“Can you sing?” a lady in our group asks our tour guide when he tells us that his name is Elvis.
He flashes a gap-toothed smile. “Yes,” he says in a booming voice. “But only Ghanaian songs!”
Elvis Wallace-Bruce, 47, tells us that he’s been leading tours for the past 15 years. And it’s a lot busier now than when he first started.
Ghana’s tourism industry has experienced a major turnaround over the past decade.
Visits increased at an average annual growth of 17 percent from 2006 to 2010, which was when the UN’s World Tourism Organisation’s annual compilation highlighted Ghana as one of four countries in sub-Saharan Africa that outperformed the world average tourism growth for that year.
“Sometimes I use an interpreter for European tourists,” Elvis says, pointing out that most visitors come from Germany, France, the Netherlands, the UK and the US.
Tourism is the fourth highest foreign exchange earner and contributed $1.7billion to gross domestic product in 2013, the year Ghana was ranked among Africa’s top 10 destinations.
Even though the industry employs more than 400 000 people, the competition doesn’t bother Elvis. With the World Travel and Tourism Council predicting that international tourist arrivals will reach over a million visitors each year by 2021, Elvis believes there’s more than enough to go around.
He attributes the growth to the friendly people of Ghana, a country Forbes magazine ranked as the eleventh friendliest in 2011. And even though Ghanaians might all look the similar, there’s cultural and ethnic diversity.
“Each of the 10 administrative regions has its own languages, customs and culture,” Elvis says. “But there is no fighting between ethnic groups.”
In schools, Ghanaian language and culture is taught alongside English (the official language), French (to facilitate communication with neighbouring countries) and other languages. Elvis says youngsters from different cultures share dormitories so that they can become friends.
Similarly, university graduates are given government jobs in parts of the country away from their native lands, forcing them to socialise with other groups.
Although Ghana is mostly Christian, the country’s religious and moral education teaches Islam and traditional beliefs. And if two people from different faiths marry, their children are free to choose which religion to follow. “We see each other as Ghanaians before our ethnic or religious groups,” Elvis says, recalling his ability to pray without conflict at the same time and in the same space as his Muslim university roommate.
To get up close and personal with the locals, our tour takes us to Makola Market. There are traders everywhere, displaying impressive skill, either by hacking open coconuts with machetes or balancing products on their heads.
But the real test comes when we make our way to Accra Handicraft Market. Unlike the Wild Gecko Shop, a spacious store that left us free to browse, the traders here are determined to make a sale.
“Remember that there is no fixed price,” Elvis says. “So, if they tell you something – even if it seems cheap – you must take off a third or even one half. Then you can bargain. If you’re not happy, just walk away.”
I’m grateful for this advice as soon as we step off the bus and the traders come running. But despite their somewhat aggressive nature, I’m adamant not to get involved. That’s because I’m more interested in finding a story than another fridge magnet or key ring.
That’s how I meet Mumin Issaka and his brother Prince. He tells me that they’re orphans who perfected their artistic skills while moving from one village to another. And they’ve now been in the city selling their products for 15 years.
“See?” Prince says, as he folds and unfolds one of his paintings. “It doesn’t get damaged. That’s why I now use acrylic instead of oil.”
I decline the offer, and continue browsing through the store, filled with intricately woven straw baskets and carvings made from single pieces of wood in a process that can take up to five days. But Mumin can see my fascination, at which point he pounces and insists that I buy a symbolic mask.
“They were used as passports to show which tribe someone was from,” he explains. “Now you can take one and have a good story to tell about where you were.”
It doesn’t take long for us to agree on a price, although my desire to escape the hot and humid store must have played a part.
Things are more complicated with another trader, who was making a bracelet with my name. Even though we’d agreed on the amount, he claims that the price was in US dollars, making it four times the Ghanaian cedi amount.
“It sounds like you were a victim of the Kwaku Anansi!” Elvis laughs. “He’s the spider who lures you into a bad deal and then leaves you alone.”
But it’s hard to feel bad about my misfortune when we end the day at The Republic. A casual look around at the locals mingling with plenty of young expats confirms Elvis’s belief that different people and cultures can coexist. And so, while a small group of people danced to diverse songs that changed too fast, we sat on plastic chairs that spilled into the street. It was the perfect spot from which to watch the convoys go by while sipping on the bar’s most famous drink: the kokroro.
No one could quite identify the mysterious “spirit component” listed on the menu. Then again, perhaps finding out what it was would be another story unto itself!