Good evening, all! I begin this post from atop a straw mattress in Kankan, Guinea, shortly after a hot bucket shower – an intense privilege in these parts – and a large plate of rice with fish sauce shared with Mory Konaté. I was riding aback Monsieur Konaté’s moto just before, as the fireball sun began to set, and you know what? – the sky looked BIGGER today. There probably isn’t a building taller than twenty feet, here in Kankan, Guinea, so maybe it was that, or maybe it was the white streaks of cloud, numerous but not too numerous, that just put it all into view. Maybe it was the fact that I was zooming, too, aback Monsieur Konaté’s moto as the sun began to set, zooming past the warmly glowing, slowly pixelating trees – mostly mango trees – at that moment when the orange of the sky and the green of the leaves really begin to blend, as well as dozens of African women beginning to prepare dinner, in those dresses of theirs. Man, you should see these dresses. There is SO much color here in Africa.
The tone of the past two posts was a bit different, I think – different because I was reading this book. The book I was reading was called Dark Star Safari, and in my partially egotistical opinion, it sucked. Dark Star Safari sucked because the protagonist, Paul Theroux, who details his travels from Cairo to Cape Town, is a terrifically pathetic loser: Paul compares himself, constantly, to the likes of Huckleberry Finn, as he eats ostrich carpaccio on “premier class” trains, takes private taxis, and stays in hotel after hotel – all the while shitting on everyone else who has ever traveled in Africa, dismissing them as an irretrievable waste of a passport. In addition, the book’s full title is Dark Star Safari: OVERLAND from Cairo to Cape Town: Paul flies from Cairo to Khartoum, and flies from Khartoum to Addis Ababa. Sorry, Paul, but your title is a lie – a frustrating attempt at lending yourself far more credit than you’d ever begin to deserve. There’s a boat from Egypt to Sudan, asshat: take the boat next time. And don’t ever liken yourself to Huckleberry Finn ever again.
While Paul Theroux is a withering fool (in my slightly egotistical opinion), he does write well enough, and I think in the last 2 posts, I tried to emulate, somewhere in the middle of consciously and unconsciously (but closer to consciously), parts of his style. For this post, at least, I’m going to switch back to my own style, the one where I ramble a bit and transcribe my mind on internet page, thus capturing as best I can the awesome of my trip, how happy it makes me, and the never-know-what’s-next pleasure of backpacking in Africa. I’ll continue to provide details and examples though, like Paul, because that’s really just in good form. Man – would I like to have a word with that guy.
So – here we go. The previous post ended with my arrival in Nouakchott, so that’s where this one will start.
For my first (and only) full day in Nouakchott, Sam (my German CouchSurfing host), Andrew, Kevin and I took a late-morning taxi to the beach. The area just off the beach, maybe 30 feet from the water, is sacked with trash. Trash just everywhere – trash that reeks of fish. The beach itself, though, is decent enough, and stretches on and probably untouched until you hit St. Louis, Senegal, where it’s very slightly developed once more.
Along the beach, there’s a fish market – one of Nouakchott’s “things to do.” The market itself isn’t that cool, but the pirogues are. Pirogues are a type of wooden boat, and they’re all decked out in tons of wacky color: fittingly African color. By the fish market, there were probably 1,000+ pirogues, stretching for several kilometers along the shore, all huddled closely together with the impression of overlap, looking something like students waiting around to enter Beaver Stadium just before they open the gates. If you brought one of these things back to the US, you’d be the coolest kid on the lake: so colorful, so cool.
Once in the market itself, smelling like shit and feeling industrious, myself and the others decided to buy a few fish (and salt and lemons), and cook them on the beach. We chose, paid, marched, and found a nice spot down shore, where the wind was blocked by one of the many pirogues. We dug a hole, made a circle around this hole with rocks, filled this hole with scrap wood, lit the scrap wood until it turned to burning coal, laid rocks over this burning coal, and cooked our fish atop.
The finished product was really good, and now, if I’m ever hungry on the beach, I know how to build a fire and cook a fish. Just as the saying goes.
