Ghana’s floating village is trying to balance its ancient traditions in a modern world
With stilt structures over water and houses built from branches of raffia palm, Nzulezo in Jomoro district of western Ghana could pass for a less elaborate version of Venice, Italy.
Built over the Lake Tandane, Nzulezo derives its name from a local language, Nzema, meaning “surface of water.”
The village, 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Accra, Ghana’s capital city for many centuries has coexisted with nature and is a perfect symbiosis of people and Earth.
More than 500 others live in Nzulezo where all of life’s daily chores from the preparation of meals to children going to school take place on water.
John Arthur, a 60-year-old community elder says the first inhabitants of the Nzulezo migrated from Mali in the 15th century after a war with the Mande people of West Africa over their fertile land and gold.
The legend is that Nzulezo ancestors were led by their god who appeared in the form of a snail to Lake Tandane in today’s Ghana.
“The spirit told them to build their houses on the water for safety and security,” Arthur said.
Tourism on stilts
Many centuries after, residents in Nzulezo still live on wooden structures.
David Blay, one of the local tour guides in the community says every family in modern Nzulezo has its own street, and every street is named after the head of that family.
Every family member also owns a canoe. “One for the father, one for the mother and one for the children,” Blay told CNN. “It’s the only means of transport here.”
Beyond Ghana’s borders, the village on water is famous for its local gin known as Akpeteshi, which attracts visitors from around the world keen to taste the gin made from raffia palm.
“Tourism here started 20 years ago. Most people travel out of different towns in Ghana, some of them come and taste the alcohol here. They feel it is far different and tastes good compared to other places,” Blay said.
Nzulezo, which is on the tentative list to be one of the world’s cultural heritage sites, is also known for its rare turtle species, monkeys and crocodiles.
Residents benefit from tourist charity donations. “When tourists come, they buy food items and souvenirs. Some even come along with gifts to support the community,” he said.
Ancient customs vs modern world
People in Nzulezo have maintained their traditional mode of living for many centuries, but they have introduced certain modern comforts such as electricity which means they no longer rely on kerosene and lanterns to power up.
They also hope to build a 24-hour healthcare facility. Nzulezo residents are making a case to local authorities to have a health care facility built for them.
Eckah Ebuley, one of few nurses caring for the sick in the village, says residents have to travel five kilometers by boat to see a doctor.
“When a woman is in labor they have to come to the facility to be delivered. But we have started educating them not to wait until labor time before coming,” he said.
There is also a transportation problem.
“Sometimes we will be at the boat station and no boat will come. Sometimes the boat will come but come late. So mothers will get tired of waiting for us when we are late and go home or to the farm” Ebuley said.
Not enough teachers
Being on water also makes it hard to recruit teachers to teach Nzulezo children.
Evans Cudjoe, headteacher of the village’s only primary school says new teachers employed by the government don’t come back after their first visit to the community.
“They say they are scared of the lake, so when they go, they never come back,” he told CNN.
Cudjoe, who has been teaching in Nzulezo for nine years says he believes that there aren’t enough incentives to make teachers stay.
“There is no safety allowance, no safety equipment. I think if all of these things are being done by the government, teachers will be willing to come and teach,” he said.
Despite glaring challenges, some of Cudjoe’s students have left Nzulezo for further education, including university and they are thriving, he says.
“I have a lady, she’s now a nurse, and I have a man who is now in university. Plenty of them, about 15 are now in senior high outside the village,”
But while residents of Nzulezo are open to satisfying some modern needs, they still feel strongly about maintaining their traditional lifestyle says community elder, John Arthur.
“Our life here is very comfortable for us. We cook here, we enjoy ourselves, we entertain ourselves, the children also. What is done on land is certainly done here too. We prefer to stay,” he said.