Ghana, Spirit of the earth

Du goût poétique du Nord premier exemple chant du repiquage

The changeable sky Of the northern districts Prevented me from seeing The full moon of autumn.

Kumasi market, the breadbasket of the Ashanti region.

A fisherman from Biriwa, a small town on the Gold Coast.

Anomabu Beach, facing the Gulf of Guinea.

Kokou Mensa, keeping alive the memory of Yaa Asantewaa, Ashanti queen and heroine of the early 20th-century anti-colonialist struggle.

Voodoo priest sitting under a neem tree, in Akode.

N comme noms Ne rien noter que des noms, d’une naïve nouveauté, et les nouer ensemble dans une narration nébuleuse mais néanmoins nécessaire. Ne pas négliger les niaiseries dénuées de noirceur d’une imagination nomade1.

1. À la sortie de Locus Solus, en 1914, les jeux de mots ont fleuri dont «Loufocus solus».

N as in names Take note of nothing but the names, a naive novelty, and knot them together in a nebulous narrative that is nonetheless necessary. Neglect none of the never-somber nonsense of a nomadic imagination.1

1. When Locus Solus was published in 1914, wordplay was flourishing, including “Loufocus solus.”

D comme doublure. La Doublure Du départ, le dandy aime surtout les préparatifs : débuter la journée par une toilette de deux heures ; inscrire sur la doublure du costume le nombre de fois où il a été porté ; demander que la voiture démarre. Et voir le paysage à travers une vitre douteuse, donc le voir doublement, par le regard et par le désir. Même si date après date, le trajet dans la ville reste identique, le décor change devant.

D as in double: La Doublure From day one, the dandy delights in preparations; spending hours getting dolled up every morning; writing in the lining of a suit the number of times it’s been donned; demanding that the car drive off. And looking at the landscape through a dirty pane, so you see double of what you see, and what you desire to see. Even if you take the same route through the city day after day, the decor changes dramatically.

Straddling the equator, the Gulf of Guinea bites into the African continent as if it were a big, juicy pear. Between the Ivory Coast and Togo lies Accra, Ghana’s fiery capital bordered by the Atlantic. Travelers looking for an intense experience should come to West Africa. The harmattan whispers the song of the Sahara and Victor Segalen’s words ring out everywhere: “I conceive otherwise, and, immediately, the vision is enticing. All of exoticism lies herein.”

Otherwise. . . . Elsewhere. . . . The road here is like a show, a riotous human dance of things useful and nourishing, unusual and fleeting. Outside the car window stretches a series of street vendors all the way to Kumasi, emerging out of a bottomless horn of plenty. A ballet of colors and scents infuses the place with cheer. Everything is vibrant and teeming, a serendipitous fair: precariously balanced pallets of eggs, packets of sugar-coated peanuts, multihued balloons, ice cream to beat the heat. A man pulls windshield wipers from his back as if they were arrows from a quiver, while a woman in a puffy pink spangled dress, white caraco jacket and saffron flip-flops beats a path through bunches of palm nuts bristling like hedgehogs. She wears her hair in a tight bun piled high into a platform on her head. Her neck is as delicate as a grebe’s. Yaya Dare, the Togolese driver, can’t take his eyes off her, not because of her beauty, but because of her donuts. “We have billions of donuts in Africa!” he says, laughing. His favorite? “The best are the ones made with peanut oil or shea butter.”

The fabrics are swirling aboutwoven kente fabric, indigo batik, damask African bazin, Dutch wax fabricsdeftly knotted and neatly draped. Leaves are also used as wrapping: kenkey, steamed balls of fermented corn, are rolled inside plantain leaves or corn husks. Sugar apples, soursop, small bananasthe earth is boundless in its generosity.

