Every Christmas across Africa, the continent pulses with family reunions as Africans from around the world travel back to the countries of their birth. But in Ghana in particular, following 2019’s “Year of Return” marketing campaign, the festive season is attracting unprecedented crowds.
Abigail Tetteh has been anxiously checking prices for December flights for the past few weeks. She was born and raised in the UK and loves her job as a chemistry teacher in a London secondary school. Yet, like hundreds of thousands of people from the Ghanaian diaspora, she plans to spend the festive period in her ancestral home.
“That time of year is an opportunity to experience more of my cultural foods, hear the language being spoken, laugh more, and spend time with cousins with whom I share common interests,” she explains.
From around the 20th December up until the first few days of January, a steady stream of live events, festivals, and parties lights up the calendar of Accra, Ghana’s capital, with celebrations take place in streets and homes, on beaches and in clubs.
“There are parties, there is a reason to celebrate. Accra is a meeting spot for diasporans from all over the world, and you know you share something with them because they speak the same language as you. They make the same jokes as you. That’s why I find it special,” says Abigail.
Top of the draw is Afrochella, a two-day celebration which has already become synonymous with Christmas. The festival is an elaborate display of Africa’s diverse fashion, food, art and music, and is scheduled just after Christmas day itself, around the very end of December. A dream for every Afrobeat lover, it attracts some of the continent’s biggest acts, with names like Burna Boy and Stonebwoy gracing its stages.
For those who take their entertainment in a more sophisticated vein, there is the All White Boat Ride, also taking place in the week after Christmas day. In this ticket-only event, party lovers are taken by coach from a city centre location to a boat on the coast, where they can dance the night away. Both an open bar and a complimentary buffet are included in the ticket price, and as the name suggests, the dress code is all white.
Beyond the big events, Christmas also supercharges day-to-day life in Accra.
“In the last ten days of the year, there is a particular excitement that tinges the air,” says Ben Armah, who has lived in the city for almost all his life. Markets and food shops get busier, thronged by visitors in search of chicken, other meats, and rice drinks (referred to locally as “minerals”) – all essential for the holiday season.
Soon, the churches begin their celebrations, with carol evenings and nativity plays filling their agendas. Some of the city’s most treasured venues, such as The Accra International Conference Centre and The National Theatre also get packed out night after night, staging everything from plays to comedy shows to musical extravaganzas.
Everywhere you turn, you hear the cheery salutation, “afi-oo-afi” or “afenhyapa” (pronounced “afi-shia-pa”), loosely translated to “season greetings”.
Bars, pubs, and restaurant patios become even more lively than normal – with temperatures averaging a balmy 28 degrees, there’s no winter cold to stop the parties spilling out into the streets. Ghanaians are very friendly, so it’s likely even the most casual conversations can conclude with an invitation to joining in more fun. And yes, there are fairy lights, Christmas trees, and tinsel. Even streets and road intersections sparkle with festive decoration.
In contrast to the influx of international visitors, meanwhile, a lot of Ghanaians themselves actually travel out of thier capital in the holidays to their countryside homes. This exodus helps create more room for those flying in. And with hotels, guesthouses, and Airbnbs littered across the city, you’ll be spoilt for choice of a place to stay.
Ubers, local taxis and the tro tros buses also help to make the capital accessible and keep it on the move even at the height of the holiday period. Nothing comes cheaply, however, especially for Africa, so expect to budget at least $30 a day to make the most of your time.
As to the big day itself, Ghana is a hugely diverse country with over 70 ethnic groups, so there are slight variations in the way the way each household celebrates. That said, with Christianity the dominant faith, the vast majority of Ghanaians will at least start the 25th December with a trip to church.
As worshippers head home in the late morning or early afternoon, however, delightful aromas begin to float over tops of compound walls. Outside cooking is hugely popular: fried chicken, jollof rice, okro stew, banku, light soup, and fufu are just some of the meals enjoyed, and in most Ghanaian homes there is more than enough to go around. Sharing food with friends and wider family is commonplace, which means, as a visitor, knowing just one person will more than likely gain you an invitation to a family home.
The visiting of friends, gathering of families and the sharing of food continues until the 31st December (or “31st Night”, as it’s locally referred to). Again, most people go to church in the evening, where they will usher in the new year with lively praise, worshipful music, and intense prayer.
Those who decide to forgo church aren’t left out of the festivities, however. You can find them at house parties, gazing at elaborate firework displays, or dancing into the new year at the Labadi Beach Hotel’s New Year’s Eve Party.
“Ghana is a cultural Mecca. Accra is where tastemakers want to be. They want to be a part of this cultural renaissance. There’s a natural audience for the diaspora,” says Cameroonian born Liz Agbor-Tabi, CEO of Global Citizen, an advocacy organisation which holds a music festival in Accra back in September.
So if you’ve ever considered doing something different at Christmas, why not join the tastemakers? Ghana is calling.