People often think of Africa as the un-backpack-able continent–I’ve heard a bunch of it before. “There’s no hostels..”, they say. “It’s too scary.” “I saw once on TV that they have lions and war and my friend who’s been all over Europe and one time to Cambodia and studied abroad in Sydney and knows all about the world said it can’t be done. Unless you wanna get killed or something.”
Hearing things like this makes me giggle. It gives me the energy to speak.
My 2-year trip around the world started in East Africa–just me and my backpack. I wasn’t there for long though–a short 6 weeks in Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda–and the biggest thing I probably learned was that I needed more. A year later, and I was back in Africa: just me, and yes, my trusty, odorous backpack.
This time around, though, it was West Africa. The Africa with more problems than not, the Africa of the French, the Africa where electricity can be more scarce than a warm shower and your 50km trip down the coast on a road more suited for a MotoX obstacle course than a car full of old women and screaming babies may take the better part of the afternoon. It’s doable though–I’ve been down here for 4 months now. It’s fascinating too. It’s far and away the most challenging, rewarding, “stranger in a strange place” traveling I’ve ever done. You will meet no more than three other backpackers a month–you will learn an incredible amount about the people and places around. You have to. The issues are so dynamic, and so right there in front of you, that the marginally inquisitive mind couldn’t help but deconstruct, discuss, and understand a great deal about the minutia of the people and places it encounters every single day. It’s fun, too, because you have to do it all yourself. There’s hardly a reliable guidebook and there’s hardly a beaten path; in fact, when I was in Sierra Leone, people didn’t really understand what a tourist was in the first place. They all thought I was there to mine diamonds or recruit Christians.
The point of this post is not to sell you on West Africa; I reckon I’ll do that in a later one, when it’s all sunk in. For this one, I assume the interest is already there, and like any good travel blogger, or so I’m told, I’m going to piece together an informative list of advice for making your trip all the more enjoyable. For the ones that want something different, for the ones who speak a bit of French, for the ones who want a challenge more than a holiday and want to explore an area of the world largely untouched by our darling backpacker community–I offer my guidance.
1. Speak French Well
I don’t really mean to dissuade anyone from traveling West Africa with Tip #1; this would be in bad form. I don’t aim to sound snobby either–I don’t wish to tell you that you aren’t worthy. The majority of West Africa–Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Togo, and Niger–is Francophone West Africa: it was all colonized by the French, has since broken into individual sovereign nations, and while a large multitude of tribal languages are still widely spoken, French is the lingua franca. Without it, unfortunately, you’ll just have a rather tough go. Sure, English is spoken, as it is everywhere in the world, but not often enough to arrive without any French. I kind of equate it to traveling in Germany and only speaking Spanish: sure, you’ll find some people to talk with, but these people will be more of an opportune find rather than a logical anticipation. You can’t really just go up the kebab counter in Berlin and say “¿Hola, cómo estás?,” can you?
Furthermore, the real attraction of West Africa is the people, and I simply can’t imagine a trip down here without getting to know a few. For me, my whole experience could probably be summed up in one scene–eating mangoes with a few Guinean friends, drinking ginger tea with peanuts, discussing life, travel, government and history, under the mango tree–a scene I’d want all WA travelers to experience themselves. It’s not that the scene is rare, no it’s not at all, but it does assume that you have some level of French.
So, if heading to Francophone West Africa, really: take some time to learn the language. I promise you will be thankful you did.
Lastly, it is important to note that when traveling in The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ghana, and Nigeria–all members of West Africa just the same–English will work just fine. In fact, very few people in these countries will speak French at all!
2. Befriend the Peace Corps
In the whole of West Africa, I think there’s about 5 real hostels–hostels like you are used to. Personally, I haven’t stayed in any. What this leaves is a marginal selection of hotels, primarily confined to capital cities, which generally command $50+ dollars a day, as well as an even more marginal selection of cheaper motels. While the latter may seem aimed for the budget crowd, it is only in price: these places often don’t have running water nor electricity, are infested with cockroaches and spiders, and sometimes, are functioning brothels with music pumping ’til sunrise.
If none of the above is to your liking, you’re really left with CouchSurfing, seducing your local chicken lady for a place to sleep, or staying with the United States Peace Corps. Throughout my travels in West Africa, I was hosted by the PC over 10 times; I’d stay with one, who’d pass me on to the next, who’d pass me onto the next. I’d usually begin a travel day without knowing where I’d spend the night, as West African bush taxis are a certifiable circus of unpredictability and fatigue, and around sunset, I’d text a PCV in the area (who I’d never met before), who would immediately offer me a place in their hut. These guys are the best–endlessly lovely and hospitable I do promise–and my trip in WA simply wouldn’t have been the same without them.
