“For me, Ghana is and has always been the country of dreams.” So says June Sarpong. Ever since independence from Britain in 1957, it has been a country of aspiration, with a population that would travel across Africa and the wider world, packing their hopes along with anything else they could carry.
During a period of prosperity in Nigeria in the Seventies, Ghanaian migrants were attracted there to seek work; then in 1983 they were given a deadline to leave their host country and had to pack everything they owned into oversized checkered bags. Border crossings were restricted and they ended up being stranded for weeks, while the bags they carried became synonymous with the phrase: “Ghana must go!”
Strangely, those bags have since become a symbol of style, coveted by the international fashion community. Louis Vuitton has even released a “GMG”-inspired luxury range. And today the words “Ghana Must Go” are the slogan designed to encourage visitors to the country.
As the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, I long ago decided that I too “must go” to Ghana to live my own Ghanaian dream and share in the vision articulated by the first Ghanaian president of turning a colony into a country of wonder that the world would flock to see. In 1957 Dr Kwame Nkrumah was part of a “big six” of Ghanaians whose relentless pursuit of freedom would help make Ghana the first sub-Saharan African nation to gain independence from a European power.
In his maiden speech, Nkrumah made an impassioned plea to the people of this new nation: “I am depending on the millions of the country, and the chiefs and the people, to help me to reshape the destiny of this country. We are prepared to pick it up and make it a nation that will be respected by every nation in the world.”
Second-generation Ghanaian immigrants, who like me share a Ghanaian and British identity, personify the continuing connection the two countries have enjoyed since independence. In Ghana, the idea of welcome is everything. The word for it in Twi (the main language other than English) is akwaaba. (Don’t worry if you don’t remember it: you’ll see it everywhere.) On my most recent visit, the spirit of welcome started the moment my flight touched down in Accra, as the Ghanaian passengers began a rapturous round of applause for the captain – not because the journey had been turbulent, but simply as a way of saying thank you.
I was staying at the Kempinski Accra, the main luxury hotel in the capital. The sprawling atrium is adorned in exquisite African art, the staff are incredibly friendly, and rooms on the upper level have views overlooking central Accra. (Try the main restaurant’s spicy Ghanaian fish stew and Fante Kenkey, a tart cornmeal fermented dough with tomato sauce. It is simply wonderful.) On this visit, I decided to enlist the help of some of the country’s most in-the-know influencers and get their take on the must-sees, from art and culture to fashion and food, entertainment and nightlife.
Most of the clans of Ghana are matriarchal, and this female influence feeds through to the world of business and commerce. According to the Mastercard Index of Women’s Entrepreneurs (MIWE), Ghana has the highest percentage of female business owners in the world. First to take me under her wing was beauty entrepreneur and founder of the Shea Butter brand R&R Luxury, Valerie Obaze. Like me, Obaze is a product of both Britain and Ghana and is part of a new wave of entrepreneurs re-establishing the cultural and commercial ties between the two nations. Valerie took me to Viva Boutique (the Harvey Nichols of Ghana), which is owned by beauty guru Sacha Okoh. A fashion hub for the Ghanaian elite, it’s the perfect place to find original pieces by African luxury designers such as Christy Brown and Maki Oh (a favourite of Michelle Obama, Lupita Nyong’o and Beyoncé to name but a few).
From there, I hooked up with actress Marie Humbert, star of An African City (Ghana’s answer to Sex and the City), who took me to Studio One Eighty Nine, the fashion brand by Hollywood actress Rosario Dawson and designer Abrima Erwiah. All of Studio One Eighty Nine’s pieces are conceived in Ghana and ethically produced there using sustainable fabrics and dyes. We then popped to Elle Lokko, the coolest fashion concept store in Accra, where I was able to pick up a few pieces.
By that point we were in the mood for a night on the town, so we caught up with afrobeat star Manifest for guidance. Our first stop was Front/Back, one of the city’s most popular spots. The queues can sometimes stretch around the block, but it’s well worth the wait if you are lucky enough to get in. The decor is outstanding and all sourced from African artisans: the furniture is upholstered with vintage Ewe Kente, the walls adorned with art by artists including Hassan Hajjaj and Florine Demosthene.
One of the best things about Ghanaian culture is its cuisine, a rich blend of spicy tomato-based dishes fused with exotic flavours which allow for a wide variety of tastes and textures. Each region is known for a dish, and with over 50 dialects in the country, cuisine is something that unites the various different regions and clans. The staple dish, however, is jollof rice, a one-pot rice dish which is the subject of a long-standing West African rivalry (Nigerians, Ivorians and Ghanaians all proclaim theirs is the best. Obviously, I’m biased.)
Azmera Restaurant is one of the most popular lunch spots. Ghanaians love a buffet and Azmera has one of the biggest selections in the city, with at least 40 local dishes on offer. Founded by another female entrepreneur, Afua Krobea Asante, who is often on hand to greet guests, Azmera has a family feel and the staff talk you through each item, explaining the ingredients and preparation.
Alternatively, try Midunu, where chef Selassie Atadika delivers a unique dining experience that takes place in a spectacular villa situated in residential Tesano, on the outskirts of Accra. Using local and seasonal ingredients, along with some of the more traditional grains, part of Selassie’s mission is to reintroduce and bring new value to overlooked and forgotten ingredients. Her handmade artisanal chocolates are made with the finest locally sourced cocoa and bring a unique African twist to luxury chocolate.
