English-speaking Ghana in West Africa is a shining star of democracy and leadership. It has provided a model of peaceful economic development in the post colonial period, something that many other African states are struggling with. 2019 was marketed as “The Year of Return” by Ghana to mark 400 years since the first slave ship arrived in USA. It was also an opportunity to invite African Americans – about a third of who can trace their ancestry to this region of West Africa – to visit Ghana and discover their roots. I think for US Americans scared to visit Africa, Ghana is probably the safest place to visit. The people are friendly, the food is great, and everyone speaks English!
I was travelling from Yukon, Canada to Toronto in mid December, onward to Detroit to Washington DC before finally boarding my flight to Accra, Ghana. The temperature differential had been stark: from -20ºC to +35ºC. As soon as the airplane door opened, I was greeted by a hot and salty breeze – reminding me immediately of Mumbai where I grew up! Immigration done, sim card purchased, some currency exchanged, I called an Uber and went straight to Jamestown where I had booked a room in an arts cafe. I knew immediately that I was going to like this place.
Oh, and everything is a negotiation, so chatting and smiling helps, bonus points if you throw in some local words.
This was the most frequent question people outside asked me. Let me put it this way: I was less worried here than when I’m visiting USA. These are very easy countries to travel to on your own as long as you aren’t a fussy traveller and have some kind of travel experience. It’s far safer than I had imagined – you hardly see any police, which to me is a sign of a free and safe place – and people are super chill and friendly. Of course my comment about USA was to make a point – I’m cautious to label countries as “safe” or “unsafe” just because an incident has occurred in some part of it. Read, talk to people, apply common sense. That said, I’m an older male so I have no idea what it is like for females – I did meet a number of women travelers, most of them expats.
The capital of Ghana is sprawling, but a relatively small city with 1.6 million people. Life happens at it fullest in Accra. There are many neighbourhoods to stay, some safer than others. I stayed in Jamestown, which is a historic downtown district on the ocean front, now one of the poorest parts of the city.
For the three nights I stayed in Accra, I saw the sunset and sunrise every day, or at least tried to. The coastline here is oriented in an east-west direction, and because it was winter, you could see both the sunrise and the sunset from the same spot (obviously at different times). I was a bit disappointed that neither of these were truly visible, for much of the horizon was always clouded by smoke, dust, and well, clouds. I only saw the rising sun an hour after it had risen and the setting sun an hour before it set. The beaches were active – people enjoying washing up in the waves, playing football, having a picnic, and eating. I had a lot of coconut water in the next few weeks.
Makola market is central to Accra and it spreads across a number of city blocks. Markets are full of wares – lots of plastic products, clothes, widgets – very active and noisy. Vegetable, fruit, and meat markets also form a part of this shopping district. The first thing I did was smell a bunch of coriander – it smelled exactly as I remember it, earthy, green, and very aromatic. It had been a while since I saw produce so fresh that I was tempted to buy a bunch of ingredients and cook a large vegetarian meal. However I limited myself to oranges and pineapples.
I met some excellent couchsurfers in Accra that took me on a tour to see the city and sample some of its food. I had my first taste of fufu, with a couple of types of pepe chili paste, light soup, fried fish, jollof rice, and my favourite dish of all – red red, which is a stew made from black eyed peas eaten with fried plantain. Yum! This is the reason I really like couchsurfing – I would not have discovered any of this without the people I met there. Tempting food pictures are at the end of this post.
From the current capital to the former capital, I visited Kumasi for a couple of days. The city has a different vibe to it for sure, and the weather is quite different too. I was there during harmattan, the dust storm winter season, so things were pretty dusty. I immediately developed a mild cough, which was gone in few days after leaving Kumasi.
Kejetia market, some say it’s the largest market in West Africa, feels like it nearly spans the entire city. I passed through it to visit the palace of the Ashanti king. It was an elaborate museum, and the guided tour was detailed. A big Ashanti festival was going to happen in two days – I was excited for it. Ashanti kingdom was wealthy and mighty; its influence stretched across west Africa. It is said that this place was more sophisticated than European cities before colonization and slave trade wrecked it. Ironically the Asanti were big on selling slaves first to the Portuguese then the Dutch, British, and French. Many descendants in the Americas today can trace their lineage to this region. The Ashanti believe in traditional religion and beliefs are still strong, although newer Abrahamic religions such as Christianity and Islam have now taken over.
