Expats in Accra Ghana - the beginning of our five years living here

Being expats in Accra, Ghana – my first impressions five years ago

Our time as expats in Accra, Ghana is sadly coming to an end. The details on where we are moving to are not yet finalised which is why I haven’t said much about this. Ghana has been such a beautiful home for our family. I recently shared some of these feelings on what being expats in Accra, Ghana has been like for our family in a YouTube video that talented Anahita, video content creator, filmed of me for her series ‘Ghana, My New Home’.

I consider our last year here ‘bonus time’ as my husband’s work contract was supposed to finish last June. In preparation for this we packed up our whole house mid last year and sent the boxes to the Ghana port to be shipped, only to have them delivered back to us several months later when we learned we were staying. Then began the task of making our house feel like a home again with unpacking some of our things!! All a little crazy in what was already an insane year for the world. I like to think that Ghana and I were just not ready to say goodbye to each other yet and needed this extra year together! We were also very grateful for the security of Dave’s job and an extended contract in a year where ‘stability’ really felt like a luxury.

The photos below are from our first weekend in Accra as a family in 2017 when we explored our new neighbourhood on foot. Our kids have certainly grown in the time we’ve lived as expats in Accra, Ghana and this experience of living abroad has contributed to a lot of growth for us bigger humans as well, and we are a little greyer too 😉

First week of living as expats in Accra Ghana. Shopping for beautiful woven baskets.
Basket shopping in Ghana in 2017
Our family going for a walk in our neighbourhood in Accra Ghana, on our first weekend living as expats here.
Exploring our neighbourhood of Ridge, Accra – April 2017
A pretty flame tree in our street in Accra Ghana.
The beautiful flame tree in our neighbourhood – April 2017
Our family after living as expats in Accra Ghana for the last five years.
Our family in April 2021 at Ko-Sa beach resort

My first trip to Accra to imagine what expat life in Ghana would look like

Five years ago my husband arrived in Accra to start his new job in Tema, and I came to visit him, to suss out the city that our kids and I would also soon call home. I had no idea what to expect and in this post I remember my first impressions of Accra as I began to visualise what living as expats in Accra, Ghana would look like.

At the time I kept a daily photo diary that I shared on Facebook. When I flew back to Durban, South Africa after exploring Accra for two weeks I wrote about my impressions of Ghana. I recently read through that document that I typed on the plane and it was lovely to reflect on how I’d felt then and how I feel five years down the line.

My husband was staying at the Polo Court buildings in Airport area. While he was working during the day I would keep myself busy by getting some exercise doing laps around the Polo Court and exploring nearby areas on foot. In South Africa I would usually drive places and in general we don’t walk around our home city of Durban much, so it was a real novelty for me to be able to walk on Accra’s streets taking in all of the vibrant life around me and feeling free!

Experiencing life on the ground in Accra – walking its streets

I ignored the fact that Accra is not always the easiest city to walk around due its lack of side walks or pavements in many parts and its large open drains that are often clogged with plastic waste and toxic looking water. From the get-go I enjoyed taking in all of the delightful details on Accra’s streets that felt fresh and different from the South African landscape I’d grown up in. I gladly accepted the bumpy, imperfect roads here and resigned myself to the fact that I would need to sometimes hold my breath or block my nose when the drain stench got bad, and that I would witness a lot of men using the streets as their toilet! I tossed those things aside in favour of the freedom and safety I felt while exploring this city. Last year when we were meant to be bidding Ghana farewell I wrote the blog post An ode to my road in which I thanked these roads for all they have meant for me and for all the hours I’ve spent on them walking, pondering and observing life here in a state of wonder during our time as expats in Accra, Ghana.

Back to my first visit to Ghana in 2016 I immediately noticed the iconic Villlagio Apartment Buildings that have been designed to look like Ghanaian Kente cloth.  My first meal out in Ghana was a delicious curry at Tandoor Indian Restaurant. Most days I would walk to the nearby Accra Mall to have a coffee at the Second Cup Coffee (which has now moved to Palace at Spintex). I loved looking at all the incredible African wax fabric at the Woodin and Vlisco shops, and I would peruse the Game and Shoprite grocery stores to see what was available here. A lot of the time I was horrified at the crazy prices of certain items like cauliflower, purple cabbage, Cadbury’s chocolate, cheese and butter! We still find dairy very expensive here and groceries in general, but I’m happy to report that since then there are many more local vegetables available now like cauliflower, sweet peppers and cherry tomatoes, which we could not find then. The range of imported products from all over the world has also increased exponentially since we got here, and there are so many more amazing local Ghanaian foods brands worth supporting. I wrote this blog post about what shopping in Ghana looks like and how we do still end up bringing things into the country when we travel to SA. Just this week I am struggling to find coffee pods and carrots!

