With Dr Felicity Nicholson. For up-to-date information on health issues across Africa, click here.
This is the chapter that always gives us the creeps when we read a travel guide, and we’re quite sure that some readers will question the sanity of travelling to Ghana by the time they finish this one. Don’t let it get to you – with the right vaccinations and a sensible attitude to malaria prevention, the chances of serious mishap are small. It may help to put things into perspective to point out that, after malaria, your greatest concern in Ghana should not be the combined exotica of venomous snakes, stampeding elephants, gun-happy soldiers or the Ebola virus, but something altogether more mundane: a road accident.
Road accidents are very common in many parts of Ghana so be aware and do what you can to reduce risks: try to travel during daylight hours, always wear a seatbelt, and refuse to be driven by anyone who has been drinking. Listen to local advice about areas where violent crime is rife, too.
There are private clinics, hospitals and pharmacies in most large towns, and doctors generally speak fluent English. Consultation fees and laboratory tests are remarkably inexpensive when compared with most Western countries, so if you do fall sick it would be absurd to let financial considerations dissuade you from seeking medical help. Commonly required medicines, such as broad-spectrum antibiotics and Flagyl (though tinidazole is easier to take, it is not generally available in Ghana), are widely available and cheap throughout the region, as are malaria cures and prophylactics. It is advisable to carry all malaria-related tablets (whether for prophylaxis or treatment) with you, and only rely on their availability locally if you need to restock your supplies.
Ghana is overall a very safe travel destination, certainly where crime and associated issues are concerned. Indeed, the biggest concerns for most travellers should be malaria and road accidents associated with public transport. Levels of hassle are low, too, and tolerance for the quirks of outsiders is high, though it should be pointed out that, as is the case almost anywhere in the world, breaking the law – in particular the usage of illegal drugs – could land you in big trouble.
Dangerous driving is probably the biggest threat to life and limb in most parts of Africa. On a self-drive visit, drive defensively, being especially wary of stray livestock, gaping pot-holes, and imbecilic or bullying overtaking manoeuvres. Many vehicles lack headlights and most local drivers are reluctant headlight-users, so avoid driving at night and pull over in heavy storms. On a chauffeured tour, don’t be afraid to tell the driver to slow or calm down if you think he is too fast or reckless. Taxi drivers in Accra have also been known to attempt scams on travellers.
Women travelling alone have little to fear on a gender-specific level, and will often find themselves the subject of great kindness from strangers who want to see that they are safe. The most hassle you are likely to face is heightened levels of flirtatiousness from many Ghanaian men, with the odd direct proposition and a million marriage proposals thrown in. They can be persistent, but barring the marriage part, it’s nothing that you wouldn’t expect in any Western country, or – probably with a far greater degree of persistence – from many male travellers. It may sometimes help to pretend you have a husband at home or waiting for you in the next town – in which case, a wedding ring is accepted as ‘proof’ – but be aware whilst you are fabricating that he is almost worthless without having given you some ‘issue’, or children. Being married without offspring attracts the twin reactions of vigorous proposals from ‘better’ men, and sorrowful looks based on the assumption that your husband is impotent. If anyone does overstep the mark – by touching you, for instance – do make a fuss and slap the offending hand away to underscore that it is not acceptable.
It would also be prudent to pay some attention to how you dress in Ghana, particularly in the more conservative Muslim north, where covered shoulders and skirts or trousers that come below the knee are advisable. It’s not that Ghanaians would be deeply offended by women travellers wearing shorts or other outfits that might be seen to be provocative, but it pays to allow for local sensibilities, and under certain circumstances revealing clothes may be perceived to make a statement that you don’t intend. Even in the south, where heart-stoppingly tight clothes are the order of the day, try to keep your midriff and the area just below covered, as this is where Ghanaian women often wear their beads and is seen as highly sexual.
Any act of male homosexuality (defined as being ‘deemed complete upon proof of the least degree of penetration’) is criminal in Ghana. Offenders risk a prison term of up to three years if the act is found to be consensual, and between five and 25 years if it isn’t. The law is ambiguous when it comes to sexual activity between females. Legalities aside, the vast majority of Ghanaians would regard any homosexual act or relationship, whether between male or female, or local or foreigner, to be profoundly unnatural and sinful. Over the past ten years or so, ugly anti-gay rhetoric spouted by religious leaders, much of which links homosexuality to satanic influences and a broader Western decadence, has been reported prominently by the sensationalist local press, affording the issue a far higher profile than was the case ten years ago.
None of which means that homosexuality doesn’t exist in Ghana, only that, of necessity, it is somewhat clandestine. Also that, setting aside the rights and wrongs of the matter, and at risk of stating the blindingly obvious, Ghana clearly isn’t a destination suited to single travellers in search of anything approximating a gay scene, while same-sex couples who do visit the country should exercise maximum discretion. One other practical consequence of this widespread homophobia is that many hotels in Ghana now forbid two males (and occasionally two females), irrespective of their orientation, to share a double room. Or in some cases the hotels will allow it, but will charge an extra fee.
Travelling with a disability
Many of Ghana’s highlights – such as the coastal forts and the Kakum rainforest canopy walkway – are going to present a challenge to people with mobility problems, but don’t let this exclude the country from your travel wish list. Depending on your ability and sense of adventure, most obstacles are surmountable and the rewards are well worth the effort. Ghanaians are well known for their friendliness and hospitality, so if you need help, you will receive it!