See the action in Ghana, on and off the pitch
The African Cup of Nations provided Ian Burrell with an excuse to visit this country. But football wasn't the only highlight of his trip
Sunday 10 February 2008
No one seemed to mind the presence of a lone Englishman among the yellow T-shirted ranks of the Ghana Nationwide Supporters' Union on the terraces of the Ohene Djan Stadium in Accra. "A-a-men!... Amen!... Amen!!" we chanted to the tune of "Michael Row the Boat Ashore", leaning forward en masse on the "A", then bending backwards on the "-men!".
As football songs go, beseeching "Jehovah the Most High God, Hallelujah!" to the backing of a phalanx of trombonists makes the "ere-we-gos" sound a bit lacklustre. But the attractions of a visit to the endlessly fascinating land of Ghana extend far beyond the African Cup of Nations football tournament, which reaches its climax today.
Ghana is bisected by the Greenwich meridian, so the seven-hour flight is not made worse by jet lag, and the British colonial rule means that English is the official language (though 75 African tongues are also spoken). Within a well-planned fortnight, it is possible to walk across the tree tops of a rainforest, see monkeys, baboons and antelope running wild, and sunbathe on palm-fringed sandy beaches at Elmina's Coconut Grove resort.
In the exciting capital, Accra, you should visit the elegant mausoleum of the nation's founder, Kwame Nkrumah, president of Africa's first independent colony in 1957. Kumasi offers the chance to take drumming lessons and see the weaving of traditional Asante kente cloth. Most inspirationally of all, you can include in your trip a few days helping out at an orphanage or health clinic. I did all of this as a guest of the British company Hands Up Holidays and had plenty of free time to enjoy the famed Ghanaian hospitality.
Although tourism is Ghana's fourth biggest industry, the country is sufficiently undiscovered to offer a frisson of adventure, and visitors are few enough to be received with genuine warmth. When Ghanaians say "Akwaaba" (welcome), they really mean it. But still expect the unexpected. In the dusty suburbs of Accra you'll find Paa Willie's workshop where carpenters make the most bizarre coffins. I saw an enormous hand-painted wooden chicken (a casket for a farmer) and an Air Canada jumbo (to speed the journey to the afterlife).
Religion is ubiquitous in Ghana, with every conceivable Christian denomination existing peacefully beside a significant Muslim minority and those who attend traditional African shrines. Male tourists might shed a tear as they hurry past Aunt Aggie's Circumcision Services. Somewhat more attractive is the food and drink offered in wooden "chop bars". Ghanaian favourites include red red, a dish combining fish with black-eyed beans and fried plantain.
However, behind the smiles is a country with a painful past. In Central Region lies Elmina Castle, built by the Portuguese in 1482 and the oldest European building in the whole of the tropics. Later occupied by the Dutch, then the British, the castle was for centuries the departure point for slaves. The World Heritage Site stands as a reminder of mankind's propensity to barbarity. A narrow slit in the outer wall – the "Point of No Return" – was from where slaves left Africa. Beneath the floor of the chapel, female captives were chained in dungeons, lying in their faeces. The women were occasionally brought into the courtyard where the governor chose one to be brought to his quarters to be raped.
Moving further north, Kakum National Park has the only rainforest canopy walk in Africa, a rope bridge swinging 100ft above the ground and stretching for a nerve-jangling 300 yards across the tree tops.
Kumasi is the bustling capital of the Asante people, who fiercely resisted British colonial rule and maintain a rich culture. The city's comfortable Swiss Cottage hotel is owned by a British Ghanaian and named after the London suburb where he once lived.
Your visit to Ghana will be enhanced immeasurably by an expert guide, such as those of M&J Travel and Tours/SYTO, available through Hands Up Holidays, which can also find you volunteer work. My placement was with Saviour International School, a cluster of breeze-block huts without electricity. The experience of trying to help 30 11-year-olds to improve their English grammar and science, working with a single textbook, will change you for ever.
How To Get There:
Hands Up Holidays (0800 783 3554; handsupholidays. com) offers a 15-day trip to Ghana from £1,400 per person, based on two sharing, including most meals but excluding flights. The trip visits Kumasi Fort, Manso Slave Market, Kakum National Park, Cape Coast and Elmina Castle, Accra, and includes four days volunteering in schools. British Airways (0870 850 9850; ba.com) offers flights from Heathrow to Accra from £665 per person.
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