If Ghana is the same size as Oregon, one would only have to turn the state 90 degrees counterclockwise to understand the comparison in density between the north and south of this country. Like Western Oregon, the North is mostly populated with tiny villages. This part of the country is also mottled with mosques of various sizes and splendors, as the Northern Region has many more Muslims than the Christian South.
After our familiar hordes in Accra and our absurd lack of breathing space in the miasmatic Kumasi market, Tamale was a welcome relief. It was a proper city, with a busy market, traffic (mostly in the form of sheep and motorbikes) and a skyline of domes and minarets. But it wasn’t an overly confrontational city. Sincere smiles of welcome replaced the in-your-face blaring of claxons, sellers, and squawks of “Oburoni!”
I felt more at ease in Tamale. I have always preferred the more homey metropolises of Baltimore, Cleveland or Eugene to the overwhelming hoi polloi of New York, Boston and London. Though larger cities often offer more diversity, smaller cities never deign to project an inflated self-importance. As I’ve learned from Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, Chicago earned the nickname “Windy City” not for the gales of Lake Michigan, but from its pre-Columbian Exposition bombast: an attempt to psych out the cultural mandarins of the Big Apple in the late nineteenth century.
Ghana is said to be the friendliest country on the African continent, which surely puts it in the running for friendliest in the world. Sometimes the aggression of womanizers and market people make us forget this, but nowhere was Ghanaian amiability more evident in the smaller villages we passed through, for a leatherwork market, a pee, or a photo in front of a baobab. Near the latter, we delighted in dancing with children who didn’t swarm us when we offered stickers (they all said, “Thank you!”). They were imbued with the permanent love of family, symbolized by the ancient baobab; they also understood the ephemera of family embodied in the wandering cadres of goats and chickens that would ultimately end up in their underfed bellies. The Northern Region seemed an ideal place to learn grace, peace and friendship. If I ever come back to Ghana, Tamale will be at the top of the list of places to revisit.