I have never been under any illusions that Tamale is a big town. Heck, one could easily walk from one end clear across to the other between breakfast and lunch, but in comparison to the villages which surround us it does have a metropolitan feel. The funny thing about small places, especially when you are as conspicuous as a tall white guy, is that everybody gets to know you. Not just the random people which you pass on the street day-to-day, and not even the vendors in the market on the way to the shops that your frequent, but literally pretty much everybody will eventually see you.
For Passover I’m travelling with my colleague Sam, first to a Seder in Accra, and then we are taking a few days to make our way back north to our home in Tamale. Unfortunately this little excursion coincided exactly with the time that I was meant to have submitted by passport to the Ghana Immigration Service for renewal. As a visitor on a long-term visa I have to make a report every 60 days about my activities and reasons for extension. So I showed up to the office unannounced four days early and sat down with the immigration officer. We went through the normal shtick and he put my passport into the file to be processed with all the others. The typical process time for a visa renewal is 7-10 days depending on their workload and the submission date’s proximity to a weekend. But the idea of spending a week travelling through Ghana without my passport to hand made me nervous. I like having it safely by my side should I ever need it. So I inquired with the officer as to whether there was any way to expedite the process. He told me that he did not think so, but that I was welcome to inquire with the Immigration Service’s Regional Commander. So I knocked on the door, and entered the office. The Commander looks pretty much like one would expect an African Commander to look like- a big guy, wearing a perfectly pressed uniform, sitting behind a huge wooden desk, with his feet kicked up basking in the air conditioning. As soon as I walked him he grabbed my hand and greeted me, ‘Hello Josh, how are you? I am so glad to see you, how long has it been, at least 5 or 6 months no?’ Now I doubt very much that the actually remembered my name since the officer introduced me when he knocked on the door, but the Commander definitely did remember our conversation in his office last time I renewed my passport. We had just happened to meet in the hallway, so I took the liberty of introducing myself. So I explained to him what my situation was, and he told me that not only would it not be a problem, but that he would take care of it himself. So I left and waited two and a half days until Friday afternoon to go and check to see if it has been processed, and sure enough, not only was it ready and waiting, but in order to ensure that it would not get lost or mixed in with other documents (as occasionally happens here) the Commander had scrawled in big letters across the ticket ‘VIP’! That is right, I have been officially upgraded to the rank of VIP! How cool is that?
To make things even better, Sam and I decided that we could not stomach the State Transport Company’s rickety bus all the way down to Accra, so instead we paid an extra USD 5 to travel by the VVIP bus service. No, that was not a mistake, in order of transport quality the available Tamale to Accra means are: Tro-Tro, OTC, STC, Imperial, VIP & VVIP. Sam, thinking that it must be some kind of typo inquired as to what the company’s name stands for, and the woman selling us the tickets without a hint of irony replied ‘Very VERY Important Personalities’. So there you have it, I have two pieces of official state recognized documents affirming my new status. So feel free to address any further communications to me using my new title… Josh VIP!