The sheer density of the traffic slows down progress, making it easier to enjoy the show. There’s a new skit every kilometer: a papaya vendor with fruit stacked on her head in a pointy array; a man waving a newspaper; and in the distance, cries of “kuli kuli,” rings of fried unsweetened peanut paste, typically found in Ntonso in the region of Ashanti, which is rich in traditions and gold. Do you see smoke and a crowd? Most likely they’re selling meat shishkabobs. And bunches of plantains are everywhere, as regularly spaced as Roman border stones.

The road leads to wooded hills and the crowd grows thinner. A silhouette holds out an odd-looking trophyan agouti, a stocky forest-dwelling rodent that Ghanaians love. A woman holding a parasol and wearing a boubou looks like a local version of Mary Poppins in the stifling heat. Suddenly, the long pods of the sublime royal poinciana get stuck in our wheels. The hubcaps continue to turn, propeller-like with their silvery reflections. Three goats trot by with carefree nonchalance, as if there were no hurry in the world. Living means staying on the move.

Nature in suspension

Farther south, in Kakum National Park, the colorful confetti ends. “This is the supermarket of pharmacopoeia!” says Samuel, the guide, smiling. The green ocean undulates as far as the eye can see. Silhouettes slip in and out among the leaves, and night falls over a treehouse built atop a giant edinam tree, so enormous that an entire pirogue can be hollowed out from a single specimen. A natural respite after the frenzied vibe of the cities? That would mean forgetting about the jungle and its incessant nocturnal symphony. The high-voltage buzzing of insects, hooting of eagle owls and nasal laughs of hornbills vie with the high-pitched screams of Campbell’s mona monkeysno heavier than pampered catswith their complicated chattering. Radio Akasanoma and its signature talking bird couldn’t make a dent in all this din.

Dawn casts its early rays over the hanging rope bridges in the treetops, seven footbridges for walking suspended 40 meters above ground, stepping lightly. The bridges are supported by kotibé trees, whose wood is similar to mahogany and is used to fashion the finest billiard cues in the West. “There are a thousand different trees here, but in my opinion there are only two kinds: the living and the dead,” Samuel says, with a tone of great respect. We listen to him. Ebony grows slowly to acquire its density, just as wisdom does. Samuel points to each of his companions, detailing their qualities: beaten liana stems are used to make a kind of sponge; esa can be used to produce toothpicks or a shelter, covered with cocoa leaves. The moringa, a magical tree, grows five meters each year. Some of the surrounding giants are only 25 years old. Gazing up at them is an impressive experience, a world away from the miniaturized beauty of the bonsai.

“Samuel, what’s your favorite tree?” He points toward a stately tree in the distance: “The umbrella thorn!” (Acacia tortilis).It looks just like a waiter’s hand with his fingers splayed wide to carry the tray. “And your favorite animal?” Samuel brightens: “Scaly anteaters! I love how they move!” It’s like seeing a gigantic long-tailed pine cone trotting through the forest. Irresistible. But charm goes hand in hand with fragility: the scaly anteater is one of the most widely poached species. Samuel then mentions a leopard that always stays in hiding, and his dream of seeing a blue-bellied roller fly by. When this bird spreads its wings, it’s almost like seeing the azure silks of butterflies; it’s rivaled only by the golden-breasted starling, its iridescent feathers like Tahitian pearls.

On the way back, Yaya stops in front of a tsim tsim: “When you cut into it, the latex flows out. You mold it in a gourd and that’s how kids make balls. That’s Africa!” Kakum wanders away; we’re not leaving nature, but mother’s bosom, the family home.

Life lessons

The laterite soil of the dirt roads turns the windows a reddish color, reminding me of a fairy-like cloud seen in Ashanti territory, when a fetish-priest in a loincloth trimmed with cowry shells tossed handfuls of it into the air. His spirit quivers on the horizon. The earth in Ghana is imbued with spirituality. It nourishes body and soul in this land, where there’s a saying that “the family is a weapon.” I think about a man I met in Besease, Kokou Mensa, with nearly fossilized wrinkles, a proud descendant of Nana Yaa Asantewaa, the iconic hero of the wars against the English settlers. At 89, he still runs the family home, a sacred place where people come to soak up the power of Yaa Asantewaa. The mud walls are painted with clay and the sloping roof thatched with fan palm. In the center, the Nyame Dua, or God’s tree, receives ritual sodabi, the traditional palm liquor, offerings and prayers. How many times has the tree witnessed this shower of clay thrown by the fetish-priest (okomfo) during the dances, to dispel evil spirits?

