Improving African Futures Using Lessons from the Past

Location and Landscapes

Aerial view of Banda junction, view to the south, 2019

The Banda area of west central Ghana has long been a crossroads region where people from different places have settled. Banda's location, south of the Black Volta River (Kpaan in Nafaanra) and near to Ghana's border with Côte d’Ivoire, has shaped the area’s relationships with neighboring and distant regions. Characterized by savanna woodland vegetation today, Banda is located just to the north of areas that were characterized by high forest before extensive logging activities over recent decades dramatically reduced forest cover.

Landcover regions in West Africa

Areas like Banda on the northern edge of high forest were attractive places for market towns. In centuries past, merchants in these areas exchanged goods with market centers on the Niger River. Caravans moved goods between vibrant urban centers like Djenné-Djenno (Jenne Jeno)--in what is today southern Mali--to towns along the northern forest margins in what is today Ghana. The pack animals used to carry the goods suffered insect-borne diseases if they traveled into forested regions. Therefore, ancient market towns like Begho and Bono Manso, located a short way north of the forest boundary, became important places where goods like gold, ivory and kola head-loaded from southern regions were exchanged for goods from Sahelian and Saharan regions of West Africa (including salt, copper and its alloys and cloth). Through caravan trade networks that extended across the Sahara, people living in Banda and neighboring regions accessed goods from other continents for many centuries before Europeans initiated ocean-going trade with coastal West Africa in the 15th century at locations like Elmina.

Banda’s varied topography and geology also shaped the region’s history. A range of steep hills rises dramatically above the surrounding low-rolling plains. These hills were known as a source of gold from early times. Periodic gaps in the low mountains created pathways for rivers and allowed movements of people and goods over the centuries, at the same time as the hills offered refuge in troubled times. Oral histories describe how during periods of war people sometimes left their homes and sought refuge in rock shelters or on the mountain tops.

Seen from a bird's eye view as in the Google Map embedded above, the steep Banda hills appear as narrow northeast-southwest trending ridges. The recently formed Bui Lake, created by flooding behind Bui Dam, is visible at the top of the map. You can further explore landscapes of the Banda area by clicking on the '+' or '-' buttons on the map above.

Towns and villages in the Banda area, Ghana
Boase range viewed from mountain gap near Ahenkro, 1994

Road Networks

Asante Great Roads and polities, precolonial Gold Coast region

Road networks have enabled movement through the region for centuries. Banda was a waypoint in the Asante Great Road system, which radiated outwards from the Asante capitol of Kumasi from the 18th century. This system is still recognizable in Ghana’s paved motorways. But for centuries before the founding of the Asante (Ashanti) Empire, ancient trade routes connected people living in the Banda area to centers like Kong in modern-day Côte d’Ivoire and Jenne-jeno in the inland Niger River delta region of contemporary Mali. The introduction of motor vehicles in the 20th century affected the Banda area's wider connections. Crossing major rivers with motorized vehicles required either ferries or bridges, neither of which were available along the Black Volta River in Banda. Banda therefore became marginalized as a ‘one-way’ destination within 20th-century transportation networks. During the colonial period, Gold Coast colonial officials nonetheless required paramount chiefs like the Omanhene of Banda to supply men annually to work on maintaining and expanding the colony's road networks. Most Banda area roads remained unpaved until recent decades, and throughout the 20th century the number of motor vehicles in the area remained low.

Side road, Banda area, 1982
Approaching Ahenkro from the south, 1994
Approaching Ahenkro from the south, 2016

Changing Landscapes

Construction of the Bui Dam Hydroelectric project, begun in 2008 and commissioned in 2013, brought major changes to Banda’s landscape in the early 21st century. A narrow gorge where the Black Volta River passes through the steep slopes of the Banda hills was identified as a potential site for a hydroelectric dam early in the colonial period. An early effort to launch the project through a Soviet-Ghanaian partnership collapsed following the 1966 coup that ousted President Kwame Nkrumah. Successive Ghanaian governments considered reviving the dam project, which was ultimately built through a Chinese-Ghanaian partnership during the presidency of John Kufuor.

Large areas behind the 400 megawatt dam have been flooded, including an estimated 20% of Bui National Park. Flooding affected the large hippopotamus population resident in the area and led to the relocation of a number of villages. Relocated villagers include Ewe communities whose livelihoods centered on river fishing using canoes and fish traps but who today lack access to the capital needed to acquire the large boats needed for fishing on the newly formed lake. Large areas of farmland have been lost to either flooding or by claim to the Bui Power Authority, creating livelihood challenges for relocated villagers and their neighbors.

In attracting new people to the area, the dam and the new bridge built across the Black Volta River at the dam site have once again made Banda a crossroads region. In 2012 the Ghana government established a new Banda District with its district headquarters located in Banda-Ahenkro. Future plans to extend the N12 highway from Elubo on Ghana’s western coast to Wa in the Upper Rest Region will bring new opportunities, but also challenges, to the region.

Move the slider on the image below to see the difference in the Bui Gorge between 1990 and 2016 after completion of Bui Dam.

Move the slider on the image below to see the difference between Banda-Ahenkro's main street, standing near the same spot looking north, in 1982 and 2016.

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