Spotlight on Ghana’s Central Region: Cape Coast Castle and Kakum National Forest

I was recently listening to an episode of Amanda Seales’ podcast Small Doses where she was in conversation with the inimitable Michaela Cole (of Chewing Gum, Black Earth Rising and I May Destroy You fame) and the formidable Noma Dumezweni (of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Black Earth Rising fame). This episode (Small Doses: Side Effects of Pan Africanism – part 1) was released pre-Coronavirus in early 2019. In this episode Amanda mentions a trip she took to Ghana where she visited the Central Region.

Cape Coast Castle

While recounting her trip, Amanda talks about how the area that she stayed in reminded her of the lush tropical beaches of Grenada, the Caribbean island where her mum hails from. The climate was the same and the fruit on offer was the same. While making this comparison she touches on how familiar and at home she felt in this part of Ghana even though she was several thousands of miles from Grenada. As soon as I heard her say this, I instantly understood what she meant. When I travelled to the Maaha Beach Resort in the Western Region of Ghana during my 2019 trip (more on this to come in a future guide) this is exactly how I felt. The coast looked like a postcard from the Caribbean. The beaches had soft sand which glistened in the equatorial sunshine, bountiful trees which released coconuts without any hesitation and crystal-clear blue waters. The picturesque beaches which adorn the coast of Ghana’s Central Region make visiting Cape Coast Castle (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) an even more emotionally charged experience once you learn more about what happened at the castle itself, on these waters and beyond.

Most people who visit Ghana put visiting Cape Coast Castle high on their list, and for good reason. It is one of the best-preserved slave castles in West Africa. Indeed, Ghana was the first African country former US President Barack Obama visited once he was inaugurated. There is even a plaque to mark the occasion which is fixed to the wall of the castle, such is the power, magnitude, and significance of the first black president of the US within many African countries. As someone who grew up with mixed white European and black African heritage, and who spent a lot of time in his 20s and 30s learning about his African heritage, I have no doubt that Obama felt it incumbent upon himself to pay homage to a site which represents the legacy of slavery in Africa and America, as well as the impact that the Transatlantic Slave Trade has had and continues to have on the world.

When I arrived at Cape Coast Castle with my sister and cousin, we joined a tour group. Within this group we were led by our learned guide, Francis Kofi. As he described how enslaved people were kept in the depths of the castle, often spending hours and days in overcrowded dark cells which were filled with their own excrement, I could not help but feel saddened, weakened and angry by what I was hearing. I had some knowledge of the horrors endured by enslaved people in slave castles (which I had researched myself, not found out about in school), but I had never received such an extensive education as the one I received while in this tour group. Even more upsetting was our visit to the upper levels of the castle, where the British officials and their families would live in the lap of luxury, hearing the screams of enslaved people beneath them as they went to sleep and went about their days. This immediately brought back visions of reading Yaa Gyasi’s seminal book Homegoing, in which one character describes hearing screams beneath her as she resided in the slave castle with her white British husband and mixed-raced child.

What was even more heart-wrenching was looking at the ocean from the castle. It initially seemed beautiful until I thought about how many bodies had sunk to the depths of the ocean during the days of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. I pondered how to feel about such a beautiful backdrop when I knew what atrocities had been committed in the very space that I was standing. I thought what an immense privilege it was to even be alive at this time as a Black woman and to be standing where I was, listening to such stories, rather than a person who experienced these atrocities first hand in the dungeons I had stood in only moments earlier. I thought about the ways in which the legacy of slavery continues to impact Black people throughout the diaspora today. My heart was heavy.

Kakum National Forest

Also located within the Central Region, but considerably further inland, is Kakum National Forest. This is a lush green oasis where you can do everything from camp overnight or wander across the canopies from amazing heights. We were pressed for time (and not interested in camping) so we elected for the latter. As you make your ascent to the top (make sure to wear trainers/sneakers – some visitors were very badly prepared for the climb) you will marvel at the formidable flora surrounding you.

There are two canopy walks available – a short one and a longer one. We were pressed for time and so we chose the former. We also saw a group of boys deliberately scaring people on the longer canopy walk by shaking the barriers and thought we could do without this additional anxiety. I feel as though it is necessary for me to say that the canopy walks are incredibly safe. I initially had visions of those rickety bridges you see in cartoons; with huge gaps between each horizontal piece of wood and very suspect structural integrity. However, my assumptions couldn’t have been further from the truth.

