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01.04.2010 Travel & Tourism

Throwing Stones at Lizards: Tourism in Ghana

By Ian Utley
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Around one million foreigners visit Ghana every year. Tourism is the country's third biggest earner of aborokyire sika. Travel and tour companies are becoming even more common than space-to-space girls, churches or kiosks selling omo and sardines. We have so many state agencies who are meant to be providing for these tourists, such as the Ministry of Tourism (MoT), the Ghana Tourist Board (GTB) and the Ghana Tourism Federation (GHATOF [not, more appropriately, GETOFF]) . I hear plans are even afoot to form a squad of Tourism Police (will they only be permitted to extract bribes from foreigners, leaving the normal police free to extort their Guinness sika from locals?). But, in the traditional style of all Ghanaian civil servants, are the staff of these agencies doing much more than reading the Graphic every morning, playing Solitaire on the office PC, and then taking the secretary out for a long lunch and a 'short time' in the guesthouse? Are they serious about developing tourism in Ghana, or are they just collecting their salaries, doing the bare minimum and stumbling through a badly-written speech now and again?

I speak to, and write for, a lot of tourists in Ghana, and I've been one myself since I lost my British passport in the Volta Lake over ten years ago. Thankfully, most of us agree with Akon, that: “Africa is so cool and nice; visit once, guaranteed to visit twice.” Regrettably, though, there are a growing number who do now only visit once, typified by the couple on holiday from Denmark recently interviewed on Vibe FM (which seems to be the only station which doesn't rely on prophecies, prayers and partisan politics to fill their schedule). The Danes were so infuriated by their peaceful tropical getaway being ruined by noise and filth that they vowed never to bring their tourist Euros here again (you can understand their concern: the World Health Organisation ranks Ghana a shocking 48th out of 51 in Africa for sanitation). Most tourists, at least for now, don't take such a harsh view and enjoy visiting and revisiting beautiful Ghana. Once here, though, the most common question they exasperatingly ask me, and the question which has inspired this article, is “What is there to DO in Ghana?”

I can understand their exasperation: it's not all the time that we're going to brace ourselves to face the terrible roads, scorching sun and lacklustre customer service in order to visit the popular attractions like the forts and castles, hippopotamus and crocodile sanctuaries, witches' camps, river cruises, mountains which look like lions, trees which look like snakes, and rocks which look like umbrellas. So, it's usually only on special occasions when we break out the dollars and put our lives in the hands of an STC driver to check out somewhere recommended in the Bradt guide or one of the GTB's glossy brochures. But the best things in life are free, aren't they? I just wish Ghana had more affordable, accessible, everyday attractions like; trees; places you could walk without being baked by the sun; helpful maps; more litter bins; trees; a clean beach; some lovers' benches; taxi drivers who understand that it's the customer who calls the taxi, not vice-versa; trees; restaurants where you can wash your hands with soap before, as well as after eating; more places where we can sit on rooftops; more shops not selling Chinese things; less noise pollution; trees; solar power everywhere; bicycle lanes; buildings made from local materials; so many mangos, coconuts and oranges that they're free; libraries; children's parks that aren't locked; and anything else to keep the alcoholism at bay (which is called “the white man's disease” in Africa). Did I mention trees?

I personally don't require too much entertainment in Ghana: sitting in the garden throwing stones at lizards and listening to your reggaelicious FM stations is one of my favourite pastimes. I also walk up and down the mountains a lot; all the villagers think I'm crazy, but at least it's free and I always find one or two nwa to take home. And I occasionally take advantage of the fact that we now have a real cinema, instead of the old 'cines' (guys charging two thousand to watch their TV and 'deck' in a hot little room). Other tourists, however, who are in need of a little more looking after and entertaining, have plenty of suggestions for improvement. One of their main gripes is that they have travelled thousands of miles from Europe or America in order to enjoy a real African experience, only to find that all the food here is European and all the clothes are American. Even the pineapple and coconut juice is inexplicably from England. Ghana is losing its Ghanaian-ness.

It seems that the tourism agencies consider the only requirements for a perfect holiday to be a growing number of expensive hotels and restaurants serving continental food. (Stump the waitress by asking her which continent her continental food is from.) There can be similar frustrations when tourists are looked after by a host family or tour guide. The first necessity is a plastic chair, followed by food and drinks, and then the poor obroni is left to sit in silence for the rest of the day. Many white people have inquiring minds, are full of questions, and have been raised to be talkative. What a Ghanaian may refer to as sitting quietly with a friend under the tree, “enjoying” together, will be viewed by the tourist as an “uncomfortable silence”, which they will strive to fill with some unnecessary chit-chat. Most Ghanaians' idea of “enjoying” doesn't seem to go far beyond bottles, kebabs and apuskelenke girls. Would it surprise you to learn that a lot of visitors actually don't want to spend the majority of their vacation in a drinking spot, an expensive restaurant serving pizzas and burgers or in an air-conditioned concrete room? But you think that as long as tourists have somewhere to sleep and something to eat, they are content, right? That gives them plenty of time in between to bribe your officials, defile your women, dump their hazardous waste, organise their cocaine smuggling deals, and get lost in a crate of Star beer and carton of King Size. Rather than allow them to become drawn into these evil pursuits, and also to attract more visitors who are currently spending their dollars on holidays elsewhere, we should consider some alternative tourist activities for Ghana.

