Ghana Togo Benin & Niger - jungle to desert

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Africa » Niger
December 10th 2010
Published: December 21st 2010
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Rainy SeasonRainy SeasonRainy Season

Rain in the jungle, luckily this little half built shack appeared out of nowhere to keep me dry

“Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.”
-Joseph Campbell

Ghana Ghana Ghana! Home to the Black Stars, Kofi Anan, Kwame Nkrumah, the golden Ashanti Empire, beautiful tropical beaches in the south and elephant-filled high plains in the north. From the horrors of colonization and slavery that played out on Ghana’s gold coast to its role as an African leader of freedom - becoming the first sub-Saharan country to gain independence and more recently moving to the top of the continent’s economic growth charts, Ghana is a country that even the least educated westerners have heard of. Personally, getting to Ghana was an especially welcome change because the language was finally English again – the pocket French dictionary could take a vacation. People here also seemed to be more interested in North America – U.S. and Canada – than anywhere in Europe, including former colonizers Britain.

Arrived in Ghana along the coconut-palm laden highway that connects Abidjan to Accra, stopping to sample the mounds of fresh coconuts on the side of the road as we went. The rainy season was supposedly over,
Gold miningGold miningGold mining

Just another clearing in the middle of the jungle so western companies can take away Africa's gold
but the odd downpour was expected, and as the kind driver who offered a lift from the border dropped me off at the Takoradi-Kumasi junction, I caught the start of an impromptu bath as the rain began pouring down. Luckily while trying to hide under the oil palms in a roadside plantation I spotted an abandoned half-built hut and hurried in to relax and take a nap out of the rain.

My goal in heading north was Kumasi, modern capital of the Ashanti province, former capital of the Ashanti Kingdom, and therefore packed with all the historical relevance one could ask for in a city. To get there, my love for the jungle and tiny dirt roads had me taking a roundabout way, passing through the country’s western horizons near the Ivorian border. At first all was well – there is never too much trouble getting to the start of rough, little used roads – it is getting passed them that takes time. Unfortunately my map was outdated and the speed of mining in the jungle is such that new roads are built quickly, so I took a few costly wrong turns before finally getting onto the right path.
Colonial memoriesColonial memoriesColonial memories

Slave trading fortress in Cape Coast, Ghana
The wrong turns were “costly” because the miles covered in the mistaken direction and back to the right track had all been on foot – there hadn’t been a single vehicle that passed. However luck came back, and just as I was in view of the right road I saw the smoke of a big 18-wheeler petrol truck in the distance. I ran and got in front of him just in time to flag down a ride. Turns out Kweku was heading to a prospects site for a new gold mine, and I got yet another first hand experience of the resources industry in Africa. He told me a little about gold mining in Ghana, run by South Africans for the most part with Canadians and Americans each taking significant slices; his company’s practice towards environmentally friendly procedure and compensating locals seemed decent according to Kweku. This mine would be underground as opposed to open pit, meaning the beautiful lush jungle surrounding it wouldn’t need to be destroyed; and from pre-colonial times to the present day gold mining has been hugely important to Ghanaian economy and development. Nevertheless, the sight of the prospecting camp – a completely barren stamp in

Pirogues lining the beach in Cape Coast
the middle of that thick greenery – could be a made into an environmental degradation poster.

Leaving the camp Kweku offered a ride to Kumasi, and we were happily en route until a few hours into the ride I started feeling the curious full-body weakness that comes along with malaria. Kweku also saw the warning signs and offered to let me stay at his family home nearby, which I was relieved to accept. Sure enough, by morning the fever had started – not as acutely as the first time in Burkina Faso, but it was there – and it was all I could do to say goodbye to Kweku and hitch a lift the last 250kms to Cape Coast, the ocean-side town where I had Couchsurfing lined up with a teacher and his family.

