Countdown to an African Alphabet

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February 15th 2009
Published: February 15th 2009
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Having spent the past three days with a bastard of a winter flu-style head cold I am now coming out the other side of a lethargic bed and sofa ridden weekend, and my head is finally clearing - time for a blog.
The African Alphabet draws ever closer and we find we are frequently turning to each other, gawping, saying, ‘My god, it’s only three weeks. We’ve got to do blah blah and blah…’
How can you really prepare for something like this - a six month journey to the world’s second-largest, most varied continent, trying to visit a place for each letter of the alphabet, and in order? We’ve done an alphabet trip before, the Asian Alphabet in 2004, and I don’t think we even realised we’d embarked on it until we found ourselves plonked down in the middle of chaotic Old Delhi, nervously necking bottles of Kingfisher beer in a dark, smoky bar and looking at a map of the continent, wondering how on earth we were going to track down all 26 letters. There was the advantage that much of Asia is well travelled and pretty safe, and that China, bless it, is loaded with all those elusive X’s and Q’s and Z’s. With Africa, it’s taking the concept to a whole new level. There are whole countries that we cannot even step foot in, for reasons either of security or visa complications. There’s the vast size of the place and the impossibility of being able to guess, in advance, where and how we will move through each country. In places where people are poor, their country war-torn, areas afflicted by disease, how will we justify our visit to ourselves? Alphabet travel can seem arbitrary from the outside, or like a mindless mission, only for fun; in reality it is hard work and it takes you to some of the world’s most iconic cities, but also to places you would otherwise never step foot in.
Seth has been busy completing his thesis, ‘War and Associative Duties,’ after four years of post-grad slogging at Oxford University. He’s been at conferences, workshops and seminars. He’s been running his own photography business and teaching. He is only now pausing for breath, after securing a job for next autumn and waiting to take his viva. As for me, I visited six countries last year and walked an 850 mile pilgrimage in Japan. Since returning in October I’ve been working part time and spending the rest of it writing up my pilgrimage into a manuscript with the hope of one day seeing it in print… and this all equates to us suddenly looking at the calendar and realising that we leave for Morocco in 25 days.
Of course, we’ve done the no-brainer stuff, such as renewing our passports and organising mass acupuncture in our upper arms, but how do you begin - really begin - to understand that you are about discover and experience Africa? Seth lived in Zimbabwe for a year, and travelled in Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Botswana, which is significant previous experience. Beyond a long weekend in Morocco, I am a total rookie, and am no doubt driving people mad with my endless questions about the continent. Early efforts to get our heads around the trip included a movie marathon of Hotel Rwanda, Blood Diamond and Tsotsi. Consider these alongside films like the Last King of Scotland, and Gorillas in the Mist, and you start to wonder if all cinema about Africa really has to be this depressing. It turns out, though, that there are only so many times you can watch the Prince of Egypt. (‘Deliver us!!!’)
We hired the whole of Michael Palin’s ‘Sahara’ and found that he seemed to be in a bad mood for the duration of the series; slightly disturbing since Palin is quite the lovable, hardcore, broad minded traveller, but let’s not forget how hot the Sahara is. Perhaps he just had a couple of off months. I read Gerald Durrell’s The Bafut Beagles, selectively ignoring any racist remarks (published 1954) and enjoying the evocative and amusing writings on his wildlife hunt in Cameroon, which has now made me want to drag Seth to the Fon’s palace in Bafut if and when we reach that incredible country. The next travelogue to meet my hands is less pleasing; a book about Morocco by an author who has a disarmingly creepy way of describing Moroccan women and who self-romanticises to the point of inducing nausea. I cower at the sight of this book, but what you start, you want to finish. How much can books really tell me, though?
So far, and most importantly, we have a couple of potential alphabet plans. I did accidentally select Jos as our J, only to discover that it’s currently one of the most dangerous cities in Nigeria and under curfew, (oops), highlighting for the first time the importance of up to date information, and how it often renders most of the research in even the most recent guidebooks irrelevant. Here’s an example:
If you look at the border between Nigeria and Cameroon, there seem to be three main crossing points - one in the north, one in the centre and one on the coast. If you then look online at recent safety updates, you discover that the whole of the north of Cameroon is regarded as unsafe to travel to, and that a recent kidnapping on the coastal ferry route has rendered that route as unadvised. Suddenly, three crossings miraculously change to one.
Visa wise, Nigeria is proving the most difficult, although we are receiving kind help with this. Whether or not we need permission to cross Western Sahara and where to obtain it from is still not clear. As far as security is concerned, Mauritania is currently the most questionable of the early countries, and it is starting to look as though Mali might be having a few troubles of its own.
On a lighter note, I am now going to ask Seth what he’s most looking forward to…
‘Freedom. Taking pictures. It’s got to be Gabon really, hasn’t it?’ (He sounds fairly unanimated at first.) ‘Hombori in Mali, 'cos it looks beautiful. Fish markets in Senegal, fetish markets in Benin. Markets generally, actually. ALL the markets! ALL the markets in West Africa! I want to go to EVERY SINGLE ONE, and spend too much time in them!’ Yeah, don’t marry a photographer, and if you do, carry a Gameboy in your pocket.


17th February 2009

Good luck!
Hooray, now that I've subscribed to your blog, I can't wait to hear about your African Alphabet Adventure. Let me know when you get the manuscript of the pilgrimage into action, that is something I want to check out someday for sure. Keep us all updated!

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