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Why you need to visit Accra, Ghana

Why you need to visit Accra, Ghana

Accra, the capital of Ghana, offers a growing art scene, a fascinating history—and a very warm welcome

A summit of West African leaders has just wrapped at the Kempinski Hotel Gold Coast City Accra, but its regal air seems more-or-less permanent: glass ribbon chandeliers, an executive lounge, a spa that spans three floors. It’s 2021. When I was last in the Ghanaian capital ten years ago, working for a regional NGO, this swath of the Victoriaborg neighborhood was a relatively barren, colonial-era racecourse; hotels like this didn’t exist in Accra.

In 2019, Ghana hosted the Year of Return, inviting those with roots here to visit, 400 years after the first enslaved Africans arrived in the United States. The country welcomed more than 1.1 million overseas visitors, who took the opportunity to discover the history and beauty of the former British colony. In 2020, Ghana marked a new decade—Beyond the Return—and there’s never been a better time to visit, starting with vibrant Accra.

My room affords me a view of players in an amateur men’s soccer league working up a sweat on a school field, and rising beyond it is the Black Star Square Independence Arch, sort of like Accra’s Arc de Triomphe. 

Keen to get a closer look, I descend seven floors—spotting men in shiny kaftans and skullcaps who I think are lingering Senegalese officials—and walk for ten minutes along pot-holed red-earth sidewalks to Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park and Mausoleum, which honor Ghana’s first prime minister and president.

Accra, Ghana, cental building surrounded by water at Kwame Nkrumah Park

Cental building surrounded by water at Kwame Nkrumah Park

Previously a polo club for colonizing Brits, nowadays the seaside grounds are a flourishing symbol of Pan-Africanism, where presidents from across the continent have planted trees over the years. (Nelson Mandela’s is a mango tree.)

“Nkrumah chose this place for our independence speech in 1957 as a way to spite the British,” a Memorial Park guide tells me.

I ask if he has ever tasted Mandela’s mangoes, and he smiles. “Several.”

The guide shows me the adjoining museum’s artifacts, including the former president’s baby grand pianos and first editions of the 14 books he wrote—mostly on Pan-Africanism. One attention-grabbing title: Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare.

Nkrumah’s resting place is a gray Italian marble tower with a black star at the top—it’s a powerful symbol of unity that also appears on Ghana’s flag and inspired the name of the national football team. I mosey around the mausoleum’s moat to ogle the baby-blue Cadillac given to Nkrumah by John F Kennedy in 1961, which, flat tire notwithstanding, looks to be well-preserved, despite the coast’s eternally 25-degree muggy weather.

"The museum’s artifacts include the former president’s baby grand pianos and first editions of the 14 books he wrote"

Speaking of which, I could really use a cold drink. A short walk brings me to the coastline and Osikan Ocean Rock Retreat Centre. I climb a stunning yellow staircase to an open-air restaurant looking out over the colorful fishing boats in the harbor. 

After a pineapple soda and grilled chicken with vegetables, I hop a cab to Sotto Zerro Gelateria, which is owned by Baron Okai, a former Ghana Airways pilot who detoured to gelato school in Bologna, Italy, in 2016. I opt for his most Ghanaian offering: a cashew, almond, and coffee cone. 

I stroll to The Galleria, Accra’s first luxury mall, which opened in 2019. The first thing I see upon entering is two statues make of wood and fabric: a seven-foot-tall octopus and a human-size catfish. With only a handful of retail tenants, this glitzy space has become more of an air-conditioned community promenade that includes six artist studios, part of Gallery 1957’s residency program. Its British director, Victoria Cooke, is dedicated to elevating West African artists here and abroad, and now manages four locations: three in Accra, one in London.

Accra, Ghana, Gallery 1957 director Victoria Cook (right) with artist Afia Prempeh

Gallery 1957 director Victoria Cook (right) with artist Afia Prempeh

“Until five years ago, there wasn’t much of an arts infrastructure here,” Cooke says. Every year, she showcases the works of an elder. One of them is Paa Joe, a woodworker known for making elaborately carved caskets, sometimes in the shape of animals, which have been shown in the British Museum in London, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Brooklyn Museum in New York. 

The gallery also features work by up-and-comers, many of whom focus on everyday people. I peek into the studio of 34-year-old Afia Prempeh, who is from the inland city of Kumasi. Surrounded by open tubes of oil paint and rolled up canvases, she is hard at work on a huge portrait

Later, I venture south, towards the coast, and explore Accra’s Labone neighborhood. There, to end my first day of exploring, I stop in at an eatery and sample a cocktail made with rum, sobolo (a drink infused with dried hibiscus leaves), and lime juice. It’s bright and refreshing—not unlike my first day here.

A "Made in Ghana" movement

The next morning I’m taking a shared taxi to my new digs, a boutique hotel in Osu. When I was here ten years ago, this easterly district, jammed with night spots, worldly restaurants, and boutiques, was the place to be—and that’s still the case today. 

In search of a place to grab a coffee, I stroll to Osu’s buzzy Oxford Street. Ghanaians lament the fact that their raw materials, such as coffee beans, are far too often shipped to Western countries for processing and packaging, then sold back to Ghanaians. Change, however, seems to be afoot. 

At the charmingly hidden Jamestown Coffee Warehouse, I amble by walls lined with “Made In Ghana”–emblazoned sacks of beans that were grown in Volta, a region in eastern Ghana bordering on Togo. I order the Warehouse Waffle and an iced latté. A 20-something guy behind a laptop at the adjacent table inquires about the Wi-Fi password. “NoToDecaf,” the waiter replies.

