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Ghana and the sacred lake

  • Written by  Sarah Begum
  • Published in Explorers
Lake Bosomtwe was formed when a meteor impacted in West Africa Lake Bosomtwe was formed when a meteor impacted in West Africa Sarah Begum
13 Aug
2018
During her time in Ghana, Sarah Begum experienced the lives of a community that surrounds one of the world’s few lakes situated in an ancient meteor impact crater

Approximately one million years ago, a meteor hit West Africa, causing the impact to form a 6.5-mile wide crater in the depths of Ghana. Long periods of heavy rainfall transformed this crater into a natural meteoric lake – Lake Bosomtwe, now listed as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and considered sacred by the communities that call its shoreline home.

I’d long wanted to explore the different facets of life of its 30 or so villages, a journey that took me to Kumasi, the second largest city in Ghana and home to the Ashanti tribe. A jerky, 30km southeast drive from this ancient capital, and my team and I were surrounded by rainforest and wildlife indigenous to the region, including lesser spot-nosed monkeys, marsh mongooses, red-chested cuckoos and white crested hornbills.

Driving deeper into the mountains, we traversed the remote villages, silent but for our presence as we passed through. I was mesmerised. Eventually, the landscape burst into a billion shades of blue as Lake Bosomtwe appeared – five miles wide and 81m deep, enclosed by a layer of trees and steep hills which rise to a height of 1,200 feet above sea level.

ghana map

The southernmost portion of this site overlaps the northern section of the Bosomtwe Forest Reserve producing a myriad of forest, wetland and mountain ecosystems; all contributing to the conservation of vital biodiversity. Minerals from the lake’s volcanic birth – quartz, glass, rutile, tourmaline, hornblende, and reddish-brown garnet – sparkled in the pools lit by the early morning sun. We left the car and I walked closer to meet my reflection rippling on the surface, catching the odd glimpse of fish passing by.

Living by the lake is one of the few matrilineal societies in West Africa and the largest tribe in Ghana – the Ashanti. Abono has a population of 50,000 and there are a further 21 communities clustered around the lake, which are all reliant upon a combination of fishing, farming and tourism.

fishingAlthough fishing boats are not allowed on the lake, locals find inventive ways to get around the restrictions (Image: Sarah Begum)

Crouched down ankle-deep in the waterhole was a woman washing clothes, an empty bucket floating beside her. Her four children, between the ages of four and eight, were engaged in their daily chores; the younger of the two swimming away, their heads turned to a dog barking somewhere off in the distance. Sturdy branches stuck out of the pool, their roots submerged in the crater. Wooden planks lined up inside the edge of the lake; peduas – the traditional mode of navigation used for fishing. Fishermen were scattered about, their nets ready for a catch.

Once acquainted with the chief of the village, for 300 cedis (£60) I was taken to a wooden, engine-powered boat. It is taboo to fish on the lake from a boat – hence the plank-like peduas (see Ancient Beliefs, below), but it was apparently okay to at least use a boat to get about on the waters and this unspoken dichotomy between ancient traditions and modern-day income was indicative of the main struggles the Abono face as a community; unemployment rates are high, teenage pregnancies are frequent and the youth have packed up schooling in exchange for the money they make from tourism. When some youngsters finish school, they venture out into bigger towns to sell chewing gum, polythene bags and whatever else they can in the middle of the bustling traffic because they cannot afford tuition fees for higher education.

ANCIENT BELIEFS
According to legend, around 360 years ago, a foreign hunter from the village of Asaman discovered Lake Bosomtwe when he shot an antelope and followed its blood trails to the lake. The Ashanti believe the game vanished into the deep, blue waters revealing an abundance of edible fish. This is how the lake  was named Bosomtwe – derived from the Twi words Obosum (fetish) and Otwe (duiker or small antelope). Traditional beliefs claim the souls of the dead come here to bid farewell to the god Asase Ya. For these reasons, it is taboo to fish in the lake with a boat, iron fish-hooks, fishing lines or seine nets and women on their menstrual cycle are forbidden to go near the water.

Green pastures faded into the distance as we approached the lake shore. My stomach ached with hunger as the scent of smoked fish drifted from to a woman setting up her food shack. Serwa had been trading as a fishmonger for more than 15 years, but recently she’s struggled to keep the business afloat due to the scarcity of fish in the lake caused from overfishing. I offered my assistance to help with lunch duties; sitting on a stool with 30 cedis (£6) worth of tilapia caught fresh that morning, I scaled the fish and deep fried it in oil, cooking in a pan on an open fire stove for a few minutes until both sides were done, then tossed it into a basket ready to sell.

