Lake Volta

Lake Volta is considered the largest man-made lake in the world and accounts for 3.6% of Ghana’s surface area. The White and Black Volta Rivers converge to form the Volta River and completion of the Akosombo Dam, in 1966, created the 8500 square km reservoir. The notion of damning the river for hydro-electric was first proposed in 1915, by an Australian geologist. It wasn’t until post-independence though that President Nkrumah set up the Volta River Authority and, in 1961, contracted the work out to an Italian company.

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The main purpose of the dam at that time was to provide electricity for Ghana’s growing industrial development, mainly an Aluminium plant based in Tema. The dam is made entirely from clay and rock and stands 114m tall and 660m at its widest. When the land was flooded to create the reservoir around 80,000 people had to be re-homed, many of them farmers and fishermen. Farmers were forced to use less fertile land on the slopes of the new reservoir making conditions more difficult. To make matters worse fertiliser run off into the lake has caused issues with aquatic weeds and malaria-breading mosquitoes. The flooding of the land also left many dead tree stumps spread across the lake creating problematic conditions for fishermen as their nets become entangled. This aspect of Ghana’s fishing industry has a large problem with child slavery and often children are sent into the lake with the dangerous task of untangling the nets. These children often work long hours with no education, it’s estimated there are many thousands involved in the Lake Volta fishing industry.

If you spend the night at the nearby Royal Senchi hotel they can arrange a tour of the dam and the three magic rocks. The tour of the dam, which involves a walk along the top, is very worthwhile and is run by the Volta River Authority. This can be arranged independently, if you have a vehicle, by visiting their office in Akosombo. The three magic rocks however, seems to be a mystery which I can find out little about, except what I was told by the Royal Senchi tour guide. The story goes that these three large pieces of rock where removed when building the dam. However, after moving them the workmen returned the following day to find they had returned to their original position. When this happened a second night in a row the decision was made to make a religious offering and ceremony before moving the rocks, as it was felt their magic must be respected. This process was successful and one of the three pieces was built into the dam wall. The second now sits outside the Volta Hotel and the third outside the Saint Barbara Church.

The piece outside the Volta Hotel contains a circular marking around a natural hole. The plaque describes this cup and ring formation as a prehistoric magical symbol, probably related to animal fertility. The plaque also explains that rock engravings are very rare in Ghana and it’s thought this one is 2000 years old.

The third piece sits outside the Saint Barbara Catholic Church, which was built in 1962 as a place of worship for the workers building the damn. Hanging inside the church is a plaque that remembers the 28 workers who lost their lives during its construction. The Church and rock sit high on the hillside with a wonderful view back across the mighty Lake Volta.

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Forward Ever, Backward Never

Kwame Nkrumah is a highly regarded figure in Ghana. Not only did he dedicate his life to freeing the country from colonial rule but he was also an active leader in the Pan-African movement, advocating the total liberation of all Africans. He was a founding member of the Organization of African Unity and was the winner of the Lenin Peace Prize in 1962.

Kwame was an intelligent and resourceful young man and he was determined to improve the lives of his fellow Africans. He won a scholarship to study abroad and consequently spent time in the US and the UK. In the US he experienced great inequality based on skin colour. He started to believe that if Africa could be freed from colonial rule then Africans, wherever they lived, would be respected and able to improve their living conditions.

Back in Ghana (known as the Gold Coast at that time) the British felt that Africans were not educated enough to govern themselves. After 12 years away from the Gold Coast Kwame returned, and in 1949 became involved in setting up the Convention People’s Party (CPP). Their moto was Forward Ever, Backward Never and their target was self-government, Now.

In early 1950 peaceful protests and mass refusal to work, due to dissatisfaction in the colonial government, lead to a number of arrests within the CPP party. Kwame was thrown in jail, but he refused to give up the fight for independence. From his cell, with the help of a friendly warden, he made plans with party members to run in the 1951 election. He stood as a candidate for the Accra region and the CPP won with a landslide victory. The British were left with no choice but to free Kwame, after a year of imprisonment. He was then called on by the colonial Governor to appoint 7 cabinet members. Although the party were still answerable to the Governor and had to include 3 colonial ministers, Kwame and his followers saw it as a step forward towards independence.

