Published: October 16th 2006October 1st 2006
While traversing the region we've met a lot of different people. Poachers, mercenaries, ex-guerilla soldiers, prostitutes, diamond smugglers, priests, homeless, businessmen and one of Swedens most wanted, most famous economic criminals -hiding in the region), all of them giving us a different story and adding up to our varied and bizarre West African experience.
Eight full months it has taken us to traverse this huge region (the size of the contiguous U.S. without Texas.). From entering Mauritania on the first of February, to leaving Cameroon on the last of September.
A region of strong religious belief, poverty and corruption. But also a region of great happiness, striking colours and wonderful music.
West Africa has some of the worst governments in the world, and the only two ways of getting somewhere in the political jungle; is to hack and bribe your way upwards, or stage a coup d'etat. The latter being the method of choice among the present so called "presidents" of the region.
Words like justice and liberty means nothing to the ruling elité. Justice and liberty are things that will never be given for free to the masses. Justice and liberty has to be won. By labour unions, civil rights movements, women rights movements, human rights movement and so on.
These are things that people still fight for in the developed world today.
If it's hard to imagine how life was in the developed world before we achieved the liberties we enjoy today:
If it's hard to imagine the concept
Everywhere. Playful and loud, you will not miss them. Often begging for a gift, a pen, some money or something else you shouldn't give them. These kids didn't though. Nigeria.
of justice and liberty dispensed by knights and clerics in feudal Europe:
Then come to West Africa.
Here you can still find feudal societies. The powerful Muslim sects in Senegal
have thousands of people toiling in their groundnut fields for the rest of their lives. You can still buy yourself a slave in Cote d'Ivoire
. In the Muslim states of northern West Africa (Mauritania
), the suppression of women rights is in a state of its own.
You can buy yourself a new wife if you want, for not more than the prize of a medium sized camel. Just find yourself a poor family and the father will be more than happy to sell you his 13 year old daughter.
You can also buy hunting rights to endangered species in the nature reserves. Very popular among the French and Italians. You bribe the rangers and the poachers will take you out hunting. A lions head mounted on a wooden plate is about 600$. If you want to pull the trigger yourself it's about 1800$, and if you want to kill a gorilla it's a lot more depending on your bargaining skills.
In the north of the region there are some impressive and old mud mosques. This one in Djenne, Mali.
want to kill a human, you shouldn't discuss it with the poachers living around the national parks. Then you should find one or a couple of mercenaries. If you're rich enough, you could easily build yourself a private army. Shop around with the taxi drivers in Freetown, Sierra Leone
- they are the old R.A.F.guerrilla , world famous for their "Operation no living thing".
Find yourself someone from the French foreign legion, they'll be sitting bragging in some cheap bar, on a backstreet in the urban dwellings.
If you can't spot them - ask the local prostitutes to point them out for you.
If you happen to drive drunk, hits a mini-van and kill 9 people, expect to pay a 130$ a pop for the funerals and 780$ to the owner of the mini-van, plus a lot of hush money to the police and the local government for "bureaucratic smoothness".
Or just make friends with the government and you might get all this for free. They all have a history of assassinations, life time imprisonment of the political opposition, torture of journalists and so on.
It's common for a president to stay more
A popular fella'
Especially along the coastal countries, Jesus seem to draw the crowds, in the north it's Muhammed that controlles the masses.
than 20 years in office, and the most common way of handing over the power - is to be overthrown.
A typical West African president start as a lieutenant/captain/general in the state military, then stage a coup d'etat, take the power and promise to "only" hold it until elections can be held. Elections are postponed until the IMF, world bank or foreign investors (read France or the U.S.) puts pressure on the junta to democratize.
Then, some extreme irregularities during the election, followed by strikes heavily suppressed by the military. With little surprise the military ruler wins the election - now in civil clothes. After serving two terms as head of state, he makes some “small” changes to the constitution and continues to suppress the population while accumulating enormous amounts of money. Democracy by Kalashnikov.
Until there's another coup... Cape Verde
are exceptions with "fairly" just governments, Mali
show signs of improvement and Liberia
, with the first female African president: Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, can really turn out as a role model for the region.
"Student shot dead" is not an uncommon thing to read in the local papers. Students are
Straight from the sorce; Cheaper than beer and very tasteful.
