Our Expedition Country

Ghana mapGhana, our expedition country, is a nation in West Africa that was formerly a British colony known as the Gold Coast until 1957. Ghana became the first state in sub-Saharan Africa to gain political independence from European colonial rule that year. Drawing on tradition, the new state took its name from that of the medieval empire of Ghana on the upper Niger River, several hundred miles northwest of modern Ghana. Following independence, Ghana assumed the leadership role in the African continent’s struggle for national liberation.

The people of Ghana belong to more than 100 different ethnic groups, but Ghana has largely been spared the ethnic conflict that has torn apart many other African countries. The capital city of Accra is the largest city in the country. English is the official language but most Ghanaians also speak at least one African language. Ghana has one of the strongest economies in West Africa, yet the country’s economic base continues to be agriculture and the people remain poor. Gold mining, the production of cacao (used to make chocolate), and tourism are the main sources of revenue. Ghana was known as a source of gold hundreds of years ago. European explorers who arrived in search of gold in the 1400s and 1500s first named the region the Gold Coast. A series of military coups and severe economic problems plagued Ghana from the late 1960s into the 1980s. However, Ghana reemerged in the 1990s as a democracy and a leading player in African affairs. In 1997 Kofi Annan, a diplomat from Ghana, became secretary-general of the United Nations.

 Ghana has a total area of 238,500 sq km (92,090 sq mi). The distance from south to north is about 670 km (420 mi) and from west to east is about 560 km (350 mi). The country is bordered by Côte d'Ivoire to the west, Togo to the east, and Burkina Faso to the north. The Gulf of Guinea of the Atlantic Ocean washes Ghana’s southern shore.

Ghana is generally characterized by flat plains and gently rolling hills. Forests cover 23 percent (2005) of the country’s area, while 28 percent (2003) of its area is farmed. The country is divided into five distinct geographical regions. Coastal plains stretch across the southern portion of the country, featuring low sandy beaches interspersed with saltwater lagoons. A forested plateau region consisting of the Ashanti uplands and the Kwahu Plateau is located inland, in southwest and south central Ghana. The hilly Akwapim-Togo Ranges run north to south along the country’s eastern border. The Volta Basin takes up most of central Ghana. Finally, high plains characterize the northern third of the country. The country’s highest point is Mount Afadjoto, at 885 m (2,904 ft), in the Akwapim-Togo Ranges.

Rivers and Lakes

rivers and lakesThe country’s main river is the Volta, which is formed in the center of the country by the confluence of the Black Volta and the White Volta. The Volta enters the Gulf of Guinea at Ada in southeastern Ghana. The Akosombo Dam on the Volta formed Lake Volta upon its completion in 1965. The lake covers an area of 8,482 sq km (3,275 sq mi), making it the world’s largest artificial lake. The two major tributaries of the Volta are the Oti and Afram rivers. Together, the Volta and its tributaries drain the Volta Basin. Ghana’s other significant river systems are the Densu, Birim, Pra, and Ankobra. All empty into the Gulf of Guinea. Ghana’s rivers are navigable only by small crafts, with the exception of the Volta. Located in the Ashanti uplands, Lake Bosumtwi is Ghana’s only natural lake.


Plant and Animal Life

plants and animalsSouthern Ghana contains evergreen and semi deciduous forests, consisting of tall silk cottons, kolas, and valuable West African hardwoods such as mahogany, odum, and ebony. The northern two-thirds of the country is covered by savanna—tropical grassland with a scattering of shrubs and trees. Ghana’s savanna features shea trees, acacias, and baobabs. The oil palm is found throughout the south and the Ashanti uplands, and the lagoons of the coast contain mangroves. Although once plentiful throughout the savanna, large mammals such as elephants and lions are now rare and largely confined to nature reserves. Mole National Park in northwest Ghana has become a refuge for many of these mammals. The forest regions are habitats for monkeys, snakes, and antelopes, and some of the major rivers contain crocodiles. There are more than 725 bird species in Ghana.


