By MAURICE ARCHIBONG, who was in Ghanamauricearchibongtravels@gmail.com
The Ghanaian capital city, Accra, boasts numerous reasons for its magnetic pull on me; and, I guess, countless other non-Ghanaians across the world. As a result, I have visited Accra so many times, I've lost count. For me, one of Accra's attractions is that Ghanaians and Nigerians share so many things in common.
This explains why there is always something to write about no matter how many times you have toured any destination over and over. Historians, Alan Burns and Elisabeth Isichei, authors of various titles on the peoples of West Africa, teach us that the Ga, aborigines of Accra, are probably of Yoruba ancestry and migrated all the way from Ile-Ife.
At the didactic level, every time I visit Accra's James Town neighbourhoods, I'm at home. It's like being among our Ijaw (Bayelsa, Delta, Ondo, Rivers etc) or Ilaje (Ondo State) kith and kin. And, going by the plenitude of Ijaw and Ilaje people along Nigeria's Atlantic coastline, and all the way through Bakassi into Equitorial Guinea, it is highly likely some of their ancestors may have sailed westward as far as Ghana.
As in the south, so it is to the north, where, in Nigeria as in Ghana, Hausa language is commonly spoken. Never mind that Nigerian Hausawa call mixed rice and bean porridge wake (wah-kay), while in the Ghanaian dialect of the same tongue, this food is pronounced wache (wah-chay). But, take out the phonetics and accents and many would certainly be hard-put to distinguish between a Ghanaian and a Nigerian, in terms of physique.
Aside physiognomic similarity of the nationals of both countries, in spite of the hundreds of ethnic groups that make up either republic, Ghanaian names-Ansa, Edem, Essien, Oku, Otu, Aquah (Oqua/Aqua)-are borne by the Efik people in Cross River and Akwa Ibom States of Nigeria respectively. Interestingly, too, Nigeria's Igbo and Efik peoples name children after the day of the week a baby was born. Names like Afo (Okafo), Eke (Sunday) and Oye (Okoye) all derive from Igbo weekdays.
In the same vein, Edet (Sunday) is the name for Efik babies born on a particular day of the week. This is also the practice across the many nationalities that fall within the ancient Akan Empire, which today covers parts of Ghana, Togo, Cote d'Ivoire and beyond. This is why names such as Kojo or Kodjo/Cudjoe, Kwame or Kouame, Kwesi/Esi (Sunday), Kofi or Coffie are common in at least five contiguous countries in West Africa.
Interestingly, Ghana's political and social and economic evolution is similar to that of Nigeria. For instance, the country's first post-independent government would be toppled by misguided soldiers. Subsequent military dictatorships would spawn obfuscating corruption and nepotism. Degeneration would set in, and millions of maidens would emigrate to foreign lands to work as whores. Although Nigerians have not yet experienced the cleansing that helped Ghana pull back from the brink, both countries would later embrace democracy. Again, like Nigeria, Ghana is now an oil-exporting country!
Like Nigeria, Ghana lies in West Africa; and, both countries are former colonies of Britain and, therefore, Anglophone. Also, Ghana and Nigeria are two important members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Walking along many streets in Accra, Aflao, Kumasi, Tema and other Ghanaian cities and settlements, we frequently heard Nigerian languages, especially Igbo and Yoruba, commonly spoken. Although statistics are unavailable, it is widely believed that roughly two million Nigerians live in Ghana. I got this impression from Ambassador Sam Okechukwu, Nigerian High Commissioner in Ghana between 1999 and 2003.
On the obverse side, countless Ghanaians have also melted into the Nigerian nation. Some have lived in Nigeria for generations and it would be uncharitable to label them Ghanaians. Although millions of Ghanaians were sent packing by the President Shehu Shagari Administration at the onset of Nigeria's economic woes in 1980, which cited the earlier expulsion of Nigerians from Ghana during the Kofi Busia years as example, vestiges of Ghana still remain with us. Ghana-bread is one example. So, whatever is the thrust of Nigeria's foreign policy, whether Africa as Centrepiece or Citizen Diplomacy or Economic Diplomacy, on every score, Ghana is important to Nigeria and vice versa.
