Misadventures in West Africa

African Beach Paradise
African Beach Paradise

Cotonou. Dosso. Niamey. Ouagadougou. Any of these places sound familiar?  Most likely not, but to me these words usher in a flood of memories – of the most intense heat I have ever felt, of the specific type of claustrophobia that can only come from the very unique experience of tro-tro travel, and of the graceful walk of a sixteen-foot gentle giant. This past fall, I studied abroad in Accra, Ghana, in West Africa, and while most of my classmates chose to spend their fall breaks at the beach or traveling to Togo (the next country over from Ghana), my two friends and I decided we wanted something different – we wanted adventure. So we planned an all-in-lets-see-if-we-survive eight-day trip, or shall I say, trek, across West Africa. Togo, Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, and finally back to Ghana, pretty much a big circle that came to a total of 1,426 miles (oh yes, we calculated it). Could we do it? We were sure going to try. We joked that we would probably show up days later than expected, limping and bruised, bags lost, clothes torn form the intensity of the trip – if only we’d known how true that would turn out to be.

Driving Through African Roads
Driving Through African Roads

The ultimate test of friendship – will you let me sit on your lap for eight hours? The second day of our trip, we had planned to travel up the entire length of Benin on a bus. As would become a pattern, this plan did not exactly come to fruition how we originally saw it. After asking the men at our hotel how we could get to the bus station, we were told that that wasn’t possible and that, instead, we should get on these motorcycles and the men driving them would take us where we needed to go. Did we do it? Of course we did! We learned early on that control was not something we were going to have much of, and after an incredible motorcycle ride through the city of Cotonou, we were taken to a car lot, where we negotiated a driver who would drive us the twelve hours it took to get to the top of the country (not my ideal job, but it’s a very normal thing there). Or again, that’s what we thought we had negotiated. After the first half of the trip, which was about five hours, we arrived at a market in Parakou. Our drive smiled, waved goodbye, and we were then told we had to move into another, very small two-door car. Grumbling about how the three of us, who are all above average height, were going to fit in the backseat for the seven hours of the drive that were left, we were shocked when our new driver and his five friends started yelling “PASSER! PASSER!” as in, move over. As in, there is another person that is coming to sit next to you. As in, we are making four people sit in the backseat of this two-door car for the seven-hour journey. And no matter how much we protested or tried to explain that we were tall girls and it wasn’t possible, a fourth, very large woman entered the backseat, and with four people in the front seat as well, we were the epitome of a clown car. About five minutes into the ride I began feeling short of breath and pulled myself up for air and to readjust my position – our fourth backseat passenger took this opportunity to claim the space I had, leaving me with nowhere to sit. Which meant that I sat on my roommate’s lap. I occasionally alternated between each of my friend’s lap, or both of their laps, resting my head behind them or on their shoulder and sticking my feet out the window when they began to lose feeling, but I never touched the seat again. For about eight hours.

And this was not even our worst transportation story – the worst was what should have been a three hour ride in Niger that turned into an all day affair when not one, but two of our tro tro’s broke down, leaving us stranded on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere, in Niger, with no cell phone service and no way of contacting anyone, for about six hours. It not only put us about a day behind schedule, it also resulted in us staying in a small town in Niger that we learned the next day, upon visiting the US Embassy in Niamey, the capital of Niger, was on the emergency list for kidnapping threats against Americans.

Giraffes in Niger
Giraffes in Niger

Like a scene out of The Lion King. One of the highlights of our (proposed) trip was seeing giraffes in Niger – the fourth day of our trip, we succeeded. Arriving in the town of Koure, which is about an hour outside of the capital, Niamey, and consists of a stand that sells soda and water and the building where the giraffe guides hang out waiting for tourists, we didn’t have too much trouble finding our way. After hiring a driver and a guide to take us into the bush (it was a three hour walk into the desert if we had wanted to be our own guide – I highly doubt I would be here writing this if we had chosen to do that), we piled into the back of a pickup truck with our guide, who stood up and, using a long stick, directed the driver. It was about a twenty-minute drive before we spotted them – a mother giraffe and her baby standing in front of a tree. Nearby were about five more giraffes, all hanging around and eating. These animals are truly beautiful creatures, and being able to stand fifteen feet away from them – the tallest creatures on earth – and have them walk around us in their natural environment was incredible. These particular subspecies of giraffes are the last remaining herd in West Africa – there are less than 200 left, the most endangered in Africa. It really hit home that, were we to return one day, these incredible animals might not be here anymore.

Along the River
Canoe Ride along the Niger River

Niger. Out of all of the places we visited that week, Niger was easily my favorite. Perhaps because it was where we were able to do the most or the place where we had the least amount of trouble, but it was just a beautiful country (and a ridiculously hot country – temperatures reached at least a hundred everyday) filled with incredibly nice people. When I think of Niger, I think of the intense red and oranges of the countryside, of the sunset over the Niger River I watched every night, or of the security men at the banks who wouldn’t let us use the ATM until we had exchanged ‘hello’s’ and ‘how are you’s’(and who would then stand outside the door guarding us while we got our money). I think of Boubon, a village about a half hour outside of Niamey that we visited one day, and Soumaila, the man we met there who showed us the animal market and the fabrics and pottery being sold, who brought us on a canoe ride down the Niger River and who would grab onto me to protect me whenever the canoe would tip too far to one side. He began singing to the hippos (the deadliest animal in Africa) to get them to come up to the surface, and sure enough we saw the eyes and ears of a hippo rise from the water. We had our most enjoyable days in Niger, and it was a shock hearing about the military coup that occurred in Niamey last month that ended with the overthrow of President Mamadou Tandja.

The last kicker. After three days in Burkina Faso, none of us were looking forward to the eighteen-hour bus ride back to Ghana, but we were all excited to get back to the somewhat normalcy of life in Accra. What more could go wrong? And then, walking the twenty feet from the taxi to the bus that would bring us home, something did go wrong. While me and my roommate made it through the crowd of people that had surrounded our taxi, the third girl we were traveling with wasn’t so lucky, and had her camera taken from her purse. All of the photos from the previous seven days – the giraffes, the hippos, the smarmy hotels – gone. Try making it through an eighteen-hour bus ride after that, especially when they informed us that we would be making minimal stops to avoid the armed robbers that occasionally attack vehicles driving at night. Finally arriving back in Accra in the early hours of the next morning, the past week seemed like a dream, with only our photos, stiff muscles and leftover prescriptions as evidence to what we had been through.

Everyday was a challenge – scratch that, everyday was a series of challenges. But when I look back on all that I did, I have an overwhelming desire to be back there and be able to do it all again. The frustrations and difficulties have turned into funny stories and there is more a feeling of appreciation at having the opportunity for that week. I traveled around West Africa with no itinerary, no travel guide, no real plan. We got in a fight with a Togolese policeman, crossed the Benin/Niger border by motorcycle, tracked (okay, the guide did most of the tracking) the last remaining herd of giraffes in West Africa, and canoed down the Niger River.  Would I do it again? Absolutely – although perhaps this time with my own vehicle. The things that I saw and experienced and felt are things that will never leave me – you can’t help but be changed by the time you spent there.

Story and Photos by Whitney Childs

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