Natural Resources

 A largely agricultural nation, Ghana’s most important natural resource is the soil. Of the country’s total land area, 28 percent (2003) is arable or under permanent crops, and 23 percent (2005) is forested. Gold is Ghana’s principal mineral resource; bauxite, manganese, and diamonds are also important. The Akosombo Dam on the Volta River provides hydroelectricity for Ghana and several neighboring countries.


Ghana’s tropical climate features distinct wet and dry seasons, with regional variations. The north experiences one long rainy season from March until November. The dry season begins when the harmattan, a hot, dust-laden wind from the Sahara, blows from the north. The harmattan is most intense in December and January. The south experiences two rainy seasons: one from April to July, and then – after intermittent rains in August - another from September to November. In Accra, average daily temperatures range from 23° to 31°C (73° to 87°F) in January and from 23° to 27°C (73° to 81°F) in July. Slightly hotter average temperatures are experienced in the north. Rainfall varies widely. The northern portion of the country is drier than the south, with the exception of the coastal area around Accra. The mean annual rainfall ranges from 750 to 1,000 mm (30 to 40 in) at Accra, from 1,470 to 1,830 mm (60 to 70 in) on the Kwahu Plateau, from 1,780 to 2,080 mm (70 to 80 in) on the southwest coast, and from 1,100 to 1,200 mm (40 to 50 in) in the northern high plains.

 Environmental Issues

Environmental issuesIn the late 19th century, hardwood forests covered the southern half of Ghana. Considerable portions of these once-extensive forests have been destroyed, and today about 23 percent of the country remains forested. Not all of these forests are commercially viable, however. Ghana is the third largest producer of cacao in the world. Large tracts of forest have been cleared for cacao crops, which thrive in the rich soil of the rain forest. In times of depressed cacao prices, Ghana has significantly increased exports of timber to generate needed revenue. In 1988 Ghana initiated a conservation plan called the Forest Resources Management Project. In 1989 Ghana restricted the export of 18 tree species, and in 1994 the country banned the export of raw logs. About 4.8 percent (1997) of the country’s land is officially protected, but illegal logging threatens Ghana’s remaining forests. Deforestation, overgrazing, and periodic drought have led to desertification and soil erosion. Ghana’s wildlife populations, depleted by habitat loss, are further threatened by poaching. Ghana has ratified international agreements protecting biodiversity, endangered species, tropical forests, wetlands, and the ozone layer.

People of Ghana


23,382,848 (2008 estimate)

Population density

101 persons per sq km

262 persons per sq mi (2008 estimate)

Urban population distribution

46 percent (2005 estimate)

Rural population distribution

54 percent (2005 estimate)

Largest cities, with population

Accra, 1,847,000 (2003 estimate)
Kumasi, 399,300 (1990 estimate)
Tema, 180,600 (1990 estimate)

Official language


Life expectancy

59.5 years (2008 estimate)

Infant mortality rate

52 deaths per 1,000 live births (2008 estimate)

Literacy rate

76.9 percent (2005 estimate)

The population of Ghana in 2008 was 23,382,848, giving the country a population density of 101 persons per sq km (262 per sq mi). Life expectancy at birth is estimated at 59.5 years, one of the highest rates in sub-Saharan Africa. With a birth rate of 29.20 per 1,000 and a death rate of 9.40 per 1,000, the country’s population growth rate is 1.93 percent (2008 estimate). While this current rate of increase is moderate compared with other West African nations, Ghana’s population almost tripled from 1960 to 2000. The rapid rise in the population reflects the advances made in the provision of medical and sanitation services in the country and has resulted in a youthful population. Family planning programs have helped reduce the nation’s birth rate.

Despite migrations to Ghana’s urban centers, 54 percent (1998) of the population resides in rural communities. Most rural Ghanaians are farmers, herders, or fishers. In the cities, most people work in the service sector or in manufacturing. The country’s major cities are Accra, the national capital; Kumasi, the principal city of the Ashanti region; Tema, an industrial city and Ghana’s major port; Sekondi and Takoradi, the coastal twin cities; Tamale, a northern trade center; and the college town of Cape Coast.

