest, I didn’t have much to do other than fill in some end of placement reports and tidy up a few bits and pieces. I’ve been pretty exhausted since arriving home anyway so it has been nice to just relax.

In March I returned to the UK to see Faye, who’d returned in January for medical reasons. It was the longest we’d been apart and it was tough but I was reasonably busy with my project and had enough to distract myself most of the time. Being back in the UK and ‘on holiday’ was great – I caught up with family and I indulged in all the home comforts I’d missed: cheese, fresh bread, pizza, craft beer, walking in the countryside. Faye and I got engaged, which was a highlight of course. It was too much fun really: I reluctantly flew back to Ghana for my last stint.

Faye at the Tate Modern

With only a month left of my placement it was a case of seeing what I could get done. Before I left for my March UK holiday, a school had requested some basic ICT training – so I found an ‘open-source’ course, which had been designed for people whose first experience of the internet is through mobile phones. I adapted this course to make it more suitable for Ghanaian teachers and ran a session on my return. The training went well (although I would have liked more time).  I handed over some pretty extensive notes and slides to the local education authority, so that they can repeat the course in other schools if they want.1

Me delivering an ICT training course to a group of teachers in Talensi

I then returned to Accra for my last week and spent a rewarding two days with OLE Ghana – the partner doing the bulk of the delivery on the project. We spent some time being quite honest about what had and hadn’t worked on the project and then planned some of the activities for the last 3 months. I was given a lovely Ghanaian shirt as a leaving present. I will really miss these guys – they are fantastic: enthusiastic, passionate and determined.

My last visit to education technology specialists OLE Ghana

And with that done, I boarded my flight and returned home – arriving at a cold and wet heathrow airport at 6:30 am. I am slowly getting over my reverse culture shock. With our travels now over, at some point Faye and I will probably write a final blog for this site (unless we decide to do it all over again in a few years).

A curve traced out by a point that moves so that its distance from a given point is constant

Are you confused by the title? Bear with me..

I’ve been working with my colleagues to write a series of online modules aimed at teachers in Ghana. When signing up to become an ‘ICT in Education Advisor’, I never expected to be helping to author courses dealing with practical topics such as ‘classroom management’, ‘getting to know your pupils’ and ‘lesson planning’. But it’s what needs to be done so I’ve researched, learnt and worked on training that explores the best approaches to educating children. And I’ve found that maybe coming from a different background and not having the preconceptions of someone with a history of working in this area, might have helped. The theories that claim to backup successful education approaches are naturally areas of great interest to teachers, parents, researchers and just about anyone. Some theories can become so widely accepted, that casting a critical eye on them can be surprisingly emotive. I recently became embroiled in a debate over whether the theory of individual learning styles is a useful way to describe how we absorb information. This came up when we were developing the course focused on  ‘getting to know your pupils’ and my colleagues wanted to include videos about learning styles in the module.

If you are unfamiliar with learning styles, it is a theory that states we each have a preferred sensory mode when it comes to taking in information. Some flavours of the theory are complex, but the most popular and simple version is that there are 3 main types of learner: audial, visual and kinaesthetic. So, an audial learner prefers to learn by listening; a visual learner prefers visual styles of information delivery; and a kinaesthetic learner likes to touch things and ‘learn by doing’. The critical part of the theory, from the perspective of an educator, states that if you can deliver information that targets an individual’s preferred sensory mode, he or she will learn faster than if you target other senses.

I’m a learning styles sceptic for three main reasons: there isn’t much evidence that it works, I don’t think there is an adequate method to determine a person’s preferred sensory mode and finally, I’m not sure it makes intuitive sense (more about that later). It turned out my colleagues were not sceptics – far from it: they passionately defended learning styles. In fact, I was at risk of offending them when they started to cite their personal experiences as teachers and parents.

I started to realise that this ‘belief’ in learning styles might be a wider problem in the education field. Indeed, a bit more googling, and it turned out there were whole TEDx talks, articles and blog posts dedicated to both questioning learning styles as a theory and providing ways to sensitively broaching the topic with die-hard adherents. Clearly this theory is incredibly appealing to lots of people – but why do people love it so much?

