This week’s post combines a photo essay on Nzulezo with a Waakye of the Week highlighting a local drink called akpeteshie (pronounced ‘a-pe-te-shie’). Akpeteshie, distilled from palm wine, is a high-proof spirit consumed in Ghana and neighboring countries and an important source of income for many Nzulezo families.
Nzulezo, means ‘village on water’ in Nzima, the local language. The village, keenly named, sits above water on stilted wood platforms in the Amansuri River. Amansuri means ‘community water’ in Nzima.
Canoe is the primary mode of transportation in Nzulezo. The village, with a population of 500, owns one motorboat for emergency use. The commute to Nzulezo from Beyin, the closest neighboring village, one hour by canoe (depending on the robustness of the oarsman/oarsmen).
To visit Nzulezo, I stopped by the Ghana Wildlife Society in Beyin, near Beying Beach Resort, and arranged to meet a guide. Nathaniel, an Nzulezo native, met me the following morning to explore Nzulezo and the nearby akpeteshie distilleries.
Nathaniel, tall, dark and handsome, spoke softly and with care. Seemingly nervous, he took frequent pauses to gather his thoughts.
In his introduction, Nathaniel faltered.
“You will be my guide.” He said.
I ran with it.
“Ok!” I said, placing my hands on my hips for added emphasis.
“But if I paddle the canoe, we may go in circles for a bit. It will take time, oh.”
“I also want a discount.” I said, with a casual nod towards the cashier sitting nearby behind a large wooden desk.
I grinned. He laughed.
The voyage started in an open grass plain at the mouth of a canal. The canal, built in the early 2000’s, eases travel between Beyin and Nzulezo. Prior to the man-made waterway, travellers to Nzulezo from Beyin had to walk for 10 minutes in water (sometimes waist-deep) to reach a canoe during the wet season. As expected, the canal drastically increased tourism to Nzulezo.
With the careful balance of a gondolier, Nathaniel navigated the canoe with a long raffia pole at the boat’s stern. When we arrived at the Amansuri River, Nathaniel sat down and started paddling. Here the water deepened and the path became veiled by thick foliage. We entered the jungle.
Sitting at the canoe’s bow, I held my knees and dwelled in the moment.
Somewhere along the way, the water had turned from clear to black but the surface of the river, remained reflective and mirror-like. According to Nathaniel, the distinct black color is the result of the decomposition of a certain type of tree at the river’s edge.
In between questions and photos I helped paddle.
Soon the river opened into a lake and Nzulezo became visible. The sky rolled over, hiding the sun.
After docking the canoe, Nathaniel showed me the village’s main street or, better, main boardwalk (there are no cars in Nzulezo). We walked slowly and passed three churches before coming to the primary school at the end of the path.
In a nearby, open-aired pavilion, Nathaniel introduced me to the son of the village king, representing the king. Nathaniel acted as the interpreter, a traditional role often handed-down from generation-to-generation, and mediated the conversation. The king spoke, Nathaniel translated. I spoke, Nathaniel translated.
First the king invited my questions about the village. Afterwards, he asked for donations to pay teachers salaries at the primary school. The government-funded primary school in Nzulezo served 70 students and had five teachers. As I understood the conversation, the government had provided only one of the teachers; the other four teachers were paid by the village. The government had tried to send more teachers but these teachers moved to Nzulezo and left within a week.
According to Nathaniel, many Ghanaians can’t swim and therefore fear living over water. Nathaniel learned to swim when he was three.
Before leaving the village, Nathaniel ate lunch, a local dish with cassava and dried fish, at his favorite spot, Home Stay. Nathaniel invited me to the meal and I accepted. It reminded me of another Ghanaian dish that I like, gari foto.
Twenty minutes later, we departed the village and made our way across the lake towards the akpeteshie distilleries. Once we neared the opposite shore it started raining. I hid my camera in my backpack and continued paddling.
We entered a tributary nearly the width of the canoe.
After making our way some distance, a thatched shelter built on a bed of ashes appeared out of the foliage. Nathaniel called out to one of the men attending the distillery. At the time, they weren’t operating the still but we stopped anyways, to share a calabash of palm wine. Palm wine—tapped from a palm tree—is a light, cool drink with an alcohol content comparable to beer or wine. It is best taken freshly tapped.
Generally, palm wine and akpeteshie are not professionally bottled or sealed so—as with all big life decisions—if you choose to partake, proceed at your own risk.
At the next distillery, two boys were running the still and attending a fire under a large barrel.
Nathaniel, my guide and the son of a retired akpeteshie distiller, gave me a tour.
First, he explained, the tapper taps a palm tree to let the palm wine run out.
Next the distiller pours the palm wine into the barrel and builds a fire. As the liquid turns to steam it passes through tubing kept cool in the river. The vapor condenses and turns into liquid. The process is repeated.
Nathaniel finished the distillery tour with a shot of akpeteshie. He took a shot himself and then refilled the cap for me. Fire shot through my chest. And then it was over.
On the way back to Beyin, Nathaniel scooped a drink of water from the river relieving his thirst. By the end of the tour, I began to understand the connection between the community and the Amansuri River.