That night, we met up with Sam’s boyfriend, and few other friends and roommates from Algeria, Egypt, The Gambia, and Syria. I really wanted to talk to the Syrian one about, well, what’s happening in Syria, but sadly she only spoke Arabic. No common tongue there. Nevertheless, on a chilly night, in the nation’s ruddy capital, we enjoyed some shwarma, mint tea, rosemary hookah, and hot chocolate, at an outdoor table in a slightly overpriced café. Everyone was lovely, except for maybe the Egyptian guy, who was apparently a huge sleaze. He only spoke Arabic too, though: never got to find out for myself.
The following morning, the team was Senegal-bound. We got moving around 7:00am – Andrew, Kevin, and I, as well as Miyu, the delightful Japanese girl with whom I camped outside the Mauritanian embassy in Rabat – and took a shared taxi to the border, which is passed in a town called Rosso. Rosso is infamous – infamous for being an absolute nightmare of a border crossing.
I’d heard about Rosso, about it being a pickpocket festival, about how you get surrounded and yelled at by 15 people trying to get you to exchange money, about how it’s one of the worst border crossings in Africa. Everyone told me to try to avoid Rosso if I could, and while I wanted to cross at Diama instead, it really just seemed easiest to cross at Rosso. That’s where almost everyone crosses.
We arrived at the border around 11:00am. My plan was to yell at people in Spanish, and get out of there as quickly as possibly. The taxi dropped us about a kilometer from the border. We got out, immediately surrounded by screaming devil taxi drivers, and began to walk towards Senegal. The closer we got, the more crowded it became. At the border itself, just short of the customs office (a dingy cement room, where travelers are registered by pencil and paper in a massive guestbook, all handled by 2 grumpy, inevitably corrupt officers, who lift the pencil whenever the spirit moves), there was a large gate – big enough for trucks to pass, but closed to the people – with a small door off to the side: the mob, which I’d number at around 300, had to pass through the door.
Everyone pushes, everyone screams, everyone is angry, and everyone smells. At these moments, you think back to your days as a hockey player, and you remember, we don’t complain in our sport.
After about 20 minutes of this, some guy grabbed me, and ushered me through the truck gate, which was open for a short minute. I had already tried to go through myself, twice before, but was rejected by the policemen with rifles. This time, I don’t know, I just went. I thanked the guy in Spanish, repeatedly blatted no entiendo ninguna palabra de lo que estás diciéndome in response to je vous ai aidé, donnez-moi d’argent, and made my way to the customs office.
The wait outside the window only took about 45 minutes – a delightfully trivial number in this context. I must say, being white in Black Africa does have it’s advantages: you generally get a lot of attention, and when attention (from the border agent) is what you want, you often wait around far less than everybody else. Unfortunately, this works in reverse as well, when they hold you at the border the entire day, in hopes of a bribe. That one hasn’t happened yet, though.
Once out of the office, we took the ferry across the Senegal River, spent another hour passing customs once in Senegal, exchanged a few ouguiyas, and began walking toward the bus station.
Immediately, Senegal hit. More colors, livelier people, girls not covered entirely up to their eyes. More music, more chatter, Rasta culture. More trees, more green. More life in general.
Once at the station, we got in a big car, waited about 2 hours for it to fill, and said goodbye to Miyu as she headed straight for Dakar. Wishing you the best Miyu, if you’re reading this, and if you ever want to do a guest post about that Taliban member you stayed with in Afghanistan who killed his late wife for having a platonic male friend (true story), I’d be happy to have you on here!
We arrived in St. Louis a few hours later – an island off of the northern coast, with crumbling French architecture, palm trees, trash, faint brass music leaking from behind crusted doors, barreling technicolor vans, horse-drawn carriages for the tourists, baobabs, and the all-pervasive smell of fish.
Kevin and Andrew wanted to find a hostel, so we got in a cab, asked the driver to take us to “somewhere central,” and/or Hotel d’Or, if he needed a specific name, with a pre-agreed price of 500 CFA. We passed the bridge onto the island, remarked that what lay ahead looked central, yet the driver kept on moving, saying that the hotel was close. He grumbled something about 4,000 CFA as well, but having not heard him very well, and assuming that he’d know it foolish to demand more money upon arrival, we didn’t respond.
Ten more minutes of driving, and we inquire:
“Is this still the center?
He replies: “We’re going to the hotel – it’s 4,000 CFA.”
