The women I speak to wear their calmness in a way that is very unnerving.
It is an acceptance of fate..
An adaptation to circumstances.
It is life they all tell me through their stories.
It is life, I learn as their stories unfold against the calm winds that blow, the movement of the water, the bustling of the waking city.
Nuna is a 50 year old woman that lives in Azizadzi in Keta. Regina is 43 and lives in Azizakpe in Ada. Aya is 27 and moves between Ada- Mpakadan and Accra. They share their stories with caution, sometimes mumbling and swallowing their words, sometimes looking at me with curiosity asking questions not voiced but communicated non the less.
I remember Aya for her discreteness. Wanting to tell her story but to remain anonymous, looking over her shoulders to see if someone was coming to catch her speak. Yet, telling her story with so much passion. I remember Nuna for her excitement, for her willingness, to speak despite the language barriers, to welcome us, to share, to laugh, to stay positive. Regina, I remember for her beauty and silence. She didn't say much, couldn't. Maybe she didn't know how to but her story stays with me in unspoken words.
Embarking on this project, I took with me the familiarity of hearing people speak so freely and easily about themselves.The women I spoke to, they tell their lives as stories, as if they are not the main character but a narrator of a person's life. In the city, people do not have time, there is always the need to go, to be somewhere, to be the first to witness something, to experience, to hear something but hardly ever to have long detailed conversations. Perhaps it helps in the avoidance of confronting one's own troubles. Perhaps it is why I appreciate small towns, like Swedru where storytelling is a part of conversations and exposes the vulnerability the people in the city mask away. Like Ada, like Keta, like Mpakadan where these women make the best of their lives despite nature taking its course, despite the power dynamics that control how they eat, how they move, their independence, their dependency and how they speak.
There are many things that were hard hitting when embarking on this particular project. Perhaps the biggest misconception was that all these women would be happy and willing to tell their stories. That because they barely speak outside of their circles, being given the opportunity would be an exciting experience for them. This of course was not the case. For one, it was very difficult to convince the women I established contact with to agree to the interviews. Day in and out, woman after woman would speak with me with so much enthusiasm and then would call back a few hours later or the day after to respectfully decline the offer, this time in a more reserved and calm manner. For the women that I spoke to, one significant obstacle was the presence of men. Men who would want to speak on their behalf, men who were more outspoken than women, men who seemed to know more about the women’s stories than the women themselves. It was interesting to see how the women would sometimes pause mid conversation and look over at the men as if refreshing some sort of permission or to check that they were not saying anything out of line.
In the stories that the women share, they tell us about their daily lives. About how yesterday affects their today and tomorrow. About the many decisions and adjustments they have to deal with. All these are a part of the human condition unarguably, however, what makes these women’s stories interesting are the conversations that their lives have with nature, with the rising of the tide the encroachment of the water into their homes , the loss of their permanent homes being turned into temporary luxury destinations and many more.
At the centre of these stories is nature versus man but more specifically Asaase Yaa versus the daughters of her land and how their stories meet each other in many ways other than words. When Asaase Yaa is drowned by the sea, her daughters of the land heave heavy sighs and pack their bags into temporary spaces. Neither of them utter words and have been conditioned to adapt and move on. Between the sighs and the rumbling of the tides, enough i said.When the water is tired, it moves back to its home and leaves what remains of Asaase Yaa. When the water is home , the daughter so the land finds their way back to continue from where they left off.
If we do not take time to hear Asaase Yaa’s call to us, and to find ways of listening to her daughters, what is lost in between is greater than what is heard.
This project is an example of how a simple appeal to hear stories connected between these two have ways of unleashing many other conditions.
Although re-writing the stories from interviews conducted, it was important to tell their stories from their voice as much as possible to capture their emotion and sentiments as much as possible.
Nuna…. 50 YEARS OLD….. FISHMONGER….. SMALL SCALE SALT SELLER…….
MOOD: HOPEFUL and WAITING
Nuna lives in Azizadzi , a small settlement waiting for the water to swallow it up. The community is a remnant of a ghost town with the people that had no choice but to stay. The people that had no choice but to stay. There are about 13 housing units is Azizadzi and not more than 100 people in this settlement. Every now and then, when the water visits, they move out of the settlement to temporary homes until the water goes back. Through Nuna’s story, we see the effects of a vanishing town and what acceptance of fate looks like. Nuna is a positive woman who has mastered the skill of waiting. Waiting for the sun to come up and go down, for the fishermen to bring their catch. Waiting for the water to allow them to retrieve salt and for the cheat with the best price to buy from her. When the water is not happy. Nuna spends her days waiting. Just waiting.
