Wednesday, 28 November 2012


Compared to its neighbours, Ghana gets good press. It’s widely praised for its solid economic growth, stable democracy and rapidly developing infrastructure. As Barack Obama said on his recent visit, ‘Ghana continues to be a good-news story’.

Living in the capital, and sticking mainly to the well-polished tourist trails, it’s easy to get an overwhelmingly positive view of this friendly country. But delve a little deeper and the familiar African themes of poverty, injustice and inequality persist.

Land acquisitions in Africa have rightly attracted considerable controversy. In many countries, land is taken away from local people and sold or leased to investors from rich countries who speculate on it on global markets; or to foreign companies who use African land to grow food for their own populations, or even biofuels for their cars.

Prairie Volta Rice Ltd.
I travelled to Mafi Dove district, on the south side of the Volta River, to research an article about a large land acquisition project for rice production. Quaysie, a friend who comes from the Volta region, offered to drive and translate from Ewe, the local language.

Prairie Volta Rice Ltd, the US-backed company behind the project, leases around 3,000 hectares near the river, which is used to irrigate the rice. But I had read that the crop is not for exporting; rather, it is for sale on the local market, in an effort to reduce the country’s massive dependence on imports (which cost around $450million a year). This sounds more positive than schemes; I tried to keep an open mind as we arrived at their office and processing plant in Aveyime.

Richard, the manager showed us around and openly talked about the controversial start to the project. The company rents the land from the Ghanaian government, who ‘acquired’ the land in the 1970s without paying local landowners any compensation – still a source of much anger in the villages surrounding the rice farm.

The company’s position is that compensation is not their responsibility; Richard was keen to talk instead about how they were donating computers and equipment to nearby schools and hospitals. And how they were employing local people and providing farming machinery for local use at reduced rates. Maybe this land scheme was being done differently; it was hard not to be impressed.

Quaysie with the rice farmers
Until we met the rice farmers who work for the company: they told a very different story. No pay for two months. No fuel to power the shiny tractors that stood idle in the fields. I asked them about the donations made to local schools and hospitals: “That is a lie. It is not happening.”

They suggested we went to meet the land-owning villagers, so we drove along the dirt road to the village of Bakpa-Kebenu. As we pulled up, I was surprised to see the villagers all sat in a circle on plastic chairs. 

“Do they always sit about like this?” I asked Quaysie.
“No, the farmers called ahead that we were coming,” he replied. “They have called a village meeting.”

Mobile phones really do reach every corner of the continent; I blushed at my patronising ignorance.

Village meeting
With Quaysie translating, the village chief told me the catalogue of woes his people have endured. There has been government corruption – only those who voted for the incumbent party got compensation for their land; the rest got nothing. Many subsistence farmers from his village have had their crops damaged by the chemicals the company sprays by plane on the rice fields. And they have little way of fighting back. “When the government is involved, who do we complain to?”
We spent half an hour in the village, listening to their stories and the way they had been treated. The circle of faces all focused on me, unsmiling, almost accusing. And as I got up to say goodbye, the chief asked: what would I do to help? I apologetically promised to deliver copies of the magazine when the article was published, knowing it would have little if any impact.

But as we left, the stern expressions gave way instantly to warm smiles, waves and an insistence on photos with the chief and the elders. Despite the hardships faced and my nosing about, looking for a story rather than a way to help, the people were as friendly as Ghanaians always are to strangers.

Meeting the chief
Having chased some stray chickens out from under the car, we set off along the road once more. We passed the rice farmers again, still sat with nothing to do. Alongside them sat the armed soldier who spends each day with there, chatting and smoking. He’s there to make sure no one steals the rice from the fields – a clear example of the warped priorities of the rice company. As one of the farmers said: “They pay him to guard the rice; why can’t they just pay us for our land?”

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Boti Falls

Campaigning in Koforidua
Some itches just need to be scratched. The Ghana Mountaineers' first river hike was fun, but a thunderstorm prevented us making it all the way from Akaa Falls to Boti Falls. This was a wrong that needed righting; we set off once more on the road to Koforidua.

Street marches are a common sight in Ghana at present, as people pledge allegiance to one party or another ahead of December’s election. They are noisy, colourful spectacles and are a welcome sign of the country’s stable democracy: there are few countries in this part of the world where opposing supporters could march peacefully in the same town. But when you are trying to make progress, they are a pain; having been delayed, we opted to start halfway through the previous route and head straight for the River Pom-pom.
Stephen in the water

After dropping quickly to the riverside, it became clear who was here last time. Those in the know pulled sandals or trainers from backpacks; the rest stared at the water. “Do we actually walk in the river?” Did you not see the pictures from last time, people? Yes, in the river. And for quite a long way.

And so we recommenced with the fun and games: slipping on rocks; watching butterflies; juggling to prevent cameras falling into the murky water; and trying not to think about all the water-borne tropical diseases that fill the health section of the Bradt guide to Ghana.

