Tag Archives: ghana

Nzulezu

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.

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Takoradi

We took a tro-tro (minibus) to Takoradi, the third largest city in Ghana after Accra and Kumasi, with a population of roughly 300,000. After opening it’s port in 1928 it became the most important port in the country until the development of Tema in 1961, which lies 22km east of Accra. Although it is no longer the most famous port in the area, the discovery of oil 65km off the coast of Takoradi is set to ensure that Takoradi will regain its status as an economic hub in the years to come.

As in most economic centers Takoradi is a city bustling with commerce, and as in any African city ‘bustling’ implies verging on complete chaos, and ‘commerce’ implies piles upon piles of everything from lace to livers, which attract customers like moths to a flame.

The sellers on the streets call out to passers by with an intonation that sounds more like offenses or outraged threats, than persuasive enticements.

In the center of the city is a circular market that epitomizes the chaotic magic of the place. Once one enters all sense of direction must be surrendered to the winding paths buttressed by small stalls overflowing with merchandise.

Upon entering this circular cavern, one feels as if they have entered through a door of that magical quality, whereby the world one is entering is entirely different in all measures of reality and sense, from that left behind. Like C.S. Lewis’ famous Wardrobe, it seems like the only possible rhyme to this kingdom’s reason must have been conjured by imagination alone.

The deeper one permeates into winding labyrinth, the more often darkness replaces light. As the path narrows, merchandise and corrugated iron roofs from adjacent stalls congeals into a ceiling, allowing only a few shafts of light to enter through unaccounted holes to the outside world. Every so often these shafts of light will flicker, indicating a large load on women’s head has floated by.

Women dominate this kingdom, with stares strong enough to effect neurosis, indifferent eyebrows and grunts evoke an invitation to challenge. The only way to win over these sovereigns is to learn their game, and play it; that is, the game of artful comebacks and bartering.

The children serve their mothers, however as the light beams entering in through the ceiling close, they are the first to be affected by the wave of sleep which wafts through the alleys like an intoxicating gas, and signals thei imminent return to the outside world.

Busua

Busua has been a popular spot for backpackers since the sixties due to its vibrant surfing culture. Though back then tourists were doing the surfing for the most part, today it is clear that this culture and sport has permeated into the local scene, so that it seems most locals are born on a surfboard. Moreover, due to the well known phenomenon that surfing usually brings with it a chilled out, hippie, Rastafarai, “hang loose” vibe wherever in the world it happens to take root, one could sense this town was all of the above from the start.

Immediately upon arrival a surfer – later to be known as Michael – brought us to the local hotel and hang out spots. This encounter was refreshing, as we could immediately sense how locals here seemed much more used to white people. Usually, the feeling a white person has when walking around in Ghana (and most West African countries) is like suddenly acquiring a three foot unicorn made of gold, based on the reactions from locals. Here in Ghana this horn normally evokes chants such as Bawfle! Bawfle! (white man! white man!), but not so much in Busua. Here, the white person feels more that they can be them self, rather than constantly directing their focus and energy towards thwarting this fantastical mythic status.

After we finally chose a spot to rest our heads for the night, we walked along the beach to have a beer at one of the local bars Michael had pointed out to us. The beach extends out for miles to the east, and to the west ends abruptly in a small peninsula affronted by large fishing boats brightly colored and worn, and adorned with lights, flags, nets, and elaborately painted names such as ‘God’s Power’, and ‘London Bridge’. When out at sea the scraggly appearance of these boats affect an image of haunted pirate ships, whose long bodies seem to hover above the waves whilst parading their tattered sails.

Perforating this mist were small figures either collecting bits and pieces on the beach, or continuously tossing out and gathering in their fishing nets from the shallows. The rain that was falling during most of our time in Busua added a sonorous and silent voice to their movements, unyielding in its slow and steady repetition amidst such a downpour and silhouetted against crashing waves..

