Dumfo Kumfo, is a Ghanaian phrase that describes a thing that paradoxically benefits you and also threatens to hurt you. For generations, the Volta river has been a blessing for Ghanaians. But it has also been a curse too. In October 2022 the town of Buipe became the latest of Northern Ghanaian communities to experience a flood disaster borne from perennial dam spillage. The reporting in this photo essay is guided by the urgent need to make people visible, their lives visible, their livelihood visible and their voices heard. The work presents a multifaceted portrait of the everyday life and current realities of a town and its inhabitants.
-Jamaican Folk Song.
To be God is to be all—all-knowing, all-powerful, all over, giver & taker, alpha & omega. It is to pick out Utnapishtim, or to pick out Noah, and to say to him: I am about to bring on the flood. So, you shall build an ark. And into the ark you will go. With your small family and pairs of birds and animals. I am about to destroy my creation, and all you who go into the ark shall be saved from The Deluge. To be God is to bless and build and kill and destroy; to be dispenser of justice resident in a golden throne above all earth, water and accountability.
"We were there one day when some workers from Bui Dam—they came with military men, soldiers—came and told us that they would be opening one of the gates at the dam," Mohammed Muhazo, a 30 year old fisherman and cattle trader told me in the narrow porch of his father's house where he lives with his family. "They just told us that we should be careful with where we live because they would be opening one gate for two days."
By the next day, according to Mohammed, the water had started to approach. And within a few days, a complete watery encroachment of their compound, right up to their doorsteps.
What is it like to be at the mercy of something that nourishes you, while threatening to destroy you? The town of Buipe—situated on the banks of the Black Volta, and two towns away, to the east, from the White Volta—is between the waters. When the dam in Bui to the west opens its gates to preserve its “structural integrity,” the people of Buipe suffer. When the Bagre dam, to the northeast, in Burkina Faso releases excess water from its overflowing dam, the people of Buipe suffer.
Dams demonstrate modernization and industrialization. Both projects are supposed to bring manifold improvement into the lives of the ordinary person. Collectively, (the image of) the improved lives of ordinary people gives evidence of national prosperity. And yet, projects like dams (although this could be said for many other national undertakings) have a tendency to overlook the people who don't fit the picture of such national prosperity from the beginning. In fact, the flooding itself is reported unceremoniously; in the same heedless, matter-of-fact manner with which the Bui workers and military men told Buipe residents about the opening of the gates. And Buipe is a town from “the north”—a location imagined as a homogenous region of dire poverty and sociocultural stagnancy. The attendant dehumanisation provides fertile ground for the uncaring disposition towards such places as Buipe.
Ghana’s pride, the Akosombo Dam, displaced about 80,000 people in its construction. We are still feeling its effect. Given that experience, concerns about the social, cultural and environmental consequences also impeded the construction of the Bui Dam. The downstream damage from dams can go further than their location, affecting life on land, in addition to the effects on water.
Bui was identified as a possible site for a dam in 1925, but a succession of international development partners and financiers approached by successive governments said no. It took the arrival of the Chinese state-owned corporation Sinohydro’s interest, in 2001, to allow the project to materialise. Even before construction, civil society groups and environmental activists criticised the absence of comprehensive consultation with people both in the area and downstream. The voices of the affected on their preferences were also missing. An original feasibility report of the dam from 1976 anticipated flooding along the banks of the Fanko and Korodio Rivers in Cote D’Ivoire. The plan was amended so that any inundation was “contained solely in Ghanaian territory.” Buipe got no such consideration.
Over bottles of water at a bar in the town, Abdulai Baaki, assemblyman of Buipe, reads me some numbers from a chart on his phone: it all happened between the 9th and the 15th of October 2022. 219 submerged houses. 147 hectares of farmland. 573 female children displaced. 432 male children. 390 women displaced. 295 men. 1000 birds died. 200 ruminants. 3 schools closed down. 1 public toilet submerged. "One of my biggest fears at the moment," Mr. Abdulai adds, "is an eventual cholera outbreak."