I listen to Nuna tell her story in Ewe and watch as she smiles when the translator speaks to me.
She hangs on to his every word as if she understands.
I was born into these trades, selling fish and salt. It is what I have known all my life and what the rest of my life will also know. I started to help my mother sell fish at a very young age. We would go to the seaside when the fishermen would bring their catch. My mother always knew what the sounds of return sounded like from the sea. As I grew, I came to know what that was too. It is one of those things only experience can give you. This is a similar familiarity we have with the water. Somehow, you know how different the wind blows when the fishermen are at shore with catch. You just know.
It is the same way we know how the wind blows when it wants to swallow up more land. We just know, but there is nothing we can do about it.
I am a widow with two sons. My husband died in 2018. I am 50 years old and I live here in Azizadzi. These days, I spend a lot of my time waiting because the level of the lagoon water is too high to harvest salt and the fishermen do not catch fish as they used to. It is a rare and unpleasant thing to experience a town wiped away as one grows older. Should it not be the reverse that the world sees humans come and go while it remains intact?
I was a very young girl when the first encroaching of the water happened. This was in the 1980s. The sea just got upset and invaded our town. Nothing has been the same ever since. I remember it happening in the 1990s, 1994 maybe 1995 and then again in 2015. These are not memories one likes to keep. I treat it like washing one's face with water first thing in the morning. The water is cold and wakes you up but is easily forgotten once you wipe the face dry. We do not forget our lost town though. We can't. We wake up to it every day. To the withering roads and bridges. To the sand beach that the water vomited onto our houses and lives.
Azizadzi is a ‘replacement town’. It is the town that lives in the shadows of our original home Kedzie which is now buried under the sea and sand. Kedzie was a beautiful town with tarred roads and cement houses and a huge fish market where people from all over came to buy, even from Togo and Ivory Coast. It is hard to see all that existed now but it did.
The last time the waters came was in November 2022. It came into our rooms and stayed for a while. You can still see traces of water still drying up in the sand and in our homes. The next time it comes it could wipe Azizadzi away.
Each time the water comes, people leave and never return. The youth do not stay. Why should they? My first son left for Takoradi to learn POP design. After a few years he is now back home fishing with his younger brother as well. My second son completed senior high school not long ago and fishes and does small businesses here and there to get by. Many of our men and women have left to bigger towns like Keta, Ada, Kumasi and Accra to learn a trade or two and find work. It has not worked out for many who return and pick up the trade of their parents. Others never return because their homes are temporary anyway and there is nothing that will bring a constant flow of cash. The economy, the system and now nature are all out to get you.
I know this because of the trade I do. I sell fish and harvest salt. For months now, the fishermen have been complaining about their catch. There are no fish in the sea, they cry out. There are many reasons for this. First the Chinese have these huge machines they use to fish in Ada. With these machines, they are able to catch many many fishes and by the time our fishermen go out to fish, there are only a few left. This is a huge concern for us, but the government doesn't listen and so the Chinese, they continue to fish and take our customers and leave us with nothing.
The pollution in the water is driving the fish away. It is also killing them. Everyone says the waste comes from Accra. Plenty plastic waste, clothes and many more get washed up on our shores every now and then. We do not use such a large amount of plastic here yet we bear the consequences of it all. Of having the sea vomit some other peoples waste on us. Of losing our food and source of income. Because of these two major reasons, I have not been able to buy and sell fish for a long time. I am just waiting.
The people have found a way to use the refuse waste that meets us in the mornings. Every now and then, we gather to burn them. Sometimes, they collect and use them to support the walls of homes and suck up the water that sometimes seeps from beneath.
I have also been waiting for the Lagoon to go low again. It is unusual that the water remains high considering that we are in Harmattan. But the water is high and so we cannot harvest salt because we do not have the machines that can get the salt for us despite the high waters. Over the past year, it has been hard to harvest salt in huge quantities because the water in the lagoon is high and the weather is unpredictable. At a point, the water was also too low and so we could not harvest salt, and this reduces the already small amount of profit we make.
I usually partner with a man who does most of the work in harvesting the salt- a salt farmer. I then share the harvest 1:2 with him. He takes the larger share because he does most of the work so it is only fair. There is no regulation for salt prices and so we sell at whatever we can for some money. Usually we sell to people from Keta, Togo and other parts of the county who then resell at higher prices. I once joined a salt company here in Ada but the salary was irregular and there was no structure. I was better off finding my own salt to sell.