One reason might be that learning styles seems to make ‘intuitive sense’ to them – unfortunately, whenever anything makes intuitive sense, I think that alarms bells should start to ring, because it means you may well skip an important step – demanding and examining the available evidence. As I said, the evidence is almost non-existent. That is reason enough for scepticism, but I don’t think it does make intuitive sense.

My take on learning styles is that selecting which ‘sensory modes’ to target is far more dependent on the information you are trying to communicate than the individual you are communicating with. For example, what did I describe in the title of this blog? ‘A curve traced out by a point that moves so that its distance from a given point is constant.’ Get someone else to read the words out loud – does that help? I’m sure most people will get it, but it would have been faster if I’d just drawn a circle. That’s not because you are a poor audial learner, it’s because some types of information are slower to process when described than when visualised.

The exception is when communicating with someone who has impairment in one or more of their senses – then of course some modes may be inappropriate.

Ultimately, although I failed to convince my colleagues that learning styles theory may not be as helpful to an educator as many people believe, I was able to convince them to drop all mention of it in the module and instead focus on the importance of getting to know your pupils on an individual level with respect to their motivations, interests and personality.

I’m still pretty new to all of these education theories so I’d be interested to hear from anybody with strong views or experiences to share. What’s your take on learning styles?


Links to other articles, talks and blogs:

Learning styles & the importance of critical self-reflection | Tesia Marshik | TEDxUWLaCrosse

All you need know about the learning styles myth in two minutes

The concept of learning styles is one of the great neuroscience myths – QZ

Can neuroscientists dispel the myth that children have different learning styles

International Women’s Day: Lessons learned and stories told

It’s International Women’s Day today – only one day of many over the last year when I’ve thought about all the opportunities and ‘easy rides’ that I’ve had compared to some of the women and girls I’ve met during my time in both Greece and Ghana.

The amazingly defiant-looking Jamila, one of the girls I met when visiting Primary Schools in northern Ghana.

Just living in Ghana was a lesson in the history of women’s emancipation from the home. I always knew that the mass availability of appliances like washing machines and vacuum cleaners played a significant part in women gaining more rights and more employment opportunities. But it was only when I found myself in an environment where these amenities weren’t available that I started to really understand.

If you’ve spoken to me since I’ve been back in London, I’m sure one of the first things I’ve talked about is the time spent on chores out there. Washing clothes outside in the heat – filling buckets with cold water and soap, and scrubbing and wringing out everything including sheets and towels – is difficult and time consuming. Thankfully Tom and I split the work (much to the neighbour’s kids’ amusement – they’d come to watch us over the wall, never seeming to get bored of the sight) but that’s not normally the case.

And then there’s the fact that for the first time in my life, I was working in a totally male dominated environment. Having spent the last 5+ years in an organisation with a workforce that’s almost 70% women, delivering training in interviewing skills and storytelling to a room full of Ghanaian men – who, much to my dismay, took to calling me ‘Madam Faye’ – was a shock to the system. I felt like I had to state my credentials, remind them of my experience and explain why I was stood there in front of them. In a society as stratified as Ghana’s, where everything from age to education, wealth to tribal allegiances are factored into people’s perceptions of your influence, my gender was just one of the many reasons why my trainees may or may not have felt it was worth listening to me.

But, whatever I’ve considered different or difficult to deal with has been temporary. When working on a project focused on gathering the views and experiences of girls in schools supported by a VSO education project, it really struck me how a lack of certain basic rights (things we’d all take for granted) can have a long-term, negative impact. For example, limited or no toilets at many schools will mean girls drop out or are frequently absent once they start their period. And the expectations that girls will take on the majority of chores at home can leave them tired before they even start the school day – reducing their chances of learning to read.

Abiba, age 17, lives in the village of Bugiya – visit the VSO blog linked below to read about her experiences in school.

There are still a lot of fights to fight in Britain for true equality this International Women’s Day. But I feel like ‘people like me’ (white, middle class, etc., etc.) don’t necessarily have the stories that need to be heard. Instead, I ask you to follow this link to read a second blog, this time by a colleague from VSO. It features excerpts from interviews with 3 girls I met during my time in Ghana – Rita, Abiba and Maciana.

