Through the magic of air miles, I was able to swing a ten-day layover in Southern Africa, on the way back to Ghana, in early February. Ostensibly, this was to get reconnected with the other half of our BDSA team located in Zambia, but it was also an opportunity for a bit of anthropological comparative analysis between African countries. As luck would have it, my good friend, Jude, also happened to be in the area wrapping up a mission with MSF in Swaziland. So, we met up in Jo-burg and set out for a bromantic road trip up through Botswana, Victoria Falls, and Zambia.

This was the first time I’ve been a legitimate tourist in a while: camping at hostels, hassling the local wildlife, taking blurry photos of things, constantly asking people for “direction”, silently judging the other tourists and vigorously mispronouncing local place names. It was all-in-all a mind-blowing experience, but it was also very eye-opening in terms of how tourism works in this part of Africa.

Here are some observations:

Wildlife Viewing

This is what Africa is all about, at least in the essentialized, quick and easy reference we have of it in popular culture. You see amazing mega-fauna in their natural habitats and get all worked up about sunsets and “the circle of life”, Elton John starts singing, end of story. Now, I’m not saying it wasn’t amazing and totally worth the experience, and I would definitely recommend doing it if you have a chance, but there are some issues to consider.

First, humans are not evolutionarily inclined to seek out and follow around animals that might want to kill us, so this whole wildlife viewing idea is something of a super normal stimulus. And, like other super normal stimuli–action movies, high fructose corn syrup, pornography–we tend to need more and more of it to get the same rush. After seeing several dozen elephants every day, the novelty does start to take a hit, and you begin wondering what the next exciting thing will be (“Can I get a damn rhino out here, or what!”).

Second, there’s definitely a gradient in terms of “wildness” of animals. At some of the game parks you can go right up and pet the cheetahs or poke the hippos or whatever you want to do. But, these are no longer really wild animals, and you could have saved yourself thousands of dollars and just gone to the zoo. Even in the Moremi Game Reserve near Maun where I went, there are so many safaris land cruisers paparazzing their every waking moment, I’m surprised the animals haven’t taken to wearing hats and dark sunglasses.

Conspicuous Experiential Consumption

Something I’ve always been a fan of is the value of experiences over material goods. I would even go as far as to say if a lot more people adopted a minimalist, nomadic lifestyle, the net environmental and social impact would be far more positive than a comparable sedentary life. Unfortunately, we also have a system that loves to put a price tag on everything, even experiences. This gives rise to the same sort of one-upmanship and conspicuous consumption as is the case with material consumption. We need to go further, spend more, get more exclusive, and be more unique in order to differentiate ourselves from all the other hapless tourists. This may be a bit cynical, but I’m not sure how else to explain the prevalence of US$3,000/night safari lodges buried deep in the Okavango Delta, accessible only by helicopter. Short of sacrificing a lion every evening in your honor, I’m not sure what they do to justify the price they charge. I paid about $150 to go out into the Moremi Game Reserve with a guide for a night and two days, slept in a tent and still saw pretty much the same animals and took the same blurry photos as everyone else.

Unequal Distribution of Benefits

As far as tertiary, service-sector economic development, tourism is pretty hard to beat. Basically people come to your country to look at stuff and have a good time. All you have to do is make sure they are relatively safe, well fed, and not wandering around getting lost and you can go-to-town disuniting them from their money. Unfortunately, from my experience, this does not appear to be an equal opportunity enterprise. The vast majority of the money derived from these scenic public goods is being fed into private hotels, safari lodges and tourism companies. Relatively little finds its way back to the public in the form of park entrance fees and taxes. For the people who just happen to live nearby these amazing, highly valued public goods, tourism would seem to be a mixed blessing. The dozens of “curios” shops selling the same generic African carvings and knick-knacks, have to resort to ever-more elaborate Jedi-mind-tricks to get you to come into their stores, “I just want to ask you something..”, “I only want to talk..”, and the dudes standing around the entrance gate at Victoria Falls keep trying to pawn off their 100billion Zimbabwean bank notes as souvenirs, unaware of the tragic economic irony.


My God, are there a lot of Australians out there in the world traveling around! I have no idea how the country functions with half of their population between 18-24 diasporically self-actualizing all over the place. This is not a slight against Aussies, they are just the most noticeable; other privileged classes of North American, European and even Asian youth are doing the same thing. Overall, I think it is great for young people (who are lucky enough to have the opportunity, financing, and high-power passports) to travel and hopefully gain some humility and perspective on the world. It’s a bit disheartening to see, however, the tendency to cocoon in one’s own cultural context even when far from home. Every hostel I’ve ever stayed at seems to default to the same lowest common cultural denominators: Bob Marley for music, hamburgers and fries for food, English language for media, and some kind of weak-ass lager for beer.