Kwame pushed to set up a civil service and slowly replaced colonial police and army officers with Ghanaians. In 1954, when the next general election was held, all seats were won by the CPP and the move towards self-government grew. Finally, on March 6th 1957 the flag of the Gold Coast was lowered and Ghana was born. Kwame Nkrumah became the first President of the newly independent country. Not content with this massive achievement Kwame pushed forward with his Pan-African vision. He spoke with the 7 other independent African states of that time and encouraged them to work together to gain liberation across Africa. The movement grew, and in just 6 years the number of independent African nations had risen from 8 to 32.

In addition to supporting these independence drives across Africa, Kwame was pushing forward with his vision of a better Ghana. State farms were developed, free education and health care put in place and plans for the Akosombo Dam were progressed so hydro power could improve the lives of the people. Factories were built and the harbour and township of Tema developed.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t all plain sailing and Kwame’s socialist views were not shared by all. There were members of his party more interested in improving their own lives and maintaining their privileges, even if that meant betraying the trust of the people. In the early 1960’s there were several attempts on his life. In 1966 Kwame felt that Ghana was on the threshold of economic independence. No sooner did he express this than the first in a long line of Coup d’etat occurred whilst he was out of the country.

The years that followed saw all his hard fought changes undone. Factory builds were abandoned, rubber plantations sold off to western companies, free health and education was abolished. There was little he could do but watch in dismay from afar. When he died from cancer in 1972 he had never been able to return to Ghana. I can see why this man is so highly respected, having dedicated his life to freedom, not just in Ghana, but across Africa. Today you can pay your respects at the Nkrumah Mausoleum in Accra. As well as being the first Presidents final replacing place there is a small museum with a collection of photographs and other artefacts.

Cape Coast Castle

If Ghana has one main tourist attraction it would be a visit to one of the old colonial castles. Cape Coast Castle and Elmina Castle sit close together on the southern coast and are the largest and the best preserved European-built castles in West Africa. Over three centuries more than 60 forts and castles were built along the Gold Coast, as Ghana was once known. They were built by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, the Danes, the Swedes, the French and the Germans. Their main purpose was to act as store houses and trading posts and some were used at living quarters for commercial or military staff. Goods were brought from Europe for trade and the Gold Coast supplied an abundance of Gold and other commodities.

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Cape Coast Castle started life as a fort made from timber in 1653, built by the Swedish and fortified in stone the following year. It changed hands several times before it was captured by the British in 1665. They strengthened and expanded the fort and named it Cape Coast Castle. The castle became the seat of the British administration until they relocated to Christianborg Castle in Accra around 1877.

Nowadays the building stands gleaming and white on the rocky coastline. With the sun shining it could almost fool you into thinking it had a nice story to tell. However, what lies behind, or rather beneath, those bright white walls is a rather sinister tale. Now classified under UNESCO as a World Heritage Site Cape Coast Castle is thought to have been one of the largest slave-holding sites in the world during the colonial era.

A tour of the castle starts with a trip into the dungeons, the guide asking you to proceed in the dark to get a feel for the place. When he does switch on the lighting you may not feel any less claustrophobic. The few so called windows are placed high and are incredibly small, letting in very little light. There is no toilet, only a small channel running down the centre of the room. Despite the underground location the African heat is stifling and that combined with imagining 500 prisoners crammed into each of the 3 dungeons can make your head spin in this dark and depressing place. Disease and death were prominent and the people incarcerated here must have had the most horrific experience, which is thought to have lasted between 6-12 weeks. When their time came to leave the castle they would pass via an underground tunnel to The Door of No Return. Here, waiting ships would take them to a life of forced labour in the New World. Many more died at sea.

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It is perhaps worth mentioning that the indigenous people of Ghana had kept slaves long before the arrival of colonial power. Some of the main tribes in this part of West Africa include the Akan (Ashanti), Ewe, Mole-Dagbane, Guan, and Ga-Adangbe, to name but a few of a much larger list. Slaves were obviously used and abused but generally were not kept in the appalling conditions used later by the Europeans. Rather interestingly it was possible, in certain unusual circumstances, for an indigenous slave to become elevated out of their slave role and into the family. When the colonial powers realised there was value in the trade of slaves they encouraged fighting between the local tribes. They knew that people captured during tribal wars could be traded with them for goods.

