Nzulezu is a stilt village on lake Tandane, about 45 minutes inland by canoe from the town of Beyin. Nzulezu means ‘surface of the water’ in Nzima, the local dialect. The inhabitants of Nzulezu migrated from Watala, a city of the ancient Ghanian Empire. It is alleged that they had been chased from their land by outsiders, and amid the peril were lead to this safe spot by a turtle – which is now, for this reason, their sacred animal.
The journey out to this spot makes one understand that within all things natural, the sacred and the real intermingle so closely and so tenderly – almost romantically – like the concealed hands of two lovers in a subway car, each touch belying the existence of a world separate from that which is visible and evident.
As the dug out canoe glides over water opaque from the reflection of the sky, and through capillaries carved among the tall reeds, one immediately feels as if they are being transported. The sound of the paddle hitting the water begins to replace conversation as muscles relax, the mind slowly empties itself, and the intervals between each breath lengthen, until one feels as if they are no longer in waking life.
After traversing through the arteries and veins of the marsh, one enters a jungle-like forest populated by tall leaning raffia palms and various other lush undergrowth. On the still water’s surface this vegetation is reflected to create a double image, making it difficult to discern which side appears more real until ripples radiate out from the bottom of the canoe. Every now and then one may discern a structure: a shrine or a fish trap, which fits into the environment so well it’s as if they had been constructed by the trees themselves.
This forest opens up into the large lake of Tandane, where the air gets warmer in its final stage of transition towards the isolated world of Nzulezu. Lining the exterior of the forest around the lake’s periphery, the fronds of tall raffia palms dip down into the water like the bowed heads of a deferential crowd, swathed in stillness. Raffia palms are sacred to the people of Nzulezu, as they rely on these strong fronds to build their village, and its fruit to brew their sacred wine.
The village appears in the distance as a hallucination, whose existence is distorted by transparent curls of heat rising from the surface of a desert. However, as one gets closer it’s as if nothing could be more real, more natural and expected than these houses on water: the muted bright colors of their faces being the only thing that extracts the village from the forest, which serves as its backdrop.
The village has streets and avenues made out of raffia fronds, and raffia poles protrude from adjacent houses into alleys floored by water. These protruding poles support small children as they lean down with lines, in hope of a bite.
There are women and children lying out on the raffia streets, lounging, braiding each-others hair, playing games, or any other such activity one may do on Saturday afternoon. As children run up and down these streets one can observe how easily their feet mold to the undulating stilt floor, and you are reminded they have grown up here for generations. They are adapted to this unique way of life as goats have adapted to mountains, fish to water, and humans to cities.
The interior of houses are exposed behind tattered lace curtains and cloth, revealing a simplicity of existence that seems to be echoed in the drops of water and distant croaks and caws emanating from the forest. A shrine is visible about fifty feet from the village, perforating the reflective glass surface that stretches out in front. Only the chief is permitted to visit this shrine, where he gives offerings and listens to the premonitions of the elders and turtle god. This animist faith is interwoven with Christianity here, which can be seen from the small church decorated with flags and filled with plastic lawn chairs.
It appears most aspects of daily life here share the same regularity and contents as life on land. However, the closeness these people have to nature in virtue of their locality grant this regularity an additional pulse, embedded in the rhythm of nature. The village has now become dependent on its status as a tourist attraction, which is made glaringly perceptible by the bright orange life-jackets that infiltrate this tiny village daily, taking photos, pointing, and playing with children.
With the construction of a school, a new church and a medical facility this tourism has been very good for the village. However, as the foreigner walks through these few streets, it is clear how the inhabitants try their hardest to blot out these tourists from their vision, and out from their home.
As one leaves you feel as if you are leaving a dream, a place whose purity is preserved by the natural rhythms of life, and one wonders how the continued expeditions of foreigners into this dream will effect it’s longevity. At first one feels that these intrusions into such a pure natural place are the product of something unnatural: foreigners yielding digital cameras, wobbling heels, hand sanitizer, mobile phones, and plane tickets.
Yet based on the need these people have for basic necessities such as education, healthcare, and the possibility for something greater, one realizes that maybe these intrusions are not so unnatural after all. Maybe, rather, they are part of a greater narrative; one that is almost more natural and more real than any attempt to preserve this village’s purity and isolation from the external world, and just maybe, this narrative is time.