Besease vanishes behind us, as we head along the road from Accra to Odumase Krobo, the city of glass beads where broken bottles find a second life around women’s necks. In the village of Akode, two agama lizards race down the trunk of a neem tree, fleeing a raven, its beak powerful, as a voodoo priest looks on. “Evening is a time for seed games [oware] and riddles beneath the tree,” says Yaya. An elderly woman never goes to the backwater, but she always has water in her dish. How can that be? [He laughs] It’s coconut water . . . A coconut always contains water!” Does he believe in magic? “I believe in stones you place on money so that the bills don’t fly away.”

If Yaya is asked what embodies the spirit of Ghana, he answers in a flash: “Traditional dance, to the sound of goatskin Ewe drums, in the villages of the Gurunsi people in the north,” and their carob-varnished walls. On the road to Teshie, he says: “And the customized coffins with whimsical shapes and colors, too.” Coffins? And visiting the splendidly cheerful coral fish versions in Kane Kwei’s studio, like something from a magical merry-go-round. “One day, you’ll find yourself in the last city of the world. A fish shape? He was a fisherman. A shoe? He was a shoemaker.” The studio even made a 32-seater bus, displayed at the Centre Pompidou in Paris during the exhibition “Les Magiciens de la Terre.” Conceive otherwise. That’s Africa!

The author Taiye Selasi and Ghana

Born in London in 1979, the British novelist, short-story writer and photographer has family ties to Nigeria and Ghana. After living in Rome, she is now based in Berlin.

Where is your favorite place in Ghana?

My favorite place to eat is a small resort on the Volta River called Villa Cisneros. My father is from the Volta region; whenever I come to visit he and I take the peaceful, hour-long drive from Accra to Sogakope, where Villa Cisneros is located. Here, at an outdoor restaurant overlooking the river, we eat the best grilled tilapia to be hadalways plucked straight from the water just below.

And in Accra?

My favorite place to relax in the city is the glorious La Villa Boutique Hotel. Tucked away on a side street in the bustling area known as Osu (the Soho of Accra), La Villa offers a verdant oasisand impeccable cocktailsin the capital.

Outside of Accra?

The Lou Moon Lodge in Axim: the loveliest beach and the best swimming the country has to offer.

An artist or a musician in Ghana?

The filmmaker and producer Nicole Amarteifio, a dear friend, created what’s been dubbed the African Sex and the Citybut to my mind the show is one of a kind. An African City is a brilliant web series with a massive international following, including a French version. Poetra Asantewa is a fiercely talented artist based in Accra. Combining poetry, the spoken word and musicwith a dazzlingly refreshing dose of irreverenceshe is redefining the 21st-century Ghanaian woman, one lyric at a time. As for music, there’s none better than the guitarist Kyekyeku. Living in Berlin at the moment, I am particularly fascinated by Burger Highlife, a hybrid form of the famous Ghanaian highlife music created by immigrants in Germany in the late ’70s and ’80s. Kyekyeku takes this sound and runs with it, blessing us with albums unlike any I’ve heard in years.

A place to write

I live between reality and the imaginary, on a rocking chair. When I see, I dream; and when I dream, I see. In Kumasi, when Yaya was having breakfast, hausa kokomillet porridge with tamarind and piri-piriand bean fritters, suddenly I noticed two young people sanding the wood of upholstered furniture. Pieces lay shipwrecked on the ground, as if part of an invisible puzzle. My gaze wandered from their calm movements to their concentrated expressions. “I love my craft,” said Eugene, the carpenter. I listened to the song of the wood being sanded, absorbed in the quiet dance of the brush applying the varnish. Each piece gleamed like a candied apple. And each gesture reminded me of the patient assembly of words, the delicate varnish that makes each character shine. In a novel, each sentence is a ray of light.