Indicators of Progress

A big motivator for coming out this way was to gain some perspective on how Ghana fits into the overall picture of Africa. As a lower-middle-income country, it is supposed to be in the middle of the pack in terms of development, but it was fascinating to see how these macro level categorizations manifest in everyday life. What stood out for me were things like malls per capita in Lusaka, the cleanliness and existence of sidewalks in Botswana, and the number of kids with braces in Jo-burg. Other details like the prevalence of American fast-food chains, helicopters, Nigerian culture, and ethnic diversity were also the most notable differences to Ghana. In general, from my short stay, it seems like the Southern African countries are quite a ways further along in terms of being “nice places to live”. Botswana in particular is remarkably well-to-do as the Norway of Africa with its diamond cache. Still, I have to say, Ghana takes the cake in terms of cultural panache, friendliness and general joie de vivre.

I’ve managed to say almost nothing about where I went or what I did, but hopefully you’ve gained something from reading. Despite the crass commercialization and packaged, checklist tourism, this part of the world is truly primal, humbling, and definitely worth visiting. Please, don’t take anything I’ve said too seriously, I am only one highly-unique perspective. Not to get preachy, but being a tourist, I have (re)learned is rarely straightforward or easy. If you decide to visit, I would encourage a lot of reflection and research before, during, and after to get the most out of the experience and to contribute the most back.


Ghana Sounds II: Traditional Forms and Foundations


I have been trying to get a handle on the traditional or folk styles of music in Ghana. This is to better understand the foundations on which popular styles like highlife and modern music are built, but also because music is so inseparable from the rest of culture it provides an opportunity for greater understanding of Ghana in general. Any attempt, especially by a foreigner, to quickly sum up or essentialize what has been called a “limitless field of study”[1], is bound to be suspect and lacking, but hopefully this provides an invitation to dive into the topic more deeply. I am also not expert and have a ton more to learn, so I’ll speak in very broad terms.

A key point here is that any appreciation and enjoyment of music is highly dependent on context and culture. Sitting around listening to sterile, anachronistic digital recordings of traditional music on your mp3 player or computer is never going to be the same experience as being there live, embedded and invested in the culture. So in order for the music to “play you”, you first need to get yourself in “tune”.

Africa, being the birthplace of civilization, is, by default, the birthplace of music. However, even in retrospect its history and evolution defy easy classifications and simple linear relationships. There is some clear distinction between the more stripped-down and melodic, solo-oriented music of North Africa with its emphasis on melisma (singing each syllable over an extended number of beats), and the poly-rhythmic, layering and call and response approach of sub-Saharan Africa.  The music of Ghana shares a bit of this gradient with the southern regions featuring more textured and complex poly-rhythms and a mix of chants and harmonized singing. In the North, the Arabic/Islamic influence is felt with more stringed instruments and melisma, but still built on a similar poly-rhythmic foundation.

Structure and Elements

The more or less definitive feature of most sub-Saharan music is the poly-rhythm or cross rhythm. (While this is a distinctive feature of sub-Saharan music, it is not without precedence in Western music, for example Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony.) The term was proposed by a missionary living in Zambia in the early 1900s named Arthur Morris Jones. Jones also studied the Ewe tribe of Ghana and Togo and noticed that the rhythmic patterns played on difference instruments with different meters would regularly mesh or “cross”.  The official definition is “A rhythm in which the regular pattern of accents of the prevailing meter is contradicted by a conflicting pattern and not merely a momentary displacement that leaves the prevailing meter fundamentally unchallenged”[2], but you can get a better understanding of the effect by playing around with it yourself: The layering of the patterns repeating every 8, 16 or even 24 beats are syncopated and interlocked which keeps the whole thing from sounding like a cacophony. Still, as the ethnomusicologists put it,

“Perception is a key factor. The music’s density of notes challenges the ear’s ability to form stable grouping configurations…In this musical style creative hearing is at a premium. While never losing its stable rhythmic foundation, the music’s clever and artful surface design facilitates perception from several perspectives, a dynamic musical phenomenon here labeled as “simultaneous multidimensionality”.[3]

Why make it so complex? One theory has it that it may help train the brain to deal with the complexities of life (!):

