Tamale, Ghana — Growing in the 90s and TV

When I was growing up in the 90s and early 2000s, very few people had TVs in Tamale. It allowed for a thriving private cinema in Tamale where someone with a good screen (usually anything 30 inches and above) with a VHS player set up shop in a house with a large enough compound and high walls to show—usually American action, Chinese, and Indian—movies at a cost.

I remember in Jisonayili—the best neighborhood in Tamale by the way—, the person who used to set this up was my friend Ummu and her brother Kadiru’s dad. We used to call him Mr. Taller because he was the tallest man in our neighborhood. Last time I heard of him, he had gone to Dubai as a driver. Anyway I digress. He had this cinema setup at various houses over the years. At some point it was in their house just next to my grandfather’s house where I grew up, near the Jisonayili central mosque. At another time, it was at a house called Gurugu Doo Yilli (Mba Mmoro yiŋa). This was the iconic cinema house in Jisonayili. The safest way to the cone was save some pesewas from your pocket money (and for boys and girls like me who didn’t have any pocket money to save from, you sell anything in season like mango or firewood). If you didn’t have money, you had to get creative. Which I did aplenty.

We used to go through all kinds of shenanigans to secure a seat in this local cinema. So if you brought a bench to the cinema, you could get a free seat. As a result, we used to wait on our elders to vacate their benches for us to take to Gurugu Doo Yilli. Some elders were so annoying because they’d sit there and talk for so long. I have a few in mind I’d still give the stink eye 😒 😂. So in Tamale, elders usually eat food together with their friends. So our mothers will all bring their bowls and congregate in front of one house for the men to eat together. Pretty fun tradition. So we’d take the benches they sat on for their dinners to the cinema house. If you came late, you’re screwed as other boys and girls would have brought their own benches and taken your spot.

So what happened when you lost out on the bench game? So we had other strategies. One was coming to the house early and hiding in the chickens room 😁. I did that a few times. The other was making friends with the kids in the house so you can come early, eat their dinner and hide in their mother’s room and wait till the movie started to come out. I loved this strategy quite a lot 😂. Killing two beds with one stone. What if that didn’t work? We had another strategy of piling rocks (if you didn’t bring a stool from the house) against the wall of the compound so that you could watch from the back of the house. This was rather treacherous as you can imagine lol. These rocks could be slippery and it was rather tiring to stand stretched out against a wall to watch an entire 5 hours of Sholay 😬. And that wasn’t the half of it either. Mba Taller or his assistants will actually regularly come around to chase us away from enjoying free cinema stretched out and treacherous or not. Sometimes they’d pour water on us too 😭. How the chasing helped hone our running skills too I’m grateful to Mba Taller today 😂. The other desperate option was to scale the wall at a darker location so you’re not seen coming over. That was the riskiest one because if you were caught you’d receive some lashes and quick slaps 😂. I received my fair share of these slaps.

But it wasn’t all pain and no gain. Sometimes they’d let us in to watch the first movie, usually a comedy before the main show — usually a war film or Chinese film or an Indian film. So we at least l got to watch some. Also, we used to be allowed in at the tail end of the movie to watch the credits 😩. Not too bad. We were called agbaa binkobri (midnight fools) 🤦🏾‍♂️😭. Kids can be wicked oo. Our own friends invented that name for us who waited outside the entire movie to just watch the credits which usually happened around midnight. But it was fun. I get goosebumps just remembering all these childhood gems of memories.

Sometimes nothing worked so we the stunningly stubborn ones just decided to sit in front of the house and listen to the movie instead of going home 🤦🏾‍♂️. But it did happen more often than not that we slept off. And people are wicked oo. They’d not wake you up when they are leaving so you’ll wake up around 2-4am and disoriented. You’d not know where you are at first. But you’d do the walk of shame afterwards staggering towards your home. We lived in stunningly safe environments growing up now that I think about it. I can’t really remember children getting missing or kidnapped given how free range we were as kids.

