The Way We Know Our Rivers: Reflecting on River Management in Ghana (Part I)

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a three-part blog. In this part, Alesia captures some of the practices, knowledge, and meanings that were known to be attached to rivers in Ghana. The subsequent pieces will narrate colonial events facilitated by religion, trade, and migration that challenged notions and ways of knowing rivers. In the final section, she will highlight post-colonial policies that sought to replace Ghana’s customary water practices with an “international standard” of practice and management.

A colleague of mine was surprised when I informed him that I do not know any songs about rivers in Ghana. Throughout my years of living and working predominantly in the Akan communities in Ghana, I could not recall any songs about rivers. It came as a shock to him. It is well documented how indigenous communities across the globe communicate with rivers which are considered as essential life forms and bloodlines to indigenous groups. I had approached my mother and aunties with the same question. Neither of them could help.

Have communities in Ghana lost their relationship with rivers and waterbodies? If not songs, are there existing practices that communities and individuals use to connect with rivers? Over the past decades, there have been tremendous shifts to the way rivers are known and managed and to the values and meanings attached to them. This shift has given way to a modern, westernised and capitalist approach. My three-part blog, of which this is the first part, shows that these changes observed in Ghana were not necessarily dramatic or influenced by neo-liberal policies adopted in the 1980s. But rather, they have lingered and crept like the “refuse dump fire,” meandering in ways, and changing communities’ and individual relationships with rivers.

Rivers were deemed powerful biological agents acting as an embodiment of deities and ancestors of the people. They thus played a vital role in the political and religious structures within the customary states. There were special individuals (a priest/priestess or okomfo in Twi- pl .akomfo) within communities believed to be chosen and possessed by river deities who acted as mediators between the people and the deities. Larger river deities were known to be accompanied by minor ones (in the physical sense, their tributaries). The roles of akomfo were multiple, and included liaising with customary authorities in managing the day to day political, cultural, and social aspects of a state or community. In essence, they were part of the core political structure and leadership of these communities and states. In times of tragedy, happiness, or uncertainty, the people and chiefs sought answers from the Akomfo who consulted the river gods and deities.

Within the Ashanti kingdom, popular folktale recounts that Onyame, the Creator, decided to send his children down to earth so that they could confer benefits and blessings upon mankind. All the sons bore the names of major rivers and lakes; River Tano, Pra, Lake Bosomtwe, River Bea, and Opo the Sea among others. Tributaries of these rivers are the grandchildren of Onyame, the Creator. Rivers and water bodies were considered to contain some form of power or spirit from the divine Creator and thus great life-giving forces.

Among the Akyems in the eastern region, it is also believed that Okuru BaninI (the first chief of Akyem Tafo) emerged out of the Birim River holding a burning log of firewood and his stool, accompanied by the high priest Okomfo Asare (who was believed to be also carrying the Ohum Shrine) and his clansmen. When the time came for Okuru Banin I to die, it is believed that he dived back into the Birim River. The Birim River is considered the abode for the ancestors who continually bless the people of Akyem Abuakwa traditional state with long life, prosperity, and victory over their enemies. In addition, the Birim River is considered a living being with significant spiritual powers. When rivers are given such spiritual significance, the river banks, headwaters, and the entire forest around them are considered living shrines where rituals and offerings are regularly performed, especially during sacred days and festivals. In some communities, the forests associated with these rivers are designated as sacred grooves (Nsamanpow meaning place of the ancestors), prohibiting entry and harvesting of forest products.

Rivers of cultural and spiritual significance are regulated by institutionalised norms and rules. Extensive taboos have long existed around the use, access, and distribution of water. These were revered, particularly because flouting them was believed to be accompanied by disasters (e.g. flooding and drought), illness, misfortunes, and death. In the case of the River Tano, which belongs to the Bono State, one can experience severe stomach aches and even death if the no-fishing rule is violated or if one eats a fish sourced from the river.

In addition to this, the majority of rivers had sacred days (Nnabone) where no mortal was expected to be seen hanging around the banks of the river or fetching from it. Sacred days are the days that mark the birth of deities (e.g. every Wednesday will be the sacred day of a river believed to be born on Wednesday); the deity rests, or the children of the deity appear in various forms to play. The children of the deities are believed to be so beautiful that mortals are not supposed to see them. However, it was considered either a misfortune or luck for a mortal to see the spirits during the days. Historical accounts talk about people who were favoured by river gods and others who were punished for visiting the river banks during edabone. Yet, altogether people were warned to abstain from fetching water from rivers on these sacred days. These regulations were diverse and extensive, even within the different Akan states. The most common sacred river days among the various Akan communities were Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Other taboos focused on water collection. It was a taboo in some communities to obtain water from rivers with any implement containing any kind of metal. Here, it was only earthenware or calabashes that were allowed. In most communities, however, women and girls who were menstruating were prevented from accessing rivers possessed by male deities. Women and girls during such periods were considered impure, and were not clean to go near rivers or even look at them.

To be continued…

*Cover image: The River Tano is considered one of the sacred rivers in Ghana. Image from The Ghana Guardian News.

[*Cover image description: A wide still river fills the photo, framed by shrubs in the foreground and with trees fading into the low horizon behind the river. A lone boat with a person floats in the middle of the water.]