After the beginning of our voyage in Germany, we spent four days in Spain, including Barcelona and Valencia, and then we exited the Mediterannean Sea only to head south along the coast of Morocco and northwest Africa. After making a quick refuel stop in the Canary Islands, we continued on just off the west coast of the countries of Western Sahara, Mauritiana, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, and finally, Ghana. We were typically anywhere from 25 to 100 miles off the coast of these countries. After nine full days at sea, we finally arrived in Tema, Ghana, where we put our feet onto solid ground again. The evening prior to arriving to Ghana, we could see the lights of the city of Takoradi, Ghana, to our port (left) side. After more than a week at sea, it seemed surreal that tomorrow we would be walking on the continent of Africa, my first time visiting Sub-Sahara Africa.
We were set arrive to the port around 8AM, which means we would pick up the pilot around 7AM. The pilot is the local expert on the port who helps a ship’s captain safety through the port and to the pier. Because every port is different, it’s important to have someone onboard who works in the area every day, knowing the risks and dangers of each area.
I got up to the bow of the ship just after 6AM. Normally, I am the only one of just a few at the bow for sunrise; however, the excitement as we get into a port meant that around 20 or so students had already beaten me up there. As we got closer to the Port of Tema, the number of large vessels anchored out in the waters grew and grew. It looked like several of these ships had not been inhabited for quite some time.
Next, something I never would’ve imagined actually happened. In between all of these ships, some active and others not, we saw two humpback whales playing in the waters. At first, we saw the water spraying out of their blowholes. Soon after, they were both breaching, rising almost completely out of the water. They were a decent ways into the distance while breaching, but I was borrowing a pair of binoculars and could see them clearly. To see them playing around in an area with so much traffic, it was a terrific surprise.
As the sun brightened the sky, small fishing boats started to pour out into the open ocean. Many of these fishing boats, mostly 15-20 foot boats with anywhere from two to five people, came very close to our ship out of curiosity, to make sure what they saw from a distance was in fact a ship carrying almost 600 college students. They must’ve been amused by the fact that their one wave to our ship was returned with well over a hundred from our ship.
As we guided our way into the port, with no other passenger ships in site, we were alongside our dock. Coming up to the port, I thought I could hear some drumming and other music playing. Sure enough, looking like just a few ants on the pier, was a Ghanaian band with dancers, drumming and strumming away. While I thought they would say for tips as 700 people exited the ship, they actually left before we were cleared to disembark. Someone said they were a volunteer band, just playing to welcome up. I also heard they may have been hired by the tourism bureau. Either way, they did a great job of making the students and faculty/staff feel welcome and excited to be in Ghana.
Ghana is a relatively small country in both population and geographical size. With a population of 28 million, it’s slightly larger than the population of Canada. In terms of land, it’s about the size of Michigan or Great Britain. While the population isn’t enormous, it is growing at a fast rate with a large chunk of the population being under the age of 18 years old.
The country’s largest city is Accra, a city of about five million located along the coast in southeast Ghana. We ported in Tema, which was a city built in 1965 BECAUSE of the creation of this deep-water seaport in which we docked. Tema is just about an hour drive to Accra’s east. The deep-water seaport, like I mentioned, is not normally for passenger cruise ships. It is, however, a large industrial port. Leaving the Port of Tema was like a tour through a shipping village, with the large shipping containers stacked on both sides of the road, 20 rows deep. The activity in the port actually rerouted our bus to another route as we zig-zagged our way away from the moving of the containers and towards the exit.
As our bus left the port, we all quickly realized that we were in an entirely new place. What makes this feeling different than normal travel is that we made no effort in getting from Spain to Ghana. We didn’t book airfare, no buses or trains. We just got on the ship in Valencia, continued our normal lives on the ship with work and classes, and then we suddenly show up in Sub-Sahara Africa. So here we were, ready to take on new adventures for the next four days.
Accra is a sprawling city, and we spent most of our time in the area known as Osu and Jamestown, centrally located and not ever far from the coast. We were dropped off by the Semester at Sea sponsored bus on Oxford Street, and we were immediately surprised. What we thought was a developed street, as one might think with a name like Oxford Street and being the center of the city, we found to be just a normal road with smaller shacks and smaller concrete buildings, spotted with shops selling household items like laundry detergent, to small food outlets serving fufu and banku. The nicest buildings, by far, were the banks. They were large colorful, clean, and almost immaculate compared to everything around them. We strategically found an Airbnb for the night just a short walk from where the bus dropped us off, so we found the place and checked in, just a 5-minute walk down a few windy residential streets.
