Those who live on the water

Didier Bizet
Didier BizetDidier Bizet was for many years an art director working in advertising agencies in France and overseas. In 2015, he decided to focus on photography full time. He is naturally drawn to the countries of the former Soviet Bloc “where the melancholy of time meekly submits to the camera”. Between fine art and documentary, photography is a way for him to learn about his surroundings: “It gives me a way in and sometimes answers to my own questions about different societies. It’s not only enjoyable – it’s also necessary for my life experience. The world around me is changing, being modernised and developed, always surprising me. I seek out the curiosities of our modern society in order to understand them.” Right from the outset, he embarked on a long-term project, taking him all over the sprawling transcontinental country of Russia over the course of nine journeys, in search of the melancholic side of life. His work featured in numerous magazines, and in 2018 his book Itinéraire d’une mélancolie was published by Juillet. He continued to return to Russia and Crimea, working on subjects such as the Moscow Metro where he spent six hours a day for two weeks: “The Moscow metro system is a different world; for me, it represents all the complexity of Russia’s history and encapsulates its fragility.” In 2019, he spent time in Ekaterinburg where he documented one of the largest pilgrimages in Russia during which every year between 60,000 and 100,000 pilgrims visit the grave of the last tsar, Nicholas II of Russia. This work appeared in the pages of Le Figaro Magazine. Still in the East, Didier Bizet twice visited the shores of the shrinking Aral Sea in Kazakhstan to document the – temporary – return of the water to the Small Aral Sea. This series was picked up by multiple publications, including the French, Finnish and Russian editions of GEO magazine and the German magazine Stern. Didier Bizet is a graduate of the Beaux-Arts de Paris and has a degree in art history. In 2020, he received a Sony Award for his much-published series Baby Boom, which was then screened at the International Festival of Photojournalism 2020 in Perpignan. That same year, he founded his publishing house Revelatœr, which now has five titles in its catalogue.

We were introduced to Didier Bizet and his work in 2022 through his report on the Order of Malta’s mobile medical unit in Lebanon.[1]Didier Bizet, “Lebanon: healthcare takes to the road”, Humanitarian Alternatives, no. 19, March 2022, pp. 112–129, … Continue reading This time he takes us to Ghana to teach us about Nzulezu, a stilt village founded in the 14th century by refugees fleeing the wars of the old Ghana Empire (now modern-day southeast Mauritania and western Mali). Nzulezu comes from the Nzema language and means “water surface”, although some inhabitants also translate the word to mean “those who live on water”. Built in the middle of lagoons, between two almost impenetrable jungles, it has long provided an ideal protection from external attack. Today, Nzulezu has a population of about 500 people, all members of the seven families who inhabit the village. From day one, the villagers have subsisted on fishing and farming, as well as distilling a local gin. All daily activities, like school or religious services, take place on the lake. In Nzulezu, the community and nature are essential for survival in this incredible ecosystem straddling the modern world and traditional values. Despite its candidacy for inscription as an official UNESCO World Heritage Site, tourism provides too little income for locals, and the water level rising during heavy rains means they are constantly having to maintain their stilt houses. Although the State absolves itself of any responsibility to preserve this historic village, it does keep a tight grip on all donations from non-governmental organisations (NGO), to such an extent that many of them are deterred from taking action in the field. Thankfully, a brilliant local Ghanaian network has provided much needed help in recent years, taking a similar approach to that of the NGO Food For All Africa by offering clothing, school supplies and food to the villagers. The difficulty in gaining secure access to food explains in large part why the school dropout rate in Ghana is so high. The village community also does its best to manage waste, which until now has been dumped in the lake. The village chief and elders contacted a company in the region and now every household has its own waste bin. Since then, two groups of volunteers, the Nzulezu Sanitation Club and the Nzulezu Community Cleaners, have been put in charge of properly disposing the village’s rubbish. Didier Bizet takes us into the heart of a Ghanaian village faced with the same questions that our entire world village is trying to answer.