It is also important to point out that at a time like this, when fanatics of Semitic faiths seem bent to exterminate indigenous African culture, Nigeria as the world's most populous black nation and Ghana, deservedly proud Black Star, must join hands to preserve African/Black culture and also protect black peoples everywhere in the world. And, who could forget: Was it not in Ghana that Nigerian-born brain-washed Abdul Muttalab procured a ticket to board a plane that he planned to bomb mid-air on Christmas Day in 2010? Evidently, there are innumerable reasons why Nigerians and Ghanaians should look out for each other.
Very deja vu
On August 10, 2012, Independence Square aka Black Star Square in Accra, capital of Ghana, was an ocean of human heads and it reminded me of March 6, 1997; when I came this way to cover Ghana's 40th independence anniversary for Nigeria's Sunday Times. That assignment would remain one of the most memorable ones for me because on that day, the earth practically shook for Ghana. We were at the WEB du Bois Centre in Accra, venue of a lecture by controversial African-American Muslim cleric Louis Farakhan, when a mild earthquake struck. It was a most unnerving experience, yet it didn't detract from the thrill of being in Ghana to witness that epochal passage.
Akin to the situation in 1997, again, I was one among hundreds of thousands of anonymous faces that converged on this square to witness the climax of three days of mourning leading to the burial of President John Evans Atta Mills, who died on July 24. Yes, we were once again at Independence Square. As its name suggests, Independence Square was built in commemoration of Ghana's liberation from colonial rulers, Britain.
But, despite having visited the Ghanaian capital countless times, I can count the number of times I've been at this square on the fingers of both hands because I always found enough to exhaust my time in other parts of town. In other words, people only gravitate towards Independence Square aka Black Star Square for monumental national events. And, I wasn't in the least surprised, when on walking past this monument August 17, 2004, the entire complex was almost completely deserted, but for the security personnel on guard.
In contrast, on April 6, 1997, there were, literally, people on every square-inch of the Black Star Square and environs. Men, women, young and old thronged this neighbourhood to watch official proceedings. Some of the guests, now hoary-head antediluvian folks bent by age, where there when the political leadership baton changed hands, and presumably came to hear from the indigenous rulers how much was being done to improve the lot of the locals, who were being used as guinea pigs for economic experiments by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). On August 10, 2012, during the funeral of Atta Mills, the scenerio was similar, except that the crowd was thicker.
Just as we noted in our report after the March 1997 tour, during our latest sojourn in Accra, one could see that the road network is still being redesigned and many avenues rehabilitated, with some completely rebuilt. Street lights are functional, water flows from the faucets and power cuts, which Nigerians have unfortunately been forced to accept as a way of life, are still a very rare occurrence in Ghana, whose Coat of Arms celebrates as land of Freedom and Justice. However, the telling price being paid for this country's economic reforms surges to the fore from the numerous destitutes found sleeping on many streets' sidewalks and the emaciated features of countless Ghanaians.
Still reminiscing on our 1997 trip: "On the parade grounds, while the official ceremonies were taking place that morning, a few of the school children packed to the venue for march-pasts actually collapsed. Some dropped from exhaustion but others might have fainted from hunger. However, there were free food and drinks for everyone who took up then head of state's invitation to the presidential mansion. We couldn't attend".
The parade grounds event was attended by then President of Cote d'Ivoire, Mr. Henri Konan Bedie; Nwalimu Julius Nyerere, a former leader of Tanzania (now deceased) and Mr. Salim Ahmed Salim, then scribe of the OAU (now African Union), among other very important personalities (VIPs). Evocative of 1997, the 2012 funeral also drew numerous dignitaries from across the globe. Even US Secretary of State, Mrs. Hilary Clinton was at Independence Square, this time.
Some economic indices and curios
Although the Ghanaian economy has been showing signs of steady growth over the last 20 years, with proceeds now rolling in from crude oil exports, the pace of growth is witnessing some acceleration. Yes, Ghana joined the league of oil-exporting countries this year. Commercial quantity of crude oil deposits was discovered in Ghana a few years ago, and, though mining commenced in 2011, Ghana was able to ship out its first oil export in January 2012.