A snake
We ploughed on past our escape point from the last walk, certain that the falls must be somewhere up ahead but unsure exactly how far. In a deeper section of the river, Elena spotted a snake curled around a branch overhead. After some careful backpack shuffling, I managed to take a picture. Waist-deep in water, with a snake less than a metre above me – surely my most adventurous photo yet in Ghana.

After 2.5 hours of wading, and with wet shorts chafing and exposed ankles bruised by the rocks, the novelty had nearly worn off. Maybe those absent mountaineers with “prior engagements” had been right all along – where’s the fun in river hiking? And then we saw it through the trees – the twin drops of Boti Falls, crashing down ahead.  

We sped along the final few metres – past the rubbish dump that is obligatory at every beauty spot in Ghana – to reach our destination. Despite being soaked already, the cold water in the falls’ plunge pool was a welcome respite from the midday heat. Over two attempts, we had coped with thunderstorms, drunk guides, local kids latching onto us, ripped toenails, myriad cuts, bangs and bruises, and even snakes;* ours was surely the most well-earned dip ever in Boti Falls.

Done it!
* O.K., maybe just one snake. But there could have been others.

Saturday, 24 November 2012


Malachite kingfisher
It’s tough being a pied kingfisher in Ghana. These striking black and white birds were the first sighting on our morning bird walk. But the ten or so perched proudly on a wooden frame were quickly usurped by a showier relative. A burst of brilliant blue, with a flash of bright orange from its beak: a malachite kingfisher, darting across the water, quickly drew the focus of cameras and binoculars.

Sorting the morning catch
Samuel and David, our guides from Birdlife International and the Ghana Wildlife Society respectively, had arranged permission to explore the private grounds of Pambros salt ponds, in Accra’s western suburbs. Security was still tight, though, leading to the unusual sight of a birdwatching group having an armed guard.

Even this failed to perturb the women who were sorting and gutting fish caught in the salt ponds. They smiled as we walked past, with the familiar Ghanaian expression of amusement at what these foreigners think passes for fun at 7.00am on a Saturday.

As we headed slowly along the path, discussions typical of a birdwatching group took place. A debate on the different Dutch and English names for the whimbrel; a bit of lens-envy at some of the impressive camera equipment on show; a discussion of whether that hornbill was actually a cormorant.
Fishing on the delta

The salt ponds have undoubtedly changed the landscape here, with vast areas of the wetland bordered off and cleared of vegetation. But this has apparently had little impact on the populations or diversity of birds. Behind the salt ponds lies the Densu Delta, which enters the sea near Bojo Beach, and this provides a rich source of food and shelter.

The day’s tick-list filled quickly as we neared the end of the path. Reef herons sat in the delta bushes, while cormorants dried their wings in the sun. Black-winged stilts waded gracefully through the shallow water, fishing alongside sandpipers and redshanks. And on the sandbank just before us, the pied kingfishers dived back and forth, hoping to finally get their moment of glory.

Pambros salt ponds

Tuesday, 20 November 2012


Wildlife lovers visiting Ghana are likely to head for the elephants at Mole, one of the monkey sanctuaries, or perhaps along the coast to try and spot a turtle. But every night, an amazing natural spectacle takes place right in the centre of Accra. And most people, locals and visitors alike, are oblivious to it.

Actually, scratch that; most people must be simply indifferent. The traders selling snacks at the ‘37’ military hospital cannot fail to notice the straw-coloured fruit bats roosting in the trees above them. The animals’ chattering is loud enough to drown out the traffic at this busy intersection. And at 6.00pm every evening, as the sun sets, they fly off in their thousands to feed in the fruit trees north of the city.

Bats at sunset (you can just make them out)
The question is: why do they live along one of Accra’s noisiest, most polluted roads, and not among the trees where they feed each night? I asked a woman selling fruit outside the hospital gates. 

She told me that the bats were the chosen guards of a great Akyem chief from the Eastern region. When he fell ill and was taken to the hospital, these loyal guards followed him there. Alas, the poor chap didn’t make it, so never left the hospital – and the bats have remained at ‘37’ ever since.

Now there are clearly a few flaws in this story. Firstly, if he really was a ‘great chief’, then why did he choose bats as his guards? And if these bats were clever enough to be guards, then would one of them not have worked out what had happened and broken it gently to the others?

Roosting bats
Still, the Lonely Planet says it’s important to respect other people’s beliefs, so I smiled, nodded and left her to her business. She seemed neither bothered nor interested in the bats. And although there have been some efforts to remove them, most people seem happy to let them be.

But I know at least one other person who appreciates them: for Ethan, the 4-year-old son of two friends in Accra, bats overhead means “it’s time for bed”. Swap ‘bed’ for ‘beer’ and I am with him; the Accra bats provide a spectacular reminder to clock off for the day.