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Ghana, West Africa

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The Cape Coast in Ghana.

When we think of Africa we might think of AIDS, famine, malaria, corruption and scams. It is refreshing to come across a country on this vast and beautiful continent that, while certainly challenged by many issues, has managed to either avoid or avert most of the severity encountered by other African nations while preserving what is best about its history and culture. Ghana is just such a nation.

The Republic of Ghana is the second-largest country in West Africa. With a population of over 20million, it is divided into ten regions, each with its own capital city: Accra (the capital of Ghana), Kumasi, Sunyani, Cape Coast, Koforidua, Tamale, Bolgatanga, Wa, Ho and Sekondi-Takoradi.

Language and Culture

English is the official language and an informal or pidgin English is also spoken throughout. However, there are several ethno-linguistic groups, or tribes, and within these are further cultural and linguistic units such as Akan (Asante, Fante, Akuapem, Bono, Denkyira), Dagomba, Ewe, Guan, GaDangme, Wala, Builsa, Dagaaba. This is a country encompassing many different cultures yet united in its diversity.

Currency, Flag and National Anthem

The Ghanaian currency is composed of the Cedi and the Pesewa. A government committee wrote the lyrics of Ghana's National Anthem and a former music teacher at the prominent Achimota School composed the music. Ghana's current flag consists of the red, gold and green horizontal stripes with a five-pointed black lodestar in the centre of the gold stripe.


In the 14th Century, there were two powerful West African Kingdoms, the Asante (Ashanti) and Dahomey (Benin). The bond between these two empires was their pursuit of power and wealth. They traded in slavery on an unprecedented scale and, belonging to a section of Africa known to the West as the Gold Coast of Africa, shipped over a quarter of all slaves sent to the New World. They had relations with foreign governments and arranged profitable land-leasing contracts with them, even in those days. Asante and Dahomey were organised and had military power, pursuing their prime objective: wealth. These were nations built on gold, guns and slaves.

In fact, there is evidence of settlements along the Ghanaian coast from about 40,000 years ago but it was only with the gold-seeking Portuguese arrival in the 15th Century that we have a written record of events. They built several forts along the Gold Coast and the fortunes being made with gold and slave-trading attracted the attention of the Dutch, British and Danes in the late 16th Century. For 250 years there was fierce competition between all four vying for control of trade on the Gold Coast: building forts and capturing those of rivals. In 1807, British Parliament banned the Atlantic slave trade and the US banned it in 1808. In 1815, France and the Netherlands agreed to follow suit. Portugal and Spain had to also do the same by 1820. Slavery itself was eventually abolished in the US in 1865 by the 13th Amendment to the constitution. But it was not until 1888 - when slavery was banned in Brazil - that the American continent became free of slavery. The Ashanti confederacy had banned slave-trading in 1827. By this time, there was roughly one fort for every four miles along Ghana's coastline.

Around the mid-19th Century, the British took over, using these forts for customs and excise purposes, and this is when the Ashanti began to flourish and prosper, with Kumasi becoming a very wealthy city. This made the British nervous and in 1873, with the Ashanti refusing British control, Kumasi was sacked and the Gold Coast declared a crown colony. Ashanti resistance continued until 1900, when the British fort at Kumasi was attacked in vain, destroying the city and decimating the tribal forces. The British discouraged European settlements or even employment in Ghana, concentrating on developing the trade of minerals, cocoa and timber. By the early 1900s, the Gold Coast was the wealthiest, best-organised and most literate African colony but anti-British sentiment was strong.

In the late 1920s, freedom of the press and freedom of speech allowed the growth of nationalist political parties. In 1947, Kwame Nkrumah broke away from the leading party to form the Convention People's Party (CPP) which targeted the man in the street and carried the motto: 'Self-government Now'. The CPP was an instant success. When Nkrumah called a national strike in 1949, the British responded by throwing him in prison. They released him two years later, after his party had won three general elections in his absence. Independence finally came in 1957, making Ghana the first black African nation to do so. This heralded 25 years of decline.

Nkrumah borrowed heavily to finance his dreams for Ghana. He was a visionary leader with many grand plans. His greatest achievement was to make education universally free from nursery to university. However, his fabulous project, the Akosombo Dam on the Volta River, took over ten years to bring the electricity and irrigation promised and by 1966, Ghana was a billion US Dollars in debt; Nkrumah's nepotism and overspending and the corruption rife among his officials had decimated the nation.

