Xmas in the middle of a lake: Tales from Nzulenzu (pg 45 & 61)

In the absence of merry making, these children find solace in fishing in the murky waters of Nzulezo
  In the absence of merry making, these children find solace in fishing in the murky waters of Nzulezo
 


Rain fell like tiny teardrops from the dark sky, somewhere behind a bank of clouds lay the moon, too weak to cast a shadow on the blackish lake or the wooden structures on stilt.
Oblivious of the showers, a group of bare-chested and barefooted boys and girls run in circles, twisting and jumping to Fuse ODG’s hit song, Antenna, which is blaring from two giant speakers in front of a drinking spot.
A battle of fire crackers ensues as two groups of children throw the explosives at each other, occasionally jumping into the lake to escape the bang.
The whole scene is like a massive carnival without the crowd to rock it. It is 7 p.m. on Christmas eve at Nzulezo, Ghana’s ‘little Venice’ nestled in the heart of the Amazuri wetlands in the Jomoro District in the Western Region.
A girl busily cooking banku on Christmas Day at Nzulezo.A girl busily cooking banku on Christmas Day at Nzulezo.A girl busily cooking banku on Christmas Day at Nzulezo.
Life at Nzulezo
Life at Nzulezo cannot be described as rosy. There is no health facility. The sick and pregnant women have to be ferried between five and 10 kilometres to the nearest health facility at Eikwei.  But first, they  have to reach Beyin, the nearest town by the roadside, before travelling almost 30 minutes by road to Eikwe in the Nzema East District, also in the Western Region.
Women in their period are not allowed to wash down in the village. They leave the community early in the morning in their canoes to bath outside the Nzulezo vicinity.
The reason, Mr Erzoah said, was that it was a taboo for women in their menses to bath within the immediate environs of the community. The irony, however, is that the people urinate in  to,  bath and wash in the very water they drink.
“By age three, most of the children know how to swim. By seven years, they can catch fish.”
The only school on the ‘stilt island’ is a windowless primary school with only five teachers- the headmaster is the only trained teacher. His subordinates are five pupil teachers paid by the community.
For a community whose pupils, including 13-year old Kaku, could neither speak nor write English, the blackboard had some few Japanese words—a handiwork of a Japanese volunteer.
The History
Nzulezo’s history is one shrouded in mystery.  The inhabitants claim their ancient village came into existence between the 14th and 15th century. They migrated from Mali after years of wars with the people of what is now present day Senegal. Led by a snail god, they hustled through the dry lands of Nzema before seeking refuge in their present settlement.
“If we leave here, an epidemic will break out and we’ll all die,” one of the villagers told me as we paddled through a rather small opening on the lake comically known as ‘monkey maternity’ because it was where a barrel of monkeys hang out.
Nzulezo welcomes guests willing to spend the night in the Home Stay Guest House Nzulezo welcomes guests willing to spend the night in the Home Stay Guest House Nzulezo welcomes guests willing to spend the night in the Home Stay Guest House
Fascinating buildings
The most fascinating features that catch the eye at Nzulezo are the shanty wooden homes standing on wooden legs  propped up by strong stilted pillars buried deep in the lake. Each house is built with bamboos, woods and roofed with aluminium and zinc sheets.
To keep the structures up, the stilts are regularly changed as soon as they begin to show signs of decay. The community is also partly on a dry land where there are toilet facilities for both visitors and inhabitants.
In all, there are 19 stilt blocks, each accommodating two or three rooms. This is home to some 450 or 500 people, depending on who you are talking to.
Here, apart from Multi TV dishes that keep the community linked to the dry land beyond the murky waters, telecommunication constantly suffers epileptic seizures. No telephone calls go through.
The houses within the village are linked to one another by a number of narrow walkways which enable residents and visitors to move easily from one end to the other.
With darkness enveloping the entire community, loud and spontaneous cheers exploded when the streetlights that cast their bright lights on the creaky floorboards serving as the only street in the community and the dance floor came on.
The streetlight gingered an instant azonto competition, forcing children who were helping their parents in the kitchen to abandon their chores to join the craze.
Older men beaming with smiles sat in groups emptying a pot of palm wine, while some of the women with the support of their daughters got busy in the kitchen preparing the night’s meal.
“Christmas celebration has just begun,” Daniel, the owner of the Home Stay Guest House, one of two lodges in the community, said while tightening screws on a speaker outside before moving it into his drinking spot.
In spite of its small size, Nzulezo boasts of six drinking spots and a restaurant under construction which is scheduled to be opened on December 28, 2013.
A dream of a man who only gave his name as Christian was the establishment of the most glamorous structure in the community, with fancy green roof to serve both local and international dishes.
By 10 p.m., the showers had ceased but the tempo of the celebration was gone although all six drinking spots increased the volumes of their speakers.
With the exception of one person who refused to go down easily, the remaining dancers had fallen asleep, their snores blending in cacophonic sounds.
The noisy firecracker-throwing children also succumbed to fatigue and were cuddled in the arms of their parents.
By 12 a.m., almost the entire community was asleep, but the music continued loud deep into the night until I surrendered to sleep myself.
Christmas Day
At 6 a.m. on Christmas Day, the loud music had been reduced to seasonal greetings read by a raspy-voice presenter Ahomka FM.
Everyday life for the many indigenes of Nzulezo centre around paddling and rowing through the murky waters of the Amanzuri – but this does not stop their commercial side.
By 8 a.m., the silence returned, women left in boats to sell locally made gin distilled by their men and cassava from their farms, returning with bread and other goods in the evening.
A huge can of tomato paste sat by an old lady who sold it in spoonful at 10 pesewas per portion.
Some of the men also take advantage of the tourists streaming in to sell their iconic carved canoes—a symbol of their triumph over the vast lake and the only means of transport.
Children took plates to buy rice and beans from a food vendor whose icy eyes did not encourage photography.
Rather sadly, the festive mood, the food and drinks, the conventional Christmas atmosphere had disappeared---a false hope from the activities of the night before.
Nzulezo has a ‘Melcome’ too, here, one of the tourist buys from the shop.Nzulezo has a ‘Melcome’ too, here, one of the tourist buys from the shop.Nzulezo has a ‘Melcome’ too, here, one of the tourist buys from the shop.
No Xmas, no church
Between the two churches---the Nzulezo Christ the King Catholic Church and the Nzulezo Methodist Church, the latter was prepared for a Christmas service but the congregation was nowhere to be found.
Eight plastic chairs lined up in front of the  pulpit in the fancy church built with plastic panelling, obviously standing out as the most elegant structure.
The Catholic Church, on the other hand, had a building that had seen better days, a single plastic chair was in the middle of the room.
“Most of the people who go to the church have either gone to the market or have travelled so it doesn’t look like there would be any church activity today,” 13-year-old Kaku told the Daily Graphic.
But for Francis Erzoah, the village historian and wood carver, the low key celebration of the birth of Christ was because “We don’t celebrate Christmas that much here. Ours is the New Year. If you come here during the New Year, you’ll be surprised.”
In the absence of the music, the food and the fanfare, children found solace in fishing just behind their houses—disentangling fish from nets that had been laid the night before.
“We don’t sell it. We use it at home. If we have a lot of it, my mother makes kako (dried salted fish) out of it,” Kwame said.
Asked what Christmas was about, he smiled, shook his head and mumbled something about Jesus before paddling away.
Writer’s email:seth.bokpe@graphic.com.gh 

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