I only have a yam

“I only have a yam” is what Ghanaians say when they don’t have a smartphone. As you’ll see, this is one of the challenges we are dealing with in a technology project, but first..

Yams by C Ford (shared under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license)

It’s been a while since I talked about the project I am working on in Ghana. In part because of personal circumstance since Christmas – see the most recent blog post from Faye2. But it’s also because things moved relatively slowly in the first few months – it can certainly take a while to find your feet in any new job but even more so when working in a country that does things so differently to the UK. Well anyway, I am starting to make progress so now seems like a good time for an update.

My project seeks to improve teaching standards in marginalised rural schools – something people have been trying for years with varying success. One of the proven ways to rapidly enhance the abilities of a school’s existing teachers is to fill the school with highly experienced and motivated people to act as coaches, mentors and trainers. It’s a pretty labour intensive and therefore expensive way of doing things – there are also questions about its sustainability: what happens when those coaches leave? My project – TEST, which stands for Teacher Empowerment (through) Support and Technology – has been asking the question: What if technology could play a role in reaching those schools and its teachers instead?

The early part of the project focused on familiarising the teachers with the use of tablets, projectors and a new website which allowed them to download (hopefully) useful resources. The idea was to make their lessons a bit more exciting and interactive for kids, and also to get the teachers comfortable using the various bits of tech they’d been supplied with. Now we have started to tackle the hard part – the teachers’ skills gaps.

Last week we launched the latest phase: vocational training for Ghanaian teachers, heads and district education supervisors – all delivered through an online training platform. We’ve been heavily influenced by the style and format of the increasingly popular Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) currently found on platforms such as EdX, Coursea and Udacity.

The MOOCs model is appealing but we have had adapt it to fit with the local context. It is an interesting challenge to think through all of the ways that this part of the project might fail in Ghana and then attempt to counter those. The list of potential stumbling blocks is very long, so I’ll just give a few examples:

Motivational issues

There are systemic issues relating to pay, conditions, the value Ghanaian society places on teaching as a profession, the ‘politicisation’ of education, etc. that our project can never hope to overcome. We have to accept that a certain proportion of teachers will never be reached or influenced by our efforts. Therefore, we have to make sure we focus our time and energy on those who do care (despite all the challenges they face) and to support them as much as possible through our presence, guidance and encouragement. We have introduced a competitive element to the entire project (prizes for the best teacher for example) that is linked to participation in the online courses. For those with motivation, we hope to help them maintain it during their attempts at online learning.


We’ve designed the platform and the courses it hosts for the devices people use. The vast majority of teachers do not own a laptop or desktop computer and although smartphones are increasingly popular amongst teachers, I would guess that about 50% of teachers only have a basic phone – known locally as a yam (after the popular vegetable). Each school has been given 2 tablets to use though, and teachers have access to them, so our online courses are designed with tablets and smartphones in mind. The course materials (videos) etc. are low resolution and will work on even the most basic smartphone.


Internet is almost exclusively over cellular networks and signal strength is variable in rural areas. Teachers are also poorly paid and most are extremely careful with their money – every Cedi (worth about 18p) counts and data is always ‘pay as you go’. Therefore, we have to keep download sizes as small as possible, which means low resolution and compressed video. It also means enabling the entire course to be downloaded in one go (at a time when the learner is in a place with good connectivity). So, our introduction course is only 6MB in size, which will cost around 0.16 Cedi, or 3p.

Teachers, Heads and district supervisors in West Mamprusi get to grips with how to access the online courses

So there we are! This is not the first attempt at online learning in Ghana – a university already offers degrees – but as far as I am aware, it is the first time it has been tried exclusively for teachers. We ran training events last week and I ran a session for teachers, heads and district officials on how to access the courses and get the most out of them. The first course is now live and over the next 4 months we have to author and launch a further 15 courses to a set timetable. It’s a lot of work – so I better get back to it.

A practical session in Talensi taking people through the first course. Note – tucking your shirt in isn’t required in Ghana – honest. Photo: Gilbert Akolgo

A quick update

This blog isn’t one of our usuals. I am in fact just posting this to let you know that I am currently back in London and will be for a little while. Tom is still in Ghana.

