10 November 2006

The Amazing Race: West Africa Edition

Overall, I would categorise the trip as “awesome” with a third-worldness factor of 10++. Even after living in China and Mexico, West Africa still seemed mega-poor in comparison. Garbage-eating vultures, open sewers, guinea worm parasites; you name it, West Africa has it en masse. Ghana seemed to have more potholes than roads, and Togo means corruption and bad government in the local Ewe language. (Bénin had smooth pavement and laid-back people, but we only saw a tiny slice of the country, so I’ll reserve judgement on that one). Despite the poverty, the trip was faaantastic. The few minor annoyances (over-charging taxi drivers, border hassle) were more than made up for by the super-friendly people who would wave and laugh and ask “Ça va?” every time us silly yovos walked by. Bonus props to the Ghanaian border guard who bought us all water because we were having trouble digging some Ghanaian change out of our luggage to pay the vendor.

I didn’t really know what to expect on this trip; travelling to some of the poorest countries in the world, with three girls (one of whom had never third-worlded it before), and an ATM card that I didn’t have confidence would work. I’ll let my photos do most of the talking for me, but if you’d like some additional text, both Jenni and Ashley’s blogs have excellent travelogue postings about our trip.

“A Detour is a choice between two tasks, each with its own pros and cons”

Accra versus Lomé

Accra (pronounced ah-KRÁ, not AK’ra as I had thought all this time) didn’t really make sense to me as a city. There seemed to be no central commercial area at all, just a lot of disjointed, spread-out buildings high on 70s ‘futuristic’ mishmash and low on colonial charm. Often times we would be driving along in the taxi and I’d have the feeling we were driving down country lanes, not in the middle of a two-million-strong metropolis. I thought the British were supposed to be good city-builders — I’m not sure what they had in mind in Accra, but they certainly didn’t achieve it. I spent most of my time there wondering where the city actually was. And despite the fact that the city has a pretty beautiful beach-side location, you’d hardly know it. The only things down by the water are disused stadia, slums, a prison, and overgrown monuments to past presidents full of crumbling concrete and weeds. The one thing Accra did have was a sushi restaurant run by real Japanese people! As I stared across the street at it, all I could think of was ‘How on earth did they end up in Ghana?’ —That’d be an interesting story no doubt.

Lomé, by contrast, did feel like a real city – a threadbare city only a palm frond away from falling apart at the seams – but an understandable city nonetheless. The market and commercial area in the centre, administrative buildings over there, residential area over here, and a beautiful (if under-used) beach along the waterfront. Apparently, back in the day, Lomé used to be the hoppin’ and happenin’ hub of West Africa. IR geeks among us might recognise the Lomé Convention which gathered together all the developing world movers and shakers in order to gain preferential access to the EU market of their former colonial overlords. But that was way back in 1975 before greedy graft and corrupt politics took over and wound Lomé down into the sleepy afterthought it is today. I dug the sandy streets, cool palm-lined boulevards and rare colonial building that would peek out behind the bougainvillea.

“A Roadblock is a task which only one team member may perform”

In my case, that would be using my French to deal with belligerent Togolese taxi drivers who took us down scary dirt tracks at night, in the dark, in the middle of nowhere, in order to avoid paying-off the guards at military checkpoints along the main route (thereby saving himself somewhere in the region of 50¢). Other than this situation, I was happy to be able to put my French to use in a non-work environment for once. Finally it comes in handy! And I was also happy that K and Jenni held their own in French –I didn’t have to be the intermediary in all their market haggling and restaurant ordering. Bon travaille K and Jenni! Deux étoiles d'or!

It was also great to be able to speak French without struggling with a France-y French pronunciation. I could be as flat I wanted because it was easier for the people there to understand. I loved it! I wish I could do the same at work too, unfortunately I don't think that would fly with the pure laine Québécois.

Another thing I was called on to do a few times by K was to 'be the man' in dealings with officials and drivers. I think this offended Jenni's feminist sensibilities, but that's just the way things are over there. Generally K would start off the bargaining, (she obviously knew much more about it than anyone else), and I would standby in case the haggling started to take a turn south 'cause K was getting no props from the men. Then I'd step in and wow them with my superior and monotone French, announcing that XXX was our final price. Generally I think our "good cop, bad cop" routine got us good results and fair prices (even if our taxi drivers didn't always know where they were going).

“Warning: Yield Ahead”

The people, food, history, beaches and culture all make West Africa a fantastic travel destination. The only major drawback in my mind (apart from parasites of course) was the transportation system – or more correctly, the lack thereof. Getting from A to B seemed to be the cause of pretty much all our hassles and headaches during the trip. Since all transportation is essentially private vehicles being hired out, you're always dealing with aggressive touts, 'the tourist price', dilapidated, rusting vehicles spewing exhaust and drivers who don't know the way. Now I realise that these governments have a priority to feed their people ahead of building zippy expressways and nice trains, but the serious lack of infrastructure can only exacerbate the region's poor economic development. Companies aren't exactly going to be jumping over each other to invest in a place where it might take almost four hours to move their goods 120 kms (as it took us to travel from Accra to Cape Coast).

