African vacations and ecotourism: Meet the monkeys

TAFI ATOME, Ghana — The village of Tafi Atome, buried deep in Ghana’s tropical Volta region, once fiercely protected its surrounding forest and the Mona monkeys that live within it as sacred. But when Christianity arrived in the village about 100 years ago, this ritual conservation was destroyed; trees were cut down and monkeys were killed in an effort to defy traditional beliefs and embrace the new religion.

Today, community-based ecotourism is helping to return the village to its roots with a unique business model that blends environmental conservation with community development and cross-cultural exchange, dispelling the notion that conservation and development are mutually exclusive.

When the first residents of Tafi Atome arrived on the land more than 200 years ago, as the story goes, a shrine was built in the forest to house an idol they worshiped. After leaving the land to fight a war with a neighboring tribe, they returned to the forest to find their possessions and the shrine untouched. As a sign of gratitude, the villagers declared the forest sacred, proclaiming that no part of it should be used for farmland or timber.

Soon after, Mona monkeys from the forest began appearing in the village, which were believed to be representatives of the idol.

“So with that, they considered the monkeys sacred and decided to protect them,” said Emmanuel Kumadze, 20, one of the five sanctuary tour guides and a native of Tafi Atome.

In 1908, Christian explorers arrived in the village and began to work to dispel those beliefs. “The people lost reverence for the animals because the [Christian] religion was trying to do away with the traditional way of worship,” Kumadze explained. “So they decided to cut down the trees in the forest and kill the monkeys.”

This destruction continued gradually until conservation centers began taking notice in the 1980s. With the help of Ghanaian NGOs, USAID and Peace Corps volunteers, the protection of the forest and the monkeys was resumed through the creation of a monkey sanctuary.

“They trained the people to work, they offered advice on how to manage the community, how to handle the guests, and with that it started officially in 1996,” Kumadze said.

For about $10, visitors to the sanctuary receive two meals, overnight accommodation in a guest house or homestay, direct community and cultural involvement, and an early-morning walk through the monkey sanctuary that includes feeding and holding the Mona monkeys. Meanwhile, the  roughly 2,000 residents of Tafi Atome benefit from employment and significant community development: 98 percent of the profits go directly back to the community.

“[With the profits] we’ve built a junior high school, the guest house, a clinic, street lights ... and toilet facilities for the community and the schools,” Kumadze said. “[The villagers] feel very happy about tourists coming because it means employment for people because as the guests come we organize entertainment, and the guests share their ideas. It’s a way of exchange of culture; we learn from the guests, and the guests learn from us as well.”

Cross-cultural interactions have the potential to disrupt or deteriorate the host culture, though; the villagers are sometimes troubled by tourists’ rowdy behavior and culturally inappropriate dress. A few guests have even gone so far as to insult the tour guides and locals.

“Some of them are not satisfied with what they see in the forest,” Kumadze said. “They want to grab the monkeys. Some of them call us monkeys ... As a guide, if you’re not a very calm person, I don’t think you’d be able to survive that.”

But for the most part, the locals welcome the tourists because they associate them with development, employment and the chance to experience the outside world.

“The people have understood what ecotourism is,” Kumadze said. “It is helping; it is a way of conserving nature and then, through that, gaining development ... It’s a way of interacting with the other people of the world because not even 5 percent of the population of this village could ever make it to any other country because they are very poor. But with the monkey sanctuary, people come.

“Like me, I’ve never had the opportunity to travel out of my country before, but I have the opportunity to talk to people from all over the world, so that’s good,” Kumadze said.

Yet the village faces other challenges: Risk of fire during the dry season is a constant threat, and a plumbing system is needed to assure water access. The road leading to the village is also unpaved and sometimes difficult to travel, and the sanctuary lacks accurate advertising in guide books and online.

But despite these obstacles, profits have continued to rise in the past several years: In 2009, the sanctuary brought in 16,646 GHC (about $11,600 U.S.), up from 9,660 GHC in 2008 and 6,896 GHC in 2004. Discounts are given to Ghanaians to encourage in-country tourism.

“Ecotourism is very good for the village,” Kumadze said. “Especially when the people of the community understand what it means for them.”