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There is a lighthouse on the edge of Jamestown in Accra. It has red and white stripes on the outside, a rickety spiral staircase on the inside and 360-degree views over the city at the top. Sweating and swatting mosquitos, I climb the 91 steps at sunset, when the day is on a dimmer switch and the sky is streaked with pink.
From one side of the lookout you can see a fishing community stretch out along the coast with painted wooden boats, clumps of tangled blue nets and makeshift grills for smoking fresh catch. From another, Accra unfolds along corrugated tin roofs and snaking trails of tro-tro buses dwarfed by a handful of high-rise buildings. Directly below there’s music blaring, and the smell of charcoal rising from a square where hundreds of people dressed in white are dancing around trestle tables framed by banners that rustle in the breeze.
“It’s a funeral,” says a man behind me, as though I’ve asked the question out loud. “Funerals are real parties here, much bigger than weddings. Families save up for months to put on a three-day celebration and invite everyone they know.” I squint at the scene in front of me and the edges sharpen before my eyes.
Accra is a city that requires some explanation. Running on frenetic activity and stifling humidity, the Ghanaian capital is at first glance overwhelming – many travellers barely touch down in the city’s knotted streets before moving on to explore the slave castles of Cape Coast, the surfing settlement at Busua or the rolling plains of Mole National Park.
Frankly they are missing a trick. The people in Ghana are warm and easygoing, and with locals as your guide the chaos quickly subsides, clearing the way for experiences like dancing at a roadside bar and doing the mannequin challenge in a club at 5AM. Accra might be hard to get to grips with. However, once you’ve got a hold of the place, there’s no letting go.
But first there’s the traffic. The city suffers badly from congestion, and until last year mango trees, roadside vendors and kiosks served as landmarks for navigation in the absence of road signs and an address system. Uber exists in theory, but almost always fails in practice, and the struggle of bartering with taxi drivers is incredibly real. The on-road experience is made bearable only by hawkers who address you as “aunty” or “sister”, selling items that range from the predictable – plantain chips, nuts and water – to the obscure, such as self-help manuals with titles including Act Like a Lady; Think Like a Man.
Aside from the gridlock, Ghana’s epithet as the “Gateway to Africa” makes sense. It’s true on a practical level – Accra is serviced by direct flights from many cities (we flew KLM from Amsterdam) – and it also resonates symbolically. Ghana was the first African nation to gain independence from colonial rule, and benefits from a strong economy based on gold, oil and cocoa. It met the Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty rates by 2015, and has been hailed as a model of political stability thanks to the peaceful conduct of its general elections.
A beacon of luxury in the city, The Kempinski Hotel is just one example of Accra’s rapid growth. With 269 rooms, the hotel opened in 2015 to accommodate the city’s rising number of business travellers, and is home to a rooftop pool, an in-house art gallery and one of the largest spas in West Africa (from April this year), while the ground-floor bar pumps out a steady stream of afrobeats at the weekend.
It was in fact music that first sparked our interest in Accra, and music has drawn artists including Wyclef Jean, Ed Sheeran and Rita Marley to the city. Ghana is the birthplace of highlife, a genre typified by a synthesis of European instruments, African vocals and twists of American jazz. In the Nineties a genre called hiplife emerged, which sees artists rap in a Ghanaian language (usually Twi) over a hip-hop beat. Blasting from boomboxes, roadside sound systems and crackling car stereos, reggae and dancehall are also very much alive here.
Before making the journey to Ghana, my colleague Emily and I had got in touch with Cherae Robinson, the founder of Tastemakers Africa, a company that links travellers to well-connected locals, encouraging tourists to explore Africa beyond the well-trodden safari trail. With the help of Cherae we had arranged for three different insiders to show us the music and nightlife of Accra. We wanted to get right to the heart of the city through its people.
We first meet Reggie Rockstone, a pioneer of the hiplife movement, at the neon-lit bar of his club AftaWerk, then travel with him to an open-air concert in the carpark of a shopping mall where he’s scheduled to play with his band, VVIP. With waist-length dreadlocks and a white messenger cap, Reggie tells us stories that swing cinematically from Ed Sheeran’s love for Accra (he pulls out a video in which the redheaded popstar is looking more than a little worse for wear) to his former manager Dhoruba Al-Mujahid bin Wahad, the one-time leader of the Black Panther Party. The musician’s energy translates to the stage, where he commands the crowd with rap lyrics in a deep, gravelly voice. Amped up after the show, groups of young people showcase spontaneous but still perfectly choreographed dance moves. Reggie tells us: “Music is the soundtrack to Ghanaian life.”
On a Friday night you’ll find what seems like half the city at Republic, a bar that spills out onto the road with a sound system that plays everything from The Beatles to Drake. A number of overzealous expats are to be found talking over lukewarm Club beers and saccharine cocktails (the bartenders have an exceptionally sweet tooth in Ghana), but it’s a popular spot for locals too. Here we meet David Yayra and Kwamena Boison, members of a collective called Afro District that produces fashion shoots and music videos, who can’t be missed thanks to their dapper personal style. Wearing a tailored blazer, braces and brogues, Kwamena shows us how to dance the Azonto, an expressive form of freestyle dance that reached an international stage when the London-based rapper Fuse ODG tried to teach David Cameron the steps (we don’t fare much better).
