“You must appreciate that if I get reports about ‘galamsey’ and we trace it to any particular chief, we know what to do with that; so let us appreciate that,” the Asantehene warned his sub-chiefs. According to him, illegal small-scale miners are a national challenge and they must be contained.
The Asantehene said: “In terms of galamsey, we know it is a national issue, but I do not think we should allow this practise to come to this place. I am saying that we don’t have to allow that to come to this place. No matter what, no matter who has whatever money, you don’t have to allow this to come here,” he stressed.
His warning followed a working visit he paid to Newmont Ghana mines in the Brong Ahafo Region. But in the circumstances prevailing in Ghana, where rural poverty is widespread but generally ignored by the state that only looks after those who are supposed to manage its resources for all its people, it may sound heartless to point a finger of condemnation at poor people who have found a way – known as galamsey – of trying to make a living.
Indeed, when I myself first heard of the galamsey phenomenon, I just laughed. It was the language that caught my attention. Who on earth had jumbled together the words, “Gather-am-and-sell” into such a neat, simple construction as galamsey?
I just relegated the word to the back of my mind, unwilling to dwell on an unpleasant undertaking that often ends in death or injury for its practitioners. After all, people often went into the bush to do dangerous things. Some went to deprive bees of their honey – only to be painfully stung doing that. Sometimes, people actually died from an over-dose of bee-stings.
Rat-catchers were also exposed to serious danger at times. They could be surprised by poisonous snakes that appeared unexpectedly from the holes that they thought contained the bush rats that they hunted, sometimes with their dogs. Well, if a black mamba, eyes reddened by smoke, charged at you, your dogs would run and leave you, and you would learn that there are easier ways of making a living than by trying to smoke bush-rats out of rat-holes. Who could ever know what a rat-hole contained?
As time went on, however, one heard that it was not so much the normal risks associated with bush activities that were dogging the galamsey operators as their own handiwork. One read that as many as 10 or more people were sometimes buried in one mine accident as the deep holes they had themselves dug to find gold caved in, burying them alive.
But then, a new concern emerged – the destruction of the countryside. You see, “panning” sand or soil in order to find the gold from it needs water; a lot of water. And so galamsey was necessarily carried out near rivers and streams whenever possible.
But these rivers and streams are, of course, the very heart and soul – no less – of our countryside. The rivers and streams all have a tiny source, usually in a hill or cave far from human habitations. As these streams descend, they are joined by other tributaries that are on a similar journey. By the time humans find the water attractive enough to make them wish to settle nearby, the streams and rivers would have become quite large; at least big enough to convince those who founded our villages and towns that they had come across a good site for permanent settlement.
For the people of old were extremely careful in everything they did. Without a year-round supply of good, clean water that was not only safe to drink but pleasant to the taste, no settlement could survive. And they were determined, above all, not to allow their descendants to be, as they put it graphically, “burned out” or decimated. (Won mma won ase nnhye!)
So once a river or stream had been selected as the principal source of water, strict rules for its preservation were issued and taught to new generations. It was forbidden, for instance, to fell the trees that shaded the banks of the rivers and streams. This was to prevent the running water being exposed directly to the harshness of the sun and evaporating, or making it too warm to give a refreshing drink to humans. Also, no-one was allowed to farm too close to the rivers and streams, as the roots of the food plants would suck up too much water from the water-table which replenished the river’s waters. Of course, this rule was in the farmers’ own interest, as rivers and streams could burst their banks during heavy rainstorms and overrun crops planted too close to a river or stream.
These rules were well known to every indigenous son or daughter of a village or town, and there were hardly any cases of disobedience that could lead to punishment. If one’s fellow villagers saw someone breaking, or about to break one of these rules, he or she would immediately draw the attention of the person breaking the rule to the fact that he or she was doing something that wrong. Usually, the person henceforth desisted from the action and nothing more was heard of it. However, a recalcitrant person who disregarded a fellow citizen’s friendly warning and continued to err would be reported to the chief of the town or village.
Merely being summoned before the chief and his 10 or 12 elders would be shameful enough. But the whole town or village was entitled to go and listen to what was happening. If the recalcitrant person was found guilty, he could be punished by being asked to provide the assembly with a pot of palm wine, a bottle or a half-bottle of the powerful, locally-brewed spirit called akpeteshie, several boxes of matches, or even actual money. But it was not only the fine that was painful. Before the fine would be imposed, the assembled elders and townspeople would be entitled to go to town about the guilty person’s bad behaviour. At such a time, one should pray not to have an enemy within the group of elders, for that enemy — or others who had stored a resentment against one of which one was probably not even aware – would take the opportunity to tear one to pieces (so to speak) in front of the whole public. This would continue as and when the drink one had been forced to purchase was being drunk.
