5 Things Your Travel Guide Won’t Tell You About Ghana

by Ralonda Simmons

Planning a trip to Ghana can be difficult. It’s probable that many people you know haven’t been there, making the quest for some firsthand knowledge more difficult. But, there are helpful tips out there even your guide book won’t tell you and it’s good to have an idea of what to expect so you can navigate Ghanaian society.

Shacks at Ada-foah Beach, near the Volta River
Shacks at Ada-foah Beach, near the Volta River. Photo Courtesy of Ralonda Simmons

1. Etiquette: To Smell or Not To Smell 

If you want to be a culturally enlightened traveler (and keep from looking foolish), keep certain practices in mind while traveling in Ghana. Behaviors that seem innocent at home can be scandalous abroad. For instance, when a server places a plate of delicious food in front of you, your first impulse may be to smell it. Don’t! This is considered the pinnacle of rudeness in Ghanaian society. Your host or hostess may think that you are checking the food because it isn’t prepared well or because you think it will make you sick. 

Also, don’t eat (or shake, or hand money off, etc.) with your left hand – Ghanaians consider the left hand to be profane. It can be hard to remember to do everything with your right (especially if that isn’t your dominant hand,) but please be aware. 

Note! Many foods within Ghanaian cuisine, such as Banku, Kenke, and Fufu are eaten by hand. The best way to eat these foods is by scooping the food with the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand.

2. Professional Friends vs. Real Friends

People in Ghana are generally quite friendly. In fact, Ghana has the reputation of being one of the friendliest countries in Africa; many recommend it as an excellent entry point for first time travelers to the continent. Ghanaians will want to help you get around town and teach you to do everyday activities like shopping. They will also teach you to use words and phrases in Twi, the most common of the nine or so languages spoken within Ghana. 

However, there are people who don’t have the purest motives in mind when interacting with foreigners. They’re known locally as ‘professional friends’. These people will try to quickly befriend you in order to get access to your money or possessions, and not because they genuinely like you (though, you’re probably great). This phenomenon isn’t unique to Ghana; as with anything, a healthy amount of common sense is necessary. 

Note! Don’t let relative strangers know where you’re staying too soon after meeting them; and don’t go anywhere with people you have just met without telling anyone.

3. Shopping: Not Your Typical Grocery Store

Picture this: you stroll down the aisles of the local supermarket, perusing the various condiments, shiny produce, and packaged meats. Fluorescent lights shine overhead, and you’re listening to soft, boring music. Sound familiar? Like your typical trip to the grocery store? Luckily, this isn’t the only shopping experience in Ghana. In the markets of places like Accra or Kumasi, you’ll be greeted with a healthy dose of chaos and colors. You’ll find dried fish from the Atlantic; beautiful ripe mangoes and sweet pineapples; the beautiful, riotous colors of West African fabrics; and the musical tones of people conversing in Twi and Ga.

In other markets such as the Art Market, which sits next to the mausoleum of the venerable Kwame Nkrumah – the first president of Ghana - the vendors swoop in and grab customers, ushering them to their various stalls, which hold items like hand-carved drums, figurines of fertility goddesses, and beads. 

Pick Your Price. Other vendors wait impatiently at the openings to whisk you away to their kiosks. Unlike at home, knowing how to bargain is essential in these markets. A rule of thumb is to start out at a third of the price and try to get to half of the original cost of whatever you want to buy. Most of the time, the vendor will play along. If the price isn’t to your liking, it’s perfectly ok to walk away – this can even cause the vendor to sell you the item. 

Note! If the vendor doesn’t come after you, your asking price is probably ridiculously low. 

4. Customer Service

Western cultures have very friendly and high standards for customer service. The server is just doing their job, but we take their crooked smile and reluctant “have a nice day” as the bare minimum of courtesy. Things are a little different in Ghana. That isn’t to say that Ghanaians aren’t nice people who aren’t interested in making sure you have a nice time dining, shopping, or what have you; they just don’t have the same emphasis on the social cushion that Western customers may expect.  

A bit of public humiliation is a possibility when it comes to cultural mishaps with service. For example, if you mistakenly order “spaghetti” for dinner at an outdoor market instead of the local brand of noodles you may receive a variety of responses. One instance may yield only a pause and a smile, while another results in everyone from the cashiers to the cooks bursting into uproarious laughter at this “hilarious” misnomer. You may be left to wait for your noodles, cheeks aflame, but you’ll eventually improve and the noodles will be delicious either way. Please be aware that the idea of customer service in the United States is definitely lost in translation. 

Note!  When ordering food at restaurants, it’s likely that everyone will receive their food at DIFFERENT times. Please be patient.

5. Ghanaian Nightlife

As a visitor to Ghana, you will find many different ways to spend your balmy nights. You may find yourself at Labadi Beach on Reggae Nights, which usually take place on a Wednesday. Feel free to dance away your inhibitions to the live band as the sun sets into the blue Atlantic. Or, spend your nights in Osu, also known as Oxford Street, which is where expatriates and foreign dignitaries concentrate. There’s always something happening from Jazz clubs, to dancing, to open-mic poetry. If you find yourself in Cape Coast, check out Oasis – on weekend nights, you may see a local troupe re-enact oral traditions derived from the Fante people who settled there centuries ago. Just make sure to go with a group of people; try not to go anywhere alone after dark. 

Note! Don’t order vodka. It most certainly will be watered down and expensive. You’re better off ordering a Star Beer, or the strangely popular Smirnoff Ice. Or, if you are feeling particularly adventurous, try Akpeteshie, the local Ghanaian liquor distilled from fermented palm wine or sugar cane.