Living Life Out Loud in West Africa
Benin | Niger | Burkina Faso | Cote D’Ivoire | Liberia |
Being back in West Africa was like coming home – the intoxicating mixture of color, music, dance, song, masses of people, heaving markets, finger clicking handshakes, endless negotiations, squished taxis, loud arguments, louder laughter. I gave myself an easy re-entry point, heading back to the wonderful Sandele in The Gambia to visit my friends Geri and Maurice and their staff. Aside from seeing friends, it was also a chance to relax on the deserted beach, joined only by the cows, before hitting the road in Benin.
Benin, a small thin country nestled next to Nigeria, is the home of voodoo and fetish stalls with all manner of voodoo accoutrements are in every market – snake heads, bat wings, monkey testicles…you name it. While in Ouidah, the capital of voodoo, I was stopped from walking down various streets because of ceremonies taking place there and later, on the shores of Lac Aheme, a walking tour revealed voodoo sites everywhere – often unnoticeable to my naive eye. With a strong slave history, floating villages, colorful men’s outfits, lovely beaches, colonial towns, castle-like houses in the north and ancient kingdoms, Benin proved to have a lot to offer a tourist.
It also proved to have some of the best food in West Africa – every meal, no matter how dingy the street stall I had purchased from, was perfectly spiced. But the real highlight was “fromage de soja” – soy cheese or tofu. This was everywhere and music to the taste buds of a vegetarian traveler. I have my friend Francis to thank for introducing me to this delight. Francis, a fellow HBS grad and writer, is on a four-year journey through The Unseen Africa (check out the link) visiting every country and climbing its highest peaks. I joined him in northern Benin for what became, courtesy of his ailing jeep, a tour of the road less traveled – Bohicon, Dassa, Djougou, Ajolde.
The frequent car breakdowns and Francis’s natural exuberant style (and fluent French) led to multiple local interactions, not just with the mechanics (of whom there were many), but with many others who invited us to stay with them in their huts and houses and extended invitations to events such as funerals (basically a big and expensive party). Francis is filming for an upcoming (hopefully) television series so I played camera woman, had my first couchsurfing experience and became door opener for the many hitchhikers we picked up who didn’t know how to get in a car. We also tried (but failed) to solve two great mysteries of Africa. In a mostly polygamous society, where are the single men? And why are the women so fat but not the men? Francis – it was wonderful traveling with you. Hope you know the answers when next we meet!
After saying farewell to Francis and his car (at yet another mechanics) I headed to Niger (home to the highest birth rate in the world – 7.5!) on the final day of the national wresting championships. This is the national sport and, while hard for an outsider to appreciate, my dinner date (a French ex special forces guy turned corporate security) initiated me a little (it’s kind of like Sumo). He was dubious about my heading into Niger all alone but I was greeted warmly everywhere I went. Although people did an obvious double take when I said I was a tourist. They don’t get many of them here!
After a quick stop in the capital of Niamey, I headed for the city of Zinder, where a tour of the Sultan’s palace was a highlight. As I entered, the Council of Elders were hearing grievances from the local townsfolk and the brightly colored guards lounged outside. Inside, the six luxury vehicles seemed a little incongruous – Rolls Royce, Bently, Jaguar – and, of course, the white stretch limo. Also interesting was a tour of the beautifully decorated Hausa homes and a bustling camel and animal market.
But nothing could beat my arrival in Agadez, one of the ancient salt caravan cities on the edge of the desert.
Arriving early afternoon on a Friday, my way was almost completely blocked by thousands upon thousands of men at prayer around the traditional mud mosque. It was a sight I will never forget. Agadez remains special for other reasons as well. My hotel manager – the energetic young Ibrahim – took it upon himself to ensure I had the best time ever – rustling up special desert picnics (complete with traditional Tuareg food cooked in the sand, sheesha and the not so traditional beer and even more…), visits to his family and a tour of the nightlife with his friends.
On the latter we were joined by Shakina, a fellow hotel guest from Burkina Faso who had a very distinctive (aka revealing) way of dressing. Let’s just say that when I walked down the street with her, no-one was looking at the white girl for once. Ibrahim later confirmed she was there on “sexual business”. I also came across a traditional wedding in the courtyard of the Sultan’s palace and spent many happy hours wandering and chatting to the townsfolk who were thrilled to see a tourist again. Agadez lies on the edge of some of the most beautiful desert scenery in Africa and was previously (prior to the Tuareg rebellion) a tourist mecca. It’s still difficult to visit the desert but I hope to return one day and do so.
