Sunday, August 16, 2009

Mognori - Back to a Simpler Time

It was a privilege. Not just to crawl up on the roof of the chief’s house to see an overview of the village in the full moon (it was magical!). Not just to see shea butter being made by centuries-old methods. Not just to meet the medicine man who collects traditional herbs and roots from the surrounding forest or trades with other villages to get what he needs. No, it was a privilege most of all because we got to live in a traditional village of mud-brick and thatched-roof houses for two nights and get at least a tiny feel for how some of the people in Africa have lived for hundreds if not thousands of years.

The village is Mognori in northern Ghana, just a few kilometers west of Larabanga outside of Mole National Park. Some 600 people of the Gonja ethnicity live in the village and most make their living by subsistence farming of cassava, yam, maize, and vegetables on the surrounding land. There is no electricity in the village, so “after dark” really means “in the dark”. But as city dwellers we forget just how much one can really see by the light of a full moon, even obscured by light clouds. And each family compound maintains a small cooking fire or, for special occasions, will burn a little shea butter for light by a makeshift candle. The village is Muslim, so there is a small mosque and the muezzin chants the call to prayer about 5:00am entirely by lung-power alone, no loudspeakers as on city mosques! In addition to Islam, traditional beliefs play a major role in the lives of the people. Hundreds of similar villages dot the landscape across the West Gonja district in northern Ghana.

Each extended family lives in its own compound with a courtyard in the middle formed by several houses (called kpeduu in the Gonja language) connected by chest-high mud walls. The houses themselves are constructed of dried mud bricks finished on both sides with a plaster mixed from locally-made ingredients including shea butter which helps repel the rain; a thatched roof completes the building. Visitors are welcomed by the opening of a wooden gate into the compound which keeps out wandering animals.

My wife and I stayed with a very gracious lady named Memuna and her four children; she was widowed some years ago. Our daughter was especially privileged by getting to stay in the chief’s compound and she learned much about village life by chatting with the chief’s 15-year old son.

The village has three such houses set aside for visitors. Each house is a single room and contains a double bed with a mosquito net hung from the ceiling which completely encloses the bed in canopy fashion. A hand-hewn wooden bench for sitting or luggage completes the furniture accoutrements. Two concessions to modern technology for visitors are a tiny LED light powered by three “D” cells hanging on the wall and, surprisingly, a nice battery-powered electric clock on the wall.

In addition to our house in the compound, the owner and her children occupied another single-room house. A third building functions as combination storeroom and rainy season kitchen. And a fourth building may be used as an enclosure for animals. Cooking is done over a small open fire in one corner of the courtyard and most other family activities occur outdoors also; these include making shea butter, producing gari from cassava, making soap from cassava and shea butter, peeling yams, cleaning vegetables, and, of course, dining. There is a small walled off bathing area where one uses a small pail of water to have a “bucket shower”. A towel is provided for visitors.

Toilet accommodations, you ask? Of course. For simple tasks one heads into “the bush”, grassy meadows dotted with trees surrounding the village or into small thickets for more privacy—your choice. For more serious business, head to the village toilet located a small walking distance outside of the village. A special bonus of your commune with nature at night is to see the fireflies winking and blinking in all directions as you walk to and fro (that is, if you switch off your little flashlight).

Water is supplied by another concession to semi-modern technology, two hand pumps located a city block or so from the village and far from the toilet. Life can be very simple and yet function very well! No water lines, no sewer lines, no electrical wires, no TV antennas, no satellite dishes, just meandering dirt “streets”, mud-brick houses and thatched roofs, goats, chickens, children, and wonderfully warm people you meet when you stroll through town.

The few bits of the modern world I’ve mentioned seemed quite incongruous when encountered. I had bought a bottle of Star beer to drink in the taxi on the way out from Larabanga. The empty sat around forlornly in the corner for two days, looking as out-of-place as the Coke bottle in the movie “The Gods Must be Crazy”.

Mognori is one of the pioneers in a community-based ecotourism program established in northern Ghana just two years ago. Visitors pay a small fee per person for the overnight homestay (5 Ghana cedis, or about US$3 as of August, 2009) and may be served a traditional breakfast, lunch, and dinner for additional small amounts. All funds are paid directly to the village; the host families receive a portion and the remainder is used for village purchases of things they can’t make themselves (e.g., water pump maintenance, perhaps). For the privilege of experiencing a slice of life in a rural community mostly untouched by the modern world, it’s a tremendous value proposition.

One young man in the village, Abukari, who speaks some English in addition to the native Gonja language, functions as the coordinator for the village with “the outside world” and functions as translator and cultural go-between. He has a cell phone which he uses to arrange visits to the village in response to calls from tour guides in the surrounding region. We made our arrangements from Tamale.

