Improving African Futures Using Lessons from the Past


As one of West Africa’s major river systems, the Black Volta River (Kpaan in Nafaanra) and its tributaries (laklɛ) are home to a wide array of fish (mbro/ pl. mbroe) that have enriched people’s diets across the region for centuries. After migrating to the Banda area from downstream areas in the early 20th century, Ewe-speaking communities have provided most of the fish to neighboring communities. But archaeology shows us that fishing was an important food supplement for people in the area over centuries, particularly for communities that lived close to the Volta and its major tributaries, like the Tain River (Tain lɔɔ).

Basketry fish trap used by Ewe fishermen, Agbegikrom South, 1982

The methods that people used to catch fish varied, as did the extent to which people specialized in fishing. For some, like those in Ewe communities, fishing is a livelihood and way of life. For others, it was a way to supplement their diets as opportunities allowed. The building of Bui Dam and the formation of Bui Lake after 2012 caused dramatic change in the kinds of fish living in local waters and in people’s ability to make a living through fishing. Some of the sustainable fishing techniques long used by Ewe fishermen no longer work because of these changes, including the use of ingenious basketry traps made from locally available materials. In July 2022, several Ewe fishermen shared their knowledge and, over the course of several days, demonstrated how to build a basketry fish trap (exa in Ewe) as part of the British Museum’s Endangered Material Knowledge (EMKP) Programme. Here’s a look at the steps involved in making this useful tool from local materials, about which you will soon be able to learn more from materials that will be available through EMKP.

Making a Basketry Fish Trap (Exa in Ewe)

Carrying a basketry fish trap, Akanyakrom, 2022

Maxwell Gbadago, Dzobo Sebastian and Dzobo Rubben are Ewe fishermen from the village of Akanyakrom. Before its residents were displaced and relocated to a site downstream of the dam and away from the river in 2012, Akanyakrom was a riverside village upstream of the dam site. For these Ewe fishermen, fishing is not just a livelihood—it is central to their identity and culture. In the words of Maxwell Gbadago,

“For the longest time, we didn’t need money because we were rich in fish. This richness in fish was also a richness in community and culture. We all worked together as a community to not only get food but to protect our land. The land thanked us by providing more than we could use. At one time, fish were so plentiful that you could fill your boat and your belly and still have more for your wife to trade for other goods. She could get anything your family needed by trading it for fish. Like this, the community worked together so there was no need for competition.”

The men took great pride in showcasing their expertise and the ingenuity involved in building a cylindrical basketry trap. They demonstrated how to harvest the bamboo (pmaplo ti in Ewe) and vines (adzɔ in Ewe) that are freely available in the riverine forest along the Volta River’s bank. They showed how they split and trim the bamboo into durable sticks that they use to form the body and mouth of the cylindrical trap. They processed the vine into rope by twisting and drying, then pounding the vine to make it pliable, but still strong. They demonstrated how they weave the bamboo sticks together to form the cylindrical trap body and how they create the trap's pointed apex (exa-gɔmɛ in Ewe) by first reducing the number of twists between sticks and then including more sticks in each twist bundle. They showed the vigorous action needed to open the trap body with coiled sticks (exa-gɔmɛ ti in Ewe) before they inserted and secured the working part of the trap—the tongue (exa woade in Ewe)--which allows fish to enter the trap but not escape from it. They demonstrated on land how the trap would be set in the water and how they use wooden spears to remove fish from the trap, either through its mouth or a removable cover (exa-dzi gbanu in Ewe) if large fish entered the trap.

Sustainable Fishing

Canoes of Ewe fishermen on the Black Volta River, 1982

This ingenious and now endangered technology helped Ewe fisherman to fish sustainably for generations. Fishermen knew to adjust the size of a basketry trap and the closeness of its weave to the kind of fish they wanted to catch. They used traps during the rainy flood season when waters are cloudy and fish are moving upstream and into flowing tributaries. Fishermen know that this is the time when fish breed, and they know to limit their fishing and rely on tools that allow small and younger fish to go free. They know to use basketry traps to feed the family rather than make big catches. Basketry traps allow small and immature fish to escape through the gaps between sticks, at they same time as they entice larger fish to enter the trap. In this way, they helped to sustain fish breeding stocks at the same time as they enabled people to meet their need for food.

Fishermen set their traps with the trap mouth (exa-nu in Ewe) facing downstream, tying its anchor rope to a tree or peg on shore. If they set their traps in rapids, away from shore, they secure them with large rocks placed on either side and on top of the trap to keep them in place. A well-made trap can be used for two fishing seasons and, because they are made from organic materials, they do not pollute or leave behind durable traces when they are no longer used.

Motor-powered fishing boats, Bui Lake, 2022

Fishermen from Akanyakrom expressed concern about the effects of the dam on their livelihoods. Winds and waves on the newly formed lake (left) make it unsafe to fish using the locally made canoes of Ewe fishermen. Fishermen now need motor-powered larger boats to fish safely on the lake, equipment that is beyond the reach of local Ewe people. People today come from other regions of Ghana and beyond to fish in Bui Lake and fishing is increasingly done with industrially produced nets and little regard for maintaining the breeding populations that ensure sustainable fishing. For these reasons, Ewe fishing communities who have lived in Banda for over a century find it increasingly difficult to make a living through fishing, as generations of their forbearers had done.

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