“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” – Neale Donald Walsch
Africa is hot. The sheer temperature of this place keeps me in constant sweats. Between the hours of 9am to 5pm the heat is almost unbearable. Trying to think let alone operate in this type of heat and humidity is simply not possible. The best hours in Africa therefore are dawn or dusk, this is when the people come out, this is when the suns rays are lowest and it actually lets you live. In days gone by travellers to this area of the world would have taken months to get here. Slowly acclimitising as the ship or horse carriage came closer and closer. A European traveler would cross France, into Spain and the heat of the southern region all via horse and finally onto ship. This could take months. However today in a matter of hours the modern traveller is flown from a temperate or snow covered landscape and thrown violently into blazing tropics (for me it was -2 in Hamburg before flying into Morrocco). No easing into it, no steady as she goes; just boom. With this type of jolt the unfortunate automatic response for
a westerner is to sweat and sweat some more. As if I didn’t stick out enough already. Alright onto the journey. Ivory Coast
To avoid 7 days of tough overland travel from Liberia to Ivory Coast I opt to take my first internal African flight of the trip. After having spent two months roughing it the shock of getting into a pristine plane where everything works messes with my head (what we get our own seats?!). It triggers my first bout of homesickness as this is the standard orderly fully functioning type of world I was brought up in. Normally with traveling Africa I am just busy surviving and trying to keep my head up out of the water, this in part distracts you from thoughts of home. Here stability and certainty run supreme; yes how one misses home. Anyway I snap myself out of it as I’m here for the chaos.
Ivory Coast is a former French colony and one of the biggest economies in West Africa. Flying into the capital Abidjan at night one could be fooled into thinking that it was a city in europe. It has skyscrapers, yes skyscrapers, in West Africa; bizarre.
They have street lights, proper roads and cars are following the traffic lights; now this is amazing. It has been dubbed the Paris of Africa so it will interesting to see if it lives up to the mantle. I check into my Airbnb with an expat Simon from Finland and we get talking about the local history. Ivory Coast (or Côte d’Ivoire) became independent in the 60s and due to its rich soils was extremely prosperous until the 90s. During this time they were run under the dictatorship of Felix Houphouët-Boigny and opposition parties where outlawed. Floods of migrants from Burkina Faso and Mali saturated the north of the country for work. These migrations although helping to catapult the country to financial glory also sowed the seeds for the first of two civil wars between tribes of the north and those of the south. Once Felix died in 93 this triggered a power struggle and the tribes started hostilities. Again like other parts of Africa, the tribe one belongs to is more important than that of nationhood and fighting for a chance to rule lives on. In this case however religion also played a part, in the north they were
Muslims where in the south it was Christian. By the early 2000s with half a million people displaced a ceasefire was drawn up and broken and the 2nd civil war started running right to 2011. This has left a large scar on the financial state of the country one that it is struggling to get back up to level terms with from its glory days. Things appear to be looking up however as Simon told me: “don’t look too closely as there are cracks in the facade”.
Abidjan is truly an international city and one cannot help but notice the abundance of expats here. Expat life for me has always been something I have thought about. It seems the idea is so exotic and exciting however im not sure the reality matches up with that. What strikes me about expat communities is the physical separation that is sometimes enacted. A great many of expats I have met create a “golden cell” lifestyle. It is a lifestyle where they live in separate fancy suburbs from the locals. They have villas with all the modern appliances of western life, air conditioning and fancy cars. In fact it seems the closest many
expats get to real real locals are the maids, drivers and 24hr guards they have at their places. Not quite sure this is for me or what is thought of when talking about “expat” life. Maybe it was my naivety that thought expat life would be more about immersing oneself in another’s culture. This is not really possible I suppose, it’s ok to do it for a few months while traveling but try being a real local in Africa for a few years; ok maybe they are right, that’s tough. In Abidjan due to the cost and language barriers I don’t stay long, just long enough to fully recharge my batteries in the villa. I also get to head to a real mall with Simon and go to a proper coffee shop... ok moving into a golden cell every so often is not so bad! Ghana
I am excited about Ghana. It is described as Africa for beginners. It is safe, people speak English and the infrastructure/transport and tourist hotspots are all of high standard. Ghana is the most politically stable country within west Africa and that has led to economic wealth. It also unsurprisingly turns out to
