Ghana

In Ghana life is public. People evacuate their homes and apartments every day to escape the stifling heat. And much like the kente cloth worn by market women, the disparate parts and peoples somehow mix and weave together into a cohesive whole. Ghana is home to a number of diverse peoples and cultures, all finding ways to coexist in a rapidly modernising country. You'll see men and women in traditional clothes text messaging friends and suited businessmen taking offerings to tribal chiefs.

Compared to other countries in the region, Ghana is stable and prosperous, but this valuation is in part founded on hopes for the future. The country is often labelled 'Africa for beginners', and while you'll likely be welcomed by the people in a hot, sweaty clinch, the same way the sun grabs hold of you the second after you step outside, getting around is by no means easy.

Ghana has no iconic calling card like Victoria Falls or Kilimanjaro, but one look at a map reveals a geographic blessing: hundreds of kilometres of coast shared by beautiful beaches, ruined European forts, the poignant reminders of the country's importance as a way station for African slaves, and the battered shacks of lively fishing villages. Accra is the commercial and cultural motor of the country, while Kumasi is the traditional home of the Ashanti, and is famous for its crafts. In the Volta region to the east, where the geography was given a facelift by the Akosombo dam, you can still find substantial swathes of forest crawling up mountains along the Togo border. And finally the north, which offers opportunities for wildlife viewing up close and personal, stretches across the horizon like an overcooked pancake to the Burkina Faso frontier.

FAST FACTS

Area 238,537 sq km ATMs Available

Borders Cote d'lvoire, Burkina Faso, Togo Budget US$30 to US$50 per day Capital Accra

Languages English, Twi, Ga and Ewe Money Cedi; US$1 = C9200 Population 21 million

Seasons Wet (late April to October), dry (November to late March)

Telephone Country code (i?) 233; international access code (i?) 00 Time GMT/UTC

Visa US$50 in advance or US$100 upon arrival at airport

HIGHLIGHTS

Beach life (p342) Soak up the rays and Rasta vibe at a beach resort in Axim, Busua, Anomabu or Kokrobite. Past life (p343 and p344) Tour the castles at Cape Coast and Elmina to learn about the history of slavery. Wildlife (p349) Engage in a staring contest with a bus-sized elephant in Mole National Park.

Hiplife (p341) Take in Accra's club scene, the birthplace of some of the region's most popular music. Village life (p349) Rough it in one of the community tourism projects, such as the stilt village at Wechiau Community Hippo Sanctuary.

CLIMATE & WHEN TO GO

Ghana has a tropical equatorial climate, which means that it's hot year-round with seasonal rains. In the humid southern coastal region, the rainy seasons are from April to June, and during September and October; the dry months, November to March or July and August, are easier for travelling. Throughout the year, maximum temperatures are around 30°C, dropping three or four degrees during the brief respite between rainy seasons. The humidity is constantly high, at about 80%.

In the central region, the rains are heavier and last longer. In the hotter and drier north, there is one rainy season, lasting from April to October. Midday temperatures rarely fall below 30°C, rising to 35°C and higher during December to March when the rasping harmattan wind blows in from the Sahara.

The tourist high season is from June to August, which coincides with the summer vacation in the US. The country sees few tourists from September to December.

ITINERARIES

Two Weeks Without private transportation two weeks is really only enough time to do the triangular route bounded by Accra, Takoradi to the west, and Ku-masi at the top. Start in Accra (p335; three days), then head to the beach at Anomabu (p342; two nights), then on to Cape Coast (p342; three nights), with day trips to Kakum (p343) and Elmina (p344). If you want to mix things up take the night train from Takoradi (p344) to Kumasi (p345; three nights) to explore

HOW MUCH?

Handkerchief US$0.20

Bottle of Fanta US$0.30

Music CD US$10

Inner-city taxi US$0.90

Coffin in the shape of a Mercedes

US$550

LONELY PLANET INDEX

1L petrol US$0.80 1L bottled water US$0.70 Bottle of Star beer US$0.50 Souvenir T-shirt US$10 Beef kebab skewer US$0.30

the surrounding area, then head back to Accra.

One Month With four weeks to spare, you can do everything in the two-week itinerary plus throw in visits to the coastal resorts at Busua (p344) and those further along the coast, and also explore some of the north. If possible fly from Accra to Tamale (p348; one night) - if not take your time bussing it to Kumasi and then further north - and on to Mole National Park (p349) and Larabanga (p349; two nights). Continue west to the hippo sanctuary at Wechiau (p349), if time permits, and return to Kumasi. From there you can head south to Accra and then visit the east: Akosombo (p350; one night) and Wli Falls (p350) and back to Accra. Alternatively, head directly to the coastal resorts of your choice from Kumasi.

