Responsible tourism in Ghana

Travel right in Ghana

Most people traveling to Ghana will have already experienced Africa – heading to the vast game parks of the east, or the cosmopolitan cities of the south. Ghana would be even more of a shock to the senses for Africa first timers; the travel-savvy will be less startled by the raucous cities, the roadside trash, the unpredictable power cuts and ‘Africa time’. “TIA”, they’ll say; This Is Africa.

And Ghana requires this kind of understanding, the laissez-faire attitude. It is a wonderful vacation destination, with some of the best opportunities on the continent for genuine cultural interaction, but traveling here is not easy. It involves spending hours on bumpy roads, more simple accommodation than you may be accustomed to, and coming face to face with poverty. You might be able to escape it in the luxurious game lodges of other African destinations – but not here.

The vacation reviews on our website for Ghana are particularly moving; every traveler seems to have come back touched by the warmth of the people, the richness of the culture, the infectious song and dance, the stark beauty of the landscape. But they all come with warnings, too. “If you are expecting a 5 star hotel… wanting to sip cocktails by the pool, then this is definitely not the vacation for you.” They explain. “There is not much sightseeing type of tourist attractions… and not as many animals.” But these are not complaints; the reviewers reveal that this is Ghana’s appeal: “instead of being introduced to only tourist-y places, anyone who likes to stay off the beaten path and experience the 'real' Africa… it's the perfect destination.”

The key to responsible tourism in Ghana is doing your research, knowing what to expect, and keeping a wide open mind. And the rewards for doing so are fabulous.

People & Culture

Responsible volunteering & cultural differences

Think before volunteering

Ghana may seem like a dream destination for volunteers. It’s welcoming and friendly with a great climate, and it’s safe and stable. It also has around 24 percent of its population living below the poverty line – which would surely result in a huge number of volunteering opportunities supporting local communities, education initiatives and development. Unfortunately, this leaves the door wide open for unscrupulous companies who want to make money from well-meaning volunteers, offering placements which are poorly thought out, not necessary, or possibly even damaging. There are also plenty of NGOs who have been created with the best intentions – but who may not have considered whether the volunteers are actually able to contribute to the projects they are running.

One of the worst examples is orphanage volunteering. Paying volunteers create a market for orphanages – and for sorrowful-looking children; this can mean that parents are persuaded to give up their children in the hope that they will have a better life in an institution. “Orphanages” can exist that are nothing of the sort, but they make good money from volunteers. Even in the genuine orphanages, sending unskilled volunteers to work with very vulnerable children, often for just a matter of days, is a terrible idea. The children, who have already lost their families, become attached to volunteers who shower them with gifts and hugs and attention – only to disappear the following week. In the worst case scenario, a lack of suitable background checks leaves these institutions – and children – open to the worst kinds of abuse. Read more on why we do not support orphanage volunteering in our orphanage campaign.

But there are plenty of other well meaning projects that may not be what they seem. Building classrooms is a classic example. Few volunteers have construction experience, and those that do may well be taking jobs away from local builders. This type of volunteering – where you have an impressive finished “product” – is also incredibly tokenistic; the classroom has been built, but are there any teachers to teach in it?
Vicki Brown, travel writer and editor at Responsible Travel, realised how skilled volunteers need to be to work in construction while she was in Ghana: “I was staying at an ecolodge that funded the construction of composting toilets for local families. One morning I went along to see one being built. The local plasterer spent the entire morning mixing the sand and cement to exactly the right consistency, and then creating this incredible finish on the walls of the toilet. He was phenomenally skilled. I offered to help the other builder, but realised I couldn’t even carry a cement sack – it was as heavy as me! I managed to carry a few things, fetch water and clean up tools, which was appreciated, and my uselessness clearly provided a bit of light entertainment to the two workers. However, if there had been 20 of me, all trying to help out, this would have definitely hindered their work and caused problems. In this case, the money I spent at the lodge, which went into funding the toilets, was far more valuable than my ‘labour.”
Teaching comes with its own issues. Again, teaching volunteers can risk taking jobs away from local teachers (why pay teachers, when volunteers will pay you?!). Unskilled volunteers will make a minimal contribution at best. Those who stay for a week or two will be replaced by yet more volunteers who are likely to be teaching the same things over and over again.