When the homestay program was established, three families in the village had been selected by the chief to participate, one of which is the chief’s own family. Each family received a series of special trainings from the Ghana Tourist Board in how to make accommodation for outside visitors. These included the provision of a bed, how to equip it with sheets, pillows, etc., how to deal with guests, and a bit of background about western tastes and needs.

We had numerous wonderful experiences while staying in the village, some planned, some spontaneous. For instance, to get a little cross-breeze, we left the door to the courtyard on our house open at night after we retired. After some time had passed, I heard my wife whisper loudly, “Shoo! Shoo!”. It turned out the family’s pregnant mother goat and her kid had wandered into our room and were checking out the contents of my open backpack. With goats’ notoriety for eating anything and everything, my wife decided that the goats should go back to sleep in the courtyard, so we propped the door so they couldn’t re-enter.

Our planned experiences included a tour of Larabanga to see its famous mud and stick mosque dating from before Columbus was born. We also visited nearby Mole National Park to see forest elephants in the wild (they're b-i-g!). Back in the village, we went on a canoe safari a short distance down the nearby river and had a walking tour of the village. This included meeting the medicine man and seeing where the sacrificial pigeons are kept. A pigeon is sacrificed on special occasions or serves special needs as they arise in the community. For example, when a child breaks a leg, one of the pigeons will be selected to have its leg broken in approximately the same place. The pigeon’s leg is then bound up as is the child’s and the healing of the pigeon’s leg is thought to aid in the process of healing the child’s.

People in the village all know about the visitor program and are very accepting of having their visitors snapping photographs of them. Children especially are almost always eager to pose. Once you take a picture, though, be prepared to show it to everyone in the photo. Everybody then points and visitors and villagers alike share a big jolly laugh!

At night there is no sound of autos, radios, or TVs, only the gleeful laughing of groups of small children playing in the distance and the low murmurs of adult conversations in the dark of neighboring compounds. All of course are accompanied by a background stereoscopic track of chirping and twittering insects, birds, and frogs coming from all around. For entertainment? People actually sit around and talk to one another! And with their children! Either completely in the dark or by a little fire. Or they may just sit in silence, content merely to spend time with each other in the Ghanaian tradition, a notion which has come to seem strange to us in our hectic western lives.

One special occasion that took place on our behalf was a celebration of traditional drumming and dancing the second night we were there. About two dozen people performed a number of ceremonial dances for us with the men having bells on their ankles and lots and lots of rhythm! The energy was something to behold. I’d venture to say that nearly half the village showed up for the event which was clearly welcomed as a break from routine life.

Stepping out of our house and courtyard into the village before sunrise was special indeed. Goats were lazily rousing from their rest, chickens were strutting about pecking at the odd seed or bit of feed, and Mamuna’s few egg-laying chickens housed in a little mud enclosure called a buzani built into the compound wall were clucking and cooing. Being rainy season, things were a bit damp, but oh-so green!

I say that visiting such a village is a “privilege” because it allows us media-sated westerners to experience some real “genuineness” in seeing how other people live and it helps us understand different ways of relating to our world. Yes, of course there are a few “rough edges” in such a visit, such as no A/C on a humid African night, a roof that may drip a little during the rain (it seems to have patched itself soon after it started, though), but that’s part of the experience. This is not a Disney-esque exercise where everything is so pre-planned that it’s completely sterile!

And the experience won’t be around forever; change is coming. Only 10 years ago, the village got its first primary school; a few who have the means can attend secondary school at nearby Mole. With education, inevitably, comes different ways of doing things. It is expected that within a few years, the government will be extending electrical lines to villages like Mognori. And with electricity comes, you guessed it, television! Then the floodgates begin to open. Already, we observed that several of the young men besides the tourism coordinator have cell phones, even though they have to travel a number of kilometers on foot to nearby Larabanga or Mole to get them charged and to buy airtime!

So if you’re even remotely interested in how life was lived in a completely different time, go and see before such cultures become serious diluted with modernity. You can book a visit to Mognori through a number of different agencies in Tamale. We used Walisu Alhassan in Tamale who also functioned as indispensable tourguide, navigating travel accommodations from Tamale and back and accompanying us on our stay in the village. Walisu is professionally trained and in fact spent a couple of years working for the Ghana Tourist Board where he helped establish the community-based visitor program in Mognori. He’s very experienced in dealing with western tourists and besides that, he’s a heck of a nice guy. He can be contacted on mobile at 0243822633 from within Ghana or by adding 233 before the number to call him from abroad; his email is