Podcast S5 E6 | 29 min

Aného’s Disappearing Coast

2 May 2023
How do people adapt when the ground beneath their feet starts to wash away? All over the world, coastal communities are facing the same challenges: rising sea levels and vanishing coastlines.

Aného is a little historic West African town that is disappearing due to coastal erosion. But locals defy the sea and continue to live on the water’s edge. In this episode, we hear how their decision to stay in the face of an ever-approaching shoreline affects life along the coast and beyond.

As reported by Koffi Nomedji, a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology from Lomé, Togo, we learn how as humans we variously face climate change–induced disaster.

SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human is produced by House of Pod. Cat Jaffee was the editor for this piece, with help from producer Ann Marie Awad. Seth Samuel was the audio editor and sound designer. The executive producers were Cat Jaffee and Chip Colwell.

Koffi Nomedji is a Ph.D. candidate in cultural anthropology at Duke University. He is currently working on questions related to climate change, policymaking, and development in Africa. His dissertation explores various communities’ adaptations to coastal erosion in Togo. Koffi has a rich professional background in international development. Prior to his doctoral journey, he served for eight years as a community organizer committed to local development and climate response in Togo.

SAPIENS is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation. SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.

Season sponsor:

This episode is included in Season 5 of the SAPIENS podcast, which is part of the SAPIENS Public Scholars Training Fellowship funded with the support of a three-year grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Read a transcript of this episode .

Aného’s Disappearing Coast

Eshe Lewis: How do people adapt when the very ground beneath them starts to wash away? All over the world, coastal communities are being faced with the same challenges—rising sea levels and vanishing coastlines—and no two communities respond the same way.

My name is Eshe Lewis. This is SAPIENS. And today, I’m interviewing anthropologist and SAPIENS fellow Koffi Nomedji, a cultural anthropologist from Lomé in the West African nation of Togo. He’s studying how different communities there feel the impact of coastal erosion.

What makes us human?

Sara Hoffman: It’s a wild ride. Brace yourself.

Speaker 3: Imagine the future.

Miss Jeri Hutton Green: I will not be quiet.

Koffi Nomedji: We have to start from scratch.

Julio Tiwiram: Una revolución aquí la mente.

Emily Willis: It gives me goosebumps.

Eshe: What makes us human?

Group: Let’s find out.

Eshe: SAPIENS: A Podcast for Everything Human.

Hi, Koffi.

Koffi: Hi.

Eshe: How and when did you become interested in coastal erosion?

Koffi: Well, as I was growing up, people in Togo were losing their houses. People who live on the shore, they are also losing their businesses, their livelihoods. They are also losing their temples, even their ancestral cemeteries. So they are just seeing the sea waves wipe out their culture, just like that.

Eshe: When you say “losing,” what do you mean?

Koffi: Some years, the sea can take up to 7 feet of land, and that’s pretty much the length of a tennis court. Personally, at first, I felt shielded because we live in the capital and a little farther from the coast. So I was shielded by a few miles of distance from the sea waves.

But one event just drew my attention back to the problem. And that happened in 2014. I was coming back from the U.S. after completing my master’s in economics, and I was eager to help my country, which is one of the poorest in Africa and in the world.

You have high unemployment. You have a high youth population. Most people can barely make 50 bucks a month. And, yeah, the situation is not rosy. And, as you know, yeah, as a human, I have a family back home. I have friends. I was also happy to enjoy them and spend time with them. And on an afternoon, I took some nieces and little cousins to the beach to spend some quality moments with them. And at the beach, I remember that when I used to be a kid, my mom took us to the beach, and we used to run around collecting shells, and at the end of the day we would compare our shells to see which one was more beautiful, which one was bigger, which one was unusual, and so on.

So we were proud that we got something from the sea, back then. And in 2014, I just tried to recollect those memories and have the kids do the same thing. And I asked them to run around to collect some shells on the beach sand. But there were just no shells on the sand, and they were quite baffled by my obsession of looking for something that was not there. At the end of the day, we went back home empty-handed, and they just couldn’t understand what I tried to convey through my actions and words.

Eshe: So that was the moment. And it’s like the younger generation don’t even realize what was missing from their local environment.

Koffi: That’s how I realized that the coastline has changed. And coastal erosion is not only affecting the coastline, the land, the fishing industry, and the shell animals but also affecting some quality moments, some precious moments we share with our relatives, some good memories that we have.

