LAKE BOSUMTWI, Ghana
It was a mistake to simply hand over the Schnapps as soon as we sat down with the elders of Abonu village.
The oldest man, adviser to the chief, immediately handed the boxed bottle of liqueur to our guide, Kwabena Saprong, who handed it back to me.
“Put some small monies with it,” Saprong muttered into my ear.
I tucked a note for 20,000 cedis — roughly $2 — into the box. The old man then received it with a smile.
It wasn’t the first dash, or bribe, we’d paid to arrange an interview with the tribal elders at Lake Bosumtwi, and it wouldn’t be the last.
But in order to find out what the elders knew about mining interests encroaching on Ghana’s largest freshwater lake, certain protocols had to be observed.
For example, Schnapps is traditionally used to anoint the stool that a Ghanaian chief sits on, thereby establishing sacred authority.
Visitors seeking an audience are expected to supply the Schnapps.
Visitors on their way to Lake Bosumtwi are also expected to pay a toll at an unofficial roadblock guarded by a gang of youths who could have been the child soldiers of African infamy, had they been armed.
But the kids attending a string across the road to the lake had no guns. They were charging 5,000 cedis for access to Lake Bosumtwi’s 11-kilometre crater, which the Ashanti people of the region regard as a sacred dwelling of the deity, Twi, whom departing souls must visit on their way to the afterlife.
Despite the Ashanti creation myths, scientists claim the crater was formed by a meteorite that smashed into West Africa just over a million years ago.
“It is the youngest large impact crater we have on Earth and it’s very well preserved,” Christian Koeberl, an Austrian geologist who led an international scientific drilling expedition to Bosumtwi, told the British Broadcasting Corporation in 2004.
“There are many more rocks of this size out in space, and an impact of this size happens every million years or so, so it’s very important to understand what would happen during such an impact, what would happen to mankind, civilization.”
The 2004 dredging also examined climate data locked in sediments beneath the lake.
“We hope we will understand how wet and how dry West Africa has become in the past, and how quickly, because the answers to those questions have a direct effect on the people living here,” climate researcher John Peck told the BBC.
Although its levels have fluctuated significantly over the last century, Lake Bosumtwi is presently receding, and visitors are routinely ask for a “voluntary” donation to the community’s tree planting project, to stabilize the eroding bank.
The mining industry poses a greater threat.
Lake Bosumtwi is located just north of the famed Ashanti gold belt that gave Ghana its colonial name under the British, The Gold Coast.
Canadian company Norcan Resources Ltd. started an exploratory drill program at its nearby North Ashanti Gold Project in January.
“People are trying to mine here, but I don’t think it will be,” Fred Antw, a community guide who speaks fluent English, said on behalf of the Abonu elders, who nodded as they sat listening inside the village’s unfinished community centre.
“If they want to mine inside the water, the whole thing will be polluted,” said Antw.
“This mountain is not like a rock. It is small stones, so if you blast with dynamite the whole place will be blasted. It will collapse.”
No one has mined the crater yet, but the Abonu elders suspect that the scientists found something valuable in their mud samples from the lake bottom and shared the information with mining companies, said Antw.
“We know there is something behind. The same people want to come back to do the same job, and it is not agreed.
“We know there is something in the water. That is why they come a second time. So it is not agreed.”
But if the Ghanaian government allows mining interests to displace locals from the 26 villages surrounding Bosumtwi, Agyman wants 100 million cedis — $10,000 — for each of the 29,000 villagers.
When the interview ended, Sarpong muttered in an aside that the elders wanted money for cement to complete their community hall.
Financing capital projects wasn’t in a travelling journalist’s budget, I explained.
The elders of Lake Bosumtwi seem bound to be disappointed, not only with their meagre gifts from foreigners but also with the lake of their home that is drying up even as the mining companies are closing in.