In 2019, Ghana hosted the Year of Return, inviting those with roots in the country to come back home, 400 years after the first enslaved Africans arrived in the United States. A record 1.13 million people took the opportunity to explore their heritage and discover the beauty of the former British colony, which in 1957 became the first sub-Saharan African nation to gain independence. Last year, Ghana marked a new decade—Beyond the Return—and there’s never been a better time to visit, starting with the vibrant capital, Accra. What this English-speaking West African nation lacks in safaris, it makes up for with a growing art scene, fascinating tribal history and culture, uncrowded beaches, and a killer soccer team (World Cup 2022, watch out). Even if you don’t have roots in Ghana, the people here will make you feel at home.
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Celebrating independence and art in Victoriaborg
The Economic Community of West African States’ conference, which summoned 15 of the region’s presidents to the Kempinski Hotel Gold Coast City Accra, has just wrapped, but the regal air of the place seems more-or-less permanent: glass ribbon chandeliers, an executive lounge, a spa that spans three floors.
When I was last in Accra, working for a regional NGO 10 years ago, this swath of the Victoriaborg neighborhood was still a relatively barren, colonial-era racecourse; places like the Kempinski didn’t exist in the city. Fittingly, though, the adinkra symbol depicting two conjoined crocodiles is visible throughout the hotel—it denotes democracy, as the reptiles must work in tandem to survive.
My room affords me a two-pronged slice-of-life view: Below, the players in an amateur men’s soccer league work up a sweat on a primary school field on Gamel Abdul Nasser Avenue; rising beyond, sort of like Accra’s Arc de Triomphe, is the Black Star Square Independence Arch, located just one block inland from the Gulf of Guinea.
Keen to get a closer look, I descend the Kempinski’s seven floors—spotting men in shiny kaftans and skullcaps who I suspect may be lingering Senegalese heads of state—and walk for 10 minutes along Victoriaborg’s characteristic, still pot-holed red-earth sidewalks, fueling up on street-vendor bananas en route to Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park and Mausoleum. Previously a polo club for the colonizing Brits (and thus a no-go area for the local people), nowadays the seaside grounds of the park are a flourishing symbol of Pan-Africanism, where presidents from across the continent have come to plant trees over the years. (Nelson Mandela’s is a mango.)
“Nkrumah chose this as our independence speech spot as a way to spite the British in 1957,” Kofi Kpodo, one of Memorial Park’s staff guides, tells me as I take in the scene. I ask if he has ever tasted any of Mandela’s mangoes, and he smiles. “Several.”
Kpodo shows me the adjoining museum’s artifacts from the Nkrumah era, including the former president’s baby grand piano and first editions of the 17 books he wrote—mostly on the topic of Pan-Africanism. One particularly grabby title: Handbook of Revolutionary Warfare.
Nkrumah’s resting place—a Lord of the Rings–looking tower that local architect Don Arthur fashioned from gray Italian marble, with a black star at the top to symbolize unity—serves as the grounds’ centerpiece. I mosey across the lawn and around the mausoleum’s moat and bronze hornblower statues to ogle the baby-blue Cadillac given to Nkrumah by JFK in 1961, which, flat tire notwithstanding, looks to be well-preserved, despite the coast’s eternally 80–degree, muggy weather.
Speaking of which, I could really use a cold drink. A 10-minute walk brings me to the coastline and Osikan Ocean Rock Retreat Centre, where I climb a stunning yellow staircase to an open-air restaurant looking out over the colorful fishing boats in the harbor. After a pineapple soda and grilled chicken and vegetables, I’m still craving something sweet, so I hop a cab to Sotto Zerro Gelateria, which is owned by Captain Baron Okai, a 57-year-old former Ghana Airways pilot who detoured to gelato school in Bologna in 2016. Whenever possible, the Captain uses regional ingredients in his gelato, and I opt for his most Ghanaian offering: cashew, almond, and coffee.
I take my cone and stroll to The Galleria, Accra’s first luxury mall, which opened in Victoriaborg in 2019. The first thing I see upon entering is a 7-foot-tall octopus and a human-size catfish. Largely vacant of retail tenants, this glitzy space has become more of an air-conditioned community promenade that now includes four artist studios, as part of Gallery 1957’s residency program. The gallery first opened in 2016, on the ground floor of the then-spanking-new Kempinski next door. Its British director, Victoria Cooke, seems to live to elevate Ghanaian artists’ street cred here and abroad, and now she manages four locations: three in Accra, plus a new outpost in London.
