Blogs and Burkina

A little quiet on the blog front lately as I’ve been giving 110% on my work projects since returning to Ghana in February. You can follow exactly what is we are doing by checking out this special project blog: which details every step we are taking to re-envision Business Development Services to small agroprocessing firms in Ghana. It’s been an interesting journey so far and there should be plenty more to come.

Personally, I will be moving down to Accra for the next few months to undertake some new pilot projects there. If all goes to plan, we should have a new direction and business model by the middle of the summer. Hoping to get back on the blog horse here with more irreverent travel writing, general ranting, and other topics such the Colonial Pact in Francophone West Africa, Dumsor-Dumsor in Ghana, Volutourism and the amazing hidden world of international food economics. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, here are a few snaps of a Easter trip up to the Burkina Faso Capital of Ouagadougou, which can be basically summarized in one word, strawberries!


Chopping Guinea Fowl: Step By Step from Cooing to Chewing

The old blog hasn’t been seeing much action as of late. As a way of getting back on track and hopefully sharing something indicative of what’s been happening, here’s a step by step guide to preparing my all-time favorite Ghanaian dish, guinea fowl with okra stew and banku.

Late Friday night, I went down to the Tamale bus station to pick up my friend Nis. She hails from the Upper East Region and has a line on guinea fowls from Navrongo, which is apparently the place to find these chubby, speckled relatives of pheasants. She had been threatening to bring some over, but it was still a bit of shock when she dropped a live bird in my hands and said, “Here, cook this.” A live animal staring you in the face is a powerful incentive for meal planning, so, as one does, we dangled the thing off the handlebars of my moto and headed home to cook up some ideas.

The next morning, we engaged the services of Nis’s friend, Queen, who went to school for cooking and worked in several hotels before trading the heat of the kitchen for the A/C of the insurance office. She still wants to get back into cooking and eventually open her own restaurant, so was she down for showing me the ropes. We went into town and entered the Tamale central market—a place I’ve been struggling to comprehend let alone to describe for some time. After a lot of greetings, himming and hawing, hard bargaining and various subtle jedi-mind-tricks I could not perceive to get the market ladies to lower their prices, we came away with the following:

  • 1kg of pre-sliced okra
  • Tomatoes
  • Tomato paste
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Garden Eggs (Eggplant)
  • Salted Fish
  • Shrimp bouillon
  • Cassava “Dough” (not fermented)
  • Corn “Dough” (fermented)
  • ½ litre of Palm oil

We got back to the house to check up on the critter, who, while cooing gently, could not help but betray an air of trepidation and doleful pessimism regarding its present situation. Earnest meal preparation kicked off around 2:00pm by boiling the okra and the garden eggs together to get that gooey, snot-like goop which makes okra stew so unique.

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The next step was to dress the fowl. Now, like most people, I don’t go out of my way to kill my own food, but I still think it is a valuable experience everyone should try at least once. Strangling the life out of some other animal for a few brief moments of enjoyment while you are eating it and enough sustenance to keep you alive for a few days is a visceral, unsettling, and humbling act. Growing up on a sheep farm, I’ve been exposed to this side of meat production from an early age and have had the benefit of some experience slaughtering chickens. I’ll spare the details, but after some time we eventually ended up with a half decent looking dressed fowl.

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 We then sliced and diced half the onions, tomatoes, peppers, and the garlic and stewed the pieces of fowl to infuse some flavour. After about 10-15 minutes of stewing, we proceeded to deep fry the pieces in a shit ton of palm oil. I was slightly dismayed by this step as it seemed to negate any health benefits of the lean guinea fowl meat, but Queen assured me it was healthy and would taste better this way. In the future, I might bypass this step simply due to the time involved.

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 After the fry up, we combined the remaining stew stock with the rest of the onions, tomatoes, peppers and garlic. We then added in some salted fish and shrimp bouillon cubes which are, for some reason, ubiquitous in Ghanaian cooking, as well as the okra and garden egg mixture from earlier. Lastly, we added the fried fowl pieces back in and let the whole pot simmer away on the back burner while we prepared the banku.

