Water splashes down into a pool at the base of the upper falls in Wli, Ghana. Wli Waterfall is the tallest in West Africa.

A Transformative Trek to West Africa's Highest Waterfall

At Ghana's Wli Waterfalls, one writer reflects on the weight of history — and wades into the bright unknown.

On a sunny, humid day in July 2013, I found myself hiking through the forest of Ghana's Agumatsa Wildlife Sanctuary. My camera was slung around my neck to photograph any animals we might encounter, and my backpack was filled with a water bottle and a change of clothes. I was 21 and eager.

It was the first time I had left the United States, after years of collecting postcards, inhaling TV travel shows, and reading magazines at Barnes & Noble. A Black professor at the University of Houston had spotted me at a study-abroad fair, looking for ways to get to Italy, and instead convinced me to, as she put it, "come home." Thanks to that professor, I gained my first passport stamp, a second minor in African American studies, and a trip that changed the trajectory of my life entirely.

Like many African Americans, my knowledge of my family history beyond our enslavement in the United States is limited. I had no connection to Ghana, only the understanding that my ancestors were kidnapped from somewhere on the continent during the transatlantic slave trade. But the idea of a return was appealing — as was the opportunity to visit a country that has meticulously studied, interrogated, and worked to rectify the painful legacy of slavery.

After flying in to Accra, my study-abroad group spent the first few days of the trip meeting with members of prominent peoples like the Ashanti, Fante, and Ewe. I learned how Ghana — though sometimes mired in grim history, as the primary location from which enslaved Africans were shipped to the Americas — had found a way to heal after centuries of colonization and exploitation.

This was affirmed when we set off to Agumatsa — home of the 250-foot Wli Waterfalls, the highest in West Africa. Prior to visiting, most of my exposure to the continent had been through media depictions of destitution and violence. Africa was treated as a monolith. All the countries were the same; poverty was everywhere. Beauty, on the other hand, was not. But hiking through Ghana's Volta Region, with its rolling hills, fishing villages, and sparkling blue water, revealed what I and so many other Black travelers had already suspected — the continent and its people were so much more than what centuries of history books had declared them to be.

I realized quickly, though, that few things in West Africa exude beauty without reminding us of a painful past. As my study-abroad group hiked toward the falls, we passed by a gray, sparkling lake, its banks home to fruit bats, mischievous mona monkeys, and hundreds of species of birds and butterflies. As I wiped drops of sweat brought on by the lingering humidity, our guide Adwoa Adu, a member of the Ashanti people, gestured to the river that fed the lake. She explained that, nearly 400 years earlier, recently arrived Europeans forced hundreds (and likely thousands) of imprisoned Ghanaian women to drown their infants there. Mothers who'd just given birth were walking naked and shackled, made to destroy the only thing in the world that still belonged to them.

The vestiges of slavery in Ghana remain in plain sight. Slaveholding castles still line the coast, and some streets still bear the names of colonizers. The stories exist in the forts scattered in the countryside that once held enslaved prisoners, in the trees that heard the cries of those being torn from their homes, and even at the bottoms of rivers, like the one flowing through Agumatsa. The ills of slavery had never been hidden from me — they couldn't be, as a Black woman from Texas — but the enormity of evil and injustice was new, and it weighed on me as we walked.

Some of my classmates weren't keen on the multi-hour expedition, but I stayed right behind Adu. As we hiked further, she emphasized the importance of looking forward, of recognizing beauty and resilience. I thought about the lives lost centuries ago, but also the lives that continued, marching — against all reason — toward hope. I noticed the lush vegetation, the umber earth, the supple mangoes dangling from the trees. As we walked, I photographed. Just as a cone of sweat began to appear on my tank top, I heard the rumble of crashing water. Adu turned around with a smile. "Okay, everyone," she said. "We've arrived."

Whitewater gushed over emerald plants and rocks, flowing into a stream of tourists wading in the pool below and laughing in the spray. My classmates and I immediately ran in, took hundreds of photos, and splashed each other with immense joy. One of my peers — an introspective, intellectual type — let out a bellowing laugh, the first I'd heard from him. Another, who'd complained the whole hike, found her place of peace sitting on a tiny dock, gazing at the falls.

I noticed a group of tourists standing very close to the deluge. The water wasn't that deep. I decided I was going in.

Walking toward the gushing cascade, all I could think about was freedom. The freedom brutally stripped from my African ancestors, the freedom my enslaved forebears fought for so valiantly. Most of all, the freedom I was determined to experience in my own life. I would do the things that they could not — travel on my own terms, explore the countries of my childhood dreams, even stand under a waterfall.

I heard my classmates call out my name, completely shocked at what I was doing. But as the sound of the falls grew louder, their yells faded. I drew closer, stepping over pebbles and plants. A fellow tourist turned to me. He smiled and reached out as the water pressure grew stronger. Together, we walked directly under the falls, where he released my hand, allowing me to experience the water's cleansing power on my own.

A version of this story first appeared in the February 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Taking the Waters.