Perhaps like many who have left, I am better off relocating somewhere else. Perhaps then, my life would be less of waiting and more financially stable. But there is something about familiarity that will always feel safe and for us that translates to home.
Azizadzi is home.
Regina……43 YEAR OLD WOMAN…..MOTHER ……TRADER….CALM.
MOOD : Managing
When Regina speaks, it reminds me of the way the young beautiful sorted after lady would speak to her suitor in the African movies we grew up watching. She is soft spoken and shy. But her shyness speaks to me as the kind of shyness that you are conditioned to understand emits respect. Regina is reserved. But she is not shy.
She is patient and welcoming to situations learning to adapt on the go.
She is managing.
Most of the time, she smiles towards the water, as if they speak to each other. Although my conversation with Regina was the shortest, it was for me the most profound. We meet Regina in Ada, crossing a small river to her home to an Island called Azizakpe.
Azizakpe is an estuary Island in Ada. One must cross the river to reach it. The islanders are not many and have their houses made out of natural materials. Of straw and coconut ferns. The town has lost its vibrancy and is now a small settlement of people waiting to move any moment from now when the water will come again. The estuary is vanishing and so will the land and its people.
The town has an interesting story of being a town of dwarfs who eventually left after a hunter settled there with his family. This particular folktale really highlights how the occupation of the indigenes has changed or been disrupted due to Climate conditions.
I am originally from Big Ada. It is where I grew up with my family. My mother, father and siblings. I have two sisters, both younger than I am. We have different lives, my sisters and I. I feel that is the beauty of life. Some things can start from a point and find homes in different places. When we meet, we have stories to tell each other. Stories that unite us as sisters through memory and the experiences that remind us that we all have our individual lives to live. Stories of life, finding a living, finding a new home, Stories that remind you that your movement is directed by the water and at any time, the water would come without asking and tell you it is time to find a new home, as it has found a new home in yours.
I found my way out of Big Ada because of marriage. My husband is a cook, a skill he picked up from a Togolese friend which later got him a job with a company. We live in Azizakpe the estuary island of Ada. The Aziziapke we see today is the remnants of a swallowed town. Most of the town is now what holds the water up. Those of us who remain have made home on a deserted land with no proper claims to it. It is now our temporary home, this town that once flourished as a green island of hunters and farmers now is home to a few fishermen and fishmongers who all have a silent understanding that moving will be soon. The estuary is no longer where it was and the waters are coming. But while it takes its time, we continue to live our lives.
I am a wife, mother and trader.
For five years I have sold fish. Smoked, fried and fresh fish in Azizakpe. When I was in Big Ada, I sold fried shrimps and oysters. I started this at a very young age. My mother was a fishmonger and my father, a fisherman who specialized in catching oysters and shrimps. I grew up helping my mother make sales. Later when I was older I started to sell my own shrimps and oysters. It has always been an interesting occupation. The money is not much, but it is manageable. We have to manage it. The money goes into supporting the children and domestic needs. My husband and I support each other. When he is around, he helps me get the best fish. He is a cook. He knows what the customer would like. This, together with my experienced eye, means that I have some of the best fish in town and that is a fact!
The fish in the sea are not the same as they used to be. For one, a lot of the catches are now smaller in quantity. I know this because I have spent a great part of my life waiting for the fishermen and their boats to come back to shore so we get the best pick. Over the years, I have seen the fishermen wanting to hoard the fish because they want to maximise enough from the small catch. They also spend longer hours at sea and this means that on some days I do not have work to do. Sometimes the fishermen come back after a day or two. Sometimes they come with more rubbish than fish in their catch.
When the fishermen discuss these things, they come up with different reasons. That the pollution from Accra, all the plastics and waste that end up in the water is driving the good fish away if not killing them. They say that the fishes die because they got caught in a polythene bag or choke on some small plastic.
I do not have a great educational background to determine if these are accurate but I believe they are. It is evident in the dead fishes we see in the live catch, in the reduction of fish in the sea. This wasn't how it was when I was younger. Now, many of the young men do not learn the trade of fishing. They want to go to Ada, to Keta, to Akosombo or to Accra to learn trades like laying tiles, being a plumber or driving so that they can drive for companies. Many of them return after a few years to fish again and some, we never hear of them again. I find this interesting the way things change over the years, a few decades ago, Azizakpe was a lustrous green town with many farmers and then the water came and turned our hunters to fishermen. Now they leave home to learn trades.
