It’s not every day that drummers and dancers parade along the banks of the Volta River, but then again it’s not every day that someone finishes the longest recorded swim in Ghanaian history.
Yvette Tetteh, 30 year old Ghanaian-British agribusiness entrepreneur, athlete and activist, is the first person ever to have swum across the Volta River from Buipe to Ada. Over the course of the expedition, Yvette and the crew of The Or Foundation’s accompanying research vessel The Woman Who Does Not Fear, ventured down Ghana’s largest internal waterway conducting extensive research into microfiber pollution from textile waste and raising awareness about the impact of waste colonialism on the ecosystems that give life to millions of people throughout the region.
The crowds that came to the river banks in Ada as Yvette finished the final kilometers were celebrating many records and many firsts. The longest swim in Ghanaian history. Likely the most kilometers kayaked in Ghanaian history. The first solar power research vessel in Ghana and groundbreaking scientific research on the state of water quality in the Volta River System and in Accra.
Yvette reported that the final day of the swim was one of the hardest yet as the current from the Gulf of Guinea at the Ada estuary pushed her upstream. Yet she persevered all the way to Tsarley Kope Beach Resort where a celebration awaited. She explains “the expedition started in Buipe on March 7th with the challenging task of putting the made-in-Ghana aluminum research vessel into the water. The Swim Team, as members of the expedition crew have come to call themselves, then ventured down the Black Volta onto the Volta Lake, stopping in towns and villages along the way, many that have been flooded by rising waters and some that don’t appear on common maps at all.
The expedition spent several days in Yeji to top up on supplies and creature comforts, including hair cuts, and then continued on to Kete Krachi and Tapa Abotoase for minor boat repairs before swimming onward toward Kpando and Akosombo. The choppy waters south of Kpando made for especially challenging swimming, with waves often breaking above her head. One day after several hours of swimming, she had only made it 1.5 kilometers, or one tenth of her usual pace”.
This could have been disheartening, but together with the expedition crew they chose to push through and prove that anything is possible with the right determination and teamwork.
The chief and community leaders gathered with area youth and a drum troupe surrounding Yvette as she emerged from the water in her custom made recycled swim costume with an anklet holding a water sampling device to record the chemicals in contact with her skin. After taking a deep breath recognizing her accomplishment, Yvette and the crew thanked the cheering crowd and took questions from community members and foreign and local press in front of the custom built solar powered research vessel that The Or Foundation will now deploy along the coast of Accra to map ocean pollution.
Throughout the expedition, Yvette was accompanied by a kayaker to ensure her safety in the water.
Expedition documentarian Ofoe Amegavie, and Science Lead / The Or Foundation Communications Manager, Edwin Dzobo, performed a combined many hundreds of kilometers of kayak duties, likely setting a record as well for the longest distance kayaked in Ghana. The home stretch of the expedition was truly home for Ofoe, who is from Ada and who has worked for much of his career to document the changing water patterns disrupting life in the coastal area. It was with this eye for how humans and the environment interact that Ofoe documented the monumental human-environmental interaction swimming Ghana’s largest waterway.
The expedition builds on a year and a half of scientific research by The Or Foundation into the environmental impact of secondhand clothing waste flowing through Ghana as one of the largest recipients of used clothing in the world. The Or Foundation, an Accra-based NGO operating at the intersection of Environmental Justice, Education and Fashion Development, estimates that Ghana sees 15 million items of secondhand clothing from Global North countries such as the EU, the UK, and the USA entering local markets every week and that on average 40% of every bale of secondhand clothing opened in Accra, Ghana’s largest secondhand market, Kantamanto, is discarded as waste, causing enormous environmental and social upheaval in a country where the only engineered landfill blew up in 2019 due to overflowing volumes of clothing waste.
The Or Foundation has recorded thousands of textile tentacles, or tangled masses of discarded clothing, some over ten meters long, along Accra’s beaches. Now, the Agbetsi Living Water Swim that completes this week is tracking the impact of textile waste throughout the country. “Agbetsi” is an Ewe word, a local language in Ghana, for living water, an apt name for an expedition seeking to keep Ghana’s waterways alive.
Once in Akosombo, The Or Foundation team, led by Special Projects and Logistics Manager Enoch Nsoh and supported by local boat builder Benlex Engineering, worked to move the boat overland around the Akosombo and Akuse dams, while Yvette was supported by the Bravehearts Expeditions team to swim between the two dams.
In addition to swimming between 10 to 20 kilometers every day, Yvette and the expedition crew, including boat captain JayJay Addo-Koranteng of Bravehearts Expeditions, Ofoe Amegavie, a celebrated documentary photographer, Edwin Dzobo and Isabel Abreu, artist and environmentalist, collected water and air samples every day following the same protocols as The Or Foundation team gathering samples in Accra. The expedition crew also shared information with communities along the route of the swim to keep track of the expedition as it progresses.
The Or Foundation has released a first of its kind collection of stories about the Volta River System and the people who live along it – “The Untold Stories from The Volta”, a series of 12 commissioned stories from along the expedition route accessible through the campaign website https://livingwaterswim.org. On Friday the 19th of May at 6pm, The Or Foundation will be hosting an open screening of the film stories on the rooftop of their Adabraka office in Accra.
Photos of hundreds of the water samples taken along the expedition are available through the project website, and The Or Foundation plans to publish an in-depth analysis of the findings within the coming months. In the meantime, citizen scientists and aspiring swimmers can still engage with the expedition through the video updates, daily dispatch audio diaries, and the Untold Stories collection, all available on the website https://livingwaterswim.org, and by following @livingwaterswim and @theorispresent on Instagram.