Days later, the Central Gonja District Director of the National Disaster Management Organization (NADMO), Mr. Mustapha Nbonwura, disclosed to me that those figures had significantly increased. It tracks; Mohommed Muhazo's family alone lost about a half of the over two hundred fowls and ducks that they owned. "Most of them died. Others had gone out to eat one day and couldn't return because the water had come too far up onto our compound." "Some of the ducks are still inside, in that room. You can hear them crying." Indeed, I could hear the birds in mourning. Still, there were some that were outside, about a dozen of them, sunbathing on the (now-slowly-draining-out) river that has taken over the family's compound. Only one of their six goats remains. Three died. Two have had to be sold. And this is a family that never sold any of their livestock. "We just raised them to eat at home. And to give them out as gifts to visitors and people in need who came to ask my father for one or two."
Buipe is the biggest town in the Central Gonja district. The 2010 census recorded a population of eleven thousand with about two thousand households. The houses are mostly built with concrete and roofed with zinc-aluminium. Buipe sits in a valley, its Guinea Savannah landscape dotted with shea nut, dawadawa, baobab, acacia and neem trees, among others. It is also a key city in Gonja (Ngbandya) history, referred to in the ‘Buipe Chronicles,’ ‘Tariyon Asalin Gonjawa da Chumbulawa da Nawurawa’ (the History of the Origins of the Gonja, the Nchumeru and the Nawura from 1922), ‘Kano Chronicles,’ and other manuscripts. It is in Buipe that, according to oral history, the legendary founder of the Gonja state, Ndewura Jakpa is buried. The story is: in the 17th century, Jakpa and his fellow Mande soldiers came north from Djenne (modern day Mali) with the Bunna and Beghu mines of Brong in sight. After seizing control of the mines, they went east across the Black Volta. With the aid of his superior military strategy and the prayers of his Mallam Fatigi Morukpe, Jakpa defeated the Dagombas east and the Asantes to the near south. He divided the lands among his sons and brothers, whom, in theory, the current Gonja chiefs trace their descent from, establishing a kingdom over a mixed local population in what is now the Central Gonja district. But for centuries before this, Buipe had always been a town of great importance, its proximity to the river a huge blessing. It saw caravans from Hausaland and merchants going as far as Djenne and Timbuktu. Its location led it to become a crossroads in ancient long distance trade and migration. With salt and gold coming from Daboya and Wasipe, and further south; kola nuts in its near environs, going north and north-east. It would also be a node in the large network of slavery that brought enslaved people from the north for sale in the coastal areas.
On the day after my arrival in Buipe, I took a boat ride over floodwater about 3 or 4 feet deep, into Zongo, one of the two most affected areas, along with Roman Catholic (RC). It was a Saturday morning, the day as languid as sheep. Women are crouched by the banks of the floodwater, washing with water obtained from the same source. Children fill gallons and other containers with water from the same flood river. Men are out of sight. A hospital is closed, as a consequence of the flooding. Other businesses, too. The premises of a sachet water factory is only half-flooded now. The owner, Issahaku Awudu, has diverted his attention, for the time being, into the opening of a night club on the other side of town. The club is named Don's Club, and is scheduled for a December 19 opening. It is housed in a one-storey structure which is still under construction. The ground floor is pretty much complete. It operates daily as a bar. I spent some time, one night, at Don's Club. The music is generic, but gets the job done: a few metres away, it pulls children to gather and dance under street lights along the highway. On the premises, young and middle-aged men and women cluster and drink and chat or watch Nigerian and American music videos streaming from a flat screen installed against an outside wall. Inside, the walls are swathed in Gucci wallpaper, only interrupted by about four to five facsimiles of tree trunks appearing in-between, here and there. All sorts of beverages are on sale, as a matter of course. And then: fried meat with some sauce. Pepper soup served straight from a burning coal pot, onsite, on sight. Predominantly, the attendants at Don's Club are women; young and light-skinned. Youths approached me who wanted to be photographed. There were two young women who coyly refused their partners' requests to be photographed together. I take contacts with a shaky promise to send the portraits on my return, through Whatsapp. Wisekhid was the last one for the night whose portrait and number I took.
Like big people, all big tragedies never travel alone. They arrive with other tragedies, big and small. So it has been with this recent Buipe flood disaster. It arrived with its own entourage of calamities: closure of schools and other social amenities, force evictions from homes (and theft of surviving items after evictions), very low income homes hit with unexpected expenditure, dissolvement of means of employment and various sources of income, compellence to spend Christmas and New Years' away from the familial familiarity of home, camping in tents and classrooms, death.