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Banku is my favourite of the Ghanaian starch ball trifecta which also includes fufu and tuo zaafi (“Tee-Zed”). This lumpy mix of fermented corn flour and cassava dough has a mildly sour flavour similar to sourdough bread. To prepare it, we mixed the corn and cassava doughs together roughly 2 to 1 with plenty of water and got it simmering on the stovetop. As the mixture began to heat up, it became thicker and thicker, and stickier and sticker eventually resembling some sort of industrial strength building material. Keeping it from burning on the bottom of the pan and stirring it vigorously to prevent clumping was no small feat. After what seemed like a half hour of stirring, Queen finally said it looked done. She then proceeded to form fist-sized balls of the mix by rolling it around in a small bowl with a little water. The more modern method is to spoon the finished banku into small plastic bags, which can be more easily refrigerated and reheated.

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At this stage, nearly 4hrs later, we were finally finished. Interest in photography and documentation had dropped off markedly by this point, so I don’t have any photos, but we did finally did get our “chop” on. The end result, while not mind blowing, was still deeply satisfying having the virtue of being hand-built from the raw materials with much toil and caloric expenditure. Would I make this again? Maybe, if I enough people to feed. Will I appreciate eating it a lot more the next time I order it a restaurant? Definitely!

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Special shout outs to Nis for providing the fowl and the incentive to get cooking and to Queen for being a great teacher. Hopefully, I’ll have some time to do this again with some other of my top fav dishes, stay tuned.

What’s Hot in Tamale?

I wrote about the cold in Mongolia as it was an important part of life and culture. Although they don’t use frozen cow’s tails as a metric here, the heat in Ghana is still a powerful force that pervades and affects all aspects of life. Since heat is so diffuse and insipid there is less of a battle mentality (as in the case of cold) and more of a brooding, uneasy standoff between life and the climate. This stalemate reaches a crescendo during the two hottest months of February and March and relents with the beginning of the rainy season in April. I was warned that March would be the most trying month as far as heat, but I am happy to report I seem to be managing with only a few more weeks of very hot weather left. For reference, we’re in and around 40C most days and 30C at night. This isn’t too shocking, but the fact that it lasts for several months and there is little A/C to be had, makes it more of a grinding psychological challenge. I’ve been looking into the cultural, physiological and psychological aspects of heat lately and have found, like everything else weather related, you can either ineffectively rage against it or try to adapt.


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The weather in Tamale is characterized by pronounced wet and dry seasons lasting April – September for the former and October – March for the latter. The Harmattan winds blow in off the Sahara from the Northeast during December and January bringing in tons of dust and dropping the temperature below 20C at night. When the Harmattan ends, the heat continues to build to a peak in March before breaking with the first real rains in April. After that, the winds pick up from the Southwest and bring rainstorm after rainstorm, like clockwork, up from the Atlantic.

This ongoing battle between wet and dry has been fairly predictable for the past several thousand years, but climate change is beginning to amplify this bi-polar behaviour leading to more extreme heat and precipitation. This has huge implications for crop production, especially for staples like maize which operates within a fairly narrow temperature band and can take decades to breed up to higher temperature tolerances [1]. The need for climate adapted crops is crucial for the ongoing food security of countries like Ghana and an important element of the raging battle over GMO foods that is taking place here [2].

African Maize Production (Source:
African Maize Production (Source:
Growing Season Average Temperatures (Source:
Growing Season Average Temperatures (Source:


Culturally, other than the regular rhythms of planting and harvesting crops and the associated festivals like Homowo, I haven’t heard too many urban legends with regards to the heat. I think there is a tacit acknowledgement that “you can’t change the weather” so most people don’t discuss it too often. Still, there are a few key phrases in Dagbani such as “Ti maasim” (“the morning is cool” used as a greeting) and “Ni ti wuntanga/wari” (roughly “sorry for you and the sun/heat”). Another important element is the acceptance of sweat as normal and natural part of life and not something you try to hide or are embarrassed about, which seems to be the case in the West.

