World's most marvellous markets
3rd December 2019
Ghana is a land of traditions, towering forests and tributaries. The Volta snakes across it, tying rural and urban together and creating unforgettable landscapes as it goes. The cities are buzzing with life - colourful markets and busy street food stalls clamour for attention, overlaid with the rhythms of Afrobeat music. Outside of the urban centres life hums quietly and villages continue their traditional way of life, unchanged across the centuries.
Ghana is home to over 100 indigenous groups, the largest of which are the Akan, Moshi-Dagbani, Ewe and Ga. Within each group there are hundreds of sub-groups and all of them celebrate their own festivals and traditions alongside national holidays. One of the most important celebrations is Homowo which takes place in Accra every May. Homowo, which translates as ‘hooting at hunger’, is mainly observed by the Ga people and gives thanks for the harvest. There are folk song and dance performances and a traditional dish called Kpekpele, made from fermented corn meal, palm oil and smoked fish, is sprinkled by the Ga chiefs as an offering to their ancestors.
Further north in Ashanti, the most populated region in Ghana, you will find some of the country’s most unique and intriguing cultural traditions. Ashanti has its own monarch and was independent from Ghana until 1957 when it entered into a formal state union. As a result, the region still observes its own festivals and practices to acknowledge its distinct traditions. The Akwasidae festival, which takes place on a Sunday every six weeks, is one of the most important. Akwasidae honours personal and community ancestors and begins with a large gathering known as ‘Akom’. Ashanti people, a subgroup of the Akan, gather together for drumming, dancing and singing and to make food offerings to their ancestors. Many head to the Manhyia Palace in Kumasi - where the King resides - as on this day he mixes with his subjects and leads a procession in the palace grounds.
Outside of festival seasons, it is possible to visit rural villages and settlements across the country to learn more about traditional ways of life. Atsiekpoe, a Ewe fishing community on the banks of the Volta River, is one of the most accessible. Our local experts in Ghana have started a community based project there to help the villagers harness tourism as a force for good. During a visit, it is possible to take part in basket weaving, fishing and cooking classes or to hike one of the surrounding walking trails. Visitors will get to meet the chief and the villagers and will have the opportunity to learn more about daily life in a rural Ghanaian settlement.
Thanks to its well preserved forts and castles, Ghana offers an unparalleled insight into the long, tumultuous history of colonisation and the slave trade. Opposing structures dotted along the coastline document the losses of the nation but also its indomitable spirit and will. They were predominantly constructed between 1482 and 1786 to link trade routes established by the Portuguese. Ghana, then known as the Gold Coast due to the vast quantities of gold found in its mines, became the site of a 400 year power struggle between European powers as they sought to establish dominance. From the mid 1500s, the settlers’ interests turned to the slave trade and the castles and forts began to serve a more sinister purpose. Captured slaves were kept within their walls as they prepared to be transported to the New World. An estimated 6 million slaves were shipped from West Africa alone and 10-15% perished on the journey, never making it to their final destination.
Since the abolition of slavery in the early 1800s, the castles and forts have become physical reminders of this dark episode in human history. One of the most visited is Cape Coast Castle, about 90 miles to the west of Accra. The structure and its adjoining museum are recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and visitors can tour the building with a local guide to learn more about the castle’s role in slaving history. Just a few miles to the west of Cape Coast in the town of Elmina you will find St George’s Castle. Built by the Portuguese in 1482, the castle was the first European building in Sub Saharan Africa and rapidly established itself as an important gold trading outpost. As the years wore on, St George (like Cape Coast Castle) became a centre of the slave trade. It fell into disuse after abolition until Ghana’s independence in 1957, when it was converted into the museum it is today.
Home to incredible street food, live music and eclectic museums, Accra is Ghana’s beating heart. While many visitors bypass it all together, preferring to head straight to the rural regions of the country, it is worth taking some time to explore the bustling streets of the capital.
Ghana was the first sub-Saharan country to gain independence, becoming a republic in 1957. This is a point of national pride and Accra is home to Independence Square and the National Museum which commemorate the historic journey. The museum is split into archaeology, ethnography and art and offers a fascinating insight into Ghana’s indigenous groups and their heritage. From there, head south to the coastal region of the city and explore the Jamestown neighbourhood. The area hosts eclectic markets, colonial architecture and an annual street art festival that has helped it become a symbol of modern Ghana. While you are there, climb to the top of the area’s iconic lighthouse and enjoy a panoramic view over the city. From there, head to Jamestown Cafe, a coffee house, art gallery and music venue, to discover local handicrafts and sample a strong cup of coffee.
If you are looking for something a little different, head to the far west of the city and visit the Kane Kwei Carpentry Workshop. This small, family owned business has carved a niche for itself in recent decades by creating ‘fantasy coffins’. Commissioners request caskets in different shapes and sizes - limited only by their imagination - and talented craftsmen bring the designs to life. Hundreds of them are shipped annually to expat Ghanaians and collectors across the globe. You can take a tour of the workshop and meet Eric Adjetey Anang, the grandson of the eponymous Kane Kwei, who has kept the trade alive. Expect to see caskets in the shape of animals, bibles, coke bottles, shoes, cars and everything in between!
Ghana’s 350 miles of coastline are home to some of the finest beaches in West Africa. With their nodding palms, white sand beaches and clear blue waters, it’s surprising that these coastal havens have not found their way onto the average tourist itinerary. Many of them are still local secrets and offer a perfect retreat from the buzz of the cities.
While beaches can be found within the coastal capital, they tend to be more lively. Labadi Beach is especially popular with locals and visitors alike and offers delicious street food, live music and late night bonfire parties. If you are short on time but looking to escape the hustle and bustle, it is worth travelling to Anomabo, a small fishing village close to Cape Coast. Its white sand beaches fringed with palm trees are some of the cleanest in the country and it is possible to arrange canoe trips with the local fishermen. Between February and April, leatherback turtles return to the shore to lay their eggs so wildlife enthusiasts should bear these months in mind when planning their trip.
Those seeking total peace and isolation should travel to Axim, a small village in the far west of the country. There they will find Ankobra Beach - a 6km stretch of sand where the ocean and the rainforest meet. It is possible to organise fishing expeditions, cycling trips to the surrounding villages and surfing lessons, or you can simply enjoy the peace and tranquility of one of Ghana’s most beautiful beach resorts.
Although Ghana is not known for its wildlife, its landscapes and parks cannot go unmentioned. Heading west out of Accra along the coastal road brings travellers to Kakum National Park, a tropical forest reserve. Kakum is unique not only in its biodiversity, but also in its foundation. Rather than gaining reserve status due to pressure from the state or government, it was created by the local people. As a result, the park’s populations of forest elephants, leopards, pangolins and primates have been relatively well protected. There are multiple hiking trails snaking through the forest or you can head up into the trees on the canopy walkway. These rope bridges suspended 30 metres above the ground offer incredible views of the forest and its inhabitants from a whole new vantage point.
For those with more time to spend in the country, it is worth making the journey north to Mole National Park. Its dense savanna plains are home to 93 species of mammal and offer one of the best value safari experiences in Africa. A game drive there can offer sightings of elephant, hippo, buffalo, lion and primates, as well as 140 species of bird. Walking and river boat safaris can also be arranged for those wanting to get to know the park from a new perspective.
Make it happen
If the ancient cultures, vibrant cities and peaceful beaches of Ghana have appealed to you, then don’t hesitate to get in touch with our local experts in the region. They know the country like the back of their hand and would be more than happy to help plan your bespoke Ghana itinerary. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.