Friday, November 18, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Is Ghana the New Sweden?

Kwei Quartey was born in Ghana and raised by an African-American mother and a Ghanaian father, both of whom were university lecturers. Even though his professional writing career began after he became a physician, his desire to be a writer began at the early age of eight. Kwei Quartey’s debut novel, WIFE OF THE GODS, was released by Random House Publishers in July 2009. CHILDREN OF THE STREET is his second work (2011), and he is working on a third, MURDER AT CAPE THREE POINTS, with Ghana’s new oil industry as a backdrop. Kwei Quartey now lives in Pasadena, California. He writes early in the morning before setting out to work at HealthCare Partners, where he runs a wound care clinic.

A bookseller and friend of mine once jokingly said in reference to the increasing number of mystery novels coming out of Africa, “Ghana is the new Sweden.” It would be a stretch to say that was the case for international travel, but this year, the influential travel guide Frommer’s included Ghana in its list of Top Destinations 2012. Coming on the heels of being cited by Economy Watch as the fastest growing country in the first half of 2011, this Frommer piece gave Ghana another boost. So what, besides an impressive GDP growth rate, does the country have to make it worth a trip?

I grew up in Ghana until my late teens. My mother is black American and my late father was Ghanaian. The political turmoil of the ’70s and ’80s pushed my mother to the decision to leave Ghana with my brothers and me and return to the United States. Since then, Ghana has radically changed, with a stable democracy and a booming economy. Because of all the development that had occurred during my nearly 20-year absence, when I visited Ghana in 2008, I did not recognize much of the capital, Accra. The long-necked cranes towering above new buildings on the skyline are a constant reminder that this is a country in rapid transition. Old and traditional ways with the fast pace of modernity make for some interesting and sometimes frustrating incongruities that are part and parcel of the Ghana experience.

Like many cosmopolitan cities, there’s a whirlwind of things to see, hear, smell, touch, and taste in the city of Accra. Above all, get ready for some agonizing traffic jams while you’re pressured by street hawkers to buy items ranging from ice cream to bewildered week-old puppies.  

Hawkers sell everything imaginable

The art of head carrying
Places like Nima, a sub-city, are a spectacle of commerce and people on the move, particularly its marketplace. It may not be quite as chaotic as Mumbai can be, but it is plenty kinetic. 

Controlled chaos in Nima

Vehicle and pedestrians: a peaceful coexistence, not a battle

There’s something for all tastes. If you want a kind of bourgeois detachment from Accra’s everyday life of everyday people, stay at the Mövenpick Hotel or visit for Sunday lunch. 

The lobby at Mövenpick
The buffet at Mövenpick

If you want to see the worst of environmental conditions and where some of the West’s discarded televisions and computers end up being processed in an informal recycling system hazardous to one’s health, go to the Agbogbloshie slum.

The Agbogbloshie Canal -- a toxic environment

A youngster burns the plastic off copper wires
from discarded electronic equipment

The handful of monuments to see in Accra may not bowl you over, but more interesting is the history behind them—for instance, Ghana’s independence from the British in March 1957, the first in sub-Saharan Africa.

Accra's Independence Square

Accra has older reminders of the colonial and slave-trading past at Ussher Fort near James Town, which is the oldest part of the city. 

Entrance to Ussher Fort

The James Town lighthouse

The dilapidated Ussher Fort is supposedly scheduled for renovations and conversion to a museum. The sooner that is done, the better. It could generate revenue for Accra, as does the must-see National Museum of Ghana.

The National Museum - a view from the second floor

National Museum - one of many ancient African works on display

While Ussher Fort has been allowed to deteriorate, things are better with other forts and castles erected by the Portuguese, Dutch, British, Danish, Swedish, and German occupiers who came centuries ago for gold and slaves. The Cape Coast Castle, Elmina Castle, and Fort Metal Cross should be included on your itinerary. Here you will find organized and formal tours, and Elmina has a good bookstore.
Exterior of Elmina Castle

Renovated courtyard at Fort Metal Cross

Many streets in Accra are in bad shape, but it’s a pleasantly different story with several intra-city roads. For example, the route from Accra to Sekondi-Takoradi is silky smooth, and the landscape is a refreshing relief from the madness of the city.

En route to Sekondi-Takoradi

Highway flanked by flowering Flame Trees

Takoradi itself in comparison to Accra is like going from cacophony to peace. This is my favorite town. It is green and lush and has a relaxed and completely different atmosphere from Ghana’s capital.

Roundabout in Takoradi

Scene at the Sekondi Fishermen's Harbor

The discovery by Tullow Oil of huge amounts of petroleum offshore has already begun to affect Takoradi, and one hopes that it will be all for the better, but caution is being sounded about the possible downsides of a 21st century style gold rush. Takoradi and the oil industry is the backdrop for my third novel in the Darko Dawson series, Murder At Cape Three Points, in which I hope to capture the radically different flavor of Takoradi compared to Accra, the setting of the second Darko novel, Children of the Street.