It was Abdulai Baaki who told me of the death. It happened sometime mid-November. Some kids inside the Zongo had been playing and fishing inside the floodwaters. One of them, a boy of about 12 years old, got electrocuted. As assemblyman, Abdulai was responsible for liaising with relevant authorities to have them take out power, wherever necessary, after the flooding had occurred. He'd done so and the body had requested for a boat to be arranged for their men to traverse the waters and do their work. "So I started to make arrangements for the boat," Abdulai informs me, "but there were some hiccups along the line, and we all just let down our guards at that point.” “I take part-responsibility in the tragic occurrence of the boy's death." Our Sister Killjoy whispers into my ear, from many decades ago:
Black people still
I spent a late afternoon with Sirina Musah, her husband, Ibrahim Mahama, and their large progeny of children and grandchildren. What a family—they teased and laughed at each other constantly. I'd made prior arrangements to have lunch with them. And there was lunch alright on the day of—yam fufu with fish light soup. But mine was served separately. It was enough food to take me through three whole days and some; only a quarter of it was just too much to finish. One of the babies of the house returned from school with afternoon greetings. Another sneezed just as our conversation was about starting. Ibrahim Mahama blessed him, then shared, through my assistant, Mr. Bashiru, who translated, that: in Gonja culture, someone sneezing right at the start of a conversation signified a blessing of the conversation—that it was going to yield goodness. He is originally from Daboya, Ibrahim Mahama, and moved to Buipe some five decades ago. He used to be a farmer, farming crops such as maize, yam, cassava. "But now I grow. I no get strength. So I dey do riverside work small small." Alongside the small small riverside work—fishing—he also delivered goods to the market and around town, with his cargo tricycle. Until the water came.
Smiley-faced Sirina Musah migrated to Buipe from Bolumpe nearly as long ago as her husband. In normal times, she sells maize at the Buipe market. But she hasn’t been for about three months now—she's slightly unwell, "and things are also hard," her daughter, Fainta, adds. Fainta had freshly returned from the salon—a detail betrayed by her shining hair and the many green rollers her hair was rolled around, all over her head. She had also recently gotten out of trouble with the police. When the water invaded their compound, some members of the family went to live in the school-turned-camp, while others went to live with friends. On their return, the toll of loss was massive and far-reaching. Prior to the panic-escape, Fainta had secured a GHS3,000 loan from an individual with the plan to travel to a nearby village, purchase some charcoal with the money, return to Buipe and sell. But on returning from escape, the money, along with her Ghana Card and phone, was gone. The loaner had her arrested by the police, the case only recently resolved. "So they say I should be paying small small." Her sister, Kaima, also lost her phone plus a sewing machine she used to work with. Ibrahim Mahama's fishing net is gone, along with his delivery work—water drowned up the engine and left his tricycle paralyzed, condemned. The contents of a prized trunk also got drowned up and damaged—several types of documents, the children's certificates, treasured clothing and the like, all gone. Two of Sirina Musah's fridges have been damaged. One of those was used by her eldest daughter to run a water business. As a consequence, she is now unemployed, just like her younger brother: His words: "I need a job that I can use to take care of my mother and my family." The family's barn still stands, half-submerged, on the still-flooded part of their compound. They, too, lost ducks, guinea fowls and chicken to the water. They're unable to provide numbers, but they indicate that it was a great number of livestock. Sirina Musah used to sell of the livestock "for small small chop money, at the market."
The Buipe market, one of Ghana's largest and busiest, comes alive on Mondays, its customary market day. As early as Sunday mid-morning, traders begin to arrive at the market by boat and by road, from all over the country and beyond. The rest of the day is for later arrivals, setting up and sleeping over in anticipation of Monday morning. The market is essentially segmented into two parts—on one extreme end lies the Buipe Livestock Market. A Monday afternoon visit explains why. All around, men tussle with cattle like it's a competition—because it is. The cattle are fighting to stay unsold and alive, and their human counterparts are fighting for the daily bread.
