AFRICA’S HEART OF GOLD
Akwaaba! Akwaaba! Akwaaba!
It’s an expression you’ll hear several times daily as you travel around Ghana, one that will ring in your ears at night, and bring a smile to your face for weeks after you leave. Akwaaba! It means ‘Welcome’! And you will be. Welcome to a sunshine nation with a proud reputation as the friendliest in Africa. Welcome to a haven that combines the luxuriant charms of a tropical beach idyll with a fascinating historical heritage, a rich cultural variety, and some fabulous wildlife viewing opportunities. Welcome to a classic African destination that truly warrants the epithet ‘best-kept secret’; one whose multifaceted attractions remain untainted by mass tourism and whose smiling people place inestimable value on the hospitality innate in their culture.
Welcome to Africa’s Heart of Gold!
Welcome to Ghana!
The Republic of Ghana extends inland from the Gulf of Guinea on the western ‘bulge’ of Africa, and is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the south, Togo to the east, Burkina Faso to the north and La Cote d’Ivoire to the west. With a surface area of 238, 537 sq km, it is similar in size to Great Britain or the American state of Oregon. It is bisected by the Greenwich Meridian and lies entirely within the north tropics between 4.5°N and 11°N. Most of the country is relatively flat and lies below an altitude of 150m, but several peaks in the east rise to above 800m. It has a typical tropical climate, warm to hot all year through, and can be divided into two broad geographic zones : the south and center are moist and support a cover of lush rainforest and grassland, whereas the north consists of a drier savannah environment.
Ghana’s population is estimated at between 29 to 30 million, roughly ten percent of whom live in and around the capital city of Accra. Other major urban centers include Kumasi, Tamale, Tema, Takoradi and Cape Coast. More than 70 languages and major dialects are spoken countrywide, classified into four linguistic groups: Akan, Mole-Dagbani, Ewe and Ga. The most widespread Akan Language is Twi, which is spoken by roughly half the population, including the Asante (Ashanti) people of Kumasi and the coastal Fante. Two-thirds of Ghanaians are Christians, another 15% are Islamic, and the remainder adhere to traditional animist beliefs.
Recent History & Politics
Ghana has been settled by Europeans since 1482but external rule was imposed only in 1874, when Britain claimed a strip of land extending less than 50km inland as the Gold Coast Colony. The more northerly territories were annexed to that colony in 1902, following a war with the Asante Empire, while the eastern border was extended to include present-day Volta Region (formerly part of German Togoland) in 1919.The Gold Coast attained independence and was renamed Ghana under the leadership of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah in 1957.Nkrumah, having banned all political opposition, was deposed in 1966 by what transpired to be the first of four military coups within the space of 15 years. A multiparty constitution was introduced in 1991. Jerry John Rawlings won the first democratic presidential election in 1992 and served the constitutional maximum of two terms before stepping down in 2000, when former opposition leader John Kufuor was voted into power.
DID YOU KNOW?
The Gold Coast was the first African colony to attain independence in the post-WWII era. President Kwame Nkrumah rechristened the country Ghana, which had been the name of the most ancient of West Africa’s great trade empires, as a Pan-African “inspiration for the future”.
Dating to 1482, the imposing St. George’s Castle in Elmina is the oldest European building in sub-Saharan Africa. Though greatly expanded under the Dutch occupation, the original Portuguese fortress and the chapel are still intact and now function as a local historical museum.
Gold has been exported from Ghana since mediaeval times, when it reached North Africa via the Sahara. After the establishment of a maritime trade with the Portuguese in 1471, Ghana supplied up to 10% of the gold imported to Europe. Since the 1990s, a resurgent mining industry has led to Ghana becoming Africa’s second largest gold-producer.
The mighty Volta River, which empties into the Atlantic along Ghana’s east coast, has a catchment area that sprawls across the borders of six West African countries. It also feeds the world’s largest artificial water body, the 850,000ha lake Volta, created in 1966 by the construction of a 370m wide, 124m tall dam at the Akosombo in southern Ghana.
