This article originally appeared in Escape Artist magazine.
Ghana hardly tops most people’s list of ideal holiday destinations. It’s a stew pot for every disease going; vaccinations for yellow fever, tetanus, diptheria, polio, typhoid, Hepatitus A and B and rabies are a must – not to mention taking your malarial tablets.
Every time you eat out, you’re playing Russian Roulette with your digestive health and every car journey is a dice with death. Moreover, being almost equatorial, it’s hot and humid all year round – the only variations being in January, when the Harmattan Wind blows Saharan dust overhead, and in July and August, when it rains everyday.
Petty crime is probably less common than it is in New York or London but armed car-jackings and robberies are something of which all visitors need to be aware.
Taking a walk around the capital is also problematic, as there are no pavements. Keep one eye open for cars that will happily mow you down and one open for the storm drains (wherein lurk all things unmentionable).
Despite the above, you won’t regret a visit to Ghana. Its vibrancy is unforgettable. The streets hum with colour and noise and the Ghanaians are the most fun loving people on the planet; nobody can party like they can. They certainly aren’t shy when it comes to getting down on the dance floor.
Of course, when they aren’t shaking their booties, teasing each other naughtily or cackling helplessly with laughter, they are content to just chill. Goats, chickens and children roam about freely, regardless of passing traffic, adding to the general sense that nothing is worth getting too bothered about. The best way to enjoy your stay is to adopt a similar nonchalance; relax and smell the pineapples! Just be ready to leap into action if someone puts on a Highlife record.
Sometimes, even the buildings don’t seem to know if they’re in the process of being built or of being pulled down. Corrugated iron perched on top of a pile of rubble and wooden planks might look unseemly to us but it could well be someone’s home. Local people tend to prefer their homes to have an open feel, not bothering with fences; the advantage to this is that you can sit outside in the evening and watch the world go by.
A walk around downtown Accra after 7pm is a revelation. The bright glare of daytime gives way to flickering lamps in the darkness. Every is subdued once night has fallen (which happens pretty consistently at around 6pm). Teenage girls stir pots of soup cooking over charcoal fires while toddlers lie sleepily in their laps.
Young boys scuffle about in the gloom playing games. Meanwhile, the men folk put up their feet with a bottle of Guinness Malta (a non-alcoholic version of the famous drink), tell stories and jokes and put the world to rights.
Your stay in Ghana will certainly result in you making huge numbers of new friends: if you offer a smile to those around you, everyone from the lady looking after your nearby vegetable stall to those selling toilet brushes, dog collars and beach balls along the side of the road will be ready to start up a conversation and treat you to a dazzlingly broad grin in return.
The only downside to this friendliness is that everyone is so eager to please you that they’ll say anything to keep you happy. This becomes apparent when asking for advice; be ready to hear what people think you want to hear rather than what’s actually true. This means telling you that you’re only five minutes from the beach (when it’s another 40 minutes drive), that your meal will be with you imminently (when the chef hasn’t even looked at your order yet) or that your car will be serviced by 5pm (you won’t see it again for at least a few days).
Besides getting to know the locals, you’ll also have thorough knowledge of indigenous wildlife by the time you leave. I’ve had a praying mantis in my hair, beetles in my food, geko lizards in the bathroom, cockroaches in the kitchen drawers and armies of ants trooping through our bed and across the sofa.
When you’re tired of the bustle of city life, a trip to the beach might seem like a good idea. Choose carefully. Those along the seafront in Accra double as outdoor toilet facilities, relying on the tide to redistribute the day’s deposits. Needless to say, swimming isn’t advised – you could bump into anything out there. Even if you drive east to Pram Pram (only 45 minutes away), you’re likely to find a few unpleasant surprises. The sea breezes are refreshing but the state of the beach after the tide has ebbed is miserable. Every piece of plastic and junk imaginable (and plenty of things you wouldn’t really want to imagine) are cast up on the sand. You’re guaranteed to find several shoes – but never two that match – disembodied doll heads and used syringes.
The other alternative is to head west to a resort called White Sands; this can take anything from 90 minutes to 6 hours depending on the Kasoa traffic. This busy market town is the main route linking East to West so its traffic jams are legendary. If a lorry breaks down or there’s a pile up, you can be trapped interminably (needing a wee after about the first 10 minutes). Having spent time crawling along its main street on many occasions, I can testify to there always being plenty to look at while you wait but the mounds of rotting vegetation and the pungency of the open storm drains produce a foul stench – keep those windows rolled up. In fact, if you do otherwise, you’ll arrive at your destination covered in red dust (from the laterite roads); your hair will be stiff with sweat, muck and salty sea air and relying on running water awaiting you at your guesthouse can be foolhardy. Electricity and water can’t be taken for granted outside of Accra’s largest hotels, which have their own water tanks and generators.
