Friday, July 13, 2007

Africa Shoot: Signing off from Kumasi

. . . heading out early. Just sent the last of my messages from the top of a Shell gas station. They took forever to load, and I'm exhausted and heading back to the hotel to get a beer and go to bed. We're up early tomorrow, heading North. I'll write from the road, but probably won't be able to send anything until next Friday, when we return to Accra.

All for now . . .
____________David Elisco

Africa Shoot: The Success and Failures of Mark Knobil

Mark Knobil, our extraordinary Director Photography, is shooting some breathtaking images. He is also running into his fair share of bad luck. On our first full day of shooting, Mark's first step onto the savannahs outside Accra, resulted in a twisted knee. He was a little sore, but fine.
On Mark's second full day of shooting, he knelt an incredibly large pile of human feces, and his pant leg need to be cut off his body.

On his third full day of shooting, which was at the fish market, Mark stepped off the path and into a drain filled with sewage, fish guts and god knows what else, soaking his only pair of sneakers.

Africa Shoot: Ghana Part 4

After the disappointment of the bush meat market, the fish market was a welcome success. We arrived on schedule and were greeted with cheers and applause. The entire Kumasi market was bustling with activity on a grand scale, and everywhere people were shoulder to shoulder. Among our crew, it was probably the most crowded place we have ever collectively shot. (I'm estimating that the market is about one square mile in size.) We followed our three lead scientists among the fish stalls as they recreated their survey work. The scientists were interested in investigating if the lack of fish in markets like Kumasi was fueling the bush meat trade. After years of work monitoring twelve markets in Ghana, they did saw a correlation: when fish supplies were down, the bush meat trade was booming, and when fish supplies were up, the bush meat trade appeared to wane.
Packed like sardines in a can, we made our way through the Kumasi market. This is probably one of the more difficult places I've ever had to shoot. Setting up shots, following our scientists and general communication were a big challenge.
The Queen Mother of the Fish Market. As you might guess from her smile, she was a delight. There are many Queen Mothers in the Kumasi market, and this one granted us permission to shoot in her domain.
Michael Afranie, Ghanaian film and television star, guided us through the markets. Everywhere we went, people cheered, applauded and reached out to touch him. He was a very cool guy.
Michael guides our crew through a labyrinth of stalls. Without his help we would have been lost in seconds.
One section of the Kumasi market, as seen from a an outdoor sewing factory. This was one of the only spots that we could find from above where you could actually see people because most of the market is packed so tightly.
A wider shot of the market. The market is all outdoors, with the vendors sitting under the shelter of metal roofs which obstructed any great wide shots.

Africa Shoot: Ghana Part 3

We rolled out promptly from Accra at nine this morning, in a small caravan of three vehicles, packed to the brim for our trip to the North. Our route actually took us Northwest through a number of towns, large and small -- many of which are not on our driving map. From Accra we headed Northwest to Nsawan and then to Apadwa. From there we went to Suhum, and after a brief stop at Bunso Junction we went to Osino, Anyinam, Nkwankwan, Konogo and finally to Kumasi. The route for the most part is a very well paved two lane highway that cut through endless forest and grasslands that were broken up by towns. It had all the makings of a pleasant drive that wasn't meant to be.

For somebody like myself that spends much of his time commuting by bicycle, I'm not afraid to admit that the trip was hair raising. Our speeds were usually very fast on the highway between 70 and 90 m.p.h and people passed at will along the two-way roads--around blind corners, over blind hills, and between lanes, squeezing other cars to the edge of the road. Along the highway there were the corpses of other cars and trucks that obviously didn't fare well on our route. I'm no mechanic, but as I listened to the sound of our transmission rolling and winding out between gears, I could imagine the drive shaft spinning like a lathe producing piles of metal shavings. In fact, the floor beneath my feet was so hot that I couldn't put my bare feet on the floor mat and had to wear shoes.

As we drove, passing cars, tailgating, breaking fast, swerving to avoid on coming vehicles, I knew that I was not alone in my fears. There were sighs, gasps, swearing, and often I looked behind me to Chad, our assistant camera to share a quick look of disbelief. "That was the worst @!#$% car ride I ever had in my life!" Chad told me later. Justin Brashares, the scientists we're filming, advises his graduate students coming to work in Ghana, that the most dangerous thing they need to be aware of is not crime, and not the animals in the bush . . . it is driving on the roads. Passing through one of the many small towns on our way to Kumasi.

At the top of a hill, our driver cuts back into position and decides not to pass.

Our trip grinds to a completely stop and our driver Ernest, our soundman Chris, and assistant camera Chad pose for a picture on the side of the road.

A recent accident. A familiar site on the road to Kumasi.

Africa Shoot: Kumasi July 13, 2007

It's five in the morning, just before sunrise and the dawn service of the Scripture Union Church School has begun with a morning song sung by the children of the boarding school. Their cherubic voices mark the beginning of a new day. It's a simple, soulful song, accompanied by a chorus of crickets and the calls of roosters that are waking near and far. I've been up since four thirty, and I don't think that I've started a day in such a beautiful way in a long time -- young voices under a still dark sky speaks clearly to me of the innocence of morning.