After having some infections that proved a bit difficult to treat, VSO’s medical team decided I should come home for now. It’s nothing serious, just a case of getting access to tests and investigation that aren’t available in Ghana. VSO erred on the side of caution rather than letting me wait until our planned return date in May.

With any luck, I’ll be back out there before too long. In the meantime, I will be leaving the blog in Tom’s capable hands. Over to him…

The less said the better

Last time I posted a blog, we were heading off traveling around the southwest of Ghana for the Christmas break and had promised pictures. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go to plan…

  • You have to carry a lot of cash for a holiday here – you can’t really pay by card and, outside of the cities, you don’t know where or whether you’ll find a reliable cash machine. On our first night, our money was stolen along with a few other things from our hotel room. Someone waited until the few hours that we left our room (and our stuff) unattended and cut a small mosquito-netting window from its frame to climb in.
  • We spent Christmas Eve at the police station.
  • Christmas Day afternoon, I was struck down with food poisoning.
  • After a slight improvement allowed us to travel to our next destination, an infection combined with the food poisoning to knock me out – bringing us back to Accra early where I spent New Year’s Eve in bed.

Illness is a part of life here, with malaria and typhoid the go-to diagnoses in clinics rather than common coughs and colds. Theft is much less so though – we were just unlucky. Ghana is normally a really safe place where, even in city centres, people will leave their cars unlocked with the keys inside while they pop into a shop.

Anyway, in the midst of all that, we did manage a few holiday-like things:

We canoed to Nzulezo, a village that has been built on stilts on a lake, supposedly originally by a group of Malian refugees who wanted to find a place to live in peace. The interesting thing is in fact how similar this village is to every other village in Ghana – it just happens to be on water, an hour’s canoe ride from a town.

A peaceful canoe ride to the stilt village

A peaceful canoe ride to the stilt village

The village built on stilts - children enjoying the relatively clean water

Children enjoying the relatively clean water of the stilt village

We rested on a beautiful beach near Axim where locals fished and tourists surfed.

Locals on the beach

Locals on the beach

Christmas Day on the beach

Us on the beach

We were an attraction for lots of kids on the beach who were extremely shocked by how white my skin was, were unimpressed by my This American Life podcast, and somehow ended up having a discussion with Tom about science, the universe, and big questions like ‘why is the sea here not blue?’.

Friendly children being entertained by my phone

Friendly children being entertained by my phone

We visited a famous fort in Cape Coast used for many years to imprison slaves before they were transported across the Atlantic. The underground rooms, with little light and space for the estimated 1,400 slaves kept there at any one time, were haunting – a stark reminder of the terrible mistreatment of so many people during the slave trade.

Returning from the female slave dungeon

Returning from the female slave dungeon in a sobre and reflective mood

Cannons pointing out to sea in defence of the fort

Cannons pointing out to sea in defence of the fort

Hope you all had a more successful Christmas and New Year than us. Oh well, we’ll file it away as ‘a story to tell’…

Not your typical Christmas

Today is our final day at work before we take a holiday. With no mulled wine and mince pies available, and temperatures over 30°C in the south of Ghana (this week we’ve been working from the VSO office in Accra) and soaring close to 40°C back in Tamale, it doesn’t feel exactly Christmassy. So in non-traditional style, we’re heading to the southwest coast of the country to spend the holiday on the beach.

As I think back to last Christmas, it feels like an understatement to say that a lot has happened in a year. We’ve gone from hectic jobs in London, to incredibly hectic volunteering in Greece, and then to Ghana where we’re having to learn how to slow down!

I realised recently that we haven’t written about our work so much since we’ve been in Ghana. I promise that’s not because we haven’t been working. It’s just that the pace here is a little different from what we’re used to. We were warned in our pre-departure training (over and over again) that nothing would happen fast and that changes would be small. But even if we knew what to expect, it has still been an experience to adapt to the environment – working out how we can be useful and make an impact in the time that we’ll be here.