In this village in Sierra Leone only one family had the rights to tap the palms, just like other familys were fishermen or bakers, these were the wine tappers, since generations.
usually the ones still believing in changing the regimes.
The rest of the population knows what happens if one questions the government, and they turn to faith or festivities instead.
A strong belief in religion is very common and many people visit the mosque five times a day or the church on Sundays. In some countries (like Guinea-Bissau
, Burkina Faso
) people instead go to the bar five times a week and the clubs on Saturdays.
There are some extremely rich people living in the region, but most people only try to make ends meet and get ahead. They have their small business that has to support the whole family. Which - with the small profit trade brings - would be hard even in a nuclear family.
But in West Africa there are no nuclear families. They live in extended family systems, and you not only support your own offspring, but your grandparents, your siblings, your partner’s parents and your unemployed cousins.
Probably your grandmother is working too, selling peanuts in the market, or your five smaller brothers sell cigarettes at the motor park.
The hierarchy system is inflexible and complex.
There's no logic at all with our journey. We've travelled in a snakey, shakey Parkinsons disease-Zorro sign. Anyone that can find anything logic with the journey are encouraged to let me know so.
Still I dare to say that people are more happy here than in the developed world.
The individual freedom that I myself hold so high is impossible to obtain, instead they have a very reliable security within the extended family.
In rural West Africa people get pregnant when they’re 13 to 14 year old, and if the parents even bother to send their daughters to school, it’s not uncommon to have them impregnated by their unpaid teachers.
Human life always goes on and the West Africans are survivors, if there was a nuclear winter on the planet - this region would probably be the best to adapt.
Once again; there’s a lot of happiness. A funeral is always a cause for music and celebration, there’s sporadic dancing in the streets to the loud sound-systems that make up a constant part of every day life.
Even the way of worshipping is very colourful and jovial. Ok, Islam is just as rigid and stiff as usual, but the Christian masses are more like concerts where every one attends. Theatre, singing, heavy drumming and some hocus pocus by the reverend, followed by dancing, dancing, dancing - creates a magical
This bird is as beautiful as a West African president is trustworthy.
show to a bystander.
Most of the wildlife is killed for bush-meat and the little that’s left can never compete for tourists, with the huge hordes roaming the east African savannah.
And even though nature IS very beautiful in the region, I believe nature is beautiful all over the planet, it’s all in the eye of the beholder.
Neither is there any “truly” awe inspiring nor old architecture. Except for a few mud mosques in the Sahel, the oldest buildings in the region are built by Europeans along the Ghanaian coast. Same thing with the new avant-garde skyscrapers, all designed and built by European architects and contractors.
The main reason for coming to the region, is the people. You will never be alone, you will never be ignored. They will smile, wave and call out for you.
Invite you for tea or tell you a funny story.
The longer one stays in the region, the more one realize how ethnically complex the region is. Innumerable tribes live in the region, crossing country borders and language barriers.
Nobody speaks only one language, instead most people know five or six totally different tongues. Many I’ve spoken to say
A couple of waterfalls dot the region. Nothing massive, more sparsely sprinkling ones. This is La Voile de la Marié, in Guinea.
they dream or think in a different language every day, depending on who they’re with and where they are - it just comes natural.
Another big reason to come to the region is the lack of tourism.
This makes the region very unique since it often feels like one’s the first tourist to visit a certain village or to travel a certain route. Ok there’s a lot of French, but that’s just because the refuse to speak English and thus can’t go to the rest of the world, so they stick to their vassal states.
Leave the francophone countries and there are not many tourists. The Gambia
is an exception with its coastline littered with expensive resorts and meat-market clubs. Ghana
gets a fair share of tourism too, but being a big country with a lot to offer, all the tourists aren’t clustered to the coast - which makes it a more appealing destination for independent travellers. In Sierra Leone
you’ll see no other tourist, at the most one will meet an expat, eager to have someone to talk to.
And in the low season in the francophone countries, you won’t see many French
The rock Agama is just as present as the humans. The only place I didn't see one was in the extreme Sahara, otherwise they're everywhere, doing some peculiar push-ups and then dart off. Ghana.
either. Especially in Guinea
where I think there is no such thing as a “high tourist season” anyway.
