We’ve met with several communities recently who have requested assistance, or who have previously received assistance and now want to discuss further development needs. The first part of the process is getting to know them. While a baseline survey will eventually yield solid data about a village, we start by asking them to tell us about themselves.

How many people live here? How many households? What do people do for money? What do you farm? Do you have enough to eat? What do you eat? What makes you sick? Where do you go to the toilet? Where do you get your water from? How many schools are there? How many children? How many shops, spots, chop bars, churches?

Answers vary, but much is common.

There are two hundred of us. One thousand. Two thousand. We’re farmers. We farm cocoa, oil palm, oranges, maize, plaintain, banana, yam, cocoyam, cassava, vegetables, teak. We have enough to eat, but sometimes we’re short. We eat fish about every day, chicken or other meat only at Christmas, Easter, maybe a funeral or other special occasion. We often have enough to sell at Mampong or Nsuta. We get malaria, diarrhoea, river blindness, bilharzia, respiratory conditions. We use a shared pit latrine – it’s called a wheeteem because (everyone laughs) it’s the sound your crap makes as it lands. We have a borehole – the water is OK. We have a stream or a spring – the water is dirty in the dry season. There’s a kindergarten (KG), a primary school and a Junior Secondary School (JSS). The KG is in the church. The JSS is under the shade of trees. There are five shops, three spots, two chop bars, and twelve churches – Presbyterian, Seventh Day Adventists, Pentecostal, Catholic. There’s a small mosque. There are three witch doctors.

We ask the community about their expectations – what do they think they need most?

We need clean water. We need latrines. We need a KG building. A new toilet for the school. Microfinance. Help with farming. A mill for grinding cassava. A clinic.

Finally, we ask – can you tell us about your village? What is its history? Where did you come from?

The chief tells the story – in certain circumstances, where a chief is absent, the responsibility will fall to the queen mother or an elder. When nothing’s written down, when past chieftaincy disputes and wars are still sensitive subjects, people can be reluctant to tell the history of their village in case of getting it wrong or inflaming old tensions. Small children may be asked to leave the area, a hushed silence may descend. An individual entrusted with hundreds of years of oral history will tell the tale.

An elder recounts the story of Mpantuase

Many communities in this area share common roots. Many left Denkyira because of ongoing conflict. For many, history is punctuated by an earthquake in 1849. Many wandered for some time looking for a place to settle. For all, the community needed fertile land. The stories of some villages suggest pride, power – a royal connection here, a powerful relative there. The stories of others are simple – we wandered around for a while, we found this place, it seemed nice, so we settled here. Penteng is named after the drums that the witch doctors play. Mpantuase means “big plantain” because they’ve always grown big plantain there. Bosomkyekye means “let’s stay here because we’re fed up of wandering around”, a Ghanaian Dunroamin’.

Some villages, according to their oral tradition, never ‘arrived’ from anywhere – they were always there. In these places, the people emerged from the earth or fell from the sky. They are as permanent as the rocks.

I feel very fortunate to have been able to listen to these oral histories, and ask several questions of Nicholas. The stories, some of them in song, relayed by old men who invoke the spirits with gin, make me think of all of the communities, the societies and the languages that have faded away already. Histories gone forever. And they make me think about my own history, scattered through old photo albums, in my relatives’ heads, and increasingly online – and how I could do with knowing it better.