New Internationalist

The Village

Issue 304

Deep roots in cocoa country

Life may be tough and real hardship never far distant, but for the villagers of Camp Number One it is filled with subtle layers of complexity, commitment and the occasional catastrophe for the Black Stars of Ghana.

MY favourite time in Camp Number One is the early morning and then, later, the early evening. It is then that the blinding directness of the tropical sun gives way to a more diffuse light that slants in over the bush-covered hills and through the trees.

Life starts early in Asamoah and Kate's family compound. The first sounds are of a rhythmic sweeping as their daughter Florence begins the day-long battle to keep the hard-dirt compound tidy - particularly difficult at this time of year when the harmatten winds from the Sahara blow dust almost everywhere. When I first arrive in Camp I mistake this dust for mist, or smoke from cooking fires and slash-and-burn land clearances. But it is mostly the dust that diffuses the light.

I ask Asamoah which season is his favourite and he says the main rainy season, which runs from April to June. For him, the coming of the rains is a sign that there will be a good cocoa crop. But each season has its function. Harmatten time, when the dry earth releases unwanted vegetation with minimal resistance, is the easiest for clearing land to plant new saplings.

[image, unknown]
Kate irons the funeral clothes
PHOTO BY SARA ERRINGTON

In the evenings, as it darkens, oil lanterns become the only source of light. Without competition from electricity, the sky puts on a spectacular display of stars. As the lanterns flicker, the children's shadows appear huge against the walls of the house, like some slow-motion show of giant puppets, as their frenetic day slows to bedtime rhythms. Once the children are off to bed, Florence wanders in and out of their room, softly singing lullabies as she goes about her evening tasks.

Very few of the adults among the 500-odd residents of Camp Number One - 'If you say it fast it sounds Ghanaian' - were actually born here. When the area was logged out in the 1960s, cocoa farmers began to move in and plant their trees. The village is strung out along a road not far from Sankari, the regional centre. Most of the residents are Ashante people, the largest tribe in the country and the descendants of one of pre-colonial Africa's great civilizations. As the crow flies it is actually not that far from Kumasi, Ghana's second-largest city and the traditional Ashante capital. But no-one flies like crows. If you take the road it is a good four hours and pretty bumpy. There are not many amenities in Camp: a few stores that sell almost everything; two night 'spots' where one can drink in the late hours - most bars in Ghana are called 'spots', as in 'Mango Tree Spot' or 'Friends After Work Spot' - and a lot of places of worship. The houses are organized in compounds that are, by one means or another, fenced off on four sides. The basic construction is of mud and sticks, while the more prosperous folk are able to cement the whole thing over. People live together in extended-family groups that may include children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters - as many as 15 or 16 members. Asamoah's household contains himself and Kate, his son Joseph, daughter Florence and her two children, Priscilla and Clifford. Most of life in Ghana is organized in such units, so everyone belongs at least somewhere.

People in Camp Number One may be poor and have little by way of cash incomes, except what the sale of bags of cocoa beans provides, but there is no starvation and little malnutrition. These people are not the classic African victims seen all too often on TV screens. They are, however, dangerously vulnerable to the winds of fate - whether they come from the climate, individual misfortune or the machinations of the outside world. A sudden illness, too many funerals, a divorce, a political coup or a dip in the world price of cocoa means real hardship - barely enough food to go around, no money for fees to keep kids in school, a future mortgaged by the forced sale of land. The extended-family economy means that many hands must contribute to the household and many demands are made on a fragile budget.

Asamoah introduces me to one of his neighbours, Moussa, a Muslim and a native of Burkina Faso. After his divorce his cocoa crop fell into the hands of moneylenders: for the next 45 years it will no longer be his. He took to milling corn, but now the mill is broken and he cannot afford to fix it. He clings to existence on a combination of charity and casual labour.

