Accra Ghana: Feasts, Festivals and New Friends

Women carrying their heavy loads at a market in Accra, Ghana. Elizabeth von Pier photos.

<h3 “text-align: left;” align=”CENTER”>A bustling city full of hard working people and a lot of history <p “text-align: left;” align=”CENTER”>By Elizabeth von Pier

Like any African city, the number of children in Accra is astounding, on the streets and everywhere.

I came to Accra, the capital and largest city in Ghana, with my sister who was on a volunteer work assignment at the Ghana International School. I decided to stay in a hotel different from where she was staying because I wanted to be near the center of town.

So I had to quickly adjust to being on my own in a city that was very foreign to me. My travel agent had advised against staying here because it is in a dangerous part of the city. But the Movenpick is a big international hotel used by many business people and it turned out to be a great option for me.

I felt safe and comfortable there and I was able to take taxis to meet the tours I had set up before I left home. I acclimated quickly and, after venturing out on my first tour, my comfort level had improved so much that I was not afraid to walk the streets alone. Of course, I was watchful for pickpockets and did not go out alone at night when the nearby neighborhoods became unsafe.

Papaya, Peanuts and American Food

Breakfast in the hotel was a large buffet that, in addition to the typical American and continental choices, included dishes that are typically part of the Ghanaian breakfast. I had the likes of fresh papaya, dried fruits and peanuts, spicy beef stew, curried potatoes, rice, boiled sweet plantain, carrots and green beans. The combination of spicy hot and sweet flavors was exotic and delicious and enough to hold me until dinner time—when I had the same thing all over again.

Back home, I had signed up for daily small-group walking tours of various parts of the city. They were limited to twelve people but during my time in Accra there were few tourists and it turned out that I was the only person who had signed up each day. Also, the tour guide for all four of the tours I had selected was Emmanuel. Emmanuel and I quickly developed a friendship and I met him each day for what turned out to be private tours of various neighborhoods of Accra. Like all people in Ghana who study English in school, Emmanuel speaks English but I often had trouble understanding him.

Nine Slums

A shop selling carved wooden statues in a market in Accra.
A shop selling carved wooden statues in a market in Accra.

Most of the people who live in Accra are very poor, having come from other parts of Ghana hoping to improve their circumstances. This puts a severe strain on the city’s resources and most find themselves living in hovels in the nine slum settlements within the city. Here there are few city services and conditions are deplorable. Children sit in muddy puddles to cool themselves from the summer heat, nearby their mothers cook rice on an open fire, and chickens, goats and dogs roam freely.

The river is polluted with trash and open sewers flow next to the road. The shacks where they sleep have tin roofs, but during the daytime hours, most people spend their time on a small patch of dirt outside their door under large tarps which provide shade from the hot sun.

The Ghanaian poor are very industrious and I saw examples of this over and over again, in the markets, on the streets, and in the Old Fadama district. Women with large heavy baskets on their heads serve as walking “markets”, selling everything from fruits and vegetables to housewares, books and live chickens. They sell their goods on the streets and sidewalks and to cars stopped at red traffic lights.

This must be painful after a while; I sympathized with one of these women when I saw her take the basket off her head and massage what must have been a very sore neck. When I asked Emmanuel why it is mainly women, not men, who carry these heavy loads on their heads, he said that the men have other very important things to do. They drive cabs, repair second-hand machinery, tend ramshackle “shops”, and recycle trash. It’s a hard life for everyone who lives here.

Celebrating Ghana's independence in 1957
Celebrating Ghana’s independence in 1957.

Palladium Hall

One day, I met Emmanuel at Palladium Hall, one of the few intact historic buildings and a place of great significance in Accra’s political past, and we visited the markets of Accra. Here, in the Makola and Salaga markets, is where the majority of these poor people do their shopping.

The markets are very colorful and sell everything—from lumber to fresh food to housewares and clothing. There were also herbs, snake skins and dried mice used for curing a multitude of ailments and for voodoo ceremonies. Except for food, prices in these markets are negotiable.

We also climbed to the top of the Jamestown lighthouse from which we had a bird’s eye view of the slums below. This lighthouse is in the English neighborhood where most of the English officials and staff who managed the colony lived and worked during the 19th century.

Below we could see the fishermen hauling in their catches and the nearby neighborhood where they lived, smoked the fish and prepared it for sale. Coming down from the top of the lighthouse, we went into this district and saw first hand how these industrious locals live.

Hard work in the market in the intense African heat.
Hard work in the market in the intense African heat.

Another day I met Emmanuel at the same place and we went on a tour of the Old Fadama slum district.

The poorest of the poor live here. They are hard workers who help keep landfill sites clear by taking items that they can salvage and rework or repair.

I saw tin workers flattening tin and crafting it into baking pans and ovens. I saw old computers, refrigerators, microwaves and stoves that they had repaired and were now selling at a good price.