The Trans-Atlantic slave trade played such a major role in the history or West Africa and indeed the world. This is what makes a visit so very much worthwhile. As part of the tour visitors are lead through the Door of No Return. If you were expecting a moment of quiet contemplation however, you can think again. Instead you will step from inside the quiet castle walls into the bustling fishing port of Cape Coast. Right outside the door your senses are hit by the sounds and smells of busy fishing life. Women gut and cook fish right by the door, men and children are repairing nets and everyone is chatting and shouting. This is what I really enjoy about Ghana, real life is never far away!

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Beads of Ghana

When we moved to Ghana I had no idea it had such a rich beading industry. Old colonial beads would arrive from Europe and were used for trade.  Food, commodities and sadly even slaves were exchanged for beads. There are brass beads made via the lost wax process, recycled glass beads and bauxite beads. It’s said that the market at Koforidua, held twice a week, sells beads from all over West Africa and even some from as far away as Kenya.

We paid a visit to Cedi Beads Industry whilst on route to the Volta region. The first challenge, as it often is in Ghana, was finding the place! A quick phone call once we arrived in Somanya and some guidance from a friendly passer-by and we took the road to Odumase where we located the Cedi Beads signpost on the main road. The factory, if you can use such a grand word, is situated about a kilometre from the main road down a bumpy, twisting dirt track. Once you round the final corner you are greeted with a number of open-sided shelters and surrounded by green farmland. We were instantly welcomed and offered a demonstration. As we walked towards one of the large sheds we passed the area used to store the glass used for making the beads.

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The process starts with the making of clay molds which are shaped, sun dried and fired. These molds must be coated in another white clay before the glass is added in order to prevent sticking, I guess it’s the Teflon coating of the bead making world!

Old broken antique beads are melted and reformed (bottom left above). Glass bottles are crushed in chunks and melted down to make glass beads (top left image). Glass is pounded into a power then dyed and shaped (middle bottom). These beads are often layers of power to create a pattern or after firing they decorated further with more powdered glass. This requires a second firing and the end result almost feels like ceramic.

The firing process is carried out in something that resembles a pizza oven. The oven is made from clay taken from old termite mounds and the heat simply controlled by adding or removing wood at the back. The beads have to melted then worked quickly by hand to shape the hole, then left to cool.

Once cooled, the beads are washed with sand to remove the not stick clay coating, and left to dry in the sun. Finally they are ready to be turned into beautiful jewelry for sale in their onsite shop. There is also a Cedi Bead shop on the main road between Tema and the Volta region. Despite it’s rather humble appearance Cedi Beads actually ship worldwide although on a relatively small scale. Since they are made by hand each piece is unique and having now visited the factory twice I am obsessed with making my own beaded jewelry, are you tempted ?

The sinister side of Ghana’s fishing Industry

Ghana’s coast is lined with fishing villages large and small. Fish are big business, and one of Ghana’s biggest export commodities, earning about 318 million US dollars in 2014. As well as salt water fishing, the largest man made reservoir in the world, Lake Volta – which covers 8500 square kilometers – is also lined with many fishing villages.

At some point in Ghana’s history certain religious rituals were developed in connection with fishing. To this day fishermen observe Tuesday as a sacred day and their day of rest, or use the time for repairs. It is forbidden to sell fresh fish at the market on a Tuesday. In the past this was enforced with penalties, but perhaps more worrying were the stories shared of the River and Sea Gods who would bring to the individual and community frightful disasters, such as gales and drowning. It is also believed that wearing shoes or cooking fish on the beach will drive the fish away, although some younger generations are now flouting these taboos. No one knows how long these beliefs will last but for now fishermen are called to account by tribal leaders if they are found to be breaking these traditions.

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Ocean fishing usually involves wooden canoes, built by hand in the forest regions of Ghana. These are either rowed by hand, or if finances allow, powered by a small outboard motor. Nets are cast and the canoes rowed back to shore. Large groups of people will then manually pull the nets onshore, usually with some singing and cheering.

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At first glance this is a bright, bustling and colourful business. However, according to authorities Ghana’s thriving fishing industry is primarily powered by as many as 50,000 children, a significant proportion of which have been sold and trafficked for slave labour.

In 1966 the Akosombo dam was completed and 8000 square kilometers of fertile land was flooded to create the Volta reservoir. Many trees suddenly became partially submerged underwater and consequently died. Their pale stumps now rise from the water like some sort of tree graveyard. These stumps pose a big problem to fishermen because their nets become tangled and caught on the branches underwater. Often the children are sent to dive down and free the nets, a process which can be deadly. In addition, many of the children are spending long hours in the water carry out back breaking work, are improperly cared for and not attending school. In 2013 ten were rescued from slavery, the youngest was just 5 years old.

