By Pamela Pimm
Ghana, situated between the Cote d'Ivoire and Togo on the West Coast of Africa, is one of the Continent's most beautiful countries. From its picturesque, coastal location to its wide range of attractions and amenities, Ghana is a varied and compact microcosm of Africa that appeals to all travelers. For those seeking a rich and vibrant culture, sun-drenched beaches with pristine swimming, ancient European castles, lush tropical forests, colorful festivals celebrating the chieftaincy, mouth-watering seafood and Africa's friendliest people, Ghana is a wonderful find.
The exuberant Ghanaian hospitality — expressed heartily in the traditional greeting 'Akwaaba,' or Welcome — will warm you. English-speaking travelers will feel right at home in Ghana, English is the official language.
Formerly called the Gold Coast by Europeans who came initially in search of gold, and later for slaves, Ghana derives its post-independence name from an ancient, powerful kingdom. The splendor of the past remains alive today in the religious royalty of the village chiefs, the magnificent works of art in bronze, wood and stone, and the life rhythms of the village, marketplace and fishing port.
The southern part of Ghana is much as you1d expect of West Africa, lush jungle, banana plantations and bone-white beaches, punctuated by the string of 500-year old European forts and castles that line the former Gold Coast. But real surprises begin as you travel north, for instance to the game-rich savannah of Mole National Park, a setting that evokes East Africa, or to the deeply Muslim Burkina Faso border region, where mood and architecture have unexpected overtones of North Africa.
Fortunately, Ghana lacks the trappings associated with mass tourism. But even though you're off the tourist treadmill, there are exciting off-the-beaten-track possibilities. There are at least five national parks and reserves suited for equipped independent travelers. Though Ghana lacks a singularly renown tourist attraction, it offers memorable highlights: swimming below a gorgeous waterfall in the eastern highlands, getting closer to a wild elephant than in East Africa, climbing to the roof of one of the surreal mosques that dot the northwest, taking a dugout canoe through papyrus swamps to the stilted village of Mzulezu, or watching colorful mona monkeys play between the houses of Baobeng village.
Outstanding in the African community for its economic and political achievements, Ghana is a natural gateway to West Africa. After a decade of reforms, Ghana has established a remarkable record of economic growth, expanding export industries, a growing stock market and rapidly increasing private investment opportunities. Ghana has received a strong endorsement of economic health from the Consultative Group for Ghana, with representatives of 11 developed countries and multilateral institutions, including the IMF, the World Bank and the UN Development Program (UNDP). With a stable political climate and an average annual GDP growth rate of nearly 5% over the past 10 years, Ghana is poised to lead Africa into a new period of stability and economic prosperity.
Trailblazing of this sort is not new for Ghana. The former Gold Coast was the first country in Africa to have extended contact with Europeans, one of the first to be formally colonized, and in 1957 it became the first to be granted independence in the post-war era. Less prestigiously, Ghana also became one of the first African countries to slide into post-independence chaos and, while it never plummeted to the depths reached by, say, Liberia or Rwanda, the modern visitor will find it difficult to reconcile accounts of Ghana ten years ago with the vibrant country they see today.
A Country of Natural Wealth
Ghana is endowed with abundant natural wealth, including vast agricultural, mining and human resources. Along with its growing manufacturing sector, agriculture remains a key sector of the economy. It employs 60% of the Ghanaian workforce and makes up almost 44% of the country's GDP. Cocoa is the second-largest export, and new exports such as wood products, textiles, jewelry, pineapples, tuna fish and cotton are diversifying Ghana's agricultural export profile.
In addition to agricultural wealth, Ghana is rich in mineral resources. Gold has replaced cocoa as the country's primary export, with diamonds, aluminum and bauxite accounting for a large part of the country's exports. The mining industry was liberalized in 1987, and strategic investors such as de Beers, Lonrho, and others from the U.S., Canada, Australia, South Africa and Britain have taken advantage of the business opportunities.
