There’s something exciting about a border. Beyin, a scruffy village just a few miles from Ivory Coast, is similar to most of Ghana’s coastal settlements. But as we travelled to the country’s southwest corner, it felt more adventurous and exciting than our previous trips to the beach.
The tro-tro from Takoradi had taken four hours, along a red dirt road covered intermittently with sections of crumbling tarmac roads. Large signs promised new roads and more once the oil infrastructure starts to develop in the region. How many of these promises are realised remains to be seen, but for now the journey was typical of Ghana – cramped, bumpy and long.
|Beyin beach resort|
And so with dusty faces and dry throats, we arrived at Beyin Beach Resort. Friendly owners, comfortable wooden chalets, a pied kingfisher squeaking away … another entry on the list of Ghana’s fine eco-lodges. The cool weather of the rainy season meant the resort’s narrow beach was empty, but we hadn’t come to lounge about on the sand. Near to Beyin is Nzulezo, a village built on stilts and one of Ghana’s most popular and heavily promoted tourist attractions.
Nzulezo lies a few kilometres from Beyin, out in the Amansuri wetland. The villagers are not fisherfolk, but farmers. Many of the villagers travel up to 8km a day by canoe to reach their farms on the northern side of the lake. So why do they live in a wetland? The most popular theory of many that abound (no one seems to know for sure) is that their tribe was chased south during a war in the Ashanti region and, rather than keep fleeing, they opted for the perfect hiding place – the middle of the wetland.
Our guide met us at the departure point, near the flooded village football pitch. He gave me a paddle to help propel our dugout canoe along a channel that was recently dug out to connect Nzulezo with Beyin. Previously, people travelling to the market and children going to school – secondary pupils in Nzulezo travel to Beyin each day by canoe – had to walk some of the distance in the dry season, adding considerable time to their journey. The channel was built using the revenue from tourism – one of the many benefits the villagers have seen from their daily stream of visitors.
|Mending fishing traps|
The canoe journey was wonderfully serene. We passed through tall reeds and small patches of overgrown swamp forest, before the channel opened out into the vast Amansuri Lake. Small birds flitted above the reeds, while others hid on the water, giving themselves away only by their occasional calls.
Eventually we reached Nzulezo and, after tying up the canoe, climbed on to the wooden platforms and buildings that all rest on poles driven into the lake. And it immediately became clear that we weren’t really welcome. As our guide took us along the main central platform, all the adults of Nzulezo – whether eating, working or sitting with friends – ignored us. This was an unusual experience; everywhere else in Ghana, people will smile, wave and say hello to strangers especially white people, even when busy with daily tasks. But in Nzulezo, only the children were friendly, shouting, laughing and posing for photos.
Tourism must cause conflicting emotions in Nzulezo. It has brought considerable benefits; as well as construction of the channel, income from tourism has paid for two school classrooms and funds the salaries of the village’s three primary school teachers.
|Nzulezo high street|
And yet it is clear that the villagers are tired of the daily intrusion, an endless line of people traipsing through their village, photographing, staring, pointing. The tours are run sensitively – several signs instruct visitors to ask permission before photographing people – but there is no indication of whether everyone in Nzulezo has a say in how tourism is run, or if everyone benefits.
After an awkward visit to the school – our schoolteacher guide stared over our shoulder, giving one-word answers to our few questions – we headed back to Beyin. The wetland was even captivating in the late afternoon. Villagers checked their woven fish traps, while children on their way back from school by canoe waved as they passed us. Women returning from market glided past, their jerry cans empty, meaning they had sold all the home brewed gin. Despite the daily disturbance from tourists, the people of Nzulezo should at least take comfort from the fact they have one of the world’s most scenic daily commutes.