Visiting the market in Ghana (and West Africa in general) is a way of life. For centuries, the market has been where you buy pretty much everything you need. However, markets are chaotic, and can down right induce an anxiety attack if you’re not careful. In this case, I am specifically speaking about Accra.
Enter the Makola Market, or even the Art Center, some of Accra’s biggest markets, and probably where most people will tell you to go when you visit. Most of your purchase experiences at these places will be sensory overload. Not only will you see items on top of items on top of items every which way you go, but people, who know how to sniff out foreigners, and are even better at being able to tell where you’re from, will be swarming around you to get you to buy their goods. What may start as a seemingly harmless hello or question about where you’re from could easily turn into repeated urges to “visit my shop next,” or you being draped in or holding a plethora of trinkets that you’re being forced to buy.
The kicker is, the price of anything is always going to be triple because you are a walking wallet (that’s just the real of it). However, you are expected to negotiate the price because that’s culturally how things are done. If you are like me, meaning you experience high anxiety around people, particularly strangers (seriously, people are a major trigger for me), then this can be no bueno. I’ve managed to deal during both my trips to Ghana, but man…I hate it, but I’d like to be of assistance because I managed to get through it. So, here are 8 tips for market survival in Accra.
1. Be Patient
This may sound like a no-brainer, but seriously, you will need it. The aggressive nature of some of the vendors will probably be culture shock (emphasis on aggressive, but not threatening). In my experiences, I have had moments where simply touching something that caught my eye ended in items being shoved in my hands at lightning speed, or something draped over me and being told how nice it would look on, when I wasn’t even trying to buy it, just inspecting. There will be an expectation that you buy something, but don’t feel pressure. Speaking of pressure, expect your space to possible be invaded. Spacial boundaries are just different and again, if you are anxious like me, that could be a problem. I had lots of moments where I had to breathe, count, calm myself down, and remind myself that I was with a familiar group of travelers in case I needed to bail or felt the urge to snap at someone either for being too aggressive in trying to get me to purchase something, or even unsolicited touch (It was never anything offensive, but still, yo, back up off me!). Again, I got through it without incident, so there goes that.
2. Do Your Research
People in the markets don’t like unsolicited pictures being taken of them. I’m talking about, they will get angry enough to either swipe at you or knock your camera down, so do be aware. I witnessed someone in my group almost get the wrath. It would not have been pretty getting jumped by a group of locals over camera shots (I’m not exaggerating). Luckily, we had a local with us who calmed the situation down because said traveler was actually snapping scenery and not necessarily one specific person. If you really want a picture that bad, make it clear that you’re snapping a sign and not the people, or if you want actually people in the shot, ask a vendor that you have purchased from for a photo, they will be more than happy to pose.
In related research news, the name “The Art Center” is a bit of a misnomer. For mos tof us, the name conjures images of some in door, air conditioned space where you visit booths or stores. No. It’s pretty much another outdoor market. The other thing is, there are several different sections. There are sections where artisans are actually selling things that were made in Ghana, and then there’s the Made in China Section (that’s what I call it, anyway). It’s not hard to tell which is which. I promise, if your eyes fail you, you’ll get a gut feeling.
3. Negotiate! Negotiate! Negotiate!
So, about you being a walking wallet thing…
If they tell you a price, fire back with something that is at least 1/2-3/4 less than what they tell you. Yes, half to three quarters. Where you settle is up to you, but don’t pay full price. It’s always going to be too much. Be firm, don’t back down, and always be willing to walk away. That is straight from every single Ghanaian I’ve ever met.
4. Bring a Secret Weapon
For both my trips to Ghana, I always had locals accompany me to help negotiate. What’s crazy is, the price suddenly gets cut down if you have someone with you who can speak Ga or Twi. It’s quite astonishing and amusing, especially when they think you’re by yourself, quote you a price that you try to fight, then try to argue with you, but when you call your trusty Ghanaian friend over to hear the price, an epic showdown between them ensues. The amount of tooth sucking and frantic motioning back and forth never got old. The vendors hate when you bring a Ghanaian with you. I’ve seen so many salty faces behind this tactic, but hell, I’ve gotten and saw people get the price they wanted (or closer to what they wanted) 90% of the time behind having a Secret Weapon. If you don’t personally know any Ghanaians (not an expat, and not a Ghanaian who was born abroad, either), then establish a relationship with your driver or even hire a tour guide. Tip them extra, buy their food, and just be nice. They’ll be happy to help you because a lot of times they’ll be so frustrated by price hikes just on good principal, that they will argue vendors down to the death, damn near!
5. Be Prepared for The Unexpected
I went to the Art Center expecting to shop and browse (and got annoyed, because, see number 1), but ended up getting an impromptu djembe lesson and a show.
It all happened really fast, but Tastemakers Africa hooked us up with that amazing experience (that you can book on the Tastemakers App (among other adventures)! I’m pretty sure it’s something they’d be willing to do for a small fee, even without the friend hookup. I’m actually still kicking myself for not buying a bigger djembe (I purchased a mini one).
6. Buy Things You Weren’t Even Thinking About
…like a delicious fresh coconut that costs less than one US dollar. I know that coconuts get lots of flack. However, if you are a fresh coconut lover like me, then do eet! I can get coconuts in NYC, but not only are they not as fresh, but they damn near cost $5 or more so eff that! Also note that the fruit in Ghana, Togo, and probably all of West Africa is crack. Seriously, it is exceptionally delicious.
7. Visit More Standard Stores
There are more standard stores with set prices like, Wild Gecko Handcrafts, Lokko 08 (more on that place later), Global Mamas, and more, where you can purchase items that are guaranteed made locally (or eat least by artisans in nearby countries) at a set price, without being pressured. Yes, you will pay more money (even though the conversion probably still works in your favor), but you will have a smoother experience.
8. Lighten Up
That one should be simple, but it’s not always. My friend Trudy (whose family is from Ghana) was amused by my lack of patience and near freak outs, but I think I did a pretty good job rolling with the punches. There’s always room for improvement, though, but at least I survived, and you will too.
Have you experienced market life in Ghana or anywhere else in West Africa?