I chartered a boat to take me all over the waters of the flooded Zongo. The watercraft is steered by Ibrahim, a boy of 15; it belongs to his father. Ibrahim was born in a village called Mpaha, but has lived in Buipe for about as long as he's known how to row a boat—since childhood. His father taught him. In normal times, they fish together on the big water, The Volta. In this particular time of flooding, however, Ibrahim works generally between the hours of 6 am and 8 or 9 pm, ferrying people over the floodwaters of the Zongo area. Each boat ride costs a Cedi, and he makes an average daily sale of sixty or seventy Ghana Cedis. Ibrahim loves music. Just about a month ago, he had the time of his life at the Jinapor Stadium, attending a concert headlined by one of his favourite artistes, Larruso. The large stadium was filled to capacity. I also learn from Ibrahim that Tamale-based superstars, Fancy Gaddam and Macassio, have also clinched similar feats at the same venue, the latter's happening recently, not so long before Larusso's. Ibrahim is excitedly anticipating a Black Sherif concert in Buipe, which, word has it, is going to happen early in 2023, in February or March.
Meanwhile, all over the town, stickers and posters of varying sizes, affixed onto all kinds of surfaces—mobile money containers, signboards, chop bar screens, tricycle windscreens—announce the GOFOSCO END OF YEAR RAVE, scheduled for December 15 at The Amati House. Not less than 12 music artists are billed to perform. Among them, Cola 1 and RB Trapstar. There'll be dancers too—Northern Dancers from Tamale, and City Dancers from Buipe, together with several "supporting groups" including "California City" and "Money Making Machine."
I seek out more of Buipe's youthfulness and I encounter Priscilla. She's 21, a 2022 Buipe Senior High School graduate. Her father's house also got flooded in the deluge. At the height of the tragedy, the entire family of eight had to make do in one small, unaffected outhouse. It's been the most uncomfortable of situations for Priscilla. "We've been suffering—the room is small, and the heat..." I ask what some of her sources of respite are, in such times of distress. She mentions her father. "He makes me happy—even just being in the house and having conversations with him, brings me joy." The father, Mr. Samuel, wears the mood of tragedy on his face and in his gait. He's a fisherman ("for more than 30 years now.") and a carpenter ("since 1996.") whose parents migrated from the Volta region to Buipe, where he was born and has lived ever since. He, too, lost livestock to the water, and to the phenomena of thievery that was engendered by the situation. "Joy? What's that?" could as well have been Mr. Samuel's response when I asked him that question about respite I'd asked his daughter. He told me, when I was leaving his house, to let him know before I left Buipe. He had some fish for me. "Oh yes, I'd actually like to buy some to take with me." "No, this one is not for buying; it is for dash."
And what is Priscilla's most pressing need? "I want to continue my education." She says it earnestly, like a prayer.
Buipe sits at the heart of the Volta Basin. Its tributaries traipse through Mali, Burkina Faso, Côte D’Ivoire, Togo and Benin, and drain into the Gulf of Guinea in Ghana. An imagined Voltaic kingdom whose borders were mapped exactly over its reach would cover an area of 400,000 km 2. Ghana and Burkina Faso share some eighty five percent of the Basin (Ghana has 170,000 km2 of the basin, with forty one percent of the basin in the country1.) The Basin is responsible for the livelihood of some twenty four million inhabitants directly through fishering, farming and transportation on its banks, as well as other jobs that are derivative of these activities. Ghana also happens to be the country with the highest risk, among countries in the basin, of weather-related hazards including landslides, coastal erosion, urban floods, farmland flooding and dry spells. While the annual rainfall in the upper part, near Mali, reaches around 500 mm, it can reach more than 1,100 mm in the lower part of the basin in Ghana. Given all this, it makes sense that Ghana has experienced a number of floods over the years in these areas. One in 2007 affected about 300,000 people and killed fifty-six people in the northern part of the country. Three years later, in central Gonja, about seventeen people were killed and twenty five thousand people displaced. In 2017, the number of people affected nationwide had risen to about a million.
To make things worse, climate change threatens to exacerbate these already existing issues. The extreme weather changes have wrought “social, economic and environmental losses to almost two million people over the last 20 years.” Climate change will mean a longer dry season and shorter, though more intense, rainy season; unpredictability about when the season will start, and a slight decrease of river flow which will all lead to an increase in flood-events. Ironically, longer drought will mean that though inundated, unmet demand for irrigation will also be a problem.