Eshe: Hmm. Well, can we maybe zoom out a little bit first? Can you explain how coastal erosion plays into the larger problem of climate change?

Koffi: I can tell you that half of the world’s population live less than 100 miles from a coastline. Some people who live in the shoreline are truly facing erosion, and they are facing the wrath of the sea waves. And people who live farther away are somehow also affected. Like in Togo, for example, we cannot enjoy the beach like we used to, and there is also an impact on fishing.

And the fish that we used to eat comes directly from the sea. But with coastal erosion, we have seen a deep decline in fishing activity, and what we eat and the way we enjoy fish is slowly changing, very slowly. But it is changing. Like, say, there is a famous dish [unintelligible] the sea, which is a sauce we make with fresh fish. But those dishes I cannot share with my younger relatives anymore because fresh fish is becoming too expensive. It is clearly not affordable for everyone, and it’s hard to pass those tastes and foods … I mean those cultural ways of living down through the next generation. So yeah, somehow, we are victims, even though we don’t feel it directly. Our life experience and lifeways are slowly changing.

Eshe: Well, I’ve never been to Togo, and now I’m curious. So I’m going to ask you to set the scene for us. Can you take us to Togo? Take us to the coast? What’s it like there?

Koffi: Togo has a very sharp coastline. It’s only 30 miles of coastline. You have the capital on the western side of the coastline, on the border with Ghana. And you have a little town called Aného on the eastern side of the coastline, on the border with Benin.

I want first to focus on Aného. It’s a little coastal town that everyone likes, that I love. When I was young, we used to go there because it’s located between the sea and the lake. You have the sea in the front and the lake in the back. The main part of the town is built on a slender stretch of land. And you have the international road that goes through that slender stretch of land and straddles the embouchure, what we call the embouchure. The embouchure is the place where the sea meets the lake.

So you have visitors like tourists and travelers from other countries like Nigeria and Ghana, who stop by there just to contemplate how those two bodies of water meet each other without mixing.

Eshe: From what you’re describing, with the short coastline and the lake, Aného sounds like a special place in Togo.

Koffi: And that’s also the problem, of course, because the town is kind of stuck between the lake and the sea, which is advancing. And that is what the erosion is causing. And people are worried that they will see their culture being wiped away by the erosion. Even the scientists are predicting that if nothing is done by 2050, Aného might disappear into the sea.

Eshe: Wow. So what are things like right now for the community of Aného?

Koffi: In 2017, there was flooding in some beach neighborhoods of Aného, those neighborhoods that directly face the sea. In the middle of the night, the sea just flooded the houses over there. And a friend of mine called Aubert, who is a construction worker in his 40s, experienced that event firsthand.

Eshe: So I’m going to take a minute to step out of our interview to give you a quick backstory about the tape you’re about to hear.

During December 2022, Kofi was able to return to Aného and interview members of the community for his research. They speak Ewe, the local language of Aného. Throughout the episode, we’ll listen to clips from his interviews, first in full, and then Koffi will share a summary. And we’ll continue with our interview.

Aubert: [speaking in Ewe, the local language of Aného]

Koffi: He was asleep when the flooding happened. So in the middle of the night, the sound of water flowing down at his gate just woke him up. But at that time, he didn’t know that there was flooding, that water was flowing down there … at the gate. He just thought that some kids broke the toilets, and he tried to get up from his bed in order to stop the kids he thought was doing it. Once he got out of his room, he realized that the whole alley was flooded.

Eshe: Oh, my gosh. So how did they recover from the flooding?

Koffi: The water actually receded after two days, but by that time, several people lost their electronic devices, like phones and radio. Some of their belongings just went to the sea. I mean, physically, they did recover from it. But morally and mentally, they are still feeling that flood, and they still feel like they live in the water. So one of the leaders called MaReine, who just died like a few months ago—may her soul rest in peace—told me last year that she feels like they are living in the water, where all of the fish are.

Eshe: Yeah, that paints quite the picture. Can you tell us how close Aného is to the sea?

Koffi: For people like Aubert or MaReine, whose house faced the sea directly, it feels like the sea is there at their doorstep.

Eshe: Mmhmm.

Koffi: Yeah. And walking from their gate or their door to the seawater is actually like walking down a driveway. It is quite close. And sometimes, Aubert jokes that they have one foot in the sea and the other foot on the land. That’s how it feels.