 Ethnic Groups

asanteheneOver 100 linguistic and ethnic groups have been identified in Ghana, and these groups have maintained a sense of ethnic identity over the years. However, the population is classified into two major linguistic families: the Guan and the Gur. The Guan speakers, traditionally associated with the area south of the Volta, make up about 75 percent of the population. The major Guan linguistic subgroup is the Akan speakers, who are further subdivided into the Ashanti, Bono, Fante, Akuapem, Akyem, and Kwahu, among others. The Ashanti and Akuapem peoples speak similar Akan dialects, collectively known as Twi. Other Guan linguistic groups include the Nzima, Ga, Gonja, Adangbe, and Ewe. Members of the Gur linguistic family live mainly in the northern regions of the country. The principal Gur language is Dagbani, and the major Gur ethnic groups are the Dagomba and Mamprusi peoples. Due to the similarities in the various dialects and to the increasing mobility of the population, a typical Ghanaian understands at least one of five major languages - Akan, Nzima, Dagbani, Ga, or Ewe - as well as English, which is the official language of the country.


educationChristian missionaries introduced Western-style education to Ghana in the 18th century. Although some schools are still affiliated with religious groups, the state is now the main provider of education. In 1996, 20 percent of the national budget was spent on education. Primary education is free and compulsory. In 2002–2003, 79 percent of primary school-aged children attended primary school. Attendance at the secondary school level was 39 percent and 3 percent at the university level. A greater percentage of boys attended school than girls, the gap widening above the primary school level. However, the disparity in attendance by gender was not due to any state policy. Ghana’s educational system is open to all. The adult literacy rate in 2005 was recorded at 76.9 percent, with male literacy at 84.3 and female literacy at 69.8. The University of Ghana, at Legon (near Accra), was Ghana’s first university, established in 1948. There are five other public universities in the country, located at Winneba, Cape Coast, Tarkwah, Kumasi, and Tamale, and numerous teacher training colleges and vocational institutions.


Way of Life

ghanaGhana has long been exposed to outside influences on its society and culture. To some extent, Islam shapes the society of the north while Christianity is strong in the south. Despite the influence of these world religions, however, much of Ghanaian society continues to be traditional. Most people recognize the place of traditional practices. For example, they grant local chiefs customary rights to preside over their communities, and the young respect parents and their elders. An extended family’s elders arbitrate the inheritance of the family’s land, possessions, and social status. Polygamy (the practice of having more than one wife) is legal, but as the literacy rate has risen, Ghanaians have increasingly chosen monogamy (the practice of having only one wife) as the preferred marital relation. A number of women’s organizations and lobby groups were established in the 1990s. Women are not prohibited from holding public offices nor are they paid less for equal work done. Most Ghanaians throughout the country wear Western attire. Traditional clothing, which is worn usually at local ceremonies and dances, varies among ethnic groups, often taking the form of smocks for men and wraparound dresses for women.


 Ghana’s culture is as diverse as its linguistic and geographical regions. Weaving and carving are important traditional art forms. Music and dance are performed at communal functions and ceremonies such as funerals and marriages.


Oral literature, in the form of storytelling, has traditionally been the most popular indigenous way of transmitting societal values. In village gathering places, stories of the spider Ananse were told both to entertain and educate. In the 1950s and 1960s, many of these stories were written down to serve as reading material for school children. Commonly recurring themes in modern Ghanaian literature have been opposition to colonial rule, political corruption, and the clash between tradition and modernization in Ghana. Some of the best known Ghanaian writers in the English language are Efua Sutherland, a colonial-era female playwright; Ama Ata Aidoo, a writer whose plays, novels, and poetry examine the traditional roles assigned to African women; Ayi Kwei Armah, an author of insightful critiques of contemporary political conditions and historical fiction; and Kofi Awoonor, a writer whose poems and novels dissect the interaction of traditional and Western ideas in Africa.

