BY MARCIA ROCK
My first trip to Ghana was in February 2006 with the NYU in Ghana Program. http://www.nyu.edu/africahouse/forstudents/journalism/
Through the efforts of Professor Audrey Gadzekpo, NYU and University of Legon Ghanian students took a field trip to Ada, a poor coastal region near TOGO and ninety minutes east of Accra. We were hosted by Kofi Larweh, manager of the community radio station, Radio Ada. Kofi is always brimming with ideas and the students worked on five stories in the region, with the assistance of the Radio Ada reporters. We had tremendous access to people and places and more stories than we could cover in a month. One story was about the problem of clean water for the villages located around the Songar Lagoon.
The trip to Ada was a compelling experience and I returned to the village of Bonikope on my own before I left Ghana to visit Kofi. I stumbled onto the first day of the salt harvest in the Songor lagoon, where the local people and migrant workers harvest salt by hand.
The salt harvest happens once a year at the end of the dry season and lasts about six weeks. Although the government declared its ownership of all minerals including salt, the local clans have maintained their ancient alluvial rights to much of the area, provided people use primitive technology. Women scrape at the salt with aluminum or plastic shards cut from an old plate or pan. In Ghana, salt winning is women’s work. They go out at 4 A.M. when it is cool and work till about noon when they can no longer stand the burning mud on their feet. They lift the surface salt crust, crush it, clean it so it is white and carry 25 kilos on their heads to shore where more piles of salt are bagged, sold and carted off in trucks. During the harvest season the women earn between 12-15,000 cedis ($1.21 to $1.65) per 50 kilos of salt. If they were able to store the salt and sell it during the rainy season the price would rise to as much as 120,000 cedis ($12.00) per 50 kilos. The affluent families stockpile their salt under a covering of thatch. Poor families and migrant workers sell their harvest immediately.
This crude, but traditional way of salt mining, has its own price. People develop sores and boils on their hands and legs from the salt water invading a cut or mosquito bite. They suffer eye problems from the salt and from the blinding reflection of the white lagoon. This is exacerbated by the fact that there is no fresh water tap in the area. So villagers rely on dirty water from a dam, where animals go to drink, to wash themselves. It has a high salinity and can never completely neutralize the black mud and salt on their arms and legs to prevent skin rashes and infections. Their other option is to buy unfiltered river water from the irregular visits of a water truck that costs $1.00 a bucket.
That February, I videotaped the moon barren conditions softened by a cool breeze from the ocean that made the equatorial heat less fierce. A thousand people were out in the lagoon and they didn’t stop talking and laughing. It was a harvest; there would be money; no one’s skin had sores yet. There was an uncanny peacefulness to the process in spite of the harshness of work.
The day before I left, I had one of the most creative moments of my career. I visited The Christian Arts Conservatory in Accra, run by African Americans. I wanted advice about traditional work songs as source material for the score for the salt footage. Professor Vordzorgbe worked with me on the lyrics then four of the music students improvised music. It moves from a work song into a lament, sung in Dangme. We composed and recorded the song in under an hour. I was shaking when I left. These are the lyrics:
They say there is freedom in working
They say it is hard
They say you work and get money
They say you are happy.
I work, I get money,
But instead of satisfaction and joy
I have only sores on my hands and feet.
I hurt my eyes and become blind.
Oh, God is this good work?
Almighty God, do I have to be like this?
Oh God, why should it be me, Why, why?
When I returned to New York, I was haunted by the salt women. What were their harvesting techniques? How were they organized? What were their lives like? What was the future of their work in the lagoon? I wanted to meet one of the thousands of women. I returned in July 2006.
Upon arrival in Ada, I visited local chiefs with Peter Williams, photographer, to get permission to work on the documentary. Then Peter set up a photo exhibit of the salt harvesting for the community hoping the women in the photos would attend. People laughed and pointed when they saw someone they knew. I’m not sure they would agree about the beauty of that harsh landscape. I found Constance Akler Torgbenu. She is 35, a widow with 5 children and works the salt in the dry season and farms cassavas in the rainy season. Like most women she has only a primary school education, but is confident and articulate.
Through her I came to understand the strengths and needs of the salt women of Ada. It is a story of the transition from an ancient to modern world where the women may be left behind.
Everyone agrees the lagoon is underutilized. The Ghanaian government is currently conducting a land use study. It convened a local advisory committee that does not include any women. If salt production is mechanized, the women are unlikely to be employed since they are the least educated in the community. The implications for them are dire since the salt harvest provides their major income and these women are often the sole supporters of their families.
Local men are starting to create small salt pans that produce up to 10 harvests a year instead of the one natural harvest. This marks the beginning of local private enterprise. Politics is taken seriously in Ada. A rural meeting of a district assemblyman on water and salt rights was well attended. The MP for the area is interested in the development of the lagoon, and meets with the local chiefs. A sensitive local chief also looked to the future, but one that will include work and dignity for the local people. The Songor Salt Project, a small government salt mining company, might be a model for change. It produces a purer product, but pays its women workers poorly, offering them no incentive to support industrialization of the area. Finally, an official at the Minerals Commission agreed to provide a written statement based on the land use study. His vision for the lagoon includes Ghanaian and international private ventures, but does not yet include adult literacy or technical training.
I felt this documentary would provide a historical record of the three hundred year old salt winning techniques described by the women who do it. It will also portray their conundrum; the work is desperately hard but it provides a steady income. They would like change, but to an economic environment that protects the poor. Women don’t have much of a voice in rural Ada, but through this documentary they will be heard.
Original Music Score
Patty Stotter and I went to Shaker Heights High School together, but didn’t really know each other. There are three of us in Manhattan from that class and I am now friends with all of them. Working with Patty was a dream. I showed some of my sequences and she gave me 8 themes to work with. I was struggling with the editing up to that point. Once I heard the music, the piece came together in two weeks. I created 16 tracks of music, natural sound, dialogue, the Salt Song and narration. Patty pulled me back from using everything and added things here and there till we had this wonderful musical experience to embrace the salt women. I then coaxed her into recording the narration that we wanted to be quiet like the rippling water and blend with the other sounds.
Peter Williams shot the magnificent photographs you will see under Photos. He has an amazing eye and the steadiest hand I’ve ever seen. In some ways the stills capture the moment better than the moving pictures can.
I have to thank Joe Deihl for one of the best mixes I’ve heard. With little direction, he was able to integrate all the elements so you can hear everything.