Eshe: Here’s another clip of Aubert.

Aubert: [speaking in Ewe, the local language of Aného]

Koffi: He’s saying that when he was young, they had to walk a long distance before they got to the sea. And they had to walk in bare feet, and the beach sand was usually hot during the day because of the sun. And they had to walk in that hot sand for a while before they got to the sea. But today, the seawater is just right there, right across the street.

Eshe: Wow. That sounds like a pretty drastic change to that coastline.

Koffi: Yeah, yeah, it is. It is. For example, in the third quarter of the year from, let’s say, June to September, the sea is usually violent; the waves are quite high, and they make a lot of noise. And that noise affects people in their everyday lives, especially at night when it is louder.

Aubert: [speaking in Ewe, the local language of Aného]

Koffi: The sea waves sound so loud that sometimes those who are not used to it, those who come to visit there, cannot sleep. But for the locals who are used to it, they just sleep OK.

Eshe: It sounds like people are fighting the sea so that they can hold on to their history and culture and political identity, which makes this place that might be really small, really special and important. So I guess I’m wondering … I mean, we’ve talked about what’s happening and what the reality is now. But what’s causing this level of erosion?

Koffi: You have, as a global reason, a global cause, you have global warming and sea level rise. And as for the original reason, the cause is that there are natural drifts of silt going from the west to the east. And the sea waves just take the silt and sand from one area to the other and then replenish the area that they just completed in the first place. And at the steady state, everything is just normal, and you won’t feel any erosion anywhere; it just stays normal.

But whenever you build a piece of infrastructure, some piece of hard concrete stuff, on the coast, you obstruct that natural flow of silt. And that’s what happened in Togo when they built the port of Lomé. They just obstructed the natural drift of silt. And you have, in the down-drift from the port, huge erosion going on, and that is most of the coastal area of the country.

And there are also some very local causes for the erosion as well, like the use of beach sand and beach gravel for construction. When I was growing up, there used to be a lot of beach sand everywhere. So this sand is not from the neighborhood but straight from the beach shore. So they would extract this sand and gravel to build houses miles away from the coast. This is also causing erosion to some extent.

Eshe: So we’ve got a multipronged cause here. It sounds like there’s everything from a local influence to, you know, human impact on a larger scale with, you know, the effects of the port really rearranging what the coastline looks like, and then the sea level issue, which is much bigger.

Can you tell me about the impact of coastal erosion on the rest of the coast? Togo’s one little country, strong and mighty, but small and one country that forms part of the West African coastline. So what is this looking like for the rest of the region?

Koffi: Coastal erosion is quite bad all across the West African coast. You have 12 countries that are suffering coastal erosion, and that’s more than 2,000 miles of coastline. It is roughly a coastline of, let’s say, the U.S. Atlantic Coast.

Eshe: Wow.

Koffi: Right. And you have countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal. Those countries are big exporters of coffee, cocoa (which is used to make chocolate), and cashew nuts. And most of the chocolate you eat or the cashew nuts you have come from West Africa. And currently, some of these countries are losing up to 5 percent of their GDP to coastal erosion. And coastal erosion also comes with other climate and environmental issues, such as pollution and consistent rainfall, flooding, and so on. So they are really, really putting a risk on the capacity of the communities to live, to survive, and also the productive capacity of the country.

So picture this: In the long run, coastal erosion compounded with all these other problems may affect the ways in which people, in the Global North for example, enjoy their coffee, enjoy their chocolate or cashew nuts, or even all the traditions that are built around, let’s say, chocolate candy … I’m talking about Halloween or Easter. All those might be somehow affected, right? Because something has been going on in West Africa, in these countries where the raw material and the crops from their farms actually feeds the chocolate or coffee industry all around the world.

So simply to say that what is going on in West Africa right now may in the long run also affect the ways in which we live our everyday lives or enjoy some of our traditions in the Global North in the future.

Eshe: Mmhmm. Wow. This is a stark picture. But it sounds like there’s a lot to be lost here. But it also sounds like, I’m imagining, West Africa is also a place of innovation and creativity.

Koffi: Yeah, definitely.

Eshe: So I’m wondering what solutions are being tried here.

