I was in Accra in the last week of September. This visit was quite unexpectedly proposed to me back in August and I enthusiastically accepted it. Ghana is not a typical destination and I did not want to miss the opportunity to travel to West Africa. I was in Africa once before, I spent two weeks in Egypt in November 2007. I went to Cairo and I also did a cruise on the river Nile, from Luxor to Aswan. That trip included many fascinating places – from ancient pyramids, temples and surreal landscapes to the modern day Egypt, all so different to what I was used to in Europe.
1. VISA FOR GHANA
Ghana is not an easy country to travel to. Apart from a handful of neighbouring countries, everyone else needs a visa. Many other countries also have visa requirements and there is nothing unusual about it. But, many other countries have adopted a modern visa processing system. You can either obtain an electronic visa or you simply get a visa on arrival.
In case of Ghana, the procedure is slightly more conservative. First, you have to apply on line and you receive an application number. The next step is to book an appointment, at the available date and time (at 2 hourly slots). You must present yourself at the allocated time, otherwise the whole process must start again.
I went to the Ghana High Commission in London, as per my appointment schedule. I had to wait for approximately 2 hours before they called me, as there were already many people in the queue. The visa officer thoroughly checked all my documents: my passport and its validity, the letter of invitation, my hotel booking, the return flight and two photographs. I paid £60 for the visa. I received a new appointment 10 working days later, to collect my passport and my freshly issued Ghanaian visa.
There is nothing extraordinary about all this, but this whole process does not allow you to spontaneously travel to Ghana. It also prevents meaningful development of the tourist industry that would greatly benefit the country. In other words, if someone wants to travel to a tropical country like Ghana and they have to go through all this, while at the same time they can go without a visa to another tropical country such as Thailand, which at the same time has a highly developed tourist infrastructure, most people would clearly choose Thailand.
It’s a pity, because Ghana has a potential to be a true “tropical paradise” destination, especially with its all year round warm climate. I hope that things will change in the future. But, it all depends on political will to properly open the country. Ghana is very interesting and so different from usual travel destinations.
2. JOURNEY TO GHANA
There is a direct daily flight from London to Accra. Flying time is exactly 6 hours. The plane took 2 hours to reach the Algerian coast and 4 hours from there to Accra. That distance does not seem that big when you look on a map, but in fact, it is enormous. The plane flew over Algeria, Mali and Burkina Faso before reaching Ghana. Views of Sahara were absolutely magnificent, an endless desert!
3. ABOUT GHANA
Ghana is located in West Africa, along the Gulf of Guinea, on the Atlantic Ocean. The first permanent state in the territory of present day Ghana dates back to the 11th century. Numerous kingdoms and empires emerged over the centuries, of which the most powerful was the Kingdom of Ashanti. Starting with the 15th century, numerous European powers contested the area for trading rights. By the late 19th century the British ultimately established control of the coast. Ghana’s current borders were established early in the 20th century, as British Gold Coast. It became an independent state on 6 March 1957.
Ghana has 29 million people of different ethnic, linguistic and religious background. It has a diverse geography, from coastal savannas to tropical rain forests. Geographically, Ghana is closer to the centre of Earth than any other country. As per World Bank, Ghana’s GDP per capita in 2017 was – US$ 1490.
4. ABOUT ACCRA
Accra is the capital and the largest city of Ghana with approximately 2.30 million people, which means that it is a rather big city. The city was formed when distinct settlements around former colonial forts merged: Jamestown, Usshertown and Christiansborg (Osu). They are now the oldest part of Accra. Accra was the capital of British Gold Coast between 1877 and 1957.
There is a very visible disparity between old settlements and newly developed suburban areas. Accra’s older parts barely have sufficient infrastructure. On the contrary, newer parts boast services and infrastructure that cater for the needs of the middle and the higher income earners. In fact, when you move across the city you notice that almost all side roads are dirt roads, especially in poorer areas. That was just one very obvious example.
There are three broad categories of housing in Accra: low-income, middle-income and high-income areas. The low-income housing areas include the oldest parts of Accra such as Jamestown, Usshertown and Osu. Before going to Accra, I wanted to learn more about the city that I was going to visit, so I also read about its colonial past.