Us: “What? Stop the car please.”
We get out, as the car was still moving (albeit barely), and in typical disagreements-in-Africa fashion (just like when Yonnas crashed his scooter on Zanzibar), an angry mob of twenty – 4 people with interest vested in the situation and the rest just looking to yell about something – formed in the street.
An argument ensues, and nobody is happy. The taxi driver is nothing short of livid, and myself and the other white guys feel cheated, but mostly just want the situation to end. The rest just egged us on, with wry, pointless smiles, looking for a fight.
After a few minutes, I start yelling, get everyone to calm down, and explain the station in detail to the mob. Most people begin to see my side, but the driver won’t budge. In the end, we force 2,000 CFA into his hand, which he doesn’t accept willingly, and begin the stinky, sweaty march – around the donkey carts, past the cemetery, and alongside the burning trash – right back to the center.
There, I meet my CouchSurfing host, Mayoro. Picture a Rasta – your quintessential Rasta – and that’s him: the dreads, beanie, activities, etc. Mayoro and I walk back to his house, drop off my stuff, quickly grab bikes, and go find beers. Beers are virtually impossible to find in Mauritania – The Islamic Republic of Mauritania, more accurately – unless you know some embassy members, who find ways to smuggle it in. When you’re in the hot desert, all you want is a cold beer, and we couldn’t find it in Mauritania. So – I was grateful for Mayoro.
Mayoro’s house, as described in the last post (linked here), was one I found very cool. The house, which has been with the family for over 5 generations, has 2 large baobab trees, a sandy courtyard, goats, chickens, a water spout, and Mayoro’s room – a self-built shed turned into a frat-castle room, but in a good way.
The following day, I went looking for a cell phone, and ran into Kevin and Andrew, as I knew I would. They had met two American girls, sisters from Seattle, and the 5 of us went for marathon walk on the beach – 6 kilometers down, and 6 kilometers back.
On the way, we had the good fortune of finding a dead squid, stepping in poop (people just poop on the beach in St. Louis), and plumming past a group of white people doing interpretive dance by the water. A nice beach, and not all that much trash, once you get away from the part by the center of town.
After the walk, and a gallon of orange-mango-banana juice, we hung out at their hostel, which happens to be quite literally right next to Mayoro’s house, with the top floor looking down on his courtyard. I stayed for a bit, and then went back next door, to chill with Mayoro and his cousin a bit, before heading to Dakar the following morning.
What happened next was odd. I’m not sure if I’ve written about this yet, but I’m going to mention it regardless.
What started as an innocent conversation about my trip, with Mayoro and his cousin asking me questions, turned into a full-out, not-all-that-subtle tirade about racial inequality and racial frustration, which I couldn’t help but feel like I was being blamed for. I was first asked why Americans can travel to Senegal, as well as almost anywhere, while the Senegalese have an impossibly trying time of coming to America: it’s something like a 5-year wait for the visa, for them, while for myself, well, I just walked across the border, with no fee, that very morning.
To this, I innocently yet correctly respond that the managerial issue has nothing to do with race, but rather, passport: if I had a Senegalese passport, it would be hard for me to go to the USA as well. Mayoro and his cousin were not satisfied, and proceed to ramble at an uncomfortable pace about how racism is still alive and so very well, and how white people can do anything and black people can’t.
Here’s my take – my present take – which will evolve and twist as I spend my time here in Africa, and continue to settle more firmly into the all-too-dynamic contours of practice and grim reality.
I believe that all people, of all colors, are equal. Why shouldn’t they be? Are they different? Sure. But unequal? No. And when anyone in my proximity disagrees, it really, really doesn’t sit well with me either. If you’ve been one of these people, I’ve probably yelled at you.
Racism, to me, is fueled by the notion that one skin color is superior to another: the superior color should have – or even deserves – more respect, attention, resources, and authority. In most opinions, racism still exists today, and to combat it, it would seem that all we have to do is make everyone believe and understand that all people are equal: they should be treated equally, respected equally, and compensated equally. Racism should be forgotten, and therefore subsequently extinguished, by spreading the notion that we’re all the same.
This is what I’ve always thought, but lately, I’ve had a change of heart: maybe it’s just not that simple.
