When visiting a foreign country, the minimally polite thing to do is to learn to say “thank you” in the local language.
A visit to Ghana makes this a challenge, to say the least. There are more than 50 tribes in the country of about 30 million people, and each has its own language. Some phrases overlap, and some are as diverse as the names of the tribes themselves – Twi, Ashanti, Ewe or Fante, for example. You frequently have to learn new words after a mere 50-km. drive.
It’s well worth the effort, however. Even a mangled attempt at a local phrase elicits the warmest of responses.
The good news is that the common bond is English.
This vibrant democracy, one of the very few in Africa, warmly sits a mere 5 degrees north of the equator. To a person, the locals are outstandingly helpful, polite and upbeat.
“Upbeat” is descriptive of more than their positive outlook on life. Music is everywhere, easy to listen to and even better for dancing. You can easily spot a hairdresser outside of a kiosk waiting for a client moving to the rhythm of Ghanaian jazz from the radio, or a salesclerk dancing away the day while attending to customers.
There is live Ghanaian jazz at Club +233 in Accra; there are salsa lessons every Wednesday night at Afrikiko; and you can find the young, upwardly mobile at The Republic just off Oxford Street having a drink at the end of the day and well into the evening.
Don’t go looking for safaris in Ghana, though. There are better places for that. However, if you want to meet some of the finest people anywhere, this is a great destination.
Pretty much the entire 539-km. coastline consists of beautiful sandy beaches with coconut palms dotting the shoreline. The shore is interspersed with old forts from the days when this area, then called the Gold Coast, was a slave-trading center. Visiting the forts is a stark reminder of those terrible times. US first lady Michelle Obama believes her ancestors departed from the fort at Cape Coast, about 150 km. west of the capital city of Accra, a facility that was quite obviously designed specifically for the task of improving trade efficiency.
Most of the residents of Ghana consider themselves religious – Christian and Muslim.
Yet none of the rancor one hears about in Nigeria seems evident here. On Christmas, for example, lots of people attended church services, but stores were also open. You see women with a hijab next to women in short shorts. Shops are named, for example, Jesus Saves Electronics or Goodness and Mercy Hair Salon. No one seems to mind – or to judge.
Live and let live. It’s common to meet people who are named Blessed, Comfort or Charity, but actually, that’s not so different from Baruch/Bracha, Nahum/Nehama or Rahamim.
We are just not used to hearing it in English.
You can sleep in a tree house in Kakum National Park or at a B&B in Kumasi, which is Ghana’s second largest city and the capital of the Ashanti Kingdom. If you are lucky, you can gain an audience with the king. If not, you can simply be satisfied with a visit to his palace followed by delving into the largest market in West Africa, where hand-woven colorful fabrics are on sale everywhere.
Ghana has the largest manmade lake in the world, Lake Volta, where you can swim in fresh water alongside a town named Akosombo, or travel to the lake’s estuary at Ada Foah, where it washes with the Atlantic Ocean. On a spit of land at the endpoint, there’s a small beachfront guesthouse there called Maranatha, which is well worth a visit.
It is run as a nonprofit with local Ghanaian volunteers so that all profits are spent on the local school. Until the guesthouse got underway, the children had to walk two hours each way to attend any educational facility.
Travel within the country is best done by “tro tro,” a small van holding 10 or 12 passengers that departs only when it fills up, but as the primary manner of travel, one rarely has to wait long. At every tro tro station, there are people selling food, water and anything else you can imagine, with vendors carrying their inventory on their heads, as is common. Before long trips in a tro tro, it is not uncommon for a preacher to spend 10 minutes providing a blessing for the passengers.
The country is on the upswing, with the economy seemingly doing well, although tourism has been down over the last few years due to the Ebola scare in West Africa. Sadly, Ghana, which did not have any cases of Ebola, has suffered from the perception that all of West Africa is dangerous.
Israelis can understand being tarred with the same brush as its neighbors regarding the degree of danger – real or not.
Travel in Ghana is easy. People are helpful. One cedi (the national currency) is worth approximately one shekel, which helps understand local costs. Obtaining a visa took two days through the embassy in Tel Aviv, although the application requires a “letter of invitation” from the hotel where one will initially stay upon arrival.
Make no mistake – when you hear locals say akwaaba (welcome), they mean it.
It’s highly recommended to take them at their word.