Akwaaba. You are welcome to Ghana.
Ghana is like a small town. Everyone seems to know each other, and if they don’t, they will soon enough. They are family, sharing culture and history so rich you want to consume it slowly, savoring every last bite. Because when you visit Ghana, you become a part of it – that is, if you are open to the experience.
Connecting is the key
It is not a matter of looking for connections. They just happen. Like I said, everyone is family in Ghana. People will talk to you. They will want to hear stories about your town and your family. You will be expected to share. In return, they will share something about themselves, if you ask the right questions. You might need to learn a bit of the local language for this, but you don’t need to be fluent. Most Ghanaians have some English since it is the official language. The lingua franca, however, is Twi. There are two main Twi dialects, Fante and Asante. Probably you will learn a combination of the two. There are many other languages, but most people speak fluent Twi. It is tonal and can be challenging to learn, but the rewards are worth every moment. Find a willing tutor and you will be on your way to making small children and grown men chuckle when you respond to their queries of “eh, obruni, et e sen?” (hey, white person, what’s up?), with a confident, “eh ye paa” (I am very well!).
It’s best if you don’t have expectations about what you will experience in Ghana. This is probably true for most destinations, but in Ghana, you want the unexpected. The short chat with the woman in line with you at the tro-tro station (minibuses that serve as the primary transportation) who shares with you her small bag of plantain chips; the student from the university who splits a cab with you and tells you about his goal to attend medical school in England; the spontaneous visit to a charismatic Christian church on Sunday morning where you sit next to a family of five and are then invited to Sunday dinner; or the stroll through Nkrumah Circle market in Accra where an elderly woman spots you and pulls you into her kitchen where she treats you to groundnut soup. These moments are Ghana’s bread and butter – its people and their kindness.
If you are female, particularly if you are traveling alone, it is best to wear clothing that goes below your knees. In other words, no shorts and no short skirts. Also, tank tops on women are a bit risqué in Ghana. It is a matter of politeness and respect for their culture to dress a bit more conservatively than you might at home. In the north it is also advised to wear a headscarf. The northern population is largely Muslim, unlike the rest of the country, which is predominantly Christian.
You must learn to use your hands a bit differently in Ghana. The easiest way to remember this is never use your left hand for anything. When you eat, use your right hand. When you wave at someone, right hand. Exchanging money, right hand, etc. It is understood that your left hand is used for things that are less than clean and so it is could be offensive to use it for any civilized gesture. Practice before you go. On that note, greetings are taken seriously in Ghana. If you attend a funeral, and there is a good chance that you will, since funerals are huge events in Ghana, you will be expected to shake hands with, at the very least, the immediate family, if not every person in attendance. Shaking hands and greeting people is good manners. You will likely observe this in others and can simply follow suit.
Ghana is a beautiful country and few people know what it has to offer in terms of natural and cultural resources. You will fly into Accra, the capital. Accra will ease you into the Ghanaian way of life, and introduce you to its recent post-colonial history, but don’t stay there long. There is so much more to see.
Cape Coast is a couple of hours west of Accra. There are several bus companies that can take you there for a reasonable cost. Stay in Cape Coast for three to five days if you can. Inexpensive guesthouses and hotels can be found a short walk from the beach. If you have more money to spend there are a few high-end resorts as well. Regardless, when you go to Cape Coast you are there for two primary sites: castle-dungeons and Kakum forest. For those of you who don’t know, Gold Coast, Ghana’s former name, was the primary point of exit for the majority of slaves that were transported to the New World. There are many so-called castle-dungeons and two of the most famous are in Cape Coast – Elmina Castle, the oldest, and Cape Coast Castle. Visit them both and be sure to request a guided tour. The knowledgeable guides will provide you with details of what it was like for men and women to endure the harsh conditions of those dungeons. The stories are painful, profound and important to hear.
Kakum National Park contains semi-deciduous rainforest and is a short drive from Cape Coast. The most famous feature here is the tree-canopy walk. It is a rope bridge, about 130ft off the ground, linked among several tall trees. Unless you are deathly afraid of heights, it is a glorious experience. If you like, you can camp for the night in the forest. They have raised platforms for pitching tents. There is also a local music group that makes their instruments out of bamboo. See their website for more information.
North of the coast, there is much more to see. The Volta Region in the east showcases Wli Waterfall, the tallest falls in West Africa and Tafi Atome monkey sanctuary, both near the charming town of Ho. Lake Volta is a sight to see in and of itself. Created when the government dammed the river Volta in the 1960s it is one of the largest man-made lakes in the world.
North and a bit west of Accra, is the Ashanti (Asante) Region. Be sure to visit Kumasi for a few days to soak in the history of the Ashanti kingdom. If you are very adventurous, you might hop on a tro-tro to one of the villages near Mampong and see if there is a place you can stay for a night or two. You will experience the daily lives of rural Ghanaians and may have an opportunity to help out on a farm. If not, you can always take a tro-tro back to Mampong and find a guesthouse. It will be a worthwhile experience either way. Just be sure to leave on your adventure early in the morning so that you don’t get stranded (unlikely). One word of advice, when you visit a village it is important to first meet with the village Chief. You must introduce yourself, explain why you are there, and make an offering, usually soda or alcohol. While you are in the village, enquire about the local gin (akpeteshie), and if possible, try a cup of palm wine.
If you have the time, head further north to Tamale and spend a couple of days exploring Mole National Park. It is Ghana’s safari. Mole is a woodland savannah with spectacular wildlife. You can take a guided walking tour, an experience not often permitted in some of the larger parks of Kenya and South Africa. There are elephants, hundreds of bird species, antelopes, warthogs, and several species of monkeys, including baboons and patas monkeys that lurk around the local village where they appear to get plenty of food scraps. Lions and leopards also inhabit the park but as I understand it, they are rarely seen. Mole Motel is a comfortable lodge in the park overlooking a watering hole used by many of the animals. There is a pool, a restaurant and the cost is reasonable.
Tamale is several hours’ drive from Mole. It is hot and dry as the region is undergoing an unfortunate desertification, but a day or two in Tamale is worth it if only for the difference in culture. Tamale is heavily influenced by Islamic tradition and offers a nice change of pace from the rest of the country. When you are there, be sure to try the fried cheese at the local market. It may be the only place in the country with a population that eats cheese. Dairy products are rare in Ghana unless you purchase them at western food establishments.
Everyone has his or her own peculiar style of traveling and frankly, for some people, Ghana is not the best choice. If you are the type of person who wants to escape politics and strife and everyday challenges, don’t go to Ghana. But if you are looking to make connections, to embrace beauty and poverty when they simultaneously stare you in the face, and you don’t mind squat toilets, then Ghana is for you.