“In Anlo-Ewe cultural understanding, the technique of cross rhythm is a highly developed systematic interplay of varying rhythmic motions simulating the dynamics of contrasting moments or emotional stress phenomena likely to occur in actual human existence.As a preventive prescription for extreme uneasiness of mind or self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with impending or anticipated problems, these simulated stress phenomena or cross-rhythmic figures are embodied in the art of dance-drumming as mind-nurturing exercises to modify the expression of the inherent potential of the human thought in meeting the challenges of life. The premise is that by rightly instituting the mind in coping with these simulated emotional stress phenomena, intrepidity is achieved.”[4]


As far as instrumentation, there are a few uniquely Ghanaian creations and many that are borrowed and modified. In both cases the modern forms are the manifestations of a long history of experimentation and trial and error and do not represent a static history. Instruments are usually separated in categories according to how they produce sound. Here is a non-exhaustive list of the more iconic Ghanaian instruments:

  • Membraphones (drums) – Can be used to signal and carry messages, replicate speech, and provide the foundation for music and dance.
      • Djembe: Not originally from Ghana, but frequently seen and heard


      • Lunga/Lunna/Dondo/Talking Drum:

      • Gung-Gong:


      • Drum sets:

    akan kete Ewe

  • Idiophones (“sound like itself) – This includes things like rattles and bells, and tuned instruments like xylophones and thumb pianos
      • Balaphon:

      • Gangokoi Bells:


  • Chordonphones (stinged) – Usually used for soloing or in heterogeneous ensembles
      • Kora:

      • Bolon:

    • Gonjey: bons
  • Aerophones (wind) – Usually made from bamboo, wood, horn, tusk or clay and can be end-blown or played in traverse.
      • Antebene:

Create your own jam here:

Ritual and Celebration

Music is usually described as permeating the culture in Ghana and West Africa, but it’s more accurate to say that it overlaps categories of cultural expression that we would normally keep separated in the West [1]. For example, music, theatre, dance and other art forms as well as language and history are tightly integrated and not often regarded as wholly independent. Many festivals tell the stories of important historical events through music, dance, costumes and theatre, like the Bamaya dance of the Dagomba tribe in Tamale. This dance marks the end of a drought in the 19th century that was finally broken when the men dressed as women to ask the gods for help (apparently women get a quicker response!)[5]


There is music that is also born out of specific contexts and environments such as work songs, horn honk (!), warfare, hunting and even politics (see the atumpan in Ashanti culture[6]). Another, more northern tradition borrowed from Senegal and Mali is griot praise singing (also ‘jali’ or ‘gewel’). A griot is a professional royal musician who was born into a griot family or class and often attached to a specific chief or royal court. His primary role is to sing the praises of the chief and his family, but he would also serve as the keeper of the oral history and important folk stories of the past, not unlike the Homeric poets of the ancient Greeks.

Influence Locally and Abroad

Ghanaian traditional or folk music lays the rhythmic and stylistic foundations that are still used to create new songs and styles today. There are definitely some possible links between Africa music and American blues and jazz, i.e. pentatonic scale used in the donso ngoni harp could be seen as a precursor to the “blue notes” (slightly off key) used in modern blues tonality.  At the same time, it could be argued that West African guitar playing has been duly influenced by American blues to an equal or greater extent. It’s important not to put too much focus on the linearity and causality of the influence and instead see it as a continuing evolution and swapping of sounds and ideas. The history of most music is a mixing and melding where free appropriation from the past is not only permitted, but celebrated. In cultures everywhere, folk music can also be a force for social cohesion and cultural identity. Tradition and identity are passed down through the generations and music is both a conduit and a medium. From what I’ve seen in the North of Ghana, this passing of the torch to the next generation is alive and well, despite all the modern music that is available. Hopefully it continues for many more years.

References and recommendations:


Song of Legaa, Master Musician from Ghana – Kakraba Lobi, Valerie Naranjo, Barry Olsen

Music of the Dagomba from Ghana – Various Artists

Savannah Breeze – Antongo Zimba

Rhythms of Life, Songs of Wisdom: Akan Music from Ghana – Various Artists – Smithsonian Folkways

Roots of Black Music in America – Various Artists – Smithsonian Folkways









Telecom in Ghana

Probably the most repeated and well-known success story coming out of Africa over the past decade has been the explosion of cell phones and Information Communication Technologies (ICT). This is usually cited as a prime example of “technology leapfrogging”, i.e. adopting state-of-the-art technology directly instead of going through all the iterative steps pioneered by others. Having worked a fair bit in the telecom industry in Canada (mainly setting up rooftop sites around Vancouver), I am very interest in the details of this story. Digging beneath the effusive excitement and “technologism”, I’d like understand how it all started and who actually controls and benefits from this huge industry.

