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Harvesting the sea, with Seine nets off Ghana


Every year thousands of young Europeans take volunteer placements in exotic Third World countries. It is a rich and rewarding experience but, in the few short months, sometimes it is hard to really integrate into the life of the host country. Christian Cummins, who worked as a volunteer journalist in West Africa, was obsessed with discovering the “real Ghana” but that is more easily said than done. Here is an excerpt from his memoir A West African Summer.

It was a hot, muggy evening and I was sitting with a fellow volunteer called Jake on the thatched terrace of a “spot bar” in the Accra suburb of Teshie, a sprawl of shacks that line the coastal road that runs tight along the grey Gulf of Guinea. We were each sipping from a giant green bottle of Star beer, saying little and sweating a lot. The bar, called Generation Game, was an informal drinking-hole; a squat block of concrete, but it was a great place to sit after work because our Ghanaian friends from the neighbourhood would pop in and share the local gossip with us – stories of petty corruption or domestic quarrels or unfair bosses that, as a journalist, I lapped up as “local colour”.

That night one of my favourite Teshie locals, Pepsi, turned up and joined our table. Pepsi, a barrel chested, gentle 20-year old, who was cultivating a slash of a moustache, made ends meet by doing a series of odd-jobs in the neighbourhood, including helping out in a mechanics workshop. That night he made my day, indeed week, by inviting Jake and I to join him on a trip home to his rural village, Kedzi, at the weekend.

We agreed immediately. Pepsi proudly told me that his grandfather had been the chief of the village and all three of us would stay at his grandfather’s house and meet his extended family. Now I really felt I was making inroads into Ghanaian culture.

Somehow I’d got the impression that his village was on Lake Volta, the 200 kilometre long manmade colossus that I was desperate to see. Jake and I walked home very excited, smugly telling the other volunteers over dinner of our future adventure, boasting of our cultural integration. Staying at the house of a village chief! Ha! I felt I deserved a reward for the five hours I`d spend joining a fire and brimstone church service with Pepsi the previous weekend. The rest of the volunteers: Andrew, Peter, Anna and Jo were going to Ada, a village by the coast with a beach and a guesthouse. They’d probably just eat, drink and splash in the sea – how superficial! Now I was Pepsi’s new best friend, such weekend plans seemed very touristy to me. I’m afraid I was horribly conceited about it. I had romantic visions of myself as a sort of 21st Century Rimbaud and I felt a trip to an authentic village was right up my street, although often after work I could be swimming lengths in the pool at the four-star Novotel in central Accra, a luxury that rather scraped at my carefully constructed image.

We set off early on Friday after work, catching a tro-tro, one of the minibuses that served as public transport, from the transport depot in central Accra and then changing somewhere out in the country in a flat landscape of tall grass, scrubby brush and red dirt. Fat women were squatting in front of a high wire fence selling tomatoes piled into elaborate pyramids. We didn’t even look at where the tro-tros were headed because Pepsi had taken charge. He bundled us into another crammed-full bus and we were off.

When we got to Kedzi, it was very dark. There were few lights in the village and it was almost pitch-black as we walked from the bus stop down a causeway to the houses Everyone greeted Pepsi and he introduced them all either as his “brother” or as his “sister”. At first I thought he was speaking figuratively – many of my friends in Accra called me “brother” as a sign of affection but later Pepsi proudly told me that his grandfather had had 96 children with various wives. It was hard to work out the exact relations. In Ghana, I’d been told, a male cousin might be referred to as brother if he was of a similar age or as an uncle if he was older.

The village was surrounded on three sides by water so that the village was perched on a tiny peninsula. Pepsi introduced us to one of his uncles and we all ate a simple dinner of potatoes roasted on a brazier in a small hut on the beach. The front of the hut was open and the rich sea breeze blew in. Grandly, I announced that I was paying the bill for everyone. It came to 5,000 cedis – the equivalent of 50 pence for a meal for four people.

We never met the grandfather. He had died the previous November and we were the first people to sleep in his house since. We slept in a bare room on three sleeping mats. There was a stump in the compound. A tree is planted when a new chief is pronounced and when he dies it’s felled.

When we woke, we walked down to the beach. We were amazed at how big the waves were on the lake. But Pepsi insisted it was the Gulf of Guinea. Then our mistake dawned on us. We weren’t on Lake Volta; we were in the Volta Region on the coast east of Accra. Kedzi was a fishing village on the Keta lagoon. We were at least a hundred and fifty miles from where I had thought we were.

A long line on men on either side of the beach looked like they were engaged in a game of tug of war with the sea. They were seine fishing, dragging a net up onto the beach that had been set in the shallows near the beach by a team in a canoe. The net was weighed down with lead sinkers so it dragged along the muddy seabed. The two teams that were now pulling the ropes were trawling the shallows, bringing the fish up onto the beach. There were at least two hundred metres between the two lines. Around twenty men and boys were pulling each of the ropes and they were all leaning back and digging their bare feet into the sand. One taller man had sat down on the beach as he pulled and some of the fishermen had a piece of cloth in their hands which they had wrapped around their part of the rope to prevent the friction burning them. They sang as they pulled. The water of the Gulf, usually brown or grey, was glinting blindingly in the low sun of the early morning.

A man clinging to the rope nearest to us, made one hand free and, smiling, beckoned us over. He spoke a few words in Fante with Pepsi who told us we should join the line. Jake and I took hold of the cord at the back of line and pulled with all our might. The fishermen in front kept looking over their shoulders to grin at us. One teenage boy lost his footing and fell over backwards, still holding on to the rope. The plan was that we keep pulling backwards, working down the rope and getting nearer and nearer to the net. Gradually the two lines would be moved closer together and higher up the beach until the trapped fish, mostly herrings and anchovies but sometimes fish as big as barracuda, could be gathered in one big pile. I wanted to see the fish being brought in, but Pepsi said the whole process might take a few more hours. We had been pulling for 20 minutes and I was already sweaty in the early morning sun.

We walked into the sandy village. It was a maze of wooden shacks huddled closely together against the sea breeze. The shacks were simple but quite new. Pepsi took us to the small village store to buy a bottle of locally brewed gin and some bottles of Coca-Cola to present to the new village chief as a sign of respect. We drank the gin with the chief and he threw a shot into the red-earth for his ancestors and then all the Ghanaians did a shuffling sort of dance. Europeans didn’t visit the village very often at all and the chief seemed genuinely delighted to see us. We moved a couple of doors down into the village to visit Pepsi’s grandmother who had cooked us some fiery fish stew made of tomatoes, peppers and tiny fresh anchovies.

As I say, Jake and I felt very smug at having seen the “real Africa”, but felt more than a little foolish that afternoon when Pepsi took us to the local beach. It was Ada, the resort where the rest of our group had gone for the weekend. Jake and I, the self-anointed adventurers, had only been 5 km away from a major tourist site that featured in every guide book. Our friends were all there swigging the local gin that they had bought from some tribesmen who had illicitly brewed it on an island in the estuary. It had been known to turn men blind, announced Andrew proudly, pouring himself another glass and inviting us to sit down at their table and politely showing neither surprise nor scorn that, after all our snotty superiority, we`d turned up and hijacked their weekend. Jake, Pepsi and I hired a beach hut for the three of us and then we ate and drank and splashed in the water with the rest of the crew. Touristy things, I decided, were quite fun after all.

This author has just cycled round Uganda. Take a look at his excellent video diary here.

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