What you can do
It may all look like bad news, but don’t be put off volunteering in Ghana; just be sure to research well. Skilled volunteers are always useful, and there are programmes for teachers and student nurses. If you want to volunteer in a school but aren’t qualified, you can offer to help as a teaching assistant – helping children practise their English, do their sums, and meet someone from another country – quite a big deal in itself.

If you want to help in construction, there are still worthwhile projects. The composting toilet that our writer failed to build is actually a great example of a volunteer project. Thanks to income from lodge guests and volunteers, two workers are employed full time and others are brought in if funds allow. The composting toilets are great for the family’s health, their dignity and the environment – in a community where defecation would ordinarily be done outdoors – in the fields, or on the beach. This is also particularly unsafe and unpleasant for women and girls. If you are able to commit to volunteering for a week or more, you’ll learn the ropes when it comes to making cement bricks, and be genuinely useful to the project.

Even if you only have a couple of days (or rather, nights) to spare, you can still help out with sea turtle conservation along the coast. During the nesting season, local rangers patrol the beaches to prevent people from the surrounding villages from killing the turtles for meat, or taking their eggs. Every turtle and nest saved is hugely valuable.

Respecting cultural beliefs

Certain traditional beliefs in Ghana can prove an ethical minefield for visitors. Two of the most difficult superstitions to come to terms with are the concept of “spirit children”, and of witches. If there is a tragedy in the family around the time of the birth of a baby, or the baby is born with a deformity, for example, they may be declared a “spirit child”, possessed by an evil spirit, and killed by hiring a “concoction man” to brew up a herbal poison. This practice is particularly widespread across the north of the country, which is a particularly traditional region – as well as being more impoverished. In 1998, it was estimated that up to 4 percent of infant mortality in some villages could be accounted for by spirit child practices.* Difficult as it may be, the parents should not be judged for this horrific practice; these beliefs are deep rooted and they believe they are doing the right thing. They are also frequently very impoverished families saving themselves from further hardship. But the police and authorities who refuse to do anything to stop the killings do need to take responsibility**.

Similarly, women across the north can be accused of witchcraft, and threatened with death. This can be done as revenge by family members; in other cases the “witches” are often found to have mental illnesses. The women accused of witchcraft are forced to flee to escape being killed, and many end up in “witch camps”, where they look after themselves, distancing themselves from the rest of society.

What you can do
It is possible to visit some of the witch camps; speak to your vacation company to find out if this can be included in your tour. Tourism provides a small amount of income to the women, and a valuable opportunity to speak to “outsiders” and not be judged.
Jim O’Brien: "On the way to Tamale we visit a village of ‘witches’. They’ve established their own village where they can go about their business without fear of persecution. You can go and have a chat with them and find out their histories and learn a little bit about that side of the culture which is a little bit disturbing – but it’s part of Ghanaian culture.”
Several NGOs are working to eradicate the practice of killing spirit children. One of the best known is AfriKids, a British-Ghanaian charity which has managed to eliminate this practice from some villages in northern Ghana. They have also raised finds to support children’s homes which have rescued spirit children, raised them and, where possible, resettled them in their communities. To support their work, you can fundraise or donate. We also recommend reading ‘Spirit Boy’, a book written by Paul Apowida who was declared a spirit child but survived, and has now told his story.

*Source: AfriKids
**Source: Al Jazeera


Waste & wilderness

Preserving wild spaces

Ghana would never be the first choice for anyone looking to go on a classic African safari, and this densely populated country’s natural attractions are often overlooked in favour of its vibrant culture. But there are national parks, some of West Africa’s last remaining rainforest, desert, waterfalls and wildlife to be found here – and while you won’t find the Big Five, there are plenty of other unique natural treats to be unearthed within Ghana’s borders. The tropical rainforest of Kakum National Park has been protected since 1931, and was declared a national park in 1992. Although logging was widespread in the forest until it became a park, plenty of primary forest still exists, and the cleared areas are now covered in secondary growth. Kakum’s value is manifold. The coastal rainforests of West Africa once stretched over 600,000km2; today, just over a quarter of this remains* – and the national park is playing a valuable role in protecting a section of it. It shelters forest elephant and buffalo, pangolin, giant forest hogs, civets and several antelope species, amongst others, as well as over 260 bird species and some 500 species of butterfly. The park is culturally and socially significant, too; it is the first in Ghana to have been gazetted as a result of local initiatives, rather than by the State Department – a fantastic result for community action. And the Kakum River is the fresh water source for Cape Coast and over 100 other towns and villages in the surrounding area; the consequences of polluting or diverting the river would be disastrous.