I visited other countries with the colonial history, primarily in South America. They were all Spanish colonies. Putting aside all moral discussions about colonialism, each and every South American country that I visited had some valuable legacy left by the Spanish, that today benefits those countries. I am referring to colonial cities such as Cartagena in Colombia, Quito in Ecuador, Cusco in Peru and Sucre in Bolivia. The old colonial parts of these cities are beautiful and deservedly attract a lot of tourists. They generate a lot of money for the economy and the local population. At least, something good from the colonial past.
I more or less expected the same in Accra. I was very wrong! There are perhaps several building from that era in Accra’s oldest parts, otherwise everything is just low-income housing or slums. It is a shocking realisation, especially if you consider how much wealth the British extracted, while they left almost nothing in return.
Approximately 58% of Accra’s population lives in slums. Most of Accra’s informal businesses are in these low-income areas. Also, these areas are almost completely built up, with little room for expansion, especially in the oldest parts of the city.
In Accra’s middle-income areas, housing is in a better condition. These are usually planned developments, but still in need of infrastructure services. Approximately 32% of Accra’s population lives in these areas of the city.
The high-income areas for the remaining 10% of the population are well planned and have developed infrastructure. In a photo below you can see the luxury Airport Residential Area and a small slum in the forefront of the photo. The wealth disparity is very visible. I have previously seen something similar in Egypt. Bolivia, one of the poorest South American countries, seems much better in this respect.
5. ARRIVING TO ACCRA
Accra’s airport is Kotoka International Airport. A week before my arrival, they opened a brand new terminal building. This modern new airport is the same as any other major international airport. But, that initial experience and familiarity that the airport building projects somewhat softens the impact once you leave the airport.
Before the passport control, they asked all western looking travellers to show the yellow fever certificate. I did my yellow fever vaccine back in 2012 and I had my certificate with me. I showed it to the official before they allowed me to go to the passport control area. But, I don’t know what happens with people that arrive without it. Anyhow, yellow fever is endemic in West Africa and anyone travelling to that part of the world should be vaccinated. Yellow fever is a very serious and potentially deadly disease.
The passport control was another interesting and rather entertaining experience. The new airport is equipped with the super modern technology. They took my photo and also my fingerprints – all 10 of them. The whole procedure was a bit too long, as the immigration official had to scan all documents. He hardly had any time to check me properly. In the end, everything was done and I entered Ghana.
6. ACCOMMODATION IN ACCRA
I stayed in a very nice 4 star Golden Tulip hotel, on Liberation Road. The hotel is 5 minutes by car from the airport and as it was already dark when I arrived, I did not see very much. Golden Tulip is a very nice hotel, with hints of colonial charm. It also has a big swimming pool which I used every day. There was a buffet dinner every evening, offering a vast choice of various Ghanaian food. I did my best to try as many different dishes as possible. The breakfast was also excellent. The hotel is a very good choice to stay in Accra.
To visit the city, I used the car service provided by the hotel. The cost depends on how long you stay out, on average it works out 100 cedis per hour. In my opinion this was reasonable, the driver was also my tourist guide and explained to me various things along the way. He told me a bit about the Ghanaian history and the current affairs and also about the life in the country. The most important historical part of the city is the Jamestown area, which contains the Ussher Fort, the James Fort and the Osu Castle that I visited.
7. OSU CASTLE
The Osu Castle is on the Atlantic coast. Denmark-Norway built the first substantial fort in the 1660s. The castle changed hands between Denmark-Norway, Portugal, the Akwamu, Britain and modern day Ghana and it was rebuilt numerous times. It has been the seat of the government for the most of its history.
The Portuguese first occupied the area in 1550, but in the 17th century their influence diminished. The area came under the Swedish control in the 1650s. They built a small fortified lodge, in agreement with the then King of Accra.
The Netherlands took control of the area in 166o, but soon lost it to Denmark-Norway.
In its early life, the castle primarily served for gold and ivory trade, but the Danish-Norwegians increasingly used it for the slave trade. West Africa was the main source of slaves. Current estimates are that 12 million people were enslaved and shipped to Americas. You can visit the dungeons in the Osu Castle, where they kept the captured slaves, before they moved them to ships for transportation across the ocean. Especially sinister looking are the stairs leading to the dungeons. Whoever went down those stairs did not come back. In 1850, the British bought all of Denmark’s Gold Coast possessions, including the Osu Castle.