Physiologically, it’s very important to have at least a basic grasp of the body’s mechanisms for thermoregulation in order to maximize the effectiveness of whatever method of cooling you are trying to employ. Below is illustration of how the body responds to and counteracts various ambient temperatures to maintain a steady core temperature. It’s important to note that evaporative cooling from sweating greatly depends on both the humidity and air flow. Luckily, in the North, the relative humidity is around 20-30% most of the dry season, which keeps the humidex quite reasonable. It’s like living in a giant dehumidifier so sweating can be quite effective, though water intake needs to greatly increase in order to keep up. It’s possible to lose as much as 10L of water per day [3], and dehydration, even if you spend most of your days like me sitting under a whirling ceiling fan, is still a risk.  As part of the body’s acclimation process [4], the water to salt composition of sweat readjusts, your overall output increases, and the hypothalamus becomes better adapted to the new temperature range. So, there is some truth to the idea that you can “get used to” to heat after some time.



Psychologically, I find dealing with heat is very similar to dealing with cold or any other external factor: you often can’t do anything about it other than to alter your psychological response. With cold I find the best strategy is to get positive and energized before going outside and generally being a lot more active and animated. With heat, obviously, it’s more a case of economy of motion, acceptance and calmness. The biggest issues are trying to sleep on foam mattress (pro tip: wet socks!) or sitting for long periods in a packed tro-tro. There is a powerful urge to “escape” and it takes a lot of willpower to avoid the agitation and anxiety that goes along with this discomfort. Like studying in a noisy environment, running a marathon or sitting through a Nigerian movie on the bus, it’s a mind over matter thing that takes time to develop. On the positive side, the appreciation for the slightest breeze, the few degrees drop of evening coolness, or amazing satisfaction derived from simply drinking water are all greatly amplified. The occasional Fan-Ice (ice cream in a bag) doesn’t hurt either!







Eats For a Week

I know it’s recently become terribly uncool to post “instagramed” pictures of your food online, but I figure food is one of the main cultural expressions that is unique to each country and at least of some passing interest to those from elsewhere.

For the most part Ghana is not known for its culinary exports (other than raw materials like cocoa and fruit), but I’ve found the food more than satisfactory and have very few complaints, if at all. In fact, I’ve really needed to dwell on it to be able to dream up any major food cravings (broccoli and coffee are the two main ones). In Tamale, there is very little one can’t find in the way of western food (hamburgers, pizza, indian, ice cream, cheese, cake, etc.). In Accra, moreover, you’d be hard pressed to come up with anything under the sun that’s not available if you’re willing to fork over the cedis for it.

As a general rule, traditional Ghanaian food is centred around the ever present starch ball (either rice, yam, corn, or cassava or a combination) along with a saucy soup and/or meat vegetable dish. What it lacks in flavour and diversity, it makes up for with enormous quantities and tongue numbing saltiness. There are definitely some standout dishes (not featured herein, unfortunately), these included deep fried yams and hot pepper sauces, deep fried plantains and spice mix (Kelliwelli), banku (slightly sour, fermented maize starch ball) with groundnut (peanut) soup, and pavla sauce (cocoa yam leaves, the main green vegetable).

Overall, I’ve been surprised by how much fish is eaten, even though Tamale is quite a few sweltering, unrefrigerated kilometres away from any water bodies. Another, important fact is just how much of the food is imported from elsewhere. The traditional staples (cassava, yam, maize) are locally grown, but a lot of the chicken, rice, dairy, canned goods, and even fruit juices are imported from Asia, South America or Europe. This obviously has major implications for food security, trade balances, and local agriculture development as I’ll hopefully address more fully in a future post.

Below is a typical week’s worth of food (f0r my family at least).  I missed one dinner and one breakfast and went out to eat once. At this stage all the cooking is done by the two live-in nieces who are highly incredulous of my offers to help in the kitchen. So far I have been regulated to chopping vegetables and stirring pots, but with time I hope to take a more active role.

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