Gateway to Africa: Accra, Ghana

Gateway to Africa: Accra, Ghana

The Ghanaian capital might not inspire love at first sight, but an open mind will get you far. Home to friendly people and creative enterprises that respect tradition and drive innovation, Accra has an energy that’s infectious.

This article was published in SUITCASE Magazine Vol. 18: The
Rhythm Issue.

is a lighthouse on the edge of Jamestown in Accra. It has
red and white stripes on the outside, a rickety spiral staircase on
the inside and 360-degree views over the city at the top. Sweating
and swatting mosquitos, I climb the 91 steps at sunset, when the
day is on a dimmer switch and the sky is streaked with pink.

From one side of the lookout you can see a fishing community
stretch out along the coast with painted wooden boats, clumps of
tangled blue nets and makeshift grills for smoking fresh catch.
From another, Accra unfolds along corrugated tin roofs and snaking
trails of tro-tro buses dwarfed by a handful of high-rise
buildings. Directly below there’s music blaring, and the smell of
charcoal rising from a square where hundreds of people dressed in
white are dancing around trestle tables framed by banners that
rustle in the breeze.

“It’s a funeral,” says a man behind me, as though I’ve asked the
question out loud. “Funerals are real parties here, much bigger
than weddings. Families save up for months to put on a three-day
celebration and invite everyone they know.” I squint at the scene
in front of me and the edges sharpen before my eyes.

Accra is a city that requires some explanation. Running on
frenetic activity and stifling humidity, the Ghanaian capital is at
first glance overwhelming – many travellers barely touch down in
the city’s knotted streets before moving on to explore the slave
castles of Cape Coast, the surfing settlement at Busua or the
rolling plains of Mole National Park.

Frankly they are missing a trick. The people in Ghana are warm
and easygoing, and with locals as your guide the chaos quickly
subsides, clearing the way for experiences like dancing at a
roadside bar and doing the mannequin challenge in a club at 5AM.
Accra might be hard to get to grips with. However, once you’ve got
a hold of the place, there’s no letting go.

But first there’s the traffic. The city suffers badly from
congestion, and until last year mango trees, roadside vendors and
kiosks served as landmarks for navigation in the absence of road
signs and an address system. Uber exists in theory, but almost
always fails in practice, and the struggle of bartering with taxi
drivers is incredibly real. The on-road experience is made bearable
only by hawkers who address you as “aunty” or “sister”, selling
items that range from the predictable – plantain chips, nuts and
water – to the obscure, such as self-help manuals with titles
including Act Like a Lady; Think Like a Man.

Aside from the gridlock, Ghana’s epithet as the “Gateway to
Africa” makes sense. It’s true on a practical level – Accra is
serviced by direct flights from many cities (we flew KLM from
Amsterdam) – and it also resonates symbolically. Ghana was the
first African nation to gain independence from colonial rule, and
benefits from a strong economy based on gold, oil and cocoa. It met
the Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty rates by 2015,
and has been hailed as a model of political stability thanks to the
peaceful conduct of its general elections.

A beacon of luxury in the city, The Kempinski Hotel is just one
example of Accra’s rapid growth. With 269 rooms, the hotel opened
in 2015 to accommodate the city’s rising number of business
travellers, and is home to a rooftop pool, an in-house art gallery
and one of the largest spas in West Africa (from April this year),
while the ground-floor bar pumps out a steady stream of afrobeats
at the weekend.

It was in fact music that first sparked our interest in Accra,
and music has drawn artists including Wyclef Jean, Ed Sheeran and
Rita Marley to the city. Ghana is the birthplace of highlife, a
genre typified by a synthesis of European instruments, African
vocals and twists of American jazz. In the Nineties a genre called
hiplife emerged, which sees artists rap in a Ghanaian language
(usually Twi) over a hip-hop beat. Blasting from boomboxes,
roadside sound systems and crackling car stereos, reggae and
dancehall are also very much alive here.

