We dipped into a pothole while turning right. The tyres of the beat-up taxi rolled over the crater as we continued on the dirt road through the rainforest that seemed an endless mass of green choking green. Potholes were common on this winding road that was more of a wide footpath for the villagers who walked and danced over it and the children who bathed in the deeper hollows that were filled with rain.
With the departure of a fleshy coconut farmer from the front seat of the taxi and his extended family from the back, we were sailing smooth. The sea breeze swept in as we drew closer to the southern-most tip of Ghana and the closest point on land to the Jubilee oilfield, which holds an estimated 1.6 billion barrels in oil reserves. I imagined what kind of imposing figure the rigs would cut against the horizon not knowing that the field was 75 nautical miles or an eight-hour ride from the shore.
In recent months Ghana’s newspapers have been full of stories about the oil fields that British company Tullow Oil, in partnership with Kosmos and the Ghana National Petroleum Corporation, has been developing over the past three years. Leading up to the start of production next month there have been essay contests and song competitions where performers give praise to God for the oil as though the substance itself possessed a holy quality. There has also been significant debate about how oil revenues should be managed and spent and chiefs of the western region even stormed parliament demanding that 10% of all revenues be spent to develop the areas surrounding the oil fields.
While the government and civil society have been cautious about pegging the nation’s future to the emerging oil industry, there is a sense that oil production could radically change the path of this aid-dependent nation.
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Back on the path the sunlight thinned as the rubber trees rose tall and ghostly. On the shoulder of the road sat wooden shelves containing fistfulls of white rubber. Fifty years ago Kwame Nkrumah, the nation’s first president, established rubber and palm oil plantations to develop this coastal region where fishing and small-scale farming had been the mainstay of the local economy for hundreds of years. But as we flitted past the bamboo houses with thatched roofs and a n-ked girl washing herself under a water pump I wondered whether much had changed since those rubber trees were planted.
After a few thuds and turns, the red road became a steep hill. Quaicoe, my driver and a local of the area wrestled with the stubborn gears and we stumbled up and paused at the top. Outside the window thousands of fine palm leaves glistened in the sun, rippling down to the blue water that spread out and everywhere. The cape’s rocks hemmed in the shore and below it seemed as though there was nothing beyond this rainforest, the sand and the horizon.
Quaicoe stopped the car at a ramshackle bamboo village, damp and muddied from the rains. We walked down to the shore and wandered past the boys playing soccer toward two fishermen sitting under a palm tree next to coloured canoes that lay dead drunk on the sand. Kabi Koku, a tall man with broad shoulders shook my hand with a sandpaper palm.
Koku came from a long lineage of fishermen and has been out on the ocean for more than 15 years. I asked him whether he was concerned about the oil drilling and if it has had any impact on their business. Koku looked out to the stretch of ocean, the dull grey and whites of the sky lining his dark eyes. In his native Evalua, he said their catch has been less since the rigs were installed more than two years ago because they had to go further out to sea due to the restricted area around the wells.
Arde, a small wiry man, spoke of the bright lights shining from the rigs that stir up the fish at night tricking them into thinking it is daylight, making them more difficult to catch. Arde used his hands and fingers to make circular movements as though the lights from the rigs were giant spoons stirring up the ocean.
Koku said on many days they have to travel three hours further to find fish at night, turning a 16-hour day trip into 22 hours. Arde said they were concerned about possible water pollution but for now the bright lights shining on the water at night remained the biggest problem. But with a spill of oil-based mud by Kosmos Energy earlier this year, for which the government has fined the Kosmos $35 million, which the company has disputed, the potential environmental impact is still of concern to many fishing communities.
The sun began to sink and colour drained from the sky. I bought Arde and Koku two bottles of Coke from an empty bamboo bar and said goodbye. I looked out to the sea and the dusty sky and took out my camera. Two teenage girls walked into the frame, stopped, and posed stiff smiling with their arms around one another. Quaicoe and I overtook the goats and headed up through up to the village.
We continued on to Agona Nkwanta, bumping over the road, dodging people on their way back home. We passed a group of eight women dressed in funeral clothing, sweating as they carried their children on their backs. Quaicoe decided to stop. They ran to the car, six of them attempted to get into the back seat and another two in the front. Quaicoe yelled at them and among themselves they decided the older women could stay. The women sat quiet and leaned slightly forward so their children could breathe, their bodies ready to absorb the shock when the car jolted. The women departed and we arrived in the small town awash with darkness punctured only by the kerosene lamps of street sellers.
The next day in Takoradi, the city that is the major transit point for oil workers flying out to the rigs, I spoke with Mayor Kobina Pra Annan about the proposed $500 million Jubilee City Project that had the goal of transforming the dull harbor town into an investment hub. The project, for which they are still seeking private funding, would involve the construction of shopping malls, hotels, new hospitals, multistorey car parks, nightclubs and a $3 billion export free zone funded by the Chinese to be used for conversion of bauxite into aluminium.
Annan spoke of anticipated job losses in the fishing industry and told me about told me about an alternative employment program they hoped to develop that focused on urban farming to supply the local restaurants and hotels with fruit and vegetables. He expressed concern that people were flooding into the city from all areas of Ghana expecting jobs and opportunities, not realising that the anticipated oil wealth could be a “mirage”.
At the small Takoradi airport, known as “air force” because it doubles as an military base, I met Richard Delayoe, a friendly Texan oil worker with a shaved head and tattooed arms hidden under his long sleeves. He smoked and sweated white hot in the sun as he spoke to me about life on the rigs. Delayoe, who works for the US drilling company Baker Hughes, was heading out to the Sedco 702 rig.
Like many oil workers Delayoe had traveled all over the world working in the seas of China, Equatorial Guinea and Italy. He described the lifestyle as difficult at times but said he loved the ocean and the travel and that the pay made up for the negative aspects of the job.
“There are no noises, you are out in the middle of the ocean and have a beautiful view,” said Delayoe.
The Texan finished his second cigarette, wiped the sweat off his forehead with his wrist and disappeared past the immigration checkpoint. As the airport workers gathered flak jackets and earphones in preparation for the next departure, I wondered what the view was like from the sky and the giant rig and whether the fishermen and the oil workers ever saw one another in that expanse of ocean.
*Clair MacDougall is a journalist based in Accra, Ghana. She writes about Ghana and West Africa at North of Nowhere.