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 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 northern tropics between 4.5°N and 11°N. Most of the country is relatively flat and lies below an altitude of 1 50m, 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 centre and moist and support a cover of lush rainforest and grassland, whereas the north consist of a drier savannah environment.
Ghana’s population is estimated between 29 to 30 million, roughly ten percent of whom live in and around the capital city of Accra. Other major urban centres include Kumasi, Tamale, Tema, Takoradi and Cape Coast. More than 70 languages and major dialects are spoken countrywide, classified in 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 Christian, another 15% are Islamic, and the remainder adhere to traditional animist beliefs.
Recent History & Politics
Ghana has been settled by Europeans since 1482 but 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 I5 years. A multiparty constitution was introduced in 1991. Jerry Rawlings won the first democratic presidential election in 1992 and s e r v e d t h e constitutional maximum of two terms before stepping down in 2000, when former opposition leader John Kufuor was voted into power.
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, name-giving 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 Usshertown and Jamestown are characterized by an architectural cocktail spanning several centuries, spiced with striking landmarks such as the 17th century Osu Castle and Jamestown Lighthouse, the more modern Independence Arch and Nkrumah Mausoleum, and the lively fishing market. Modern Accra is epitomized by Cantonments 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 most enduring of a succession of centralised states that controlled the goldmines of Obuasi, though its wealth and influence was also linked to the ample supply of captives it provided to coastal slave traders. Traditional Ashanti landmarks include a beautiful 300-year old fetish shrine at Besease, the royal kente weaving village of Bonwire, and Manhyia Palace, where the Asante King sits in session every sixth Sunday, heralded by a procession of dignitaries and a fanfare of exuberant drumming and horn blowing that capture the pageantry of Asantels past.
There is also the coastal Fante Kingdom, Asante’s southern counterpart and traditional rival, centered on Mankessim and incorporating the ports of Cape Coast, Elmina, Anomabu, Saltpond and Winneba, where local fishermen still ply their trade in colourful 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 sandy Sahel, clearly visible in 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.
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 colourful 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 Amansuri Wetland Sanctuary in the Western Region to 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 monkeys 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 WIi 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 colourful 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 next 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, in 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 testament 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 recognised; 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 descendents 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 pay 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 centrepiece 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.
EXPLORING THE HEART OF GOLD
Recently renovated to accommodate the growing number of international flights to Accra, Kotoka International Airport is situated less than 10 minutes’ drive from the city centre and the popular resort hotels at La Beach. It is serviced by a number of international airlines, including British Airways, Egypt Air, Ethiopian Airlines, KLM, Kenya Airways, South African Airways, Alitalia and Lufthansa.
Passport and visas
A valid passport is mandatory. Visa requirements are subject to change and should be checked prior to travelling to Ghana, but at the time of writing visas are required by most nationalities and must be acquired in advance at a Ghanaian Embassy or High Commission.
A certificate of yellow fever vaccination is required. All visitors should take malaria prophylactic drugs. It is advisable to drink bottled water.
The unit of currency is the cedi. The US dollar is traditionally the hard currency of preference, but Euros and other major currencies are widely accepted. Some establishments accept credit cards and most large towns have ATM’s.
English is the official language and widely spoken to a fairly high standard.
When to visit
Ghana can be visited at any time of year, but the northern hemisphere winter – from October through to April – is most comfortable thanks to lower humidity levels and less rainfall. This is also the best time of year for birdwatching, as resident species are supplemented by migrants from Europe and Northern Asia.
What to wear
Conditions are generally hot, so bring lots of light clothing. A light jumper or sweatshirt might be useful to counter heavy sea breezes and slightly chillier nocturnal temperatures in the eastern highlands. Visitors ought to be sensitive to local dress codes and women should refrain from dressing too skimpily, except in the grounds of upmarket beach hotels. A hat, sunglasses and (during the rainy season) a waterproof jacket are recommended.
