Traveling to Accra? Welcome to Ghana's capital city with too-much-of-everything! The city that awakens your senses and thoughts with it's hecticity, contrasts and volumes. All you hear is car horns, street vendors shouting "pure water, ice cold!", "Charley" here and there, and hiplife beats wafting across the humid airwaves. People are everywhere, sweet scent of deep-fried plantain fills your nose and you get coated with dust and sweat. Well, one could also enjoy air-conditioned Uber ride through estate areas with colourful flowers, and stop by a mall for some pizza and a cup of cappuccino.
To be honest, some few years back Accra still remained quite a mystery to me even though I had been crisscrossing the region since 2009! I could just name a few main streets and places, and struggled to understand the locations of "Danquah 1st" and "Danquah 2nd" (two bus stops around Danquah circle, a roundabout located some meters away from Oxford Street in Osu... as if it really mattered to someone here..?).
However, thanks to my work and extremely friendly Ghanaians I've got a chance to explore Accra's diversity during the past 3 years. I've been to most areas from Nima to Haatso and from Odorkor to Labadi. I've visited people's homes, schools and offices, markets, beaches and hotels - always felt welcome. I've got a chance to understand a bit of how the city works behind the scenes.
A vibrant crowd of 2.3 million people live in busy Accra. The city of possibilities attracts people from all around the country and beyond to find work, succeed and progress in life.
As a common example, I've heard many taxi drivers telling me how they moved to Accra in order to make some money to support their families back home. It would be really hard to find an apartment for the whole family as the city is so over-populated and expensive as well. (Both me and Maria, we've had our challenges in finding suitable rental apartments too, but we've lately been lucky with this, thanks to our friends and networks again!) I don't even think that every family would be ready to change their authentic village, community or family house for a congested block with a great mix of people, habits and lifestyles.
It's beautiful how the culture and roots still play important roles in many Ghanaian's lives. At the same time people adapt to changes and understand the requirements of life with open minds and go for new opportunities.
But. Hustling in Accra can be really hard and not so often does it open doors for glitz and glam. It has been very mind-opening and sometimes quite challenging too, to spend time with people living in the slums and then switch to wealthy environments, and listening to hard-working individuals on the streets versus decision makers in their comfy offices and the hustlers who finally made it (the ones driving their luxury SUVs).
Before this gets too analytical, let's take a bit more cheerful look at Accra! My top things to explore in Accra, let's go...!
1. Live in community
You hardly come across those traditional family compound houses with a full range of aunties, uncles, new-borns, grand-ma's, brothers and sisters, cousins and ex's all from the same family. Instead, most houses contain several rooms inhabited by individual people, couples or small families with different backgrounds.
Last year I lived together with a few Ghanaians (some had lived in the US for long and that makes a big difference to the lifestyle!), one Nigerian, two Malaysians, one German, one Moroccan and my friend Maria (Finn).
This year I've been sharing a house with Rastafarian and strongly Christian families, ten student girls, and an entire family with mental health problems. Very interesting living as you can imagine!
"It's great how fast and with such ease strangers become friends here. Just meet someone at the well or laundry lines, borrow clothes pegs or rescue somebody's clean launrdy in off the line when it's about to rain."
And when there's a problem... you'll hear it.
2. Sit in traffic jam
Am I serious? Sitting in a maddening traffic jam!? Oh yes, endless traffic is a lifestyle in Accra, so get used to it. I actually like it. A premium box seat offering close view of the city's bustling life. Safe and sound in peace, and busy snapping pictures or interviewing the driver. You could even buy an ice cream, doughnut or a newspaper of the day from a street vendor.
In the mornings the roads get busy with school buses, taxis, the earlier mentioned SUVs and Accra's kings of the streets; the trotros (over and over again fixed mini vans packed with too many passengers). Kids are rushing to morning assemblies, executives drive smoothly towards modern biz areas and trotro mates (driver's assistant) pull people in to join the bumpy ride. And the gospel music plays on..
All this can be experienced equally after 4pm.
3. Get lost at market
"There's too much of everything in Accra." That can be experienced especially at Kaneshie and Makola Market (Circle used to be one of those super busy places before but since they finalized the clean up and new interchange building project the whole area has turned out to be surprisingly organized!).
Kaneshie has a large bus, trotro and "Ford" (trotro upgraded) station and an indoor market place. Food stuffs, fabrics or a ride to Central or Western regions? Get them all from Kaneshie.
Makola is a wide market place where you can shop anything at all. It's reaaaally crowded and sprawling so you'd better have an idea of what you're looking for before you get there. You just can't wander around without being pushed and pulled and stepped on by the crowd. Might be a good idea to visit Makola with a local person who can help you to find what you are looking for.