 Art and Architecture

ArtGhana’s visual art forms, including gold jewelry, woodcarvings, and weaving, were associated traditionally with the royal courts of different ethnic groups. Although the works of artisans continue to serve their traditional functions, they are now also created for the tourist industry. Gold, mined for centuries in Ghana, is worked into weighty pieces of jewelry that traditionally only adorned the Akan king and nobility. The Ashanti people are known for their carved wooden stools, which customarily served domestic and sacred roles. The Golden Stool, the symbol of the Ashanti nation, is the most sacred stool of all. In the second half of the 20th century, the Ga people developed a tradition of building carved and brightly decorated coffins, shaped like animals or objects that celebrate the deceased. Ghanaian weavers produce many different styles of cloth, but the most well-known fabric produced in Ghana is Kente cloth. This distinctive style was traditionally made by weavers of the Ashanti court, using European silk acquired through trans-Saharan and, later, coastal trade.

There are two main types of indigenous Ghanaian building styles. Traditional round huts with grass roofing are found in the northern regions. In the south, several adjoining buildings surround a communal compound in the middle of an enclosure. In recent years, however, single-family structures have become more popular, especially in the urban centers.

Music and Dance

Traditional forms of ceremonial music, accompanied by dancing, continue to be performed in Ghana. The country is well known for its traditional talking drums, which mimic the tonal patterns of spoken language. The most popular Ghanaian music is the highly danceable style called highlife. Highlife is performed at dances by bands that feature either trumpets and saxophones or several electric guitars and a set of percussion instruments. The most famous highlife musician was the late E. T. Mensah, who was often referred to as “King of Highlife.” A newer style of popular Ghanaian dance music called hiplife combines the traditional African folklore and rhythms of highlife with elements of hip-hop. Musician Reggie Rockstone is often called the father of this genre.

Theatre and Film

Ghana’s oldest form of theater is the Concert Party, in which a traveling minstrel troupe visits villages and performs to music. The Ghana Dance Ensemble and the University of Ghana produce and perform local plays. Various local artists and performing groups make film and television appearances. Ghana’s modest film industry features the work of directors Kwaw Ansah, King Ampaw and recently Shirley Frimpong-Manso.

Libraries and Museums

The Accra Central Library (1950) is Ghana’s main library. The Public Records and Archives Administration Department (formerly Ghana National Archives, 1946), located in Accra, holds the largest collection of government papers and has branch offices in regional capitals. The National Museum in Accra (1957) holds historical and anthropological artifacts from around the country.

Economy of Ghana

Gross domestic product (GDP in U.S.$)

$13 billion (2006)

GDP per capita (U.S.$)

$560.90 (2006)

Monetary unit

1 new cedi (C), consisting of 100 pesewas

Number of workers

10,284,624 (2006)

Unemployment rate

8.2 percent (2000)

Before the arrival of European colonists in the 1400s, farming, herding, and fishing were the main indigenous Ghanaian economic activities, with smaller numbers of people mining for gold. With the establishment of complete colonial control in the late 1800s, the territory’s economy was drawn fully into the world capitalist system, and gold was exported in large quantities to Europe. Ghanaian farmers produced cash crops such as cacao for the export market. European merchants, however, dominated the export and import economy. Upon independence in 1957, the state assumed greater involvement in the national economy. From the late 1960s through the 1970s, Ghana experienced severe economic decline as a result of political instability. By the mid-1980s, however, economic recovery programs were underway to encourage and expand private sector investments. Both the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank) supported the reform programs. In the mid-1980s the government promoted industries using local raw materials and private investment in food production. From 2006 to 2008, Ghana’s economy grew an average of 6.2 percent each year. Ghana reported a gross domestic product (GDP) of $13 billion, or $560.90 per capita, in 2006. Of the total GDP, 37.2 percent was from the service sector, 37.4 percent from agriculture, and 25.4 percent from industrial productions. GDP is a measure of the value of all goods and services produced by a country. The state has been responsible for the provision of infrastructure installations and facilities since colonial times. Despite efforts to increase privatization in the mid-1980s, the government funds almost all road construction and installation of new power and telephone lines.