But like I said, everything else was amazing, and I wouldn't let a couple of hot and dusty taxi rides across the savannah deter anyone from having their very own West African adventure. Here are my hot tips and quick picks for anyone out there considering a jaunt to 'the Dark Continent':

• the beaches, especially Anomabo Beach in Ghana
• the food, especially gari foto (like couscous), Jollof rice (kind of fried rice), brochettes (spicy grilled meat on sticks), and palava sauce
• village visit
• market shopping (somehow always immensely more satisfying that shopping in a store)
• Elmina town; beautiful setting, oozing colonial atmosphere thanks to a UNESCO programme promoting preservation and economic development of heritage buildings

• Pick up some CDs of West African music – people hawk them everywhere for cheap on the side of the street – also, Rough Guides has some good compilations of West African music if you want to get in the mood before you go.
• Figure out the visa situation ahead of time. I saved myself 85$ over Jenni and Ashely by getting one single-entry visa and one transit visa for Ghana instead of getting a multiple-entry visa like they did. We all saved ourselves 35$ by getting our Togolese visa at the border rather than at the embassy in Ottawa.
• Find out if you’re your bank card will work there – mine didn’t, despite assurances from my bank that it ‘probably’ would. I was prepared for the possibility and got cash advances on my Visa. (Mastercard is useless in West Africa). Ashley’s card worked in Ghana, but wouldn’t work in Togo.
• Brush up on your French – trying to get by with English only might be possible but tricky in Togo and Bénin. You'll save yourself a lot of trouble if you just muddle through the murky memory of your high school French text. Learning a few words of Twi (in Ghana), or Ewe (in Togo) will get you big smiles and maybe a lower price in the market.
• If you use a digital camera, be sure to show people the pictures you take of them – they love it
• Eat at 'Country Kitchen' in Accra for some dee-licious food with fancy Ghanaians

• Mole National Park in the north of Ghana is supposed to be the best place in the world to get close to elephants
• Abomey in Bénin was the capital of a huge West African kingdom in pre-colonial days and you can visit the restored palaces
• Tamberma country in the isolated far north of Togo where people live in fortress-like homes built for protection against slave-raiders from Abomey
• Kumasi in central Ghana reportedly has the best market in West Africa and palaces of the Asante kings dot the city

So, what are you waiting for!? Go buy your ticket already!


Princess Pessimism said...

Look at all those fancy stamps in your passport.

That picture of the boat is stunning...I cant wait to see the rest of your pictures.

Miss Ash said...

Tissssssss (that's my hissing at you, brilliant i know)

I am thinking of taking conversational French now as a result of this vacation. I love Africa!!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you had a great time. Your description of Accra reminds me a bit of Laos's dusty capital city, Vientiane.

Some questions for you:

How would a vegetarian fare in the countries you visited?

How were the animals treated, generally, as far as you could tell?

What evidence (if any) did you see of the HIV/AIDS-affected Africa?

Any thoughts on gay and women's rights in the regions you visited?



Anonymous said...

sounds great! glad you had fun and got back safely!

tokyo tintin said...


ashley actually is a vegetarian, so your veggie-related questions would be better answered by her, but i was surprised that she managed alright (i had expected disaster). mind you she wasn’t very strict (i think it’s pretty hard to be when third-world traveling). if a sauce was cooked with meat in it, she just ate around the meat. what a trooper! also she eats shrimp, so that was the basis for a lot of her meals. if you eat fish, you’re set to go since pretty much every place has at least a fish dish, and usually a range of fish/seafood options (this might not be the case if you travel away from the coast, i’m not sure).

veggie consumption was a bit of an issue; with sanitation concerns we were reluctant to eat anything raw. jenni was quite vigilant and got sick, i was a little more lax and managed fine. lots of fruit though; the pineapple was delicious - unfortunately we weren’t there in time for mango season.

as for animal rights, i’d imagine that most people held the view that animals are there to be used by people – case in point jenni’s photos of the fetish market in lomé. i had mixed feelings about supporting a venture (albeit one based in traditional beliefs) which necessitated the killing of endangered species. in a way i felt that my being there condoned their actions and gave a sense of legitimacy to the whole operation. conversely, my not going there wouldn’t have reduced the demand for assorted skulls, bones, feathers or fangs either. ultimately, i’d say my trip to the marché de fétisheurs had a neutral effect on endangered species consumption.

as for gay rights; hahaha. there are none. these countries are highly religious and tend toward conservatism - homosexuality is illegal in all three of the countries we visited. no doubt there are gay people lurking, but an extensive and exhaustive internet search found no info. my gay travel agent said that neither togo nor ghana were even listed in the Spartacus gay guide. i actually thought it was quite irresponsible of the Peace Corps to be sending out gays and lesbians to these countries. (i know that the canadian diplomatic corps will not post gay employees to a country where homos are a no-go). shame on you Peace Corps!

i did see tonnes of billboards about safe sex, condom use, fidelity and abstinence. i don’t know in terms of percentages, but i know that west africa has much lower infection rates than southern africa (5% compared to 25-30%). they did seem to at least be trying to educate people.