After a few days recovery I was back on my feet, and gave myself an informative tour of the old town, wandering the busy markets, staring at the waves on the sea while watching the fishermen head out in their pirogues, and witnessing more slave trading and colonial history at the Cape Coast Castle: again, inhumane, clausterphobic, discusting are words that come to mind as one wanders the pitch black underground pits where slaves awaited their horrible fate. Today these places stand as relics to that appalling period of human history; we cannot dwell, but we must remember so we never repeat.

After Cape Coast it was back on the beachside road eastbound, headed to big city Accra. Spent a night Couchsurfing in a neighborhood nicknamed ‘the Brooklyn of Accra’, where my host Kojo took me around to see the “nightlife” of the area. The overpowering fumes of burning rubber took some getting used to, but we had a good time meeting his friends and crowding around small televisions outside of small shops selling two-ounce bags of cooking oil and spices for the ever popular groundnut stews and egusi soups. In this part of town, the shops are all many of the inhabitants have, and at night time they become the family bedroom. Unfortunately many of them are squatters - many don’t own the shops they call home, thus the government has not provided adequate infanstructure such as running water and sewage, so conditions are rough. Nonetheless, Kojo showed me a good time and the people were all warm and welcoming, as
Slave RoomSlave RoomSlave Room

This dank, dark hole in the ground was once packed with African slaves. Now there's a memorial and it serves to remind us of this horrors of history...
has held true everywhere in Africa so far, so the night was a good one.

The next day I moved to the city outskirts where my Couchsurfing friends provided the fun experiences of visiting the national prison, village schools, and the rather surprising Krishna Consciousness Movement of West Africa. It was like taking a little hop over to India, complete with smiling Buddha’s, a modest temple, and saris and dhotis for all.
My last task in Accra was to get a hold of a Nigerian visa, so I moved back into the city - this time downtown to Couchsurf with Edrin, an Albanian working in the banking industry who offered yet another perspective of life in Accra (and an even more absorbing perspective of life growing up in Albania). Monday morning my Nigerian visa was waiting for me and I was ready to call myself Togo-bound.

One surprising conversation worth mentioning was with a man with whom I hitched a ride with off the University of Ghana campus. First off, he was surprised to see someone, “especially a white woman”, hitching a lift in the city (it was while walking along beside a parking-lot style traffic jam where

Random kids on the beach playing with a balloon sent from Canada!
many cars had seats free, so why not?). More surprising was his completely off-topic comment five minutes into our conversation about Ghanaian politics and education: “you know, this is the first time I have ever talked to a white person.” He said he had worked for an Australian once, but they had had a strictly professional relationship. So there we were, in Accra – probably one of the West African cities with the highest concentration of white people, coming from a big university filled with foreign students, and this was the first time in this man’s fifty-some years that he had ever had even a five minute casual conversation with a white person. And he is not alone; I have received similar comments from students, police officers, pastors, and other people who one would expect to have had at least some degree of interracial contact in their lives. Just goes to show we have still got a long way to go before breaking down racial barriers, at home and abroad.

Second fun story: preaching for cell phones. At the moment, I am writing this blog while ‘camping’ in the motorcycle shed of a remote police checkpoint in the southern

desert of Niger. Needless to say, I am not at a computer – I am typing this on a Blackberry. But why do I have such a fancy toy when I have always kept to a tight budget and refused cell phones and other electronics for traveling? Story starts with a pastor who sat behind me on a tratra (local minibus) in Accra (traveling between towns I exclusively hitchhike or walk, but within major cities I concede to public transit). The pastor and his wife sat down and we started a casual conversation, after which he asked me for my phone number, which I refused on the grounds that I did not have a phone. He began insisting that I should pray for a phone and that if I “turn to Jesus” I would have one within two weeks. I was entertained by this, and even more so when he turned to the entire bus and began preaching a sermon on the ability of Jesus to give you whatever you want, which got him many enthusiastic Amens and Hallelujahs from the packed bus. Eventually he got off and I thought nothing more of it until a week later while hitching

another one for Rob's collection
out of Accra I got picked up by a bright yellow souped-up jeep (a rare sight here) whose driver not only took me to dinner, but also very insistently presented me with his slightly aged, but fully functional Blackberry. So here I am with my new toy, and thank-you Jesus, or at least the laws of irony.

