Finding Rural Ghana Behind the Veil of Tourism

by Jasmine Lau:

Two kids playing in Nzuelzu Village. (Lau/TYG)

While I grew up in the “concrete forests” of Hong Kong, I have always been attracted to villages like a moth to light behind a closed window. Rural life intrigues me, but has always eluded my grasp. Villages are the living embodiments of endangered values such as community, self-sufficiency, and interconnectedness with nature — yet they are also often the backdrop to chronic poverty, diseases, and many other tragedies. They are time capsules to the past, yet they are very much part of the present.  They are small, but collectively they make up more than 55% of the Ghanaian population.

Photos of Nzuelzu Village:

Nzuelzu: the Village on Stilts, a settlement located on one side of Lake Tadane. Legend has it that their ancestors were guided to this spot by a snail. (Lau/TYG)
During the wet season, the village can be accessed only by boat. Visitors are given a 45-minute kayak ride down the river through jungles and wetlands. (Lau/TYG)
Nzuelzu Village scenes. (Lau/TYG)
The local school at the village has very basic facilities. The community is trying to raise funds to improve their school and to hire better teachers. (Lau/TYG)
This is the only speedboat in the community, used for medical emergencies. At the back is a spirit house. New babies are baptized in the lake, as it is believed to protect them from drowning. (Lau/TYG)

I visited three villages throughout my stay. Village tours are still a relatively new concept in Ghana; most travelers come for the historic sites or wildlife sanctuaries. Tourism for these communities is a double-edged sword, as it brings in both income and foreign exposure which inevitably changes the lifestyles and mindsets of the villagers. Larabanga Village, one of the most well-known villages due to the Larabanga Mosque, the oldest and holiest mosque in Ghana, struck us as very commercialized. It’s not the gimmicky commercialization I’m used to in China of staged cultural performances and reconstructed historical sets, but instead a more subtle commercialization of the people and their attitudes.

The entire tour lasted no more than 20 minutes, but aside from the entrance fee, the village head needed to be paid, the guide and his friend wanted tips, the school requested donations, and a group of teenagers followed us the entire time, pestering us to buy them soccer balls to practice with. It was an uncomfortable experience that reminded me of the paradox of tourism: travelers seek authenticity, but there is no authenticity in tourism.

Photos of Larabanga Village:

The Larabanga Mosque is the oldest mosque in Ghana. It is built in the mud-and-stick Sudanese architectural style. (Lau/TYG)
Villagers at Larabanga Mosque. (Lau/TYG)
Tour guide (in blue) and friends lounging around waiting for tourists. (Lau/TYG)
Sullen boy in Obama shirt. (Lau/TYG)

After the Larabanga experience, I was skeptical of other village tours, but I read in my guidebook about a locally-founded sustainable development program that offered tours of traditional village compounds and rural industries, which piqued my interest. I called the number listed in the guidebook and the manager, Walisu, showed up at our hotel to take us to the village. He was a lean, well-spoken man in his late 20s, a developmental studies major from one of the top universities in Ghana who came back after graduation to help his hometown in northern Ghana. The northern region of Ghana has always lagged behind, economically and politically, from its southern counterpart. There are no cash crops or minerals to be exploited, and tourism is also relatively undeveloped and contained to Mole National Park. There is also a cultural divide as many of these villages and cities are predominantly Muslim.

Walisu, the manager of the village developmental projects. (Lau/TYG)

Walisu saw tourism as a way to acquire the necessary funds to achieve developmental goals. He thought that the North had more to offer than just wildlife tourism, so he first tried out his idea on his own village by bringing people his neighborhood to show them how the villagers process shea butter, spin cotton, and make pottery. The response was extremely positive; the village received a lot of money and donations, which then went to support the building of a primary school and a micro-loan program for women to take sewing classes and to start their own sewing businesses. His project was so successful that he got a sponsor and was able to expand his model to six other villages. He would approach a village, propose the idea, set up a village committee to handle the funds and to come up with a plan of investment, and then train the local youth to be guides. He emphasized quality of experience over quantity of tourists, believing that only through a heartfelt, genuine, welcoming tour could one inspire the tourists to support the program in the long-term.

Indeed, when he showed us around the village that was his newest project site, I found the whole experience very intimate. We were treated like honored guests, friends of Walisu, and invited into the villagers’ homes. We watched in amazement as an elderly lady deftly spun cotton using a spindle and a distaff, a pre-industrial method long supplanted by spinning wheels and mechanization but still very common in poor countries. We played chess with some of the men in the village, and laughed at the kids chasing goats. Though we planned to have a 2 hour visit, Walisu never rushed us, and it was at nightfall – after almost 3 and a half hours had passed — that we bid our goodbyes, heartened by the idealism of Walisu and satisfied that we finally had gotten a short, but true, glimpse into rural Ghana.

Photos of the Sustainable Development Muslim Village:

A boy chases goats. (Lau/TYG)
Children stand in front of their home. (Lau/TYG)
A Muslim woman who just came back from prayer. (Lau/TYG)
A girl dressed in traditional hand-woven kente clothing. (Lau/TYG)
Drying shea nuts in the sun to produce shea butter. (Lau/TYG)
Grinding the shea nuts. (Lau/TYG)
Women at work. (Lau/TYG)
A woman deftly spinning cotton by hand. (Lau/TYG)
Saying goodbye. (Lau/TYG)