Koffi: The solutions are pretty much coming from everywhere, just like the causes from the global to the local as well. So you have international organizations that are running new large-scale programs to stop the erosion, and they are working with local governments to build coastal infrastructure. They call it stabilization infrastructure; we are talking about groins and breakwaters. Those are technical terms that simply mean that that they will build concrete walls or a rocky structure on the coast to stop the erosion.

And at the local level, people are trying to adjust to the erosion by shifting to a different livelihood, by moving to a different area. But it’s just so hard to survive in such an environment where the economy is quite poor. If you have to leave your livelihood in one area and move to the other, it means you have to start from scratch. That is very hard for several people. They cannot afford that “luxury.” So some communities are just facing the wrath of the erosion.

Some other communities … Picture this: they put sand in bags and put them all along their coastline in order to stop the erosion. So they are building their own stabilization infrastructure. Some communities are doing that in Togo, which is just mind-blowing. So they are ready to fight the sea, and they are putting all the means that they have at their disposal to respond to this issue.

Eshe: Wow. How does this response … Because it sounds again like you’ve got all levels working here trying to figure this out, trying to prolong the time that it could take for the sea to continue moving inland. But I’m wondering about the rest of the world. How does this response compare to wealthier countries that are facing coastal erosion? Are we seeing a difference in the strategies that they’re using?

Koffi: The wealthier countries have applied some strategies, and they have drawn some lessons, and some of those lessons are also being applied in West Africa through international organizations like the World Bank and so on. And most of these strategies are about building a strong and bulky coastal stabilization infrastructure.

And it works in many parts of the world, somehow. But people are also calling for a better way of managing the coastal environment without putting up this bulky infrastructure—to resort to solutions that work with the environment, solutions that will prioritize the natural vegetation and the mangroves to stop erosion rather than just build the concrete and rocky stuff.

You also have other strategies in the world that go to what [kind of] preservation. So if you have an area that is facing coastal erosion and flooding, the government of a typically rich country can decide to move a community to another area, and they have the means to do it.

Eshe: Wow. This is so hard because I can only imagine it’s not just about moving people to a different home farther from the water. You’re asking a community to change their whole culture, livelihood, way of life.

Koffi: You know, people have all their life there. They have their culture there. And our countries are poor. They cannot really give enough money to those people to relocate as well. So if coastal erosion means for people in Togo to move from one place to the other, that’s hard. That’s hard. That’s very hard. And for some people who definitely do have to move, they just think about emigration. They would take the road to the Global North. They will try their way to Europe. They will try their way to the U.S. They will do whatever they can to leave the country simply because, if they relocate to another area in the country, they have to start from scratch, and they know how hard it will be to survive. These are the unfortunate, unequal responses between, you know, wealthier countries and poorer countries in terms of responding to coastal erosion.

Eshe: Well, Koffi, you are a specialist in this area of coastal erosion. You’re from Togo. You have a connection to this very coastline we’ve been talking about. So I’m going to ask you, What would you like to see happen?

Koffi: What I would like the government to focus more on are ways in which people can be more resilient through their livelihoods, through their everyday life …  how they can put in place some policies that will improve fishing, that will preserve some beach space for people’s everyday life and leisure at the beach, and how they can also help women and youth have access to more opportunities and build their livelihood. Those are also the very important points when communities are facing coastal erosion and need to be more resilient to future shocks.

Eshe: Koffi Nomedji, thank you so much.

Koffi: Thank you, Eshe.

Eshe: This episode was produced by Koffi Nomedji. Koffi is a Ph.D. candidate at Duke University studying cultural anthropology. You can find out more about him in our show notes, along with other details and resources from this episode.

Thanks to Aubert Akibode and Anani Matthey. This episode is dedicated to MaReine Gaba, who passed away in July 2022. Koffi thanks the Aného community for their support.

SAPIENS is produced by House of Pod. Ann Marie Awad was the editor of this piece, with help from producer Cat Jaffe. Seth Samuel is our audio editor and sound designer. Our executive producers are Cat Jaffe and Chip Colwell.

This episode is included in Season 5 of the SAPIENS podcast, which is the end product of the SAPIENS Public Scholars Training Fellowship, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. SAPIENS is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which has provided vital support. Our thanks to Danilyn Rutherford, Christine Weeber, Maugha Kenny, and their staff, board, and advisory council.

SAPIENS is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library. For more information, visit SAPIENS.org and check out the additional resources we offer in the show notes, on our website, or wherever you’re listening to this podcast. I’m Eshe Lewis. ¡Hasta luego!


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