The traffickers pray on poor families and the parents are told the children will receive an education in exchange for a few hours work. In reality they are probably doing 14 hour days with little food and no education.

Slavery is still a huge issue worldwide and although Ghana may have moved on the days of Trans Atlantic slave trade, these smaller pockets of slavery still exist, both in fishing and mining. If you want to help, take a look at Free The Slaves.

Cape Three Points

Being a tourist in Ghana requires a certain amount of determination, enthusiasm and sense of adventure. In fact most main stream travel guides ignore it altogether or offer it a mere mention. Lonely Planet allocates just 33 pages for the whole country in their West Africa guide book. So instead we turn to Bradt, whose author describes Ghana as an unpackaged destination, free from snappy happy coachloads. May favourite quote, however, explains that Ghana provides plenty of opportunity for whimsical exploration.

That seems to be a fairly accurate description of our visit to Cape Three Points. This little peninsula is Ghana’s most southerly point. It also boasts the prestige of being the closest piece of land to where the meridian and the equator intersect. We were staying at Lou Moon lodge for the weekend, just 25km from Cape Three Points as the crow flies, so I figured why not ask our driver, Stephen, to take us there.

Not really knowing the area he stopped to ask for directions. We were advised to drive to Agona and soon after leaving the town we stopped again for directions. We continued until we found the right hand turn following a hand written sign towards Cape Three Points. This is where the road turned to dirt and the 4 wheel drive had to be engaged. I knew this unsurfaced section was 25km long from the Bradt Guide, but I had no idea it would take a full hour to travel that distance. The road was badly rutted from rainfall and progress was painfully slow at times.

We bounced slowly from village to village, passing pedestrians carrying their produce on their heads, or trotro’s (local minbuses) rattling along the pothole-ed road. If this road was bouncy in our 4 wheel drive I can only imagine how uncomfortable a trotro must be! We passed a rubber plantation with rows of breeze block houses for the workers and eventually, after driving through many small villages, we reached the Cape Three Points village. A young boy on a bicycle pointed us towards the lighthouse and we passed an ominously closed ‘Tourist Service Centre’.

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We then climbed a final steep section of even more basic track, wondering if we might have to get out and walk, before popping out next to the lighthouse. From the description in the guidebook I had expected something a little more grand…… The little lighthouse, built in 1925, sits 30m above the sea with sheer rocks falling away. A rather tired looking directional sign points out significant locations around the world and their distances, we couldn’t help but spot Singapore pointing out across the Atlantic Ocean.

The fact that we had driven for two hours, one of which was along this bouncy, slow road to reach this ‘attraction’ made me burst out laughing. After a few minutes the caretaker appeared from his house nearby and sat to chat before announcing the rain was near. Sure enough within 10 minutes there was a loud clap of thunder and the rain started. We hurried back to the car to tackle the dirt road in the rain, slipping and sliding even with 4 wheel drive.

As we reversed our two hour journey back to the lodge I couldn’t help but compare the trip to our recent visit to South Africa where we visited a similar attraction, the Cape of Good Hope. Here we parked our car and walked past many bus loads before climbing to the lighthouse. Near the top I almost couldn’t move for people and didn’t even bother with a picture of the directional sign since it was surrounded by everyone posing for their photograph.

Our visit to Cape Three Points may have been a four hour round trip epic, but the Bradt travel guide is right, it was free from snappy happy coach loads and ideal for the genuinely independent minded traveler!

Unfortunately these whimsical adventures do leave Stephen with a little car cleaning!

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Understanding South Africa

To understand the South Africa of today I felt the need to delve into its past and attempt to summarise a very complicated history!

When the first Europeans arrived in South Africa, the Portuguese, they paid little interest in the Cape, although they can be credited with providing the name, Cape of Good Hope in 1487. In 1647 a Dutch vessel became marooned in the water near Cape Town. Retreating to land to build a fort for protection, they waited a full year for rescue, inadvertently becoming the first European settles. Soon after, the Dutch settled in the Cape, although even at this time they restricted contact with the local people. Instead the Dutch East India Company dispatched their own people to farm the land. Most of these people were of Dutch decent accompanied by some Germans and later by the French Huguenots (who fled persecution due to their protestant beliefs). When we visited Franschhoek (French corner) these French roots are widely celebrated, we even stayed within the Chamonix wine estate. Later generations of these Europeans became known as the Boers (wandering farmers).

