The first of many African countries to gain independence from England in 1957, Ghana is today the most stable and successful of the West African nations. By African standards the country is diminutive at around 80% the land area of New Zealand, albeit with a population of some 27 million. However, what it lacks in size it more than makes up for with culture and unquestionably some of the friendliest people on the planet. It is impossible to walk down the street without someone engaging you in conversation, keen to learn where you are from and genuinely interested in how you are enjoying your stay. Interaction is very easy as English is the lingua franca of Ghana, unlike the countries that surround it on 3 sides that are all French speaking.
Situated on the Gulf of Guinea, the Atlantic southern coastline of long palm fringed beaches is a little over 300km from the equator which makes for a tropical climate. This is evident as you arrive in the capital city Accra, which has pleasant lush green spaces in the city. Well worth visiting in Accra is the fishing port area of James Town, situated around the Ussher Fort built by the Dutch in 1649 as defence from pirate attack and the incursion of other European nations keen to get their hands on the wealth of the region. From the battlements of the fort, you see an extraordinary number of fishing boats that head out into the Atlantic swell each evening. They make for a colourful sight as each flies a number of flags, a tradition that dates back to earlier times when local fishermen imitated the flags they saw flying from the Portuguese ships that started arriving in the 15th century. Those ships were the vanguard of vessels from many European nations that sacked the country of slaves and gold for the next 300 years.
Gold has always been important and widely available; indeed before independence the country was called the Gold Coast where a large and powerful tribal group called the Ashanti mined and traded gold for centuries before the arrival of Europeans. Still a very important force in Ghanaian society, the Ashanti king does not possess any political office but is respected and to an extent adored by his subjects. He lives in a palace in the capital of the Ashanti Kingdom, Ghana’s second largest city of Kumasi and if you are ever in Ghana, you must go there.
The Kumasi market with over 10,000 stalls is the largest in West Africa and covers an enormous area. You can spend hours wandering the chaos and commerce in what seems like something out of a Salvador Dali painting where colour has been splashed everywhere! The market is fascinating and I personally rate it right up with the most interesting in the world. One reason is it is easy to freely converse with the store-holders, many of who love a joke and have a wicked sense of humour. Everything imaginable is available for sale and is carried about the market atop the heads of the people – their balance is impressive as they weave in and out of some very narrow and crowded alleyways. Make sure you visit with a guide as it is so vast you may well have trouble finding your way out again! After wandering the market for nearly two hours, the only non-African faces seen were those of the small group travelling with me. This makes the Kumasi market a wonderful, authentic and amazing experience!
If visiting Kumasi, then try and be there on a Saturday. This is the day that funerals take place and I would encourage you to attend one, that may sound a little morbid, but an Ashanti funeral is a celebration of life and visitors are welcomed. The burial takes place in the morning and you do not attend that, but join in the celebrations at the wake held in the afternoon. Usually set in the open around a football field size arena, the mourners are dressed in black togas very similar in style to those worn in ancient Rome. Members of the deceased persons family will wear togas of red or a combination of red and black. There is formality to the event with much handshaking, dancing and the beat of African drums. I was fortunate to be at the funeral of an important person which brought out a selection of paramount chiefs who sat under large ceremonial umbrellas, surrounded by elders and others important in the tribe. Quite unlike anything I had been to before, an Ashanti funeral is another event that cannot be missed.
Along the coast many colonial era forts are dotted, built by the Portuguese, Dutch, Germans, Swedish, Danes and British. In total there were 27 forts of which 11 still survive in reasonable condition. Most impressive are the UNESCO Heritage listed Cape Coast and Elmina Forts, the latter of which is over 530 years and the oldest surviving European building in sub-Saharan Africa. These whitewashed forts became staging posts for millions of slaves sent from West Africa to the Caribbean and seeing the dungeons these poor souls were confined in before they passed through the ‘Door Of No Return’ to board the slave ship is thought-provoking.
The infrastructure in Ghana is modest and still developing. Internet access away from the big cities is all but non-existent and you need to be cautious with what you eat to avoid stomach issues. However the colourful, warm and welcoming people make this an incredible destination for anyone wanting to experience something different, far from the hordes of mass tourism. Probably the best way to describe the country is with a comment made by one of my travelling companions who said, “I have never smiled so much in my life before I came to Ghana”. I totally agree!
By Chris Lyons