The echoes of history, both glorious and horrific, live on in Ghana. Inland, in the city of Kumasi, the descendants of the great Kingdom of Ashanti preserve their spectacular traditions with pomp and ceremony. On the coast, formidable whitewashed forts testify to a darker aspect of the country’s past, for it was here millions of slaves were crammed into ships; their descendants are now scattered throughout the Americas and beyond.
Many come back to trace their origins. At Elmina Castle, built by the Portuguese in 1482, I mixed with a group of African Americans. Ostensibly they were tourists, though the impact of a tour within these chilling walls is more akin to pilgrimage.
We followed an articulate local guide down into the cool, humid dungeon where slave traders once branded and shackled hundreds of slaves. And then we followed the well-trodden route out into the blinding sunlight of the courtyard and across it, and through a rusty metal gate to the “door of no return.”
Atlantic breakers crashed on the rocks at the foot of the impregnable walls. We gazed out to the sharp line of the horizon and imagined the magnitude of the journey imposed on the people who shuffled from this door to the waiting ships, a voyage many did not survive.
Cape Coast, a short drive from Elmina, harbors the most imposing edifice of all. Built by the Swedes and then seized by the British in 1665, it exported around 70,000 slaves to the New World every year.
Collectively, Ghana’s slave forts received UNESCO World Heritage status. Strung along the coast — some in ruins, others restored; some in active use (Christiansborg Castle in Accra, for instance, is Ghana’s official seat of government), others preserved as museums — they testify to an appalling chapter of human history.
For more than 300 years, Ghana was known to foreign powers as the Slave Coast. After the abolition of slavery in the early 19th century, exploitation switched to a lustrous precious metal, and the country became the Gold Coast until independence.
Gold is just one of the natural riches of the hinterland. During British rule, cocoa and rubber trees imported from the Americas flourished here. Ghana continues to produce 20 percent of the world’s cocoa; when you eat chocolate, there’s a good chance the cocoa came from here.
The indigenous rainforests were exploited for hardwood, and huge tracts were felled. A few fragments remain and provide a major tourist attraction in their own right. Kakum National Park, three hours west of Accra, offers the perfect place to experience the West African rainforest in its dense, verdant magnificence.
Although Kakum teems with animal life, the vegetation restricts viewing, and you’re unlikely to see the resident elephants, forest buffalo, leopards and antelope as you follow the walking trails through dappled shadow. The park’s highlight is a network of suspended walkways in the forest canopy, 160 feet above the ground. Here you can gain an eye-level view of troops of colobus and Diana monkeys and a dazzling array of tropical birdlife.
You’ll find African big game much easier to spot at Mole (pronounced Mo-lay) National Park in the north of the country. Getting there involves a six-hour drive from Kumasi, and accommodation, at Mole Motel on the park boundary, is rudimentary. However, the motel overlooks a busy waterhole, and wild elephants (and other animals) often roam through the grounds. (Be sure to keep the door to your room closed at all times — the resident baboons are opportunistic thieves.)
The country’s historic and natural attractions provide a mere sideshow to the main event: the immersive, vibrant dynamism of modern, urban Ghana. There is nothing understated about Ghanaian cities. Be prepared to redefine your concept of personal space and go with the flow rather than fight it. Daily schedules here tend to be flexible, determined by factors beyond your control such as traffic and rainstorms.
One of the best places to plunge into the maelstrom of urban Ghana is Kumasi’s Kejetia Market, with 11,000 stalls and a constant bombardment of noise, color and odor.
Manhyia Palace Museum, the physical and cultural heart of Kumasi, provides some respite. At this official residence of the king of the Ashanti people, the photos and royal artifacts on display offer an overview of the Ashanti Kingdom, past and present. If you’re lucky, you may get to see the king himself. He regularly grants official audiences to his people, with everyone dressed in traditional robes and drummers pounding a rhythmic soundtrack for the duration. It’s mesmerizing and timeless.
In contrast to Kumasi, where cultural heritage is paramount, Accra exhibits the proud face of modern Ghana. In this seafront capital the flag came down on British rule and the new nation was born.
The vast Black Star Square, backing onto the ocean, serves as the focal point of Independence Day celebrations on March 6 each year. Nearby, the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park & Museum, with its ceremonial fountains and golden statues, commemorates Ghana’s founding father, Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972).
The Centre for National Culture, beside the Memorial Park, offers the best place to shop for souvenirs. Popular items include djembe drums, Kente cloth, tribal stools, wooden masks, carvings and brass figurines made using the traditional lost-wax technique.
But in truth, the most valuable and enduring memento you’ll take away from a visit to Ghana will be your memory of it. This is a country that indelibly changes your view of the world and of history.
Ghana Info to Go
International flights arrive at Kotoka International Airport, six miles north of downtown Accra. In August 2015, South African Airways launched international flights from Washington, D.C., (IAD) to Accra. Taxis are inexpensive ($2–3 for a transfer into the city), though don’t expect Western standards of comfort; many of the licensed vehicles are falling to pieces. Transfers by limousine cost $43. Kumasi Airport is currently restricted to daylight domestic flights. Ongoing work will upgrade it into an international airport capable of receiving arrivals after dark.
Where to Stay in Ghana
Golden Tulip Kumasi City, Kumasi Opened in 2008 and wellestablished as the premier venue in Ghana’s second city, Golden Tulip offers an attractive setting amid tropical gardens. Rain Tree Street, Kumasi $$$$
Kempinski Hotel Gold Coast City, Accra Newly opened with a downtown location, the Kempinski instantly became Accra’s most prestigious address. Modern guestrooms feature an African twist. Gamel Abdul Nasser Avenue, Accra $$$$
Labadi Beach Hotel, Accra Run by South Africa-based Legacy Hotels & Resorts, this modern property with colonial touches boasts a great seafront location, not far from the International Trade Centre. 1 La Bypass, Accra $$$$
Restaurants in Ghana
Country Kitchen, Accra No frills, just great Ghanaian food, shoulder to shoulder with the locals. This is the place to try fufu (mashed cassava), jollof (a one-pot rice dish) and boiled yam. Second Ringway, Roberto Road, Accra $$
Noble House, Kumasi I’m biased; this is where my wife and I enjoyed our first date years ago. Still the best Indian and Chinese cuisine in town. Ahodow Roundabout, Kumasi $$$
Sankofa Restaurant The flagship restaurant of Mövenpick Ambassador Hotel serves an eclectic menu offering international and local specialties and is especially good for fresh seafood. Mövenpick Ambassador Hotel, Cantonments Ridge, Accra $$$
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