Coconut Grove Beach Resort is another pleasant retreat, with roomy huts right on the shore. Sit on your veranda, looking out over the sea, and allow yourself to be lulled to sleep by the waves. Although its generator has an alarming habit of running out of fuel and its water tanks likewise often run dry, its beautiful location more than makes up for these annoyances. Just bring a few torches and plenty of your own bottled water.
It even has a its own 9 hole golf course (with crocodiles living in the water hazard – collect stray balls at your peril) and a reasonably clean pool; this is a welcome treat as the strong currents make swimming a no-no.
Its restaurant won’t set the world on fire – since it often only has chicken to offer; the fishermen don’t deliver daily so it’s pot luck what’s in store. You can always fall back on jollof rice, mind you – a tasty local speciality. For a real culinary treat, pay a visit to Busua Beach – just another 20 minutes down the coast. Nothing compares to succulent crayfish and Red Red (like spicy baked beans). Towards dusk, speakers the size of small houses are set up and locals gather to party the night away.
Worth a visit is Elmina’s Slave Castle – built by the Portuguese in 1482 and used as a fort. It’s now a World Heritage Site, telling the history of the millions who passed through on their way to the New World in enslavement. It’s a popular attraction – especially for African-Americans who return to retrace their ancestors’ footsteps. Ghana began trading slaves about 500 years ago. It’s thought that, between 1650 and 1900, up to 28 million Africans were taken away (with many more perishing during slaving raids or while in captivity awaiting shipment).
Slavery was already firmly established before the Europeans arrived – as those captured in local warfare would become servants to their captors – but the Portuguese (who were the first to arrive in 1471) quickly saw the benefits of purchasing these slaves from local chiefs. Other European powers soon followed and Britain jumped on the bandwagon in the mid 16th century. In the early 19th century, Ashanti territory covered nearly all of present-day Ghana, including the coast, where they could trade directly with the British. In exchange for guns and other European goods, they sold gold and slaves (either captured in battle or given as tribute from conquered peoples). They also supplied slaves to Muslim traders in the north.
Elmina’s slave dungeons certainly have a chilling atmosphere. Housing up to a thousand people, the cramped and malodorous conditions took many to their maker. Several other forts still stand along the coast, the one at Cape Coast being the best restored (and featuring an extensive museum). The ‘gates of no return’ – through which slaves passed as they boarded the boats – still look out at the ocean.
Another memorable experience is the Kakum Canopy Walk. Arrive promptly, when it opens, at 8am. You can avoid the crowds and be duly rewarded with having the 350m of walkways to yourself. There are six suspended rope bridges (built by the Canadians and with a pristine safety record …apparently) from which you can view the forest canopy from 30m above the ground. You cross each one alone – to avoid them bouncing too ferociously; this is little comfort if you have a companion intentionally shaking the ropes from one end to make them wobble; my husband thought this a great form of entertainment.
Every now and then, you hear a distant shriek – not a wild animal but a fellow visitor elsewhere on the trail. Steel yourself because, once you start out, there’s no going back. Between each bridge, you can have a few moments to rest on a ‘tree-house’ style platform. Don’t lean against the tree trunks or, like me, you might find yourself with a family of ants trooping off the tree into your blouse. Afterwards, you can take
a guided walk back through the forest. There are supposed to be over five hundred kinds of butterflies and around three hundred types of birdlife but I only noticed rather a lot of leaf mould. The monkeys and other interesting furry creatures come out at night. We did see a Kuntan tree however, whose sap is so sweet smelling that the local ladies use it as perfume.
On leaving the park, you can stop at Hans’ Boatel for a drink or an early lunch. This cafe is built quite ingeniously over a pond and has several piers and seating areas set over the water, making it a delightful place to sit slurping your groundnut soup (very tasty – like liquidized peanut butter). The long-suffering crocodiles are kept well fed so that they don’t rampage into the dining room. You can also watch a large group of weaver birds, which nest close by, darting in and out of their little round homes.
If you feel like going further afield, the drive up to Kumasi (the wealthy Ashanti capital) is another option. The lush rolling hills and rocky outcrops are quite different from the flat coastline. Ghana doesn’t abound in wildlife, since most of it has long been eaten, but you might spot a chameleon, eyes swiveling simultaneously in opposite directions. One sat resolutely in the middle of the road for us – disguised rather unconvincingly as dust. A few small buck deer bounced through the bushes.