“Until five years ago, there wasn’t much of an arts infrastructure here,” Cooke says. Every year, she endeavors to showcase the works of one elder Ghanaian artist, many of whom haven’t had a major exhibition in West Africa. One recent elder is Paa Joe, a woodworker known for making fantasy coffins, which are popular with Ghana’s Ga tribe. His works—elaborately carved caskets, often in the shape of animals (hence the octopus and catfish)—have been shown in the British Museum in London, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Brooklyn Museum in New York, but, oddly, not here. “For his work to be so well-known but not to have had an exhibition [here] seemed like madness,” Cooke says.
The gallery also features work by up-and-comers. One trend that Cooke has seen is young African artists rebelling against Western expectations: “These groups of Ghanaian artists are just like, ‘Why is everyone telling us to make political work now? Why does our work suddenly have to be didactic about that? That isn’t our experience. We’re just artists on the continent being inspired by our surroundings.’”
Instead, painters such as Francis Annan Affotey and Afia Sarpong Prempeh are focusing on portraiture of everyday people. “The discussion seems to be, like, ‘We’re just going to show our friends in this really cool way, painted with a very regal attitude,’” says Cooke.
I peek into Sarpong Prempeh’s studio and find the artist at work on a huge portrait. Among her open tubes of acrylic paint and rolled-up canvases I spot a takeout bag. “What is Brasa?” I ask. “Oh, this new Latin-African grill over in Labone,” the 34-year-old, Kumasi-born artist tells me. “I like their soft lemon chicken skewers.”
Following her lead, I venture across town. The restaurant, off Ring Road in a residential bit of the burgeoning Labone neighborhood, features red velvet banquettes, mirrored tiles, and geometrically patterned wallpaper. The food is similarly attractive: my tuna and avocado tartare is almost too pretty to eat, but I do, and then dig into a classic Ghanaian jollof rice cooked in tomato sauce and spices. The room’s punchy colors prompt me to order a deep red Sobo Fizz cocktail, made with hibiscus-infused rum, sobolo (a variety of hibiscus), and lime juice. It’s bright and refreshing—not unlike my first day here.
Shopping in Osu and confronting history in Jamestown
When I was here 10 years ago, Osu—an easterly district jammed with night spots, worldly restaurants, and boutiques—was where it was at. In 2021… Osu is still where it’s at. So I’m spending today there, starting by taking one of Accra’s many multi-colored shared taxis to my new digs. La Villa Boutique Hotel, located in the former Russian Embassy, feels like an upscale treehouse, with calabashes fashioned into light fixtures and kentia palms and ficus that frame—and seem to physically support—the beige buildings.
I queue up at La Villa’s bamboo-walled coconut stand, where a uniformed man machetes open the fruit and plops in a red-and-white paper straw. This winds up being a to-go coconut, as I’m in desperate need of coffee.
It’s a two-block stroll to Osu’s buzzy thoroughfare, Oxford Street, where I notice that several of the street vendors’ previously haphazard container stalls have been replaced with tidy, official-looking kiosks filled with whole fish and various canned sundries. I keep hearing Ghanaians lament the fact that their raw materials, such as coffee beans, are far too often shipped to Western countries for processing and packaging, then sold back to Ghanaians at a huge markup.
Change, however, seems to be afoot. At the charmingly hidden Jamestown Coffee Warehouse, I amble by a huge red roaster and walls lined with behemoth “Made In Ghana”–emblazoned sacks of beans grown in the Volta Region. From the café’s Financial Times–colored menu, I order the Warehouse Waffle and a Labadi iced latté filled to the brim with crushed ice that reminds me of Sonic Drive-In sodas. A 20-something guy behind a MacBook at the adjacent table inquires about the WiFi password. “NoToDecaf,” the waiter replies.
Perhaps even wittier: the lower-Osu boutique Lokko House’s zeitgeisty T-shirts. “It kind of started as a joke back when my Israeli partner at the time wanted a T-shirt that said ‘Chale Why?’” says 43-year-old proprietor Stefania Manfreda. (The phrase is used here constantly, and translates to something like, “Dude, what the heck?”) “That was 2008, back when there was virtually nothing on the ground to make Accra look cool—no cinemas, no sexy restaurants.” She pauses to arrange a rack of shirts bearing slogans such as “Excessive Borrowing Causes Cancer.” “I realized that people didn’t value Ghanaian products much, and I thought this edgy T-shirt might change perceptions a bit.”
