The children of Nzulezu


My year is winding down here in Ghana. I will be headed home in eight weeks, and, though it feels I have only been gone a very short time, the preceding weeks have been filled with numerous unbelievable experiences. Truth be told the best experiences haven’t been the thrilling and exhilarating ones. Make no mistake I have thoroughly enjoyed those. The most fulfilling, however, have been with the amazing children of this country.

Without the noise of a television running constantly or the magnetic appeal of iPads and Android tablets, the children roam free and build and create things to entertain themselves. The only limits are the availability of materials and their imagination. In this year, I have witnessed children who have built kites, small cars and trucks, and a pedal-operated hand-washing station using only bamboo and a gallon bucket. I am continually impressed by the efforts of their little minds and hands. I thought I had seen it all, though, until I ventured into a rainforest to the village of Nzulezu.

Nzulezu sits on Lake Amansuri. I say “sits on” because it is a village built over the water with bamboo homes on stilts. The depth of the water at the homes ranges from five-15 feet. The center of the lake is 45 feet deep. The village of Nzulezu is a reminder of a place lost to time long ago and only recently rediscovered as a tourist destination. I was told the first white man only visited the village in 1998. Now it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The journey to Nzulezu took half a day on a bus from Cape Coast, Ghana to the border with Ivory Coast. When we arrived in Benyin, Ghana, the only way to Nzulezu was in a canoe. We paid our fees, and a couple of young Benyin villagers took us to Nzulezu. Our canoe took us through a man-made canal to a marsh outside of the jungle. Past the marsh, you enter a small waterway that runs through the jungle to Lake Amansuri. Along the way, I noticed hand-made fish traps throughout the water in the stream. Large nets were set up adjacent to the waterway to catch wayward fish swimming away from the lake in the current.

We entered the lake, and the village appeared in the distance. As we approached, I noticed children swimming everywhere and some jumping off of the built-up walkway. We learned upon our arrival in Benyin that we would be allowed to stay overnight. That added to what was already shaping up to be a magical day. Our home sat in the water outside of most of the others, so we could see most of the outer homes where the children were playing in the water. As I sat and watched them it occurred to me that this is all they have–water. There are no dumps to scavenge parts for makeshift toys or creative inventions- like the pedal-operated hand-washing station.

I spoke with locals and learned that in the dry season there is a small patch of land in the marsh that dries up enough to allow for soccer games. The space is only about 50 feet wide and 100 feet long. It is dry for about a month out of the year. Other than that the children have the water. The same locals informed me all children are taught to swim at the age of three. I walked back to our accommodations to see a small girl no older than four or five years standing up while paddling a dugout canoe past me. She was alone. The little girl docked it by her home and dove headfirst into the water.

The children swimming in the water noticed me watching, and decided they would really show me their skills. They began climbing to the side of the homes and flipping and diving into the water. Some dove so cleanly they barely made a ripple in the water. Others were racing each other between the homes. Some would get my attention and go under the water to show me how long they could stay under. They would stay under nearly two minutes or more at times. As a father, it was actually making me nervous!

As I sat there watching their play, I realized this village could be home to potential Olympic athletes in swimming and diving. When a child in Nzulezu is born they are taken to the water where the villagers ask their water gods to bless the child’s life. The children of Nzulezu are born into the water and live in the water of Lake Amansuri. It’s so much of their life, it’s almost all they know. Where better for Ghana to find their best swimmers and divers than among them?

I sat on the walkway by my room, the sun set and the waters of the lake settled to a glass-like appearance. The only disturbance was the few children still playing in the distance. It was as serene a setting as I’ve been in for some time. I’m thankful for a number of things that I’ve experienced in my time in Ghana. I’m especially thankful for my time with the exceptional children here. Their creative nature and curiosity about the world around them is really something to see. I consider it a privilege to have seen it firsthand.