I remember leaving the Indian subcontinent (I visited India, Nepal and Pakistan) after eight months of travelling thinking: They lack all common sense!
And I’ve heard many people say the same thing about the people living in West Africa.
It’s not true.
It’s not that they lack common sense, it’s just that their form of common sense is so totally different to say, the north European interpretation of what’s common sense.
Same thing with the concept of time. It’s just as totally different to mine as it can be. In Europe our concept of time is dictated by efficiency and methods of being so, like fixed timetables.
In West Africa these things hardly exist. Many people don’t know when they’re born. Their mother’s might remember if it was before or after the harvest, but have no clue at what year. With seven children it’s hard to keep track on such things, especially since it doesn’t matter to them at all.
Take a look in a West African passport and it will most probably say: born on
Book swap anyone?
It's very hard to find anyone to swap books with, either it is in French or it is Christian litterature. So we ended up carrying an ever growing library. Knowledge is heavy.
the first of January, then the numbers of a possible year.
If I could ever live here?
I’m too conditioned by a European society, too damaged by efficiency, too rational and too square to live in this region for the rest of my life.
But I would love to come back on a visit, to see more, do more and meet more friendly people. And a place at some west African beach, to hide away from the north European winter. -Yeas please!
Boat trips in the Archipelago Bijagos, Guinea-Bissau. Desert trekking in the Air massif, Niger.
Staying in Touba the holy city, Senegal. Trekking in the Fouta Djalon, Guinea.
Trekking along the coastline, Ghana. Nigerian hospitality.
Bureh beach on the Freetown peninsula, Sierra Leone. Relaxing in Limbé, Cameroon.
Here's a list of our favourite countries in the region.
It's very subjective and takes into account our personal experience with the population, the nature, the society, the infrastructure and lodging. (Following; the number of nights spent in that specific country.)
1 Nigeria_______________19 With open arms 2 Guinea_____________20 Highlands and lowlifes
The mandatory shot
The West African toilets will win no beauty contests. This one at a military check post in eastern Nigeria was a relief for the photographer to find. For some reason.
3 Anglophone Cameroon.__9 Two wet worlds 4 Ghana._____________43 Butterflies and beautiful smiles And then it changed
5 Sierra Leone.__________10 In Search of King Solomon's Mines 6 Togo.______________12 Who do Voodoo?
7 Guinea-Bissau._________13 Bissau bustle and blues 8 Burkina Faso.________21 Other than that
9 Senegal.______________17 Funky Fundamentalism 10 The Gambia_________12 Pidgin pals
11 Niger________________19 Days in the desert 12 Francophone Cameroun.11 Two wet worlds
13 Mali._________________15 Sahara hot nights 14 Benin.______________8 Who do Voodoo?
15 Mauretania.___________10 Public displays of nonaffection
and Cote d'Ivoire
were not visited on this trip.)
Our favourite capitals (followed by the number of nights spent), ranging from excellent big cities to the African interpretation of "hell on earth":
1 Accra_________11 2 Yaondé._____4
3 Lomé_________8 4 Bissau______7
5 Freetown._____7 6 Dakar.______3
7 Abuja.________1 8 Banjul______0
9 Bamako_______5 10 Conakry____5
11 Porto Novo.___2 12 Ouagadougou8
13 Niamey.______7 14 Noukchott__3
To give you a rough idea of how much it cost to travel in West Africa. Here's how we've chosen to distribute our nights: 32 Nights
spent with family and friends. 4 Nights
spent on different means of transportation. (Boat, train, mini-van and bus.) 6 Nights
spent on the street. (When we've arrived in the middle of the night and haven’t been bothered with searching for a guesthouse.) 22 Nights
spent for less than 5$ (Mostly in Guinea
thanks to the present inflation,
The gare routiere is (along with the marché) the centre of turbulence. It's always hectic, colourful, loud, hustle and bustle but also very charmy.If one travelles in the region without ones own transport, innumerable hours will be spent waiting, eating and making new friends in the Gare Routiere. This is some people chatting in northern Benin.
but also some cheapies in Ghana
.) 68 Nights
from 5$ to 7,5$. 82 Nights
from 7,5$ to 10$. 23 Nights
from 10$ to 17$. (Of which the lion's share have been spent in Senegal
.) 1 Night
for 25$ (Our only room with air-con and TV. It's impossible to find anything cheaper in Abuja, Nigeria's
That's 238 days in total, or 34 weeks, or 8months, or 2/3 of a year.
