You may accuse me of suffering from nostalgia for saying this, but I don't care: once, not too many moons ago, the forest areas of Ghana were a veritable Paradise.
Don't get me wrong – the savannah areas too were idyllic. I can't talk about them because I don't know them well enough. Well, except to say that one of the most amazing acts of kindness I have ever experienced occurred in the savannah.
I was standing at the Government Transport bus stop at Bolgatanga waiting for a bus to Bawku when a boy of about 10 came to chat to me.
I didn't understand a word he said. And when I replied, he didn't understand.
Having had enough of the mutual incomprehension, he darted off back to the hut that was his home. He returned with half a dozen eggs, a pot of water and a box of matches. As I watched him, completely unable to grasp what he was doing, he quickly gathered some dried twigs together and made a fire. In about five minutes, he'd boiled the six eggs. He offered them to me!
Now, in my young years, I was very fond of eggs. Thoughts of cholesterol and that type of thing never entered my head, for I was as thin as a rake. So I consumed the eggs readily. They were great: I couldn't quite tell whether they were chicken eggs or guinea fowl eggs. But they were delicious. The yolks were the most golden I'd ever seen.
I was travelling on a young journalist's impecunious budget, but I managed to find a coin which I thought would please the young boy. But when I offered it to him, he refused it point-blank. In fact, his facial expression indicated pain!
Very soon, my bus came and I had to cut short my ruminations about the different human beings we have on the earth and board it. I looked at the boy a long time before a curve in the road made him no longer visible. But I couldn't wipe away the image of his hand waving fondly at me – a total stranger he was never likely ever to see again.
Oh well – it's all right to have tears in your eyes even if you are no longer a boy, isn't it? But back to the forest: in those days, our parents – like all other parents in our village – were allocated a plot in the forest on which to make a farm.
We helped them do it, as best as our meagre strength (now usually referred to in economists' jargon as 'manpower resources') enabled us to do so. The whole family created the farm together and harvested it together when the foodstuffs were ready to be gathered. We hadn't heard of Karl Marx, yet we gave our services “each according to his ability” and we received from our farm, “each according to his need!”
The funny thing is that although we fulfilled one of his maxims for an ideal society, Karl Marx himself would probably have dismissed our society as “primitive” and “feudalistic” because our farmlands were doled to us under the supervision of our chief and his elders. Those of us affected didn't complain about the system under which we got our farms, but Marxist purists would most probably have condemned it on our behalf – had they been asked!
Well, we wouldn’t have cared. We made our farms and grew our crops on them. When harvest time came, we carried enough food home on our heads to feed ourselves. When our supply was exhausted, we went back to the farm to bring home some more food.
Nobody taught us to have a “balanced diet”. But somehow, we knew that yam, cocoyam and cassava (starchy foods) should be balanced with plantain (iron) and banana and other fruits (sugar) as well as vegetables (vitamins).
More importantly, we also knew that we ought to eat things that gave our bodies protein. This is where the fun began. We needed to cross several streams before we reached our farms. Streams full of fish, crabs and prawns. My father knew how to construct a trap out of dried raffia (mfea) and he ingenuously enticed the water creatures into the traps with raw cassava, raw pawpaw and other things that he somehow knew were delicacies with which to attract the water creatures inside the traps.
It was easy for the water creatures to enter the ingenious contraption that was the trap to eat these things. But once inside, they couldn't come out again. Instead, they became our delicacies.
There is no sight as edifying as watching one's father wade into the depths of a stream, pull out his well-hidden fish-trap (adwokuo) and empty its contents into a bucket or pan. Out of the trap, a variety of wriggling and writhing creatures – shrimps, eels, tilapia, crabs, minnows – emerged. Within a couple of hours, they would be enriching the taste of my mother's soup. Don't ask me what they tasted like or I shall cry on the spot!
There was a risk to this business of catching fish – on a rare occasion, a water-snake would be inside the trap and a faint-hearted father would drop the trap back into the water and forget all about its catch. But a tough dad would find a way of releasing the snake back into the water. If the task proved dangerous, he would find a way to slash off its head carefully with his cutlass.
On occasion – during the rainy season – we would watch my father almost disappear beneath the rushing waters as he tried to retrieve his traps. He could dive, and we knew this, yet we held our breath each time he went under. And we breathed in relief when he came up again for breath. Usually, the swollen river gave a much better catch than a placid one.
But sometimes, it also brought bigger snakes. Or worse, it dislodged the traps and carried them away! Sometimes, a long walk on the riverbank would show the traps wedged against the roots of an uprooted tree or a similar obstacle in the water. Eureka! It was all in a day's work, as far as my dad was concerned. He sighed sadly when the traps disappeared altogether or were destroyed by the strong current that powered the river's rushing waters.
Now, we kids absorbed a lot of knowledge by just watching my father, and eventually, we could do some of the things he did, when he happened not to be with us. My mother, of course, could inspect fish-traps without sweat when necessary. Gender differentiation only occurred in our family as a sort of luxury. When something needed to be done, whoever was around did it, boy, girl, man or woman.
Sometimes, I would ask to be allowed to do something I wasn't expected to do – such as get into the water and bring the traps up. But I was only allowed to do it in the areas where the water was not too deep.
You have not seen a happy boy until you see one who is sucking sweet juice out of the claws of a boiled crab which he took out of the water himself (at what he imagined was some risk to himself, although his mother would have been watching over him anxiously to ensure that he came to no harm whatsoever.)
On-land traps placed in strategic places in the forest were a different thing. They were more likely to catch dangerous snakes like the feared black mamba. Its very name was frightening in itself – oprammire! Another dangerous one also bore a horrid name – ocherebeng! So those traps were approached with a great deal of caution.
The traps were usually made out of a strong piece of wood which was bent into a bow, at whose end was attached a noose deftly crafted out of a piece of wire or very tough, extremely strong string.
Again,a variety of raw foodstuffs – cassava, cocoyam, plantains pawpaw and so on – were placed in the trap in such a way that any animal that tried to reach them would automatically dislodge a contraption that was attached to the bow, and would cause the bow to spring upwards suddenly wit great strength.
As it did so, the noose tightened and the animal whose head or paw was inside the wire or string when the bow sprang upwards was a goner. The noose tightened so hard that a paw inserted into the trap might be torn off and free the animal-prisoner.
Some animals became dangerous if they were caught only by the paw – especially, animals of the wild cat family, such as the civet cat (okankane) and its other cousins.
So we approached each trap with great caution. We teetered towards it, and if we saw that a bow was quite upright (nothing caught) then it was ok. If it was only 'half-standing', it meant it had caught something. But what? We would creep forwards and make sure it wasn't a snake before approaching it. The most treasured catch of all was a grass-cutter.
We also delighted in catching bush rats, duikers and bigger antelopes, as well as the occasional big buck. Some animals -- like the big black buck, eyuo, were so strong that they could uproot the bow of the trap and carry the entire trap away with them.
If their trail was followed, they might be found dead somewhere deep in the forest. But usually, they were allowed to go with their trouble. The variety of animals we could catch depended on how deeply into the forest we had laid our traps.
(To be continued)