Accra, Ghana, Jamestown Coffee Warehouse

Jamestown Coffee Warehouse

Perhaps even wittier are the zeitgeisty T-shirts for sale in Osu’s Lokko House boutique. “It kind of started as a joke back when my Israeli partner at the time wanted a T-shirt that said ‘Chale Why?’” says 43-year-old proprietor Stefania Manfreda. (The phrase, used in Ghana constantly, translates to something like, “Dude, what the heck?”) “That was 2008, when there was virtually nothing to make Accra look cool—no cinemas, no sexy restaurants,” adds the long-time Osu resident. 

I grab an Uber and head west along the Atlantic coastline to meet my guide for the afternoon, Elvis Wallace-Bruce, a native Accranian who tells me that is actually his real name. “My parents loved Elvis,” he says as we pile into his Toyota Corolla and head to the district of Jamestown. “You have to be very careful when driving through here,” he says. “We do everything out on the street. Cook, sell, play.”

"It seems the past and present are constantly colliding here"

The lively scene makes our next destination all the more poignant. Old Accra’s UNESCO-listed Ussher Fort, built by the Dutch in 1649, was the exit point for many people who were sold into slavery. The museum’s security guard, Moses Anaba, leads us to a courtyard. “This is the market where Dutch masters would stand above and point down to the Africans they wanted. After they buy them, it’s …” Anaba pauses, motioning westward, “to the sea.” 

I ask whether any of his ancestors met this fate. “Many, many,” he replies. 

In the Ussher Fort Slave Museum, supported in part by the Dutch government, the transatlantic slave trade is depicted with artifacts such as an excavated branding iron, and neck and hand bonds. A diorama details a slave ship, the Fredensborg, the wreckage of which was discovered off the coast of Norway in 1974.

On the museum’s wrap-around terrace, I take in the panoramic view of the city and waterfront. A couple of cranes dot Jamestown’s ancient fishing harbor, where shirtless fishermen are pulling their colorful canoes ashore. It seems the past and present are constantly colliding here.

A must-have souvenir

It’s the next day and my suitcase is being flung onto the roof of a Labadi Beach–bound tro-tro. These multi-colored vans are Ghana’s liveliest mode of transport. Every respectable tro-tro driver adheres a motivational or religious slogan to his vehicle. This one says, “No Food for Lazy Man.”

We speed along Labadi Road, blowing by a stalled tro-tro that reads, “God Is My Seatbelt.” A few minutes later we pass a man riding a horse, his feet bare in the stirrups.

Labadi Beach Hotel sits on one of Accra’s most attractive beaches. At its restaurant I fuel up on traditional egg stew (eggs simmered with tomato purée and chilis and served alongside boiled yams) before going for a quick ocean dip. Then I take an Uber down the coast to the country’s largest craft market, known as the Arts Center.

"At the Best Way Art & Drums Shop, I see a dozen in-progress djembes lining the walls and concrete floor"

I brave the mayhem and mostly harmless pushiness of the bead and kente cloth vendors. This textile is the most globally identifiable example of Ghanaian artistry, and the reams here are awe-inspiring: brilliant hues of red, orange, yellow, and blue silk and cotton are woven into blocks of Tetris-looking patterns. The cloth was historically worn by festive-feeling Asante men in toga-esque silhouettes, but these days it gets incorporated into everything from flip-flops to tote bags.

At the Best Way Art & Drums Shop, I step through the barn door-like entrance of a blue metal shipping container and see a dozen in-progress djembes—the most popular percussion instrument in West Africa—lining the walls and concrete floor. A drum teacher is mid-lesson, creating hollow, round pangs and booms that reverberate through the shop. 

Accra, Ghana, Best Way Art & Drum Shop

Best Way Art & Drums Shop

At the back, I find the design carver, Jah B, who etches village scenes and traditional Ghanaian adinkra symbols into the tweneboa (“drum tree”) wood he acquires from Akan chiefs in the country’s eastern region. I need one for myself. 

“These days, lots of customers are requesting I carve the sankofa symbol, which means ‘it's important to learn from the past,’” Jah tells me. I buy a djembe and ask him to carve onto it a horse—I’ve seen many here—as well as the Akan tribe’s gye nyame symbol of God’s omnipotence. It’s a marking I have noticed throughout Ghana.

Ending the trip with a beach party

I drop my prize back at my hotel and, the horse carving fresh in my mind, go in search of a ride. On Labadi Beach, I spot a grinning, flip-flop-wearing horseman straight away. Kobby and his white steed, Georgina, have been in the beach-ride biz for three years. “Need a ride?” he asks. I hop on and hope God is indeed my seatbelt. We saunter into the laid-back side of the neighborhood to Sandbox Beach Club. 

It’s a largely open-air affair with a football-field-wide pergola adjacent to the sea. The food is similarly breezy: I enjoy a hummus wrap with tomatoes and marinated vegetables. I also order prawn tacos with brown rice for my horseman, a thank-you for his offer to return after dinner.

Horseback riding on Labadi Beach

Horseback riding on Labadi Beach

Just as I’m polishing off a cocktail featuring Alomo Gold (a popular and potent herbal bitters), the South Africa-based dance-music duo Major League Diz bound up the beach stairs. One wears a sweatshirt that says “Ghana Sexiness.” Suddenly, it’s a full-on party.

After a couple of bass-thumping numbers, I’m ready for a quieter end to my night. Labadi locals are swarming toward a beach bonfire and clinking together Star beers. I contemplate joining some strangers in a toast, but here are Kobby and Georgina, ready to take me home. 

So I ride to my hotel under the stars, grateful for the last three days, and take stock. While this country has evolved and grown in myriad ways over the last decade, one unchanged element is Ghanaians’ relaxed, friendly ethos that makes you feel at home. 

From Hemispheres Magazine for United Airlines (September 1, 2023), Copyright © 2021 by Ink for United Airlines

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