An Introduction to the Geography of Ghana
Modern day Ghana covers an area of 91,843 sq. miles (almost the size of the state of Oregon) with a population of approximately 24 million. Located in the western part of the continent of Africa, the area identified on the map today as Ghana is made up of the former British Crown colony of the Gold Coast, the inland protectorate of Ashanti, the Northern Territories, and the League of Nations (after 1945 the U.N.) Trust Territory of British Togoland.
Ghana is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the south, the Republic of Burkina Faso in the North, the Republic of Togo to the East, and the Republic of Cote D’Ivoire to the West.
Ghana’s physical geography can be divided into four main geographic zones:
- the coastline
- the coastal plain
- the forest belt
- the dry savanna
Ghana coastline is made of low sandy foreshore continuously watered by the Atlantic Ocean. From Accra, the capital city, going toward the east (the border with Republic of Togo), this shoreline is broken by lagoons and creeks that are only separated from the sea by sand bars.
The coastal plain averages a depth inland of approximately sixty miles northwards into the interior. In the west, the coastal plain is comprised mainly of tropical rainforests, much of which has been cut down to give way to human habitation and the cultivation of crops. In the east, the coastal plain is comprised of savanna forests (not as intense as the tropical rain forests to the west) and grasslands. The ecological zone to the north of the coastal plains which makes up the middle belt of Ghana is comprised of deciduous forests. The northern third of the country is characterized as Guinea savanna; composed of grass and scattered deciduous trees.
Ghana is located in the tropical zone about 400 miles north or the equator. Consequently, it has for the most part a tropical climate. However, temperatures in the country vary relative to elevation and season. The tropical climate is generally characterized by a hot, rainy weather.
Unlike the U.S. and other Northern American or European countries where the climate is characterized by four clear distinctive seasons, West African countries like Ghana have only two seasons. In Ghana there is no Spring or Winter. Instead there is a succession of dry and rainy seasons. The rainy season is characterized by green and lush vegetation, while the dry season is dry and dusty. Some regions within the country have two rainy seasons in the year while others have only one. The southern half of the country has two rainy seasons, one running from April to July and the other from September to November. While the north experiences only one rainy season each year.
To better understand the impact of rain in the drier zones of northern Ghana and the difference it makes compare the following photos from the same area in the town of Tamale, one was taken in the dry season and the other was taken in the rainy season.
A visitor can easily guess what season it is they arrive in Ghana by just looking at the trees and other vegetation; if they are dark and green, it is the rainy season. On the other hand, if the vegetation is dull and brown and covered with dust it is the dry season. Geographically the northern part of the country is different from the southern part. There is only one rainy season and it runs in normal years from April to October. The dry season in this part of the country runs from November till March. This period is characterized by a thick air blowing from the Sahara Desert covering most of the grass in the region with red dust. The impact of this dry air is visible not only on the nature but also on human beings especially the inhabitants whose skin quite often is dry and chapped. This season is known throughout West Africa as the Harmattan.
From the above explanation it follows that the annual precipitation (rainfall) in the South is much higher than it is in the North. The annual rainfall in the south averages 83 inches (2100 mm), whereas precipitation in the north averages 43” (1100 mm) in the north. In the far north of Ghana near its border with Burkina Faso the average rainfall is nearer 30” a year.
Another characteristic of the climate in Ghana, like in many tropical West African countries (as indicated above) is the Harmattan. The Harmattan is a dry sand-filled winds blowing from the Sahara Desert far to the north of country. The Harmattan occurs in the dry season (November to March) when the Intertropical Convergence Belt that determines much of the climate and weather patterns in middle Africa, moves to the South of the Equator resulting in hot dry southerly winds from the Sahara Desert. The Harmattan, brings hot, hazy (caused by sand particles carried by the northerly winds) days, but the nights are cool. Temperatures normally rise in the month in March while the lowest occur in the month of August. On average the day-time temperature is about 79 Fahrenheit (26 Celsius) the daily temperature range in Ghana is 75-85 F for almost the entire year.
Map or Intertropical Convergence Zone
One of the main characteristics of the geography of a country or a region is its climates and the number of seasons. How many seasons does the USA have? And how many seasons are there in the southern part of Ghana? What difference is there between the Seasons in North America and the seasons in Ghana?
- Study the picture of Akosombo during the Harmattan and explain what period of the year it was taken. What justifies your answer?
- The section mentions a difference between the Seasons in the Northern part and the southern part of Ghana. Can you recall: what is the main difference?
Ghana has considerable hydraulic resources and potential that not only provide sources of income for a significant part of the population but also generate electricity, which in addition to meeting domestic needs, has become an important export. This section will study some of the main rivers and other water resources or reservoirs of the country.