A LIVING CULTURE
Ghana pulsates with life. From the bustle of downtown Accra to the atmospheric adobe villages of the north, from the ancient Kingdom of Asante to the mediaeval mosques of Larabanga and Bole, it is a country whose immense cultural diversity both thrills and fascinates visitors, drawing them into a daily rhythm that is uniquely and unmistakably African. A common feature of all Ghanaian cultures is a love of festivals. Barely a week goes by without one or other town or village holding its major annual celebration, while everyday personal events such as funerals, naming ceremonies and weddings tend also to be imbued with something of a carnival atmosphere.
The normal starting point for exploring Ghana is the historical capital Accra, one of the safest and most navigable of African cities, and brimming with interest. Accra’s atmospheric older quarters Ussher town and Jamestown are characterized by an architectural cocktail spanning several centuries, spiced with striking landmarks such as the 17th century Osu Castle and the Jamestown lighthouse and the more modern Independence Arch and Nkrumah Mausoleum, and the lively fishing market. Modern Accra is epitomized by Cantonment Road, more widely known as Oxford Street in reference to its cosmopolitan array of quality restaurants and fast food joints, trendy bars and internet cafes, and well-stocked supermarkets and boutiques.
Ghana’s second city, Kumasi is the traditional capital of the Asante people, heirs to a centuries-old kingdom that once sprawled from its core in central Ghana into what are now Cote d’Ivoire, Togo and Burkina Faso. Better known to outsiders as Ashanti, Asante was the last and moat enduring of a succession of centralized states that controlled the goldmines of Obuasi, though its wealth and influence was both linked to the ample supply of captives it provided to coastal slave traders. Traditional Ashanti landmarks include a beautiful 300-years od fetish shrine at Besease, the royal kente of Bonwire, and Manhyia Palace, where the Asante King sits in session very sixth Sunday, heralded by a procession of dignitaries and a fanfare of exuberant drumming and horn blowing that capture the pageantry of Asante’s past.
There is also the coastal Fante Kingdom, Asante’s southern counterpart and the traditional rival, centered on Mankessim and incorporating the ports of Cape Coast, Elmina, Anomabu, Saltpond and Winneba, where local fisherman still ply their trade in colorful pirogues, and life is ruled by the whimsical winds and tides of the ancient Atlantic. The north of Ghana, by contrast, has strong cultural links to the local style of dress, a strong Islamic influence dating back to mediaeval times, and the captivating mud architecture of villages such as Paga, Sirigu and Larabanga.
…the fascinating stilted village of Nzulezo, founded some 500 years ago above the jungle-bounded Lake Amansuri, centerpiece of a community-based wetland reserve that supports a dazzling assemblage of rare birds.
…the ten ancient Abosomfie ‘fetish shrines’ that dot the lush countryside of Asante, many of which remain in active use, and which were collectively proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.
…the hauntingly curvaceous adobe architecture of northern Ghana, exemplified by the medieval Larabanga Mosque near the entrance of Mole National Park, and the century-old Wa-Na’s Palace in the remote town of Wa.
…the Posuban shrines of Elmina, Anomabu and Mankessim, outsized and mildly surreal military storehouses whose fusion of indigenous and exotic iconography attests to five centuries of interaction with European traders and settlers.
Ghana is a nature lover’s delight. Its sunny equatorial climate and fertile well-watered soils sustain an enchanting selection of wildlife, ranging from elephants to monkeys and marine turtles to crocodiles, as well as hundreds of colorful bird and butterfly species. More than 5% of the country’s surface area has been accorded official protection across 16 national parks or lower-profile conservation areas, of which the most popular tourist destinations are the vast Mole National Park in the northern savannah and the forested Kakum National Park near the coast.
