Smart-travelling through Accra, Ghana’s capital city requires a know-how
While growing up, there used to be a popular Yoruba saying with regard to Ghanaians: Kos’arugbo n’Ghana––to wit, “There is no unfashionable person in Ghana.” The statement still rings true today. I won’t explain any further. Find out yourself.
Ghana hardly changes. There is not going to be much gap between the experience of someone who lived in the country in the 1960s and that of someone who lived there in the new Millennium. They are not easily amenable to change, the Ghanaians. Even the physical layouts of their cities are still as identifiable as the days of Nkrumah.
Accra, the capital city, is still a melting pot it was during Nkrumah’s time when it was the epicentre of pan-Africanism. Half a century after the Alien Compliance Order sent other nationalities out of the country, today’s Accra has a mélange of foreign nationals: Nigerians, Burkinabes, Togolese, Ivorians, Sierra Leoneans, Liberians and Guineans. This diversity adds colour and zing to the everyday life in Accra. It engenders a cosmopolitan culture that imbues the foreigners with a sense of belonging.
There are many facets to the Ghanaian life and the briefest of stay in the capital leaves you with indelible impressions. A Nigerian staying beyond a few days will need to make some adjustments, though. Truth is, we are different in many ways, the Ghanaians and us. They are not loud. They don’t like loud music. They don’t brag. This is especially important if you are a Lagosian.
I love their sense of enjoyment. Ghanaians abhor stress. They make an effort not to complicate their lives. Unlike Nigerians who work nonstop, Ghanaians, if they work in an office, strictly observed the one-hour midday break. In the evening, they take time off to enjoy. On holidays, they stay indoors. It took me awhile to get used to it.
If you are doing Accra as a tourist, you need to have a head for the good time and a taste for good music. Remember, Ghanaians have a claim to being the exponents of highlife music before Nigerians usurped it and turned into something bigger. Ghana still has a hold on live band music, and +233 Jazz Bar and Grill is the place to have a taste of the real thing, especially whenever Gyedu-Blay Ambolley comes to town. Ambolley has a jazz ensemble that included a terrific horn player that is a Nigerian. The Ghanaian jazz-highlife maestro usually caps his performance with a rendition of one or two of Fela’s song.
Still on music, activities at the Alliance Francaise every month bring a cocktail of cosmopolitan melodies and performance from Francophone countries and other faraway places. The Ghanaians maintained a modicum of the European entertainment culture that will appeal to the bourgeoisie in you. Once in a while, a stage play comes up at the national theatre by seasoned playwrights such as Ebo Whyte or versatile entertainers like the musician Okyeame Kwame whose repertoire includes opera-like plays. Downtown Accra, at Nkrumah Circle, Vienna City, a bar-club-restaurant outfit that is the centre of gravity for fun seekers, sizzles in the evening.
The city has no shortage of clubs––from Hotgossip Night Club to Django Bar to Club Onyx––they are as good as they come. Neat, not seedy; organised and upscale, and good places for a nice evening timeout. There is no negative ring about clubbing in Accra.
If you have a day or two to spare, it will be a great idea to familiarise yourself with the popular sights of the city. Start with Mokola market at Accra Central. It is a sprawling market where you buy anything and everything, and tarry at Tudu, the neighbourhood of moneychangers that has a whiff of Lagos’ Idumota and a slice of Tudun Wada in Kaduna. Nearby Jamestown, with its lighthouse and its famous Wesley church where Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe tied the marital knots on April 4, 1936, is another place to visit. One of Ghana’s oldest town, it is peopled by the Ga whose cultural practices are related in some respect to the Yoruba. Nearby is Bukom, the centre of Ghana boxing culture.
Beach bums will find the Labadi Beach okay, but I have to tell you this: the best beaches are not in Accra.
If you are the “jolly good fellow” type who treasures a timeout in a bar over a bottle of beer or two, Ghana is your nirvana. There is a bar every one kilometre on the street. And beer is plenty and cheap and comes in varieties, from rice beer to cassava beer and Alomo to Akpetesi.
Bars, especially those on the road sell from tanks into tankards. If you are a teetotaller, ask for Alvaro or Club’s soft drinks, and soak in the fizzy aura of the bar.
You might have a little difficulty with food. Nigerians and Ghanaians are a world apart in their cuisines. Coming from a Nigerian background where there are varieties of local foods, you might have to make some adjustments to the ‘limited’ culinary options. Not every Nigerian will find Waakye or Kenkey and Banku good substitutes for Apu, Gari or Amala.
Whereas you are used to Egusi, Ogbono, Ewedu and Afang, what Ghanaians offer is okro soup, groundnut soup, palm nut soup and light soup. I love Ga Kenkey––because I was used to it in Nigeria. I lived on it. I love Waakye too, perhaps because both are served with Shito. Those days, whenever we were driven to appease our palate with Nigerian cuisine, House of Ovations Restaurant, owned by Otunba Dele Momodu, was the place to grab a plate of Gari or Semo and vegetable soup.
In general, life moves at a lazy tempo, quite unlike the turbo-charged living of Lagos. I guess that is why Ghanaians live up to 100 years. In Ghana, funeral is fun. The city empties at the weekend as they burrow into the hinterland for funeral ceremonies that easily become an assembly for Old Money families and the nouveau riches, whereby you get the Who’s Who of Ghana in one gathering. Nana Acheampong, my editor, took me to a few. The most memorable was in Ada.