Richard Rathbone (1994) describes Ghana as:

...always bewilderingly capable of doing unpredictable things and of doing them before anyone else. Ghana is the first Sub-Saharan African country to attain independence in 1957: it was black Africa's first parliamentary government, as well as black Africa's first transition from military back to parliamentary government (David Austin, 1979). It also set bad examples such as having one of the highest numbers of military coups on the continent.

Between 1966 and 1981, Ghana agonised through six corrupt, incompetent regimes.

Modern Leadership

By the 1970s, Ghana had descended into an untenable state of corruption, nepotism, bribery and smuggling. In May 1979, in the midst of serious food shortages, a group of young military officers organised themselves and took a very dramatic decision.

The country was momentarily suspended in shock and disbelief at the audacity and commonality of their new leader, Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, a military man with a Scottish father. Rawlings used pidgin, the language of the streets, to rally the country around and bring it to a place of relative honesty and political transparency.

If you make kalabule1, you will have to face the kwensikwenses2.
- Flt Lt Jerry Rawlings.

Jerry Rawlings staged a military coup and began a series of 'house-cleaning' operations that resulted in the sentencing and execution of several senior officers and former heads of state. Three months later, Rawlings and his Armed Forces Revolutionary Council stepped down and handed control to a civilian government at general elections. However, this state of affairs did not last long and he took control again two years later.

Military rule formally ended with the inauguration of the Fourth Republic in January 1993. This new constitution allowed political parties the freedom to organise and enabled the move back to civil rule.

To an extent, the current document marries aspects of British, American and French basic laws (Western philosophy of government), with indigenous Ghanaian social norms and rules. The Fourth Republic Constitution makes conscious efforts to address some of the major criticisms of the past constitutions, such as insensitivity to traditional authority structures, norms and institutions.
- Samuel Quainoo, East Stroudsburg University

Ghana is now a multi-party democratic republic with a constitutionally elected government and a parliamentary system of government. Popularly re-elected in 1996, President Rawlings's rule brought Ghana's shaky economy further towards stability and helped the people solidify their commitment to democracy. With the appointment of Ghanaian Kofi Annan as UN Secretary General, national hopes are high that Ghana will reclaim a leading role in Africa.

Council of State

Respect for elders is a strong feature of most Akan societies and traditions. The advice and opinions of elders in the community carry much weight because of the ethos that with age comes experience and wisdom. Eventually, the Council of State with its membership requirements based on age and accomplishment was created to reflect the ideals of this Elder Respect system. The Council of State is a group of prominent citizens (of proven character) who advise the President on national issues. It is supposedly analogous to the Council of Elders (below) in the traditional political system.

Council of Elders

The institution of Chieftaincy is another political tradition that has refused to die in modern Ghana. There have been many unsuccessful attempts throughout recent history to eliminate it. The Ashanti bore the brunt of the British army's attempts to eliminate the representation of the people by their Chiefs. The Asantehene is the Chief of the Ashanti and Nana3 Prempeh I was even exiled to the Seychelles Island by the British. Nkrumah's government also tried to reduce the political significance of these leaders, using both legal and extra-legal means. In spite of all this, the role of the Chiefs has now been formally recognised and accorded a significant place in the new democratic system.


Ghana is endowed with natural resources, primarily gold, minerals, cocoa and timber, and has twice the per capita output of poorer African countries. Despite this, it is still very much a nation dependent on international financial and technical assistance as the domestic economy relies on subsistence farming which contributes 40 percent of GDP and employs 60 percent of the working population.

Geography and Climate

Ghana has four major rivers and two large lakes: Lake Bosomtwe is a natural impact crater lake located in the Ashanti Region, and Lake Volta is the world's largest manmade lake created when the Akosombo Dam was built in the early 1960s. The highest mountain in the country is Mount Afadjato at 800 metres.

Ghana is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Guinea to the south, and three Francophone nations on its land borders: Cote d'Ivoire to the east, Togo to the west and Burkina Faso to the north.

Ghana's climate is tropical and is determined by a dry air mass invading southwards from the Sahara desert from November to February, causing the dry Harmattan season, and the South Atlantic Ocean air mass entering from March to August and September to October bringing the monsoon winds and the two rainy seasons.

