Volume 8, Issue 1
Between the Sea and the Lagoon: An Eco-Social History of the Anlo of Southeastern Ghana c. 1850 to Recent Times. Emmanuel Kwaku Akyeampong. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2001. 244 pp.
Between the Sea and the Lagoon is a richly detailed study of the Anlo people through a period of considerable environmental and social change that included the end of slavery, British colonial rule, and significant coastal erosion. The author spent his childhood years in Ghana and became fascinated with stories of the relentless onslaught of the sea and its impact on coastal people. Akyeampong draws on interviews, census reports, shipping statistics, colonial revenue returns, missionary reports, court records, fieldwork from 1996-1997, and library/archival work to construct the Anlo’s social history and their interpretation of environmental processes. He uses 1850 as starting point for the book because it marks the onset of British influence and urbanization. The author notes that although British colonial rule produced considerable environmental legislation, this did not include marine environmental degradation or that which was unrelated to human agency.
In the introductory chapters, the author examines the Anlo transition from a non-maritime people to nearshore and open ocean fishers. People migrated to the coastal zone in response to political insecurity, oppressive over-rule, and drought. Initially, they fished the waters of the Keta lagoon as they experimented with improvements in canoe building and mastered swimming. Technological advances in fishing net and canoe construction facilitated the transition to a maritime life, as did a cognitive adjustment to the new environment supported by the Anlo adaptation of marine deities that protected fishers and promoted bountiful catches. Of greatest importance was the introduction between 1850 and 1860 of the beach-seine net, known locally as yevudor or European net. Use of the nets required additional labor, but no fishing background, and opened up the fishery. New economic groups or “fishing companies” formed which worked for wealthier net owners, often non-fishers, who reaped one third or more of each catch.
Additional changes from the mid-nineteenth century until the turn of the twentieth century included increased social stratification and new status in clothing, literacy, Christianity, as well as European-inspired architectural styles including two story structures. Gender relations were changing such that men had more control over women, with irregular unions and concubines becoming more common. Fish processing and marketing became a female domain. Divorce and inheritance issues were increasingly coming before colonial courts and customary laws were codified or reworked. Theft and embezzlement were a growing problem due to people’s material wants outpacing their wages. Nonetheless, these societal changes were not of preeminent concern among the Anlo. Rather, what caused great fear and social upheaval were the ecological changes that began around 1900, most importantly the encroachment of the sea.
The Anlo viewed their world as intertwining realms of the social, ecological, and cosmological. A great environmental disaster thus was viewed not solely as ecological but as related to socio-religious practices such as the failure to make proper offerings to sea spirits. The advance of the sea into the Keta lagoon and onto shore began in earnest in 1907 and worsened through 1932. Homes, businesses, and places of worship were washed out to sea and rubble from the destroyed buildings disrupted seine fishing (the method requires a smooth sand bottom free of snags). The sea took the Evangelical Presbyterian and the AME Zion Churches, but left the neighboring Catholic Cathedral. Whether a particular structure was taken or spared was filled with meaning for the Anlo because they believed it was the ancestors in partnership with local deities that controlled the advance and retreat of the sea.
The Anlo tried without success to stem the seemingly supernatural advance of the sea. They constructed barriers, but to no avail. The colonial government was uninterested in investing in seawalls and unwilling to subsidize local people’s land reclamation projects. The solution proposed was to evacuate the area. Whereas shorter term migrations to relatively nearby shores had been commonplace among entrepreneurial Anlo, migrant fishing assumed great importance in the context of severe coastal erosion. In the present day, the Anlo can be found fishing from Cape Verde to Angola. Although not addressed in the book, it would be interesting to know how Anlo seine fishers have been received elsewhere given that seining is often considered environmentally destructive by small-scale fishers sharing waters with them. In Tanzania, for instance, Pemba seine fishers are not welcome in Kenyan waters or in Tanzanian waters outside of Pemba.
By the time of Ghana’s independence over half of Keta lay under the sea. Additional suffering came when Anlo had their port at Keta closed in 1962 because a second deep water harbor closer to Accra had been opened at Tema. The creation of new harbors west of the Volta River had been suspected as a cause for coastal erosion in Anlo region as early as 1927. In 1963 a canal project caused currents to change, leading to permanent diminution of Keta’s market. The construction of the Akosombo Dam on the Volta in the mid-1960s led to the spread of diseases such as schistosomiasis, additional coastal erosion, and a loss of local flora and fauna in the lower Volta region. The end of Nkrumah’s rule brought cautious hope to the Anlo that new regimes would take coastal erosion more seriously. In 1996, the government finally announced it had secured funds for a Keta sea defense project, but by 1999 substantive work had not been undertaken.
Akyeampong’s book is the sixth in the University of Ohio’s series on Western African Studies. Faculty and graduate students interested in Ghanaian history, marine anthropology, or West Africa more generally should appreciate Between the Sea and the Lagoon. Akyeampong accomplishes his goal of bringing together information on migration history, agriculture, adjustment to the marine environment, moral economy, trade networks, modernization and socio-cultural change into a coherent narrative of life in Ghana’s coastal zone east of the Volta River delta. The book’s focus on coastal erosion is an important addition to the socio-environmental literature on Africa.
Heidi Glaesel Frontani