Yes, our latest tour of the Ghanaian capital threw up impressions of a settlement undergoing rapid change. Welcome to Accra, a city transformed almost beyond recognition in roughly 20 years. Over the last two decades, we have witnessed Accra, nay Ghana, literally reinvented. The functional state of public utilities and infrastructure is a major factor in Ghana's renaissance and sustains the evolution. The evolution continues and the velocity is likely to increase as more mega-dollars flow in from crude oil exports.
The Ghanaian capital city evolved from a settlement founded by the Ga, who, historians believe, probably arrived in the 15th century. Going by West Africa: The Rough Guide, edited by Jim Hudgens and Richard Trillo, ancient Accra comprised seven quarters-the Ga quarters of Asere, Abola, Gbese, Sempi and Akunmadzei; Otublohu (the Akwamu quarters), and Alata, which evolved into the heart of British-protected part of James Town.
According to Hudgens and Trillo, the earliest Ga settlers had set up their capital at a place called Ayawaso (Great Accra), some 15 km further inland. However, today's seat of the Ghanaian Government was built in the 16th century along the Atlantic Coast for purposes of trade with the Portuguese, who probably built the first fort in Accra.
Present-day Accra boasts three forts-Ussher Fort, Christiansburg and Fort James, all erected in 17th century by Dutch, Danish and British traders respectively. Over time, the trio has undergone mixed fortunes. For instance, the one-time Danish stronghold, Christiansburg, now serves as office and residence of the Ghanaian head of state. That presidential mansion is locally called The Castle and stands firm in Osu. On the other hand, the fate of the British-built Fort James has dipped so deeply that it is now Ghana's maximum-security prison. Until some years ago, that role was assigned to the Dutch Ussher Fort. However, this Dutch-built fortress now serves as a specialised repository of Ghana Museums and Monuments Board (GMMB). Both Ussher and James Forts stand within 20 minutes' walk along the Marina overlooking James Town, where the traditional ruler (Ga Mantse) has his palace.
Akin to other cities across the world, Accra has leapt very far beyond its original bounds. Take a neighbourhood called Mile 7, for example. Barely a decade ago, Mile 7's most notable estate was the local cemetery. Today, Mile 7 throws up countless residential mansions and exquisite malls. Such is the pace of development in Accra for you. Apart from the inner-city neighbourhoods of Adabraka, James Town, La and New Town (formerly called Lagos), Osu et cetera, Accra now encompasses Adenta, Dzorwulu, East Legon, Kaneshie, Korle-Bu, and Madina, among other suburbs, and seems poised to swallow Teshie and Nungua as it marches to overlap with the port city of Tema.
As a result, the tourist will need several visits or a very long stay to become truly familiar with the Ghanaian capital. Aside the numerous neighbourhoods, each with its own character, nightclubs, bars and restaurants; the list of official tourist sites is also a long one. A snappy roll call will include the Independence Monument, Ghana National Museums, National Theatre, Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum, Ussher Fort, the alluring beach resorts on the Atlantic Coast and WATO. WATO is an acronym from West Africa Trading Organisation, and this body is housed in an antique building, more than 110 years old. Located across the road from the local General Post Office, the ground floor of WATO House hosts several shops, whose wares range from foodstuff, confections, textile to perfumes and spices; while a bar-cum-restaurant occupies the second floor. From the balcony of this bar, the tourist can enjoy a special view of Accra, while sipping some drink or enjoying a bite.
A visit to Ghana National Museums and the National Theatre is strongly recommended because a tour of a museum will give the tourist a better understanding of the rich culture of any destination; and frequently, a major event or performance by some famous musician also takes place at the Ghana National Theatre. In 1997, it was at National Theatre, Accra that we witnessed Makosax, a show by Manu Dibango as part of activities marking Ghana's 40th independence anniversary. After that show, we subsequently enjoyed the privilege of a lengthy chat with this saxophonist of world renown at Novotel, where he put up during the 1997 tour.
