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A Foreigner in Ghana: The Good, Bad, and Ugly
People from America or Europe only go to a place like Ghana, located on Africa's western coast facing the Atlantic, for either business, a volunteer for an NGO (religious or US Aid, UNICEF), or family living there. I left out tourist because except for places to check out, your typical tourist may get bored. Of course, tourists seeking to experience the Ghana culture and area, who wander about into the areas outside the big cities (Accra, Tema), are exempt because they expect the poor conditions that exist.
Ghana is a developing country. Flying there from New York costs at least $1200 and takes 10-11 hours over a sea of blue. Upon landing, foreigners experience the intense "always on" heat furnace climate with high humidity (think, Miami, Key West). It smacks you hard as you get off the plane and board a bus that take you to the terminal. You have to move through customs where personnel check your passport, vaccinations needed, take your photo and fingerprint. All this takes considerable time. You are asked a few general questions and sent on your way to get your baggage. It is not orderly or polite process, it is a hectic, crazy, rush to locate your bags (pray they are not lost!) and once in hand, locating how to exit the terminal. However, make sure you have Ghanaian money, cedi. The exchange rate is around 3.5 cedi to $1.00. Speaking of money, make sure any credit cards you have will work in Ghana and always bring cash. Finding an ATM even in cities is not easy unless at a bank.
Like all airports, things are new, confusing, frustrating. It is far worse in Ghana. There is more disorder and while a local may be speaking English or some form of it, due to the accents, it is very hard to understand your native tongue. Taking a taxi will be your first cultural experience. It will probably be a much older car and may pull up with passengers in it already. In Ghana, taxi cabs often share riders. It could be a tight squeeze with you and three-four others in the back seat, while the front passenger seat is also filled. Calculating the fare is your first taste of Ghana works. Most international hotels in Ghana replicate high quality and serve what Westerners usually eat with some local cuisine. These hotels may become your refuge from the real Ghana like islands with First Worldness.
Ghana is black or brown. As a white person, you are the minority wherever you go. A local already presumes many things from your whiteness. You are foreigner, probably have money, probably gullible in Ghana customs and ways, and a target, of sorts. The impact on you is that you are always in a "guarded" mode. You will gravitate to another "oberuni", which is lingo for foreigner\white person because there are so few of them. It's like seeing a fellow teammate! It's very weird being the minority. In Ghana, like other places, there is a price for locals and one for foreigners, especially in local market places, beach areas, tourist areas, taxis, and anywhere outside Accra or Tema urban areas. Unlike visiting European countries, as a white person, there is no blending in Ghana, LOL. You always stand out, like a movie star.
In Ghana, money is everything. It is a fairly corrupted place, from the street vendor to government officials. Residents and businesses are always trying to get something for nothing. Businesses are frequently being busted for illegal electrical connections in the thousands. Many government entities-police and others- will ask for money from you for their services. It is the culture. Ghana is one of the major Internet hub for romance scams. Many seeking love on commonly used dating websites in the USA or Europe are actually speaking and sending money to Ghanaian men or women posing as beautiful white women. This is easy money for them. The average Ghanaian, if they can find work, makes $500-1000 a month. The cost of living is high. An Internet connection costs $90 a month, a gallon gas- around $6. A one bedroom apartment runs nearly $1000. Cheese is $9 for 1 kg and chicken is similar. A McMeal at McDonalds is $7. So, all locals look at the foreigner as a possible source of additional income.
In Ghana, you can also take a motorbike taxi or a "tro tro". A tro-tro is a converted converted van for passengers carrying as many as 24 people. These are usually in bad shape but if you must, it is a ride.Speaking of driving there, it is a crazy place, especially outside the cities. Drivers just do what they want to avoid potholes and switching lanes where no lanes seem to be obeyed. Taking one is one of patience. It takes a long time to get anywhere: 90 minutes to travel 20 miles. You may have to take several. The term road is loosely used in Ghana, it could be just a dirt lane or paved. Despite the excessive rain, humidity, and mid-80's temperatures that are always "on", most vehicles have no air conditioning. Venturing outside the urban areas and into the rural areas is an adventure. I will say, most of the locals are friendly and will help you. Even the handful of volunteers who go there for medical or volunteer internships from Europe or USA, can venture out with little fear and explore whether male or female. Ghana is safe but corrupt.
Most visitors will go to Kakum National Park, one of Ghana's rain forest. It is in a remote area, so plan well. There are seven bridges in total, all about 130 feet off the ground! These are rope with a wood plank on the bottom to walk on, reinforced with steel cables at the very top. The road trip there is part of the experience. Another place most go to, which is beautiful is the Cape Coast area and castle. As far as museums go, this is the only one up to Western standards. The tour shows all the dungeons where slaves were held before being shipped out to various places. It was part of the British slave trade and the floors consisted of human waste covered by sand. After hundreds of years, it is part of the floor! The beach area near the castle is a great photo-op area with a nice, vacant beach. The ocean is quite rough. Another popular beach for tourists is Kokrobite Beach and Gardens.
If you travel away from the cities, you might find only a few places to stay that have running water and shower. You will have no Internet access or might not have electrical outlets to recharge electronics. The electricity in Ghana is horrible. There are roaming blackouts daily. These are scheduled throughout the country and vary, but usually, they start at either 6 or 8 p.m. and last 12 or more hours. But, they can occur without notice and in the middle of the day. Very frustrating!
Aside from Accra and areas with lots of tourists, like Accra or the beaches, there are few restaurants to grab a quick bite to eat. There are Chop bars that generally serve only banku, fufu, and rice. Hotels and the Accra Mall also serve many Western and non-traditional foods. Lots of places serve pizza, however. Speaking of food, here is a list of Ghana food:
- Fried rice and chicken
- Jill of rice with sauage- a hot dog
- Egg sandwiches (noodles, lettuce, onion, egg slices)
- Spiced noodles
- mango, pineapple
- Rice and red sauce- tomato based with eggs
- Waakye-rice with tomato sauce, black eye peas
- Rice balls and peanut soup pressed into a ball
- Banku\Fufu - cassava plant sticky paste, into a ball, served with sauce
- Vegetable stew- rice, veggies, tomato sauce
- Sabolo - a ginger based juice
As a tourist, you will miss many things you take for granted. You will miss having unlimited Internet connections (assuming if you live there) because Internet access is bought per data bundles in $20-40 packages. It may last you a while or not, depending how much data is being used. Having to recharge your electronics is a nuisance for sure if you need them during a blackout. A lack of running water in some places. You might miss having TV with your shows, as Ghana TV is very boring. Having A\C in your car may be your most irritant because of the heat and humidity, but at least you have fans and breezes. If you are into Spanish or Mexican food, this will greatly bother you- there is none there. No tacos or burritos. After any length of time, the lack of food variety may get to you. Ghana food is starchy because meats and vegetables are expensive. The Chop bars are Ghana's fast food. They are way more popular and common than Western type fast food, found mainly in Accra.
Ghana makes you so happy to back in your First World country. You don't know what you have, until you lose it!