The tiring part is in fact how we motivate ourselves to keep finding new ways to get things done. The education projects that we’re working on both have big, long-term aims for change. These aspirational aims are needed as there are huge challenges facing the education system. But when you visit a school and see just how far away they are from functioning well, it can be hard to know how much one project can change. Common problems that can undermine the impact of more complex NGO initiatives include absent or demotivated teachers who might not have been paid for months, regular caning that’s putting children off from attending classes, limited or no sanitary facilities, water supply, furniture or books, and parents pulling children out of school to work on the farm or sell goods in the market.

With not enough furniture, many children at this school had to sit on the floor. The kids didn't seem too unhappy about it but the teachers found it difficult!

With not enough furniture, many children at this school that I visited had to sit on the floor.

The work in Greece was tough but we were never trying to change the system – just fill the gaps in the best way we could. Considering such a sea change needed here and asking ourselves what changes can even be tackled by NGOs in this context has been a whole different world. But that’s not to say we’re anywhere close to giving up and we’re definitely learning a lot in the process.

By now in London, I’d have worn myself out (and typically lost my voice) in the midst of pre-Christmas deadlines and Christmas parties and would be in serious need of some sleep! This break will be less about sleep and more of a rest from thinking about all of this stuff. We’ll be back in Tamale in the New Year, ready to keep learning and keep trying ever more options to get our work done.

We’ll share some pictures from our travels to Axim and Cape Coast soon. In the meantime, we wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Thank you for following what we’ve been up to in 2016!

One election, seven days of house arrest

Last week two things happened: firstly, the Ghanaian elections; secondly, we were under what I can only describe as house arrest. The latter is because of VSO’s security policies for volunteers. Just in case of any pockets of problems or violence, we were given supplies (I have never seen so many tins of sardines or packets of instant noodles in one kitchen!) and told to hole ourselves up in our house for the week.

Notice of poll

Ghana is viewed as a leading light in African democracy, with power being handed over pretty smoothly between the two main parties since the country’s current multi-party system began in 1992. It’s clearly a legacy that Ghanaians want to maintain. From the police, the political candidates and even companies advertising their products on the radio or posters around town, the unifying message throughout has been a call for a peaceful election. Thankfully, other than a few very isolated incidents, things were peaceful and our house arrest ended up being a precaution rather than a necessity.

Polling took place last Wednesday. After some delays due to concerns of over-voting, results were announced on Friday night. The opposition party won with 53% of the vote for the presidential candidate. And unlike in The Gambia, the current Ghanaian president quickly conceded (weirdly before the official results were even out). A handover of power to new president Nana Akufo-Addo is due early in the New Year meaning that for the first time since the start of the millennium Ghana’s president-elect is not called John!

I don’t claim to know the details of the parties and their policies but throughout the build up, it has been interesting to see just how visible politics is here. I was travelling a lot for work in the second half of November – visiting schools in the Upper West, Upper East and Northern regions of the country – and the election was everywhere.

Rallies were taking over towns: my breakfast in Wa was with the opposition party’s rally organisers whilst in Yagaba my hotel doubled up as the local serving MP’s residence, so I sat down to eat my omelette and bread with him and his campaign team. We even passed the President’s motorcade en route – a huge number of SUVs flying past on their way north.

With high rates of illiteracy, a physical presence in the community and face-to-face communication is clearly so important for parties to get their message across. As we drove from school to school, tiny villages with as few as 30 homes in remote parts of the savannah had election notices pasted on the walls of houses, party flags on pylons, campaign posters everywhere and typically two wooden shelters serving as meeting points and painted in one or other of main parties’ colours.

So many things I saw suggested that people get behind their party and see the personal relevance of politics in a way that you just don’t find in the UK. Can you imagine your friends and family donning hats, t-shirts and scarves in their political party’s colours and parading down the street to show their support? Better yet, what about cycling backwards through your village completely decked out in party memorabilia? Or dancing behind a pickup truck blaring out music whilst wearing a t-shirt with your favourite presidential candidate’s face emblazoned on it?

Politics escapes the confines of print, radio and TV here. It affects whether or not a community is connected with a road made of dirt or tar, or whether they have a regular water supply – real, visible, everyday things!

Friday’s results announcement was followed by some terrible horn playing by one of our neighbours and sporadic, noisy fireworks. And that’s it. Election season is over. Happily, we can at least leave our house again!