In Accra, the tourist might want to explore the Samora Machel Street neighbourhood. A popular eatery called Kalibre Restaurant stands near 4th Crescent link. This 4th Crescent link is located off Samora Machel Street, and Kalibre Restaurant offers grilled tilapia, and okra soup to ease the swallowing of morsels of banku as well as balls of fufu served with goat meat soup.
Samora Machel starts at a junction with Farrah Avenue, and it is in one corner of this intersection that Beverley Hotel is situated. Barnes Road, where the Holy Spirit Cathedral and Ghana Museums and Monument Board (GMMB) headquarters stand, starts at this point where Samora Machel meets Farrah Avenue. Barnes Road also now boasts headquarters of Tigo, a popular GSM phone network service provider.
Also, Barnes Road throws up images of the Ghanaian society's concern for people with disabilities. This could be seen in the secretariat of the Ghana Federation of the Disabled (GFD), which stands within the Accra Rehabilitation Centre along Barnes Road. The GFD, founded in 1987, has the motto, Strength in Unity and informs that Disability is not Inability.
Eye on the cedi
The Ghanaian currency comprises pesewas and cedi. One hundred pesewas make one cedi. Named after the Akan language word for the cowrie shell, the cedi has literally seen it all. Years ago, we frequently quipped that every Nigerian had a chance to join the millionaires' club. All they needed do was travel to Ghana and convert US$101 into cedi. Those days, US$100 or N10,000 at some point, gave you 999,000 cedi. Add another US$1 or N100, which commanded 9,900, and you were worth more than one million cedi. Some millionaire! However, that joke ended with the introduction of Ghana cedi, which turned 10,000 cedi to one miserly cedi! So, today, one Ghana cedi (usually denoted by Ghc) amounts to roughly N100.
Moving around the Ghanaian capital is not difficult, at all. Accra boasts a plethora of cabs and buses. Additionally, there is a fleet of second-hand double-decker buses imported from Europe to make intra-city transportation easier still. Apart from these two-floor affairs, which ply a few select routes, this city is widely covered by mini-buses, known locally as tro-tro.
To be candid, however, it must be said that not all of Accra's bus fleet is sleek. At Accra Neoplan Station or Main Park, antique Mercedes, Volkswagen and Ford mini-buses dominate the fleet. Whether the destination is Korle-bu, where a hospital in memory of the late Japanese microbiologist, Hideyo Noguchi stands; or Mamprobi, Tema, Osu Re, Madina, Legon et cetera, there's no way of escaping these creaky traps.
On the whole, however, Ghana's efficient public transportation system makes it inconceivable that anyone could operate a motorbike taxi (okada) in these climes. "Indeed, the Nigerian tourist would immediately notice the absence of the obtrusive okada or achaba in the Ghanaian capital" is how we captured the situation in 1997. Sadly, however, okada are now widespread in many Ghanaian towns and are practically creeping towards Accra. You'd think that from the perceived correlation between okada and crime as well as terrorism experienced in Nigeria; Ghanaian authorities would come down hard on this vector, but this does not seem to be the case.
In any case, Nigerian public transport authorities might want to know that commuters in Accra's tro-tro, the equivalent of Nigerians' danfo, sit three passengers per row instead of four and sometimes five that is the norm in various parts of Africa's Giant in the sun. More confounding still is the fact that transport fares are cheaper in Accra than in Nigeria, in spite of the higher cost of petrol and fewer numbers of passengers each bus carries in Ghana.
For example, in 2009, the fare for a bus ride from Kwame Nkrumah Circle to Accra/UTC, less than 10km or the equivalent of travelling from Ojuelegba Roundabout to Costain Bus Stop in Lagos, was 20 pesewas (roughly N30). By August 2012, the cost of travelling in a tro-tro for 10km was 40 pesewas (approximately N40). Evidently, the fare has risen roughly 33 percent in three years, compared to the going price in 2009.
Contrast this with the change in fare for travelling from Mile 2 to Seme in Lagos, Nigeria, where the cost has jumped from N200 in 2009 to N400 in 2012. To make matters worse, the Nigerian danfo is usually more decrepit and four, sometimes five, passengers sit per row; as against three in Ghana. The situation is made more curious by the fact that a litre of petrol sells for Ghc1.70 (N170) in Ghana, against N97 in Nigeria.