A mobile mobile shop in Nigeria

Without a doubt, cell phones, internet connectivity and instant communications are a big deal here in Ghana–as is the case pretty much everywhere.  With a population of just over 24 million, the country has upwards of 25 million cellular lines in use and a penetration rate clearing 100%. Not everyone has a phone to be sure, but it’s also not uncommon to see people juggling two or three phones and many more SIM cards at the same time.  Even with this many phones and a population coverage rate of over 80%, there are still about 5 million people left in the digital dark. Most of the 5,583 base tower sites are grid connected and therefore not exceptionally rural. Of the 11% that are off-grid, only about 2% are fed by green energy, (the rest rely on 24×7 diesel generator power), so they are unlikely to be considered “economic” by their private sector operators. Driving along the main roads out of Tamale, brightly lit, modern cell phone towers stand side-by-side with un-electrified, traditional mud-and-stick huts without any acknowledged incongruence.

In Fulfuso, NR

According to the World Bank, telecommunications is one of the main economic sectors of Ghana behind agriculture and natural resources and is slated to grow rapidly.  The state-owned company RLG Electronics actually assembles a fair number of cell phones and tablets in Ghana, but like everywhere the bulk of the handsets come from assembling points across Asia. The cellphone towers themselves typically consist of a metal scaffold, microwave repeater dish and three 120deg azimuth RF (radio frequency) antennas broadcasting at range of up to 50kms. These towers can be erected and operational in a matter of weeks and the standardization and volume has dropped prices drastically in the past decade. Companies such as Helios Towers Africa have been doing record business slamming tens of thousands of these sites in across the continent (I am not sure if NIMBY-ism is given much consideration here). The data and equipment cabinets at ground level house the servers, switches and other equipment used to pick up, redirect, handoff, slice, dice and ship out your voice and data information along with hundreds of other peoples’ every few milliseconds. Most of this equipment, from my experience in Canada, was coming from the big telecom hardware companies such as Ericsson, Siemens, Alcaltel and Cisco. The typical business model in telecom is to “unbundle” the hardware business from the software side, i.e. these hardware companies build and maintain the infrastructure while the telecom providers operate the networks.

So who actually owns these “soft assets” and who is making the money from them? Below is a list of the five main telecom network operators in Ghana and their origins:

MTN – (45.43% market share, 12 million subscribers) This South African Telecom giant is the largest in Africa and operates in 22 countries. Annual revenues in 2011 were $9.4 billion.

Vodafone – (21.19% market share, 5.5 million subscribers). The Ghanaian branch is majority owned by Vodacom Group South Africa which in turn is owned by UK-based Vodafone (the third largest provider in the world). Revenues for Vodacom in 2011 were $7.7 billion.

Tigo (Millicom) – (13.89% market share, 3.7 million subscribers). Millicom is a Luxembourg based provider that mainly operates in the emerging markets of Africa and Latin America.  Annual revenues for Millicom in 2012 were $5.1 billion.

Airtel – (12.79% market share, 3.4 million subscribers). Part of the Indian company Bharti-Airtel, this is the world’s second largest provider (behind only China Mobile) and operates in 20 countries mainly in Africa. Annual revenues for Bharti-Airtel as a whole are $8.2 billion.

Glo Mobile – (6.08% market share, 1.6 million subscribers). Headquartered in Lagos, Nigeria; Globacom is one of the newest providers to set up shop in West Africa. They are also the first African company to lay their own 9,800km, $800 million submarine fibre-optic cable from the UK to Nigeria in 2009. Revenue figures were not found.

There is one other provider, Expresso, but I haven’t been able to tell if it’s still operational in Ghana. The bottom-line being that there are a lot of hands in the very big African telecom pie and behind all the branding and “localization” a lot of the money from this major industry is ending up in foreign lands. Like a lot of industries, it seems information on revenues and ownership is hidden behind layers of subsidiaries, licensees, endless mergers and acquisitions, and byzantine corporate structures, so you’re never too sure what you’re buying.

I currently have SIM cards for all of the above providers plus two phones and have been experimenting to find reliable service since I arrived. Reports from people who have lived here for more than a few years seem to agree that the reliability and “choice” of providers has made amazing improvements from the early days of the single public-owned provider, Telecom Ghana. Still, when I pick up my weekly GHC 10.00 ($5) of phone credit from Gemina, the young women who assiduously attends her credit sales box on the street corner near my house for 8-10 hours a day, 6 days a week, I can’t help but think the 5% profit she is making on the sale is a part of the story that is missing from the dazzling successes that are often reported about Africa’s telecom explosion.

Gemina at one of the 100’s of credit kiosks in town

[For another perspective on the topic, check out the always perceptive Belinda in Malawi]