It is ironic that these people likely do not use most of these items themselves—they cook on open fires and do not have electricity for the computers, stoves and refrigerators. And I saw lots of old tires, auto equipment and hardware being salvaged and sold for a few cedi. From sunrise to sunset, this is how the people of Old Fadama live and earn a living. Life here is not easy, but they maintain a positive outlook in the face of very challenging circumstances. It certainly made me pause to say thank you for my blessings.

Wrong Fort

Another day had the makings of a disaster but instead it turned out to be a wonderful experience. It showed me firsthand how industrious, happy and helpful the Ghanaian people are despite their difficult lives. I was supposed to meet Emmanuel at the Ussher Fort but instead my cab driver dropped me off at the James Fort. So I found myself on my own. As I stood in front of the fort, it was obvious that I was a tourist who had lost her way.

Women made food in the market.
Women made food in the market.

Cab after cab slowed down to give me a ride. One cabbie stopped and would not leave, offering ideas for where he could take me so that I would not have wasted an entire afternoon.

He waited with me for a half hour until I decided that Emmanuel was not coming. His name was Kelly and he even called the tour operator for me to see if we could somehow find Emmanuel. It never dawned on us that I was at the wrong fort.

Eventually I decided to have him take me to the “art center” because I wanted to buy a mask for my collection. This is an area of town where artists work their crafts and, as soon as Kelly left me off, I was surrounded by several men who wanted to show me their shops. It’s just about impossible to say “no” to the hard sell.

Learning How to Bargain

I was glad that Emmanuel had taught me how to bargain like a local so I felt comfortable buying my mask at one of the shops; three neighboring shopkeepers watched as I expertly got the price down from 160 cedi to 90 cedi (about $20).

I’m pretty sure that I could have done better and that this shopkeeper was more expert at closing deals than I was. After my purchase, the others showed me their shops. I admired everything they had to offer, and then all four of these men took me to another section of the market where their friends, the basket makers, wood carvers and jewelry makers, do their work.

There were vivid displays of handcrafted beads, colorful baskets and Kente clothing, all created with beautiful artistry and craftsmanship. The four men stayed by my side, introduced me to their fellow artists, and told me I could freely take pictures. When it was time for me to say goodbye, I shook the hands of my four new friends and walked back to the hotel, smiling from ear to ear.

The New Kempinsky Hotel

One day when my tour was scheduled for the afternoon, I spent the morning walking to some of the sights close to my hotel. I walked to the new and very glamorous Kempinsky Hotel and admired its beautiful artwork and floral arrangements, the modern National Theater which was built with Chinese assistance, and the stadium. I also visited Independence Square with its monument to freedom and justice, the Independence Arch celebrating Ghana’s independence from Great Britain in 1957, and the Black Star Gate, all very impressive testimonies to Ghana’s struggles for independence.

One very attractive aspect of the Ghanaian culture are the colorful traditional festivals which I was fortunate to experience. On my last day in Accra, I met Emmanuel for a tour of the city’s architecture and its Danish and Dutch neighborhoods. There really is very little “architecture” to see—except for Palladium Hall, almost all of the buildings are in ruin. But on this walk we approached an area that was having a festival.

The Gbese Odadao Festival celebrates the end of a month-long period of spiritual reflection during which there is a ban on noise making including drumming, dancing and general merry-making. People had gathered from all over the neighborhood and watched as the mantses (chiefs), elders and other important people paraded before them, shaking hands as they went along. They wore Kente and colorful costumes and the women’s bodies were painted and adorned with beads.

I sat in the front row, the only tourist in sight, and shook their hands as they paraded by. Finally the festival reached its climax when the mantses started drumming, a sign that the solemn month had come to an end and merry-making could resume. The crowd cheered and rushed into the square, singing and dancing. Being squeezed from all sides by the celebrants, Emmanuel pulled me along as we ran hand-in-hand to the narrow and quieter streets and away from the crowd.

Having spent four days visiting very poor neighborhoods, I wanted to see where the middle and upper classes live. People living in poverty comprise 58% of Accra’s population but there are small middle and upper classes here. In Ghana as a whole, 31% of all adults have never been to school and the average annual household income is $1,327.

I hired a cab to take me to see the Cantonments area of the city where the the Ghana International School and the embassies, including the American Embassy, are located. We also drove to the beach and the cab driver stopped for me to go into a nice hotel there. The homes in these middle and upper income areas were nice but not up to American standards.

My stay coming to an end, I reflected on what I had seen and experienced. I am thankful for Emmanuel and the experiences I shared with him and for Kelly and the other cab drivers who treated me so well. Most of the Ghanaians I encountered on tour were poor and impoverished, living on the margin. They work very hard, making a meager living under challenging conditions. But they have a friendly spirit, smiling faces and a helpful attitude, and I was warmly welcomed into their country.

Ghana Trip Details:

  • Movenpick Ambassador Hotel, Independence Avenue, Accra, Ghana, +233 302 611 000,

    Reservations.accra@moevenpick.com

  • Viator.com for walking tours of the city

Elizabeth von Pier

Elizabeth von Pier is a photojournalist who has traveled extensively throughout the world. She has published articles on her travels in travelmag.co.uk, WAVE Journey and Travel Thru History.

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