During our 2009 visit, a litre of petrol sold for 77.9 pesewas, or roughly a little over N100. Ghanaians owe their good fortune as far as efficient, decent and affordable public transport is concerned, to the government and the Ghana Private Road Transporters Union (GPRTU), an affiliate of that country's Trade Union Congress (TUC). In Ghana, fuel pump prices can only be increased after lengthy negotiations with all stakeholders; and when the cost eventually goes up, the burden is not callously passed to the commuters as appears to be the situation in Nigeria.
Unlike the situation in Nigeria, where passengers entirely bear the burden of fuel price hikes through the antics of thieving touts and filthy politicians' thugs disguised as executive members of National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW) and Road Transport Employers Association of Nigeria (RTEAN) and so on, everyone feels the pinch after any increment in fuel pump price in Ghana. The pain is shared: Commuters pay a little more, the commercial vehicle operators go home with a little less profit and the authorities get a bashing from the media. But in Nigeria, the entire burden is simply off-loaded on hapless commuters without any intervention from supposed authorities.
Interpretation: Nigerian governments as well as the NURTW and RTEAN owe the citizenry some explanations. How come fares are higher in Nigeria than in Ghana, whereas fuel is cheaper and four passengers sit per row in the former? This mystery must be resolved before the next election, even if only to "move the country forward" to regurgitate the rubbish of Nigeria's visionless politicians found in all parties, whose efforts for the most part of 52 years since independence have only moved the country backward.
Dining out and popular Ghanaian cuisine
Across Accra, the tourist would notice all sorts of bars and restaurants. Along some streets, you may find as many as 10, but it must be said that whatever each outfit sells, the environment is somewhat neat and well ventilated. It is not uncommon to find as many as eight windows in the four walls of a bar or eatery, here. Moreover, wherever you go, probability is high the atmosphere would be cordial. This is one reason the Ghanaian tourism industry is enjoying a boom.
For tastes of Ghanaian cuisine, the tourist might want to explore some eateries located within Ghana National Museum complex on Barnes Road. Most of these eateries are open daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., from Monday to Saturday. One of these bar-cum-restaurants, known as Auntie Grace Special Farisco, is a unique chop-bar. Chop-bar is the Ghanaian equivalent of the Francophone Marquis, and Auntie Grace Special Farisco dishes out Ghanaian cuisine such as Ampesi, Fufu, Banku, Omo-tuo and so on.
Edvy Restaurant and Bar is another popular restaurant in this neighbourhood. However, Edvy Restaurant and Bar, which focuses on breakfast and lunch, Monday to Saturday, also serves Chinese and Continental dishes as well as pastries and ice-cream, apart from popular Ghanaian menus.
Additionally, the tourist may want to try out the cuisine served inside the canteen of Ghana Tourist Authority (GTA). Operators of this eatery inside the GTA headquarters promise each diner options of "hot pastries, sandwich and rice" et cetera, alongside indigenous menus such as Abunuabunu soup.
Whether it is live music spots or places to just dance and drink till the wee hours of the next day, Accra has plenty to give, and more. Macumba, near Danquah Circle; Oops Nite Club in Kaneshie and Kilimanjaro near Kwame Nkrumah Circle were among the most popular discotheques in town in the late 1990s. However, we discovered from a 2000 tour, that a visit to Indigo, which stands near Danquah Circle, comes highly recommended.
It was at Indigo we saw a performance by, and eventually had an interview with, South African-born jazz artiste, Hugh Masekela in 2000. Also, the tourist stands to lose nothing by exploring Shangri-La and the ever-increasing number of massive hotels and resorts dotting Accra's beaches on the way to Tema through Teshie-Nungua.
A night-out at Kwame Nkrumah Circle might not be disappointing. You probably want to visit Vienna City. Housed in a redesigned structure that in the past hosted other nightclubs known at various times as Wakiki, Kilimanjaro and Le Ker, Vienna City has outposts in a few other Ghanaian settlements, apart from Accra. Because Vienna City never sleeps, dozens of other small nightclubs and eateries operate around this main one till dawn. But you are better off just enjoying the music and drinking the night away than contemplating any amorous deal with the scores of flesh mongers that loiter around the Kwame Nkrumah Circle area at night.