Ghana's industrious, well-educated workforce is one of their most valuable resources. There is a strong primary, secondary and higher education infrastructure, and literacy rates average 53 percent, one of the highest in the continent.
The Historical Monuments of Ghana's Gold Coast
A trip to Ghana would not be complete without a visit to Cape Coast, the capital city of Ghana's legendary central region. Located one and a half hours west of Accra, the Ghanaian capital, Cape Coast is the heart of Ghana's rich historical past. It offers a unique view of Ghana as the former center of European colonial activity on Africa1s west coast. Three of the region's most prominent fortifications, Cape Coast, Elmina Castles and Fort St. Jago — all officially designated as World Heritage Sites by the UN — record the horror of millions of Africans who were captured, enslaved and shipped to the plantations of the Americas and the Caribbean.
Cape Coast Castle was constructed as a small trading lodge in the 16th century, then altered and enlarged to become a substantial fort by 1627. It was captured by the Swedes but became a British possession in 1664. Cape Coast Castle, through which millions of slaves were shipped to the Caribbean and the U.S., was the seat of British colonial administration until 1877 when government offices moved to Christiansborg Castle in Accra.
The cannons still face seaward, stirring the imagination to scenes of exploration, discovery and great tragedy. The Museum of West African History, currently under development in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution, brings into sharp focus the role that these great structures played in the meeting of two cultures. As you wander the ramparts of Cape Coast Castle in the salt air, the view is a visual feast. Traditional customs — the mending of nets and launching of painted fishing canoes, continue side-by-side with the new — impromptu soccer games and the hustle and bustle of business. Cape Coast Castle is alive with the human spirit.
Ten kilometers west on a promontory visible from a great distance, Elmina Castle is the earliest known European structure in the tropics. Built in 1482 by the Portuguese, the castle was taken by the Dutch in 1637, who retained control for 274 years. The vast fortification contains the first Catholic church in sub-Sahara Africa. The Castle's damp, unlit dungeons served as horrific holding areas for the human cargo of the slave trade.
Fort St. Jago is within walking distance, the point from which the Dutch launched their successful attack on Elmina Castle. St. Jago was not used for trading activities; it provided military protection to Elmina Castle. St. Jago offers an excellent view of the Castle, the Atlantic Ocean, and the buzz of activity in Elmina's fishing harbor.
Along with guided tours, cultural and theatrical performances are staged in Cape Coast and Elmina Castles. Among these are re-enactments of the horrors of the slave trade as well as a solemn, touching portrayal of the final journey of Africans as they walked onto hellish ships that transported them to the Americas.
The physical and symbolic messages of these monuments foster an emotional response among visitors. But Ghanaians want visitors to remember their history, not only for the lessons it teaches, but also to absorb the Ghanaian spirit of hope and hard work.
Within short distances are Kakum National Park, a tropical forest with a thriving wildlife population, tranquil white beaches lined with coconut palms, the whimsical Posuban Shrines of the Fante warriors, bustling Kotokuraba Market, the fabled festivals of the Sacred Stools, and a host of craft villages untouched by time.
The Natural Environment
Kakum National Park, a tropical forest enclave, is a haven for the casual visitor, birdwatcher, amateur botanist and ecotourist alike. Thirty kilometers north of Cape Coast, it offers rare plant species in a spectacular environment where trees tower 50 meters. After viewing exhibits at the Visitor's Center, the drama of the jungle comes alive as park guides discuss the complex ecosystem, traditional forest medicines, and daily village life. Ground level flora may be familiar houseplants, and the forest contains some 550 butterfly species.
Much wildlife thrives well overhead in the forest canopy. Trails provide self-guided hiking opportunities to sight over 200 bird species: parrots, bee-eaters, blue plantain-eaters, hornbills, and kingfishers. Dense vegetation provides cover for globally endangered species such as the forest elephant and bongo, the largest forest antelope, as well as various types of monkeys. Viewing chances are increased by allowing time to sit quietly in the forest, staying at one of the free-standing camps, or by taking advantage of canopy walkways, viewing stations and blinds.
