West Africa

Visas, visas, visas

Posted from Eindhoven, North Brabant, The Netherlands.

While visas on the East coast of Africa are relatively easy, the West coast can be an absolute nightmare. We have made a list of where we applied for which visa, along with a number of other details (required documents, duration, cost etc.). Download the file here. Here are four valuable tips for visa applications:

  1. Things change, so always check in advance.
  2. You normally always need copies of passports and passport photos (preferably with a white background).
  3. Many embassies refuse to help you because you are not a resident of the country you are in; try to convince them to help; get a letter from your embassy and try to speak to the ambassador if you have to.
  4. Normally, it is best to already have the visa before you enter the country before the country you want to visit – visa fees are usually higher if you don’t because your destination is close by, lots of business people travel there, and they can just charge you more as you have no choice.

The best of luck to all of you! You’re going to need it…

The mind of Africa part 3 – Developing “uncivilisation”

Posted from Eindhoven, North Brabant, The Netherlands.

White men and women go to Africa to help it and its people: to develop it, grow it and civilise it. During their stay in what they may dub “uncivilisation”, they find a freedom and a simplicity. Time is no longer perishable, productivity is determined by temperature, everyone should be included in long talks with tea and what doesn’t happen today might tomorrow, God willing. The well meaning Samaritans are put in their place and have no choice but to conform to the African way. Any attempt to resist it will only lead to frustration on their part, and it almost always does. This collision of worlds often made me wonder if progress is indeed progress. Contrary to the image portrayed in the media, it seems that everyone in Africa is always smiling; they have their place and purpose in society, they know everybody in the village personally and have plenty of time to enjoy life for the simple pleasures it provides. Moreover, the people in “uncivilisation” are often a lot more civilised than those who claim to live in civilisation, particularly with respect to hospitality and humanity. In a
developing society people are challenging their place in it; they don’t know their neighbours and simple delights are replaced by a constant urge for more, newer and more expensive. By imposing our solutions on Africa through volunteers and NGOs we assume that what works in the West will also work in Africa, and sadly we impose our values on them too. In reality, these solutions have unexpected side-effects, mixed success due to African diversity and rarely lead to the desired result. So, I must preach once more: African solutions for African problems.

The mind of Africa part 2 – The incomprehensible ant

Posted from Eindhoven, North Brabant, The Netherlands.

Africa is spread out over 71 different latitudes. Each of them, in combination with a raw geography shaped by unimaginable forces, produces a different landscape and ecosystem. It seems that every animal is perfectly adapted to the elevation, climate and terrain in which it lives. This is particularly noticeable in ants, which vary dramatically from tiny harmless black dots to huge red warriors with a vicious bite. Africa perfectly adapts its inhabitants to the harsh conditions it poses. The same goes for humans; despite our common ancestry, we evolved over millions of years into Himba, Kikuyu, Somali, Berbers, Pygmies, Europeans or Arabs. We are truly as different as the ants we find on the forest floor. Some may crawl on your leg to explore; some find a way around you but rarely bite your toes when you mean no harm to them. Accidentally step on an ant nest though and you may regret your carelessness when biting ants crawl up your legs to courageously fight a war they will never win. I once had an ant walk up my leg to my knee, but when I tried to get it to walk onto my hand it jumped like a skydiver. Relatively speaking, the distance he fell to the ground would have been equal to the distance travelled by a skydiver jumping from an aircraft, except the ant didn’t have a parachute, but just landed on his feet and walked off. That is what Africans do: they struggle and struggle to build a life for themselves with the few resources they have, but when trouble arises they leave it behind and walk away to build a new life elsewhere. Rarely do they fight to replace their corrupt leaders, and, if they do, then another power-hungry leader will soon take his place. Perhaps Africans are used to the harsh conditions they live in and are more equipped to deal with them. Perhaps we are the ants that end up losing unwinnable wars and they are the ants that just jump ship, brush off and go on with life on their terms.

The mind of Africa part 1 – A guest of the incomprehensible

Posted from Eindhoven, North Brabant, The Netherlands.