Mole National Park

Last weekend we travelled to Mole National Park for a quick break. It was the first bit of travelling we’ve done in Ghana purely for leisure.

Getting to the park wasn’t comfortable, but it was quick. We caught a ‘trotro’ at 7am from the centre of Tamale. A trotro is basically a minibus with too many seats, no air-conditioning and questionable roadworthiness. We were lucky though; trotros always depart full, which means you sometimes have to wait hours for enough passengers to show up. We only waited 15 minutes before setting off in the pins-and-needles-inducing back seats, with our bags squashed on our laps.

The trotro routes don’t go directly to the park. After 2 and a half hours, we got off at the nearest town called Larabanga. Departing the bus, we were mobbed by local ‘guides’. It was a bit much and we tried to encourage them to give us some space, a request they mainly ignored. Larabanga is famous for its mud and stick mosque, which might be the oldest of its kind in Ghana, but no one really knows. We looked at the mosque (from the outside only!) and were made to pay a “community development” fee from some insistent and aggressive (by Ghanaian standards) young men. The hassle didn’t make for a pleasurable experience, but the mosque was interesting. You are welcome to look at the following photo for absolutely no charge 🙂

The mud and stick mosque at Larabanga

The mud and stick mosque at Larabanga

From Larabanga to the park, we had to catch a local taxi at the extortionate price of 25 GHC (£5) – that distance in Tamale would’ve been under a fifth of the price. If we were regular tourists, we probably wouldn’t have felt hard done by, but because we are on local salaries, every penny counts. Once in the park, our moods lightened as we caught a glimpse of several elephants drinking from a watering hole.

Standing on the ridge with the park behind us

Standing on the ridge with the park behind us

We stayed in the park’s more budget accommodation (Mole Motel), but despite being a bit run-down, it proved to be a charming and relaxing location. It was built on a ridge, with great views of the park. The nearby visitor’s centre is where safaris depart from, so we wandered over in the late afternoon to go on a 2-hour driving tour of the park. Sadly, the elephants had gone, but we did see all manner of antelope, deer, warthog and a few monkeys.

The view on our driving safari

The view on our driving safari

A lot of grass fires were burning in the park. At this time of year (the dry season), grass fires are common all over the north of Ghana. They are deliberately started, but the reasons seem to vary. Someone told us the ones in the park had been started by nearby villagers, who felt aggrieved that they did not benefit fairly from the tourist money that the park attracted. We didn’t definitively get to the bottom of it, but the fires and the aftermath of previous fires certainly made for an apocalyptic landscape at times – particularly if, like me, you have been reading too much JG Ballard recently.

The scorched earth after a large grass fire

The scorched earth after a large grass fire

The next morning we got up early to go on a walking safari. It started at 7:00am, to avoid the heat. We walked a few miles, but within the small area we covered, we saw many different landscapes: dense woods, grassy plains, small ponds full of lily’s, sparse scrubland and dried up river beds. Without a guide, you would easily get lost. We were disappointed not to find the elephants again, but it was nice to be walking in the cool morning air. Although we saw fewer animals, we felt closer to nature than on the driving safari. We did see monkeys, and most unusually, an adult crocodile eating a baby crocodile! At least, I assume it was unusual. The photo wasn’t great, so here is one of a mother and child warthog instead.

Mother and child warthogs by the main watering hole

Mother and child warthogs by the main watering hole

Later at breakfast, a brown praying mantis came to say hello. I’ve seen plenty of green ones in Ghana, so it was nice to see something different. I named it Samantha. She didn’t break her gaze until we’d finished our coffees – quite unnerving really.

A praying mantis joining us for breakfast

A praying mantis joining us for breakfast

We relaxed by the pool most of the day, chatting to other guests. There aren’t a whole lot of sites to visit in Northern Ghana, so we recognised about 15 people we’d seen or spoken to in Tamale – mainly “expats” doing similar work to us. I was just about to have another dip in the pool, when someone spotted an elephant at the watering hole again. You aren’t allowed to walk in the park without an armed ranger, so we ran to get one.