Golden Tulip Kumasi City

Kumasi is the heart of Ashanti civilization, the cradle of gold. And here is an exotic garden where you can walk beneath the palm trees, a pool for swimming among reflections of the sky and rooms that feel like apartments. The light carpets and woodwork provide respite from the hectic city, while nomads tucked into this comfortable retreat can dream the dream of travelers, beneath photographs of the Taj Mahal and Tripoli. Evening concerts are a reminder of just how much Ghana loves life. In the morning, take it all in from the balcony, far from the concrete jungle.

Golden Tulip Kumasi

City Rain Tree Street, Kumasi. Tél. +233 32 208 3777.

Mövenpick Ambassador Hotel Accra

A monumental hall where you are greeted with a glass of passion-fruit juice: the tone is set. Here, your every wish is heeded; you can even choose your pillow. With its 260 rooms and 6.5 hectares in the heart of Accra, the Mövenpick manages to reconcile vastness and dedication. The pool is enormous, while the executive floor offers impeccable service and a prime view of Accra. If you feel like exploring, don’t miss the breakfast buffet: it’s a round-the-world trip in itself, from the soft donuts coated with powdered pistachio to the sublime and spicy Indian dal.

Mövenpick Ambassador Hotel Accra

PMB CT 343, Cantonments Ridge, Accra. Tél. +233 30 2611 000.


Sapporo: before the snow disappears

Carnet d’adresses

Golden Tulip Kumasi

City Rain Tree Street, Kumasi. Tél. +233 32 208 3777.

Mövenpick Ambassador Hotel Accra

PMB CT 343, Cantonments Ridge, Accra. Tél. +233 30 2611 000.


Cedi Beads Industry

Between Accra and Lake Volta is Odumase Krobo, the city that hosted the first international festival of glass beads in Ghana. Here is where Nomoda Ebenizer Djaba, known as Cedi, transforms old bottles into beads. Sur la route entre Somanya et Odumase-Krobo. Tél. +233 24 481 7457.

Artists Alliance Gallery

Meet the most beautiful croc you’ve ever seen, made of beads and cowry shells, a naturalistic Yoruba artwork. Buy a set of elongated chess pieces reminiscent of Giacometti’s Walking Man. Contemplate fine black ceramic specimens of Ashanti art. Omanye House, Accra-Tema Beach Road. Tél. +233 24 525 1404.

Gallery 1957

The best of leading artists. Spectacular works by Yaw Owusu using old pesewa coins. Paintings by Jeremiah Quarshie, Serge Attukwei Clottey and Zohra Opoku.

Kempinski Hotel. PMB 66 – Ministries Gamel Abdul Nasser Avenue Ridge.
Address Book

Going There

Flight frequency

Air France has 3 weekly flights to Accra from Paris-CDG.

KLMKLM has 7 weekly flights to Accra from Amsterdam.

Arrival airport

Aéroport international d’Accra-Kotoka.
À 6km.
Tél. +233 30 277 6171.

Air france KLM offices

À l’aéroport.

Organiser son voyage

The Maison de l’Afrique takes you to the sources of sub- Saharan Africa. A 13-day, 11-night trip to discover Ghana, as well as Togo and Benin.

3, rue Cassette, Paris. Tél. +33 (0)1 56 81 38 29.


Le dernier roman policier d’Ingrid Astier Haute Voltige vient de paraître aux éditions Gallimard. Son essai Petit éloge de la nuit est actuellement en tournée au théâtre avec Pierre Richard.


Le Ravissement des innocents
de Taiye Selasi, Gallimard, coll. Du Monde entier.

à l’écrivain Taiye Selasi et à l’artiste Jeremiah Quarshie ainsi qu’à Yaya Dare et Samuel (Parc national de Kakum).

© Parko Polo / Central Illustration Agency. Map for illustration purposes only