Sunday, September 30, 2007


By Will Ross - BBC News, Accra.

In some places in northern Ghana boats are the only means of travel. The past few weeks have seen some of the worst floods in living memory across a large area of Africa.
From Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east, hundreds of thousands have been displaced and many communities have been cut off.
I visited the worst-hit areas in the north of Ghana and neighbouring Togo, which are more used to battling drought than floods.
Finding out what I could by telephone, my first report on the floods was from hundreds of miles away in Accra but I soon saw the benefit of getting a little closer to the action.
My report had mentioned that the Ghanaian navy had dispatched two boats to the north of the country to help out.
Once in northern Ghana I was a little surprised to find that they were not much bigger than the rowing boats I used to spin around in, avoiding the ducks in a pond in London's Regent's Park.
But with a small outboard engine they were just what were needed to bring help to the cut-off communities near the village of Daboya.

We were a long way from the Ghanaian navy's normal location - battling the waves on the Atlantic Ocean - and there were endless shouts of port and starboard as we slalomed our way between the submerged trees, passing clusters of thatched huts which had just become small islands and were now lying abandoned.

After about an hour we arrived at Dissa Village where found a young man, Bawa, who had just paddled his family to safety in the middle of the night in a wooden dug-out canoe.
But all was not well in Dissa village where Bawa had taken his family.
An old friend, Sababu, had offered food and shelter but having just lost his crops to the floods, he too was in a precarious situation.
We walked to, and then waded into, what was left of his field of maize.
Sodden stalks lay flat on the ground.
"We were just about to harvest next month," he told me.
"I'm having sleepless nights worrying about the food."
For those of us used to buying our food in shops and supermarkets, it is hard to imagine the scale of the problem Sababu faces.
Like most people in the area, he is a subsistence farmer and with just one cereal crop a year these floods are going to produce a long-term food problem.
A few helicopter drops from the UN will not fix it.
The worst hit areas will need food assistance for the best part of a year.

Ghana's eastern neighbour, Togo, was to be our next destination. On a map it was just a tantalizing couple of inches from the flooded areas in the north.
Unfortunately we needed visas in Accra and so had to travel the entire length of both countries.
We hired a driver, Louis - a huge man from a family of Ghanaian champion boxers.
Despite a few military roadblocks on the way, I felt we were in safe hands - and by the look of him we could have thrown away the car-jack too.
Now, if Togo were the same shape as Louis, reaching the north would have been a modest trip.
Sadly, Togo is more like me - tall and thin - and so we were in for a long haul.
We were occasionally cheered up when Louis, gripping the steering wheel firmly, burst into song: "I see trees of green, red roses too..."
Yes, there were a few duets with his namesake Louis Armstrong on the car stereo.
Reaching the flooded villages we were rapidly exhausting all possible modes of transport; helicopter, motorboat, car, motorbike and bicycle.
When we approached Nagbeni village with a team of Red Cross workers, we came to an abrupt stop as the floods had washed away the bridge.

My colleague made a brief attempt to add "donkey" to the growing transport list, but the four-legged friend was not keen and bolted.
After more wading, we found Noumpo Natchaba queuing up for help, with the youngest of her six children strapped to her back.
We headed to her home with water purification kits from the Red Cross.
Half of the mud huts in Noumpo's compound had collapsed, and with her fields flooded she says she only has enough maize for a week.
The water in the north of Togo is receding but in the noisy paediatric wards of the region's main hospital we saw nurses struggling with an alarming crisis which is likely now to get worse.
Every day babies and young children are brought in with malnutrition.
Even before the floods the UN estimated that one third of children in the north of Togo were malnourished.
We saw 18-month-old Mamadou who had reached the hospital just in time, weighing half what he should have.
Mamadou's mother died a few months ago following relentless diarrhoea and his aunt was struggling to look after him.
He was gradually putting on weight but the fear is that with many families having lost their crops, the amount of malnutrition in the region is set to rise even more.
Perhaps the full impact of these floods will not be known for months.
But by then the water will have gone and the humanitarian agencies may well have moved on just when these areas need their help the most.



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