Throughout history, and especially in the last 500 years, white-man (American and European) colonialism has been a gory reign of terroristic, borderline genocidal exploitation – a can’t-stop-won’t-stop festival of “we have guns, and we will kill you if you don’t give up your shit.” This was the story of Columbus in America, the French in West Africa, the Germans in East Africa, the British in South Africa and Australia, US-backed coups in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Indonesia, South Korea, Iran, China, and Russia, to name just a few. We want your economy, we want your resources, we are stronger, we want to enslave you, so back the F*CK down, or you will be dead. This is how it goes.
In my opinion, this history portends heavily to a variety of different racist sentiments that exist today. If your story starts in Europe, you’re mostly viewed as a white person. If you’re not white, your ancestors have probably been pillaged (of course white people have been pillaged too, on white soil, but this is more on religious and ideological grounds, like The Holocaust, as I see it), and you’re viewed by many as having skin of some non-white “color”, which has manifested itself into a modern day reception of racist sentiment. More often then not, in my opinion, it’s white people that are racist towards those of “color.”
Again, on all grounds – scientific, theological, and realist included – I view all people as equal, and racism really drives me nuts. Nevertheless, I posit: is the solution really to just say we’re all equal? Can we forget about the past? Do the white people owe anything to everyone else? Can the playing fields ever truly be leveled? Will I, as a white person, really ever understand what racism is, what it feels like, and how it can be eliminated?
Does calling everyone equal make it all OK?
While I want to answer yes to the italicized question above, I’m beginning to think that that’s a bit too idealistic of a solution. Most likely, it’s all far more complicated than I ever realized, and maybe, the human race will be extinct before it’s ever really resolved. I have my theories on that one, too, but that’ll have to wait for another post. Or perhaps a PhD.
Lastly, I add that being white in Black Africa, you will be looked at, pointed at, and called names. I was a mzungu in East Africa, and a toubab or porto right now. I am mocked, jeered, smiled at, embraced, and altogether treated differently than everyone else because of the color of my skin.
Is this racism? Theoretically, I’d like to answer yes. But in practice, I’m going to say no. But then again, isn’t that hypocritical? If we’re all equal, why should me being treated differently not fall under the umbrella of racism?
Furthermore, am I supposed to be frustrated when I walk down the street, and people yell toubaaaab! Why, or why not? Like I said, it’s probably much more complicated than I ever thought. Ill have some better ideas in a few months.
After St. Louis, the brothers and I grabbed a sept-place to Dakar. On the ride, we passed tons of savannah land, painted varying shades of green, a fair few road-crossing bulls, your staple acacia tree (the T-shaped “Africa” tree), and a wide selection of baobabs, which I all-too-forcefully described in my notes as “spiny, gymnastic,” and, get ready, “crepuscular.” Yup. I said that.
We arrived in Dakar around 4:00pm, marking the end of the 7,700 kilometer-long road from Stockholm, which I did overland. I’m not one to toot my own horn, but man, that’s a respectable roadie by any standards. The travel community would be proud.
Once in Dakar, I was met by Naomi, my French/Japanese CouchSurfing host, and her Burundian boyfriend Dedith. They brought me back to their apartment, plopped a cold Flag cerveza at me feet, and we proceeded to discuss something about Islam, and something about Dakar. Another great CS experience, with which I will kick off the next post.
I finish this post outside of a classroom in Kankan, adjacent to a mango-tree-shaded avenue, with motos zooming by. It’s hot, but not too hot. Four men are making tea about 50 meters behind me. Three sit on a bench, and the fourth on an empty, yellow gasoline container. I can hear the teacher teaching inside.
The next post will detail from Dakar to Kankan, a hell of a journey in its own rite. I’ve just moved in with a family here, with whom I’ll live for about 8 weeks. I’ll begin teaching some classes pretty soon too. I’m still very happy. I only speak French.
The post after the next will be a personal reflection after a year on the road. I’ll be really honest. I think it’ll be a good one.
From Guinea, bordered by Senegal, Mali, Sierra Leone, Guinea Bissau, and Côte D’Ivoire,
P.S. There are mango trees by the thousand, here in Kankan. Six weeks until they begin shitting mangoes!