Jennifer said...

I think I have a more pessimistic view of the answers to Ian's questions.

You could pretty much forget about being a vegetarian in any of these places, Ash was a total sport about it, but everything that didn't have meat in it, had meat touching it. If you wanted to be veggie, and not get sick, your restaurant option would be french fries or plain rice, and your street options would be bananas or oranges. Otherwise bring a case of veggie cup of soup from home.

The farm animals there are pretty much free range, you can make your own mind up about whether that's more or less humane, but we saw one chicken get hit by a motorcycle on the road, after our car had swerved around it. As for the wild animals, the attitude to their use is chilling. When I told a guy who was trying to sell me ivory that it was wrong, he stared at me blankly, when I tried telling him it was illegal he told me it wasn't (it is).

As for AIDS, I saw one lady with a t-shirt that said 'HIV +' but there's no way of knowing if it was just a free shirt or what. It's hard to know anything about it as a casual observer, because it's so taboo. But I'd say that despite the education campaigns, the reason the rates are lower probably isn't because people are using condoms or sticking with their wives. I told one guy who was hitting on me that I was married, and his response was, "I'm not married."

I don't think it's fair of the Canadians not to post people places for being gay, shouldn't you decide about your own safety? I think people there assume that everyone is straight anyway, so if you want to fly under the radar it's pretty easy. The men there hold hands and walk around with arms around eachother. But I wouldn't tell anyone I was gay if I was there, and I wouldn't hit on someone of the same sex.

Miss Ash said...

I am not super strict when it comes to food, but i refuse to eat meat and do not eat fish, just shrimp (like that makes a difference). At home i am certainly more vigilant however West Africa was not vegetarian friendly in the least but as Jennifer said, there are options of fries and plain rice.

It was also rather difficult as i would not eat any raw veggies (fear of getting sick), so no salads, only fried veggies if i could find them, which was once. I ate A LOT of carbs and got by as best i could.

tokyo tintin said...

i wasn't at all trying to make out that west africa was a vegetarian paradise - quite the contrary. i was just trying to say that i was surprise that (for the most part) ashley did manage to find stuff too eat. yes, there were some times that she ate plain rice, or just french fries, but overall and contrary to my expectations, she managed to manage.

when you work for the foreign service, you have no say as to where your postings are going to be. don't want to move to yemen for four years? -tough titties!

the fact that the government takes sexual orientation into consideration when allocating postings is reassuring. i would definately *not* want to be stuck in a situation where i had to choose between quitting my career or spending four years in a country where my very existance was illegal and i was at perpetual risk of arrest, imprisonment, flogging, or even death in some countries.

i very much doubt the peace corps was sending black americans to apartheid south africa or women to taliban-era afghanistan. why should they send gays and lesbians to countries where homosexuality is illegal?

you say you wouldn't tell anyone you were gay if you there. well, let me tell you jenni, that pretending to be straight sucks! whenever i have to do it i really feel awful; angry and dissapointed with myself and rather cowardly. that's a pretty shitty way to have to feel for the length of the term in whatever country you've been placed.

for me anyway, it's such a terrible feeling because denying is something so easy to do. you couldn't pretend that you weren't a woman, and black person couldn't say they weren't black. but just a wave of the defabulotron wand and 'poof' no one knows who is gay.

maybe this mindset is hard to understand for someone who isn't gay -- or maybe it's plainly obvious, i dunno. but i do know that it is irresponsible of the peace corps to send people willy-nilly all over the place without regard to personal safety or suitability of local conditions.

Anonymous said...

Lots of intriguing insights raised here. Thanks Dan, Jen, Ash.

Do you think there's a big MSM (Men who have sex with men) culture in these regions?

Good to hear that there's a significant safer sex media presence (billboards, et. al.)

Honestly, it sounds like a vegetarian nightmare. I guess we have to make some compromises when travelling outside of our comfort zones. It sucks that you can't eat fresh stuff either . . . it's like the worst of being a vegetarian: the unstoppable carbs express.

I had never thought about the foreign services issue before . . . not sure what my position on it would be.

Anonymous said...

BTW – Above post was mine (Ian).

tokyo tintin said...

ian- judging by the fact that no one hit on my over the course of the trip, i'd say the MSM population is low. -haha.

of course it's there, just like the 10% everywhere else in the world too. but it's completely, completely invisible. unlike in latin american culture (or middle eastern culture from what i understand) where the active partner (i.e. the top) is unaffected by the sex act and retains his macho status in MSM sex, there didn't really seem to be an equivalent thing going on over there.

too bad too - boys in togo had a nice euro flare to them. and good hats. oh well. i'll just have to get my lovin in conventional, non-west-african ways.

Ian said...

It's an intriguing distinction.

Incidentally, today's Independent has a piece on the topic:


ian said...


Here's that link broken into two pieces so it fits.