1. Akwaaba! Welcome—that is—to Ghana. Here, people pride themselves on their hospitality. If you stand anywhere too long (and we mean anywhere: gas stations, street corners, in front of someone’s heavily-fortified, barbed wire-topped gate) someone will offer you a seat, or some shade, or tell you you’re invited to their meal. People—and especially school children in pristine uniforms—will want to say “good morning,” or perform a full-on salute. Greet them in return.
2. Plan for traffic. Accra is suddenly huge. Over the past 20 years, the capital has sprawled, literally, to the regional borders. Some neighborhoods are farther away than they may seem on Google Maps. Hundreds of brand-new suburban developments mean that people leave home before 6 a.m. and leave work after 8 p.m. to avoid spending hours in gridlock. Unless you fancy leaving your accommodation before dawn, choose carefully. Generally speaking, avoid anything north of the Tetteh Quarshie Interchange (a traffic nightmare shaped like a four-leaf clover named after the man who first brought cocoa seeds to Ghana in 1876). It’s also best to stay away from neighborhoods west of Mallam or east of the Spintex Road. They’re home to some lovely hotels and guesthouses, but also the city’s worst traffic snarls.
3. Prepare for the noise. Unless you’re staying in a hotel with sealed windows, you’ll likely be woken up early in the morning by a loud church service (and these happen every day of the week); a call to prayer from a mosque; roosters greeting the dawn; or just your neighbor getting up at 4 a.m. to beat the traffic. If you stay by a major road, you will hear the tro tro mates soliciting (more on that later.) And people will play music, or sing at full volume, at any opportunity. It’s a joy to behold. And also, sometimes, deeply irritating.
4. Get connected. Event listings are weak, so the best way to find out what everyone’s doing on Friday night is social media. Follow institutions like the Alliance Francaise, Goethe Institute, or venues like the jazz bar +233 to find out what’s on. Add local friends on WhatsApp (Ghana’s finest source of gossip and viral videos of Congolese uncles dancing.) Listen to Joy FM or Citi FM or national broadcaster GBC for grownup news, and YFM or Live FM for information about what the kids are up to.
5. Acquire some Ghanaian English. It’s a relic of colonialism, blended with transliterations from Ghana’s dozen or so major languages. All newspapers are referred to as the ‘Graphic’ after the government-owned daily. All bottled water is ‘Voltic’ after the leading brand. All detergents are ‘Omo,’ (after the Unilever brand) all toothpastes are ‘Pepsodent,’ (also Unilever—we have to talk about multinationals dominating markets in Africa.) All beverages are ‘tea.’ Everything is excessively formal. A few Ghanaian English phrases you are likely to encounter:
● “Small chops” —hors d’oeuvres, snacks, light refreshments.
● “Dash me” —give me a little something extra (usually while bargaining at the market).
● “One mother, one father?”—pretty literal, usually asked after you introduce a sibling.
● “I quite remember”—a classic rhetorical flourish beloved by middle-aged uncles.
● “Excuse me to say”—literally translated from local languages, almost like “forgive my bluntness” and usually uttered before something disparaging.
● “Only your” as in “Only your shoe”—usually high praise about your style.
● “Go and come”—usually in response to a “goodbye” and from someone who’s expecting you back.
6. Branch at the mango tree. There is a uniquely Ghanaian way of giving directions, based on the fact that there aren’t always street signs and most buildings have a technical address based on the land registry, rather than a street address (we’re working on it; the government just introduced a digital address system). ‘Branch’ means turn. Instead of street names, people will send you to a landmark, like a mango tree. Said landmark may or may not still be there. If you’re going to ‘Oxford Street’ (actually the Cantonments Road, but locally nicknamed after the one in London) taxi drivers will ask if you’re going to ‘Total,’ after the gas station nearest the Danquah Circle roundabout; ‘Penta Hotel’ which is no longer there, but further down the street; ‘Papaye’ (more on this legendary culinary institution later); or ‘Shoprite’ after the supermarket in the mall at the other end of the stretch.
7. Keep up with “Kumkum Bhagya” and “Osofo Dadzie.” Ghanaians take their soap operas seriously. In some neighborhoods, people will bring their televisions outside so everyone can watch. They are the small-talk topic of choice. There are local classics like “Osofo Dadzie” and “YOLO.” There are also a plethora of telenovelas and Korean dramas dubbed in English or Twi, a local dialect. The current hit is the Indian show “Kumkum Bhagya,” which is so big the stars recently toured Ghana.