Kakum National Park is a conservation priority area, and with light cotton clothing, long trousers, sturdy footwear, a water bottle, snacks, binoculars and a camera, the wonders of this vanishing leafy-green world are open for exploration.
Ghanaian Craft Villages
The famous 'Kente' cloth of kings is woven in the Central Region. Whether visiting the weaving villages or trying to choose among the dynamic patterns sold in the market, visitors soon discover that the bright colors of this national cloth are the symbol of a proud Africa.
Craft villages display the skill and dexterity of the craftspeople who produce works of art. Master artisans in Ajumako Owane specialize in carved royal regalia such as stools, linguist staffs, walking sticks, swords of state, and clan totems. Winneba, located on the main highway halfway between Accra and Cape Coast, is well-known for ceramics. Wooden handicrafts in the form of fish, animals, fruits and vegetables are carved and painted in Enyan Maim, and unglazed black and terra cotta pots are produced at Gomoa Otsew Jukwa.
If you choose to spend several nights at one of the comfortable hotels or guest houses in the Cape Coast/Elmina area, you will have more time to follow the winding roads that lead to the rural craft villages. If you are lucky, a village may be celebrating by an evening fire with drumming, singing and dancing.
Many villages have these traditional Fante military fortresses which also serve as the abode for war gods of the clan and a citadel of strength in times of war. In addition to their interesting history, Posuban shrines are fanciful buildings, lavishly decorated with folk art emblems and an array of life-size statues. It is customary to present libation to the ancestors, usually in the form of peppermint schnapps or a token fee to the local chief.
Culture comes alive in the annual colorful festivals, serving to purify the ancestral 'stool' (sacred piece of furniture), cleanse communities of evil, venerate the ancestors, and supplicate the deities for prosperity and unity.
The central region hosts the Pan-African Historical Theatre Festival (Panafest), a major biannual event designed as a cultural forum for Africans, people of African descent, and friends of the Continent. The castle courtyards provide a dramatic setting for traditional and modern performances held as part of this grand occasion. Exhibitions, workshops, audio-visual presentations, colorful durbars of the chiefs, and other social and recreational events fill the Panafest schedule held in December of even-numbered years.
Opportunities to view drumming, dancing, firing of musketry, performance of war dances by Asafo (traditional militia) companies, and the processions and sitting-in-state of chiefs in full regalia abound at other major festivals. Chiefs, adorned in rich kente cloth and bedecked in gold, are paraded through town in 'palanquins' shaded by large, colorful parasols.
The new year begins in the town of Elmina with Edina Buronya, a native version of Christmas commemorating a period of purification and remembering of the dead (first Thursday). A game hunt, testing bravery and strength between two traditional warrior groups, is the centerpiece of Aboakyir in Winneba (first Saturday in May), with the catch presented to the chiefs. The regatta of canoes and solemn net casting ceremony, part of Bakatue in Elmina, which celebrates the beginning of the fishing season (first Tuesday in July), is also awe inspiring.
Beach lovers can truly relax along the expansive coastline. With 12 hours of sunshine practically guaranteed year round, and a surf that varies seasonally from calm to sizeable waves, Ghana's beaches have something for everyone. Brenu Beach near Elmina is a long stretch of palm-fringed virgin beach perfect for swimming, picnics, or leisurely strolls. Winneba Beach, nearer Accra, has developed hotel and restaurant facilities, and Gomoa Feteh Beach, just off the main highway, is a lovely and undisturbed locale with a mild surf.
Recreation is not limited to traditional sea and sand activities. Local travel agents arrange sport fishing for barracuda and other game fish using indigenous canoes. Other seaworthy boats provide a dramatic view of the castles from the ocean. The shoreline is a major wintering ground for coastal birds. Local watercraft can be hired to cruise the natural environment of estuaries, lagoons, and mangrove swamps.