At the other end of the scale are the “chop bars” where local workers eat. These are all very informal, but what they lack in decor they make up for in food portions. Perhaps the most popular is Asanka, which has been a fixture of the Osu area (Accra’s commercial district) for over 20 years. If you want a real local experience this is the place: try the red-red (beans stew) and plantains.
Founded by local Lebanese entrepreneur Marwan Zakhem, Gallery 1957 is the country’s most talked about high-end gallery. Located at Accra’s Kempinski Hotel and working internationally, it is dedicated to contemporary art. With a curatorial focus on West Africa, the gallery presents a programme of exhibitions, installations and performances by the region’s most significant artists.
I was treated to a private tour by legendary artist Godfried Donkor and Gyankroma Akufo-Addo, director of the Creative Arts Council of Ghana. It was a privilege to be able explore this part of Ghana’s art scene with a trailblazer such as Donkor, whose new solo exhibition Battle Royale: Last Man Standing opens on Aug 29 2019. Donkor, along with the pioneers such as Paa Joe and Prof Ablade Glover have paved the way for emerging artistic talent such as Elisabeth Efua Sutherland, whose bold exploration of contemporary issues has made her one to watch on the international scene.
My final stop in Accra was the Makola Market. Market places are the engine room of Ghanaian female entrepreneurship. Known as “market queens” these wisecracking women contribute to the bulk of income from the country’s service sector. Makola is a hive of activity where women, old and young, balance all manner of goods on their heads – often with a baby strapped to their backs (no working mum’s guilt here). This is where all the action takes place – and it’s also where you can buy your own “Ghana Must Go” bag.
And then: explore. Anyone visiting Ghana should also take time to visit other parts of the country. For me, some of the best options are Kumasi in the Ashanti region, which is where my parents are originally from. The region is perhaps the heart and soul of the nation.
Known for its magnificent gold, there is no better place to see the precious metal on display than Manhyia Palace, home of the Asantehene (Ashanti king) and the Ashanti royal family. There are two palaces: the first is now a museum and also houses a rich archive of the history of the Ashanti people, though I must say one of my favourite features of the palace are the beautiful roaming peacocks (a gift from the Malaysian royal family) that greet you upon arrival. Ghana’s Volta region, famous for its large dams and lush greenery, is also worth a visit. The landscape has a different feel to the rest of the country which tends to be either coastal or dry plains.
For a more contemplative experience visit Elmina Slave Castle in Cape Coast, a stark reminder of Ghana and Britain’s intertwined, painful past. This is a part of history we must never forget, in order to ensure we progress with respect and humanity.
On this trip I also took a short flight north to Tamale and Bolgatanga. Northern Ghana feels similar to bustling Indian cities such as Mumbai, Delhi or Chennai. You see motorbikes and bicycles everywhere, men, women, grannies all on two wheels, and bright yellow tuk tuks, known locally as mahama camboo, named after former President John Mahama who introduced these taxis as part of an employment drive for the North: the Boris Bikes of Ghana.
The first part of my visit was on behalf of the education charity AfriKids, an organisation founded by British philanthropist Georgie Fienberg. While on her gap year Georgie ended up here, in the poorest part of the country, where she encountered families trying to get by on less than £2 a day. She decided she had to do something, and 15 years later AfriKids has grown into one of the leading independent NGOs in West Africa. It’s “Time2Shine” campaign was recently selected by the UK Government for match funding. Securing this partnership with DFID has enhanced AfriKids’s ability to change lives, a point expressed by CEO Charlie Hay whose goal is “Blazing a brighter trail for Ghana’s next generation and helping to build a better and fairer world.”
Hay does not overstate the truly life-changing work of AfriKids. Over five days I met the women from the Sirigu Co-operative, former street children who are now back in school, and visited impoverished communities who have been supported with micro finance loans. Once a year the team at AfriKids offers the Zaare (Family) Challenge holiday, where Western families get stuck in with the local AfriKids team, as well as enjoying the cultural delights of the North, from Sirigu mud paintings and natural clay pottery to traditional basket weaving.
I opted to stay at Mama’s Place in Bolgatanga. Established by local nun Mama Laadi, this trailblazer takes in orphaned street children and provides care and shelter. Her guesthouse is very basic but excellent value. More importantly all of the proceeds from the guesthouse fund Mama’s foster home.
From Bolgatanga, I headed off to Tamale to explore Zaina Lodge located in Mole National Park. Zaina is the only game lodge in West Africa and its architecture and interiors utilise the local styles and craftsmanship. A beautiful infinity pool overlooks the lush plains of the northern region and the lodge offers two safari trips a day (although the park’s 100 or so elephants often enjoy a morning sip and can be seen just underneath the dining area). The rooms are safari-style tented chalets, each with spectacular views of the savannahs.
Then it was back to Accra, where I checked into La Villa Boutique. It is set in the heart of Osu and is characterised by its brightly decorated individually themed suites. Lush tropical plants and trees surround a private freshwater pool providing an oasis of calm just minutes from the thriving urban streets of city centre.
Instead of being a country people leave in order to become successful, Ghana is now a creative destination in its own right. At last the words of Dr Kwame Nkrumah are being realised. Ghana must go! And so must you.