[image, unknown]
Clifford gets his teeth brushed
PHOTO BY SARA ERRINGTON

What Moussa is going through today, whole villages in cocoa country experience whenever prices dip too drastically. In the early 1980s what the big chocolate companies were paying dropped by nearly two-thirds in just four years. With farmers often getting less than 40 per cent of this price from the official Ghanaian Cocobod, the effects were disastrous. The whole thing was exacerbated by the drought conditions effecting all of Sahelian Africa, and by political instability in Ghana associated with the military seizure of power by Jerry Rawlings. It was during this period that the 'Rawlings chain' jokes began. With delicious humour Ghanaians would compare their exposed collarbones, their 'Rawlings chains': 'Oh, yours is bigger than mine.' Many farmers simply walked away from their cocoa, cutting down trees or letting the pods rot on the trunks. Young people left the villages and did not return - even when prices rebounded - once they had developed a taste for city life.

Then, as now, humour and faith saw most people through. Life in Camp revolves around the six churches and two mosques. There are a couple of mainline Christian churches (Catholic and Presbyterian) but the bulk are fundamentalist evangelical, like the Pentecostals. A church I have not heard of before is the Mousano Disco Christian Church - a Ghanaian original - which, Asamoah informs me, 'praises God with the beating of drums'. This is done until late into the night.

White folks aren't all that usual in these parts. When Sara and I first arrive at Asamoah's compound dozens of children flock to check us out - the bold coming right in the gate, the timid staring through the cracks in the fence. During our entire stay, whenever we venture out of the compound we are accompanied by convoys of children competing to get hold of our hands.

The first night is devoted to a series of visits from different Camp notables: teachers, various local representatives of Kuapa Koko, the producers' union. Asamoah conducts these meetings in an extremely formal fashion, perhaps reminiscent of the days when it might be a matter of life or death to gauge a visitor's intentions accurately. He carefully explains to us: 'First we must ask them of their mission.' When this is accomplished we extend our greetings and thank them for their attentions. When we go to visit someone else the process is reversed. Once we are back in Britain I fear that Asamoah may have found the way I conduct myself at meetings a bit on the casual side.

Sara and I become officially part of things when the town-crier wanders through the village the next evening to announce our arrival, as well as that of a Pentecostal evangelist. The drums start early, working up the crowd for the evangelist. I, however, choose the other option: the Black Stars of Ghana have a football match against Togo, televized from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. It's the Africa Cup and every football fan in town is crammed into the chief's compound to watch on an old black-and-white TV powered by a battery. We bring our own chairs and sit in orderly rows. Every once in a while one of the chief's goats wanders in front of the screen and has to be shooed off. Things are not going well in Ouagadougou. The Black Stars, who were expected to be one of the real powers at this year's cup, have fallen behind. Ghanaians have a wonderful exclamation indicating unpleasant surprise, discontent or disapproval - a loudly-uttered 'Ohieee!' As things deteriorate, the number of disapproving 'Ohieees!' that punctuate the darkness increases exponentially.

[image, unknown]
Our mothers taught us how:
the women of Camp Number One
produce excellent soap from discarded cocoa husks.
PHOTO BY SARA ERRINGTON

Aside from his Catholicism, Asamoah's other commitment is to Kuapa Kokoo, the cocoa-farmers' union based in Kumasi. Since its inception in 1993 Kuapa has put down deep roots in Ghana's cocoa country. With the money provided through cocoa sales to fair-trade organizations in Europe it has now been able to engage a gender-and-development officer. She is planning her first visit to Camp next week, and a meeting of women cocoa farmers is being convened where Asamoah will read a letter - few others in Camp read or speak much English - laying out the issues to be dealt with when she comes.

About a dozen women gather in the shade of one of the compound walls for the discussion. The main topic is a revolving fund to be set up with Kuapa money to support a mini-enterprise making soap out of cocoa husks. Everyone participates in the meeting, which gets hung up on whether the wives of caretakers should be eligible, although they have no land to put up as security.

As the meeting draws to a close it is our turn to say a few words. We start with the Kuapa chant. The leader of the chant yells out 'Kuapa!' ('good farming' or 'farmer'). Everyone else then chimes in with 'Pa pa paa' ('the best of the best'), dragging out the 'a' sound at the end. In my speech I push an import-substitution line long out of favour in orthodox development circles. I congratulate the women on producing soap from the cocoa harvest, not allowing all the benefits to be exported abroad. Sara gets a significantly better response for her speech on God granting a good harvest.

