Africa: Trip to Nzulezo Village, The Ride, The Thrills and The Lessons
The drive from our resort to the Karela Beach Visitor’s centre was very short, perhaps, pleasantly so. After a very long drive from Accra to the Western Region of Ghana just the night before, another long journey wasn’t something we wanted. We were on a 3-day familiarization tour of the Western Region of Ghana as a build up to the 2019 Accra Weizo. This was the second day of our tour, and we had lodged at Karela Hotel and Resorts on arrival from Accra the night before.
The brand new day presented another opportunity to explore Ghana some more, and not even the intermittent pockets of light rain could dampen our wander-lusting spirit. So, with palpable enthusiasm and so much expectations, we received the obligatory life jackets, some shiny, some not so shiny. And before long, every one of us was spotting something yellow, and off we went to board the waiting boats.
A Boat of Many Speeds
When we were told by the Tour Guide that the boat ride would take approximately 20 minutes, we didn’t know exactly how to respond. We didn’t know whether to get excited or apprehensive, our emotions were mixed. However, we knew one thing – we wanted to explore, and we were ready. Not that we particularly cared how long the ride was going to take, no, we didn’t, we just wanted to get our travel juices flowing.
After a few safety tips from the Tour Guide, the seemingly new Yamaha engine of the wooden boat roared to life, and with that, we commenced our journey to Nzulezo – the village on water.
The boat ride started off on a slow speed. While the slow speed allowed us to appreciate the waters more deeply and even meditate on it, there was a part of us that wanted the boat to speed off to the destination. Luckily, we had the best of the two worlds. Not long after we set sail, the speed of the boat gradually increased and peaked to a frightening velocity, making the ride even more breathtaking.
As the boat ride progressed, we passed through jungles, creeks and rain forests, bringing us very close to aquatic elements. There were ups, there were downs and there were near misses. Indeed, in addition to life jacket, you also need a good dose of adrenaline for this ride. Luckily, we had both. Possibly to the relief of some of us, the speed of the boat gradually slowed down as we approached the community and prepared to dock. The boat ride took about 20 minutes, and I wished it took a little longer. By all standards, the boat ride was exciting, but what we met as we arrived, was even more exciting.
Built on Wooden Stilts
Nzulezo village is located near Beyin village which is situated 90 kilometers west of Takoradi in the Jomoro District of the Western Region of Ghana. Nzulezo is a small, isolated and serene aquatic community built entirely on wooden stilts and platforms over Lake Tandane which forms part of the Amansuri Wetland. According to history, the river is named ‘Amansuri’ because it is said to be a friendly river. Perhaps, the closest examples of such settlements in the modern day West Africa are the floating community of Ganvie in Benin Republic and Aiyetoro town in Ogun State, Nigeria. A more modern example would be Venice in Italy.
The Nzulezo Village is one of the few instances where you can use ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ in the same sentence without a conflict. There’s a single central wooden walkway with offshoots on either sides which form a mesh-like structure that interconnects the houses. The houses are constructed almost exclusively with raffia and other stronger woods which provide structural support. There’s no single concrete wall or surface in this aquatic community, everything is made with wood except the roofs which are made with zinc. While most of the houses wear the natural grey colour of the raffia, a few of them are painted which creates beautiful contrast, and adds colour to the community.
Locally made canoes and speed boats are the only means of transportation between Nzulezo Village and their immediate neighbours and destinations – whether on waters or on dry grounds. While the big boys can afford to use speed boats, the rest have to literally paddle their own canoes. For obvious reasons, almost everyone who resides in this community can paddle a canoe including old women and school children. In fact, the ability to swim and paddle a canoe are the two most important requirements to live here.
In all of the tourism potentials and anthropological interests in the Nzulezo village, one thing stands out. Instead of being a threat to the immediate ecosystem within which they live, the Amanzule Community has become part of the ecosystem. There seems to be a mutually beneficial relationship between them and the ecosystem. While they conserve and protect it, the ecosystem in turn poses no dangers to them. Here, people live in perfect sync and harmony with nature while experiencing constant communion with aquatic elements, something that’s rare these days.
