I intended to spend only one night in Accra, on a layover from London to the tiny, palm-fringed islands of São Tomé and Príncipe, in the Gulf of Guinea.
But fate—or the threat of an airline strike—intervened, and turned what would have been a tiresome touchdown into a long weekend’s worth of discovery in this dynamic West African hub. How foolish it would have been to have bypassed this hive of creativity in my hurry to get somewhere else. Accra is the capital of Ghana, a stable and growing democracy, but it is also a city in the midst of a thrilling transformation. The openings of several new cultural centers and fashion boutiques are making it one of the most discussed destinations on the continent.
Instead of staying near the airport, I checked into the Kempinski Hotel, in the center of town. Any attempt to get one’s bearings on foot with the help of the Google Maps app proved initially challenging. Walls go up. Buildings come down. Street names are changed. Even the center of town is “in development,” and sidewalks peter out suddenly into red dust. A road or even an overpass is often left hanging in midair like an unfinished sentence.
There’s so much to see that it’s difficult to know where to begin, but wandering around Makola Market is the best way to get under Accra’s skin. Its multi-story parking garage, on Kojo Thompson Road, is the fixed mark in a shape-shifting stream of moving goods and people.
From the top floor, gaze over the urban jungle, softened today by the haze of the dry season, Harmattan. Like gold dust, it throws a veil over the spill of humanity below, where a cacophony of car horns, gospel choirs, and bellowing voices rises to meet the smell of allspice.
But there is beauty and order in this chaos—think of the choreographed pedestrian crossing at Shibuya Crossing, in Tokyo, where jostling, hustling, and walking counter-flow are forbidden. Here, every mamma under her sombrero, eking out a living in front of an upturned soapbox, is given the sacrosanct elbow room that is her right.
This is the pulse of Ghana’s unofficial economy, where everything is for sale, from the services of a commissioner for oaths to a sidewalk manicurist who painted my toes magenta. Hard goods such as mobile phones, motor parts, and mattresses sit beside buckets of giant sea snails and pyramids of pigs’ trotters. Cats and children siesta on piles of waxed cotton, but everyone else pays heed to the market queens who move the flow of people ever forward.
“Give in, or go under,” advised Anthony Bourdain after visiting Accra for his Travel Channel documentary series, No Reservations. Like Bourdain, I, too, fell for the taste sensation that is fufu-and-groundnut soup, a chicken-and-peanut soup served by the bucketload at Fulani Kitchen, on Koi Street. It is best enjoyed with akpeteshie, a type of palm wine, mixed with the addictive hibiscus syrup sokoro in a Kokroko cocktail at the Republic Bar & Grill, on Asafoatse Tempong Street. More than just a bar, as regulars like to say, it is a creative movement, with an easy East Village vibe and live music.
When I craved a respite from the sensory overload, I hailed a taxi to return to the Kempinski. Even though the rear windows were emblazoned with the slogan honest driver, our circuitous route to the hotel took 20 minutes, when it should have taken only 10. But the congestion happily allowed for ad-hoc snacking; the foodsellers that wove around cars during traffic jams serve boiled eggs with chili dip, fresh mango, and plantain chips. An entire feast, balanced on a head.
The Kempinski was a culture shock; the gated, gleaming beacon of a brave new world projected onto the changing landscape of Accra. As vast and echoey as an airport terminal, the hotel has risen on the ruins of the former colonial-era racecourse, vestiges of the British Empire that no one has the appetite to preserve. However, the city’s lingua franca continues to be English, and support of the Manchester United Football Club is close to a religion.
Everything is for sale, from the services of a commissioner for oaths to a sidewalk manicurist who painted my toes magenta.
In the lobby, dynamic installations by Accra’s art-world darling Serge Attukwei Clottey transformed ordinary plastic jerry cans into hangings suggestive of heirloom kente. I was struck once again by the nation’s visual flair. The on-site Gallery 1957, which curates this space, has a handle on the creative spirit of the city.
Accra’s cultural scene is more vibrant than ever. The Dikan Center, brainchild of photographer Paul Ninson, opened in December; it is billed as the largest photo library in Africa. This crowd-funded project was kick-started by Brandon Stanton, of Humans of New York fame. It’s a wonderful place to delve into West African photography—the joyful images of Malick Sidibé, the empathetic reportage of James Barnor (who recently had a highly acclaimed show at London’s Serpentine Gallery), and Abidjan-born Joana Choumali’s African-inspired art, which combines conceptual photography and mixed media.
Fashion also provides a key into the Ghanaian psyche. The local businessmen who crowded the sofas at the Kempinski revealed a taste for plate-size watches, crystal-studded cuffs, and patent-leather winklepickers. Evidently, they were as comfortable in these pointed-toe boots as they are in their own skins.
It can make a Makola-bag lady like me feel a little disheveled. Intending to dress up, I headed for the concept store the Lotte, which sells Christie Brown’s spunky, silk-pleated goddess dresses, which were once spotted on Alicia Keys.
Elle Lokko, an alternative, bohemian boutique in the Osu neighborhood, showcases the work of emerging African designers. I bought a rubber cuff re-purposed from a thong sandal—a totem of Accra’s fashion-forward, inventive, and improvisational genius.
As I paid, I was interrupted by a fellow shopper. “Don’t I know you from Catherine Hill in Frome, Somerset?” she asked, referring to my home in the English countryside. Even in Accra, with its growing population of four million and promise of immense possibility, it can still feel like a very small world.
Catherine Fairweather is a travel writer for The Guardian, the Financial Times, British Vogue, and others. She is based in England’s West Country