Purely by coincidence I was in Kumasi at an auspicious time. On a Sunday once every six weeks, the Ashanti people and chiefs in Ashanti celebrate with rites relating to honouring personal and community ancestors. I was super excited to check out this festival and went to the palace grounds early. There was a lot of drumming, singing, and dancing, along with specially prepared food offerings. On this day, the Asantehene (King of Ashante) meets his subjects and subordinate chiefs in the courtyard of the Manhyia Palace and the sacred Golden Stool (throne) is displayed. While I missed that part, I did get to see a large parade with drum beaters, folk dancers, horn-blowers and singers.
I had a great time in Kumasi, also largely thanks to a couchsurfer, eating variations of fufu and banku, visiting an orphanage, and a little bit of the festival.
If you aren’t black, you’ll be referred to as Obroni. People and kids in particular are always waving at you and yelling things like, “hellooo obroni!”, “come obroni eat a pineapple”, “where are you going obroni??” Obroni (in Twi) or Yevu (in Ewe language) simply means white, or in my case a foreigner, and yes I’ve eaten a pineapple every other day. You’ll hear these phrases hundreds of times, sometimes people will be talking amongst themselves but you know they are referring to you. haha.
“Yevu, yevu, Bonsoir!” Ça va yevo? Oui, ça va bien. Au Bénin et au Togo vous parlez français.
Cape Coast, Elmina, Kakum
Coming back south to the ocean, I briefly passed through the port city of Takoradi and ended up hitchhiking a bit to a guesthouse outside Elmina. I scored a large sea-facing room with pretty views. I decided to stay longer here instead of going to Cape Coast. The beach was clean, the water was clear, and the place was very quiet. I saw some neat cultural shows too.
From Cape Coast it is an easy day trip to Kakum National Park. I hitchhiked on my way there just for fun, and did the canopy walk. It was nice to be in greenery and check out this attraction.
Elmina and Cape Coast both have historic forts built by the colonial powers; now these are well kept UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In one day I visited these two of the largest slave castles in the world from where millions of slaves were shipped to the Americas and millions other perished through various stages of this torturous journey. It was a grim day that brought me to tears a couple of times. The castles have tours included in the ticket prices, and I was very impressed by both. The guides were very objective and dealt with the topic very maturely. A lot of African American tourists visit these castles since almost a third of black Americans trace their ancestry to this part of the world.
Elmina castle. Built by the Portuguese, taken over by the Dutch, and then the British. Originally a commodity trading facility it was converted to a barbaric slave dungeon after the African chiefs started trading prisoners of tribal wars with the Europeans instead of minerals. Slaves were kept here for up to 3 months, separated by men and women. Chained to each other, no separate areas for eating, sleeping, bathrooms. Disease was rampant, and the breakdown of mental strength is unimaginable. Mentally fit and capable prisoners were kept in rooms that were dark to break them down and make them lose their dignity. Archaeologists had to dig through over a foot of deposits. Food was thrown into the dark chamber and there were no bathrooms for the 150 slaves squeezed in there.
The Governor, officers, and priests/missionaries lived in lavish quarters on the upper floor. Fun fact, at both castles, churches were located right above the hellish male and female slave dungeons. It was also next to a viewing gallery from where the Governor picked a female for his pleasures. Oddly Ghanaians today are deeply and overly Christian and follow dozens of church denominations; albeit all of these pay homage to the same organized religion that wrecked their ancestors. I don’t get it.
I teared up when the tour led to the “The door of no return”, and I can feel the emotion as I write this. Slaves passing through these doors got loaded and shipped off, never to return again. On the Route des Esclaves (Route of the Slaves) in Benin, slaves used to walk in circles around a particular tree before being loaded on ships – so that their souls would know where to return upon death. How painful is that.
By now it had been almost a week since my arrival in Accra. I spent December 31st on the beach, among new travel friends from all around the world, the ocean, and a bonfire. It was very memorable and fun way to welcome the year 2020.
A long day of travel brought me from Cape Coast to Wli. It required taking a shared taxi in Cape Coast, a minibus to Accra, another shared taxi to a bus terminal, another minibus to Ho, yet another shared taxi to Hohoe, and then a final shared taxi to Wli. Phew, made it!
Wli is a small village located in the green and mountainous Volta region and the border with Togo. This was my last stop in Ghana and couldn’t have picked a better exit point. I went on a hike to the second? highest peak in Ghana, it’s not that high, and descended to a lush valley with the famous two-level waterfall of Wli. I was absolutely thrilled to get some physical activity in. This village is very laid back, you wake up to the sounds of birds. Unfortunately I only spent a day here, in retrospect I could easily have stayed another day or two and did some more hiking in the green belt.
Spending the last of my Ghanian cedi, I walked across to the border to Togo.