But Twist nightclub is where people really get stuck in. Located in Labone, the lounge plays the latest West African hits and draws a mixed crowd of Ghanaians, Nigerians and expats wearing sharp jackets, heels and bodycon. We arrive with Isaac “Doctor” Duncan, a broadcaster who for ten years hosted a radio show that unearthed some of Ghana’s most exciting musicians. Through organising freestyle rap battles on his show, Kasahere Level (“fast talk” in Twi), Duncan launched the careers of Shatta Wale, Stonebwoy and Sarkodie, the BET award-winning rapper (who makes more than one appearance over the speakers that night). We wrap things up at around 5AM after a dance floor-wide mannequin challenge initiated by the DJ.
Music is the lifeblood of Accra, but food offers an entry point to the city’s soul. Starch and spice are the two pillars of Ghanaian cuisine, so expect staples of thick, well-seasoned stews accompanied by rice or boiled yams. And eat up – Ghanaians take great pride in their food; one waitress shoots me a look that could kill as I hand back a half-finished plate.
Lunchtime at Buka offers a taste of this reverential approach to meals. This terrace restaurant hosts a live band, and the clientele don traditional African wares – colourful headdresses, patterned suits and skirts. I order goat meat light soup with fufu (a ball of pounded cassava and plantain flour that sits heavily on the stomach) and kontomire (similar to spinach) stew. The area surrounding Accra airport is a hotspot for restaurants, including Gold Coast, which serves a delicious take on jollof rice and groundnut soup – like a spicier, silkier version of chicken satay.
We find that a respect for traditional creativity also underpins The Arts Centre Market, a warren of stalls selling cowhide drums, hand-carved wooden bowls and leather bags, where we stop at a makeshift shop in the heart of the complex. Inside an artist called Ras Banana is selling paintings of barber shop customers on recycled wooden boards. Elsewhere, The Artists Alliance Gallery deals in traditional crafts including Ashanti masks and jewellery, while also displaying contemporary paintings. We spend an hour sifting through the collection of woven baskets before taking a walk along the shoreline of Labadi Beach, where there are horses everywhere you look.
Accra displays a deep-seated respect for tradition, but the air is also charged with entrepreneurial energy. One of the consequences of the military coup of 1981, which overthrew the constitutional government and saw two subsequent decades of economic turmoil, was that many young Ghanaians left. This diaspora went to the US and Europe, and a generation grew up cosmopolitan and educated abroad. Now they are returning, bringing with them money, culture and an appetite for international flavours.
Such flavours include the cold-pressed juices at Café Kwae, a coffee shop and a co-working space owned by the Ghana-born but British-educated Yvette Ansah. There’s also the iced tea that comes served in hipster-friendly jam jars at Tea Baa. Founded by Dedo Azu, who spent years living and working in Canada, the café is littered with board games and furniture made from recycled shipping pallets, and is a haven for repats and expats alike.
Tea Baa is just one of many new enterprises blooming in the neighbourhood of Osu. Cantonments Road – known locally as Oxford Street thanks to its buzz – hums with activity around the clock, and is home to the best shopping in the city. Elle Lokko is a concept store that champions Made in Africa brands such as Osei-Duro, a line of dresses and jumpsuits that blends the colours and textiles of Ghana with laidback Californian style, while AAKS makes use of ecologically harvested raffia from local farmers to fashion woven bags, and in doing so provides sustainable employment.
The level of enthusiasm for the arts in Accra is steadily growing, and in the neighbourhood of Jamestown you can see the tangible social impact of creativity. Once the seat of the British colonial administration, the area is a vibrant and dynamic community, but has been neglected in terms of economic development, and is often labelled as a slum.
In the absence of government planning, residents have taken matters into their own hands, setting up the Chale Wote festival, which hosts a free arts programme each year, and converting old buildings into workshops, storage spaces and homes. The respected architect Joe Osae-Addo has established a café and the ArchiAfrika gallery, which has a diverse programme of live music and exhibitions. We sit down to a lunch of fried tilapia fish, supplied by local vendors, while Joe explains he has employed Jamestown residents as security guards and cleaners in order to engage the community. He says: “As architects, as designers and as creative people, we don’t have to leave development to the politicians. We can – through our skills and our passion and our training – engage and try and make change in our own small way.”
Lives are played out in the open in Jamestown. Teeming with people, the streets are fluid and double up as stages for football games, dancing competitions and funeral processions. We walk through the community with a guide trained by Joe, passing murals splashed across the peeling panels of nail bars, hair salons and boxing gyms – the area has a long legacy of producing international champions, and local boys still dream of punching their way out.
I pass a corner shop called Fear God Frozen Foods, just one of many everyday enterprises in the city to be named with a Christian spin (elsewhere there are car garages known as Blessed Metal and Worship God Motors, as well as an opticians called Godly Favoured Eye Care). And we walk past the crumbling walls and knocked-through windows of Franklin House on Brazil Lane – a site where slaves were once auctioned and sold.
At the point where the land meets the sea, the Jamestown lighthouse is the area’s greatest treasure, a guardian over the city of Accra, and a hopeful lookout to the beyond. After climbing to the top of tower, I pause to take in the scene below. There is – underneath the music and the food, beneath the heat and the haze – an easygoing order to this chaos. Getting to the heart of Accra is about being guided, like a ship to a lighthouse, by the warm and steady glow of Ghana’s people.