Leaving Niger, it was time to head to Burkina Faso and the wonderfully named capital of Ougadougou. Here I met a Malian Tuareg who happened to know Ibrahim’s family and he took me to visit his own family at the UN Refugee Camp outside of Ouga. I then headed to the charming town of Bobo Dialosso, where I was hosted by Thomas, a Burkinabe I had met in Niger who showed me the sights (another interesting traditional mosque being the highlight) and treated me to a very relaxing afternoon picnic at the local riverside. Not to mention a late night dancing extravaganza with far too much pastis. In fact Burkina is all music and art and culture – it also hosts Africa’s most famous film festival – and I wish I’d had the time to explore more of it.
Tired of 16 hour bus rides, I jumped at the chance of taking the train to Cote D’Ivoire and the location of one of Africa’s more bizarre sights – Yamoussoukro (Yakro). The birthplace of Independence President Felix Houphouet-Boigny (who led for 33 years), this village was transformed into the capital with six-lane highways throughout, man-made lakes, bright streetlights and an impressive building campaign. But no-one moved here and the government, embassies and businesses remain in Abidjan, leaving Yakro a gleaming ghost city. Even more bewildering is the jewel in the crown – the Basilica. In a country where only 1/3 of the people are Christians and most are poor, the President spent $300M creating a replica of St Peter’s at the Vatican. Absolutely enormous (holding 18,000+ inside, including standing room and almost 200,000 outside), and stunningly beautiful with European marble, Italian treated wood, 24 20m high gorgeous stained glass windows and a 7m dove on a cupola ceiling 120m high, it is a sight to behold. And, again, there is nobody there! Having this enormous, beautiful building all to myself is almost impossible to describe but definitely one of the more surreal experiences of my travels.
Head still reeling, I headed west to Cote D’Ivoire’s balmy tropical beaches – now deserted by the tourists who holidayed here before the civil war – and found myself the only white person (indeed the only visitor in general) – on palm-treed beach after palm-treed beach complete with fresh fish, lobsters, crabs and coconuts. You get the idea. It was hard to leave. But I was determined to take a quick side trip across the border to visit the historical town of Harper in Liberia.
With some time to kill at the riverside border village (waiting for the pirogue to take me across the water), I found myself adopted by Germaine, operator of the bar/restaurant next to immigration. Joined by the immigration police we downed beer after beer in a pleasantly hazy afternoon and they invited me to stay on my way back. Crossing the border, I was offered a lift by a businessman from Abidjan. Olivier, CFO of a rubber plantation close to Harper, was horrified to learn that I was planning on heading to Harper by myself and immediately arranged accommodation at the rubber plantation, a great dinner with himself and his colleagues, transport back to the border and a guided tour of Harper. It was a lovely respite from the rigors of travel with great companions and Harper is one of the more interesting towns I have visited – beautifully situated on a lovely beach/lagoon, it is full of beautiful but war-devastated buildings and crawling with UN personnel. It was also a shock to suddenly converse in English again (all the other countries are French speaking) due to Liberia being settled by free slaves from the US.
Back in Cote D’Ivoire, I was welcomed back to Germaine’s with the traditional and honored welcome of kola nuts taken with salt and hot peppers, shared with Germaine, her uncle Daniel and the immigration officers. That day and the next passed in a blur of swimming, beer, dance, cultural chats and gift exchange. Finally though I had to keep moving and ended my time in Cote D’Ivoire readjusting to modern life (running water – most of my time had been spent using bucket showers, flushing toilets, internet, wine!) in the modern and cosmopolitan city of Abidjan.
After a quick visit back to Kenya, I am now back in Europe for the next month and looking forward to enjoying the spring here. I’m very sad to be finished with my West African travels but know that this is a region that will always be close to my heart and I will return in the future.
Click on any image to launch a slideshow of the pictures….
Unfortunately all my photos of Harper, Liberia and the Cote D’Ivoire/Liberia border were lost.