Ghana – Salt Of the Earth

saltthumb.jpgThe Songor Lagoon is near the coast, on the Gulf of Guinea in the Atlantic Ocean. It’s in an area of wetlands at the foot of a system of tributaries that lead to and from the artificially created Lake Volta. Salt is a major resource here.

As more is mined, more is formed, causing the salinity of the water table to rise, and as a result, certain crops no longer grow in the fields nearest to the lagoon. Some community members have ponds, similar to the large industrial mines just across the water, but most people just have the dry mud beds of the lagoon’s edges. Large commercial mines loom across the steaming water on the far shore.


Bornekope is the largest community on the beds. Its people enter the lagoon every day, tying old woolen ski socks to their legs in defense against rusty old tools or shards of garbage buried in the deep mud. They push small flat bottom canoes capable of holding 300 kilo’s of salt. Now at the end of the dry season, the empty canoes must be pushed one kilometer to the very edges of remaining salt where they are loaded and pushed back to the near banks for processing and sale. It is grueling work in stark light and strong heat. The salt cuts the skin and blinds the eyes, choking the lungs and leaching water from the bones. Slowly, most of the miners are loosing vision. Parasites in the mud infect nicked and scraped skin; the mud is knee to chest deep in places. It can take hours, or even days, to fill the canoe and get it back to the baggers and sellers, who scoop the offloaded piles into Tyvex sacks. 85 kilo’s of salt fetches a low price of about two bucks at this high point in the harvest. Those salt winners who can sit on their piles until deeper into wet season will get a much better price. The buyers add iodine and ship the salt to the port at Tema, where it could go a number of places; most of it ends up with commercial fishing fleets to preserve their catches while at sea.

When it rains here – even fine rain – it hits with the force of Thor’s hammer. Fat, face-slapping droplets, hurled as if by myriad fastball pitchers, causing salt winners to scramble in attempts to cover piles of meager profit. Goats tuck their heads against each other in the lee of the nearest structures; palm wine shooters retreat deeper into their saloons. Small children, instead of splashing in puddles with glee, huddle patiently in our covered stoop. The fine rain quickly tires itself and reduces the rolling boil to a simmer, with accents of distant, grumbling thunder to remind all of the wet season just beginning. It’s nine thirty in the morning and already it feels as though half a day has passed.


Wilisto returns, soaking, smiling, his lyrical patterns teaching us what he’s learned about talking drums and the village chief’s schedule. Wili is our ally, more partner than guide or assistant. Inspiring to hear him behind me, softly asking for the little camera, which Tricia had taught him to use. Comforted by his enthusiasm I hunkered behind my equipment, adjusted the settings and composed another glimpse into the community he has seen every day.

Another old friend here to help and observe us, Vincent, has closed the chapter in which he was known as Shargy. That was last year. Now he is the don – Don Linker Walker, linking people of the world together. Don Linker would say that mathematics is as prone to inflation as the price of cassava. The cost of time has increased along with oil and water. Five plus five is no longer ten, but subject to the whims of buyers and sellers. When clean water and clean air are no longer commodities, only time will remain to barter and battle over. The realities of certain established NGO’s is revealed through aid-workers’ eyes, now open to the true economics of benevolence. Don Linker tells me, “The butterfly should not think himself a bird”.

White gold liquid sears the edges of stringy grey atmospheric bands of smoky horizon, rising in the northeast and framing silent shadowboxes of coconut trees and thatch roofs with puppet theater contrast. It is the small, small, time when the night bug choir has gone quiet and the birds have not yet begun their chanting. Eventually the fiery rays bounce mirror shards off right-angled house beams, catching in the dawn-moistened wires of a single lonely electric line. A goat bleats, a rooster cries and the shuffle of school-bound feet on the sandy path outside the window signifies the lateness of our slumber. It is five a.m.


In the afternoon, we visit the coastal village of Anyamam via a blistering twenty-kilometer bike ride. On the beach are long boats carved from single logs. Twenty five feet or more, full with muscle-bound people and a sideboard mounted Yamaha prop. They go fishing for hours in a fleet of fourteen or more. They may get one shark in the 100-meter net they cast, or a bushel of tuna if they’re lucky. Most boats come in empty. The area is over-fished; the coastline up-wind is polluted, which might be a factor. Pirate fishing ships operate in the deeper waters along with the licensed commercial boats. These villagers get the scraps. When they launch or land, the whole community pulls the hulking canoes with thick hanks of hemp. The work is set to a staccato tempo of sticks rapping against an old aluminum bulkhead washed ashore from some more modern vessel. Call and response singing echoes proudly up and down the line of straining rope pullers.

