Financial Times Saturday 26/08/1989
Ghana’s coast is studded with vivid reminders of West Africa’s first contact with Europeans over 500 years ago. Bleached, lime-washed trading ports built by the British, Dutch and Portuguese still dominate small coves and inlets along the rocky coast.
In the villages around the forts live communities of the Fanti tribe. Tough, hard people, their forebears worked the surf-boats which carried thousands of terrified slaves from the hinterland of Africa out to waiting ships. Today, the Fantis are fishermen. In long dug-outs, powered by sails or out-board motor, they travel for hundreds of miles searching out new fishing grounds on the rich continental shelf off the coast.
Late last year, on a trip along the coast from Cote d’Ivoire to Ghana’s capital, Accra, I arrived one evening in a crowded bush taxi at the fishing village of Dixcove. There had been no electricity in Dixcove for about 20 years, and stalls along the main street were lit with flickering oil lamps made from sardine tins. With a small boy as guide I set off down the street. We passed a simple church; looking in, I saw a group standing by the light of an oil lamp, singing hymns.
“Come in, brother, come in,” urged a voice from the gloom. I went in and joined a grey-haired man in one of the back pews. “We are Methodists,” he said. “Of what persuasion are you?” He was overjoyed to hear that I came from Cornwall, stronghold of the Methodist founder, John Wesley.
My new friend, Joshua M’mboah, accompanied me to the fort. He told me that he was a “boat father” and that he owned three fishing canoes which he leased out to fishermen in the village. I leapt at the chance when he asked if I wanted to go fishing. I had fished for whiting in a force seven off Plymouth and reckoned I could easily handle the warm, tranquil waters of the Bight of Benin.
At the village’s trading fort, the caretaker’s wife, whom everyone called Auntie Beatrice, issued me with an oil lamp and bucket and showed me to a room overlooking the central courtyard. A bare truckle bed and chair were the only furniture. At dawn, the courtyard echoed with the cry: “Nicholas, get up.” Peering blearily from my window, I saw Joshua below with a stocky, muscular man by his side. As I joined them, Joshua said: “This is Kingsley. He doesn’t speak English but he’s going fishing today.” Kingsley gave me a crushing handshake and we arranged to meet that afternoon.
Clutching water bottle and camera, I joined a crowd of people on the beach below the fort. Market women were haggling over last night’s catch. I noticed, uneasily, that among the piles of fish was a large hammerhead shark. But there was no time for second thoughts. I heard a shout and there was Kingsley waving from a large dug-out.
The craft was about 25ft long and hollowed from one great tree. There was no decking, only six broad thwarts under which an immense net was stowed. I shook hands with Eric and John, the two crew members who looked as if they were about 14 years old, and then found a comfortable niche on the net.
With a roar, the large out-board started up and the canoe surged forward. In a few minutes, the coast had disappeared behind us in the orange-brown haze of the harmattan – a fog of fine dust blown down from the Sahara. John, the helmsman, motioned me aft where there was shelter from the spray as we forged into the gloom.
As we ploughed on, Eric told me his story in halting English. The three of them worked the boat for a percentage of the catch. Both net and engine were owned by separate “fathers”, who each received a portion of the day’s fishing. Petrol was the major expense, he said. The thirsty 25hp out-board consumed nearly 45 galloons of fuel per 18-hour trip. “Some days we don’t make anything,” he said glumly.
At sundown, after 2 ½ hours and about 15 miles from the shore, Eric went forward and began preparing the net. Five hurricane lamps were lit to be attached to floats as the long net was paid out. Kingsley cut the engine and the dug-out drifted broadside-on to the long Atlantic swell.
With great agility, three of them balancing on the thwarts of the rolling canoe, they man-handled the end of the net into the sea. Kingsley managed to stand and, holding out his arms in the cruciform, said a short prayer. “To God?” I whispered to Eric. “Yes… and others,” he replied, tersely.
Over the next three hours, the two kilometre drift net was paid out slowly over the side. The flickering lights on the floats faded away in the harmattan as we pitched and wallowed in the long swell. Trying desperately to focus on the few stars visible, I struggled with wave upon wave of nausea.
Eric broke into my reverie. They had finished paying out the net and had cooked a piece of tuna over a small brazier in the bow. “Mastah”, he said, “come, eat”. Without so much as a word of response, and with pride thrown to the wind, I threw up silently over the side.
I slept fitfully but was woken roughly by Eric. My foot was dangling over the side and splashed occasionally in the sea. “Move the foot,” he said, “or a shark will take it.” The fear of dismemberment is a marvellous cure for seasickness, and I slept well for the next two hours.
At about 1 am, the moon came up. The harmattan cleared and a mass of lights and the steady throbbing of a large diesel engine showed a cargo ship passing not far away. “Do canoes ever get run down?” I asked Eric. “Yes, but we have lights,” he said, pointing to the feeble, guttering hurricane lamp slung on the bow.
The long business of bringing in the net began, with Kingsley and John laboriously hauling the dripping mass of cordage into the canoe. It took an hour and we caught only one large sailfish and a few small tuna.
With the net stowed, we started the engine and headed back towards the coast. After an hour Kingsley killed the engine and listened. Smells of wet forest and the sound of breaking surf meant that land was not far away. Once again, we bedded down on the thwarts. “Can’t land at night,” said Eric, “… too dangerous.”
At dawn, cramped and cold, we got under way and ran along the coast just beyond the line of heavy surf. Smaller canoes under tattered sails made of old sacking crossed our course on their way to the fishing grounds. Finally, the promontory came into sight and we surfed past the fort into Dixcove.
Joshua M’mboah was waiting for us and clambered on board as soon as the canoe grounded on the beach. “Not much of a catch,” he said, looking at the sailfish and tuna lying in the bilge of the canoe. “Won’t even pay for the fuel.”
I said goodbye to the crew and slipped them about £3, or a week’s wages. As I walked unsteadily up the beach, Joshua told me that fishing was bad this year. “But come back again in July,” he said. “That’s when we catch plenty fish, and big sharks too.”
I thanked him, but my mind was made up already. If ever I went fishing again, it would be from the end of pier.