There are many untold stories around and along the Volta lake and river. A mysterious one is the one about the
underwater forest in the Volta lake. Ofoe's photgraphy and short personal essay (incl. informal interviews) look at the implcations of flooding caused by the creation of the Volta Lake and Askosombo Dam.
I was awoken at 4:30am by the megaphone of the dawn preacher in Yeji port town. The air was full of the early fresh December harmattan chill. My thoughts drowned out the voice of the preacher as I could only think of the day ahead. I had about an hour and half before I was to set off to the place that had left a deep impression on my mind about two months before.
All I had was a location pin on my Google map to point me to where I needed to be on the Volta lake. My intended destination is tucked somewhere between Yeji port and Buipe, both located on the northernmost part of the Volta lake.
Within an hour Yeji was alive with daily activities. Market women setting up shops, buses loading to far away places such as Sege, Battor, Kasseh and Sogakope. The calls from the local PA system at the VIP bus station for passengers heading to my hometown, Ada, at the end of the Volta river where it meets the ocean, made me feel like I was closer to home even though home was 9 hrs away by bus.
By 6:00am I was with Dan who had a small “man of war'' type of boat which was supposed to do the job of taking us to my destination. We loaded my equipment and the fuel needed for the journey. We set off onto the Lake and towards the location my pin pointed. Dan and I immediately dove into conversation about the underwater forest of the Volta Lake which was the reason for our early morning voyage.
We had to speed on the water through poor visibility due to the Harmattan season. Also, the water levels were high (and would be like this until July of the following year). We could only see up to about 30m ahead of us. I asked Dan if the high water levels meant I wouldn’t see my topic of interest. He said we would have to see how far up stream we needed to go before we would see anything. We conversed some more about how the lake was formed. Dan remembered he was just a child when the flooding that expanded the Volta River happened.
Between the years 1962 and 1966, the freshly Independent Ghana, led by Osagyefo Dr. Kwame Nkrumah set out on a mission to build the Akosombo Hydroelectric Project. Amongst other purposes it was to open up the country to rapid industrialisation, and hence modern development. The proposed project was to be built on the Akosombo river to generate hydropower. The creation of the lake meant the flooding of a large area of forest which was approximately 850,000 hectares. This created the mysterious underwater forest of Volta Lake.
At first, I could only see a few, but as we sped further and further up the lake I started to see more. The tree tops of the underwater forest. At different locations of the vast lake we would see a cluster of tree tops sticking out of the water. Each one shriveled and dried due to exposure to the Sun. Each trunk poking out had a few dead branches pointing to the sky.
Each individual trunk carried a story of old as it extended its few branches towards the skies. As our small boat maneuvered around a few clusters of tree trunks under the careful direction of Dan I noticed there were fishing nets and traps tied to the dead branches. We were careful not to tear or cause any damage. We were helped by the guidance of yellow gallons which served as buoys to mark restricted areas. Dan and I continued further upstream and all I could do was wonder at the size of the Volta Lake in this part of the country as against the (now smaller in my eyes) Volta River in Ada where it enters the Ocean.
After three hours of speeding on the Lake through the mist of the harmattan, I could see in the distance branches sticking out of the calm water. The branches kept multiplying through the mist. Dan immediately slowed down as we started entering the forest of dead trees. The tree branches extended into each other above us as our boat slowly entered the mysterious space. As we went further in I couldn't help but appreciate the life thriving in this seemingly dead space. There were different types of birds, and with their chicks casually floating above the water through the trees.
The surreality and eeriness of the forest was amplified by the harmattan fog in the immediate surrounding, the happy chirping of birds or the slight movements of monitor lizards perfectly camouflaged on the dead trees.
I asked Dan if he knew how deep the water was and he answered that it was probably at least 15 meters deep at this particular place during the rainy season but is significantly lower during the low water level seasons. He further told me about the local divers who set traps at the bottom of the trees to catch fish. This is one of the fishing practices in that region.
I was motivated to get into the water to see if I could get a closer look at the forest. The water was very calm and felt cool against my skin as I snorkeled around the trees. My senses were heightened by the loud quietness that was the dominant feeling in the environment. Aside from the sounds of the birds, it felt like being in the midst of silent whisperers who held stories of times past. This feeling was physically replicated as an individual tree trunk would randomly move and naturally sway in the direction of the wind. With poor visibility I could only wonder about how far deep below me the trunks would meet the ground.
When I got out of the water and back on the boat, it dawned on me that we were in the middle of nowhere. We were sailing through the tree tops at least at 15m of their height which have been perfectly preserved by the water surrounding them.
As we set off to return to Yeji we met Tetteh on his boat casting his net. As we got closer to him I heard him speak Ada, my mother tongue, to his colleague, so I proceeded to converse with him in our comfort on this vast water.
Me: Why so far away from Ada?
Tetteh: My fathers came from Ningo to settle here because of our forefathers’ way of work.
Me: Work brings us together today.
Dan responds (in Damgbe as well): He is my colleague today.
Me: Can you tell me about those trees we just saw?
Tetteh: They are the trees of old before Nkrumah’s dam.
Me: Are they of any use to you?
Tetteh: Yes, my brother and I sometimes set our traps to catch fish when the water levels are low.
Me: I read it is estimated that each of the submerged ebony, teak, mahogany and other tropical hardwood trees could be worth $1,500 to $2,500, their value preserved by the lack of oxygen in the lake water, and the total harvest is estimated to be worth up to $3-billion.
Tetteh: I don’t know about this but we used to cut the trees to build our homes. The wood is really good.
Me: Did you know that in recent times there have been proposals by various corporate entities to harvest the submerged wood? There are various questions about the implications this would have on the environment. There is the opinion that harvesting this dead wood would save the government of Ghana the stress of depending on its living forests to meet the global demand for its wood. There have even been bids for the wood to be harvested to rebuild the burnt Notre Dame cathedral which was originally built with an estimated 1,300 trees, mainly oaks, felled in the 12th Century. Other opinions have argued that the harvesting of these dead trees would change the ecology of marine life which have found a home in these forests and also would affect fishing activities of local farmers.
Tetteh: Aside from serving as a home to birds and fish, when it's the rainy season and the big storms of the Volta come, the trees are life savers for us. Our small canoes can’t withstand the winds when we get caught in the storms. We tie our boats to these trees and climb into the branches until the rains stop. The trees have saved our lives countless times.
We bid each other farewell…
Back in Yeji the bright yellow Harmattan Sun was setting over a barely visible horizon; the day had come to an end. As I sat on the balcony of my lodge I wondered what stories those trees had to tell in their silence. Different thoughts ran through my mind about how far we go as humans to improve our existence and living standards and the footprints we leave behind in doing so.