Emblazoned on the bows of their boats are religious slogans like ‘Christ In You’, ‘God Is Great’ and ‘Arsenal’ or ‘Celtic’. Makeshift crow’s nests fly the flag of The Hearts Of Oak, or the Ghanaian Star (Ghana’s top-flight football clubs) interchangeably with saltwater soaked clothing, drying in the brutal sun. Clever sailor strategies, embarked upon for years, prevent clashes with stormy seas or vindictive sharks. The adrenalin-charged air is salty and freshly fired in the glaring mid-day sun as the morning fleet returns with the high tide. Units of sailors run a drill of moving logs of iron pipe and runners of wide lumber, fitted beneath the hull, helping to roll the ships ashore. They move the last to the first as the behemoth is hauled in. Elders sit anchored in the shade of palms, around which the line is twice rapped and safely taken up or held depending on the call from the head of the operation. Small children hang from the bow to weight the forward end of the ship as it reaches a docked position on the berm. The whole effort takes maybe thirteen minutes or more. Every person has a role; mothers, sisters, boys and old men, rippled with hard muscle and lithe tendons, won through repetition of their responsibility to the fleet.


Ritual is borrowed, traded or held on to seemingly at the whim of popular consensus within a particular tribe, region or family. Today we film elaborate coffins fabricated in roadside shops. The boxes are built in the form of something representative of the deceased; if he was a trotro driver, the box is a working scale wooden model of a trotro. Farmers get cutlasses, chickens, vegetables. It’s a sign of wealth if you can buy such a coffin for a family funeral. The service itself will be devoutly non-pagan; depending on the denomination of the family it could be Baptist, Methodist or Catholic. It could also be Muslim I suppose, but we never confirmed this.

The same god-fearing family might also practice the ritual of making an effigy in the event of a deceased twin child, or the cutting of the cheeks on a child who was born after a succession of infant deaths. The effigy is treated as a living child and kept with the mother always, cleaned, clothed and fed. The cuts are small nicks on a newborn, still quite painful and they grow into dramatic horizontal or vertical scars below the eyes of adults.

The old ways are complex. The Ashanti have the most recognized and recorded history, but most of the icons in that culture, that we acknowledge in the West, such as Kente cloth, gold and footstools, are borrowed from other clans and now claimed by the Ashanti people. In the cities, people of all background are apt to adopt second or third common languages and at times choose to hide their true village tongue and heritage, even when meeting a fellow villager from back home. Aural traditions are passed along, but very little is written outside of the Ashanti history.


In Ada culture, the second largest tribe in Ghana, aural tradition and one book are all that grasp hold of history for millions of the population. Some of the youth, like our pals Samson and his friend, Richard, are trying to record and document the elders’ stories. The old folks are wary of mechanics and purpose, skeptical that the recordings will be used for money, leery of machines that can capture bits of the soul. Difficult work but Bingo and Richard take it in their stride and continue to work with the elders so the histories can be maintained and archived for future generations, and so the truth of a whole country isn’t skewed by the words of one tribe who chose to pick up the pen.

Salt left uncovered goes grey in heavy rain, like bus-splattered snow piled against vestibules along the avenues of North American cities in winter. The saline crystalline mounds are pocked with dirty holes from the droplets. The perfectly tapered piles now misshapen with undercut depressions of spillage, melding formerly separated heaps with the next. Mostly the salt is intact though, hearty and glistening in the post-storm glory of evening light, waiting to be bagged, stacked, covered, sold, transported or stored. The remaining hillocks are entombed with thatched grass sarcophagi that resemble cartoon breasts dotting the banks of the lagoon. Deep in the rainy season, these will yield a higher price.

In the same late daylight small boys trap doves in the bush by our window. They use traps made of twig, twine and carefully sliced inner tubes from the bikes. The tubes are old, patched many times yet they afford several complete slings from a single bladder. Traps are set with thoughtfully placed twig anchors, the sling tightly stretched between, with a small twine snare tied at the end and looped around the bait. The doves are kept in a makeshift box labeled ‘Fourtry’. This cage is cobbled from scraps of tin, bits of fencing, an old fishing net and some bark. Today the boys are quite pleased, having captured seven birds.

As we leave the community to make our way to Accra, then London and L.A., Don Linker grasps my hand and tells me if wishes were horses, beggars would ride

Author – Eric Matthies

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