Nzulezo Village may not qualify as a 21st century architectural masterpiece, or gain an entry into the Guinness Book of World Records as an engineering wonder, but it definitely shows the engineering ingenuity of the timid African man.
How it all Began!
According to our Tour Guide, the ancestors of Nzulezo people migrated in the 15th century, from the ancient Ghana Empire in today’s Mali. History has it that, following a war over their land and gold, their god appeared as a snail and led them to today’s Ghana. But after repeatedly being forced to move on by other ethnic groups and slave traders, they finally reached and settled on Lake Tandane which they believed would protect them from their enemies. Presently, there are about 500 people living in Nzulezo Village.
The people of Nzulezo are mostly fishermen, subsistence farmers and artisans. They are also into the commercial brewing of local gin called Akpeteshi. The creativity here is surprisingly remarkable, they hand-produce all the souvenirs sold to tourists who visit the community from far and near. The predominantly spoken language in Nzulezo is Nzema, especially among the older demographics and the pre-school age children. In fact, the village’s name “Nzulezo” in Nzema language, means “water surface”. Besides the native Nzema language, the youths and school children are also able to speak English, good English, I must say.
No, It’s Not a Slum
When I first heard ‘village on water’, my mind painted pictures of an abandoned, desolate, and impoverished Village . But no, the Nzulezo village is not a slum or a swamp, neither is it abandoned. On the contrary, the community is almost self-sufficient, with basic amenities and infrastructures including mobile phone networks. There’s 24 hour supply of electricity, with almost every house spotting a satellite television dish. In the words of LG, you could say life’s good here. For education, there’s Nzulezo Community School which has both primary and secondary sections.
I spoke to Joe, a mathematics teacher in the secondary section who told me that after secondary education, the students move to Benin Republic for their high school. Why Benin Republic though? I didn’t get him to answer that. Joe and a few other teachers in the school actually live in the teachers’ quarters in the community, they only get to leave Nzulezo during vacations.
Joe was originally posted to Nzulezo Community School as a youth worker under the Ghana Youth Employment Agency, but was retained by the community after his contract with the Ghanaian government ended. He’s now been paid by the community. Joe is happy to teach, but says his salary could be better.
There’s Business, There’s Religion
Business is also booming in this little Village with signs of commercial activities here and there. There are a few shops where residents and visitors can purchase several items including groceries, provisions, wears and souvenirs.
I spoke to Dominic, a middle aged resident who makes boats for souvenirs sold to visitors and tourists. According to him, the boats are made from Beeya tree, and it takes about 30 minutes to make one boat from the scratch. One boat sells for between 5 and 20 Ghanaian Cedis (1-4 US Dollars). So if you’re visiting, you might want to prepare yourself for some shopping.
And to cater for their spiritual needs, there are three Christian churches including a Catholic church, a Methodist church and the Church of Pentecost. Don’t get it twisted, the churches here aren’t exactly cathedrals, but basically huts with minimal religious decorations where you could be in tune with God. But who cares about magnificent edifices? They’re already very close to nature, anyway.
However, before the advent of Christianity, the people of Nzulezo had already been worshiping their god of water. And today, some of them still pay allegiance to this god, and a shrine was built to honor and worship him. Among the traditionalists, Tuesdays are considered to be holy as they’re dedicated to the worship of the water god. Fishing is not allowed on Tuesdays, and women may not cross the lake if they are menstruating. Many of the villagers abstain from eating snails as a mark of respect for the god of their ancestors who led them in form of a snail.
Nzulezo community also a herbal centre which serves as a pharmacy shop, although most of the medicines therein are herbal products for routine illnesses. Apparently, traditional medicine is very popular among the residents and the reason is not far-fetched. However, in cases of more serious medical emergencies, the community has a special speed boat which serves as the ambulance, and takes sick people to the nearest hospitals in town.
