Once held up as an example of African growth, spurred on by the discovery of oil off the coast in 2007, Ghana has faltered since 2013. A growing public deficit, high inflation and a weakening currency forced President John Dramani Mahama to turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2015 for a bailout as world commodity prices took a nosedive.
While development continues apace in Accra, where wealthier Ghanaians and expats frequent an ever-expanding number of fancy restaurants and hotels, the picture is gloomy for most Ghanaians. Unemployment, public debt and corruption are high. In Accra's poorest suburbs or the rural parts of northern Ghana, development is a work in progress. People defecate in the open for lack of sanitation; school-aged children sell water sachets in the street and women still spend many hours fetching water at the village pump.
The December 2016 presidential elections saw opposition candidate Nana Akufo-Addo beat incumbent John Dramani Mahama, who conceded peacefully and immediately – a testament to Ghana's strong democratic traditions.
People of Ghana
Ghana’s population of 28 million makes it one of the most densely populated countries in West Africa. Of this, 44% are Akan, a grouping that includes the Ashanti (also called Asante), whose heartland is around Kumasi, and the Fanti, who fish the central coast and farm its hinterland. The Nzema, linguistically close to the Akan, fish and farm in the southwest. Distant migrants from present-day Nigeria, the Ga are the indigenous people of Accra and Tema. The southern Volta region is home to the Ewe.
In the north, the Dagomba heartland is around Tamale and Yendi. Prominent neighbours are the Gonja in the centre, Konkomba and Mamprusi in the far northeast, and, around Navrongo, the Kasena. The Sisala and Lobi inhabit the far northwest.
Ghana is a deeply religious country and respect for religion permeates pretty much every aspect of life, from hilarious sideboards ('Jesus Loves Fashion', 'If God Says Yes Snack Bar') to preachers on public transport and street corners, ubiquitous religious celebrations such as funerals, and the wholesale takeover of Ghana's airwaves by God (and his workers) on Sunday.
You’ll come across churches of every imaginable Christian denomination; even the smallest village can have two or three different churches. About 70% of Ghanaians are Christian. Pentecostal and Charismatic denominations are particularly active, as are the mainline Protestant and Catholic churches. If you can bear the length (three to four hours), attending a service is an enlightening experience, whatever your creed.
Christianity was introduced by European missionaries, who were also the first educators, and the link between religion and education persists.
About 15% of the population is Muslim; the majority are in the north, though there are also substantial Muslim minorities in southern cities such as Accra and Kumasi.
Many Ghanaians also have traditional beliefs, notably in spirits and forms of gods who inhabit the natural world. Ancestor veneration is an important part of this tradition. Many people retain traditional beliefs alongside Christian or Muslim beliefs.
There’s no doubt about it, Ghana’s got rhythm. Whichever part of the country you visit, Ghana’s soundtrack will be a constant travel companion. From the age of three or four children are taught to dance: it’s not unusual to see little kids copying the hip-grinding and ass-shaking that characterises the average Ghanaian party.
Traditional music doesn't have the popular following that it has in countries such as Burkina. It tends to be reserved for special occasions and associated with royalty.
Contemporary music, on the other hand, is thriving. Highlife, a mellow mix of big-band jazz, Christian hymns, brass band and sailor sonnets, hit Ghana in the 1920s, and popular recordings include those by ET Mensah, Nana Ampadu and the Sweet Talks. Accra trumpeter ET Mensah formed his first band in the 1930s and went on to be crowned the King of Highlife, later performing with Louis Armstrong in Ghana.
WWII brought American swing to Ghana’s shores, prompting the first complex fusion of Western and African music. Hip-life, a hybrid of rhythmic African lyrics poured over imported American hip-hop beats, has now been ruling Ghana since the early 1990s.
Imported American hip-hop and Nigerian music closely compete for the number two spot after Highlife. Gospel music is also big, as is reggae.
Kente cloth, with its distinctive basketwork pattern in garish colours, is Ghana's signature cloth. Originally worn only by Ashanti royalty, it is still some of the most expensive material in Africa. The cloth can be single-, double- or triple-weaved and the colour and design of the cloth worn are still important indicators of status and clan allegiance.
Kente is woven on treadle looms, by men only, in long thin strips that are sewn together. Its intricate geometric patterns are full of symbolic meaning while its orange-yellow hues indicate wealth.
Arts & Crafts
Ghana has a rich artistic heritage. Objects are created not only for their aesthetic value but as symbols of ethnic identity; to commemorate historical or legendary events; to convey cultural values; or to signify membership of a group.
The Akan people of the southern and central regions are famous for their cloth, goldwork, woodcarving, chiefs’ insignia (such as swords, umbrella tops and linguist staffs), pottery and bead-making.
Around Bolgatanga in the north, fine basket weaving and leatherwork are traditional crafts. Drums and carved oware boards – the game of oware has various names throughout West Africa – are also specialities.
Ghana is one of the most interesting places to be in Africa right now, and there are tremendous books exploring the country's history.
- Ekow Eshun’s Black Gold of the Sun: Searching for Home in England and Africa is an excellent account of the author’s journey to reconcile his Ghanaian and British roots.
- In My Father’s Land, by Star Nyanbiba Hammond, is part autobiography, part novel, inspired by the author’s move from England to Ghana at the age of eight.
- Maya Angelou’s All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes beautifully documents the author’s emigration to Ghana.
- Ayi Kwei Armah's The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born tells the tale of a man getting to grips with the realities of post-independence Ghana.
- Albert van Dantzig’s Forts and Castles of Ghana remains the definitive work on the early European coastal presence.
- Kwame Nkrumah, The Father of African Nationalism, by David Birmingham, is a comprehensive biography of the first African statesman; Nkrumah’s own works give you an insight into the man and his beliefs.
- Paul Nugent’s Big Men, Small Boys and Politics in Ghana is a good account of the Rawlings era.
- My First Coup d'Etat: Memories from the Lost Decade of Africa, by the current president, John Dramani Mahama, chronicles his coming of age during the post-independence years.