HISTORY

Present-day Ghana has been inhabited since 4000 BC, filled by successive waves of migrants from the north and east. By the 13th century several kingdoms had developed, growing rich from the country's massive gold deposits and gradually expanding south along the Volta River to the coast.

Power & Conflict

By the 16th century one of the kingdoms, the Ashanti, emerged as the dominant power, conquering tribes left, right and centre and

taking control of trade routes to the coast. Its capital, Kumasi, became a sophisticated urban centre, with facilities and services equal to those in Europe at the time. And it wasn't long until the Europeans discovered this African kingdom. First the Portuguese came sniffing around the coast, and then came the British, French, Dutch, Swedes and Danes. They all built forts by the sea and traded slaves, gold and other goods with the Ashanti.

But the slave trade was abolished in the 19 th century, and with it went the Ashanti's domination. By that time the British had taken over the Gold Coast, as the area had become called, and began muscling in on Ashanti turf. This sparked several wars between the two powers, which culminated in the British ransacking of Kumasi in 1874. The British then established a protectorate over Ashanti territory, which they expanded in 1901 to include areas to the north. The Gold Coast was now a British colony.

The Road to Independence

By the late 1920s the locals were itching for independence, and they set up political parties dedicated to this aim. However, parties like the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), formed in 1947, were too elitist and detached from those they were meant to represent - the ordinary workers. So the UGCC's secretary-general, Kwame Nkrumah, broke away in 1948 and formed the Conventional People's Party (CPP), which became an overnight success. Nkrumah was impatient for change and called for a national strike in 1949. The British, anxious about his popularity, jailed him. Despite this, the CPP won the elections of 1951, Nkrumah was released and he became prime minister. When Ghana finally won its independence in March 1957, Nkrumah became the first president of an independent African nation. His speeches, which denounced imperialism and talked about a free, united Africa, made him the darling of the Pan-African movement.

Independence & the Nkrumah Years

But back home Nkrumah was not popular among traditional chiefs and farmers, who were unimpressed with the idea of unity under his rule. Factionalism and regional interests created an opposition that Nkrumah tried to contain through repressive laws, and by turning Ghana into a one-party state.

Nkrumah, however, skilfully kept himself out of the fray and concentrated on building prestige projects, such as the Akosombo Dam and several universities and hospitals.

But things started to unravel. Nkrumah expanded his personal bodyguard into an entire regiment, while corruption and reckless spending drove the country into serious debt. Nkrumah, seemingly oblivious to his growing unpopularity, made the fatal mistake of going on a state visit to China in 1966. While he was away his regime was toppled in an army coup. Nkrumah died six years later in exile in Guinea.

Dr Kofi Busia headed a civilian government in 1969, but could do nothing to overcome the corruption and debt problems. Colonel Acheampong replaced him in a 1972 coup, but few things changed under his tenure.

Jerry Rawlings' Regime

By 1979 Ghana was suffering food shortages and people were out on the streets demonstrating against the army 'fat cats'. Onto the scene came Jerry Rawlings: a good-looking, charismatic, half-Scottish air force pilot who kept cigarettes behind his ear and spoke the language of the people. Nicknamed 'Junior Jesus', Rawlings caught the public's imagination with his calls for corrupt military rulers to be confronted and held accountable for Ghana's problems. The military jailed him for his insubordination, but his fellow junior officers freed him after they staged an uprising. Rawlings' Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) then handed over power to a civilian government (after a general election) and started a major 'house-cleaning' operation -that is, executing and jailing senior officers.

The new president, Hilla Limann, was uneasy with Rawlings' huge popularity, and later accused him of trying to subvert constitutional rule. The AFRC toppled him in a coup in 1981, and this time Rawlings stayed in power for the next 15 years.

Although Rawlings never delivered his promised left-wing revolution, he improved the ailing economy after following the orders of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). During part of the 1980s Ghana enjoyed Africa's highest economic growth rates.

The Democratic Era

By 1992 Rawlings was under worldwide pressure to introduce democracy, so he lifted the

10-year ban on political parties and called a general election. However, the hopelessly divided opposition couldn't get their act together, and Rawlings won the 1992 elections freely and fairly, with 60% of the vote. Still licking their wounds, the opposition withdrew from the following month's parliamentary elections, giving Rawlings' newly formed National Democratic Congress (NDC) an easy victory. In 1996 he repeated this triumph in elections that were again considered free and fair.