Although smaller than Accra, Kumasi has the same busy atmosphere, with traffic and people milling in every direction. There was a huge jam in the centre of town as we tried to make our way through, with drivers resting their elbows on their horns and shouting at each other across the lanes. Other Ghanaians tend to roll their eyes when speaking of the Ashanti, believing them
smug and overly ambitious but this may stem from jealousy at their prosperity, since they happen to sit on huge gold reserves. They certainly seem to make good businessmen. Their ruthlessness is summed up by their adage: ‘If power is for sale, sell your mother to obtain it. Once you have the power, there are several ways of getting her back.’
A trip on Lake Volta (the largest man made lake in the world) might also appeal. You can catch a ferry from Yeji in the upper half of the country across the lake in any direction or, even, all the way down to Akosombo Dam in the south. The town itself is quite attractive in its own tumble down fashion – with the usual cafes and roadside stalls hustling for your attention.
The ferries are rather dilapidated though and tend to be overcrowded. Every few years, one sinks with dire results. This year’s tragedy saw only 30 survivors after 150 people were crowded onto a ferry designed for 75. We were spared the experience, as we arrived just as the last crossing of the day departed. An eight hour detour commenced to reach our intended destination: the miner’s camp on the other side. Bumping along at 20km per hour on dusty tracks in complete darkness (there’s obviously nothing resembling a street lamp for hundreds of miles), we could have been driving round in circles without being any the wiser. At 2am, we fell out of the car in an advanced state of rigor mortis.
Driving through the countryside, it makes sense to pay a visit to one of the villages. To make a good impression, you should first pay your respects to the chief. Ask for the okyeame (his spokesman); he’ll inform you of whether the chief is available and, if an audience is granted, he’ll be your interpreter. Regardless of how well the chief speaks English, he always converses through his okyeame. On entering the chief’s hut, you should remove your shoes, sunglasses and headwear and stand until asked to sit. Don’t cross your arms or legs, and wait for the chief to extend his hand before offering yours. Shake with your right hand and use your left to cover your hosts’. It’s also a good idea to have a gift with you: some schnapps or cola nuts are both ideal (the latter taste very bitter but are high in calories and symbolise good health).
In 2001, we visited the King of the Dagbon tribe – the Ya Naa – in Yendi. To explain, every village has its own chief who reports to a sub-regional chief who, in turn, is under the authority of the supreme chieftain (or King) of the region. His hut was a traditional, round mud affair with a thatched roof and, surprisingly, a wall mounted TV; a nature programme with the sound turned down played during our twenty minute stay. We were offered a drink, which must be accepted (although you can just take a few sips), and my husband conversed on worldly matters – through the spokesman – while I sat demurely, as was expected.
Our gifts were accepted with a smile and we were delighted to be presented with some locally made outfits; still hanging in our wardrobe today. It’s polite to ask permission to leave and we were taken on a short tour of the village before being escorted back to our car. Rather shockingly, not long afterwards, the Ya Naa and 30 of his courtiers were murdered in a raid conducted by the rival Abudu tribe. His decapitated head was paraded around on a spear while his severed hand was made into a necklace (with his wristwatch left in place). The assailants then looted and burnt down the royal compound, taking the King’s head and hand with them – the ultimate insult, as a man’s soul is thought to be unable to travel on unless his corpse is buried in its entirety. The massacre was the result of an age-old chieftaincy dispute in the Dagbon Region. Ghana may have mobile phones, TV and computers but it’s still a different world.
You can’t fight the tide of the unexpected but perhaps the best advice is to leave behind your inhibitions and expectations (along with your winter clothes, stilettos and make-up). Patience and humour are essential, as are an open mind and an appreciation of the genuine kindness and friendship that you’ll find. For every new thing you learn, you’ll uncovered at least two more that you can’t begin to understand. Ghana is dusty and lush, stifling and liberating, enchantingly charming and brutally unforgiving. The only way to know the place is to get down and dirty with it: smell everything, eat it, drink it and step in (or preferably over) it. Chat to everyone you meet – whether they be offering you a prostrate rodent on a stick, filling a pot hole in the back of beyond (by digging another hole nearby) or driving you in a vehicle that you might easily be giving a push start a few minutes into your journey.
As the Ghanaians would say: Only when you have crossed the river can you say the crocodile has a lump on his snout.