For last-minute accomodation (provided you send a nice text message), insider country tips or a great night out, make some friends in the United States Peace Corps; they’re all travelers, and they all rock. They welcome the company too: spending 27 months in a hut in the middle of nowhere isn’t exactly a party.
3. Bring a Kindle
In West Africa, you will have a lot of time to kill. Even with the most prolific vocabulary, a flurry of powerful metaphors and a megaphone on high-volume, I could hardly overstate how much time you will have to kill. Between bush taxis, waiting for food, bush taxis and waiting for the bush taxi to fill up, there will be dozens and dozens of hours when boredom and inactivity devour your mind, to the point that the only thing that can save you from self-immolation is the soothing cradle of quality literature.
You will be hard pressed to find a bookstore selling books in French, let alone in English. The fact is, books are often too expensive for most to afford, and reading is therefore not at the top of the list of priorities here in West Africa. In solution, bring a Kindle. Wherever you find Wifi, or wherever you find a Peace Corps member with a hard-drive full of .epub files, you’ll be able to refresh your stock of books.
This is possibly the most importance piece of advice, in fact. As self-immolation would end your trip rather quickly.
4. Toilet Paper and Hand Sanitizer
In many West African countries, and out in the bush regardless of country, toilet paper is really hard to come by: it’s just something that hasn’t quite yet caught on. Personally, I’m willing to culturally assimilate myself to just about anything, but wiping my ass by hand is where I draw the line.
When you find toilet paper, stock up, and always carry it with you. Hand sanitizer is a nice touch as well.
5. Sleeping Mat, Sleeping Bag
You’ll be sleeping on hut floors. You’ll be sleeping on beds that have seen far more action than you’d care to imagine. You’ll even be sleeping outside on a cement veranda because you arrived at the Guinean/Ivorian border after they’d closed for the day. When traveling in West Africa, sleeping situations are never predictable, and hygiene is never gauranteed: bring a sleeping bag and a sleeping mat, so you know you have something that’s clean, and something that let’s you sleep (relatively) comfortably on just about any surface.
West Africa isn’t exactly a paradise of personal ammenities, so with regards to sleeping, come prepared. You’ll be thanking me when you’re forced to snooze overnight at a land border.
6. Get a Cell Phone
They’re cheap, and everyone has them. Internet is generally scarce and not many use it. If you want to communicate with anyone, you’ll need to do it with a cell phone. And if you think saying “Hey, nice to meet you, let’s meet tomorrow at that street corner at 2pm” will result in anything more than frustration and a sunburn you are unfortunately mistaken.
Furthermore, Africans love to befriend the few travelers they meet; they love to invite them to weddings, to their homes, to their villages, to their funerals. To tea, to mangoes, to rice with peanut sauce. And really, without a cell phone, you’ll miss out on a whole lot of this. Cell phones are cheap and will make your life a few worlds easier. A $10 black and white non-flip phone will work just fine.
7. Bring Cash
I have two friends that did some extended West Africa travels with only an ATM card. They were fine. I think they stuck mostly to capital cities, though.
When traveling in West Africa, and venturing out of capital cities, bring cash. If there is an ATM–they are rare but steadily growing more common–there is no gaurantee that it works, nor has cash. If there is a functioning one in the area, it might be an hour-long car ride just to get there. In my 10 weeks in Guinea, I didn’t see a single one. To make life easier, bring a strong reserve of paper money. In Francophone West Africa, Euros are preferred to dollars, as the former is tied directly to the FCFA, the currency used in most countries. In Anglophone WA, dollars would be your best bet.
For carrying money, I used a money belt. No one knew it was there, and it was a complete non-issue. I recommend it highly–another thing that makes traveling in West Africa far less of a headache.
8. Bring a Med Kit
A small, basic kit will do just fine. West African pharmacies are probably stocked with more stuff than you think, but relying on this fact assumes that you’ll always be near one.
For minor issues, come prepared. A small reserve of ibuprofen, rubbing alcohol, antibiotics, antihistimines, anti-diarrheal, multi-vitamins, and maybe iodine tablet for water purification (I used these once in four months, when hiking in the Fouta Djallon; clean water is cheap and ubiquitous, in general) will more than suffice. I think bringing clean needles and syringes is a strong move as well, since, if you do have to go to a hospital to have blood drawn, you’ll at least know that the materials are clean. They are cheap, and don’t weigh anything either. Please don’t let this last piece of advice scare you–it’s just good practice.
Like your mother told you, and will probably continue to frantically tell you as you bump your way through West Africa–be prepared. There’s no reason not to be.