The park ranger tracking an elephant

The park ranger tracking an elephant

Most of the guests hurriedly changed out of their swimming gear and we set off down the steep sides of the ridge into the flatlands to find the elephant. We pursued it for about an hour, but the elephant wasn’t interested in stopping, so we didn’t really get close. Heading back towards the hotel, the ranger took a call and was told that a second elephant had been spotted about a mile away – so once again, we took off through the bush, sometimes running. At last, we came across a large adult elephant feeding on the leaves of a tree. Keeping our distance, the elephant happily got on with its meal as we excitedly snapped away with our cameras and phones.

A lone adult elephant enjoying an evening meal

A lone adult elephant enjoying an evening meal

We made our way back to the hotel, happy with our encounter and fairly hungry after 2 hours of unexpected walking and running. The next morning we returned to Tamale, reversing our steps, but avoiding any further “community development” fees in Larabanga. Mole is certainly worth a visit – it may not be an untouched paradise, but it is otherworldly at times, with its strange landscapes, ethereal colours and impressive sunsets. Below are a few more photos.

A field of long grass in the setting sun

A field of long grass in the setting sun

Some birds rest in a tree during the strange morning light

A bird rest in a tree during the strange morning light

Our guest arrived, our water didn’t

Last weekend, we had a guest to stay. A new VSO volunteer has arrived to start a placement. He’ll be based a couple of hours north of Tamale but stayed with us for three days to meet some of the VSO team and have an induction at our office.

The first time we’ve had any visitors to our home here, we unfortunately failed at a few rudimentary elements of hospitality.

Basic amenities

A water supply is a pretty essential part of a comfortable stay. But on the Sunday morning of his arrival we woke up to find we had none.

In Ghana, water supply is erratic or in some places non-existent. Many rural communities don’t have easy access to clean water, and those that do have to fetch and carry water from a community borehole.

In Tamale, we are lucky to have running water in our house but we typically only have a supply from the mains for a short part of the day, if at all – often overnight and first thing in the morning. With no communal boreholes in this part of the city, the solution is to have a big poly-tank in our garden. The tank fills when the mains are on and serves as a back-up supply to the house when they aren’t. So far this system had kept us going.

Our troublesome poly tank

Our troublesome poly-tank

The problem is that our tank is broken – it overflows when full and attempts made to fix it haven’t worked yet. We’ve been having to make a choice: keep the tank on overnight to (hopefully) fill, get woken up at around 3 or 4am to the sound of a waterfall and have to get up and go outside to turn it off; or leave it turned off most of the time, get our sleep, but have to guess when it’s running low and hope there’s a water supply then.

We spent the last few weeks opting for the latter, only turning the tank’s tap on occasionally. Unfortunately we guessed wrong. The tank emptied the morning our guest arrived, leaving us without working showers, sinks or toilets. The mains water didn’t come back on until the morning our guest left, over 3 days later.

An offer of a drink

The supply of water isn’t the only problem. What we do get is also not that clean. In particular, the water that’s been sitting in the poly-tank for days being heated up by the sun is a breeding ground for bugs.

To prepare our drinking water, we boil, cool and then filter the water from the tap. In the current heat (most days, it’s 37-39 degrees here), this means leaving the boiled water to sit for at least 10 hours before it even gets close to room temperature, ready for filtering. Preparing a cool drink requires some forethought!

The water filter

Our water filter – an essential piece of kitchen equipment

On the Sunday morning, we had enough drinking water to keep us going for a while, having planned for an extra guest. We could at least offer him a cold drink when he arrived. But with no new water to boil, we ran low pretty quickly.

We managed

We begged some jerry cans of water from a colleague who kindly kept us going with just about enough to be able to have a wash and flush the toilets occasionally. We bought lots of bottled water to drink and cook with. And at least the power cuts during his stay were only a few hours long! We might not have had much else, but we could keep the fans on to cool us down most of the time.

We have heard that power and water supplies are much better than normal right now. A few sceptics have told us that services are more reliable in the run up to an election, but predict a sharp decline as soon as the polling day is over. No mains water at all for weeks – meaning a regularly empty poly-tank – could be the reality from December onwards. Whether we have more guests to stay or not, I’m not sure I’m ready for that!