Street vendors in Accra selling all sorts of interesting things!

One of the first things I noticed in Accra were all the hawkers who sell things at the traffic light stops in the roads. You can literally buy almost anything from the car window like food and drinks – sachets of water, cooldrinks, bags of plantain chips, boiled eggs, bread rolls, bofrot (fried dough balls), fruit and ground nuts. It is quite remarkable to see how ladies balance the nuts and eggs on round silver trays their heads in a beautiful formation that doesn’t seem to move, while they appear to effortlessly glide through the traffic with impressive posture! I reflected in my journal on purchasing some nuts from one of the street hawkers: “On the way home today I bought a bag of ground nuts from a lady who was carrying a silver tray on her head of bagged nuts. She sells these for only 1 cedi a bag…..1 cedi…how do the locals do it? How do they manage to feed themselves? I wonder how many bags she sells everyday? Compared to grocery store prices 1 cedi is absolutely nothing.”

Then you get the more unusual items for sale that make for interesting conversation if you are stuck in traffic (which is a common occurrence here!). You will find men and women selling large maps of Ghana, self help books, ‘tummy trimmer’ exercise wheels and scales, sunglasses, kids toys, board games, toe nail clippers, shoe polishing items, music cds, socks, stationery, toilet paper and steering wheel covers to name just a few. So should you be having one of those moments in your car driving home from work thinking about how you should start exercising more, lose some weight, and ‘read yourself smart’ you can act on these aspirations right there are then!! You also sadly sometimes see puppies and birds being sold from the middle of the road too, and on my first trip here I once saw an array of different monkeys on leashes on display in the Accra Mall parking lot, but I’m relieved to say this I have never seen this again.

‘Akwaaba’- ‘You are welcome!’

Benedict was the gentleman who was working as a housekeeper in the apartment Dave was staying in. Seeing a man in this role was a new experience for me as in South Africa it is more common place for women to be domestic workers. Benedict kindly accompanied me the first time I walked to the Accra Mall and we had some interesting chats about his family and his hopes and dreams for his life. From Benedict I learnt some lovely Ghana mannerisms I will miss when we leave Accra. “You’re welcome” he would exclaim with his hands outstretched whenever I entered the apartment . I love the way Ghanaians are always warmly welcoming us when we enter a home, restaurant or return from a holiday abroad and this has meant a lot to us as expats living in Accra, Ghana. “Akwaaba” is the Ghanaian Twi word for ‘Welcome’! and you can respond by saying ‘Medaase’ which means Thank you.

Looking at the photos above I notice how the painted Ghana flags that I photographed under the bridge have now been replaced with the most spectacular bright murals of Ghana fabrics. In the last few years graffiti artists have been transforming ordinary spaces around Accra into works of art, and I have written about these transformations in my blog post on Ghana street art.

A city that made me feel excited to soon be an expat in Accra Ghana

In my journal from this time I reflected on how I felt to be here imagining what living as expats in Accra, Ghana would be like; “Ghana has made me feel very alive. The strong smells, the overbearing humidity, my feet on the pavement, one foot in front of the other. The bright colours around me, the intense bold patterns on the fabric of the women’s dresses and the men’s shirts. The crazy traffic whizzing past me as I walk to the Accra mall, it is so relentlessly loud and the taxis don’t stop hooting….at times it is overwhelming and it leaves me needing to come back to the apartment for a few hours of complete silence. But it makes me feel so very Alive!”

Imagining expat life in Accra Ghana and exploring Koala Supermarket in Accra to see what groceries are available.

A full first weekend in Accra exploring the monthly market and Oxford Street

My first weekend in Accra those five years ago was an exciting one with visiting the monthly market at the Goethe Institute and buying my first piece of African wax fabric – a bright piece with pink swallows on it, and so began my love affair with African wax and all things sewing related in Ghana which I’ve written about in my post A shared love of stitching. It has been truly incredible to see how much this market has expanded and blossomed since its days at the Goethe Institue when it was fairly small and cramped. I really do miss the delicious German food that we used to enjoy there, but the new home of the Green Butterfly Market at the Du Bois Centre is far more spacious and pleasant to walk around under the shades of all the beautiful old trees. Wandering around and admiring all of the gorgeous hand crafted products is something I really look forward to every month, and you always bump into many other expats! Read more about this market in my post about it here.