We had no idea what to expect with this Airbnb. Our host, Isaac, met us at the corner of the block and then led us to a gate entrance, where we walked into a small courtyard on bare concrete, clothes hanging to dry, and a larger water tank. Isaac opened the door to the building on the left, and we walk into a small kitchen with tile flooring, and then he shows us the bedroom, a very simple room with a full-sized bed and not much else for decorations. But it did have something very important: air conditioning. When it’s 85-90 degrees and humid, and the humidity lasts throughout the night, it’s a nice amenity.
Leaving from the Airbnb, we walked down Oxford Street, straight towards the coast and the main sites we wanted to see. First on the agency was to see the Osu Castle, an old European fort built in the 1660s that is now used at the seat of the government. In other words, this is their Capitol Building.
To get there, I saw a direct route on the map down Oxford Street. As we got just a block away, the area became much more impoverished with a few people begging on the streets, and generally the infrastructure and houses decreased in quality. We finally got up to a little gate, and there was a police officer standing there, with automatic rifle and everything. He seemed very annoyed with us before even speaking with us, and he asked where we were trying to go. After telling us this is definitely not the way (at least in his tone), he told us he would get someone to show us. We refused and decided to walk independently back around where we came from, trying to find another way over. We ended up never getting a great view of the castle, even though we were fairly close. What struck me is how impoverished the few streets just outside the castle were, leading all the way up the gates of the 350 year old castle.
We moved on west towards our other points of interest. Next up was Black Star Square & Independence Monument, two sites that were built along with Ghana’s independence from the British in 1957, after about 500 years of European rule. What is bizarre is that Ghana is the first West African country to become independent from Europeans. A man by the name of Kwame Nkrumah led the way to independence, and other West African countries followed the road to independence soon afterwards.
Continuing on westward, we then found ourselves at the Art Center, an artisanal market made for tourists. Dozens and dozens of shops were all packed together, where you can buy anything from leather drums to skirts. It seemed to be the type of place where most shops, even though there were over 50 of them, they all sold essentially the same stuff. We’re not huge fans of markets like this, so we went through pretty quickly as vendors tried to pull us into their shops by offering discounts and “looking for free.”
Next was the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial and Mausoleum, the national hero’s final resting spot. This extravagant memorial is made of up fountains, statues depicting musicians playing instruments, and the gold statue of Nkrumah. Inside the large granite structure is the tomb of Nkrumah. With this area being so pristine, especially compared to the streets just outside the gate, one can see how importance of Nkrumah for the country of Ghana.
Continuing on, we walked along a main street on the most southern part of the city, not too far from the coastline. We walked to the neighborhood known as Jamestown, which is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Accra and obviously named by the British. By this time, our coworkers Jess and Ally were with us as all four of us were exploring the city. The sun was starting to go down and the heat began to lighten up. Kids were home from school, and workers returned home for dinner. The streets were packed with people. Kids playing soccer, families catching up with each other, vendors selling various types of foods. It was overwhelming to walk through such an active area, where every side street seemed to be its own small block party.
The main site in Jamestown is the Jamestown Lighthouse, located next to an old British fort and directly in front of an old British Palace, where the British governor may have lived long ago. These colonial buildings are remnants of so many years of British and European rule over Ghana. As we continued traveling throughout the country, it is shocking how many European forts, castles, and palaces are spread all along the coastal region, a history of exploitation of minerals and people. I will talk more about that in my upcoming post about the Central Ghana area in Cape Coast and Elmina, where a large part of the horrifying slave trade was done.
Because we stay in each country for a short period of time, we have to really pick and choose what we want to do. In the case of Ghana, we decided not to spend more than a day in Accra, but to head west along the coast to the central coastal region. So after our one night in the Airbnb, we headed to Cape Coast via tro tro, a shared van that leaves when full of passengers. These are very much like the colectivos that are used frequently in South American countries like Peru and Ecuador.
One of the more memorable parts of the trip was finding the correct tro tro to get to Cape Coast. We took an Uber (I believe they just recently got it here!) to the market area and had to walk on a busy sidewalk surrounded by vendors, doing our best to find the right van. They have signs on top of them saying where they’re going, and the sign will also indicate if they have air conditioning, the latter costing just a bit more. Once we found the correct van (21 cedis (pronounced like CDs), or $5, for the 3 hour ride), we were sitting inside waiting for it to fill with other passengers. With the engine off and the windows rolled down, there was like a moving market all around us. Vendors carry their products on their heads, usually in bowls or buckets, and their best captive market are those waiting in a tro tro. They were selling anything from Ben Carson’s book, to socks and underwear, to fried rice, plantains, water, to belts, soaps, etc. etc. etc. Anything and everything. Vendors stop by the open van door and by every open window to ask you if you want anything. Every five seconds or so, someone new would pass by with a different product. It was fascinating to watch this action, people buying and selling, wealing and dealing, anything and everything.
Before we knew it, our van was full and we were on our way west to Central Ghana.