The southwestern region is heavily forested and boasts the Kakum National Park, while northern Ghana is made up of savannah and grasslands. Ghana's coast is made up of plains up to the Kwahu Plateau4 and is accented with sandy beaches, rocky bluffs, dense tropical growth and dozens of ancient fortresses. Takoradi and Tema are Ghana's largest commercial and fishing ports along the 335 miles of shoreline.


Ghana's greatest asset is its people, renowned for their warmth and hospitality. Ghana also has history, colour, flavour and music. It has unspoilt beaches, hotels of all calibres, restaurants, bars, wildlife parks, and safe streets, and the infrastructure is good by African standards.


Accra is a lively modern city, bustling with markets, nightclubs and restaurants. Among many interesting places to visit in Accra are the National Museum, the National Arts Centre, and the Du Bois Centre - home of the late African-American Pan Africanist, Dr WEB Du Bois.


If you want to taste the true flavour of this African nation, you need to come away from the western influences of the coast and travel further north to Kumasi, the Garden City and the capital of the Ashanti Region. For a truly authentic experience, eschew the more comfortable methods of transport and opt for a trotro. This will be a trip you will never forget: hanging out of a converted minivan or pickup truck improvised with wooden boards and chicken wire with goats in villagers' laps and what seems like the contents of whole villages precariously balanced on top.

Kumasi's bustling open-air Kejetia Market is the largest in West Africa and ringed with artisan villages. Kejetia is loosely organised into sections of stalls offering different wares from all over the region. Here you can spend a day haggling good-naturedly over fresh okra, papaya (known as pawpaw), yams, cassavas, and dried fish, mahogany sculptures, copper utensils, cast iron barbecues, ridged clay pots and yard upon yard of gloriously colourful fabric and prints. Behind the fabric sellers is the tailors' row where you can have a suit or gown sewn for you in a couple of hours.


For lunch you may stop to visit with a 'mami', or sales lady, who is busy steaming ears of corn or frying kelewele, the delicious result of frying ripe plantain cubes marinated in ginger and chilli. Other local fare to sample include bofrot, a delightful fried spongey doughnut. Kenkey, however is an acquired taste as this is fermented cornmeal mash steamed in banana leaves and served with hot spicy tilapia fish.

Fufu is the national dish and is basically a soup made from okra, aubergines, tomatoes and a meat: goat or forest rat most likely, chicken if you are very lucky. Fufu comes in varieties of plain soup, peanut-flavoured or red with palm oil. It is served fiery hot thanks to the copious addition of red bonnet chilli and is accompanied with balls of white thick goo also called fufu. The goo is boiled yam which has been pounded for hours by the girls of the village using a huge wooden mortar, at great risk to their fingers in the way of a perilous pounding pestle crashing down upon them as they knead the yam. The finished product is formed into cocoon shapes and is used instead of a utensil in eating the soup, as well as serving as the starch of the meal. You take a small piece with your right hand using two fingers and thumb. You make an indentation with your thumb and fill it with soup from a communal pot. This all goes in the mouth and slides down the throat with little interference from teeth - much as a raw oyster would.


Ghana is well known for its drumming troupes which produce exciting and noisy atmospheres to accompany most feasts and festivals.

The most popular and well-known music to come out of Ghana is 'highlife', a mix of different home-grown styles which fuses traditional percussion rhythms with various European, American, and even Caribbean influences. Highlife developed in the 1920s and reached a peak of popularity between 1950 - 1970.

Among Ghanaian artists and bands that have successfully made the transition to the West are Mac Tontoh, Uhuru and Osibisa.


Ghanaians are immensely involved in their football and passionately supportive of their teams. The two most prominent are the Ace of Hearts in Accra and Kotoko in Kumasi. There is also an amateur Rugby Football Club which has existed in several different forms since the 1950s. The Accra Rugby Club is now resident at grounds offered by Legon University and has a sponsorship deal with a well-known Irish Brewery.

The Arts

Few people realise that the story of Ananse the Spider is originally an Akan legend, carried to the Caribbean by the slaves. Ghana has also bequeathed the festival of Kwanzaa and Kente royal cloth patterns to the world, as well as the Adinkra symbol and the game oware. Another children's game that is making its way north and westward is ampe, a synchronised clapping and kicking game usually played in the streets by girls chanting elaborate rhymes.

