by Lorina Lana
It has been almost a year since I first arrived in Accra, the southern coastal capital of Ghana. A tour bus dropped my group of NYU Scholars off at the National Arts Center, a bustling marketplace. As my friend, Parisa, and I stepped off of the bus, we were immediately befriended by two young Ghanaians, Flex and Free Boy, who would show us an exciting side of Ghana that our fellow classmates and tourists would not be able to experience.
In the National Arts Center, Michael Kwone, a man selling overpriced Ghanaian apparel, shoved a bright yellow jersey in my face, asking politely if I would buy it for 150,000 cedis (about $15). At the time, there was national excitement about the FIFA World Cup. Ads were everywhere; it was on everyone’s mind and, in the barren dirt lot by the marketplace, young barefoot boys played an intense, competitive game of soccer.
“Sorry, I spent all my money for today,” I said, holding up the bag of beaded necklaces, fake silver bracelets and a fertility doll I had been persuaded to buy. He lowered the price to 80,000 as I walked away, but I kindly declined again. “Well, we are going to beat America,” he said. “I hope you know we are going all the way.” I agreed.
Our new Ghanaian friends showed us their drum shop in the marketplace. The two were drummers and hoped to become professionals. “I want you to have this drum, I made it with my own hands,” said Flex, smiling. I could not resist the colorful drum with the star. It was the most genuine Ghanaian souvenir I would find on the trip; I bought it for 160,000 cedis. I teased Flex about the price later on when he openly admitted to increasing the prices for tourists. “Well, we don’t make much money,” Free Boy protested.
In a week’s time, we explored many of the historical and educational exhibits in Accra. We went to the National Museum, which houses historical Ghanaian artifacts, and the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum, which showcases the open-air tomb of Ghana’s late president, as well as a small museum of his life.
My favorite spot was the Kakum National Park, which boasts a very high, shaky canopy walk over three bridges that sway in the wind with each step. Aburi Botanical Gardens was also a serene, beautiful place, where gigantic trees offered shade from the heat as our group had a picnic on the grass and watched the schoolchildren play tag and soccer in the park during recess.
Our dinners were held at Tante Marie, which offered a variety of Ghanaian food. There were always fried plantains, chicken and rice, as well as delicious chicken and vegetable kebabs with a side of yams and fried potatoes. Often, fish was included in the meal, as well as beef dishes with spicy rice.
After dinner each night, Parisa and I enjoyed the Ghana nightlife. One night, Flex and Free Boy picked us up at our hotel and took us to a local bar called Bamboo. Without them, we never would have been able to find the bar. The only sign it has is a purple neon light on the side of a building. Since many streets in Ghana don’t have names, people use landmarks to describe what area they want to go to. Our cab driver knew exactly where the well-hidden bar was located. Cab fares are negotiated before the passenger gets into the car. Flex advised, “15,000 cedis (about $1.50) should get you anywhere in town.”
Bamboo was a tiny, well-lit shack with plastic tables and chairs set up in front. Along with everything else in Ghana, alcohol was cheap. Gin and cokes were 15,000 cedis each, and Strawberry, a drink the bartender recommended, was only 3,000 cedis (about 30 cents). A Star Lager Beer, the only beer found in Ghana, was only 10,000 cedis for a 22-ounce bottle.
When we ventured out by ourselves, Parisa and I felt welcomed by the locals, but it seemed everyone at the bar knew each other. “Accra is a small city,” said Flex. “It’s about unity; we’re all brothers and sisters here.”
Many of the people were interested in what brought me to Ghana. Among them was a man named Brice with whom I chatted for a while before he asked for my hand in marriage. I couldn’t believe it!
Flex explained that this was not out of the ordinary. He said that a lot of people jump into marriage because they want to go to America and make money.
Everyone we came into contact with spoke English. In fact, it is common for a Ghanaian to know three or four different languages. Almost half of the population speaks Akan, but the most popular dialect is Fanti, followed by Twi. English is usually the second or third language, typically learned in high school.
Before Ghana became independent, it was called the “gold coast,” which included the slave coast of West Africa. Our group traveled two hours from Accra into the Cape Coast, where we stayed overnight to explore the rich history of the city. We visited the Elmina slave castle and saw, firsthand, the remains of that horrible part of history. The site cast a disheartening and somber mood on all of us.
On our last night in Ghana, Flex and Free Boy invited us to a pool hall and outdoor bar. As we played pool, we listened as them sing along to a style of music called hip-life. “Hip-life is the African hip-hop,” Free Boy explained. “It speaks to us directly; it’s what we live by,” added Flex. Parisa and I listened as they sang along to an upbeat song in which the only English lyrics were “I love you baby.” They pointed to us and smiled whenever they sang that line.
When Parisa and I got back to the hotel, we played our drums and sang the “hip-life” song until we fell asleep. A short time later, we woke up, boarded our plane, and flew home.