Before making the journey to Ghana, my colleague Emily and I had
got in touch with Cherae Robinson, the founder of Tastemakers
Africa, a company that links travellers to well-connected locals,
encouraging tourists to explore Africa beyond the well-trodden
safari trail. With the help of Cherae we had arranged for three
different insiders to show us the music and nightlife of Accra. We
wanted to get right to the heart of the city through its

We first meet Reggie Rockstone, a pioneer of the hiplife
movement, at the neon-lit bar of his club AftaWerk, then travel
with him to an open-air concert in the carpark of a shopping mall
where he’s scheduled to play with his band, VVIP. With waist-length
dreadlocks and a white messenger cap, Reggie tells us stories that
swing cinematically from Ed Sheeran’s love for Accra (he pulls out
a video in which the redheaded popstar is looking more than a
little worse for wear) to his former manager Dhoruba Al-Mujahid bin
Wahad, the one-time leader of the Black Panther Party. The
musician’s energy translates to the stage, where he commands the
crowd with rap lyrics in a deep, gravelly voice. Amped up after the
show, groups of young people showcase spontaneous but still
perfectly choreographed dance moves. Reggie tells us: “Music is the
soundtrack to Ghanaian life.”

On a Friday night you’ll find what seems like half the city at
Republic, a bar that spills out onto the road with a sound system
that plays everything from The Beatles to Drake. A number of
overzealous expats are to be found talking over lukewarm Club beers
and saccharine cocktails (the bartenders have an exceptionally
sweet tooth in Ghana), but it’s a popular spot for locals too. Here
we meet David Yayra and Kwamena Boison, members of a collective
called Afro District that produces fashion shoots and music videos,
who can’t be missed thanks to their dapper personal style. Wearing
a tailored blazer, braces and brogues, Kwamena shows us how to
dance the Azonto, an expressive form of freestyle dance that
reached an international stage when the London-based rapper Fuse
ODG tried to teach David Cameron the steps (we don’t fare much

But Twist nightclub is where people really get stuck in. Located
in Labone, the lounge plays the latest West African hits and draws
a mixed crowd of Ghanaians, Nigerians and expats wearing sharp
jackets, heels and bodycon. We arrive with Isaac “Doctor” Duncan, a
broadcaster who for ten years hosted a radio show that unearthed
some of Ghana’s most exciting musicians. Through organising
freestyle rap battles on his show, Kasahere Level (“fast talk” in
Twi), Duncan launched the careers of Shatta Wale, Stonebwoy and
Sarkodie, the BET award-winning rapper (who makes more than one
appearance over the speakers that night). We wrap things up at
around 5AM after a dance floor-wide mannequin challenge initiated
by the DJ.

Music is the lifeblood of Accra, but food offers an entry point
to the city’s soul. Starch and spice are the two pillars of
Ghanaian cuisine, so expect staples of thick, well-seasoned stews
accompanied by rice or boiled yams. And eat up – Ghanaians take
great pride in their food; one waitress shoots me a look that could
kill as I hand back a half-finished plate.

Lunchtime at Buka offers a taste of this reverential approach to
meals. This terrace restaurant hosts a live band, and the clientele
don traditional African wares – colourful headdresses, patterned
suits and skirts. I order goat meat light soup with fufu (a ball of
pounded cassava and plantain flour that sits heavily on the
stomach) and kontomire (similar to spinach) stew. The area
surrounding Accra airport is a hotspot for restaurants, including
Gold Coast, which serves a delicious take on jollof rice and
groundnut soup – like a spicier, silkier version of chicken

We find that a respect for traditional creativity also underpins
The Arts Centre Market, a warren of stalls selling cowhide drums,
hand-carved wooden bowls and leather bags, where we stop at a
makeshift shop in the heart of the complex. Inside an artist called
Ras Banana is selling paintings of barber shop customers on
recycled wooden boards. Elsewhere, The Artists Alliance Gallery
deals in traditional crafts including Ashanti masks and jewellery,
while also displaying contemporary paintings. We spend an hour
sifting through the collection of woven baskets before taking a
walk along the shoreline of Labadi Beach, where there are horses
everywhere you look.