Among the accommodation that we've paid for, there have been a couple of places with extremely good value for money. If you're visiting the region it's well worth to remember these places. Keep in mind that there is no fixed price for accommodation in Africa. Most of the following places have had a small (or big) change to the initial price quoted by the hotel staff.
Location, Cleanliness, Friendliness, Size, Atmosphere, View and Accessories (like fan, hot water, towels, mosquito-net, breakfast, attached toilet, access to swimming pool aso.), all gets balanced against the price, and then we estimate the value for money.
1 Fort Gross Friedrishburg, Prince's town. Ghana. 5, 5$
2 Auberge Seidy II, Dalaba. Guinea. 4, 5$
3 Hand in hand guesthouse,
Except for the huge and famous (like; the Niger, the Senegal, the Gambia, the Black Volta, the White Volta and the Benue)there are a lot of smaller ones, forcing you to take small canoes, walk rickety bridges or as here, cross on an old car ferry.
Nkoranza. Ghana. 8, 8$
4 Hotel le Galeon, Lomé. Togo. 7, 4$
5 Centre d'Acceuil Diocesan, Kankan. Guinea. 4, 5$
6 Chez Titi, Ila Bubaque. Guinea-Bissau. 7, 4$
7 Auberge de Kribi, Kribi. Cameroon. 6, 5$
The typical West African (shoestring) hotel does not give you good value for money. They're dirty, have bad service, no running water and sporadic electricity. Then there's also a few places taking the word "dungeon" to new heights.
Offering a rotting mattress on a dirty floor in a cramped room with a broken door, a squalid shower/latrine, no water, no electricity, unfriendly staff and a bad location in a dangerous neighbourhood. And this they have the courage to charge money for. We only stay in these places when there's no other option in town. Starting with the worst:
1 Hotel Moustage, Niamey. Niger. 13, 9$/9, 3$
2 Foundation Charles du Four, Ouagadougou. Burkina Faso. 9, 3$
3 Mohammed's house (guide), Iferouane. Niger. 7, 4$
4 Hotel Chinguetti, Nouadhibou. Mauritania. 12, 6$
5 Hotel de Achive, Calabar. Nigeria. 5, 9$
6 Auberge Bafana Bafana, Kpalimé. Togo. 6, 5$
7Auberge Papillon, Mount Kloto. Togo. 5, 6$
For which country:__Bought where:____________Price:
Since many people walk around with their goods, one often don't have to move when one needs something, just sit and wait and drinks and food will appear before you. Especially on long bush-taxi or bus journeys it's very handy that people gather like a mob around your transport, screaming out whatever they're selling. Cameroon.
Mauritania_______Casablanca__________________22$ (1 month)
The Gambia______Land border_________________Free
Guinea-Bissau____Serrekunda/Ziganchor_________9$ / 20$ (1 month)
Guinea__________Serrekunda.._________________40$(single) 70$(double) 100$(multiple)
Sierra Leone._____Banjul.._____________________100$ (1 month)
Mali..___________Conakry/Dakar.______________4$ / 15$ (1 month)
Ghana.__________Conakry____________________20$ (1 month)
Burkina Faso_____Bamako/Land border__________58$ / 20$ (2 months)
V.T.E..__________Accra/Ouaggadougou/Niamey.__50$ / 50$ / 50$ (2 months)
(visa touristique entente) for: Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Togo, Benin and Niger.
Nigeria__________Niamey/Lomé/Accra/Cotonou__30$ / 35$ / 60$ / 70$ (1 month)
Cameroon._______Calabar/Lagos/N’Djamena_____102$ / 100$ / 70$ (1 month)
Gabon__________Yaoundé____________________70$ (1 month)
Equatorial Guinea_Yaoundé____________________74$ (1 month)
Congo.__________Yaoundé/Libreville___________100$(1 month) / 40$(7 d)100$(15 d)
Congo (Zaire).____Yaoundé/Conakry____________90$ / 40$ (1 month)
Angola__________Point Noire/Brazzaville________100$ / 100$ (5 d) (difficult)
There are more photos below