There are two main lakes in Ghana, one is natural, Lake Bosumtwi, and the other, Lake Volta, is human made.
a. Lake Bosumtwi
Lake Bosumtwi is a natural freshwater lake situated approximately 20 miles (about 32 kilometers) south east of the city of Kumasi, capital of the Ashanti Region. It is 47 square kilometers and 86 meters deep, Lake Bosumtwi is the only natural freshwater lake of any size in Ghana. Economically, the lake supports some commercial fishing activity that helps many surrounding population.
Lake Bosumtwi is believed to be the product of both a geological and a climatic evolution that started around 1.3 million years ago when a meteorite of about 800 meters in diameter collided with the earth. The result of the impact is a crater the rim of which averages 10.5 km in diameter and with some hills surrounding the rim reaching an altitude of up to 600 meters which are covered by tropical rainforest.
Economically, in addition to commercial and subsistence fishing, the lake provides for the nearly thirty villages surrounding it the opportunity to earn income from this popular tourist destination.
Legends of the Lake
In many cultures around the world, behind the name of natural landmarks is a quite often a legend. These legends often explain the name or the sacred character of the site or the landmark. Such is the case with the name “Bosomtwi.”
It all started in the year 1648 CE when Akora Bompe, an Ashanti hunter from the city of Asaman, was chasing an injured antelope through the rainforest. The legend says that the antelope disappeared into a small pond. As he never caught the antelope, the hunter decided to settle near the pond and instead of hunting antelope, started fishing from the pond which he named “BOSUMTWI” meaning “GOOD ANTELOPE.” This story suggests that the lake was then at one of its lowest levels around three hundred years ago. Over the time the lake has become an object of conquest in many wars between the Akims and the Ashantis peoples. An ultimate victory of the Ashantis made the lake theirs and secured it for their kingdom.
BOSUMTWI is also a sacred lake. This sacredness of lake came from the fact that many of the Ashanti warriors who perished during wars were buried in common graves close to the lake. The cemetery is called Ekoho, located in near a village called Esaase. Sometime local practices can have a positive ecological/ environmental impact. Because the place is sacred, farming is forbidden in the area. As a result, the rainforest was protected in that area.
Lake Bosumtwi’s sacred or spiritual status is enhanced by the Ashanti belief that the lake is the birth place of the god Twi, who was born on a Sunday. Twi is celebrated in a special festival called ‘Akwasidae.’ Each of the villages surrounding the lake has its own shrine (fetish grove) but the spiritual center for this deity is the Abrodwum Stone. It is at this place that lake people will sacrifice a sheep or a goat when there is a poor fishing season.
There is a common belief among the Ashanti that after death their souls will always enter the lake and bid farewell to the god Twi before entering the after-life. Because the lake is sacred, it is forbidden to put any form of metal into its water. Those who transgress that “law” will, it is believed, incur the wrath of Twi. This explains why usually only non-traditional boats are used on the lakes. Traditional dugout canoes are forbidden on the lake.
The Lake Today:
Today, the Ashantis and about 23,000 other people are scattered in 27 lake-shore communities making their living from the products of the lake. With a growing population, the resources from the lake are shrinking, forcing a significant percentage of the population to convert from fishing into farming. Finally, the lake holds scientific interest to climatologists who believe that it may hold some clues to understanding the history of climate change in this part of Africa.
- What does BOSUMTWI mean?
- Why was the lake named BOSUMTWI?
- Why is the lake Bosumtwi considered a sacred lake?
- Why do scientists have interest in Lake Bosumtwi?
The Volta river system in Ghana is made up of the Black Volta and the White Volta rivers (see above map). From the confluence of the two branches the Volta River flows southwards toward the sea at a distance of approximately 498.9 kilometers (310 miles). The free flow of the river system was interrupted in the 1960s by the Volta river project that launched the construction in 1961 of a hydroelectric dam in Akosombo. That dam was completed in 1965 creating one of the largest human-made lakes or water reservoirs, at that time, in the world. The completion of this project forced the displacement of about eighty thousand people who were resettled in townships created on the higher banks of the lake. The dam was closed in 1964 causing the lake to fill up and reach its highest level of 84 meters in 1968.
The lake has an area of about 8,288 sq. km (3200 sq miles), and its length is about 402.3 km or 250 miles. About 1200 villages are located on the lake shore. Villagers make their living from activities related to the lake. The lake offers economic as well as strategic importance for the local population and for the country as a whole. It sustains fishing activities and water-related wildlife with the surrounding villages and enables a transportation corridor for resident living on either side of the lake. For the country, the Akosombo Dam on the Volta River generates a significant amount of hydroelectricity, 768,000-kilowatts, which is used not only for domestic consumption but also for exports to neighboring countries like Benin and Togo.
Rivers:These economic and strategic advantages of the lake should not overshadow the problems that came with the construction of the dam. Many people were forced into relocation on the higher banks of the river as a result of its construction. Other problems include environmental issues related to the reduction of the carbon consumption by submerged trees and other plants. Similarly the fiber of the flooded timber lost its value.