Accra displays a deep-seated respect for tradition, but the air
is also charged with entrepreneurial energy. One of the
consequences of the military coup of 1981, which overthrew the
constitutional government and saw two subsequent decades of
economic turmoil, was that many young Ghanaians left. This diaspora
went to the US and Europe, and a generation grew up cosmopolitan
and educated abroad. Now they are returning, bringing with them
money, culture and an appetite for international flavours.

Such flavours include the cold-pressed juices at Café Kwae, a
coffee shop and a co-working space owned by the Ghana-born but
British-educated Yvette Ansah. There’s also the iced tea that comes
served in hipster-friendly jam jars at Tea Baa. Founded by Dedo
Azu, who spent years living and working in Canada, the café is
littered with board games and furniture made from recycled shipping
pallets, and is a haven for repats and expats alike.

Tea Baa is just one of many new enterprises blooming in the
neighbourhood of Osu. Cantonments Road – known locally as Oxford
Street thanks to its buzz – hums with activity around the clock,
and is home to the best shopping in the city. Elle Lokko is a
concept store that champions Made in Africa brands such as
Osei-Duro, a line of dresses and jumpsuits that blends the colours
and textiles of Ghana with laidback Californian style, while AAKS
makes use of ecologically harvested raffia from local farmers to
fashion woven bags, and in doing so provides sustainable

The level of enthusiasm for the arts in Accra is steadily
growing, and in the neighbourhood of Jamestown you can see the
tangible social impact of creativity. Once the seat of the British
colonial administration, the area is a vibrant and dynamic
community, but has been neglected in terms of economic development,
and is often labelled as a slum.

In the absence of government planning, residents have taken
matters into their own hands, setting up the Chale Wote festival,
which hosts a free arts programme each year, and converting old
buildings into workshops, storage spaces and homes. The respected
architect Joe Osae-Addo has established a café and the ArchiAfrika
gallery, which has a diverse programme of live music and
exhibitions. We sit down to a lunch of fried tilapia fish, supplied
by local vendors, while Joe explains he has employed Jamestown
residents as security guards and cleaners in order to engage the
community. He says: “As architects, as designers and as creative
people, we don’t have to leave development to the politicians. We
can – through our skills and our passion and our training – engage
and try and make change in our own small way.”

Lives are played out in the open in Jamestown. Teeming with
people, the streets are fluid and double up as stages for football
games, dancing competitions and funeral processions. We walk
through the community with a guide trained by Joe, passing murals
splashed across the peeling panels of nail bars, hair salons and
boxing gyms – the area has a long legacy of producing international
champions, and local boys still dream of punching their way

I pass a corner shop called Fear God Frozen Foods, just one of
many everyday enterprises in the city to be named with a Christian
spin (elsewhere there are car garages known as Blessed Metal and
Worship God Motors, as well as an opticians called Godly Favoured
Eye Care). And we walk past the crumbling walls and knocked-through
windows of Franklin House on Brazil Lane – a site where slaves were
once auctioned and sold.

At the point where the land meets the sea, the Jamestown
lighthouse is the area’s greatest treasure, a guardian over the
city of Accra, and a hopeful lookout to the beyond. After climbing
to the top of tower, I pause to take in the scene below. There is –
underneath the music and the food, beneath the heat and the haze –
an easygoing order to this chaos. Getting to the heart of Accra is
about being guided, like a ship to a lighthouse, by the warm and
steady glow of Ghana’s people.

How to get there KLM offers weekly flights
to Accra via its award-winning hub, Amsterdam Schiphol. Economy
fares from Heathrow start from £400 and are inclusive of taxes. To
book or for additional information check

Who to travel with Travelling with Tastemakers is
like having a well-connected friend in every African city. On a
mission to change the narrative of travel to Africa, the company
links tourists with locals to set up experiences that go beyond the
safari trail. There are trips in Ghana, Senegal, Ethiopia and South
Africa, to name but a few.

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Shot on Location: Highlife, Ghana