Speaking Fabric

The Akan have a long tradition of proverbs and cultural wisdoms that they have recorded through history on cloth in a variety of ways. The weaver refers to kente as nwentoma (woven cloth) to distinguish it from factory-made cloth (ntoma) and the adinkra cloth that is stamped (ntiamu ntoma) by the block-print technique. Not only can the symbols themselves convey meaning but the patterns can also be read. Kente is traditionally worn by royalty and Adinkra is a mourning cloth.

The Scouting Link

Baden-Powell absorbed many ideas from Ghana into his development of the Scouting movement. He went to Ghana in 1895 with the remit to raise a native force and bring down the powerful Ashanti tribe during the Ashanti Campaigns. The Ashanti were a formidable adversary renowned for their heroic ferocity and warring skills, with the slogan:

If I go forward I die
If I go backward I die
Better go forward and die

Trekking through the jungle meant clearing the thick growth, laying roads through marshes, and constructing bridges over rivers and streams. Baden-Powell trained his forces in the essential skills of axe cutting and knotting. They built hundreds of bridges from tree spars lashed together with forest vines and creepers.

From the people of Ghana, Baden-Powell learnt the phrase 'softly softly catchee monkey' - and he learnt how to elicit the best from his men by grouping them into small patrols with a leader for each.

The Scout Staff itself is copied from the Ashanti campaign where it was used to test the depths of swamps and as a night time aid to move away undergrowth while secretly scouting out enemy positions.

In order to circumvent the enemy much of our advance had to be carried out by night, which meant difficulties at nearly every step among fallen timber, boggy streams, tussocks of reeds and bushes, etc. Without a staff, one could not have got along at all.

The Ashanti tell a story about Baden-Powell's first visit to Kumasi, their capital city:

He was greeted by a warrior chief who held out his left hand. He told Baden-Powell that the bravest of the brave shake with the left hand.

So began the left handshake which is used by millions of Scouts throughout the world. A warrior uses his left hand to hold a shield, and his right hand holds the spear. So to show his trust in someone, the warrior puts down his protective shield and greets them with his left hand.

The Dark Side

You don't solve poverty problems by dabbling in the metaphysical... You solve the problems of poverty by understanding the poverty variables on the ground, listening to the people, by talking to the people and finding out what worries them and factoring in its international dimensions, especially a country with colonial history. The history of Ghana (and Africa) shows that leaders, both military and civilians, who dabble heavily in juju either paralyse their country or blow it into pieces. From Liberia's General Samuel Doe to Uganda's General Idi Amin to Central Africa Republic's Jean-Bedel Bokassa, dabbling in juju makes the leader weak mentally and clogs the mind, thus becoming not only gullible but [unable] to rationalise about the problems of the people. The leader becomes unrealistic, depending on illiterate, irrational, unscientific and impractical mediums that, in all measure, are immoral, stupid and destructive.
- Kofi Akosah-Sarpong, 2004.

To even begin to comprehend the depths of the power of juju in West Africa, you need first to set aside your scientific prejudices and wade into the complex and mysterious occult world of long-held beliefs where spirit faith, medicine and psychology are intertwined. You need to come to terms with the use of powerful fetishes credited with the gift of protection from evil and granting of wishes. Juju can be described as a medicine form, but the herbs and decoctions are united with the spirit invoked by the jujuman. Juju is also often used as a vehicle for mediating in disputes and Rawlings himself is said to have partaken of this service.


It is a good idea to bear in mind that levels of hygiene in African street markets are perhaps not quite the same as Mum's back home. Be aware that water may be contaminated, so drink only bottled drinks, make sure the bottle is sealed when you receive it and use a straw. Avoid ice and ice-cream at all costs, as refrigeration can be rather unreliable. Only eat street food that has been cooked in front of you while you wait, as any disease transmitted by African flies is not a holiday souvenir anyone would wish upon you. Mosquito bites can be avoided if you know they come out at dawn and dusk especially during the wet seasons, so make sure you are wearing close-knit, long-legged, long-sleeved clothes infused with permethrin at those times. Mosquito nets similarly infused are also a necessity. In rural areas, it is common to place bowls filled with water or even kerosene under the bed legs to prevent some of nature's more interesting fauna from sharing your comfort. If you have a morbid fear of creepy crawlies, it is probably advisable that you rethink buying that ticket to Ghana and invest in a subscription to a travel satellite channel instead.

1Corruption.2Consequences.3Nana is the Chief's title. 4Which runs across the central part of the country.

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