Seems to have worked. Whenever Manfreda, a life-long Osu resident, champions a local designer, their fashions tend to take off. At the moment, that includes screen-printed tote bags from Edinam Azumah’s “Black Attitude” line: one depicting a Vogue cover with black models, and another with three guys snacking on watermelons.
I pick up two pairs of brightly patterned Afrisocks before grabbing an Uber (another delightful new development here) west, along the Atlantic coastline, into Old Accra. Here, I meet my guide for the afternoon, Elvis Wallace-Bruce, a native Jamestownian who maintains that’s his real name. “My parents loved Elvis,” he says as we pile into his Toyota Corolla and head down High Street, past a crumbling tribal shrine, to Jamestown. “You have to be very careful when driving through here,” Wallace-Bruce explains. “We do everything out on the street. Cook, sell, pray. Children play on the street—even have their bath on the street.”
The lively street scene makes our destination all the more poignant. Old Accra’s UNESCO-listed Ussher Fort, built by the Dutch in 1642, was the exit point for many people who were sold into slavery. The museum’s sole caretaker, Moses Anaba, leads us to a courtyard shaded by a time-warped, two-story white wall, then looks skyward to explain. “This is the market where Dutch masters would stand above and point down to the Africans they wanted. After they buy them, it’s…” Anaba pauses, motioning westward, “to the sea.”
He then shows us the dungeons. I stare at the rusted rings on the floor, where people were shackled, and through the same bars that a great many America-bound people no doubt gazed through at the ocean they’d soon be forced to traverse. I ask Anaba whether any of his own family members met this fate. “Many, many, many, many,” he replies.
We climb refurbished stairs to the Ussher Fort Slavery Museum, which is supported in part by the Netherlands’ Embassy in Accra. The transatlantic trade is depicted with artifacts such as an excavated branding iron, neck and hand bonds, and a painting of the aforementioned market mid-auction. A diorama details a slave ship, the Fredensborg, the wreckage of which was discovered off the coast of Norway in 1974.
On the museum’s wrap-around terrace, I take in the panoramic view of the city and waterfront. A couple of cranes dot Jamestown’s ancient fishing harbor, where shirtless Ga fishermen are pulling their colorful canoes ashore. It seems the past and present are constantly colliding here.
It’s hard to muster much of an appetite after the museum, but all the same I take a shared taxi back to Osu and Front/Back, Accra’s answer to Soho House. The work of three Ghanaian brothers, it’s characterized by museum-caliber surprises in myriad nooks, such as vintage dolls from a Twi-speaking Akan village. Ostensibly, it’s a members-only establishment, although Muggles can snag reservations until 7 p.m. most nights. I score a table in the library, where it appears to be raining lightbulbs: Hundreds of them flicker on and off in sequence, giving the illusion that they’re cascading from the sky. “Yeah, if we turned them all on, Ring Road’s power would blow,” a server tells me.
For dinner, I order fonio waakye, which is basically rice and beans but made with fonio, an ancient, fluffy super-food grain grown in Ghana’s Northern Region and often served with groundnut sauce. Dessert-wise, I opt for sobolo cheesecake tidily layered with crunchy coconut granola and caramelized rosella leaves and hibiscus.
In search of a nightcap, I traverse a black-lit, funhouse-esque hallway installation by painter Artsoul Kojo to Front/Back’s vintage barber sign–filled terrace bar, which smells of bougainvillea and burning mosquito coils. The cocktails are named for local artists, and I opt for the Artsoul, made with coconut-infused rum and malted banana syrup. I’d like to sample some other artist’s work, but I look at the time and figure a solo show is better than a full museum tour. To bed.
Buying a drum and riding a horse on the coast
It’s early morning, and I’m rolling my suitcase toward a Labadi Beach–bound tro-tro; the driver’s mate (what they call a conductor) promptly flings it onto the roof to join several big bags of potatoes. These multi-colored, easy-to-catch vans are Ghana’s liveliest mode of transport; every respectable tro-tro driver adheres some sort of salty slogan to his back windshield, ranging from the motivational to the religious to the perplexing. This one says, “No Food for Lazy Man.”
We speed along Labadi Road, blowing by a stalled tro-tro that reads, “God Is My Seatbelt.” Still tracing the Atlantic a few minutes nearer my stop, we pass a man riding a horse, his feet bare in the silver stirrups.
Labadi Beach Hotel sits on one of Accra’s most attractive swaths of urban beach, one which boasts intense waves that dissuade all but the most committed surfers. (Most of the rest decamp to Kokrobite beachfront village, 22 miles to the west.)