Altogether I spend about a week in Camp Number One living with Kate, Asamoah and their family. I eat what they eat. Everyone we meet is fascinated: 'Have you tried our fu fu yet?' they ask. I use the bucket-shower to keep cool. And so I get to peel back just a few of the layers that make an African village such a wonderfully complicated place. Religion of several kinds, international and resource economics, custom and modern culture, agronomy and climate, inter-personal politics and national party allegiance - all these sometimes cohabit, sometimes collide. An event as seemingly straightforward as a funeral, with its very public grief, can contain levels of meaning for the community that are unimaginable back at the desks of aid bureaucrats.

The day comes when Asamoah and I must leave on the journey that will eventually take us to England. It falls to Kate to give Sara and me a formal goodbye. And it is heartwarming. She thanks us for coming to stay in the bush: 'It is hard for me to believe that white people would do such a thing. Many Ghanaians, even our own relatives, refuse to come and visit the village because they consider life here just too primitive. Once people live in Kumasi or Accra they are no longer willing to come. So it is very special for us, the Serebour family, that you have made this effort.'

It was one of those moments where one is deeply touched by what is, to be honest, quite undeserved gratitude.

The cost of cocoa

Sharing out the economic benefits of the trade

Cocoa is like a lot of other Southern export crops. In the lingo of the economists it lacks structural links, or 'spin-offs', to the domestic economy. Aside from the obvious income accruing to individual farmers, or going into public expenditure, very little by way of job creation or industrial activity results from growing cocoa. Increasingly, producer countries are doing some of the processing (or grinding) before the cocoa is exported, which at least provides some extra employment.

In Ghana there is a small chocolate industry producing an excellent range of high-cocoa Golden Tree chocolates in the port cities of Tema and Takoradi. But these are successfully kept out of the North by high tariff walls - 34 per cent in Europe - and poor economies of scale. Most of this chocolate is consumed in the very small domestic market. It is a luxury item, out of the reach of most Ghanaians. There are ambitions to build a regional market for Golden Tree, but even if these are successful markets will remain limited by low incomes and cheaper competition from Big Chocolate.

So it is not unreasonable for governments to tax exported cocoa as a way of spreading some of the cocoa wealth to meet the needs of the rest of society. In West Africa, the big producing countries - Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire - have done this to a point where the small cocoa farmer bears too much of the burden of state expenditure. This endangers the sustainability of the cocoa economy and now the pendulum is swinging back, to give farmers a better deal on their crop. The 'spread-effect' is more significant where cocoa remains a small-holder crop than it is on the agrochemical plantations of Indonesia, where workers make about one dollar a day.

While it is important for farmers to get a decent price it is also important for the governments of the South not to have their fiscal hands tied when trying to meet such basic needs as heath, education, farmer-support and infrastructure maintenance. Unfortunately, their hands are being tied by structural adjustment. In Ghana this is compounded by the problem of ageing and often absentee cocoa farmers. With children unable or unwilling to take them over farms may become commodities to be sold into ever-larger parcels of land. While full-scale plantations are unlikely, ownership concentration could result in a small class of absentee farmers with relatively large holdings and a large group of 'caretakers' who actually work the farms. This will both skew income distribution in the cocoa economy and increase the potential for conflict between owners and caretakers. Recently a farmer's representative claimed on Ghanaian television that 'most cocoa farmers live in Accra' - certainly an overstatement at the moment, but perhaps a portent of the future.

Another potential spin-off is the truly spectacular number of by-products that can be derived from cocoa. These include fertilizer, animal feed and soap - made from the shells of the pod - as well as a range of cakes, biscuits and jams from cocoa powder. These last are being experimented with at the cocoa research station in Tafo, which is also producing a gin and a brandy made from the 'sweatings' of the cocoa beans during the fermentation process. While none of these things is likely to add up to much in terms of the Gross Domestic Product, they are an invaluable part of the survival economy in which cocoa farming is rooted - the complete utilization of the crop helps sustain a way of life and the social-security system of rural Ghana.

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