The planks of wood were sturdy and long vertical slabs of wood which were reinforced with metal. The net surrounding the canopy walk was also very robust and very tall, so there is no way for you to fall out. I am not great with heights but felt very safe and really enjoyed this experience. However, if you are afraid of heights, and a group of tourists have decided to trigger this fear by unnecessarily shaking the canopy, you will feel very uneasy about this experience. One woman was so traumatised by the group of boys who chose to shake the canopy that she didn’t stop screaming for the entire duration of my shorter canopy walk. She even felt the need to, against the advice guides who tell you not to do this, turn around and walk back to the start. So, I implore you, if you decide to go don’t try and be a comedian and make other people nervous. Just let people try and overcome their fears in peace.

There are so many more wonderful and informative sites to see in the Central Region. We were pressed for time as we only went for one day, but I recommend spending more time here to really absorb everything that this fantastic region has to offer.

Have you ever been to the Central Region of Ghana?

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Check out my previous Ghana posts:

Accra travel guide – Where to eat in Accra

In this blog post I share my top tips for dining out in central Accra

When I first arrived in Accra, I spent almost a week with my uncle and aunt in a hilly town called Abokobi-Boi eating an array of Ghanaian foods. These are the dishes I grew up eating but eventually drifted away from slightly as I became obsessed with trying food from different cuisines and cultures once I went to university. Most Ghanaian dishes take a while to make, at least when you make them authentically, and so I found that when rushing around as a university student, and later when I entered the world of work, I did not prioritise time to make these dishes from my youth. Every time I got to eat a dish in Ghana that I had eaten back home in London as a child I felt as though I was experiencing a warm hug. It felt like I was being blanketed and embraced by an assortment of savoury, spicy and sweet delights. There is something (or indeed many things) about having food in the country it comes from that makes it taste a lot better. The ingredients in Ghana are often very fresh and organic which helps, but besides this there are some ingredients that you need for Ghanaian food that you can’t get in London – even in the most cosmopolitan areas with thriving Ghanaian communities.

I ate some very delicious Ghanaian meals courtesy of my aunt like groundnut (peanut) soup, red red stew with a boiled egg and of course jollof rice and chicken. Unfortunately, my aunt’s kitchen is currently not open to the general public so I will be recounting my foodie adventures with my sister in Accra, after we spent three days in Cantonments: one of Accra’s most stylish neighbourhoods. I only had a few days here and so there are many restaurants that I did not have the time to visit, however, I have listed them below as I have heard nothing but positive reviews and so they should definitely go on your list!

 

CK. 1

Café Kwae

This lovely, cosy little spot in Airport City has a fantastic brunch menu as well as coffee and cake on offer. I had French toast with a smoothie and shared a fruit bowl with my sister. The papaya and pineapple fruit salad tasted delicious and much better than any tropical produce that you will get in the UK.


Kukun

This space is in the shopping district of Accra named Osu. Not only does it offer a great brunch menu complete with fresh juices, but it also doubles as a co-working space. I saw many an expat and “Afropolitan” working away on their MacBook Pros at tables outside while I enjoyed my delicious plate of food in the air-conditioned interior.


CCL. 5-2

Coco Lounge

Coco Lounge is a restaurant and evening lounge designed with millennials in mind. The stylish interiors look amazing in the daylight and at nighttime. They also provide the perfect backdrop for getting your obligatory “Instagrammable” pics. The food and drink are also on point so coming here during a visit to Accra is a no-brainer.


XO. 4-2

XO

XO is a glorious restaurant which brings together flavours and dishes from East Asia and South East Asia; offering everything from pad thai to sushi and much more. The produce is fresh and delicious and the interiors, much like those of Coco Lounge, really come alive at night but are also stunning during the day. The space is filled with rose gold fixtures and touches of pink cherry blossoms. They also have an extensive and impressive cocktail menu which makes it the perfect spot to relax with friends and family.


Lord of the Wings

My sister and I came here when we were craving some fast food (you can take the girl out of London…) and it did not disappoint. This restaurant has a few locations around the world; the branch I visit was located about a seven-minute Uber drive away from where we were staying in Cantonments. If you need a quick fast food fix and want to sample a variety of marinades and sauces to go with your wings, look no further.


Below are a few restaurants I did not get around to visiting but which I heard amazing things about.