be one of the few countries that has somewhat successfully navigated towards creating a nation rather than a collection of tribes. For these reasons alone Ghana is worth the visit but as I came to understand the history of its slave really put the context of Africa into perspective for me. But first, time for a break. ”I need a timeout. Send me to the beach and don't let me come back until I change my attitude.” - anon
After crossing the border into Ghana I head an hour up the coast via a dirt road to the stunning beach of Butre. I check into my hotel, the green Zion garden and am greeted by the explosive energy of the host: Ellis the Ghanaian Rasta. It is a beautiful, secluded spot where he has created a garden oasis. As I am the lone guest he makes a special vegetarian curry and we chow down and talk (ok he doesn’t talk, he smokes some green tobacco while I eat). Ellis is special in that he is a local that has travelled abroad and is a definitely wiser for it. Many of his countryman have not and as a
result the number one question I get asked in my travels is: can I take them back overseas. Actually I lie, the number one is: can you send me to an American university. No starting with something small like: can I have a dollar; straight to sending them to university! Ellis talks about the limited levels of appreciation locals have for their own country here. They have one of the most stable countries in West Africa, productive economy and to top it off it is beautiful and easy going. From his point of view their is a lot of gazing at the grass on the other side (literally in the world of Ellis!) whilst ignoring what is in front of them. I really feel this as I travel around these places, I sometimes wish I could transplant them to a western culture and see how they react going from somewhat carefree to bills, stress and always on the go. Ellis has lived in England and quickly made the decision to return to seek a more fulfilling life back home. His words strangely become more familiar as I meet a guest on the 2nd night; German Ghanaian whom was quitting Germany
to come back and start a business here. When expats are choosing to return home it is a pretty good indicator that your country is in pretty good shape.
After a few days in paradise I head to Cape Coast to get a reality check. Cape Coast is the former ground zero for African slave trade and it’s focal point is the English castle that overlooks the bay. The stats on the slave trade of Africa are simply mind boggling. Between 1525 and 1856 12million Africans were captured and forcefully taken from their homelands. Many of whom died on the trek from the interior to the port and then many more on their passage to the Americas. What I think is quite startling about this and didn’t register to me was that the rounding up and capture was done via mostly other Africans. Due to the hostile heat, terrain and diseases such as Malaria, the colonial powers normally stuck to the coast in their fortresses. The grand action of enslaving was done by African kings and kingdoms. This was part one of what was essentially a three phase system. Africans supply the slaves which head to the America’s. Here
they use the labour to create raw goods such as cotten and cocoa and spice which goes to Europe. In Europe they take the raw materials, make and then sell the products and using proceeds send items back to the king’s of Africa (such as guns) as payment for more slaves. Then the cycle starts again. It was an incredibly successful triangle whose ghost still lingers on today.
Cape Coast castle was one of the pivotal slave ports in West Africa. On the west coast there are 60 former colonial fortresses, 40 of those are in Ghana where they dealt with the lion share of the trade. Cape coast castle is gigantic and is a chilling reminder about the cruelty of an unchecked human spirit. Hundreds of thousands of slaves passed through the castle and it’s “door of no return” on their way to bondage. I get taken down into the dungeon where 1500 people would cram into an area smaller than an average NZ house. Dark, damp, no ventilation and most importantly no sanitation. For 2 weeks at a time the slaves would literally live in their own faeces and thousands died before they could even see a
ship. You actually walk on several inches of old solidified excrement as you move through the halls. What is somewhat amusing/depressing about this is that directly above the slave chambers was the castle chapel. The pastor and his flock were literally praying for salvation whilst the cruelty of slavery was happening around and in this case under them. To finish the tour you are led to the governors chambers on top of the castle with floor to ceiling views and tastefully decorated, a real juxtaposition but symbol of this time period. “Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.” – Anita Desai
For me a trip on this coast was a somber insight into a period of history where the soul of Africa was stripped ruthlessly from its home. It was not just the physical damage of taking a continents best and prime workers, it was also the psychological torment. The mindset that your life and the lives of your kinsman are worth nothing. This psychological scar is still is there, still evident. For example no matter where I go I feel the locals have a master - subordinate relationship with white people even with someone like
me, they are inferior. It takes me back to my time in Senegal and the locals trying to not be Sengelese but tying to be French. All this starts to make sense as the enslaved still has a lower level mind set that they desperately want to break free from. This is similar to those based off a caste system whom want out. The day they are born they are labeled and trapped to a certain type of fate, this is not ideal.
