My Adventures in Ghana

3 December 2015

Agne Gvozdevaite is in her third year of studying for a DPhil in Geography and the Environment, she recently spent seven months in Ghana working on a forest ecology project for Oxford University. Here Agne shares some journal extracts from her time in Ghana, along with some explanation about the project and its aims.

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Day 154. We arrived at the Ankasa national park at late night, it was almost midnight. After 9 hours of sitting in an overcrowded pickup truck and waiting for 4 hours on the side of the road to get the vehicles fixed we were met by pitch black camp, which will be our home for the next two months, and a team of alert and angry rapid response forest personnel. After half an hour of heated discussion and phone calls we are let to unpack and settle in for the night. Air is humid and hot, but feels like refreshing when compared to the weather in the middle of Ghana, where hamattan (dry season) is in full swing. In the morning we wake from loud shrieks of tropical birds and monkeys. The camp is surrounded by a beautiful misty forest which is in some places is interrupted by small clearings for oil palm or cacao plantations on the outskirts of the national park. I step away from the houses where people are slowly waking to appreciate this beautiful view.

The Ankasa National Park is situated in the south-western corner of Ghana, right near the border of Côte d’Ivoire. The park stretches for almost 500 square kilometres, and consists largely of tropical evergreen  rainforest that we will be exploring for the next few months. This forest host the most incredible amount of biodiversity. In some places over 300 different plant species having been recorded in a single hectare of forest. It is full of monkeys, chimpanzees, forest elephants, and the rarest species of birds. This forest has a high level of protection as one of the last few remaining primary forests in Ghana.

Day 158. The forest is hardly passable. A windy mud road stops us every 10 minutes of our trip to the study sites. John and Imma, the drivers of two pickups, learn new skills in navigating the jungle. Finally, we arrive at our study site.

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It is 6.30 in the morning and everybody is hungry. We are having kenkey for breakfast before the work begins. It is sour corn dough wrapped in corn leaves served with fish and sauce, made from onion, tomatoes and chilli. Forgive me my honesty, but the first time I tried this meal early in October I wanted to get on the plane and go back home. That time I felt that the incredible sourness of the dough was only slightly overpowered by fishiness and spiciness of the sauce if you could eat these together. A few months later of eating rice my taste buds changed and adapted to Ghanaian cuisine and even now I crave this dish. While working in the forest we would eat twice a day. In the morning, around 7 o’clock and in the evening around similar time. Working in challenging conditions (intense heat and humidity as well as physically intense labour for some) meant that it was very important to give our bodies large amount of high energy food. As we stayed in places where we have no power for the refrigerator or possibility of going food shopping every other day the food we ate was limited in choice and freshness. This way I got to appreciate lovely textures and flavours of fruits and vegetables of which Ghana has plenty.

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We are a team of 23 people, two PhD students, me and Ghanaian Theresa Peprah, and the rest are a mix of Ghanaian student and national service personnel. Before arriving to Ankasa we have worked together for four months on forest ecology project called GEM-Traits. This is an Oxford University based initiative in operation since 2013 spanning five continents and having no precedent in the amount of information gathered on forest ecosystem functioning. The main aim of the Global Ecosystem Monitoring network (GEM) is to measure and understand forest ecosystem functions and traits, and how these will respond to climate change. This is done by field campaigns led by scientist from Oxford University and helped by local students and local people. The works is based in GEM plots – 1 ha patches of forests representative of different forest types along environmental and elevational gradients, with most of the trees labelled and identified. Throughout the year carbon balances here measured, by assessing literafall, tree stem respiration, root and canopy growth. GEM-Traits field campaigns attempt to further investigate the trees that grow in these specific environments. We measure various leaf properties, such as their size, photosynthetic capacity, chemistry and veins. We relate these to the water movement properties of the leaves and branches. We finally look at the shape of the crowns and wood density. We also gather information on the environment the forest ecosystem exists in, for example, climate of the site, light levels that reach different trees, soil chemistry. Some of the GEM plots had airborne observatory flown over them led by Gregory Asner, plane with highest spectral technology that scans the structure and chemical composition of the forest through reflectance.

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Day 1. I was picked up at the airport by Richard who is driving me and five huge suitcases with equipment to Kumasi. We have left late and have to wait for a couple hours stuck in completely standstill traffic in Accra. When we leave the city it is already dark. We have to stop, turn around and start driving on the other side of the highway as there was a big accident and the road is closed. It starts raining and the chaos develops. Some roads got washed away by end of the rainy season storms, therefore, we drive on gravel roads across tiny villages trying to over pass huge trucks and Neoplan busses. The rain stops, cars disappear from the road and I fall asleep only occasionally woken up by policemen checking the cars. It is my first day in Ghana and I am worried, I have already broken my safety standards, I am hungry and tired. I feel completely dependent on people who surround me.

Day 215. After 7 months of intensive work in the forest today I return back to the UK. Work in Ghana is tough, but it is never boring. Slight lack of health and safety rules plus a team of easily excitable Ghanaian people always sets me up for a good day. Also, possibility of unknown makes work more exciting. For example, being chased by a young male chimpanzee up the steep hill on the way to the plot or having my malaria medication eaten by a mouse. I mostly miss people I have worked with. I miss their excitement and quirkiness. I laughed a lot and I was annoyed a lot, but I am eternally grateful for their efforts and for making me feel so welcome and an integral member of the project team.

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Our beautiful Ghanaian team. My supervisors Prof Yadvinder Malhi and Dr Imma Oliveras came to visit us in February (I’m far left in the front row).