Chez Clarisse – an Ivorian restaurant which offers a variety of delicious dishes, including plates of grilled tilapia fish and chicken with an assortment of colourful and flavourful side dishes.

Buka – a Ghanaian restaurant selling staple Ghanaian dishes such as red red stew, fufu and kelewele

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Accra travel guide – What to do in Accra

The best places in Accra for shopping, art, culture and learning about Ghana’s rich history

Shopping

The Arts Centre/Centre for National Culture

This is less of a market and more of a bustling mini metropolis. Here you will find an array of stalls selling everything from wooden adinkra symbol carvings to an assortment of Kente-inspired clothing. As well as this you can find items ranging from serving bowls to fans and purses. One thing to be aware of when coming here is that you need to haggle – if you can it’s best to find a guide who knows the market well to take you around so that you can avoid paying astronomical prices. Expect to be approached and encouraged by every stall holder to look at their wares; some will sit and call you over whilst others will walk up to you with their t-shirts in tow. This is the best (and probably the cheapest) place to find souvenirs to take home for friends and family so make sure you make time to visit. Also be sure to bring cash as many vendors will not have card machines.

Global Mamas, Osu

If you are looking to do some socially conscious shopping, then look no further than Global Mamas. This shop is an NGO and sells everything from organic Fairtrade cotton batik clothing and household accessories to handmade earrings and Christmas decorations. A proportion of the sales of the store’s items are used to fund education programmes for the women (and their children) responsible for making all the goods on sale. This is another fantastic place to grab some souvenirs or do some shopping for yourself.

All Pure Nature, Osu

This store is a natural skincare lover’s dream. All the soaps and lotions in stock are made from natural ingredients and feature lots of ingredients which are unique to or are grown in Ghana. The shop is adorned with everything from moringa and baobab soap to pots of shea butter which have been lightly fragranced. I bought a couple of the soaps myself and I can honestly say I regret not buying more. They lather up wonderfully and leave your skin feeling beautifully soft. As well as a standalone store in Osu there is a slightly smaller All Pure Nature store inside Marina Mall.

The Shop Accra, Osu

This is probably the shop that stood out the most to me during my shopping spree in Accra. It is filled to the brim with artwork, clothing and accessories for those who want to buy trendy items which transition well from season to season. A lot of the items for sale are also handmade by craftsmen and women in Ghana. Some of the accessories I spotted would not look out of place in an Oliver Bonas or & Other Stories; these pieces instantly caught my eye! The shop also has an assortment of skincare, body care, homeware items, stationery and even a small café. It is truly a treasure trove of fantastic fashion that is both modern and traditionally Ghanaian at the same time.

Arts, History & Culture

The Kempinski Hotel and Gallery 1957

On the ground floor of the Kempinski Hotel in Accra is a fantastic free art gallery filled with works from internationally renowned Ghanaian artists. After wandering through the ever-changing exhibition head up to one of the many bars in the hotel, preferably the one by the pool that has a great view of the rest of Accra, for a cocktail and some freshly made plantain chips.

The name of the gallery is a reference to the year that Ghana became a country which was governed by its people and not by the British, its colonial oppressors since the nineteenth century.

Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum

This is a must-visit tourist destination in Ghana. Here you will find items that used to belong to Ghana’s first president and prime minister and the man who led the first African country to independence from its colonial oppressors in 1957. The museum within the mausoleum contains an abundance of information about his life as well as several photos of him with notable public figures from the past and present such as JFK, Queen Elizabeth II and Chairman Mao.

Aburi Gardens

It is said that Aburi Gardens was founded by a student of Kew Gardens in Richmond. Whilst these botanical gardens are not as large or as grand as Kew, they do hold an assortment of plant life. As is the case with a few of Ghana’s main tourist sites, these gardens were not particularly well maintained. Indeed, there were a few pieces of litter in and around all the beautiful trees and flowers. Greater maintenance is needed for sure, but it is still worth a visit.

Aburi also has a very cool and breezy microclimate and so if you need any respite from the hot and humid Accra weather a short trip to Aburi will help you cool off. Also – as we travelled up to the hills of Aburi our guide for the day showed us Bob Marley’s former home in Ghana.

Artists Alliance Gallery

If you are looking for artwork to decorate a house or authentic Kente cloth, look no further than the Artists Alliance Gallery. You will be able to find plenty of beautiful paintings and ornate large wood carvings for sale here. This large gallery even has a room dedicated to Kente where you can find out what each of the patters mean and choose your own hand woven authentic Ghanaian Kente cloth. I wasn’t allowed to take any pictures but rest assured this gallery is well worth a trip.