What the Dutch did next had a huge impact on the future racial makeup on South Africa. They began importing slaves, mainly from Madagascar and Indonesia. Over time these slaves, the local indigenous people, and the Europeans began to mix. Their offspring form the basis of South Africa’s coloured population. It might be worth noting that coloured is a perfectly acceptable term in South Africa. In fact in Ghana people are also referenced by their skin colour, it’s no different from saying the blonde woman or the thin man.

When the British arrived to take the Cape from the failing Dutch in the late 18th century they also took along 5000 British settlers, adding another dynamic to the Cape’s white population. Later, between 1860 and the early 20th century, 150,000 Indians arrived, some as slaves and some by free passage. The white settlers saw themselves as superior and took land and jobs where they saw fit. The Boers became insular people, isolated farmers, believing it was their duty to the Lord to rule over the black South Africans. Much later decedents of the Boers became known as Afrikaans.

Moving forward to 1910 and Britain signed the Act of the Union, bringing together various areas to create the Union of South Africa, still ruling in favour of the white population. The Afrikaans found themselves as poor farmers and a nationalist movement began, rejecting English as an official language and campaigning for full independence from the British. With these ideals the National Party (NP) was born in 1914.

To consider the Act of the Union, in 2016, seems crazy. The white people of South Africa made up 20% of the population yet they were given 90% of the land and this was done by simply evicting people from the land on which they lived. Yet the black population could not vote unless they owned land, thus creating a Catch-22 situation.

The British had promised freedom from Boer slavery but it was pure propaganda. A raft of laws were passed preventing the black and coloured population from going on strike or taking skilled jobs. With growing suppression of anyone who wasn’t white the African National Congress was formed in 1923, their goal at this time – to represent the black population of South Africa.

It was in 1948 that the National Party won a coalition vote and Apartheid, meaning being apart, was born. An already prominent separation between the races was legislated. Interracial marriages became illegal, separate beaches, buses, hospitals, schools, even park benches were established. Blacks and coloureds were forced to carry identity documents at all times and were prevented entering certain areas without permits. They were also not allowed to vote.

Apartheid fired up the previously conservative ANC into action along with other similar bodies. By 1960 racial tensions had reached a head and at a protest in Sharpsville police opened fire on protesters, 67 people were killed and 186 wounded, many shot in the back. Many saw this as a turning point, a clear indication of the way South Africa was being ruled.

Growing tensions and protests from the ANC resulted in a raft of new laws which ultimately led to the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and seven others. The decades that followed, with the ANC underground and much of the movement in prison, are sometimes referred to as the decades of darkness. Apartheid only grew stronger, most notably with the development of the homeland areas. These areas were supposed to allow the black community to live together as self-sufficient, self-governing entities. The reality was many people crammed into a small area which could not supply enough food and with no infrastructure or industry, many fled to the city where the situation was only marginally better.

On the approach into Cape Town today shanty towns can be seen off the main road. Row upon row of small corrugated sheet metal houses are lined up terrace style. So small and fragile, you might wonder if they are temporary, but you will see electricity pylons line the area, and satellite dishes are dotted around. I wonder if this image might not be so far removed from the homelands of the 70s.

In the 80s, with the white population shrinking to around 16%, it was recognised that things would have to change. It wasn’t until 1990 however that Mandela and other political prisoners were freed, 27 years after his incarceration. By 1991 apartheid was officially abolished. In 1993/4 a new constitution was written with constitutional rights for all groups. The new ‘Rainbow’ flag of South Africa was raised and Nelson Mandela became the first black head of state and the first President elected by a fully represented democratic election.

The 20 years that have followed haven’t exactly been smooth. Issues of crime, corruption and racial tensions are still prevalent. People convicted of criminal acts in the fight for democracy remained imprisoned long after the political prisoners were freed. Let’s hope that the Rainbow nation can continue to move forward in a positive way and perhaps eventually tackle those issues that still remain.

Our trip to southern South Africa was wonderful. With stunning landscapes, wildlife in abundance, lovely people and excellent food and wine. I would love to see more and ultimately, understand more about this beautiful country.