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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This was published in the August 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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