The most memorable thing about this town, aside from the surfer vibe, was it’s smallness. I have rarely spent more than one day in a village as small as this in my life, and the extent to which faces and friends reappear struck me. There was Eric the cab driver who wore a beaming smile and introduced us to the local language. Frank, the juice man, who seemed quietly possessed by concocting and distributing juice mixtures in plastic bottles to tourists. There was Isaac who was not a native, but was in the process of building his house nearby, laying each brick as he was able to accumulate enough money to do so. There was Daniel the pancake man, Michael the surfer, Kofi the soft-faced boy with the puppy named Tiger, Ebenezer who stood on grasshopper legs and wielded a hidden intelligence… and the list goes on…

Thanks to its distinctive smallness, history, and the openness of its inhabitants, I feel Busua granted me a true glimpse into the nature of an African village. The openness, an unflinching generosity this glimpse revealed stayed with me even after I left, in the form of a child. As we rode a tro-tro back to Esiama, a young girl shared her boiled egg for me (and the undulating lace of her dress). Perhaps there was some significance in this: as they say, it takes a village….

Product Placement Life

MTN and Vodafone are the most predominantly used phone companies in Ghana, as in most parts of west Africa. Walking through Busua, I was shocked to see the logo and colors of these companies covering entire buildings and houses.

It was if I was walking – real time – through an advertisement for one of their products, where the ad was life and the product was poverty.

The strangest aspect of these logos was that they somehow blended in.

As with anything artificial, over time nature – whether human or otherwise – has a way of maturing and incorporating its plasticity – however great – into the surroundings. Just as a tree will adapt it’s growth to a rusty pole in it’s way.

Sass O’ Frass


I will be spending three weeks in Ghana working with a local school in Esiama, founded by the Ransom Foundation. In three classrooms run by three teachers, approximately 110 children from ages 3 – 7 come to learn. Based on my experience living in an orphanage in Douala last year, I am fully aware of the differences between the way children are treated here and back home.

Babies or small children you may see bobbing around a public place in the west are guaranteed to come with a parent, glassy eyed and slow moving, following their trail. Sitting at tables, you may often spot a mother staring at her baby, hypnotized by the expectancy that her desire to be needed will be fulfilled.

If the child is running, the parent will follow their every move with the slow smiles oscillating between pride and concern – as if a leash was attached between them, making it difficult to decipher the tethered from the guide.

On the subway you may see moms covered in fake dinosaur tattoos wearing dirty t-shirts and messy hair, usually carrying an immense load – which may include, scooters, bags, jackets, bikes, or the occasional small dog. Those leading this caravan don their batman capes and face paint like it is ceremonial dress, as they send fake lasers shooting across the subway car to which the mother will tell them: “don’t play with guns”; only to confirm the extent that mothers forfeit their mature identity so as to entertain the role of guardian angel in their child’s make believe world.

These sights are common occurrences in the West. In West Africa, however, children are usually left alone as soon as they can crawl. Because of this, their imaginary world is usually a little closer to reality, and their guardian angel is usually found within themselves.

This is not a bad thing, it is simply different, but something to understand especially when working with children in this environment.

As a consequence, children here are much more sassy and precocious, and their personalities seem to be more well formed and established than your average 45 year old. For this reason it is often intimidating to work with them as, rather than coddle them into a situation, you must prove yourself through wit, physical strength, or your own mixture of sass and frass – whatever that may be – which often brings one back to their own childhood playground, where the struggle to mark your territory was tantamount.

For this reason working with these children is incredibly rewarding as it forces one to learn a lot about themselves: to elicit one’s own primal energy found – and often left – on those early childhood schoolyards. For, if you are unable to establish yourself as king of the hill in this way, you will be trampled upon by raised eyebrows, rolling eyes, and a pair of swishing hips which casually walk away from you as you helplessly scrutinize your mind for the right thing to say.

However, under all this still of course remains a childish softness, which is equally as ample in its reserve.