I’M SITTING AT a chophouse in the Newtown neighborhood of Accra. A lizard at my feet is doing push ups, two at a time, to cool himself. My Fanta is sweating and my nose is starting to run from the heat in my light soup, a spicy broth slow-cooked with pieces of goat meat. Faty and Hawa, sisters who work at the restaurant, laugh as I dab my forehead with a handkerchief.
A truck selling dish soap pulls up. Twin speakers mounted on the rear of the vehicle blast Nana Boroo’s Ahayede (see above), a hiplife anthem with lyrics in French, English, Ewe, and Twi. Faty and Hawa abandon the restaurant and join a group of uniformed children who’ve just finished school for the day. A dance party has started at one of Newtown’s busiest intersections.
Next door to the chophouse, a crowd of 20+ has gathered around a roadside TV vendor. They’re watching Ghana play the U.S. in the Under 20 Women’s World Cup. The Black Princesses are not disappointing. Cheers and car horns follow their first goal.
This is Accra, and none of this is unusual.
I’ve known some travelers to be put off by the haze of diesel fumes on Ring Road, or by the lack of sidewalks and the prevalence of open sewers. But don’t make your judgment in a day, or even a couple. Take your time, watch your step, and don’t be shy.
Auntie Muni’s Waakye
Auntie Muni once sold food out of her home, buying ingredients on credit and making little profit. Now she runs one of the most popular food stalls in Accra. Her success is due entirely to the quality of her food.
After waiting in line, start your order with waakye, a rice and beans combo flavored with the waakye leaf and taken to the next level with spicey shiito sauce. Then pile on pieces of meat, spaghetti, hard boiled eggs smothered in pepe sauce, gari (finely ground cassava), and fried plantains.
Take a seat at one of the communal tables, wash your right hand in one of the provided basins, mix your food with said hand, and dig in.
Location: Labone neighborhood; Auntie Muni’s Junction (she actually has an intersection named after her and taxi drivers know it by this name)
* Open for lunch on the weekends only
Bywel Bar is one of the few spots in Accra where you can still catch live highlife music, a genre defined by bright polyrhythmic guitar lines, layered percussion, and call and response vocals.
The resident highlife band plays every Thursday. Show up at 10PM, grab yourself a Gulder (Ghana’s most flavorful local brew), and order some grilled beef or goat brochettes.
Then, stake out some territory on the dance floor.
By midnight, the open-air bar is packed. Expats and locals dance until late, gradually encroaching upon the band until it’s unclear where the stage ends and the crowd begins.
Guest musicians and singers regularly drop in to add their talents to the mix. Cold drinks and grilled meat are on offer, and not much else.
Location: Osu; near the end of Oxford/Cantonments road; most taxi drivers know Bywell Bar by name
* Live music on Thursday nights
Whether you’re after kaleidoscopic fabrics, a basket of tilapia, or a toothbrush and some soap, you’ll find it at Makola Market, one of the largest in West Africa…and an experience even if you’re not planning on buying anything.
The loosely defined borders of Makola make it easy to get lost. You may find yourself in an open-air meat market one moment, and in a labyrinth of fabric sellers the next.
It was here that I learned how to say “you’re mad/crazy” in Twi, the most widely spoken local language in Ghana. On hearing the price for 1m of fabric, I countered with a much lower price, in fact inappropriately low. I threw in a “me pacho” (“please, I beg of you”) for good measure.
The vendor, a smiling, round-faced woman wearing a dress dotted with miniature Kwame Nkrumah’s, laughed hysterically and shouted “Wa bo dam!” Normally, this is a serious insult, but in the easy-going social environment of the market, it’s meant for a laugh. For a visitor, it’s this atmosphere that is Makola’s greatest asset.
Located within walking distance of Makola Market, the Arts Centre is an oceanside collection of vendors dealing in hand drums, carvings, and metalwork.
On entering, you’ll be swarmed by touts offering “good prices.” Keep your cool, smile, and feel free to joke. Remember, you’re not required to buy anything. If you are inclined to pick up a souvenir, be prepared to bargain hard.
The Arts Centre can be stressful, so afterwards I like to walk over to Osekan Bar (~500m west on High Street) to sit among large rocks that back up to the ocean. They serve a variety of Ghanaian dishes and cold drinks.
Try the redred, a plate of beans bathed in a spicy palm oil sauce, and fried plantains. Or go for fufu, boiled cassava and plantain pounded into a doughy paste, typically served with groundnut sauce, a spicy peanut soup, or light soup with goat.
Location: Accra Central; from Makola Market walk south to High Street and hang a left, Arts Centre will be on your right in a few minutes
The National Museum provides a comprehensive look at Ghanaian culture and history. The permanent display showcases Ghanaian and regional artifacts that date from the Stone Age up to modern times.
The exhibits aren’t flashy, but you’ll see a wide range of musical instruments, fabrics and clothing (including traditional chief regalia), and a variety of recovered items from the slave trade. The slave ship Fredensborg is also on display here.
Location: Accra Central, just north of Makola Market
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Phil Paoletta is a West Africa obsessed camel drawing consultant. You can read about his thoughts and travels on his blog at philintheblank.net. He also blogs about travel health at sickontheroad.com.