Anyway, my house was extra trouble in this quest to watch Chuck Norris or Amitabh. You don’t know the half of it. My grandfather is the most stubborn man I’ve ever met. Any one who grew up in Jisonayili knows this. Even those in surrounding communities like Gurugu and Kanvili will tell you they know about Jisonayili Chairman. Super Muslim. Super strict. That means no movies because they’re teaching bad morals (I’d come to him on this later). So we were, unlike other children, raised up very strict with way too many rules I broke 😬. One of them was not going out after dinner or being home after 8pm. Unlike many homes without a lock to the compound in Tamale, my grandfather always made sure to have a lock. One of the reasons I can’t stay in that house even now. Stayed with my friend when I went to visit this past summer but I digress. So when you went to watch Jean Claude van Damme and came home, door was locked. But ingenious as we were, we found a way. You either tinkered with the lock from outside to get it opened or pushed back against the heavy object used to block it slooooowly so that he doesn’t wake up. Damn, that old man didn’t sleep at all. And we always had some corrugated iron sheets as part of the gate 😡. Or you try to scale the wall at a section where it was short. But if the old man catches you, you’d receive some serious caning. The old man once threw a cutlass at me. I was happy to dodge it 😁. But at least you’d have watched some Bruce Lee beat up some American thugs 😎.

The other option we had other than go to Gurugu Doo Yilli was to go to my friend Farouk’s and Osman’s grandma’s house to watch GTV and Telenovelas. Hmm. How much of my brain cells these Telenovelas stole from me hmm. Now it’s even hard to remember their names. But I remember Camila. Funny, when I went to the US and met this nice German girl called Kamihla in high school, I immediately fell for her. Such nostalgia man. I remember one I was really obsessed with but can’t recollect the title. Even when we were prepping for BECE, I had to watch it. It’s crazy. Couldn’t miss the episode. Even in cold weather harmattan we used to go huddle together to watch these Telenovelas. And the size of Farouk’s grandma’s screen? 20 inches if I remember right. But the cherry on top was it was one of only a couple of colored TVs in the neighborhood. And the only one I had access to. Very solid and kind woman. God I loved that lady. A solid win.

We did see a few projected movies every now and then often some ngo or government agency trying to educate people on some public issue. We used to call projected movies sini nyirivoɣu. Those of you who are Dagomba know I’d not translate it here 😂. It’s amazing men. Times have changed so drastically and so fast. As close back as 2004, these were the conditions. Given a handful more homes had TVs including my friend Rashid’s father. Beautiful man. Allowed me to work construction with my half hand after Junior high school with him. Will always remember his kindness. One of the kindest men I’ve ever met. Mba Iddrisu. Owe him a lot but I digress. But even with these number of TVs we still had even fewer people with the VHS players so we still went to Mba Taller and others who succeeded him to go watch films generally.

Today, less than a decade and half and in almost every home in the neighborhood, you’ll find a TV and a DVD player in the home. Actually most homes you’ll find a TV and a DVD player or now flash drive filled with movies in every room in the house. Things have changed fast and drastic when it comes to consumer electronics in the homes of Ghanaians over the past decade.

My gramps who caned us for going out to watch TV now has a 45 inch in his room. Old man 😒😒😒 My brother has one in his room. My grandmother has one in her room and I believe the young boys have one in their room too. My small aunty has a smart phone and a tablet. If you go to my dad’s house it’s the same. Every room has a TV and DVD player. And it’s not that my family is wealthy by community standards. This is replicated throughout the neighborhood. And I believe in Ghana as a whole. We have truly had a marvelous transformation on this front. I picked TVs to illustrate how rapid the transformation has been over the past decade and half but I could have picked another one, cell phones for example. The other major transformation taking place (which I actually love and believe has a rather outsized transformative capacity on Ghanaian society) is fridges. A decade and half ago, we had just a couple of fridges in the neighborhood but today almost every house is getting their own fridge. Imagine what will happen to cooking and food storage when it happens that every family has a fridge? What will happen to the traditional nightly cooking by our women? What about the almost daily going to market to buy fresh foods for the evening meal? I see huge transformation afoot. I just hope our leaders are seeing that the energy needs of the country are going to skyrocket soon so they invest in better energy sources so that dumsor doesn’t hamstring our organic rapid progress.

Anyway, I’m so happy today. Spoke with my friend from Ghana who’s also here in the US for almost four hours and given that we grew up together, these things and wonderful memories came up. And I just thought I’d share. We have come a long way. Sometimes we want our transformation to be too fast and we don’t sit to take stock of where we started. Maybe if we did we’d be less inclined to push harder on the rat race. I loved my childhood. It was full of challenges and hardships but it was also fun. We always must remember where we come from. When I do, and really take stock, I thank the creator for how far I…we have come. At least today I’m not agbaa binkobgu and I’m thankful for that Alhamdulillah and if Allah gives me children, they’d have a drastically more comfortable life than I had InshaAllah. It’s past 4am here and I must find sleep to dream so that I may find that woman of my dreams 😂. Enjoy your Sunday friends. Salaam🙏🏽.

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