Things I Learned Taking My Teen to Ghana, West Africa

Before I had kids I always imagined that my brood would be a globe-trotting one, with summer breaks spent introducing my kids to the rest of the world and vice versa. Now that I actually have kids, I've realized those daydreams were a bit of a stretch -- my two youngest kids would rather stay home unless we're going to their grandparents' homes or Disneyland, and my husband's vacation time allotment, while generous, is not unlimited. But that doesn't mean I can't still wring out the occasional jaunt, which is how I ended up taking my fourteen-year-old daughter to Ghana.

I chose Ghana because I'd lived there as a university exchange student, loved it, and wanted my daughter Isobel (Iz) fall in love with it too. And I chose to go with Iz because she is willing to travel away from the West Coast, plus teenhood is starting to create that sterotypical "you just don't understand" mother-teen daughter rift between us, and I wanted to spend uninterrupted one-on-one time with her while she still seems to like spending time with me.

It was a good decision, because our trip was a wonderful one. Because Ghana and its people are wonderful. Iz not only learned things that most Americans -- let alone American teens -- never learn about the rest of the world, but she had a great vacation, which is all a parent in my position can ask, really. Here's what we discovered, together:

All of Accra is under construction, seems like sometimes. The capital, Accra, can be extremely cosmopolitan -- which is to be expected in a city of more than two million in a country that is one of the world's 10 fastest growing economies. The slightly sleepy Accra I knew twenty years ago is gone, replaced by a diverse, crowded city with migraine-inducing traffic, dotted with of conspicuous consumption landmarks such as high-end grocery stores and Mercedes Benz dealerships.

We spent our first evening out in Ghana at the new-to-me Accra Mall, which made the acclimation process a bit smoother for Iz. We had iced coffees and then watched The Great Gatsby in a plush movie theater just across the highway from an exploding skyscraper skyline.

But the prosperity is not trickling down to everyone. Accra is also full of people living in simple small concrete homes, while others live in shacks pieced together with wood and corrugated metal, amidst a riot of shops and stalls and street hawkers. Which brings us to the next topic:

IMG_0525.jpgIt is not always easy to be a woman in Ghana. We were invited to stay with my former university advisor, who is a professor and international women's rights activist. She took the time to talk with us about some of the ongoing challenges Ghanaian women face: Men abandoning wives who give birth to girls instead of boys; older successful or crotchety women getting accused of being witches and then being ostracized; girls being forced to abandon their education to submit to arranged marriages -- due to tradition, not necessarily because their family needs the dowry; lack of family planning information and training (though this is improving), and so much more.

Nearly everywhere we went in the south of Ghana, we saw the "head porter" girls who hawked cold drinks, fruit, and other goods from platters atop their heads, and who have often run away from arranged marriages in the North. It was not lost on Iz that many of those girls appeared to be her age.

IMG_0669.jpgGhanaians and Americans don't always know a lot about each other's history. Ghana was the first country in colonial Sub-Saharan Africa to achieve independence (from Britain). Yet most Americans don't know about this history, nor do they realize the coast of Ghana is punctuated by former slave dungeon castles, in towns like Cape Coast and Elmina.

When we toured the the castles to pay our respects, Iz was shaken to learn about her Portguese ancestors' primary role in Ghana's slaves-for-export trade, and we were both horrified by the awful, cramped cells in which slaves were held before being being shipped across the Atlantic. Iz actually had learned about the African slave trade in school, but visiting the castles was another experience entirely for her. I recommend the castle tours for those who have the emotional stamina and ability.

We also learned that many Ghanaians, especially those educated under the British, never learned about African-American history, and so don't always understand that, for African-Americans, visiting Ghana and meeting the people who may very well be their relatives can be a deeply emotional experience.

Those who want to learn more about both histories while in Ghana should visit Accra's National Museum and W.E.B. DuBois Centre, and the museum at Cape Coast Castle.

IMG_0701.jpgGhana's reputation for friendly and gracious people is well-deserved. It is a very serious matter to accept Ghanaian hospitality -- they provide for their guests' every need and laugh off offers to contribute or help in any way. (I am still pondering how exactly to appropriately thank our hosts, other than extending an offer for them to come stay with us -- thank you cards and the gifts we brought with us don't seem like enough.) I reminded Iz of our good fortune in being treated so well, daily, and was proud to see that she made an extra effort to be thoughtful and gracious herself.

Ghanaians we didn't know went out of their way to redirect us or warn us or help us as needed, if we were being clueless. Few expected anything in return. Even the young men hoping to make money by hanging around the tourist areas were usually up for conversation if we weren't interested in their wares -- especially when Iz brought up soccer, which is a bit of a national obsession. (We may have agreed to pledge loyalty to Ghana's Black Stars over the US men's team.) Note: Unless you would like customized for-sale keepsakes upon exiting tourist spots like Elmina Castle, tactfully decline to spell your name to the young men milling around the entrance.

IMG_0781.jpgGhana is just an amazing place to be a tourist. It's not cheap to get to Ghana from the U.S, but if you can go, and as long as you take the time to learn about Ghanaian cultural etiquette, visiting Ghana should be a rewarding experience -- for so many reasons besides the ones already listed.

Ghanaian food is delicious -- Iz became addicted to the spiced fried plantains called kelewele. When we were invited to a wedding on short notice and had nothing appropriate to wear, we were able to get gorgeous Ghanaian dresses custom-made with a 24 hour turnaround, for an extremely reasonable cost, by a very talented seamstress. That just about blew Iz's mind.

There is no shortage of things to see and do in Ghana -- in one day, we walked on suspended walkways 100 feet up in the rainforest canopy, met with a Dutch couple who run a sanctuary for injured and abandoned monkeys and other animals, got to pet crocodiles, and visited Cape Coast Castle. And we were able to stay at the beautiful beachfront Elmina Bay Resort for about the same rate as a decent Stateside motel -- the difference being that Stateside motels don't provide the stuff of one of Iz's happiest moments: room service pizza and kelewele; nor do they usually provide the sound of crashing waves to lull you to sleep.

Ghana isn't going to hurry up for you, so slow down. Things in Ghana tend to happen when they happen. Local buses depart when they fill up rather than at a specific time. Food is cooked with care, and arrives when it is ready. Internet access is readily available, but WiFi is not, and cellular data costs are prohibitive -- so those traveling with smart phones and tablets rather than laptops will likely spend most of the time offline, as we did.

I really, really appreciated the no-choice slowdown and unplugging. Iz and I spent our time doing what I love doing best with her -- talking, and parallel reading. Iz even started letting loose with query barrages the likes of which I hadn't experienced in years -- on science, culture, politics, history. And which made me realize that we should probably put even stricter limits on our kids' social media and Internet time now that we're home, because I like having deep conversations with my lovely girl. And teenagerhood very well may steal her away for the next few years.

For the gift of my daughter's company and attention, and for so much more, I am grateful. Ghana, Medasi Paa -- thank you.

More Ghana Links:


Shannon Des Roches Rosa writes and edits at,, and

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