04 November 2010
After seeing plenty of kobs, warthogs and baboons, it was the turn of the scaly crocodiles to give a sighting to us. The town of Paga is famous all over Ghana for its crocodile ponds and as an important exit point from Ghana. (Or entry point to Ghana, it depends on the place from where you are looking at it.) It is a major tourist attraction in the Upper East Region. I was really eager to see this place for a long time after coming here but somehow, the occasion to visit this place did not come till our northern Ghana tour. This small town lies on the northern boundary of Ghana with Burkina Faso.
Our first destination was Pikworo slave camp. Pikworo is the name of the place where slave traders camped during their trail from Mali and Burkina to the ports in the southern part of Ghana. This particular place was selected as a camping site because of a presence of a perennial spring in the rocks. Apart from the spring, camp has some bowls carved in the stone to be used by the slaves, an entertainment area for the slaves where a big rock is used as a drum and some stones are stroked on it. It creates some sounds (which were certainly not pleasant to our ears). There is also a high rock used for keeping watch on slaves and the surrounding areas. There is also a punishment rock. The place was in use from 1700s to 1845 till slave trade was officially stopped by the British.
Entertainment rock at the slave camp
Southern part of Burkina Faso and northern part of Ghana was the main part where slave raiders captured people and sold them to the Arab lands in the North and European traders based at the ports in the south. This area has poor agriculture and lacks other natural resources. The area has always been poor. The people in this area could not fight with the Kingdoms from the North like Mali Kingdom and southern Kingdoms of Asante and Dagomba. There were people who were ready to buy live human beings in exchange of salts, grains and gun powder, latter to catch more people as slaves. The visit to this place gives an insight into the slave trade which was carried for many centuries and created a larger picture of slave trade, which we had got after visiting Cape Coast Castle.
The picture these days is somewhat changed for these areas. The slavery no longer exists but the people of the region are still very poor. Youths from this area migrate to the southern cities and end up working on meagre or no payments at all. Some try to go to the oil rich northern lands of Libya and Algeria and many of them end up being looted by the people in the Sahara Desert or end up as bonded labour after reaching. Hunger which can come in their lives any time compels them to take those risks.
After getting a feel of this slave trade, we moved on to the next place. It was a pond full of crocodiles. They were not visible there anywhere when we reached there. There was a hut where some people were sitting. After paying the fees and paying for the chicken, we were ready for the crocodile show. The people at the pond told us that there are almost 200 crocodiles in the pond. It was difficult to believe this fact as the pond seemed to be very small and if it had so many crocodiles at once then certainly there would be a survival crisis for them as it should have that much of aquatic life for them.
What these people do with the crocodiles and tourists is as follows. They take a live chicken in hand and go near the pond. They make the chicken scream and hearing that sound crocodiles come on the bank. They stand in front of the largest of the crocodiles and drive other smaller bunch away by beating them with sticks. The crocodile which remains keeps on looking at the lure of the chicken which is in the hand of the man and remains steady. Till that time people can go behind that crocodile and hold its tale. Sometimes one can also sit on their backs. After the photo sessions and touching activity, chicken is thrown near the mouth of the crocodile which it catches and swallows in a flash. The game gets over.
Holding the tale of Crocodile
It is really an exciting experience if you do not believe in cruelty towards animals. My emotions were mixed when all this was happening. I was excited by seeing and getting so close to the animal which we fear so much and at the some time there was a kind of disgust because of the death cry of the chicken used for creating a live show for human entertainment.
Then we moved on to the border. I had a fixed image of land borders in mind. Having seen on television the land borders between India and Pakistan, I always thought that land borders are tightly protected with presence of military forces. What we actually saw here was something which gave us a feel of custom check post or simple toll gate. There were offices of customs and the immigration services on the border and the road was closed by putting a gate on the border and fence on the sides. Huge cargo trucks stopped at the gate and then after getting clearance, passed further. There was a structures erected at the gate but with its faded blue colour and dust accumulated on its wall, it gave an impression of a toll gate somehow. (I got reminded of the dusty toll structures in Mumbai after seeing this one). Across the gate there is a no man's land for about 800 m and then there is an entry point for Burkina Faso. Since we had not brought our passports with us we did not try to venture beyond this exit point. But local people were just crossing it as if it was a general check post. For people, who were walking or going on motorbikes, there was no check at all.
Border Post at Paga
While walking on the streets, we were attracting attention of the people in the street, as we all were wearing IVO (I Volunteer Overseas, the VSO-MITRA venture in India) T- shirts. But I think the people in Paga are accustomed to foreigners so much that very few people came forward to speak to us. Along with English, many people were also speaking in French. On the street, there was a big group of Fulani herdsmen who were dressed in beautiful bright clothes. They greeted us "Bon Jour" which means "good day" in French. While we were taking photographs of the border gate, one man came towards us talking loudly in French. As we did not understand anything, he went away laughing. Walking in the scorching heat of the afternoon made us tired and we started our journey back.
The iVO (I volunteer Overseas- VSO’s India unit) Gang on the streets of Paga (From left to right- Sachin, Rose, Rahul and Ketan. Raj is missing because he was taking the photograph)
Before ending this post some words on the business of cashing in on the tourists at Paga. There are three tourist attraction in this town and all of them charge very high fees to the foreigners. It is all in the name of keeping history and traditions alive. Slave camp did not have any official rate card with them. They started to tell us that there is separate camera fee after starting the tour and we need to pay some tip to the people who played on the entertainment stone of the slaves when we reached that point. At the Crocodile Pond they tried to sale us a chicken for 8.00 cedis which in the market could have been only 4.00 cedis. Fortunately our Indian skills of bargaining helped us to get through and instead of paying a big sum, we could manage within a lesser sum, which was still very costly. The people at the pond were complaining to us that larger crocodiles did not come out because we did not give them enough money. I also have to mention here that these crocodiles are considered as sacred by the local people but it is a thriving tourist business using this sacred animals. As we personally do not believe in the sacredness of the crocodiles it was okay for us to hold their tales and getting photographed.
The taxi driver whom we requested to take us for the detour to slave camp also tried to gain some extra cash from us by taking us to crocodile pond without asking us. As the place is not organized properly in the form a tourist circuit people are after fast cash. There is not much of maintenance and structural improvement at the crocodile pond and 500 m of road to the pond is still poor. They must be getting good sum of the money from the tourists which is not going into the development of the place for sure. Due to these reasons we dropped our plan to visit chief's palace as apart from the entrance fees and they might have started asking for some donations.
Having said these words, I now end this post.