After the abolition of slavery, it was expensive to run the castle as it brought little benefit.
In the late 19th century the castle became the seat of the colonial government. When Ghana became independent in 1957, the fort became the Government House and the residence of the Governor-General. When Ghana became republic in 1960, it became the residence of Ghana’s first president.
The present castle has an unorthodox shape and various extensions to the original structure. It still accommodates a permanent garrison.
The extensive gardens feature a wide variety of plants and serve for president’s outdoor receptions and parties. The Osu Castle is now open to the public.
8. INDEPENDENCE SQUARE
Black Star Square, also known as Independence Square, is a public square commissioned by Kwame Nkrumah in 1961, to honour the visit of Queen Elizabeth II.
9. KWAME NKRUMAH MAUSOLEUM
The Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum is dedicated to the prominent Ghanaian leader. It is in the historical part of Accra, very close to Jamestown and Usshertown.
The mausoleum houses bodies of Kwame Nkrumah and his wife Fathia Nkrumah. It represents an upside down sword which in the Akan culture symbolises peace. The mausoleum is made of Italian marble. The black star on the top represents unity.
The mausoleum is surrounded by water, which symbolises life and it conveys a sense of immortality for the father of the nation. It shows that even in death, he lives in the hearts and the minds of present and future generations.
Kwame Nkrumah was a Ghanaian politician and revolutionary. He was the first prime minister and the president of Ghana. He led Gold Coast to independence from Britain in 1957. Queen Elizabeth II remained sovereign over Ghana from 1957 to 1960. In March 1960, he announced plans for a new constitution which would make Ghana a republic, headed by a president with broad executive and legislative powers.
In April 1960, after presidential elections and a referendum on the constitution, Ghana became a republic and Nkrumah its elected president. Those events marked the end of British oppression.
10. IS ACCRA SAFE?
I was moving around Accra by car. Ghana is considered to be the safest country in West Africa. When I asked different people whether it would be safe for me walk on my own, I received different advice. Some people told me that it was perfectly safe, while the others strongly suggested that I do not go anywhere alone, especially after dark.
As I was in Accra for the first time, it was difficult for me to judge. True, when you move around the city, you see a very uniform society. There are no foreigners or differently looking people. Perhaps, once or twice I saw some western tourists near the tourist sites. However, I don’t know whether they arrived there by car or whether they walked. In any case, if you come from any other continent you are bound to look different and to stand out. Whether that’s good or bad, I can’t tell, perhaps if I go back to Accra again I will get a better idea.
11. MY THOUGHTS ABOUT ACCRA
While Accra does not have many impressive monuments or sites that you find in other places and especially in European cities, for me the whole city was one extremely impressive attraction. That was maybe because I was there for the first time. The city is different, vibrant and colourful. However, being confronted with such poverty becomes overwhelming after a while, especially the extent of it. That so many people live in such conditions is heart breaking. I can only hope that the future economic progress in Ghana will elevate as many people as possible from the abject poverty.
I was petrified when I saw a big billboard that advertised products against mosquitoes that spread malaria! I live on a continent where there is no malaria. In Ghana, malaria is very much present and it affects many people. Apparently, there is no malaria in Accra and I haven’t seen a single mosquito during my stay. I took doxycycline as a precaution, but I stopped as soon as I left Ghana. Once I saw a person that suffers from lymphatic filariasis, which is another tropical disease and that was very disturbing.
I would like to go back to Ghana, but next time I would also like to visit other parts of the country. Perhaps a game reserve or a national park. I spoke with many people during my stay in Accra and each and every time the conversation was very spontaneous, friendly and relaxed, something not so easily experienced in Europe. I come from a nation with a very friendly mentality, but I think that the people in Ghana are much friendlier.
It was an excellent experience and whoever happens to go to Ghana and to Accra will certainly enjoy it. Perhaps, it is not the easiest destination, but from time to time it is good to come out from our comfort zone and to experience something completely atypical and different. Accra is certainly very unique!