As more people got drunk, so would the condemnation that issued forth from the gathering. So one was made to provide the “fuel” for one’s own character assassination! And God help you if you protested! One of the chief’s guards would come and slap the miscreant – the greater the amount of drink the guard had consumed, the mightier would be the slap and the ever sharper insults that accompanied it!
You see, in our traditional society, everyone’s business was literally everyone else’s business, and for a very good reason. If the water dried up because of an individual’s stupid behaviour, everyone would suffer. So why should a fool be left to go on being foolish? If he was not checked, what would he do next to endanger everyone else’s existence?
Communal action was so dear to the heart of our villages and towns that they had special names for the particular exercises in which everyone was expected to take part. The most common of them was akwanbor (clearing the roads and paths to the rivers and streams as well as to farms). Weeds were also cleared from the environs of the water-courses, in case strayed into the water.
Good husbandry of this sort enabled rivers and streams to survive and remain healthy, and they, in their turn, ensured that the people of a locality remained constantly supplied with good, clean water — the essence of life for every man and beast. Other community actions included apportioning land for farming (twitwa kyekyer asaase).
For hundreds of years, if not thousands, such activities had been the hallmark of the relationship that our people had developed to be able to tame Mother Nature. They looked after their environment and their environment looked after them, each ensuring the other’s survival. Indeed, so crucial was it to preserve the balance between man and environment that sometimes our clever ancestors even resorted to “magical” or “metaphysical” elements to protect our lands and water sources. For instance, many rivers and streams were given human names and regarded as superhuman entities! On their “name-days”, people were not allowed to go near the rivers to fetch water, or cross them to go to farms.
have empirical knowledge of this: in my own town, Asiakwa, one river, Twafuor, was named “Yaw” (born on Thursday) and on Thursdays, its environs became a “no-go” area. Only strangers or the wilfully unenlightened would go anywhere near it on that day. Whoever disobeyed the taboo would be told of it by any townsman or townswoman who saw the taboo being broken. A second offence would end in the chief’s court — as already described.
“Twafo Yaw” had his own priestess, who officiated at ceremonies meant to reinforce his sacredness. This lady, in her element, had an onomatopoeic way of imitating the way a river runs over rocks: gbi-gbi-gbu-gbu-gbi-gbi-gbu-gbu! She was particularity in evidence during festivals, such as Ohum and Odwira, during which she could be heard declaiming the appelations of her river:
A memene Birem!
(Here he is,
The tiny stream
That swallows the mighty Birem)
Birem was the biggest river in Akyem Abuakwa, and the boast of the Twafuor priestess was predicated on the fact that Twafuor and Birem both originated from the Atewa hills and joined each other at one point in the hills. It would be unthinkable for our ancestors to have invented a lie and make Twafuor swallow Birem, if it was not based on solid fact.
For one thing, some of them crossed the Birem on their way to nearby villages such as Agyepomaa, Asafo, Bunso and Maase, and given their belief that rivers possessed strange powers, they would not have dared to “downgrade” Birem in favour of Twafuor, as Birem, when it was in flood, was a pretty mighty and angry body of water. It was known to drown, on occasion, even people who had not offended it in any way. How much more those who deliberately downgraded it in favour of a much smaller stream like Twafuor? Anyway, what did it matter whether Birem was a tributary of Twafuor or vice versa? They each held a vital key to the sustenance of life in Akyem Abuakwa, did they not?
That was probably one of the reasons why fishing in Twafuor’s waters – not only on Thursdays but on any day – was asking for real trouble. One Asiakwa man who thought that the very fat tilapia and mud-fish in the river were too good to be allowed to go to waste and thus helped himself liberally to them, with a net — no less — came to a mysterious end. He apparently believed that because he had been baptised as a Christian and he had seen military service fighting the Japanese in Burma in World War Two (where he had been a witness to truly awful atrocities) he had been liberated from all “superstitious” taboos.
What happened to him was that he soon began to develop very odd patterns of behaviour. He would hold military parades — all by himself. For example, he would march on our streets, all alone, occasionally shouting: “Attention!” At this, he would stop dead. Then he would say (with a faint smile on his lips): “Haaaaatayze!” (at ease).
He would now stand still for a minute or two, arms akimbo, before setting off again, marching in a straight line while shouting: “One-two! … One-two!”
After this man had been doing this for a while, children crossed the street away from him and walked the other way (or even in another direction) whenever they saw him coming towards them.
Eventually, the man began to talk incessantly to himself, smile and occasionally, even break into a broad smile or laugh. Some said that when these peculiar events occurred, he was remembering how he had used a “bennet” (bayonet) to kill people in Burma. Others speculated that he was remembering what had happened when he visited brothels in India and East Africa, on his way to and from Burma, when he and other soldiers being shipped to the war-front were given a day or two’s shore leave.
