Cities and Towns in Africa
If travelling between the Gambian coast and southeastern Senegal, Basse (as it is commonly known) is a necessary stop on the way – either as the first stop in Gambia or the last before crossing into Senegal. Otherwise, Gambia's easternmost town is somewhat of a dead-end. Travellers who do make it out here will find a busy market town that sits nicely on a pleasant bend in the Gambia River. The market here is surprisingly well-supplied, probably the most well-assorted market between Serakunda on the coast and Tambacounda in Senegal. It is also one of the better places to arrange expeditions out onto the interesting upper part of the Gambian River.
Accra doesn't feel very much like a capital city. Too spread out, without a central business district or another obvious centre. Most interesting for travellers are probably the area around Independence Square with its Black Star Triumphal Arch. Here visitors will also find the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park for Ghana's first president, and the National Cultural Centre – a glorified collection of craft stalls. To the west are Jamestown and Ushertown, known as Old Accra, and to the east Osu (or Christiansborg) Castle, which will eventually open as a museum. North of Independence Square is the central government quarter with governmental and administrative buildings as well as the National Museum. Foodies and party people will want to head northeast where nightlife and the restaurant scene is concentrated around Oxford Street.
Cape Coast is blessed with many things. A beautiful palm lined beach, another fishing beach filled with pirogues, a charming worn town centre, but the star attraction is, of course, the magnificent UNESCO enlisted slave fort positioned right between the two beaches. Due to Cape Coast's popularity with travellers and volunteers alike, there are plenty of hawkers and "artists" congregating at the fort. Some find the rasta guys at the beach a bit pushy, but they mostly prey on the western NGO girls, who don't seem to mind too much. With a god selection of accommodations and restaurants, Cape Coast makes a nice base for while doing day trips to Elmina (another slave fort town) and Kakum National Park (canopy walk).
The main reason why travellers come to Elmina is, of course, the fine UNESCO enlisted slave fort, but the town itself is a bit of an experience too. Colourful pirogues sail past the white fort on their way to the lagoon. Along the busy shore, fishermen unload the day's catch, while others sort their nets. Elmina feels like a big fishing village, just with the oldest colonial building in sub-Saharan Africa as backdrop. Of course, there are hawkers and touts around the entrance to the fort, but otherwise Elmina feels relaxed.
Ghana's second city is all about its Ashanti history. Home to one of the most famous pre-colonial empires in Sub-Saharan Africa, primarily because they gave the British a lot of grief until they were finally "pacified" in 1902. Presently, locals wear their Ashanti history as a batch of honour, and it's still possible to visit a number of Ashanti related sights around town. The most interesting of these are the former royal palace – today the Prempeh II Jubilee Museum – thoroughly displaying the Ashanti history. Among many memorable pieces is a fake golden stool that was used to fool the British in 1900. Also worth a visit is the museum in the old British Kumasi Fort that documents the three Anglo-Ashanti Wars. Lastly, on the grounds of Okomfo Anokey Hospital is a sword stuck in the soil around the year 1700 when Kumasi was chosen as the Ashanti capital. Legend has it that if the sword is ever pulled from the ground, the Ashanti nation will collapse. The hospital was built around the sword to fulfil another legend: that people would be born and die around its location.
The gateway to Guinea's forest covered south-east, Guinée Forestière, is both the most useful and most pleasant place to break the long journey between the region and Conakry or Kankan. Here's a broad range of accommodation and even a bank with an ATM(!). More importantly, there's enough of interest to keep visitors occupied while waiting for onward transportation. Like Freetown, in Sierra Leone, the town is built around a large cotton tree, which would still be the highest landmark in town if it wasn't for the radio towers. There's also a small ethnographic museum about the region. If you wait around for the director, he'll explain every single item on display – even the pots and pans (spoiler: they're for cooking) – though it's quite useful for the more obscure masks and fetishes. Lastly, a few kilometres east of town is a liana bridge locally known as Pont Artisanal. While most of the lianas have been replaced by metal wires it's an enjoyable walk nonetheless passing through the village-like suburbs.
The old Portuguese quarter of independence hero Amílcar Cabral's hometown sits picturesquely on a bend in the Geba River. The centre is plastered with beautiful colonial architecture; most strikingly are the facade of the covered market, the old governor's house and the Catholic church. Many of the buildings here are now occupied by government offices, easily recognizable as they are the only colonial buildings that have been renovated. The rest are in advanced stages of decay. A small museum pays homage to Amílcar Cabral and many murals of him, wearing his characteristic knitted hat, adorn walls all over town. Outside business hours, the old centre resembles a ghost town. To find everybody again, walk up the hill to the square and market that constitutes today's city centre. Drop by the square in the early evening to experience the modern Africa as the square is occupied by gangs of youth taking advantage of the free internet hotspot there.
By far the most pleasant of West Africa's capital cities. The small city centre of Bissau, called Praca, has more in common with a provincial town in Portugal than with the chaotic atmosphere usually associated with West Africa's big cities. The streets are lined with Portuguese-era buildings, usually only one or two stories high; traffic is relatively light; and it's safe to take a stroll after daylight has fainted - restaurants, rather than bars or nightclubs, keep Bissau awake once the sun has set. Granted, "only" 400.000 people call Bissau home, but it is still more than five times as many as in Guinea-Bissau's second city, Batafá. Thus, Bissau is, no doubt, the country's first city and the country's only large city. The markets lie in the sprawling suburbs and keep the hectic characteristics of trade outside the centre, and the port, while right next to the central city, is too small to be of any real annoyance. To sum up, Bissau's central district is pleasant and inviting, without been too dull.
The small market town of Leribe is also known as Hlotse. There are a few supermarkets along with a string of Chinese owned trading stores, which are remarkably indistinguishable throughout the third world. Besides being a good place to stock up, you have a chance to experience a bit of the famous African disorder.
Let's face it, Maseru is not the centre of the world. It's even located as far from the centre of Lesotho as possible, right on the border to South Africa. It's a clutter of those buildings that any nation needs to function, like public offices, banks, hospital, etc. and a few coffee shops which seem to be favoured by foreign NGOs. Though the pace is slow and people are friendly, there is absolutely no reason to spend more time here than necessary, particularly when the beautiful Lesotho highlands are right at the doorstep.