Those days, we would to travel with the boot of his Toyota Camry loaded with hundreds of copies of Weekend Sun, which we sold at the events. The strategy was to get the people hooked on the obit pages and subsequently increases next week’s copy sales in those remote areas. We took off early on Saturday morning and on the evening of Sunday, we’d be back in Accra. That way, I got to know a lot of Ghanaian cities and towns across the Western and Central regions.
You can never be lost in the crowd in Accra if you are a Nigerian. Nigeria has a significant population in the city, the elite in East Legon, the masses in Kasoa.
There is no shortage of activities in the Nigerian communities. The Igbos maintained a strong presence numerically, commercially and culturally. I attended a few Igbo occasions, especially those organised by the Eze Igbo Ghana, and witnessed the riveting enactment of the tradition of breaking Kolanuts and the ‘rite of the garden eggs and groundnut.’
Good friends make Ghana groovy. I made lots of friends, but most of my friends were in Cape Coast. It is easier to make friends of Fanti, my opinion anyway. My friends were many. A few deserved mentioning––Edith de Vos, a German who runs the Baobab Home, she had lived in Nigeria, but didn’t really like the Lagos life and consequently swapped it for the serenity of Cape Coast; Augustine Addison, 70-year-old boxing buff and a Muhammad Ali fan, we became good friends and he gave me access to his mini-museum and library; James Biney, the newspaperman who all his life lived of selling dailies. There was David ‘Kalusha’ Abban, who became like a brother, and Stephen Forson, a father raising his two daughters singlehandedly; Forson, while studying in Germany, refused to take German history course because of Hitler.
In Accra, I lived in Kokoase, North Kaneshie. My neighbours––Jerry, Portia and Esenam––all young and single at the time; living among them was the easiest way to attune my ears to the Twi language.
You don’t have to miss church services if you are visiting Accra. A few Nigerian churches have made an in-road into the capital. While Ghanaians are largely Presbyterian, a slew of Pentecostal varieties, similar in character to those in Nigeria, are all over the city.
I have to tell you this: you have got to be comfortable with seeing signposts advertising the services of witchdoctors. Kwaku Bonsam, the most famous of them all is a celebrity of sorts, and he lends his voice to national issues. Consider him like Nigeria’s Sat Guru Maharaji, but he is more vocal. He talks about everything that is a burning issue. He even offered to help the Black Stars during the last World Cup, when he claimed to have bewitched Portugal ace, Cristiano Ronaldo, to stop him from scoring against Ghana in their group stage match.
You have to be aware of this: Ghana doesn’t treat crime with kid’s glove. It is a society of rights, built on efficient rule of law. And their criminal justice is as effective. Drink driving attracts six months imprisonment. Rape is not bailable. Operating a brothel or soliciting for sex is a grave offence. Smoking wee, a common vice, is unforgivable.
Let me also add: Accra might seem like a paradise, it has its hell as well. As a reporter, I had seen the underbelly of Accra. It’s not nice. It is as unkind as you can get in any mass society. Young girls who ran from home, especially from the northern region, lured by the attractions of the big city, ended up as Kaya yoo (porters), homeless, sleeping in the open. You would find them and other misfits in such slums like Sodom and Gomorrah (before its demolition) or Agbogboloshie, both digital dumping grounds, that make Lagos’ Ajegunle look like a mini London.
The teenagers are vulnerable and some in a year or two joined the teenage mothers’ brigade. I remember a girl of 19 we interviewed. She was from Yendi. She came to Accra to become a porter so she could raise money to pay her dowry.
Let me tell you the story of Louisa Weah. She was 19 at the time we met her while investigating teenage prostitution. She had a one-year-old daughter, Daniella. She kept her with a nanny whom she paid one cedi every evening when she went about the city selling sex. She returned home in the wee hours of the morning with about 30 cedis. She was a runaway kid from Cape Coast. Eight months later after the story, I ran into her at Circle. She was heavily pregnant.
“Who impregnated you again?”
She and her friends laughed.
“Oh, he is Nigerian,” said one of her friends.
“In Ghana, you don’t ask a young girl who is responsible for the pregnancy,” I was schooled.
Accra swarms with battalions of such ‘kids’ who ran away from home.
If you are in Accra in September, make it a duty to attend Chale Wote. It is Ghana’s annual street art festival, a cocktail of art, music, dance and performance on the streets. You are likely to mingle with local and international artists and patrons. It is an opportunity to immerse in a kaleidoscope of visual delights that include street painting, graffiti murals and photography. Other activities, including live street performances, extreme sports, film shows, a fashion parade, a music block party and recyclable design workshops have made Chale Wote irresistible in recent years.
On a day you feel bored, a stroll through Oxford Street in Osu will make your day. And if you are missing the bustle of Lagos, go to Nkrumah Circle and get lost in the stream of humanity milling about aimlessly.
My last visit wasn’t my best. I was locked indoors for 11 days, my head buried in transcribing and writing.
But I did have one memorable moment. A day before I returned to Lagos, I spent the evening with Acheampong in his house at Dansoman. Nana Acheampong is a literary encyclopedia, a creative dynamo––a writer, an academic, a music critic, a humourist, more American than Ghanaian in attitude. We spent three hours in his recording studio and thereafter sat in a bar by the sea.
The breeze was cool. The air tangy. I was filled with contentment, a feeling I have come to associate with Ghana.
Once you are content, that’s the good life, man.