When we arrived at the bush meat market this morning at 5:45, it was clear that things were not going to go well for us. The doors of the small stalls were boarded and still locked and the people preparing the fires to smoke the meats looked at us suspiciously. As we stood by the roadside and awaited the arrival of the Queen Mother, sacks of dead animals were whisked by us, and ushered away so that we couldn't see them. When the Queen Mother arrived, our access to film was denied. There had been much talk between the vendors the previous night and it was decided that our intentions were not good. Recently the conservation group Conservation International had launched a campaign, "Say No to Bushmeat," which included a film. Those bush meat sellers included in the film were ostracized. Among the scientists whom we were set to film, there was a feeling that the CI campaign, while doing some good, had also produced some less than desirable results. Their point was that the the bush meat trade was becoming more underground, or at least less accessible to scientists wishing to study the trade. After approximately two hours of negotiations, we packed up our gear and moved on. Teddy, our fixer, Michael, the movie star, and Moses, one of our featured scientists, began immediately trying other avenues that might open some doors. They did their work as we moved on to the fish market.

As I write, Teddy and Michael are trying one last time to arrange a shoot at the bush meat market. If they're successful, we will be departing for our final scene of the day. If not, we will have develop another plan for covering the bush meat side of our story. Now, the crew is taking a well deserved break before heading out to capture city scenes. Everybody is exhausted after the shoot in the fish market. It was very hot and very crowded, and the air was thick with the smell of smoked and fresh fish -- and not all of the odors were pleasant.

Tomorrow we head North to our final destination, Mole National Park. (Pronounced Mole Ay.) Here we will be spending several days capturing material for the bulk of our sequence. Everybody is looking forward to getting out of the city and onto the savannahs of Ghana. This time of year, after the rains, Mole has been described to us as an Eden. We leave at 6:30 in the morning with high hopes of seeing elephants, antelope and of course, baboons! Internet access will be very sketchy if at all possible, so this might be my last entry for a little while. Our drive to Mole will take us approximately eight hours, and we all hope it is less stressful than the drive to Kumasi.

Africa Shoot: Kumasi July 12, 2007

After arriving in Kumasi, we made our way to the market place, which is an experience that I will never forget. We merged with a sea of people, the likes of which I've never experienced. The markets were densely packed, and we were guided by Michael Afranie, a famous television and movie actor, through a very tight labyrinth of stalls, buildings and ally ways, passing cobblers making shoes, textile workers, and vendors selling a myriad of goods -- electronics, fruits and vegetables, live animals, smoked animals, freshly slaughtered animals, toys, etc. It's not an understatement to say the market was sensory overload, and we briskly moved forward as if swimming up stream to our destination: the Queen Mother of the fish market.

The Queen Mother was a young, attractive woman in her early forties and she received us with a big smile and warm greetings. She was glad that we had arrived, but if truth be told she was more delighted to see Michael-- everybody was! Michael is very famous and well liked, and its easy to see why. He's a very handsome man, quick to smile, who wears a floppy hat and beard, who carries himself with the laid back sense of nobility. After much discussion and laughter between The Queen Mother and Michael, she gave us her blessing to shoot the following day, and were promised the cooperation of the rows of vendors that she represented. We stayed in the market a little while, scouting positions for the camera. As we left, we were carried by the flow of people back to the streets, and I was filled with a strange sense of belonging, and let the sights and sounds wash over me.

After a short drive through people and cars all jostling for position, we arrived at the bush meat market, where animals are brought from the countryside to be butchered and prepared for sale. In stark contrast to the fish market, the Queen Mother of the bush meat market was more reserved, guarded and cynical. She was an old woman, dressed in a black dress and black scarf, which she wore on her head. She sat on a wooden bench with one bare foot on the ground and the other leg stretched out in front of her. She told me to sit beside her and placed her finger on the bench to tell me exactly where to sit. As I sat, Michael and Teddy, our fixer, negotiated our shooting permit. The Queen was very reluctant. Bush meat is largely illegal and she feared that we had come in part to help shut down her businesses. Both Michael and Teddy took their time, listening to all of her concerns as well as those of her constituents. It was touch and go for a while and all I could do was sit and smile. At one point the conversation turned to me. The Queen Mother seemed to recognize me. She'd seen me before and was convinced I had been in Kumasi. Despite the efforts of Teddy and Michael, she was convinced that she knew me. She fixed me in her gaze as the conversation continued around her. How could I tell her that I felt the same way, that I'd been here before? In my dreams before my trip I'd travelled many times, alone at night, flying through sky before arriving to walk the streets and countryside of Ghana. Abruptly, the Queen looked away from me. She spoke to Michael and Teddy. Our request to film had been granted.

Africa Shoot: Ghana Part 2

This morning we arrived back in Jamestown to shoot the return of the local fishing fleet. We gained permission to shoot from the Fisheries Council and were guided by two ambassadors, Akonte and Niikommey. We were also met by Lamtui (a.k.a. Apna). Apna is a bit of a local celebrity. Officially he would be called a Canoe Group Leader. Unofficially, he is a gang leader, and it was obvious that he was held in very, very high esteem. As we filmed, our guides and our production fixer, Teddy Sabutey, negotiated with each canoe group, paying tribute as we moved.