I was also introduced to Accra’s Oxford Street which reminded me a lot of strolling through Phuket, Thailand. It is a place I still frequent often, and whenever I have the urge to feel some outdoor Ghana street noise and energy I take a walk to Oxford street. In my post Treasures on Accra’s Oxford Street I discuss my 8 favourite things to do there.

In my journal I made some observations about Oxford street: “The energy of this place feels good. I loved our holiday in Phuket and this street brought back a lot of those Thailand memories. The noise, the chaos, the colours, the nick nacks, the cheap plastic items next to the cultural and handmade ones. The buildings that are all so different from each other, and the quirky character the road seems to hold. Like the ostentatious casino right next to the wonderful Global Mammas shop with lush greenery and palm trees in between and no pavements in many of the places, Just dry red sand on the sides of the roads.”

The big religious message on the side of one of the office blocks surprised me at first as it is a general message to the public of Accra, not outside a church as one might expect, but on bustling road. But this is normal here. Christians and Muslims live very peacefully together in Ghana, and billboards promoting religion in general or pastor led programmes are plentiful. Kiosks and road side stalls are commonly given hand painted religious names and Bible verse references with the belief that this will bring about prosperity for the owners.

At the Koala grocery shop in Osu I admired the Ghanaian tissue boxes with their bright designs, although I knew nothing about Kente cloth at the time, and didn’t realise the boxes are made to look like this rich product of Ghana’s art and culture. Since then I’ve been really lucky to visit villages where Kente is woven and I hope to write about that soon.

There have been so many new restaurants that have popped up in Accra over the years we have been here, and some like Bistro 22 where we had lunch with friends that day, have really stood the test of time. On my Instagram account in my posts and stories I often mention/review nice restaurants we eat at in Accra.

We spent my first Sunday in Accra relaxing at the pool which is a trend that has followed for our subsequent years here! As expats in Accra Ghana we chose to live in a compound with a lot of grass, trees and a wonderful pool in the middle and the communal life we have shared with our neighbours/friends has been one of the very best things about living in Ghana. Usually at restaurants or hotels here you have to pay per person to use the pool, even if you are eating a meal there, which can become costly. With year long tropical warm weather swimming is something you do a lot of in Ghana, so take this into consideration if you are moving here and have the option to live in a place with a pool.

‘Yes please’ and ‘Thank you please’ to the lovely coffee shops in Accra

Cuppa Cappucino in Airport area was the first coffee shop to really charm me. It is set in a lush peaceful road where you can sit outside and watch more gentle, quieter moments of Ghana life pass by as men selling bright fabrics piled up on their heads walk past, and the peep-peep of the man selling Bofrot and Fanice icecream can be heard. There is a lovely private function room at the back that is sometimes available and I’ve enjoyed celebrating two birthdays in that spot! There is also a nice gift shop selling pretty Made in Ghana items. As I type this, I can still taste the BLT sandwich and coffee cinnamon shake I had the first time we visited. They were so good that I’ve never tried anything else on the menu!! It was at this restaurant that I discovered another lovely Ghana mannerism. Our interaction with the waitress went like this:

“Can we have the bill please”?
“Yes please”
“Do you take credit cards?”
“No please.”
and when handing the settled bill back to the waitress: “Thank you please.”

There can’t be many nicer words to over-use in life, and I won’t quickly forget hearing PLEASE in many ways I wasn’t previously accustomed to! A+ for manners Ghana! I have also enjoyed the common more formal addresses of Good morning, Good day, Good evening and Madame and Sir here 🙂 Little things that will stick with me when remembering our time as expats in Accra Ghana.

Amazing coffee shops have opened in the last few years with my current favourites being Theia Coffee House and Jamestown Coffee Roasters.