Needless to say, the man died not too long after he arrived back home from Burma. Almost everyone who knew the man’s story believed that the River Twafuor had taken revenge on him.
Our other river, Supong, was not so “belligerent” and it was loved rather than feared. It was much bigger than Twafuor, and perhaps because it stood a greater chance of survival, not so many taboos were erected to accord it protection from the populace. It was given a name all the same – Kwasi (born on Sunday). But fishing in it was allowed. And there were many deep sections along its course that were turned into delectable swimming pools by used by kids.
Water from Supong was amazingly cool, for it flowed down from thickly forested hills in the mist-topped Atewa Range rainforest. I’ve never drunk any water as delicious as water from Supong, cooled in my mother’s ahina (large earthen water-pot). She usually re-baked this pot upside down, over a hot fire into which she had placed dried husks that had once contained palm-nuts from an oil-palm tree. As the wisps of smoke rose from the burning palm husks, it scented the inside of the pot and gave the water that was put into the pot, a faint taste of dried palm husks. I know this is a matter of personal taste, of course, but I swear I have never drunk any water that was as lovely as water from Supong that had been given my mother’s special treatment.
I do not know how the women of Asiakwa got to know of this technique of turning their water-pots into “nectar-breweries”, but almost all my women relatives did it in their own homes, too. So, if I was coming home from school at noon-time, I made for the first house in which one of my relatives lived and was sure to get a cool drink that immediately managed to take my mind off the pangs of hunger that were making my tummy rumble at that time of day. Well, until I reached my own home.
Now, sad to say, Twafuor has dried up and Supong too has been reduced into a lean trickle whose dry riverbed sometimes contains no water at all but sand and brown mud! WHAT? You mean the mighty River Supong? Yes!
Shall one weep? Can one’s tears fill the riverbed with the cool clean water to which one was born and to which every person at Asiakwa and Nsutem owes his or her life?
What shall we tell our ancestors when we meet them in the afterlife? That we sat down and watched helplessly while chainsaw operators cut down all the protective trees that had kept our rivers and streams alive in the past? That we allowed galamsey operators to use cyanide and other chemicals to poison our drinking water?
Or that we continue to sit and watch with folded hands, as these same galamsey operators dig deep pits all around our villages and towns – in search of gold – which they leave uncovered and which, when it rains, become filled with water into which people can slip into and be drowned or seriously injured?
That there are galamsey pits and holes near a secondary school at Kyebi, our capital, that have killed at least one student? That people are in danger of injury, when they are engaging in their normal pursuit of going to their farms?
It is time to put a stop to it. I read that the Okyenhen, Osagyefo Amoatia Ofori Panin, had made a heartfelt cry to the Ghana government to arrest people– “including chiefs” – who collaborate with galamsey operators and facilitate their operations in Akyem Abuakwa.
But I ask: Has the Okyenhen not got power to bring to trial before his State Council, and destool chiefs who act contrary to the interests of the people they have sworn a sacred Oath to serve? By calling on the Central Government, I am afraid the Okyenhen is barking up the wrong tree. For everyone calls on the government but neglects to do what they can do themselves.
Clearly, in the galamsey case, what is needed is self-help. In the past, when the survival of their people was at stake, our ancestors banded together to defend themselves. They had proper armies for wars, and “Asafo” (massed group) in peace time.
The first time I saw an Asafo in action was when a calamity occurred sat Asiakwa – a tree branch broke and killed a woman who was on her way back home from her farm. Within minutes of the “Kyirem” drums of the Asafo being beaten, men had assembled and gone into the bush to fetch her dead body home.
What indeed has happened to our Asafo groups? If the Okyenhen is serious about stopping galamsey from destroying his state, then I implore him, in consultation with his chiefs, to issue an edict asking them to re-form the Asafo of their towns and villages.
The Okyeman [State] Council should do this openly and even invite the police to come and co-operate in their exercises, if they like, so as to obviate any suspicion that they are up to political activities or something underhand – in these days of distrust.
Little or no force will be needed to stop the galamsey operators in their tracks, once they realise that whole masses of communities are being mobilised to prevent them from destroying our countryside.
The people of Winneba, in Ghana’s Central Region, have proudly managed to maintain their Asafo groups to catch deer during their annual Deer-hunt Festival. But the Winneba Deer-hunt is only a cultural event.
The Akyems and others who are facing the daily destruction of their territory should learn from the Winneba example that it is possible to maintain a traditional force (Asafo) in their area.
By destroying sources of water and blocking the supply to farms, what are the galamsey operators doing exactly?
No-one has the right to ask someone else’s nation to commit collective suicide. If the victims of galamsey sit down and do nothing, they will be committing suicide, no less.