Typically, we were met with a great deal of shouting, anger and hand waving, which lasted about a minute until everybody realized that we were being escorted. As soon as nerves were settled, we were then greeted by big smiles, cheers and laughter. This scene repeated itself over and over again during our shoot. At first, the rough and tumble atmosphere was a little unnerving, but very quickly we got into what would become the dominant rhythm of the day. (Incidentally, and it should come as no surprise, but it was pointed out that most Ghana's great boxers come from fishing communities. Having spent a few short hours in Jamestown, it's easy to see why that's the case.)

As the boats were being pulled in, the fishers sang beautiful sounding chants that were actually typically very off-color and vulgar. Many of the chants were made up on the spot, but some catch on and become part of the local "tradition."

The Jamestown community is predominantly made up of the Ga Tribe, approximately 85%. The other large majority come from the Fente Tribe.

Virtually all of the fishers are men. It was pointed out that in Jamestown there is one woman who goes out on the boats. Women make up the majority of the buyers and they await the return of the fleet each morning. Negotiations take place right on the shore as the boats land and the women load the fish that they buy into large metal pots. Many of the fish wind up at the market, which is less than a mile away, although we did film a woman buy from a fisher, turn around, take two steps and sell her entire take. (Sometimes the lines of commerce are very short!)

Among the fish we saw coming off the boats: tuna, mud crab, shrimp, giant sea snails, cassava, red fish, herriing, baracuda, and octopus.
As were were finishing our shoot, we were approached by a very angry fisher who shouted at us in native Ga, "When you are finished and get what you want, put fish back in the ocean!" In essence, he was trying to tell us that he had gained nothing from our presence. If only he knew our goal.

Among the fishers of Ghana, we came across another Pittsburgh Steeler fan!

In the afternoon, we headed north looking for baboons in the countryside about 45 minutes of Accra.

Moses Sam, Cole Burton and Justin Brashares, our featured scientists, join the search.

Stephen Aflo, a five year field guide of the Ghana Wildlife Division served as our guided. Stephen helped us try to find any of the fifteen troops that live within the Shai Hill Reserve.

With luck and skill, Stephen lead us to a troop of baboons that are habituated to humans.

Africa Shoot: Ghana Part 1

One hour into our first flight, and nine more hours to go before reaching London. In all it would take us 17 hours of flying time to reach Ghana, our first shooting leg in our trip to Africa.

On our first day in Accra, Ghana's capital, we scouted a local fish market near the town of Jamestown. The market is one of the biggest in the area and sold lots of fresh and dried fish. People were very reluctant to have their pictures taken here. Even taking pictures of the food was off limits.

We did manage, with guarded permission, to get this picture of dried fish from the market. Fish is a major source of animal protein for people living on the coast, which should come as no surprise. But what is surprising is that fish is a primary source of animal protein for people living thousands of miles from the coast in the desert regions of the Sahel -- and in some desert communities it is THE primary source of animal protein.

Moses Sam is a biologist working for the Ghana Wildlife Division. Moses is interested in large terrestrial animals, such as elephants, and the pressures that they're under do to fishing. Moses helps lead the effort of surveying and tracking Ghana's terrestrial wildlife, and he was part of the team that documented a sharp decline in land animals, linked to lack of fish. As fish is less available, people turn to "bush meat," as a source of protein.

The harbor at Jamestown in Accra, just down the hill from the market, is a major launching site for the Ghana fishing fleet, which consists largely of heavy wooden boats that are made by hand. We hope to shoot the return of the fleet on Wednesday morning and we are in negotiations with the local fishing chief for permission to do so. The harbor is extremely colorful and very crowded with ships, people, small homes and small shops. We've been told that this location can also be a little dangerous, but all of the people that we met were happy to see us and talk about their lives.

The fleet fishes everyday except Tuesday, which according to local custom is a day of rest for the fishers (and the fish.) Here fishers prepare for departure Tuesday night, when they will head for the waters around two in the morning.

A boat under construction at the Jamestown harbor. The wood is very light weight and called Wa Wa. It comes from the interior on trucks is guided down a very precarious road to the coast.
James Amarfey Qudye has been fishing here for more than 30 years. He was delighted to speak with us on our visit. He told us that at times from Jamestown he can look out across the waters to see the trawlers from the EU that sneak into Ghana's waters from neighboring countries where they are fishing legally to illegally fish in Ghana. Illegal fishing is a big problem for Ghana -- and in fact the world. The FAO has estimated that as much as 25% of the world's fish catch is landed and sold by illegal fishers.

During the scout, our assistant camera, Chad Djubek, and our Director of Photography, Mark Knobil, were enlisted to help bring in one of the smaller boats. (Both Chad and Mark are from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In fact 4 out 5 of our crew our from Pittsburgh, which caused the Ghana government concern, having so many Steeler fans in their country.)