My first trip to Makola Market

I’ve always been a fan of outdoor markets and of course Makola Market immediately popped up when I searched ‘Ghana market’. One of Dave’s work drivers took me there and it was an experience and a half! I later wrote about it in my journal:

“We entered the market area and there were a lot of people on the sides of the roads selling things. The parking situation was awful and we ended up completely wedged in and it was even tricky to get out the car. Philip left the keys with the guard and paid 4 cedies to park, such trust! I can’t describe adequately what this market was like, very hot, very sticky, overpowering smells, very loud, many many many people walking close together, and store owners shouting to people to keep walking. A cramped, crowded feeling on those streets, but I also felt safe and in awe of all the action and new sights around me. That feeling of being so alive filled me while following Philip who led the way. We were only in the market for about 40 minutes. There were many people selling things under a building that was under construction, covered in scaffolding, almost using the scaffolding to put products on or display things. Despite many warning signs saying ‘Not safe! Keep away!’ I saw a lady carrying an enormous box on her head that turned out to be a gas stove! At Makola there is simply everything imaginable for sale – underwear, clothing, fabric, vegetables, beads, shoes, handbags, plastic household items etc you name it – you can certainly buy it here! I already have a big desire to go back!

The veggie sellers display the carrots and cabbages in a very interesting pretty way and I took a photo of this. I would have loved to walk around more but will explore more next time! Beautiful old buildings all around – the colours really struck me – a pink building with an unusual balcony and a vibrant purple and orange building in a street that had what looked like white bunting draped across it. What struck me about this day was that there were so many sellers, hundreds in fact, and I wonder how much trade they do everyday as many of them are selling similar items, But it seems that the act of setting up, showing up, having a stocked shop or stand and doing your thing every single day is what actually matters. Once again I saw how hard working Ghanaian people are. Writing about Makola makes me wish to be there again!”

Well, that first visit made a big impression for sure and Makola Market is still one of my happy places in Accra. To read more about visits I’ve made to Makola and for some tips if you wish to visit this market see my post The Magical Madness of Makola Market. I have also written about the women like that lady who I saw carrying the gas stove on her head. At the time of seeing her and for a long time after I was very ignorant about what a Kayayoo in Ghana is. To learn more see my post Kayayei – the carrier girls of Ghana who bear the loads of goods they will likely never be able to afford.

Visualising living as expats in Accra Ghana and noticing the details

Other random observations of Accra life included how big the loaves of bread were at the Shoprite, and how if mini bus taxis which I learned were called Tro Tros, were too full, the drivers would just strap the overflowing goods onto the back- no problem! On one of my walks to the Accra mall I had a nice encounter with some street sellers “There were two men selling things who have made a little wooden ‘shop’ and I asked them if I could take a photo of it, as it struck me as being so innovative! They had used a baby pram as the base and hammered strips of wood around it to make a cart from which they can sell things and easily move around.”

The rest of my first trip to Accra was spent enjoying a festive evening at the Alliance Francais which has since been a place where we have enjoyed some great music concerts, cultural events, and delicious food, and deciding whether we preferred the taste of Club or Star Ghana beer! I also noticed the unusually narrow and tall Ashoka trees of Ghana that were unlike any I had seen before, and they still fascinate me.

The first beach we visited in Ghana was Bojo Beach with friends and I remember how surreal it felt to be swimming in such a warm part of the Atlantic Ocean when I had only previously swum in Cape Town’s freezing Atlantic! Watching the Ghanaian fishermen pull in their nets that day was incredible.

In those two weeks I visited Accra five years ago I merely skimmed the surface of what there was to discover in this city. For other Accra explorations see my posts here and I’ve shared some of my musings on living as expats in Accra, Ghana here. I had no idea then how much of Ghana’s rich culture I would come to experience and couldn’t have imagined what the incredible local festivals would entail.

Go with all your heart…

I doubt we will ever live in a city that is expanding as rapidly as this one, where new buildings seem to built as quickly as my son builds Lego ones! I was chatting to a friend the other night who lived in Central Africa for a while in his early 20’s, he had lived there as a child with his parents when he was a young boy, and said that returning as a young adult felt like going ‘home’. I had no prior connection with Ghana and hardly knew where it was on the map before coming here, but in those two weeks I initially spent here, I somehow already felt at ‘home’. There was no doubt in my mind that we would be happy here as expats in Accra Ghana for the years of my husband’s work contract.

The tremendous welcoming warmth of the Ghanaians, the inviting spirit of the city…I was quickly drawn in and I will always be truly thankful for all the amazing memories we have made living here. As the cushion I bought at the time says “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”

Saying goodbye to Ghana but looking forward to returning to live as expats in Accra Ghana

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