Not far from Bolgatanga
I have only filmed in Africa once and that was while making this film, Not far from Bolgatanga, a title I still love today.
Barry Howells, a colleague at the National film board, had already done filming on this project about wells in Ghana. Wells paid for with Canadian aid money. For some reason, the film was bogged down, unfinished. I offered to go to the north of Ghana, do more shooting and finish it off.
It was an exciting trip. My crew were all Ghanain. They were efficient and fun. I especially remember Fred the cameraman. We travelled north from the capital on atrocious roads to the town of Bolgatanga. The drive set me thinking. As we swerved around potholes in the bitumen, I began to realise that a road was a piece of technology, and that in a state of disrepair, it was almost worse than no technology at all. The bitumen surface enticed one to speed up but a soon as you did so, the car would fall into a pothole as deep as a swimming pool, or so it seemed and the tires would be flattened, the suspension damaged.
We came to a river which had a vehicle ferry operating. It and the twin ferry which was stuck in the mud, were gifts from some Scandinavian government. I was told the other ferry was no longer operational, and that the one we are on, would not last long since only one of its engines was still functioning. This too started me thinking about why technology would tend to run down in the Ghana I was seeing. I developed a theory that technology was a bit like water, that it would always go to the lowest level.
That is, unless the culture was supportive unless it was technologically friendly at least to a level to support and service some machinery, breakdowns were inevitable. I applied this to the wells that the Canadian government had been giving. They were basically hand pumps installed over a hole which had been drilled on the ground, down into the water table. They very practical aid, delivering fresh uncontaminated water to people who walked quite long distances to take it home in buckets on their heads. it seemed like a good thing for the Canadian government to be funding and I was proud to be making the film. Applying my theory to the wells, I found that indeed where they serviced villages without technology, without even bikes, the locals would pump on the handle, until it broke. They would not notice that looseness and slackness were developing in the pivot, and would pump away till the thing broke. There was no remedial cautionary treatment of the mechanism. World pumps were seen as something that you pumped until it broke. People seemed to feel It was in their nature to break after a certain short while.
On the other hand, I found that villages which had things like bikes and other sustained technology had a different attitude towards their wells. They could see when adjustments and repairs were needed and, as a result, the pumps were not allowed to get to the point of breaking. That was the theory that I promoted in the film, and it seemed to be much appreciated by the funding bodies.
I gave Barry a major credit although, truth be told, it was mostly my film. He had started the project and I’m sure I checked out my line of argument with him in the editing process.
NFB – https://www.nfb.ca/film/not_far_from_bolgatanga/