As well as fishing, farming is a major source of income for the community, typical of most rural communities across the country. An hour’s trek from the lake through deep forest led to Awinnie’s Cocoa Kingdom. I had volunteered to work with Awinnie to harvest the cocoa. Armed with a long, thick, wooden stick we pushed it high into the treetops, prodding and poking at the ripe cocoa nuts dangling from the trees until they fell to the ground. Once enough had been collected, we wheeled the wagon full of raw chocolate treats and piled them up on a mountain made of hundreds more. Ghana is one of the world’s largest exporters of cocoa and Awinnie had been farming for 42 years, his cocoa plantation taking three years to grow before he could realise his first harvest. He recounted how business was good for the first five years but that today he cannot harvest as much as he used to because he doesn’t have enough money to buy fertilisers. The previous government had offered to supply such farmers with free fertiliser, but due to Awinnie’s remote location they never reached him. When he embarked on a lengthy trek to fetch his share, he was turned away as supplies had run out.

fishSarah Begum

Back at the lake, baskets had been filled to the brim with different species of fish; tilapia, paripari, kaenbre, apatre fufuo and komfo. I couldn’t leave without fishing on one of the traditional pedua wooden planks so I joined a local fisherman, Aloma, who showed me the ropes. Our pedua was taken off its rack and placed in the water, I climbed onto it, my legs sinking beneath the surface. Armed with plastic cards, our paddling synchronised across the lake, the waves breaking against us as we steered towards the centre of the crater.

Aloma has never left the lake in his 47 years. He spends his time hiking through thick brambles and bushes in search of palm branches, which he cuts into small pieces to build fences. He then dives in to the water to place them, tying ropes around the fence to create a ‘fishing zone’ where locals can then trap fish in their metal baskets, wire mesh traps, gill nets or cast nets.

The lake produces more fish between August and September, but in the winter season, it’s a more difficult task. Aloma sells his merchandise to the fishmonger who distributes her stock to Kumasi and, once sold out, returns to Abono to repeat the process. Alomo’s survival depends on this trade. Concerned about the future, he wants to see government policies aimed at developing the trade in the Lake Bosomtwe fishery.

awinnieSarah talks with Awinnie about the diminishing state of his cacao business (Image: Sarah Begum)

We paddled to the lake’s centre, dragging baskets in the waters. Ten minutes later I felt resistance and saw bubbles erupted on the surface. Aloma squealed in delight, lifting the net to reveal the prized catch – tilapia.

Returning to the lakeside, I took a walk along the shore to investigate the seedlings sprouting in the area. The booming population in the area had been chopping down more and more of the trees around the lake to build houses and for fuel. The rapid deforestation was threatening the delicate balance of the lakeside ecology and the very existence of lake. Six years ago, a major initiative was launched to start planting new trees around the crater. The seedlings were a crucial step in protecting this unique environment. Hopefully the first of many such efforts.

EXPEDITION KIT

Knife
Deejo Tattoo 37G – Art Nouveau – Juniper
There are knives and there’s the Deejo Tattoo, as sharp as it is beautiful. When in the wild, it’s perfect for cutting through fruits, veg and meat, but it’s also a great conversation starter.

Multi-Tool Gadget
Leatherman MUT EOD
Locked onto my belt, I keep this gadget close to me wherever I go. Boasting several sharp edged and rugged blades, this 15-in-1 has everything you could possibly need.

Lens
Canon 24-105mm Zoom 
As much as I wanted several prime lenses, I preferred a zoom because it was much easier to carry and offered a fair range of shot sizes for my productions.

Light Source
Princeton Tec Apex 350 LED Headlamp
I could depend on this powerful light source when I needed to illuminate dark places from caves to rural houses.

Camera
Sony A7S Mk.II 
Robust, the A7S packs a punch for its relative small size, works well in low light conditions, and takes great video to boot.

Camera Bag
Belstaff Colonial Messenger
Able to fit my entire camera kit with space for survival tools and snacks in the outside pockets, I’ve escorted this beauty around all kinds of terrain from the deepest parts of the jungle to high in the mountains.

Backpack 
Celtic & Co Leather
Not your average expedition rucksack but perfect for any adventure. The cow leather was strong enough to combat all weather conditions.

Sunglasses
Bloc Eyewear Shadow W301S
State-of-the-art specs that provide much needed protection against the hot rays of Africa.

Walking Boots
Women’s Icon 6-inch Premium Timberland
Resilient in any terrain with waterproof shielding, these boots were extremely comfortable when trekking through wet conditions and running away from trouble.

Insect Repellent
Deet 50
A vital must-have in places where malaria is on the rise, Deet is your best friend. Keeps all sorts of nasties at bay, but make sure you get the max strength version! 

Fellow of the RGS-IBG, Sarah Begum has lived with indigenous tribes and immersed in their cultures from the Amazon jungles to the Atlas mountains, making documentaries about her experiences for various television networks. www.sarahbegum.tv

This was published in the August 2018 edition of Geographical magazine

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