Expats in Tamale
In Northern Ghana, Stumbling Upon an Abruni Hangout
By Nicolas Jimenez
On our last night in Tamale, Nat, John, and I arrived at what we quickly realized was the most Western restaurant we would go to during our time in Ghana: Chuck’s. It was tucked away in a quiet street off Bolgatanga Road, a major highway extending north from central Tamale. As we arrived we saw the restaurant’s exterior lights – a luxury for most Tamaleian restaurants – turn on, and we wondered whether we should have eaten at the cheap Chinese place we had eaten the night before or any of the Ghanaian places that we’d come across that week. The courtyard in the restaurant, its gardens, tables, and its bar all matched our first impression.
What struck us most, however, was the restaurant’s clientele. We had seen one or two foreigners during our entire stay in Tamale, and had often remarked that even the lack of a tourist industry could not fully explain this oddity. After all, in Accra and Cape Coast we had seen groups of tourists (mostly American and European), if only at tourist hotspots. Arriving at Chuck’s, however, we finally understood where our fellow abrunis – the term for foreigners – had been all along. Aside from one table of Ghanaians and the servers at the restaurant, everyone else was, as far as we could tell, European or American.
As we happily ate our delicious Guinea Fowl Peri Peri, a young American woman approached us, a drink in one hand and a puppy between her arms, and introduced herself as Jenny. We struck up conversation and learned that she was a Columbia University alumna and had been mostly in international NGO work since she graduated. She had been in Ghana for 10 months and was leaving in 2 weeks – headed to South Sudan(!) to work on cholera outbreak prevention. She would miss Ghana, she said, but she was ready and excited to move on.
“I’ll definitely miss this place,” she said wistfully about Chucks. “No matter the day of the week, I can come here without telling anyone that I’m coming and I know that I’ll find at least a few other expats. Even if it happens that no one comes one night, I come and get drunk with the owners and talk all night.”
As we continued talking, a short and slender pale man with white hair approached us. After finding out we were only staying until the next morning, he responded, “I hope this is not the first time you’ve heard of our place!” It was, although looking at each other we wished otherwise. The man’s name was Toby; he was Swedish but had lived in Ghana for the last 3 years. He was one of four owners of Chucks, and the only one who actually lived in Tamale (in the house attached to the restaurant).
Nat, John, and I had talked about the lack of foreigners in Tamale, and agreed that the few who existed would likely be there for volunteer or NGO work, either with the UN, USAID, Christian organizations, or other development nonprofits. We had not realized, for instance, how tight the “expat community” in the city really is. Everyone, it seems, arrives at Chuck’s at some point or another, (we were latecomers, and only later did we realize Chuck’s had been recommended to us a week before we had arrived in Tamale).
Nor had we anticipated how isolated this community would be from the rest of the city. As Jenny mentioned the names of the places where expats “hung out,” we realized they were all outside central Tamale, in the ‘suburbs’. All of these places offered western food, comfortable chairs, and reliable wifi; they were located near most of the offices of NGOs we had seen. When we had asked tuc-tuc drivers about any of these places, they would look at us with blank faces, sometimes with disbelief, and we would have to direct them by using Google Maps on our phones.
We were saddened by this realization. Most expats stay only a short time in Tamale, and they all seem to meet only those foreigners who do similar work. Toby and his restaurant provided a sort of anchor. “I see everyone come and go. Some stay only a few weeks, some a couple of months, some a year or more,” he says looking at Jenny and hugging her affectionately. “I know, I’m not special!” replies Jenny – joking, but with a bittersweet note.
With an image of expats coming through Chuck’s, drinking their nights away with the same twenty people, then leaving Tamale forever, John, Nat and I walked back to Bolgatanga Road to hail a tuc-tuc which would take us back to Picorna Hotel, in the chaotic town center, far away from our fellow abruni.
Nicolas Jimenez ’19 is an Ethics, Politics, and Economics major in Hopper College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.