Jamestown

This historic part of Accra plays host to the Chale Wote Festival every year. Whilst trying to find my way to the Jamestown Café and other modern hipster places in Jamestown that I’d read about online, my sister, uncle and I were stopped near the lighthouse by a man who offered to give us a tour of the area. This is always something to be mindful about. Whilst people are very hospitable, looking like a tourist will always make people try and extract money out of you in some way shape or form. This is just as true in Ghana as it is in Brazil, South East Asia and quite frankly many tourist destinations around the world. I thought he might be able to take us to the modern part of Jamestown but he just took us on a short walk along the beach by the fishing boats and James Fort Prison.

We paid him 20 cedis for his time and we felt safe but the experience wasn’t anything to write home about. It was, however, interesting to see James Fort Prison. This was where Kwame Nkrumah was imprisoned shortly before becoming the first president and prime minister of Ghana.

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Why you should be planning a trip to Ghana post-lockdown

Ghana has much to offer to all who visit, whether you love food, art and culture, history, shopping or beaches. In this post I will be informing you of why you need to add this beautiful country to your travel bucket list.

It has been a wild year to say the least. The year started off with news of wildfires ravaging Australia. Next, COVID-19 hit the world hard and later the world suddenly decided to pay attention to the plight of Black people. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd so much of what black people have been saying over the past few years, decades and centuries about not just overt acts of racism but subtle microaggressions (which, to be honest, can be very macro), gaslighting and British imperial amnesia (regarding the slave trade and acts of genocide perpetrated by the British government) is finally being heard by the white masses and other people of colour who were hitherto unbothered by racist acts that they felt did not directly affect them or concern them. How times have changed.

I have found myself reflecting on a lot during this time, especially travel. As many of my friends and family are lamenting cancelled trips and the inability to confidently book any city breaks or far-flung escapes for the foreseeable future, I have been increasingly thinking about the future of travel in a post-COVID-19 world where many people have become more conscious of the racism that Black people face on a daily basis and have faced for centuries. I have been increasingly thinking about whether this will have any material effect on the way people travel or where people choose to visit going forward.

I have often felt that except for Northern Africa, Zanzibar and South Africa, Africa has not been a desirable travel destination for even the most ardent of travellers. Indeed, when I see maps that have pins which highlight cities that have been visited by keen explorers, I seldom see any in Africa. Instead I see clusters around Europe, South Asia, East Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the Americas. Literally everywhere else in the world seems to be a must visit travel destination except for all sub-Saharan African countries. Why is this the case? I have a few theories:

  • Decades of sub-Saharan African countries being negatively depicted by biased media outlets around the world as poor, as well as disease and famine-stricken, have made many people believe that these countries have nothing of interest, or of value, to offer tourists
  • These countries are also depicted as politically volatile and dangerous, which is ignorant and a mass over-generalisation. This is also an image which is perpetuated by biased media outlets
  • Travelling to these countries requires injections and medication that can be costly or off-putting to travellers

Regarding the first point, I would say that so many sub-Saharan countries have much more to offer than what you see the incredibly biased media outlets in the UK, USA and many other countries showcasing. Africa has so much beauty, culture, and hospitality to offer; I will be using my trip to Ghana in 2019 to showcase how rich a trip to a sub-Saharan country can be. About the second point, I would say that it is important to always proceed with caution, but to also remember that there is danger in all countries including the developed world. One only needs to watch the recording of the brutal murder of George Floyd to see that safety is not a given in a rich and highly developed country. Regarding the third point, there are several countries that require medical precautions, including vaccines and medication. For example, Brazil has seen a steady increase in the number of tourists visiting over the past few years and yet most visitors are required to get vaccinations for at least Typhoid, Tetanus and Hepatitis A. This illustrates that vaccinations and medication for travel need not be a deterrent.