After Ghana, an almost expired visa entente has had me moving quickly eastward. Passed a fun two days crossing mountains and six geographical zones while heading north in Togo, and then looked at the map and realized I would miss voodoo, history, and great beaches if I didn’t get south. So got into Benin and hitched back down across the six zones to Ouidah, the vodun capital with its deserted, clean beaches, and former high capacity slave trading hub. Played the official “Lonely Planet tourist” for a day by visiting sacred pythons, “window”-shopping for monkey testicles and dried-out dog heads in the voodoo market, and then went back north for two days walking around Abomey, the former center of the infamous Dahomey kingdom. Would have stayed longer, but with a nearly expired visa it was time to hit the road to Niger.

All the kids in the little Togolese village say thanks to Mom and Grandpa for sending the balloons

Niger is “arguably the poorest country in the world,” and it shows, in some ways. Evidence is here in the tiny villages with dilapidated huts, no electricity, no water pumps, few educated people, and schools composed of a single structure with a straw roof and no walls. But nevertheless the people are proud of their country and have positive outlooks and many good things to say. One day, after foreigners stop getting kidnapped, a camel trek from Agadez through the Air Mountains will definitely be in order.

In the meantime, today I saw about thirty 4x4s and trucks filled with Saudi Arabians drive past and have been told they are going to a place called Diffa, where they will set up a giant luxury camp in the desert for an annual expedition hunting ostriches using falcons. Sooooo….I’m heading to Diffa!


Follow up: en route to Diffa, kept investigating and found out it was a Saudi prince and all his royal money who drove past in the fancy caravan. The prince annually pays off the Nigerien government for the right to hunt in a protected wildlife reserve, and so for a month each
On the roadOn the roadOn the road

this backpack was my mom's and has now travelled with me across four continents, and its still hanging on
year he hauls everything from water and fuel to an air-conditioned house into the middle of the desert and has his fun. Unfortunately for me, the ‘middle of the desert’ means a long way from any hitchable roads, so using birds of prey to hunt will just have to wait until Mongolia.

Until then, time to take on Nigeria.

Additional photos below
Photos: 22, Displayed: 22


Python TemplePython Temple
Python Temple

The Dahomey worship pythons as God, or at least the animal closest to God. So this is a python sanctuary. The pythons are free to leave and the city people bring them back when they find them. Its the only place in Africa where Ive seen people NOT generally terrified of snakes.

yes, I was right at home

many African tribes practice some sort of scarification of the face. The Dahomey people do theirs to match the face of the snake. If you look closely you will see the three breathing holes (?) on the side of the mouth of the snake which match the photo's.
Last walk of the slavesLast walk of the slaves
Last walk of the slaves

Memorial to the slave trading port in Benin
Breaking in the desertBreaking in the desert
Breaking in the desert

After many, many hours of driving
Taking a break pt IITaking a break pt II
Taking a break pt II

Niger is vast, and beautifully peaceful
packing, African stylepacking, African style
packing, African style

Reminds me of how we packed our mules in the Rockies, except these are vans that drive like maniacs at 140 kmh.

24th December 2010
Python Temple

Cali's distant relatives :o)
24th December 2010

Girlfriend, you are tanned!!!!! (at least this time, not from carrots :-)
24th December 2010

I can't tell you how many times I have told your blackberry story now :o) Loving the pics, as usual. I didn't know the kids there love balloons....I guess what kid doesn't! So cute... Merry Christmas Chica...miss you xoxo
27th December 2010
Python Temple

Awesome picture
That's so cool Alyssa what an amazing place! Merry Christmas and hopefully we talk soon! Love you be safe!

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