Ghana has a bright side and a dark side – representing present and past. Most people know of its role in the slave trade but few know the horrifying detail, so a journey along the ‘Gold Coast’ (as it was known in colonial times) was enlightening. But it wasn’t just about forts and the shock of Ghanaian history, it was also about the people today – arguably the friendliest and most charming I have ever met on all my travels.

A prime example of a Ghanaian welcome

Intricacies of travel

As I had already sampled and been enthralled by West Africa’s rich, fascinating culture (read my post about Mali here), my friend Mel and I chose Ghana. One good reason is because it shares the same time zone as the UK – so no jet-lag! After suffering last summer from a Canadian trip, that, for me, was a big plus. But, booking at the last minute, we somehow forgot about visas – until I remembered. That meant double the visa price – making it an exorbitant £140 (US$170). Not only that, it entailed several mind-numbing hours labouring over a convoluted online form – which you still had to present in person at the consulate. Bureaucracy clearly rules.

Finally we landed in Accra, exhausted. This was due to another hitch, namely inept rerouting by KLM which took us via Dubai of all places, meaning a 16-hour delay and a lost day. No fun.

The Jamestown café – an art institution

Typically African, Accra’s jumble of high-rises and nameless streets is hardly seductive, yet it nonetheless sparks with electric energy and plenty of colour. Luckily, moving around this city of 2.5 million was simple – Uber worked brilliantly: fast, efficient and ultra-cheap.

Our first destination was the oldest neighbourhood which encompasses adjoining Ushertown and Jamestown on the coast. Cracked pavements, dilapidated buildings, dirt, graffiti and erratic traffic, but we soon found our goal (a hot tip from friends): Osikan. This open-air bar offers an uplifting view of the Atlantic waves and, in the far distance, Osu Fort, the first of many we were to see. A band played nearby and people danced – a perfect introduction to the easy joy of Ghana.

A drink and a breath of Atlantic air in Ushertown, next to Jamestown
The fishing harbour in Jamestown – plus junior spectator

Nearby, just below Fort James – once a British slave fort and prison – we discovered the old harbour full of bobbing fishing-boats, with fishermen mending nets and basins of fresh fish. All this was just hundreds of yards from a line-up of gleaming, high-rise banks. You wonder where all the money comes from. Gold perhaps? Because the mines still have it in spadesful in the north of the country.

Later, in Osu, the hip centre of Accra, we dined at an attractive modern restaurant, Buka, where slick service, a well-heeled clientele of expats and locals plus a car-park full of SUVs spelled out unexpected sophistication and wealth.

Buka restaurant – semi-outdoor and filled with plants

Exploring Ghanian death

We couldn’t leave Accra without visiting one of their fantasy coffin-makers. Now this might sound lugubrious, but it displays yet another take on the Ghanaian approach to life – and death. Coffins are handmade to order to match whatever the dead person’s life was about – fisherman, farmer, cobbler – or perhaps reflect an obsession: SUVs? Coca-Cola? ice-cream? hair-dryer? The Kane Kwei Carpentry Workshop, one of about five of these specialists in Accra, is now run by the grandson of the founder – but fantasy and heftily paid commissions still rule.

On the lathe
Someone liked big cars

The diversity is mindboggling and pretty crazy, all crafted in a chaotic family compound at Tenshie, just east of Accra. Commissions come from far and wide, the export variety fetching impressive prices of up to £10,000, ($12,000) while lesser quality coffins for locals, made from soft wood, may only cost a few hundred pounds.

It’s all about family – here no doubt a mother and an aunt, right next to the carpenters

While we were there, a lacquered replica of a farming hoe (coffin-size of course) was carefully carried downstairs, wrapped, then taken outside to be hoisted onto the roof of a bus – then driven all the way to Togo. We were told that funerals last three days; two days of mourning followed by one wild day of celebration, dancing and live music. All this can take place a year after death, with the corpse slumbering in a morgue meanwhile. It rather reminded me of Sulawesi, in Indonesia, where decades ago I participated in a funeral gathering – so upbeat and joyful that I couldn’t help myself calling it a wedding party.

An unfinished shark
More coffins – corn on the cob and a rather odd shoe,,

Tro-tro waiting time – the bus-station

But Cape Coast (next post!) called – loudly – so our next stop was the bus-station where we sat in the cloying heat for an hour. We had no option but to patiently wait for our tro-tro (share-taxi, in reality a mini-bus) to fill up. But entertainment came in the form of a constant stream of hawkers, smiling invitingly at the open door of the van – proffering plantain chips, buns, bottled water, Iphone cases and books – with a big emphasis on God or on learning English. Vendors were mainly women, strong and robust, standing erect with basins of wares balanced on their heads. They smile genuinely and when you decline, cock their head, beam, then move on to the next potential customer. No pressure.

Then, finally, our tro-tro set off.