With the scenes of coast behind me I head to the bustling capital Accra. I check into my Airbnb with a couple of expats whom work for the UN. Due to the stability of the country Ghana is a top choice for aid workers and NGOs. I spend my time getting visas and have tremendous luck. First Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo all done within a couple of days. Then I attempt one of the hardest ones around: Niger. This one takes 6 days on the express option, long time but it’s necessary. To make use of the time I head to the Ghana highlands and West Africa’s highest waterfalls. To get there was an epic 6
hour bus trip. En route our buses brakes explode (right on my side) and after a bit of chaos the driver gets it under control. He then slowly heads to a automotive stall on the side of the road, yells at them and within 15seconds he has the spare parts. We then coast to a mechanics shop and they run out to deal with the breakage on the side of the road. 30mins later the brakes are replaced and we are moving again! Now one might say that if they maintained their vehicle this wouldn’t happen but when you can get things done that fast I can see why they have a “go hard till it breaks” mentality!
The Ghanaian highlands are stunning. When the Germans occupied this territory (pre World War One) they chose this region called the Volta as their vacation spot. It is noticeable cooler and the surrounding mountains and waterfalls awe inspiring. I spend the next few days walking the trails with my 14 year old guide and his two dogs. The hiking is superb up close to the clouds. We venture to the fabled waterfalls of Wli and after heavy rain they are absolutely
smashing down. I attempt to take a shower under its power, um no; can’t even get close to it. I stay with a Ghanaian couple whom through tourism they have personally prospered and seen their village also reap the benefits. What was most interesting about their story however was that out of their 4 children, the first 3 went to the states to study and now work there. However the youngest one has chosen to stay in Ghana to study because he believes the schooling levels are solid but more so the future job opportunities here are better. Now that’s an interesting thought.
After the 6 days of waiting are up I head back to Accra to the Niger embassy. $100 US dollars later I am the proud owner of one of the hardest Visas in Africa to get. Accra has been good to me, that’s 4 Visas in a week! With that it is time to say goodbye and make th crossing to Togo Togo
My plan is to set out early to cross the border. Here it is important to get on the road early, not just because of the heat it also because of
the traffic. Traffic in some of these cities is horrendous and getting out of them early can cut hours off travel times. So up at 4am it is and on the road quickly. I get some good luck and get a shared taxi going my way almost full. After a very easy border crossing I arrive into Lome and get myself setup at a nice beachside hotel run by a French lady. Back to Francophone countries means back to all things France which to me is good food!
Togo is a tiny sliver of a country. It is about 600kms in height but only 50kms in width. Formally it was called Togoland and a German colony prior to World War One. After the Germans lost the war the country was divided, some going to the British (Ghana) and some to this new country Togo which was to be run by the French. Again this boggles ones mind when it comes to the ability of former colonial powers to just split and decide whom gets what with these territories. The people of the land were never consulted or asked it’s as if they were inadequate to decide and needed “proper”
European views and help. No wonder an inferiority complex still lives on.
After my quick stay in Lome I need to make a dash to the border north at Burkina Faso 650kms away. Due to a flight I have booked in Niger I cannot spend as much time as I want here. If I did have the time in the north there are some nice traditional castle huts and also some remote wildlife parks. My rush to the border doesn’t get off to the best start when my taxi man puts me on the wrong bus. This bus takes me to Kara which is only half way. From here it is an epic multiple taxi, motorbike and hitchhiking journey to head north to Dapong. In all it took me 14hours to get there. At the time I was quite grumpy with the taxi man and his mistake as I told him three times however the journey turned out to be fun and challenging. Then when you think about it if I had just sat on a bus the whole way where would the fun be in that?! Yes ok granted, it was enjoyable after it was over!
reflecting on these last few countries I couldn’t get past the slave mentality that ripped through this region and it’s lingering effects. It had not occurred to me that something like this paired with colonialism could plague a country for to generations to come. These things helped build the world that we live in but the people here still live with its after effects. However it doesn’t always have to be that way. Times are changing, the economies are booming, they are politically stable and attitudes are moving slightly. With more expats returning and more students choosing to stay rather than leave hopefully this slight shift in attitude becomes a flood. Personally the journey here has been an eye opening look into what is possible by unchecked human behavior. It was a timely reminder for me about obligation to fight oppression and cruelty in whatever way you can. Now that’s a idea to push out ones comfort zone... one worth pursuing.
Thanks for reading. Next I head away from the coast, straight inland towards the Sahara and blindlingly hot countries of Burkina Faso and Niger.
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