At local markets, Batik-clad women with babies strapped on their backs skillfully balance loaded baskets on their heads, defying gravity. In the endless wave of buyers and sellers, one hears voices everywhere engaged in bargaining for foodstuffs, textiles, and a colorful array of goods. In the evening, the beat of Ghanaian music in outdoor restaurants and local nightclubs is irresistible.
Ancient Ashanti: Kingdom of Gold, Pomp and Pageantry
capitol of the ancient Kingdom of Asante, lies in the midst of gold, history and culture. Founded in 1695 by King Osei Tutu, the city of Kumasi and its environs are replete with forts, museums, churches and the best in culture, pomp and pageantry. The region is also home to the UK and US listed gold mining company, Ashanti Goldfields, located at Obuasi, 50 km. south of Kumasi.
Abundant attractions in the region include both the natural environment heritage and historical/cultural heritage.
The area teams with forest reserves, bird and wildlife sanctuaries, parks and geological formations. Historical sites in Kumasi include the Manhyia Palace Museum, Prempeh II Jubilee Museum, the Center for National Culture and the Kumasi Fort and Museum.
The Okomfo Anokye Sword is also located in Kumasi. Legend has it that the sword was driven into the ground by the Chief Priest of the Asante Kingdom, Okomfo Anokye, and no mortal strength has been able to uproot it since the 17th century.
A multitude of artisans work in the area producing Kente cloth, pottery, wood carving, adinkra cloth, beads, brass items, gold and silver jewelry and handwoven garments.
Hotels are plentiful and prices are lower than in the capital, Accra.
Among Ghana's other regional attractions is Nsuleso, a lakeside village on stilts in the Western Region where life goes on in the center of Lake Tadane. The excursion from Beyin involves a walk through the reeds at the lake's edge and a trip in a dugout canoe to the village. They welcome visitors every day except Thursday, a sacred day. The western region is famous for some of the best beaches in Ghana, far less developed and more secluded.
Lake Volta, the centerpiece of a natural resource haven with waterfalls, boating excursions and world-class game fishing on the Volta River estuary lies in the Eastern Region. Often referred to as 'the undiscovered tourist haven of Ghana,' the region offers dramatic landscapes, rivers, lakes and both Christian missionary and Ashanti Empire religious historical sites.
The Northern Region, with 16 different ethnic groups, is an agricultural region with over 70% of its two million population employed in agriculture. Spectacular Mole National Park is here, offering savannah and riverine forests with more than 90 mammal species including elephant, buffalo, lion, leopard, antelopes and primates and about 300 bird species.
The region's Larabanga Mosque is the largest of the ancient Sudanic style mosques in Ghana. Damba, originally celebrated by Muslims to mark the birth of Mohammed on the 12th day of the third month of the lunar calendar, has taken a traditional rather than Islamic tone. The festival is full of pageantry and showmanship and is celebrated by most ethnic groups in northern Ghana.
Guides and Getting There
'Guide to Ghana'(1998, Bradt Publications, UK, and Globe Pequot Press, USA) is an excellent, comprehensive guide by Philip Briggs, an African specialist. He thoroughly covers all geographical areas, as well as background information, planning, health and safety, maps and photos and further reading. He finds Ghana difficult to flaw, and recommends the country without reservation to even the most nervous first-time traveler for being amiable, affordable and as hassle-free as any country in Africa.
Ghana Airways started twice-weekly, (Sunday and Wednesday), direct service on July 5th between BWI and Accra, opening the carrier's 13-city African route structure to Washington area travelers. BWI-Accra fares start at about $800 round trip. (800) 404-4262. All major European carriers connect to Ghana from their European gateways, particularly from London. Intercity travel within Ghana is excellent, whether by air, road or rail.