Unusually for a former British territory, driving is on the right side, in keeping with the Francophone countries that border Ghana. Several car rental companies operate out of Accra and Tema, but visitors without experience of African roads are advised to take a vehicle with a driver rather than self-drive. The State Transport Company (STC) runs regular luxury coach services connecting Accra to Cape Coast, Takoradi, Kumasi and Tamale, and also offers services between most other major towns. Non-metered taxis are ubiquitous and inexpensive, but a fare should be agreed upfront.
Tipping is not standard practice at local hotels and restaurants, but it will always be appreciated. It is normal to tip 5-10% at tourist-oriented restaurants. Guides and drivers should always be tipped.
Variable-date public holidays ace Good Friday, Easier Monday, Eid il Fitc and Eid il Adel. Fixed-date public holidays are January I (New Year’s Day), March 6 (Independence Day), May I (May Day), May 25 (Africa unity Day), July I (Republic Day), Friday in December (Farmers’ Day) and December 25/6 (Christmas/Boxing Day).
Arts & Crafts
Ghana is well known for its traditional crafts, in particular the colourfully patterned kente cloth, which has been woven by the Asante and Ewe people for hundreds of years. Dye-stained adinkra cloth is also associated strongly with the Asante, who attribute different proverbs to each of 60 different adinkra signs, and is often worn on funerals and other important occasions. Hand-spun fugu cloth is a speciality in Bolgatanga and the village of Daboya, while wide straw hats and baskets are popular in the far north and east, and Sirigu in the north is an important centre of pottery. Craft stalls around the country also sell a wide selection of sculptures and masks made locally and in neighboring Cote d’Ivoire.
Hotels & conference facilities
Accra has several world class hotels. Accommodation of an international standard is also available at popular beach destinations such as Ada Foah, Fetteh, Cape Coast, Elmina, and Axim, as well as in Kumasi, Ho, Tamale and most other regional administrative capitals. Budget hotels are available in most towns, in some national parks, and at most beach locations. Ghana offers excellent conference facilities. The Accra International Conference Centre seats to 1000 people and several smaller venues have modern interpretation services and seat up to 150 people.
A popular feature of Ghana is the great many annual festivals held around the country, for the most part joyous affairs when locals dress up in their finest traditional attire and tourists’ are welcome to join in. Some of the most important of perhaps 100 local festivals are:
- Adae, Sitting of Asante king, Kumasi, every sixth Sunday.
- Buronya, local variation on Christmas, Elmina, first Thursday of January.
- Dipo, initiation ceremony, Krobo Odumase, April
- Aboakyer, antelope hunt, Winneba, First Saturday of May.
- Bakatue, opening of the lagoon, Elmina, first Tuesday of July.
- Asafo Tufiam, indigenous warriors’ celebration, Ada Foah, starts last Thursday of July.
- Odwira, Asante’s most important festival, Kumasi, September. Homowo, ‘hooting at hunger’, Accra, August-September.
- Fetu Afahye, colourful parade, Cape Coast, First Saturday of September.
- Yam Festivals, harvest festival, Volta Region, different dates Aug-Nov at different locations.
- Odwira, Akropong, October.
- Hogbetsotso, Anio Volta Region, 1st Saturday in November.
Ghana boasts a wide selection of international restaurants, particularly in Accra and Kumasi, but adventurous visitors might also want to try the dishes served in ubiquitous local ‘chop bars’. Popular staples include fufu, a pulped gooey ball of crushed cassava or yam that’s most often served submerged in a light soup, and kenkey and banku, both of which are made of fermented maize meal and usually served with a tomato based relish. On more familiar terrain, fried yam sticks are the local equivalent of potato chips (also widely available), spicy beef kebabs, char-grilled chicken, guinea fowl and tilapia are all popular bar staples, while jollof rice is a common spicy dish comprised of rice cooked in a tomato sauce with red meat, fish or chicken.