chainsaws and fishing boats

Everything is connected. Earlier in this blog I wrote about the decrease of the rain forest in Ghana and all over West Africa.

When the access to charcoal and firewood diminishes and prices rise in a country where nearly everybody is cooking on little welded stoves at the back of their houses on aluminum pots, the situation gets tense.

As everywhere else in the world, wood is a multi-purpose resource which is used in a large variety of businesses and trades.

Building houses, construction work, heavy-duty carts, cooking equipment, fuel and last but not least fishing boats all depend on the logging of the extremely dense woods of the tropical rain forest. The most vulnerable of all are the fishermen.

Their small margin is reinvested into their fishing equipment and the owning a boat is a dream for every fisherman that most of them will never fulfill.

The best boats are dugouts. Simply because they resist the aggressive saltwater longer and so the fishermen get more for their money.

Since most of the big trees are cut down already and replanting policies are non-existing it is really difficult and expensive to find trees big enough that can be used for fishing boats. Due to that, most of the boats are built from timber parts and beams which make the boat more vulnerable to the saltwater. Consequently the fishermen need to buy new boats more often, cutting back their already small margin from fishing and exposing them to an even more underprivileged lifestyle.

Sure, there are safer ways to dig out a trunk of a tree to create a new fishing boat than wearing sunglasses, a swim cap and walking bare-foot through the chippings from your four feet chain saw. But would you look as bad ass as him? I doubt it!
After watching him for 5 minutes cutting away wood at the trunk of the soon-to-be-boat I asked if I can take a picture. This was harder than I thought because unlike everybody else around me didn’t care that I was standing there and watching him doing his job for some time. With a simple nod he authorized me standing there and taking pictures.

The next thing, after finishing the work with the chainsaw is going to be the turning over of the boat. After that the starboard side of the boat is being processed with a flex.

All I could think of was: how are they going to drag the boat to the beach?
At least 100 meter just with muscle power. Through the whole community of Jamestown harbor. Through the little skewed huts and dusty alleys, passing big ovens to smoke the fish, the market hall (which is not more than concrete floor, metal poles and corrugated sheets) and tiny shops selling everything a fisher needs, from hooks and anchors welded from construction steel to nets as well as nails to build and repair the ships.

It’s a different world down in Jamestown and I feel that people here treat you as what you are. They remind you in their way that you are a social alien to their community. That no matter how silent you stand aside and try to be ignored and blend in with the houses, a crowd of kids will stare at you or passing fishermen will look at you suspicious.
I am very much interested in this community but feel that staying longer might only create tensions and this is the last I want.

Jamestown

Usshertown and Jamestown have a lot in common. Because so many people live in this oldest parts of Accra, the drive in the streets is even bigger than anywhere else. Nowhere in this town are so many shops and chop bars. There is an uncountable number of people on the streets and you can’t really tell what they are doing. There is everything in this part of the town.

I walk down the street, coming from the Accra train station and trying to find my way to the Jamestown Lighthouse, build in the 1870s and rebuild in the 1930s it is still run by a local family to guide the fishermen and other ships in a range of 30km. Apparently, for a fee of 5 Cedi, you can climb the tower and have a magnificent view over the community.

Even though the area is considered as the poorest and most densely populated in whole of Accra, the people are very friendly and welcoming, though I can see on their faces, that they are even more astound to see a young white man walking their streets.
These communities are used to Europeans, but mostly those being on a 4×4 socio-safari. Dressed in khaki shorts and hats they carefully look around before they take a picture or access their khaki colored money belt.
When the local culture is enough appreciated they like to go back to their AC cars and drive back to the Labadi Beach Hotel or Golden Tulip.

While I walk down the street to the coast, I can feel the breeze. Suddenly it is there. 30┬░C and a humidity level of at least 80% in combination with a skin-eating sun makes you crave for a some cold wind from the sea.
The thousands of little swat pearls on your body evaporate quicker as you might think and your body cools down significantly.

A lot of the building around are still from the colonial period. Adjusted to up to date standards with corrugated rooftops and satellite antennas. They blend in with other old storage buildings, some partly collapsed but still in use. Inside one of the storage buildings young men sit between huge piles of carton and fold boxes for the export of yam and casawa. All day every day. One of the old storage rooms seems to be a local mosque, another had a large fleet of NESCAFE cars waiting for their vendor.

The breeze is becoming stronger. The sun is still very strong at this time, resulting in the usual ‘shadow-hopping’ behavior that many of you know. While enjoying the cooling breeze from the ocean, I dive into a new world.

Standing in front of the lighthouse and looking around makes you think that you switched between time zones.

The 1871 build/1930 rebuild colonial era lighthouse is worth a visit. Not because you can climb it and look over the whole community all the way to the city center, but because it stands for the past. The restless city with its skyline in the making is a stark contrast to the Jamestown community. Nothing has changed since I’ve been here more than 3 years ago.

After some bargaining with the young women who is guarding the key to the lighthouse I am allowed to climb the stairs. I insisted to go alone. If not, I would have ended up with one of the local ‘guides’ telling me stories I heard 5 times and asking for money.

There is no receipt for the entering and I doubt that the fee goes to the local municipality.
Climbing the circular stairs and reaching the top was liberating. You step out and you are at the ocean. Strong wind, sunshine and you smell the sea. Salt and water are in the air as well as the smell of smoke and fish.

Pausing for a moment in this busy city.

I stay for about half an hour and observe what is going on around me. A soccer tournament, a car accident, fishermen repairing their boats, a lonely fisherman sitting at the beach and buzzards flying around and looking for leftovers from the latest catch.

The Jamestown lighthouse is a witness of Ghanaian history and local every day life.

In the area there are four of those structural witnesses.

The lighthouse which guides ships in a range of 30 km and is a beautiful viewing point.

James Fort which is a former prison with its most prominent prisoner being Kwame Nkrumah in the pre-independence phase of the 1950s.

Lastly, the piers of Jamestown. One a stronghold against the endless waves of the ocean, protecting the community against the forces of mother nature. The other being a space that gradually changes its meaning to the local community.

In the morning fishermen use it to load and unload nets and their catch. The original purpose is later followed by young men strolling around on the pier; The front with its nice viewing point and the old harbor lantern is a frequented hang out spot.

In the afternoon, when the fishermen are back from the sea and have rested for a while, they start repairing their nets and sit on the pier chatting. At this time it is hard to climb the piles of fisher nets to get to the front. also because there are no poles or lines that would assist you. Two meters below, the big waves are coming in and the thought of falling is giving me goosebumps.
What is interesting to see is, of course you have to be of the detail loving species, that the old colonial railway that went down to the pier can still be seen. If you look closely you can see the gap in the piers surface that was left after the railway was taken out.

The pier serves the local fishermen also as toilet, since the local sanitation situation is very bad. Even in comparison with the situation in Accra which is not good at all. The ocean is carrying it away and since all the black water from Accra ends in the ocean anyway, a few fishermen’s turds won’t make a difference.

The great communal space is the beach. Where local guys sit between the boats and smoke weed, fishermen repair nets and boats and naked kids are playing in the waves. The big pier to the right is protecting them from the full force of the ocean and it seems that this is the only place kids can play and swim without getting sucked out and drown.

Going back to the main road and passing by the Brazilian house, a house renovated to pay tribute to the connection between West African communities and the Brazilian society (through the slave trade), gives me no doubt about the cultural and historical richness of Ghana and this community in particular.