For the purposes of local administration, Nzulezo community has a village chief who is chosen from the royal family and rules with the help of the council of elders. There’s a community hall for community meetings and other social functions.
But Why Aren’t They Expanding?
I inquired from our Tour Guide why the Nzulezo community doesn’t seem to be expanding very rapidly, having been established centuries ago. The answer was logical. I was told it was due to the constant out-flux of the youths who when they grow up, leave the village for other parts of Ghana where they establish their new families. We were in fact, told that there’s a New Nzulezo community with a population of about 3,000 people located on land, not far from the old Nzulezo on water. Due to the out-flux of youths in search of greener pastures, Nzulezuons are actually scattered across Ghana, according to the Tour Guide. Some of them might actually have left the shores of Ghana for other parts of Africa.
Friendly and Protective
Perhaps, deserving of special mention is the fact that the water used by the community for domestic purposes comes from the Tandane Lake on which the village rests. Whether it’s for drinking or for cooking or for washing, the water doesn’t get any form of treatment or purification. Just bend down, fetch, and use. And according to our Tour Guide, the dirty water hasn’t been known to kill anyone or even cause illness.
Ironically, the Nzulezo people live long here. Perhaps, this is one of the reasons why the lake is traditionally known as the Friendly River among the people. Is this a case of “what you don’t know doesn’t kill you?” Maybe. But there’s a possible scientific explanation – over time, their bodies must have developed antibodies and resistance to pathogenic organisms in the water – a sort of accidental immunization. And who wouldn’t live long with all those proteins, essential minerals and vitamins from seafood?
Another fact that lends credence to the friendliness of the lake is that, although there have been cases of overflowing, especially during rainy seasons, there haven’t been loss of lives or properties. In fact, there’s a popular belief among the local population, that the water protects them from certain natural disasters like fire. Tandane Lake is indeed, friendly.
The Surprises and The Lessons
Perhaps the biggest surprise and the most important lesson for me on this trip, is the fact that Nzulezo Village is in the radar of the Ghanaian government. Given where I was coming from, it was natural and even normal for my mind to paint pictures of ‘abject poverty’ when I first heard of the Nzulezo community. But surprisingly, the reverse is the case here.
With amenities like schools, electricity, satellite TV, and mobile phone networks, they’re seeing dividends of democracy from Ghanaian Government. Another important lesson I learned from the trip was that, although the government of Ghana looks out for them, Nzulezo residents are not lazy, they are hardworking and do not depend on the government.
The Nzulezo community may not be competing with America’s Beverly Hills, Nigeria’s Banana Island or Ghana’s Trasacco Valley, but it’s definitely not an abandoned place. Nzulezo Village is not a slum, it is not a swamp, and it is definitely not abandoned.
The excitement starts with the boat ride, but soon gives way for curiosity and other positive emotions. Indeed, Nzulezo Village is another reason or excuse to visit the Western Region of Ghana. Here, you’ll see more than a community living on water. You’ll see a community living in tune with nature, and a community living steeped in creativity.
Beyond tourism, if you’re interested in anthropology and ancient settlements, the Nzulezo village should be of interest to you. In 2000, the village was nominated to become a World Heritage Site due to its importance in anthropology. In addition to being one of the few ancient communities on stilts still remaining in the world, there is an abundance of preserved wealth of local traditions here.
Getting to Nzulezo
If you’re visiting Nzulezo from outside Ghana, your best travel option is to fly into Accra and connect to Takoradi on another flight. A couple of local airlines operate daily flights between Accra and Takoradi. The drive from Takoradi to Nzulezo is about 2 hours.
If you’re travelling by road from other parts of Africa, there’s a bus exchange in Accra for your onward journey to Takoradi. The drive from Accra to Takoradi is moderately long, and can take up to 7 hours or more depending on the speed of your vehicle. Ghana has good roads, and that’s a consolation.
If you can, visit the Nzulezo Village and feed your wander-lusting mind, and take some anthropology lessons while at it. And please don’t forget to go with your adrenaline, you’ll need it for the boat ride.
By Chidozie Uzoezie