Translated from the French by Darin Riesman


Photos and captions:
© Didier Bizet



The village of Nzulezu spans 500 metres from one end to the other and all its houses are built on stilts on the water. It consists of a main passageway that inhabitants refer to as “Main Street” and perpendicular alleys where the villagers live. Susana Cudjoe, a stay-at-home mum, spends her days on the bridge cooking, washing clothes, and correcting homework. During the dry season, the bridges are treated as separate rooms. Nzulezu, Ghana – November 2022

Each day starts around 5 a.m. From 6 a.m., villagers hang up their washing, make repairs to their homes, sharpen their tools and cook for the day. Egya Huangbole Yaw always sits down on this log to make bamboo fish traps for local fishermen. He has a leg disease that makes it hard to move around, so his pirogue is always close at hand. Nzulezu, Ghana – December 2022

Anthony Cudjoe, one of the village elders, leaves home every morning to head out onto the water. The village’s 500 inhabitants always travel to and from land by boat or pirogue. Other than the fish caught in Lake Amansuri, everything else is brought to the village by river. Nzulezu, Ghana – December 2022

Daniel has several children and his entire family lives in Nzulezu, including his cousins and uncles. Several times a week, he checks how much fish his nets have caught. The marshy waters are also home to crocodiles and snakes. During the dry season, reptiles take refuge wherever there is the most water. Daniel sometimes comes here at night to catch baby crocodiles that he then sells to people. Nzulezu, Ghana – December 2022

Fredik is a 25-year-old villager who works in the jungle where he has set up camp. He distils a local gin using the already slightly fermented juice that he collects from raffia palms. The liquid is boiled twice in the tank, which requires a lot of wood that Fredrik chops down in the forest. To cool the liquid, he uses a long tube and engine parts placed underwater. It only takes a few hours to make this local gin which Fredik stores at his home and his wife then sells at the market. Nzulezu, Ghana – December 2022

Every Wednesday, the village women head to the markets in Beyin and Bonyere, two towns located along the coast of the Gulf of Guinea. A motorboat takes much less time than a pirogue to travel to the nearest bus stop (twenty minutes instead of an hour), from where they’ll catch a bus to the market. The trip from Nzulezu to Beyin follows a canal built through the lagoon twenty years ago and funded by the Ghana Wildlife Society. Before the canal, getting to and from the village was hazardous. At the market, the women can buy petrol, clothes, cleaning products and any other every necessities the residents of Nzulezu need. Nzulezu, Ghana – December 2022

Nzulezu has one primary school. Classes follow the national education curriculum, but the school doesn’t always keep up the same pace as other school. Late attendance and absences are common. There are three classes and the school is currently waiting for additional funding to open another class. Five teachers work for the school in Nzulezu. The two male teachers are employed through the national school system and spend five days a week in the village, housed near the school. They return to their respective homes on Friday evening and take the shuttle boat. The three women who teach at the school live fulltime in the village. They have teaching degrees and teach children from ages 3 to 12. School uniforms were donated by a non-governmental organisation (NGO). The school itself was also built and funded by an NGO. Nzulezu, Ghana – December 2022

During the dry season, this half-water half-mud field, usually navigable, serves as a makeshift football pitch. Three pieces of wood make goalposts. The precious ball is at the mercy of kicks and bad weather. Nzulezu, Ghana – December 2022

Morrison Anyimah and Bismarck Eshun take a pirogue every day to high school. It takes at least an hour to row from Nzulezu to the closest town, Beyin. From there, they take a bus to school. Nzulezu, Ghana – December 2022

Anyimah, a carpenter, is building a new house in the centre of the village. Nzulezu, Ghana – December 2022

The stilt village of Nzulezu is not connected to the power grid, but almost every home has a TV powered by a car battery. At night, the villagers use lanterns or lamps with standard or rechargeable batteries to move around. The younger generation uses WhatsApp® on their mobile phones. Reception is best at the far end of each alley and along the shores of the lake. Nzulezu, Ghana – December 2022

Alex Anlima is a fisherman. He travels between the village and the coast in his pirogue. Nzulezu, Ghana – December 2022

Support Humanitarian Alternatives

Was this article useful and did you like it? Support our publication!

All of the publications on this site are freely accessible because our work is made possible in large part by the generosity of a group of financial partners. However, any additional support from our readers is greatly appreciated! It should enable us to further innovate, deepen the review’s content, expand its outreach, and provide the entire humanitarian sector with a bilingual international publication that addresses major humanitarian issues from an independent and quality-conscious standpoint. You can support our work by subscribing to the printed review, purchasing single issues or making a donation. We hope to see you on our online store! To support us with other actions and keep our research and debate community in great shape, click here!


1 Didier Bizet, “Lebanon: healthcare takes to the road”, Humanitarian Alternatives, no. 19, March 2022, pp. 112–129,

You cannot copy content of this page