Three years ago, I added cooking as a second vocation. This was born out of the idea that I could not sit around waiting for the catch to come to shore. Money does not come to those who sit and wait. I cook and sell to the school children. This means waking up early and making sure I am ready to meet their needs in exchange for some cash. But again this is seasonal, when school is on vacation, my profit hits rock bottom. It has become very unstable now because the water visits often. When we wake up to see the water in our homes it means things must be cleared, school must close and we must move to a temporary place until the water goes back. Sometimes we have no choice but to stay in the schools. Sometimes we end up in Ada at a friend's place until the water goes back and we can occupy our homes again.
Two years ago, again to meet financial needs, I started to sell coconut oil. The good thing about this is that it can be stored and sold at any time. I do many things to help keep our heads above water.
I have experienced the occasional visit to the water many times. As early as March 2022, the water came and swallowed some of the land again, so we had to move further down again. It is unnerving sometimes, but it is also life. Even though I grew up in Big Ada, where the water cannot swallow for a while, I heard a lot of stories growing up about how this town was being taken by the water. Let me tell you, it is a different thing experiencing it. My first experience was in 2008 or 9 and then in 2015 these were the years the coming of the sea was drastic. Swallowing homes, taking lives, boats, animals, clothes, money. Taking our homes and forcing us to create new territories.
The water is an interesting thing. When it is calm, it is beautiful to see and experience. It brings us fish and joy. It carries life with the winds that blow from its surface. But when it is restless, it's ugly. It breaks into our homes and destroys everything we are already carrying, the breeze is cold and cuts the skins as if it has not done enough exposure already.
I know the water will come again. It will come soon. That is the only thing that will drive us away. The water has taught me how to manage whatever life throws at you. It is better to keep calm and manage than to carry the burden of things one cannot control. When the water comes again, we will carry what remains of our homes and our town and settle somewhere else.
Until then…we are managing.
AYA……26 YEAR OLD WOMAN…BUSINESS WOMAN….ANGRY….FORCEFUL..DETERMINED
MOOD : Survival.
Aya requested her identity be left unknown in the telling of her story. When she requested this, it was as if she was warning me. That if I made the mistake of giving away her identity, like most journalists did when trying to get an exclusive story, something would happen to me. I explained to her that I was not a journalist but rather a story teller but to her there was no difference. Are storytellers supposed to be morally upward than journalists? She enquired while staring at me squarely. I did not respond but rather smiled and reassured her that her identity will remain unknown but her story told.
There is a lot of anger when Aya speaks. She is upset with the system in Ghana and how it has failed her for being an ordinary citizen. She expresses her concerns with the passion and pain of any youthful person. She speaks about generational issues trickling down to disturb one's progress and how she is working hard to overcome this. Aya’s position is interesting. While she believes there is no hope, she works with the hope of someone that knows it can be better if one tries to rise above it all.
Aya is a business woman that transits Akosombo - Tema - Accra on a regular basis. She sells fish to a number of restaurants and chop bars in Accra and Tema directly. Offering options like Tilapia, Shrimp, Lobster, Oysters and Catfish. She also sells to caterest who make shito.
Aya’s name and some other vital information about her family have been changed or withheld on request. The interview was done in transit from Tema to Accra. We spoke intermittently as she did her early morning deliveries and taking orders as well. Aya is a force.
The way the Volta Region is romanticised angers me but then again, it is no fault of the average urban Ghanaian who sees all these hotels, restaurants and resorts spread across the many coastal towns and beautiful locations and craves for a taste of it. My region is a beautiful one. Beautiful mountains, blessed with the water bodies, breathtaking landscape views, great weather, abundance of food. But beneath the beauty are a lot of things that go unspoken. The locals, the ordinary people like my parents and the unjust way many are treated all in the name of development really gets swept under the carpet a lot. One of the most recent issues are the coastal erosion issues the region is facing. Many people are losing their homes, their people, their livelihood because the waters have become restless. Yet every weekend, there are a new set of urban Ghanaians cruising around, having fun on these luxury fronts oblivious of everything. This is not to say people should not have fun but it just bothers me how as a people, we generally do not care or see the dangers in broad daylight unless we are directly affected. Today, many people are all over the internet yelling and asking the government for a more stable economy and transparent leadership. It is because they are getting affected. For many years stories of displacement and loss of land have been in the news but never gotten enough attention.
I am 26 years old. I am smart and full of so much energy to work and be great but my education was cut short right after Senior high School a few years ago. I attended Ketasco and the goal was to attend Ashesi or Legon or UCC and offer a business course so that I could go on to work in some interesting sector in the corporate field. Investment banking maybe or Finance or something interesting and exciting.