Ghana Today

After eight years of Rawlings and the NDC (the constitution barred Rawlings from standing for a third term in the 2000 presidential elections), his nominated successor and former vice-president, Professor John Atta Mills, lost to Dr John Kufuor, leader of the well-established New Patriotic Party (NPP), which also won a slim majority in the parliamentary elections. Kufour and the NPP were victorious again in 2004, which means that each party will have had eight years in power by the time the next national elections roll around.

Kufuor and the NPP inherited some tough economic and political challenges; the party's slogan, 'So Far So Good', is perhaps an uncannily accurate reflection of the confidence they and the country hold. Even though both parties continue to be criticised for cronyism and corruption, Ghana's economy continues to grow and attract investment, and the outlook is brighter than in many other parts of Africa. That being said, in 2005 the per-capita income was an estimated US$2500 and Ghana is classified by the UN as a low-income, food-deficit country. The majority of very poor people live in rural areas. The bulk of the country's labour force is employed in agriculture, which accounts for 37% of its GDP and 35% of its export earnings.

CULTURE

If there's one feature of Ghanaian society that sticks out more than any other, it has to be religion. The country is 15% Muslim, 70% Christian and 100% obsessed with spiritual worship. This is the land of glory, gold and God, after all, and God is everywhere: 'God is Love Hair Salon', 'Jesus Loves Me Forex Bureau' and 'Forgiveness Communications' are just some of the pious names emblazoned across shop fronts in every town and city throughout the country.

But that's not to say they can't have fun. Ghanaians will find any excuse to dance, and even the most sedate boat rides can turn into a massive party as young men and old grannies gyrate their hips to the musical fusion genres of highlife and hiplife. The latter is a more recent invention that takes a page from the American hip-hop world.

Ghanaians have produced some of Africa's best and most well-known musicians, and this vibrancy is a reflection of a society that is more culturally self-confident than most. Whether it's music, or exquisite Ashanti kente cloth, stools or woodcarvings, Ghanaian products (and imitations of them) are scattered all over West Africa.

Maybe the most famous and arguably the most important Ghanaian is Otunfu Osei II, the king of the Ashanti. He's considered at least as influential as the president, in part because he rules with no term limits and because of his relative youth; he's only in his 50s. Some Ghanaians living abroad send remittances to the king, some money comes from allowances paid by the government, and some of his wealth comes from taxes or tributes given by the people themselves.

ARTS & CRAFTS

Ghana has a rich artistic heritage. Objects are created not only for their aesthetic value but as symbols of ethnic identity or to commemorate historical or legendary events, to convey cultural values or to signify membership of a group. The Akan people of the southern and central regions are famous for their cloth, goldwork, woodcarving, chiefs' insignia (such as swords, umbrella tops and linguist staffs), pottery and bead-making.

ENVIRONMENT

Ghana is about the size of Britain. Much of Ghana's terrain consists of wooded ranges, wide valleys and low-lying coastal plains. The damming of the Volta River in the mid-1960s created the world's largest artificial lake.

Logging, mining, the use of wood fuels and deforestation for agriculture have reduced Ghana's forests from over 8 million sq km in the early 20th century to less than 2 million sq km now. Marine and coastal areas are threatened by high erosion and population concentration.

Population densities are highest within the Accra-Kumasi-Takoradi triangle, largely because of the timber-producing deciduous forests and cocoa-growing lands, which stimulate economic productivity.

Ghana has five national parks and nine protected areas. Mole National Park (p349), in the northwest of the country, protects savannah woodland and is the best place to see wildlife, including elephants, baboons and antelope species. Kakum National Park (p343), just inland of Cape Coast, is known for its canopy walkway and is a good place to see rainforest habitat and birdlife.

FOOD & DRINK

A typical Ghanaian meal consists of a starch staple, such as rice, fufu (mashed cassava, plantain or yam), kenkey or banku (fermented maize meal) eaten with a sauce or stew. Common sauces (called soups) include groundnut, palaver (made from greens) and light soup (egg and tomato sauce with fish or meat). Other menu regulars are fried rice with chicken or vegetables, jollof rice (the West African paella) and red, red, bean stew with meat or fish, often served with fried plantains. The meat used is usually chicken, goat or beef; guinea fowl replaces chicken in the north of the country. Grasscutter, a large rodent, is also popular. Fish, usually dried and smoked, is a common component of meals. Omo tuo, a special dish served only on Sunday, is mashed rice balls with a fish or meat soup.

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