Bad company probably misled some of these girls, in their early teens, into prostitution; but, some observers blame poverty and hardship wrought by harsh economic reform programmes. Interestingly, some of these street women are Nigerian, Liberian and Sierra Leonean girls living in Ghana. The Liberian and Sierra Leonean women are remnants of refugees who fled civil wars in their own countries decades ago. Take heart: AIDS awareness seems to be very high in Ghana, where the girls have an option of using a female condom, should they encounter some reckless "customer".
Getting to Accra from Aflao
Coming by road from Lagos, Nigeria, the tourist's first contact with Ghana is the frontier town of Aflao. Aflao stands adjacent to Kodzoviakope, the extreme south-western border settlement in Togo. To get to Aflao, the wayfarer will have crossed three pairs of international boundaries: Seme (Nigeria)/Krake (Benin Republic), Hilla Condji (Benin Republic/Sanvee Condji (Togo) and Kodzoviakope (Togo)/Aflao (Ghana).
It is expected that the tourist is armed with proper and valid travel documents, such as passport and Vaccination (Yellow) Card. Crossing the border of any country into another throws up some thrills and frills, and the situation is not different coming from Nigeria to Ghana. Whether riding in a taxi or tro-tro, from Aflao, the wayfarer should arrive in Accra after between 200 minutes' and 240 minutes' drive.
We dig into our archive, again, to see how much the fare has changed over the years along this route: In 1997, the fares varied between 4 cedi and 6 cedi; but, by 2009, the bus fare to Accra from Aflao ranged from 5.50 cedi to 7 cedi; while the journey extracted from 12 cedi to 20 cedi. It all depends on what type of vehicle one choses to travel in. The lower limit applied to mini-buses, the Nissan, Toyota types commonly used by Nigerian commercial vehicle operators, while the upper limit offered a more comfy ride in roomier Ford, Toyota or Dodge SUV-also, air-conditioned.
Accra to Aflao
We paid 6.5 cedi fare for a ride from Accra to Aflao in an air-conditioned bus, and the trip was made more relaxing because the bus was air-conditioned and three passengers sat per row of seat behind the driver's compartment. The date was April 16, 2009 and the time was 15:15 hours, when our journey began. We hit Akatsi (pronounced Akachi) at 17:45 hours. Akatsi is near Agbaflorme, roughly 47 km to Aflao. We later hit Abor some 40km from Aflao.
Between Aflao and Accra, the traveller is likely to notice many settlements or hamlets, including Avalavi, Atiteti, Klikor and Agbozurme after hitting the T-junction at Denu, which stands only 5km to the Ghana-Togo frontier. Another memorable pass is the bridge over South Volta at Sogakope, which is why this link is officially called South Volta Bridge. The southern bank of the river is where the CEPS (Ghana Customs Excise and Preventive Service) has its checkpoint-cum-offices. Aside CEPS officials, the traveller simply couldn't miss the swarm of hawkers that converge on any vehicle that slows down or pulls to a stop here. The traders' wares include "choffie" and "broodo." The latter translates as bread, while "choffie" stands for turkey butt.
The tourist would notice a rush for the loaves from bakeries in and around Sogakope. The loaves are wrapped in pairs, and one wrap sells for 2 cedi (about $2 or N200 approximately). As regards task, the brood tasted delicious, except for the sucrephobe that may find it hyper-sweetened. Other edibles on sale alongside brodo and choffie include fried yam, plantain chips, fried worms et cetera as well as sundry drinks to wash down the bites.
On the northern banks of the Volta, the wayfarer is likely to catch a glimpse of a small store housed in a kiosk with Obama Spot boldly written as its name. On the way towards Accra, long before getting to the Ghanaian port city of Tema, most commuters remember Vume among the roadside blurs. Vume etches itself permanently on the mind through the community's somewhat innate skill at pottery-making.