Before hitting the beach, I pop into the hotel’s Akwaaba Restaurant, which is known for having the city’s best buffet. It lives up to the hype. Properly fueled on a traditional egg stew (eggs simmered with tomato purée and chillies and served alongside boiled yams), I go for a quick ocean dip, then hop an Uber down the coast to the country’s largest craft market.
A moisture- and time-worn sign announces the broadly named Centre for National Culture (although everyone in Accra just calls it the Arts Center). I brave the front-loaded mayhem and mostly harmless pushiness of the bead and kente cloth vendors. This textile is the most globally identifiable example of Ghanaian artistry, and the reams here are particularly awe-inspiring: Brilliant hues of red, orange, yellow, and blue silk and cotton are woven into blocks of Tetris-looking patterns. The cloth is historically worn by festive-feeling Ashanti men in unfussy, toga-esque silhouettes, but these days it gets incorporated into everything from flip-flops to tote bags.
An eager sculpture dealer from an adjacent stall follows me as I browse. “Come, come! You must see my giraffes!” he calls, but I’m here to buy something specific, so I kindly tell him no and make my way toward the Arts Center’s calmer side, on the far left, in search of Best Way Art & Drums Shop.
I step through the barn door–like entrance of a blue metal shipping container and see a dozen in-progress djembes—the most popular percussion instrument this side of the Sahara—lining the walls and concrete floor. Drum teacher Gershon Kwabla is mid-lesson, creating hollow, round pangs and booms that reverberate through the 25-year-old shop. At the back of the room, I find the design carver, Jah B, who etches elephant-laden village scenes and adinkra symbols into the tweneboa wood his crew acquires from various Akan chiefs in Ghana’s Eastern Region. “Before us, our elder brothers were here,” he says. “They taught us how it works; now we are taking over.”
I need one for myself, and I spend the next couple of hours talking with Jah while watching him work on it. “These days, lots of customers are requesting I carve the sankofa, which means ‘there’s room for improvement,’” he tells me, but I ask him to cut the Akan tribe’s gye nyame symbol of God’s omnipotence (I’ve noticed this marking perforated onto plastic chairs throughout the country) and a village horse onto my beautiful new djembe.
I drop my prize back at Labadi Beach Hotel and, inspired by the horse carving, go in search of a ride—a task that proves rather simple, as the hotel is located near Accra’s current polo club. On the beach, I spot a grinning, flip-flop-wearing horseman straight away. Kobby Mansh and his well-fed white steed, Georgina, have been in the freelance beach ride biz together for three years. “Need a ride?” he asks, adjusting his red baseball cap. I hop on and hope God is indeed my seatbelt.
Mansh, Georgina, and I saunter into the laid-back, less-trafficked side of the neighborhood, to Sandbox Beach Club. Like many eateries in Accra, it’s a largely open-air affair, but with the refreshing bonus of a football-field-wide pergola adjacent to the sea. The food turns out to be similarly breezy: I enjoy a hummus wrap with local tomatoes and marinated vegetables, plus a side of creamy mashed potatoes. I also take a chance on a to-go order of prawn tacos with brown rice for my horseman, a thank-you for his offer to return to the restaurant and escort me back to the hotel after dinner.
I cap my meal off with a Gold Coast cocktail, headlined by Alomo Gold (a potent herbal bitters popular throughout West Africa), and a s’mores tart. Just as I’m polishing off the former, the jazzy playlist emanating from the DJ booth grinds to a halt. The South Africa–based duo Major League DJZ bound up the beach stairs toward their post, waves crashing behind them.
One of them wears a sweatshirt that says “Ghana Sexiness” across the chest. Suddenly, it’s a full-on party.
After a couple of bass-thumping numbers, though, I’m ready for a quieter end to my night, so I descend the stairs from whence Ghana Sexiness emerged. Nightfall has Labadi locals swarming toward a beach bonfire—6-foot reeds tied together into a flaming teepee—and clinking together Star beers.
I settle onto the sand and take stock. While this country has certainly evolved and grown in myriad ways over the last decade, one unchanged element is Ghanaians’ enviably relaxed, friendly ethos. I contemplate joining some strangers in a toast, but here are Mansh and Georgina, ready to take me home, so I ride back to my hotel under a sky full of stars, grateful for the last three days and for the fact that my new friend does, it turns out, like prawn tacos.
Accra Awaits: United is the only airline serving Accra nonstop from Washington, D.C., and the only airline offering premium economy seats between the U.S. and Ghana. Book at united.com/ghana or on the United app.
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