Strike gold on Africa's coast

Not even latent colonial guilt could spoil travelling in Ghana, a country keen to welcome tourists

Their eyes looked up at me with a mixture of curiosity, amusement and accusation. The class of Ghanaian schoolchildren had not expected to find themselves locked in a slave dungeon with an abruni, or white man. They, and I, were trapped in the sweltering darkness courtesy of a guide at Cape Coast Castle who wanted to give an insight into the sufferings of their ancestors at the hands of 17th-century slave traders. He told us how dozens of captured Africans were kept crammed in a subterranean cell, where the only light and air came from a window high up in the wall, and sanitation was provided by a channel in the floor that carried away sewage. After enduring weeks of captivity in that environment, they would be led through an exit marked "door of no return" to ships that would take them to the Caribbean and America.

Their eyes looked up at me with a mixture of curiosity, amusement and accusation. The class of Ghanaian schoolchildren had not expected to find themselves locked in a slave dungeon with an abruni, or white man. They, and I, were trapped in the sweltering darkness courtesy of a guide at Cape Coast Castle who wanted to give an insight into the sufferings of their ancestors at the hands of 17th-century slave traders. He told us how dozens of captured Africans were kept crammed in a subterranean cell, where the only light and air came from a window high up in the wall, and sanitation was provided by a channel in the floor that carried away sewage. After enduring weeks of captivity in that environment, they would be led through an exit marked "door of no return" to ships that would take them to the Caribbean and America.

There can be few better ways for a European to explore any latent colonial guilt than a visit to the slave forts of what was once known as the Gold Coast. Some of the children's gazes seemed to suggest that they were wondering if the past evils of Europeans had transferred to me; others just giggled at my discomfort. Thankfully, the tour also made clear that slavery existed in West Africa before the Europeans arrived, so it was unfair to blame only them for the trade that saw the British alone take 10,000 people a year from the Gold Coast. While it is impossible for a European to escape some feeling of inherited shame, the government of this former British colony is anxious that visitors be made to feel welcome, not guilty.

Cape Coast and the neighbouring Elmina Castle, the oldest surviving European building in Africa, are at the forefront of Ghana's drive to make tourism its biggest earner of foreign currency. Both designated as Unesco World Heritage sites, they lie conveniently close to the beach resorts that the government hopes will prove another big draw, along with wildlife reserves being developed in the interior.

For most of Ghana's post-independence history, the idea of marketing the country as a tourist destination would have been laughable. It was the first African colony to win independence and was supposed to lead other newly independent African states to prosperity and stability. But instead it set an example of how grandiose schemes can so easily lead to political chaos, endemic corruption and economic collapse. Then, in the 2000 elections, John Kufuor became president with a promise an end to corruption and promote the return of foreign investment.

One of Kufuor's first problems has been a currency crisis that saw the Ghanaian cedi go into freefall. But while this has hardly helped Ghanaian workers, it does mean travelling and accommodation are extraordinarily cheap for foreigners.

Most journeys by minibuses, known as "tro-tros", cost less than £1, and a fresh roadside coconut can cost just 5p. Some upmarket hotels have started charging in dollars, but for visitors prepared to forgo a few home comforts, Ghana's most enticing destinations are available at negligible cost. A night at the lodge in Boabeng Fiem, a monkey sanctuary will cost £2. There is no electricity and water is pumped from a borehole, but the lodge is next to a hamlet in a forest where mona and colobus monkeys abound.

The monkeys have flourished because, according to tradition, they are sacred and any human who harms them will come to an unfortunate end. The tradition is observed to the extent that when a monkey dies it is given a formal burial by a fetish priest, and when the priest in turn dies he is buried with the monkeys.

With hunting banned, the monkeys obviously benefit, but so do the tourists, who get to see the shy animals at close quarters, and the villagers, who receive a share of the fee paid by each visitor to what is fast becoming a highly popular destination. For the moment, though, anyone who chooses to stay overnight is likely to be sharing the lodge with only volunteer aid workers and a primate researcher or two.

Heading back to the capital Accra, visitors have a choice of calling at the second city and cultural capital Kumasi, or venturing east to Lake Volta, the world's largest artificial lake, built in the 1960s to supply Ghana with hydroelectric power, and to the Avatime Hills beyond. The landscape looks like a tropical Lake District, and those who make the trek to mountain-top villages such as Amedzofe will find that the spectacular views are accompanied by a warmer welcome than in some more heavily visited areas.

Getting down from Amedzofe can involve hitching a ride on the back of a lorry travelling to market. But the thrill of descending the mountain roads in the open air while the lorry becomes steadily more crowded with shoppers and traders more than makes up for the bumpy ride.

Most visitors, however, opt for Kumasi, the ancient seat of the Ashanti kings, who once ruled an area larger than modern-day Ghana and fought the British for nearly a century before becoming part of the Gold Coast colony in 1902. The present king remains the most important political figure in Ghana after the President.

In comparison, Accra seems to have less to offer tourists. There are, however, some high-quality art galleries and restaurants, and visitors are likely to be surprised by a safe and friendly atmosphere that runs counter to all assumptions about the dangers of urban Africa.

At one point I lost my bearings; the man I asked for directions quietly insisted on accompanying me until I found my hotel, even though he was clearly running late himself. How often does that happen to a Ghanaian lost in London?

The Facts

Getting there

Ghana Airways (020-7499 0201) flies direct to Accra from Heathrow on Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday. Fares start from £430 return, including tax, until the end of May.

British Airways (0845 77 333 77; www.ba.com) flies direct from Heathrow to Accra on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday, from £484.70, including tax, until July.

Interchange (020-8682 3612; www.interchange.uk.com) offers six to 11-day tours of Ghana, taking in the Cape coast, Boabeng Fiema monkey sanctuary and Kumasi, from £1,275 per person, based on two sharing.

Being there

For moderate to upmarket hotels, visit www.reliablehotels.net.

Further information

Ghana is featured in the Lonely Plant and Rough Guide editions on West Africa. The only book dedicated to the country is the Bradt Travel Guide to Ghana, by Philip Briggs, which includes detailed information, background and advice about all regions of the country. It also offers an email service which includes updates from travellers.

Visit www.ghanaweb.com for more information about the country, including exchange rates, history, politics, arts, tourism and sports. Or see www.akwaaba.com which has regularly updated news.

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