Ghana’s labor force in 2006 totaled 10.3 million people. Of these, 55 percent were involved in agriculture, 31 percent in services, and 14 percent in industry. Despite an expanding private sector, the state continues to be the largest employer. Almost all schoolteachers, medical service providers, and administrative personnel are public employees. Ghanaian workers have a long tradition of organizing into trade unions. The Ghana Trade Union Congress is an independent umbrella organization that represents workers’ interests. A 20 percent unemployment rate was estimated for 1997.

Agriculture, Forestry and Fishing


Agriculture, forestry, and fishing form the traditional backbone of Ghana’s economy. Cattle are raised in the dry savanna regions of the north and in the plains region around Accra. Bananas, plantains, rice, corn, and cassava are produced as food crops in the southern half of the country. In the drier north, the major crops are yams, sorghum, and millet. The wet forest zones allow the cultivation of cash crops such as cacao, coffee, and palms and the harvesting of tropical timber. Freshwater fish are available in the rivers and Lake Volta, but the Atlantic Ocean provides the bulk of the nation’s fish supply. Ghana is known historically for its gold mines, and the country is one of the world’s top gold producers. Ghana mined 60,000 kg (132,280 lb) of gold in 2004. The Ashanti Goldfields Corporation manages the richest deposit at Obuasi in the Ashanti uplands. Other mineral exports from Ghana include manganese, diamonds, and bauxite.

Services and Tourism

The service sector accounted for 37.2 percent of GDP in 2006. Wholesaling and retailing of food items at local open markets as well as sales of manufactured goods at shops characterize Ghana’s domestic trade. Tourism is one of the country’s expanding service activities. The most important tourist destinations are the colonial fortresses at Cape Coast and Elmina, which were once major transshipment points for tens of thousands of slaves on their way to the New World. Tourists are also attracted by the beaches along the Gulf of Guinea and the animal life in Ghana’s national parks. Tourist arrivals increased from 146,000 in 1990 to 442,000 in 2006. In 2006 $345 million was generated from tourism. Most visitors to Ghana come from the United States and Europe.

More than 90 percent of Ghanaian households burn wood or charcoal for cooking, but gas and electrical sources of energy are also available. Power generated by the Akosombo Dam on the Volta River is the country’s main source of electricity. The Akosombo Dam was completed in 1965, and a second hydroelectric dam was later constructed downstream, at Kpong. In 2003 Ghana generated 5.4 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, virtually all in hydroelectric plants. Until the mid-1990s Ghana was a regular exporter of electricity, but low water levels in the Volta have periodically caused power shortages in the country. The country is investigating the use of thermal energy to augment its electricity generation. Petroleum is imported to power automobiles and generators.


Ghana is served by 977 km (607 mi) of rail lines, which are limited to the southern sector of the country, essentially connecting Sekondi, Accra, and Kumasi. The national rail line has not expanded since its construction in the early 20th century, with the exception of the short Accra-Tema link built in the 1960s. Logs, timber products, and minerals from the southern regions are transported to the deep-water harbors at Tema and Takoradi for export. River transportation on the Volta north of the Akosombo Dam is possible, but the most accessible means of domestic travel is by road. There are 47,787 km (29,693 mi) of roads in the country, only 18 percent of which are paved. Most Ghanaians travel by bus, or another form of private mass transportation. The Kotoka International Airport is located at Accra, but private airlines serve local airports at Kumasi, Tamale, Sunyani, and Takoradi.