It's always nwonwa when I describe to Ghanaians some of the activities I've got up to with tourists, none of which I've ever seen advertised by a Travel and Tour company. Some girls from the Czech Republic wanted to spend a whole afternoon following the driver ant trails in the mountains. When one of them got red ants all over her beautiful body after stepping on a nest, I was only too happy to help brush them off. Two crazy British guys wanted me to take them on a tour of tro-tro stations (and tro-tro station spots) so they could take photos of such fascinating inscriptions as “God is my Seatbelt”, “Poor Man No Friend”, “Enye Easy”, the wonderfully ambiguous “Go Like Hell and You Will Get There!” and other tourist attractions so they could publish them in a bestselling book. Not forgetting, of course, the ubiquitous “Only Fools Urinate Here”; abrofo are intrigued by the fact that Ghanaians need signs telling them not to piss in public (which are ignored anyway). All the conscious holiday-makers love making an environmental statement by sporting a wallet made from pure water sachets or a laptop bag made from empty fan yoghurts, but I've never seen a Ghanaian using one. If you don't know what I'm talking about, take a Dzorwulu tro-tro to Trashy Bags, opposite the Vice-President's residence. They also pay you cash for your plastic waste, so I'm always astounded when someone throws their Tampico sachet in the gutter, and then complains he's got no money: bola ye sika o! Even the HIPC Lithuanian tourists who wanted to stick to a dollar a day were still well entertained with a tro-tro to Legon, six free hours in the Africana library, and some waakye-no-fish at the Bush Canteen. I couldn't believe that a Ghanaian, raised in Accra, didn't know that there was a place in his home town where he could play with a monkey, hold a python, or feed an ostrich, all for a 50p tro-tro ride and 1 cedi entrance fee, until I took him to the zoo inside Achimota forest (I had to pay for him, of course- Mills hadn't put any money in his pocket on that day). If you're not scared of the armed robbers, you can walk the streets at 3am and talk to the goats, cows and abayifoo. A German girl who was eager to learn Twi said that I was the only person she had found who had a decent collection of textbooks and could explain vowel harmony. In truth, there are advantages in learning Twi from somebody who has learnt it themselves as a second language, rather than from a local, most of whom adopt the dubious teaching strategy of shouting the same word louder and louder until we understand.

The biggest opportunities are in what's left of the rainforests. I spent two days sitting on a plank in a big tree in the forest with an American ornithologist, who didn't want to leave until he had seen and ticked off all the specimens from his copy of “Birds of West Africa”. Good job I had read it myself, along with Timbers, Mammals, Butterflies and Reptiles of West Africa as well (all written by white men!). Speaking from experience, most tourists want to know the names (English, local and scientific) of animals and plants they see: most Ghanaians don't know these names. I have a great friend in the village who often dispels his fear of mmotia and sasabonsam to accompany me on my walks in the forest. The trouble is, every time I ask him an animal's name, he is able divulge no more than “eye enam” or “enye enam”: most foreigners want to study animals; most Ghanaians only want to eat them. For foreigners, “the bush” is Africa's biggest attraction; for Ghanaians, it's only somewhere to smoke, shit, and store plastic until the recycling factories are built. The latter two really need to be stamped out to entice more visitors, but has the tourism industry considered the money-making potential of the former? Ghana should be marketed as the new Amsterdam. “Don't criticise it, legalise it, and I will advertise it. It can build up a failing economy, eliminate the slavish mentality.” Just like Peter Tosh, I'm a progressive man and I love progressive people- are our leaders progressive enough to legalise the ghettoes?

The annual Paragliding Festival at Kwahu and its associated activities are heavily promoted by the tourism industry, who rightfully realise that this type of action-adventure ecotourism has huge potential. I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that all the ideas, equipment and funding for the paragliding came from a white man. Well here's this white man's idea for another big tourism earner: Ghana's first ever treehouse. Something like overnight accommodation high up on the Kakum walkway, but with no walkway. Only an extension of the plank I sat on with the ornithologist, with a removable ladder or pulley rope to get up, and a zip line (ending at the foot of a waterfall) to get down. A place with beds and mosquito nets, built from bamboo, pure water sachets and palm branches in a tree with no concrete, no DSTV and no hawkers, where tourists can spend a peaceful, natural and environmentally friendly weekend. All they will need is binoculars, books, and a big bag of herbs. The youth, who currently work for the loggers, carrying their planks to the roadside, will be re-employed in fetching aduane and nsa to the tourists from the nearest town, and the loggers, miners, farmers and hunters themselves (who are usually the only ones who know the correct designations of the flora and fauna) will be re-engaged as Sustainable Ecotourism Forest Guides. Most Ghanaians think I'm a complete nutter when I tell them I want to build a house in a tree. They soon change their minds when I show them the stunning photographs on the internet of the amazing arboreal abodes for tourists in South Africa, Jamaica, Australia, etc. (and the dollar rates that people are paying to stay in them). You can build hundreds of treehouses for the price of one Novotel, and tourists will happily pay to stay in unique accommodation in an undisturbed, natural environment. Interested investors should hurry up, though: our forests are rapidly deteriorating into tree-free zones consisting of piles of planks, rubbish dumps, charcoal burners, rivers made from Milo, and children drowning in galamsey pits.

So many of these alternative tourism ideas have come from foreigners, yet all of the boards, managers and staff at the MoT/GTB/GHATOF, etc. are Ghanaians. They are all dripping with PhDs and Diplomas, have very plush air-conditioned offices, entourages of serfs, brand new, broadband-connected PCs and government 4x4s. Lucky them. But, if you accept the premise that a Ghanaian mind differs from an obroni mind, don't you think that a tourist agency should have a little input from tourists? The Minister herself might even read this article, during the writing of which I have always had in mind the proverb “It is difficult to throw a stone at a lizard clinging to an earthenware pot.” I'm trying my hardest to hit the lizard without breaking the pot. But at least I'm throwing stones.

Ian Utley is the author of
Culture Smart! Ghana, the Essential Guide to Customs and Culture

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