As the world seems to be “waking up” (a phrase I still find laughable because it reveals the privilege that some people have to “wake up” to something that people have been suffering from for decades), I am suggesting that more people travel to Ghana. Yes, I am biased because my family hail from Ghana but there is so much more to my desire for more people to travel to Ghana. Ghana is a visually stunning country, the beaches in the Western region are some of the finest you will ever see. Moreover, last year Ghana amassed a whopping £1.5bn ($1.9bn) because of its “year of the return” tourism campaign. This campaign marked the 400-year anniversary (from 1619-2019) of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to North America when they arrived at Jamestown, Virginia. The campaign aimed to encourage people in the African diaspora to visit Ghana and learn more about its rich history, culture, and outdoor activities. Ghana has numerous slave castles where the most learned of tour guides will give you haunting yet in-depth and enlightening accounts of what life was like for enslaved Africans before they were sent to the Americas. You will hear about how they were forced to endure truly horrifying and brutal conditions in the slave castles before leaving through the door of no return to travel across the Atlantic on the slave ships that would take them to the Americas.

Beyond learning about the rich history of Ghana there is plenty to do in terms of shopping, eating, drinking, lounging on beaches and engaging in other fun activities. In the next few posts, I will recount some of my highlights from my trip from my time in Accra and elsewhere in Ghana.

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Homegoing

My thoughts and feelings about my first trip to Ghana

I thought long and hard about what my first trip to Ghana would feel like. I’d spoken to friends and relatives who had gone for a while before I left from Gatwick Airport in early April 2019. All the people I spoke to told me how amazing it would be and how much fun I would have. They told me that travelling through Ghana would make me feel as though I was coming home. Up until the moment that I landed I had doubts that I would feel like this. Despite having grown up in a Ghanaian household where there was always Ghanaian food on the table and the sound of Ghana radio was never far away, I thought that travelling through Ghana would be a huge culture shock. I’d heard all sorts of stories from friends who spoke of how they felt like an alien when visiting Ghana, or in their respective cultural homelands. They explained that they were always viewed as “British” and that this labelling came with a whole raft of hostility and prejudice, for obvious reasons.

Last year I read Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi and it made me curious to find out more about my heritage and culture by visiting Ghana. Although I’ve always been aware of various aspects of Ghanaian history and culture, I’ve always thought that there were things I would never truly understand until I visited. 2019 was dubbed “the year of the return” as it marks 400 years since the first enslaved African arrived in what is today known as the United States of America. As a result of this, and of reading Homegoing, my sister and I decided to plan our first trip to Ghana to take advantage of this drive for tourism and see everything that Ghana had to offer.

I can’t say that after coming back I had a greater understanding of Ghanaian history or culture. In fact, a lot of what I saw in the museums I visited I had already read in books or heard in lectures, notably at the V&A’s Ghana @ 60 celebrations. What I experienced when I travelled to Ghana, however, was more valuable than anything I could have read in any book or heard from any lecture. What I saw was a country that was much more prosperous than any television advert or National Geographic documentary could ever and would ever have you believe. When I was based in Accra I saw “Afropolitan” businesses, cafes and restaurants that would not look out of place in the most metropolitan parts of Cape Town or even London. I visited shops that sold fine, handmade accessories, as well as furniture and clothing which was made by Ghanaian craftsmen and women. I visited art galleries which featured works from Ghana’s finest contemporary artists. In short, Ghana has a lot to offer for the seasoned traveller who is used to mainly exploring European cities.

Of course, there were some things that I found frustrating about Ghana. Firstly, Ghana is not a cheap place to visit. In fact, the prices that you’ll pay for food in the newer, trendy restaurants are on par with prices that you’ll pay for food in London. This makes little sense given its status as a developing country but it’s something to bear in mind when saving to travel here. Trying to get a visa to travel to Ghana is also a highly stressful and disorganised affair, but I’ll cover some tips to help you navigate through this in a future post. Also, there are times when the customer service I received was questionable, especially when visiting key landmarks like the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum and Aburi Gardens, but this is not unique to Ghana or indeed any African country. Having said this, however, Ghana has a lot more to offer than that which it lacks. As well as traversing through the bustling hub that is Accra, I had the pleasure of travelling to the Western Region where I relaxed on the beautiful Ghanaian cost and enjoyed the surprisingly warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean. I also visited the Central Region where I listened to detailed and harrowing tales of the world-famous Cape Coast Castle from one of the many formidable tour guides that take you through this UNESCO Heritage Site.

No story or anecdote will ever be a substitute for venturing to faraway lands. Every breath, view and smell are a feast for the senses and cannot be achieved other than through travelling to experience this for yourself. I hope that through my subsequent posts I will present a side of Ghana which will change your perceptions about it and reveal all the wonders that it has to offer visitors from near and far.

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