“Everytime they come and write names and numbers and we never see anything. So we don’t even want to see them again.”
A 2021 budget document of the Ministry of Finance contains intentions to: sensitise communities along the river “especially in flooding and the spillage of the Bagri dam”; to plant only short yielding crops; “educate people to build their houses not on waterways but rather highlands; identify flood prone areas; identify safe havens.2” Investments have also been made in the development of flood early warning systems. There is the Volta Basin Authority’s Hydro-meteo VOLTALARM intended to alert communities in the Volta Basin on extreme events. And the Ghana Water Resource Commission is said to have web-based flood and drought early warning systems. But to say these are insufficient to face what is to come is an understatement. Even now, the two-day warning Mohammed Muhazo and his family were given by the Bui Dam workers was not enough. It falls into a too-common pattern, when it comes to man-made disasters, of the state reacting after the fact; rather than anticipating, decoding and resolving a problem before people suffer.
Afterall, experts suggest that spillage from dams need not be a disaster. Canals can be built. These will channel the water into detention basins, and the water could be saved for irrigation—a boon in such locales that are expected to see even more severe dry seasons.
A more ambitious option floated some years ago was the Savannah Accelerated Development Authority’s plans to move people in Buipe who resided in the floodplain to better locations away from areas vulnerable to flooding. This was part of a larger plan, the “Buipe Multi Modal Transport and City Master Plan,” which would see the town planned out more deliberately and a harbour constructed to be a “Tema” of Northern Ghana. In this vision, Buipe would relive its glory days as a destination of trade caravans from far and wide, the waters becoming a total blessing again. But it is lost in the mire of change of governments and swapping of priorities. Although one would have to ask anyway, which people in Buipe and the surrounding areas such a development would really be for, or take into consideration.
There are some things and people you will see and encounter when you walk around in the Central Gonja District capital town of Buipe. The walk from the Jinapor Palace to the Jinapor Stadium is only about five minutes long. (A few minutes longer if you decide to slow down, walking behind two kids, to eavesdrop on their conversation in a language you don't understand.) At the stadium, young men play a football game on the vast pitch. One goalkeeper wears a black jersey customised with his name. (You'll know this for certain because his name will be mentioned by a teammate and it will match with what’s on the back of his jersey.) A small yet sizable portion of the same pitch is left for little boys to play, too. Against the wall on one far end of the park, heaps of blue plastic chairs wait indifferently. There is a preacher man, he is antsy, standing behind his sound system. If only he could whisk all those boys and their balls off the field! "You know, this one it involves a lot of things, so by now it should start." A night of something is about to take place here. What exactly? "Crusade. Deliverance. Everything—even if you have anyone at home who cannot walk, bring them here tonight and you'll see." Oh, if he could deliver Priscilla from the looming end of her education; if he could crusade against, and crucify all of the demigods, those overseers of African people's longstanding useless deaths!
Elsewhere, a mother makes joy for her babies, blowing them balloons of many colours; young women are dressed in their Friday evening best, dancing (perhaps at a friend's engagement ceremony). A policewoman, attired in a dark blue police sweater with a gun slung across her torso, rides past the post office on a small motorbike; a small girl lurching on her bicycle is greeted by an older woman, and she responds with her face and her head and a wordless amicability. The setting sun lends light and colour to some pink bougainvillaea in the distance, and earth is momentarily nirvana. In the Zongo, days earlier, a boy. His name is Bouba, and his face is oblong and smooth. He is attending to his dog with the care of a doula at a birthing. The dog, whose name is Mistake, has been knocked down by a vehicle and rendered immobile. ("Mistake made a mistake," an old man attempts a punny funny.) With wood and thick black tyre and deep concern, Bouba had made and was attaching walking aids to each of Mistake's hind-limbs.
This, too, is to be God—maybe, even, the point to being God: to say and prove, in real time, that: no creature of mine is less than/no creature will ever be left behind/I will care about your well-being/I will not cause you pain/I will balm pain that befalls you/I will not cause you tragedy/I will care about your recovery when tragedy befalls—I will clean your wounds and mend your bones and get you on your feet again, spirited again.