The Western Region in which Takoradi lies has the highest rainfall of all regions, which explains its rich vegetation, forests, and prized wetlands.
The route to Cape Three Points, the southernmost tip of Ghana

A swampland at the outskirts of Takoradi

However, the Central Region also has majestic forests to boast about, most notably its Kakum National Park. I confess I have not been, but I don’t know many first-time visitors to Ghana who have not. It’s on my to-do list, as is Kumasi, the second largest city in Ghana that I haven’t seen since childhood. I also need to revisit the northern part of Ghana, which is a completely different world from the south.  From the hot, desert-like conditions of the north to the relatively cool environs of Mount Afadjato, Ghana has varying climates in between.

The Frommer piece states: “Ghana provides a perfect introduction to African travel.” This is probably true. It could serve as a less jarring culture shock to the Westerner venturing into Africa for the first time, providing a gentler introduction to “roughing it” in West Africa than other less developed countries of the region might. However, in response to the Frommer article, a traveler with a different viewpoint commented, “Avoid it [Ghana] at all costs if you are gay and traveling with your partner, or find fundamentalist Christian fanaticism offensive.” Ghana is certainly a conservative society, and there has been a surge of religiosity and mega-churches. That said, I might rephrase this fellow’s comment as follows: “If you are gay and traveling with your partner in Ghana, behave just as you would in many conservative parts of the United States: be discreet, don’t make gayness a crusade, and don’t do anything stupid in public. If you find fundamentalist Christian fanaticism offensive, handle it the way you would in the U.S.: ignore it. There’s plenty other stuff going on in Ghana to allow you to do that, and like most everyone, these issues won’t have any significant bearing on your trip.

So go to Ghana with an open mind. The fun is watching before your very eyes, the process of development in a country with great potential but persistent nagging problems that remain to be ironed out. What you won’t forget are the friendliest smiles you are likely to encounter anywhere. You’re likely to want to return, because as once an expatriate explained to me, even if you get out of Ghana, you can’t get the Ghana out of you. From my standpoint as a mystery writer, this West African virtually at the center of the earth, is the best place to set crime fiction while telling an unfolding story of a county’s promise, rapid change, and the mixing of the traditional and modern. Ghana may not be the new Sweden, but ultimately I want mystery fans to pay just as much attention. 

Nothing more heartening than the smiles of children


  1. A great article . Ghana is somewhat like India . I visited Accra in 1979 / 80 and lived in a protected area .Country was under military dictatotship ( presume it was rawlings ?).Ghana has adequate natural resources . Artistes ?? yes!! Remember the work of a potter " changing face of Ghana " ,displaying beer mugs , each having a unique face ----with sadness heavily displayed.It can still become a great country with proper leadership ...Remember there is a ramakrishna ashram there .....

  2. Thanks for blogging with us today and sharing this fascinating virtual trip to an interesting part of the world, Kwei. I think your advice to the Frommer commenter could apply to travel anywhere. It's always a good idea to respect local attitudes and customs even if they are not your own. Especially if they're not, in fact, because you learn something new.

    How often do you return to Ghana and how do you conduct research for your books? Do you have contacts with the Accra police who help with police procedure?

  3. Thanks so much for blogging with us this week, Kwei! Very informative post, chock full of photos and links too. I'm most surprised to read, though, about the mega-churches and fundamentalist Christianity in Ghana, esp after reading your fabulous novel, Wife of the Gods (and btw, I'm still recovering from its ending). How do such different thoughts and values -- Christianity along with the widespread belief in witchcraft and multiple gods? Or do they? Maybe one is mostly urban and the other, mostly rural?

  4. Thank you, Venugopal for your contribution.
    @ Heidi, thank you so much. I go back to Ghana once or twice a year. I have a good friend in the Criminal Investigations Department who helps me in my research, as well contact with individuals in the Crime Scene Unit.
    @ Supriya, thanks very much as well. My take is that Christianity, fundamentalist or otherwise, don't so much compete with or usurp traditional beliefs, but coexist with them, at least for some people. The concept of God with a capital "G" is not incompatible with lesser gods.

  5. Kwei, what a wonderful post. I look forward to reading your books. I visited Accra and Sekondi, as well as Kumasi and Tamale, while on vacation from a year in the much more arid Ougadougou to the north. The people were overall very generous and curious, and the country seemed in good shape economically compared to the former Francophone countries further inland. I love the brightly painted trucks and the shops with names like "Dear Jesus Fashion Design and Auto Parts."

    Edith Maxwell
    SPEAKING OF MURDER, out Dec 2011 from Trestle Press.