These market places are definitely worth experiencing. You'll get fascinated by colourful African wax print fabrics and well arranged fruit and vegetable piles. Walls, awnings and banners are dominated by colours of various teleoperators. A rooster is crowing on your left, a woman selling wigs is laughing on your right, and music echoes in every corner. Buy ice-cold water in a sachet when dripping with sweat. Smells vary from fishy to smoky and shitty to fruity. Ripe mango tastes like heaven and waakye (mixture of cooked beans and rice) with spicy sauces, all wrapped in banana leaves makes you overeat every time.
Last but not least, don't forget to keep an eye on your belongings! While you are wondering all that life happening around you somebody might be watching you and wondering how to grab your back. I don't mean to scare anyone, but at Makola you can easily forget yourself. And it's an ideal place for pickpockets to disappear in a second and hide in the masses.
I don't have any personal experiences of any kind of robberies in Ghana except once some guy tried to get my handbag through open trotro window but I was alert and saved my stuff. I do hear about stealing happening once in a while, usually around the same places during night time. Just be careful and hang out with good people around good places.
"What gets lost in Ghana is gone forever."
4. Eat street food in Osu
Osu is an area in Accra, where old houses built in the early 20th century meet modern office buildings, international kitchens, boutiques and bars. Be it Chinese or Ghanian dishes, pizza, kebab, makeups, baby food, fruit or sports gear - you'll find it around Oxford Street, Osu.
Nice for hangout and shopping. I've spent uncountable after-work hours there with my obroni sister Maria, drinking chilled beer and eating delicious tilapia with ginger and pepper straight from a street grill.
Nice, cozy and yet local restaurant recommendations? Oh yes, many of them, but my favourite is Chez Clarisse, an Ivorian cute hideout just a five minutes walk away from Oxford st. Have you got any recommendations in your mind, please share with us by leaving a comment below this post?
The older side of Osu has a lovely and atmospheric night market where one can buy fresh traditional Ga dishes e.g. smoked fish with kenkey and shito.
5. A tourist's holiday: Labadi beach
Labadi, Teshie and Nungua are lively Ga areas with concrete jungles, secured estate areas and small businesses.
Along the beach line you'll see hotels with beach bars and dump sites by turns. I wouldn't swim in that seriously polluted seawater there but whenever you feel like taking a break from the noisy city life, just pack your swimwear and refresh yourself in one of the hotel pools for a day.
Also if you are travelling with kids, I highly recommend this! My son Dave bursts with joy every time he gets a chance to cool himself in the kids' pool under the African sun.
6. Roll in sawdust
Timbermarket is one of my favourite places in Accra! In this huge workshop hundreds (and maybe thousands?) of carpenters, blacksmiths, painters and others create interesting inventions and works out of natural materials and recycled waste.
It's very noisy and dusty, goods are being carried around, people are trading and helping each other to finalize the works stage by stage. These self-employed men have their own small workshops side-by-side with narrow walkways in front. People are working extremely hard, mostly manually, and when there's no work or the weather gets too hot the workers play self-made board games, chat and buy food from women carrying different local dishes on their heads.
All that co-operation, skills and hard work inspires me! Wow.
7. Culture through all senses
Jamestown has a unique atmosphere: old buildings and the warm, humid breeze blowing from the sea. Yet another Ga area but here you can find those not-so-common family houses in Accra. Right next to the beach live low-income fishing communities.
Moreover, Jamestown is Accra's cradle of culture! In Arts Center, Ghana's rich cultural heritage is being cherished by numerous artists in forms of music, dance, woodwork, painting and much more.
Aside passion and lifestyle, people in Arts Center make their living out of arts performances and sales.
Want to learn how to play djembe? Dance? Want to find a unique tribal mask, leather bag or a pair of beaded earrings? It's all there! The sellers are very energetic and entrepreneurial, so enter the market with some patience, good mood and open mind. Better also set a budget in advance as you might end up crawling out with a museumful of goods wondering how to carry everything back home!
I've spent hours and hours in this magical place meeting beautiful and sympathetic multitalents who have been brought up with rhythm and roots. By taking your time to sit down in one of the boutiques or workshops to just watch and listen artists around, you get a great chance to go far beyond the trading taking place in the marketplace. You might hear stories about the origins of ancient tools and Gods, making your own drum, learning about adinkra symbols or drinking icy sobolo (spicy hibiscus drink).
8. Palm tree escape
Kokrobite is a beach community located about an hours' drive away from central Accra. Especially on weekends both locals and tourists rush there for a mini-vacation.
The beach and the bars, restaurants (Dizzy Lizzie's is my favourite!) and guest houses are there to make you feel relaxed and for those looking for more activities all I can recommend is a surf school operated between the Atlantic waves and Big Milly's backyard by a friend of mine, Brett aka Mr Bright. Brett is very entertaining and easy-going yet super serious with his classes (I must admit, I've never touched a surf board before but I've seen him work many many times)!
Kokrobite might not be the most authentic beach in Ghana because of tourism and crowd, but it's a perfect destination for a palm tree escape from Accra's heat, pollution and rush. One coconut and grilled barracuda, please!
I could keep listing more and more cool things and places in Accra but let's leave more stories for my next post!
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Lots of love and happiness to you!