Over recent years, Ghana has emerged as a pioneer in the field of community-based ecotourism, which aims to create a mutually beneficial three-way relationship between conservationists, tourists and local communities. The Boabeng-Fiema Monkey Sanctuary, home to sacred troops of Mona and black-and-white colobus monkeys, led the way in 1995, and it remains the flagship for more than two dozen other community-based tourism projects countrywide. These range from the award-winning Wechiau Hippo Sanctuary in the Upper West and Amasuri Wetland Sanctuary in the Western Region to the cultural sites such as the Domana Rock Shrine, set in the forests near Kakum National Park, and the painted houses and pottery of Sirigu in the Upper East.
Volta Region, the most topographically varied part of Ghana, also hosts the country’s largest concentration of community-based ecotourism sites, and offers outdoor enthusiasts some superb opportunities for hiking, rambling and mountain biking. Popular attractions include the sacred monkey’s of Tafi Atome, a plethora of magnificent forests and waterfalls around Amedzofe, the country’s highest peak on Mount Afadjato, and the impressive forest-fringed Wli Falls, the tallest cascade in West Africa.
Ghana is highly alluring to birdwatchers, with 725 species recorded in an area comparable to Great Britain. For casual visitors, it is colorful savannah birds such as gonoleks, rollers, parrots and weavers that tend to catch the eye, as well as the eagles and other large raptors that inhabit the drier north. Serious birdwatchers, however, are likely to want to seek out the more elusive residents of the shadowy rainforest interiors of Kakum, Bui and Ankasa, as well as the exceptional variety and volume of marine species that congregate on coastal lagoons such as Keta, Songor and Muni-Pomadze. Not least among Ghana’s natural attractions are the superb palm-lined beaches that line its 500km Atlantic Coastline. One of the most beautiful is Ada Foah, on the Volta Estuary, an important nesting site for endangered marine turtles. The beaches flanking Elmina and Cape Coast are ideal for those who wish to combine their sunbathing with some historical sightseeing, while their less developed counterparts further west around Busua, Axim and Beyin offer the opportunity to truly get away from it all in idyllic surrounds. And for those with limited time, there is always La or Coco Beach, lively sun-drenched expanses of white sand situated on the outskirts of the city of Accra.
GHOSTS OF SLAVERY
It was in hope of locating the source of the abundant gold carried north by the trans-Sahara caravans that Portuguese navigators first set about exploring the west coast of Africa in the mid-15th century. It was the discovery of just such a supply at the port they named Elmina (The Mine) in 1471 that prompted the Portuguese to build a fortified trade outpost there, and which gave the Gold Coast its name. And it was the selfsame commodity that would dominate trade out of the Gold Coast for the 200 years, granting it near-immunity from the devastation caused elsewhere in West Africa by the rapacious demand for slaves in the Americas.
By 1700, largely due to a British attempt to break the Dutch monopoly on local trade, the Gold Coast had, I the words of one official at Elmina, ‘become a virtual Slave Coast’. The numerous forts that had been built by various European powers to service the gold trade were expanded and their warehouses converted to dungeons, wherein many thousands of human captives were hoarded annually prior to being shipped across the Atlantic into a life of bondage in the Americas. Today, these coastal fortresses – two dozen of which still survive more-or-less intact, most impressively Cape Coast and Elmina Castles – pay harrowing testaments to a sordid saga that resulted in the forced exile and enslavement of at least 12 million Africans before the slave trade was outlawed by Britain in 1807.
The profound historical and humanitarian significance of Ghana’s ‘slave forts’ is universally recognized; indeed several of the castles are now listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. These anachronistic monoliths have also become emotive sites of pilgrimage to the many African-American and Caribbean descendants of the captives who passed through their dungeons in the 18th century. Somewhat less well known-and admittedly less physically bombastic-are the old slaving posts that dot the Ghanaian interior, and play lasting testament to the widespread social and economic disruption experienced throughout the region during the slaving era. The most significant sites include Assin Manso, which lies just 40km from the coast and formed the centerpiece of Ghana’s first Emancipation Day ceremony in 1998, as well as the more remote slave market and wells at Salaga, near Tamale, and the slave camp of Pikworo on the border with Burkina Faso.