My father is from Mpakadan, a town not so far from places like Apegusu, Akrade and Senchi. There is a railway line being constructed along my fathers town all the way from Tema. My father lost his farm lands to this construction and has still not been compensated for the land. There have been my cry outs and demonstrations and a little media coverage but nothing has been done about it. It is very annoying, you know. We wake up to all these stories about trains coming to that side of town to ease the transportation of goods and services as well as the movement of people but then there are people like my father who’s lands have been taken unpaid for.
My mother is from Akosombo. She sells fish to restaurants, pubs and locals. This was after her catering job slowly declined after many of these restaurants and hotels sprang up and more or less took her business. When my father lost his lands, my mother told us the story of how her father lost his lands to a huge hotel construction family. Initially the lands were to be paid for but only a fraction of the money was sent and till this day left unpaid. For me, whenever I pass by these restaurants and hotels, I think about how many people like my father and grandfather exist. Am I too, going to end up like my mother having experienced this first with her father and now husband?
Because of a decline in my mother’s business and my father’s loss of land, my education was cut short. Priority was given to my older brother who went on to the University of Ghana and completed with a degree in Political Science and no job after national service after a number of years. My brother is now in Europe. We hardly hear from him but he is there. We know because every now and then he sends money home.
I am trying to convince my brother to send me freezers from Europe. This will help my business a lot. I sell sea catch to chop bars, restaurants, caterers and chefs in Akosombo, Tema and Accra. Sometimes, through recommendation, I get calls from individuals requesting some fish of the other to be delivered to their homes in Kumasi. I sell Tilapia, Lobsters, Catfish, Oysters, Shrimps and other types of fish. Catfish is all the rave now and I have a lot of Nigerian friends who sell the fish along the many junctions in Accra that buy from me.
I started this when I was 22 after learning hairdressing and realising how slow the business is as a practicioner. One day I will own my own chain of salons and it is business like this that can help me achieve that.
It is not an easy task, my work. I deal with a lot of fishermen. I need a good number of them because for them a catch is unpredictable. Sometimes, they go to sea and come back with a huge catch, other times the catch is small. I cannot rely on one or two fishermen for my business and so I have about 10 to 15 of them on my call list. Sometimes I buy from fishermen in Keta or Ada. Tilapia from Akosombo is great but sometimes the huge ones are found in Ada or Prampram and when it comes to oysters and shrimp, Keta has the best.
I meet the fishermen super early and head straight to Accra with my goods. I recently bought a minivan and huge ice chests to keep the fish cold and fresh. I have a driver and a few young women I work with who clean the fish for me if a client requests that the fish be cleaned. Personally, I wish I could work with only women. Women fishers, drivers, fishmongers etc. Us women, we are the ones who suffer the most when issues arise in our homes, communities and country. Like how my brother was chosen over me to have an education or how I see fishmongers lose work because the catch is low.
I prefer selling to people outside of the region because there is good money to be made where something is scarce. Restaurants and hotels in the Volta Region would hardly buy from me. They have their way of doing things so that they get it cheaper and maximise profit once it is sold as a meal.
These days it is getting difficult to get a good catch. The fishermen complain about the illegal large-scale mining happening that is pulling them out of business. There is also the water pollution and the issue of the waste affecting the sea. The fish are moving away or dying and no one seems to care. The coastal erosion also means that we are losing a lot of freshwater fish. If I had money I would have my own Tilapia and Catfish pond but it is a lot of money and I am currently seeing my younger sister through school. She is the University of Ghana offering French and Political Science. I will get it right with my sister. She will use the language to her advantage and secure a good national service placement and a job. My sister cooks for people on contract basis. She got the skill from our mother. I advise her to make the money but also make good grades. Both are important.
I see that I am lucky. Not many young people in my situation have the opportunity to rise from their parents misfortune. Commercialization has an ugly face.
For me, I think people need to pay more attention to the many issues the locals in the Volta Region are facing. Many people are losing land, either due to commercialization or Coastal erosion. Many livelihoods are being cut short because companies are swimming in to do fishing and farming and salt mining on a larger scale – many of which are illegal.
It may sound far-fetched but one day we might wake up and the region will no longer exist. Keta is disappearing, so is Ada. Soon it may be Prampram and before we know it Tema will be the new coastal line and start to disappear too.
These things are troubling but as humans we need to survive. I am not happy with my family's history of being affected by these things. My education was brought to a halt because of this. I often get unhappy hearing the fishermen speak.
But what is unhappiness when there is a survival to think about?