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Yomo's Warning

The Songor lagoon, 80 km east of Ghana's capital Accra, is the source of some 150,000 to 200,000 tonnes of salt a year. It is both a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and home to around 60,000 people who depend on salt and fishing for their livelihoods. Traditionally, the local Ada people, but also others who come from further afield as far as Burkina Faso and Nigeria, have had the right to harvest salt in the dry season in exchange for a small tithe. Much of local life revolves around salt - so much so that the question "O yeo ngo?", or "Do you speak Dangme?", the local language, literally translates as "Do you chew salt?".

According to legend, the Ada people came from neighbouring Nigeria. As Korley, a hunter, tracked a wounded antelope into a forest, he encountered an old woman seated on a white throne who bequeathed the lagoon to the hunter and his descendants. She admonished that no gold should be brought to the lagoon, nor should blood be spilled in it. Locals believe that the spirit of Yomo, the old woman, still dwells among them.

In recent years, however, the communal spirit of the Ada and other people living around the lagoon has started to fray and the traditional right to harvest salt according to each family's needs has started to be abused, with many locals demarcating their own areas of the salt flats.

The trouble started in the 1960s with the building of the Akosombo dam along the Volta River. This interrupted the lagoon’s natural flood cycle, and its bounty dwindled. Local chiefs entered into a controversial pact with Vacuum Salt Products Ltd to dig out channels to the sea to bring sea water flooding back into the lagoon in return for licenses to harvest salt in industrial quantities. Tensions between locals and the salt companies came to a head in 1985 when local police came to check on people "stealing" salt from the lagoon. In the ensuing scuffles, Maggie Kuwornu, a local woman, was shot and killed. The Yomo's warning had not been heeded: blood had been spilled.

Though the contracts of large salt mining companies were terminated in the 1990s, the lagoon's balance has been massively disrupted by ever more "private” basins, demarcated with mud banks, in an effort to copy the high-yielding methods of the salt companies. What used to be readily available to all in equal measure has now become a matter of premium access for those who have the money to pay for water pumps, fuel and equipment. Allegations that local chiefs have made murky deals abound. The lagoon is being pumped dry and fish stocks are falling fast. Increased 'privatisation' of the lagoon has also led to exploitative practices amongst those running the larger salt fields. Young women for whom working the fields is often the only source of income, are paid a pittance for backbreaking work and often pressured into giving sexual favours to their bosses in return for employment. People like Mary Akuteye and other women from the lagoon have started to fight back, forming an association locally known as 'Yihi Katsemi' (or ‘brave women'), which is advocating for a return to the traditional principles of equity and sustainability.

However, it appears they now face an even greater challenge: in late 2020 the Ghanaian government leased the entire lagoon to Electrochem Ghana Ltd, a subsidiary of McDan Group owned by controversial businessman Daniel ‘McDan’ McKorley, for 15 years. He aims to raise salt output to 1 million tons in the first year of operation. McKorley maintains that livelihoods will not be disrupted, he will build large communal pans, and salt from locals at market prices. The lease and business plan documents agreed by the government say otherwise.

According to Nene Korley IV, chief of the clan who are the lagoon’s traditional owners, he and his the chiefs opened the door to McDan in the interests of their people. We met no-one, however, who spoke of having been consulted. Nene Korley IV insists he is not profiting personally from the deal, though he acknowledges that the chiefs have been promised palace and office complexes.

For now, much remains unclear about the validity of Electrochem Ghana Ltd's promises. As ever, locals are caught between powerful interests playing over high stakes. Decades of disagreements among the Ada, increasingly unsustainable use of the lagoon and the re-intervention of big business endanger a centuries-old arrangement that allowed people to live from the fruits of the water and the land. The Yomo's admonitions hover over the fractious lagoon.
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