Ghana is among the well-watered countries in Africa. The country is rich in water resources and is drained by a great number of rivers and lakes among which are the Black and Red Volta and the Oti River. All the rivers arise on the south side of the Kwahu Plateau and most of them flow directly into the Gulf of Guinea. Three of the Ghanaian rivers have permanent channels through the coast sand dunes, the Volta, the Pra and the Ankobra Rivers. Most of the smaller rivers terminate in brackish lagoons. In general, the water quality of the rivers is good for both irrigation and livestock uses.
The largest rivers that drain the area of southern Ghana, the Volta and the Pra were used for the transportation of timber to the coast before the advent of modern transportation like road and rail track. A number of rivers are found to the east of the Pra. The two most important are the Densu and Ayensu, which are important as sources of water for Accra and Winneba, respectively.
Dams are economically important for a country yet their construction presents many challenges and difficulties for the local populations. You have learned, for example, that the construction of the Akosombo dam forced the displacement of about 80,000 people who were living in the Volta region. In your view point, should the government restrain from building a dam or any project that would force the displacement of the population? Why or why not?
The People of Ghana
Ghana has a population of approximately 24, 000,000 people, comprised of different ethnic groups: the Akan (divided in Fanti and Ashanti), the Ewe, the Ga-Adangbe and the Gaun. The distribution of the population is as follows: Akan 45.3%, Mole-Dagbon 15.2%, Ewe 11.7%, Ga-Dangme 7.3%, Guan 4%, Gurma 3.6%, Grusi 2.6%, Mande-Busanga 1%, other ethnicities 1.4%, other 7.8% (2000 census).
The Ashanti is the largest ethnic group of Ghana. Their traditional homeland is located in central Ghana about three hundred kilometers from the coast, they belong to the Akan group and constitute about 19 % (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashanti) of the total population of the country (Ghana). The Ashanti are traditionally a matrilineal people which means that descent is traced through the female or the mother’s line. Today they are known for the variety of skilled crafts. These crafts include weaving of cloth, wood carving, ceramics and metallurgy. Some of their works include hand-carved stools, the fertility dolls, and their colorful Kente cloth. Kente cloth is woven in bright, narrow strips with complex patterns. Kente is usually made from cotton and is always woven outdoors, exclusively by men. In the craft area, women are only allowed to do pottery-making.
The Ewe people are established mostly in the southeastern part of Ghana but they also live in the southern part of the neighboring countries of Togo and Benin. They are in general farmers who keep livestock but also have some craft specialization. The Ewe are also involved in fishing, especially those living in the coastal area. Ewe women are involved in a variety of economic activities including trade between communities.
Unlike the Akan (Ashanti and Fanti), who are matrilineal, the Ewe are a patrilineal community. The Ewe are a culturally rich community that has over 600 deities to appeal to in times of need. It is then no surprise that their ceremonies often honor more than one deity. Ewes are also skilled in cloth weaving. Their Kente is characterized by a more geometrical patterns with symbolic designs handed down from one generation to the other.
You can search the web to find wonderful examples of a rich variety of Kente cloth.
The Fanti are part of the Akan family. They live mainly on the coastal areas of the country and speak the Twi language. Like the Ashanti, the Fanti are a matrilineal society. Consequently, succession and inheritance to most public offices are determined from the mother side in a family.
Traditions hold that the Fanti came to their present day habitats when they migrated from the north in the 17th century. Fanti people served as middlemen between the interior and the British and Dutch traders at the beginning of colonization.
The Ga-Adangbe comprises two distinct groups of people, the Ga and the Adangbe, who live in the Accra Plains. They came from the same ancestors. The Adangbe are found to the east, the Ga groups, to the west of the Accra coastlands. Although both languages are derived from a common proto-Ga-Adangbe ancestral language, modern Ga and Adangbe are mutually unintelligible.
Traditions hold that the Guan began their migration from the current Burkina Faso around the year 1,000 CE. They migrated through the Volta valley and settled along the Black Volta, the Volta gorge, the Afram and other areas before reaching the coastal Plains where they developed their own enclaves because of the arrival of other ethnic groups like the Akan and Ewe or Ga-Adangbe.
The Languages of Ghana
There is a variety of languages in Ghana as is the norm in African countries. The most common languages are Twi, Hausa, Ewe, Nzema. As a former British colony, after independence Ghana adopted English as its official language.
- Which ethnic group is involved in these types of trade: weaving, wood carving, ceramics and metallurgy?
- What do the terminologies matrilineal and patrilineal mean? Which ethnicities were identified as matrilineal? Which were identified as patrilineal?
- Both Ashanti and the Ewe make Kente Cloth. Read the section on the Ewe and say what characterizes most Ewe Kente cloth.
Go on to Activity Two or select from one of the other activities in this module.