The landscape of Mole National Park is incredibly different to Kakum, but here, too, are elephants – around 800 of them. There are also buffalo, warthogs, hippos, several monkey and antelope species, and even big cats – though sightings of these are incredibly rate. Mole has been a national park since 1971 and is the largest in Ghana, but there are many concerns surrounding poaching within Mole, and the lack of funding to prevent this. There are lodges and wildlife guides, but Mole has never been a major tourist destination in the same way as many of Africa’s other national parks. An increase in responsible tourism in and around the park could be the key to resolving many of Mole’s issues.

What you can do
Visit the national parks! Visitors to Kakum will likely not see much of its larger fauna, but simply being in the rainforest is a wonderful experience in itself. There are only two canopy walks in Africa, and one of these is in Kakum – taking you 30m high through the trees, where you will observe birds, butterflies and hear monkeys. Mole too is a unique experience as guided bush walks bring you up close to elephants, and your fee will go towards protecting them. Money spent in surrounding communities also deters poachers (the majority live within 50km of the park’s boundaries) – and the majority of the park’s staff are also from local communities. More unusually, local beekeepers have begun selling fair trade honey, produced by bees in Mole National Forest – buying this supports local jobs, communities and the preservation of the forest.

*Source: UNESCO

The waste issue

Plastic waste is a big issue in Ghana – travelers will see it all over the place. Unfortunately, with a lack of recycling and even waste disposal facilities, this doesn’t look like it’s about to change any time soon. This is compounded by the fact that tap water is not safe to drink; you will be dependent on bottles or sachets of water.

What you can do
If possible, bring a water bottle or two, and buy large bottles to refill them from. Otherwise, sachets create less waste than plastic bottles (although you may not think it, given that they are strewn everywhere).
Marian Thompson, from our supplier M and J Travel, based in Accra, shares her tips for responsible tourism in Ghana: “Everywhere you go you will see the water sachets – they cause a lot of litter and waste in Ghana. If you buy water sachets, keep hold of the plastic until you can put it into a proper bin. If you buy plastic bottles, you can give them to your tour leader or driver and they can give them to people who make local drinks – they will clean and reuse the bottles so that they are not thrown away. Plastic waste is a big problem in Ghana.”
If you spend any time in Accra, pay a visit to the wonderful Trashy Bags store in the Osu district. They make beautiful shopping bags, wallets, tablet covers and more using collected and cleaned water sachets, and scraps of African fabric. A single shopper can use 70 sachets that would otherwise be discarded on the street. They also create smart messenger bags using recycled plastic billboards.

Responsible tourism tips

Travel better in Ghana

  • Don’t hand out gifts – sweets, pens, notebooks – to children.This encourages begging, and creates the scenario of wealthy foreigners always providing handouts. If you wish to donate, ask your tour leader about the best way to do this. It may be to give items the village elder or chief, or to a head teacher – who can then distribute them later on. Your tour leader can also suggest which items are the most necessary. There seems to be an abundance of pens left behind by well-meaning travelers, and sweets are almost always a no-no.
  • If possible, buy these items in Ghana to support local traders.
  • Ghanaians are welcoming, chatty and often beautifully dressed in colourful fabrics, but resist the temptation to whip your camera out at every opportunity. The chances are that if you ask, people will be happy to pose for photos, and may even spot your camera and ask you to “snap” them. In markets, strike up conversations with stallholders and buy something before asking for a photo. Never photograph children without the parents’ permission – it’s certainly not something you’d do at home. Read our article for more tips on the ethics of travel photography.
  • Always dress respectfully. The more rural and traditional the area, the more covered up people are. It is very hot in Ghana, but long, loose clothing is recommended – cover shoulders with sleeves or pashminas, and wear trousers or long skirts rather than shorts if possible. In the city, skimpier clothes are more acceptable.
  • Be aware of your water and electricity use. Keep showers short, reuse towels and unplug any devices once charged. Don’t leave lights on when you are not in the room – and give the fan a go rather than the air conditioning.
  • Do tip – but not too generously. Food and services are incredibly cheap in Ghana, but excessive tipping can result in situations where waiters earn more than teachers, which can cause problems. If in doubt, ask your tour leader what is a reasonable amount.
Photo credits: [Intro: David Stanley] [Preserved wild spaces: Retlaw Snellac Photography]
Written by Vicki Brown
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