Wednesday, 21 August 2013


Two years goes quickly. It feels like only yesterday that Hannah and I landed at Kotoka airport in Accra, late in the night, wondering what life in Ghana would be like.

It wasn’t yesterday, of course; yesterday I was sipping a coffee in a trendy Berlin café, just around the corner from our new flat. The summer air was crisp compared to

Accra’s humid cloak; the pavement consisted of neatly arranged slabs, rather than an open sewer; the waitress came straight over to serve me, without having to be prodded awake first.

And yet I was missing Ghana. Berlin seems too calm, too organised. I miss the chaos: hawkers coming up to sell bead necklaces and phone credit; goats eating plastic bags and chickens pecking for seeds; the constant sounds of car horns and music; children playing in the streets; everyone smiling, whatever they’re doing.

Ghana was a wonderful home for two years. We visited a lot of the country – the geography geek in me was pleased that we spent time in all ten of Ghana’s regions – and were rewarded with some truly memorable experiences.

One highlight was Mole National Park, which compensates for its lack of big cats or migrating herds by getting visitors up close to its elephants. If you’ve never watched elephants mix up a mud bath before coating skin or playing together in a water hole, or had one look you directly in the eye from just a few metres away, then it’s worth visiting Ghana for this alone.

The bird walk and afternoon game drives were also rewarding. Our guides always managed to spot something special: a roan antelope through the dense bush or a colourful fruit pigeon hidden in the higher branches. Mole has plans to develop a luxury lodge, and the road from Tamale is being improved. Hopefully the park will maintain its understated charm despite these new developments.

Ghana’s main attraction is its tropical beaches. We explored much of the coast, from Beyin near the Cote D’Ivoire border to Keta Lagoon in the southeast. My favourite place was Green Turtle Lodge, a backpacker resort near Akwidaa – the perfect place to lie back in a hammock, drink beer with other travellers and wish you had thought of writing ‘The Beach’ first. Hannah’s pick was the more upmarket Fanta’s Folly near Butre, where the eponymous Nigerian owner serves delicious food flavoured with herbs picked from her husband’s garden. We also saw our one and only turtle in Ghana here. Closer to Accra, Till’s No.1 resort provided a quick weekend getaway from city life.

One of my motivations for moving to Ghana was to see the lesser-known parts of a country, something not always possible with shorter visits. The main outlet for this was the Ghana Mountaineers, a group of like-minded hikers gathered from across the world in Accra. We climbed Ghana's highest peak; we camped out under a full moon on Verandah Mountain; we completed Ghana’s own three peaks, Krobo, Iogaga and Osoduku; and we beat our own tracks through the hills of the Volta Region and beyond, literally in places: while many people visit Boti Falls, very few hack their way up the river to do it, battling snakes (OK, one sleeping snake), storms and the jungle on the route. Ghana has huge potential as a hiking destination; nothing too high or challenging, but fantastic views and a good infrastructure to get around easily.

If Ghana is easy to fall for, Accra takes a little longer to love. It’s a fast-developing city, with high-rise buildings going up on every spare corner of land, clearing the last few green spaces and trees as they go. Half-built concrete shells dominate the city’s skyline and as flats, hotels, offices and shopping malls come to life. Many of these changed little in two years, as the developers’ money runs out or they become mired in land disputes. Painted warnings claiming ‘land not for sale’ are a common sight, and anyone passing through Cantoments will see the red warnings on land: ‘Property of E.B. Tibboh – keep off’, although he never seemed to actually build anything.

Next to our flat in East Legon, an entire block of flats was constructed from scratch during our stay. As the bright orange outer panels coloured our neighbourhood and the vast satellite dishes were screwed on, the family living across the road sold simple meals of fufu and sauce to workers from the nearby repair yard and farms from their ramshackle wooden hut. The children, who worked there late into the night, sold me beer and tomato puree, insisting that I returned the bottles so they could get their deposits back. Every few pesawas counts for Accra’s poorer residents. And their simple business was a step up from those found in the poorest quarters, such as Jamestown.

Life in Accra had its moments, though. We enjoyed some fantastic food (none of it Ghanaian) in the capital’s many restaurants; I played football with former Ghana internationals at the British High Commission, and we watched the local derby, Hearts of Oak v Asante Kotoka, in the impressive national stadium; Hannah taught a former president’s grandson at Ghana International School; and on an unforgettable night at +233 jazz club, we joined our Canadian friends Andrew and Christie as part of a mass dance routine without being laughed off the floor by the more supple and rhythmic locals.

We also experienced an African election. After the build up, which saw the unexpected and widely mourned death of the president John Atta Mills, I had anticipated … what? Street riots? Tribal warfare? Perceptions of African democracy are probably tainted by those that make the news in the UK. But in the event, it was extremely quiet and democratic; there was more tension in the city during the two African Cup of Nations, in both of which Ghana made the semis. And lost.

There are many more memories: the primary school on Kpala island in Lake Volta powered by the playground roundabout; visiting the rice farmers in the Volta Region and hearing about the complexities of land acquisitions; experiencing the shrines and rituals of northern Ghana. Two years was long enough to enjoy the good things about the country, and we are leaving before the typically insignificant and indulgent expat frustrations – power cuts, heat stroke, traffic, bewilderment about the Ghanaian way of doing things –led to an even more unhealthy amount of Gulder beer being consumed.  

Hannah and I are both certain that we will return to Ghana, to visit friends, return to Mole and laze on the beach. But for now, as with half of the dishes listed on any Ghanaian menu … please, it is finished.