One peopleThe government runs the country’s two major newspapers, the Daily Graphic and The Ghanaian Times, both published in Accra. Since 1992 a number of independent and party-affiliated newspapers have been established. The government-owned Ghana Broadcasting Corporation offers radio and television programs in English and several local languages. There are also many private FM stations. The most critical concern of news providers is the issue of press freedom, which was curtailed occasionally from the 1960s to the 1980s. The National Media Commission was established in 1993 as an independent watchdog organization to ensure that the government does not control or interfere with any media provider, private or state-owned. Today, the media in Ghana operate without restrictions as a result of the liberalization of the media landscape between 2000 and 2008. Ghana’s telecommunications system is poorly developed—in 2005 there were only 14.5 telephone lines per 1,000 people. Consequently, mobile telephone usage has become very popular. Access to the Internet is increasingly becoming widespread

Foreign trade

In 2000 Ghana’s total exports were valued at $1.67 billion, and its total imports at $2.93 billion. The country’s chief export is gold; other major exports include cacao, lumber, and electricity. Petroleum, consumer goods, and machinery and transport equipment are among the main imports. Ghana’s major trade partners, in order of importance, are the United Kingdom, the United States, Nigeria, The Netherlands, and Germany. Ghana is a member of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Currency and Banking

The Bank of Ghana, founded in 1957, is the country’s central bank and issues the national currency. The Ghanaian unit of currency is the new cedi, divided into 100 pesewas (1 new cedis equal US$1.5; 2011 average). The state-owned Ghana Commercial Bank has branches throughout the country, and there are also many private banks. The Ghana Stock Exchange was established in 1990.


PresidentAccording to the nation’s constitution, adopted in 1992, Ghana is a multiparty democracy, and all citizens aged 18 and older are entitled to vote. A president, selected by direct popular election to a four-year term, is head of state and commander in chief of the Ghana armed forces. According to the constitution, the president must be a Ghanaian by birth, must be at least 40 years of age before taking office, and can serve no more than two terms in office. The president appoints a vice president and a Council of Ministers, a cabinet body whose members have different portfolios, or responsibilities, for advising the president on specific national and international issues. A Council of State acts as another advisory body; each of the 10 administrative regions of the country elects a council member, and the president appoints the remaining 15 members.

Ghana’s lawmaking body is the unicameral (single house) Parliament. The Parliament’s 230 members are directly elected to four-year terms, with no term limits. Any Ghanaian aged 21 years or older who does not have the privilege of dual citizenship and who possesses a taxpaying history can run for Parliament.

JudiciaryGhana’s legal codes are based on Britain’s. The principal judicial body is the Supreme Court, which makes judgments on constitutional, criminal, and civil cases. Below the Supreme Court are the Court of Appeals and Regional High Courts. At the lower tier are the Circuit Courts, Community Tribunals, and Courts of the Houses of Chiefs. All judges are appointed by the president and approved by Parliament. A Judicial Council monitors the performance of the judicial system, and the Ghana Bar Association represents the interests of Ghanaian lawyers.

The country is divided into ten administrative regions: Ashanti, Brong-Ahafo, Central, Eastern, Greater Accra, Northern, Upper East, Upper West, Volta, and Western. Each region is led by a regional executive, who is appointed by the president. Below the regional level are district assemblies. Some district assembly members are appointed by the central government, but the majority are democratically elected. The dominant political party in Ghana was the National Democratic Congress (NDC) until the opposition New Patriotic Party (NPP) won the December 2000 legislative and presidential elections. Also represented in Parliament are the People’s National Convention (PNC) party and the Convention People’s Party (CPP). Other parties include the National Convention Party (NCP) and the National Reform Party (NRP), which split off from the NDC in 1999.


The Ghana armed forces—including army, navy, and air force—totaled 7,000 personnel in 2004. With a total of 5,000 men and women, the army is the largest of the defense forces. Military service is voluntary. Ghana’s armed forces personnel have taken part in international peacekeeping activities in West Africa and around the world. Police force and civil defense units keep the peace at home.

International Organizations

Ghana has held membership in the United Nations (UN) and the Commonwealth of Nations since independence in 1957. Ghana is also a founding member of the African Union (AU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).


Sources: Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2009. © 1993-2008 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.