9. Malaria Prophylactics
Malaria is a big problem in West Africa. Take your physician-prescribed prophylactics, and you are very unlikely to have this problem. I took Malarone for my time in East and West Africa alike, and I’ve never had malaria. One pill a day keeps the fever away.
10. Have Plenty of Time
As intimated earlier, punctuality is not the shining trait of many West Africans. In fact, the concept of time, in the Western sense of the word, almost doesn’t exist whatsoever. You may pay your bush taxi ticket at 7:00am, and the car may not fill up until 1:00pm. Your 140km journey from Nzérékoré, Guinea to Man, Côte d’Ivoire may take 2 days. Your chicken sandwich–a roll with already-cooked chicken, lettuce, tomates, and fries–may command an illogically extensive 90 minutes to prepare.
When traveling in West Africa, have plenty of time. Waiting an extra hour for the bush taxi to fill is completely insignificant to a local, and you simply shouldn’t allow it to be of consequence to you either. Things take a really, really long time to happen in this area of the world, and doing your trip on a tight schedule will make each day unequivocally miserable.
Time limits don’t exist in West Africa, so please, I implore you: don’t bring any of your own along either.
11. Stand Your Ground
As a white person traveling in West Africa, you’ll command a lot of attention. It’s of an interesting flavor too: most people really, genuinely want to help, and really, genuinely want to be your friend, but can’t help but observe that you probably represent a bit more financial utility than the average local. In addition, small minutia of everyday interaction–things like level of greeting, personal space, what’s rude and what’s not, etc–are probably vastly different than what you’re used to. What this manifests itself into are situations like this:
I took a motorbike taxi out of Koidu, Sierra Leone, destined for the Guinean border. This bike only goes a few kilometers, though, before dropping me in a small village, where other drivers line up to take me to the border themselves.
When I hopped off this first motorbike, I had about 20 screaming drivers sprint towards me, grab my things, tell me they’d be the one to take me, etc. I could have been their only client all week. As you might imagine, I was not comfortable with all of the grabbing, screaming, and general invasion of personal space. So, in solution:
Will: “BACK THE F*CK UP, LET GO OF MY BAGS, AND WE CAN DISCUSS THIS LIKE ADULTS.”
To this, every driver steps back, takes a deep breath, and smiles in wry warmth. Their intial excitement derives from nothing more than the novelty of a white guy (there’s really not many around), and the prospect of making some money. Not even money in the sense of “let’s try to rip off this white guy,” but money in the sense of “I haven’t earned a dollar in five days.” They have zero ill-intentions whatsoever.
In situations like this–maybe you’ve just asked where the nearest internet cafe is, and someone grabs your arm and says “come this way”–I think it really important to stand your ground if you feel even the slightest bit of discomfort. Just because you are in a new culture, doesn’t mean you should have to tolerate the feeling of personal violation. Expletives or not, convey strongly that everyone needs to take a deep breath, step back, and proceed in a manner that you are comfortable with. Your wish will be respected, for all intents and purposes, every single time.
12. Trust in Africa
Everyone who has spent time traveling in Africa will tell you the same thing: there’s something special going on around here. The people are a whole different level of hospitable (I say this with real frankness–not just as the masked blogger painting all foreigners as wonderful just to make you want to travel), and as a backpacker, you will be looked after. You will be given the best seat in the bush taxi just because you’re a tourist. You will be shouted offers of food and tea from every which way. And sure, your car might strap down the luggage and speed off inexplicably, leaving you to wonder if someone is after your things. And yes, someone might say “O, I know where that is, get on the back of my bike and I’ll take you right there.” There is so much kindness and strangeness and things that seem shady and the rest that confuse you, but this is Africa. It’s wonderful and terrifying and challenging and illogical all at the same time. Many things you’ll want to doubt. Many things you’ll want to not believe.
Bring a strong sense of judgement, yes. But aside from that, in the grey area that seems strange and mystifying but still exists in what you judge to be the realm of general safety and “this is probably an OK idea,” man, trust me when I say: TRUST IN AFRICA. You’ll allow yourself to seep far closer to the potential of your experience–to the people, to the rolling ebb and antique cadence, to your own demons that tell you what you think the world is like and what it’s not. Trusting in Africa brings you closer to the kindness of which you think strangers capable and of that which you think they’re not, and maybe more importantly, to that draining thirst for pushing yourself forward that brought you down here in the first place.
So, when you ask the village chief if you can set up your tent on a small patch of grass and he invites you to stay in his home instead, and you don’t immediately get the vibe that he is a homicidal lunatic frothing from the ears, please, drop your gaurd and have some faith: there’s probably a comfy bed, delicious tea, a hot dinner, and yet another worthwhile learning opportunity lying ahead.
Backpacking in Africa is very possible–I know because I was there. And on the same token, there’s just nothing else like it.