In just over 370 days we did what many thought would be impossible: crossing Africa in our circumnavigation of the African continent. We drove through the Sahara on both sides, worked our way through the Central African jungle, saw countless kilometres of Sahel and savannah, and climbed mountains and forded rivers. We met people with worldviews more distant from ours than you can possibly imagine, but even after all that time I still don’t understand most Africans. A wise missionary who worked in Africa all his life once said he would give a lifetime of work in exchange for an hour in the mind of an African. I understand him now, for Africans are truly incomprehensible, from their political philosophy to their spiritual beliefs, and even after a year I have to admit that the mind of an African is still a mystery to me. I will hold Africa, with its endless hospitality and boundless variation, close to my heart forever. Although I will always merely be a guest on the land of the people I cannot understand, I am happy to be so.

Western Sahara or simply Morocco?

Posted from Cape Bojador, Laâyoune-Boujdour-Sakia El Hamra, Western Sahara.

“Where are you now? In which country?”, asks the clerk at the fuel station in the middle of the desert between Dakhla and Boujdour. A trick question with two answers, but only one is right. I look at him and think for a second. He looks scruffy, unshaven but his eyes are fierce – not secret police; all the police here are cleanly shaven with perfectly trimmed moustaches. “Sahara Occidental”, I answer. He shakes my hand furiously and talks about how different his language, culture and history is to that of Morocco. Yet, the flag outside the government building across the street suggests otherwise; it is deep red with the green star of Morocco. There are many flags here – too many even for Africa. Ater two long, boring days in Mauritania I am now in the bit of disputed land between Mauritania, Algeria and Morocco – the Western Sahara (or in French: “Sahara Occidental”). Between 1884 and 1975, it was a Spanish colony known simply as the ‘Spanish Sahara’. After the Spanish pulled out, Morocco conquered the country and now considers it to be its southern province. In 1976, an independence movement known as Polisario declared (with the support of Algeria) the country to be independent under the name of ‘Arabic Democratic Republic of Sahara’. Even the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled in favour of independence. Yet, despite international support in the early years, economic relations with Morocco took precedence over justice and sovereignty, leaving the Polisario out in the cold. Today they control only about a sixth of the former Spanish Sahara, which is separated from the rest of the country by an earth wall put in place on the orders of the former Moroccan king, Hassan II.

We drove through the country in three long days, or if you prefer, we spent three extra days in Morocco. The road is long, mostly straight and surrounded by, you guessed it, the Sahara. That means lots of sand and rock, while you occasionally get a glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean out of the left window. When we crossed the Eastern Sahara in Egypt and Sudan it had been blazing hot, reaching temperatures of 54 degrees inside the car. This time it was chilly during the day, and bitterly cold at night. Temperatures dropped not far from freezing with an icy wind-chill. We spent those three days driving during the day and just before sunset would find a place to camp and quickly get into the shelter of our tent. If nothing else was Moroccan, the food certainly was, with delicious tajine, plates full of colourful salad and good meat. For 30 Dirham (3 euros) you get more than you are able to eat.

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Posted from Serrekunda, Banjul, The Gambia.

We crossed the border with Guinea and drove into Senegal. To us, after roughing it in Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire for over a week, this was civilisation: the roads were suddenly excellent, sponsored by the generous people of the European Union, we started meeting other overlanders, and luxuries like internet were available once again. We then headed into the Casamance, a province that fought for independence for decades, and soon the impeccable roads turned nasty; this province obviously hadn’t earned roads with more asphalt than potholes. We tried to go north into The Gambia, but the ferry across the Casamance River was charging extortionate prices, which were in retrospect worth the money to avoid the horrible road to Ziguinchor. The road was so bad that at one point we contemplated swallowing our pride and going back to the ferry. Eventually though, we reached the capital of the South of the country and were rewarded with a wonderful campsite that is run by a friendly French woman. From here it would be an easy drive to Gambia, the tiny country enclosed by Senegal. We didn’t need a visa for either country, and there were few bureaucratic complications. In the 1980s, Senegal and Gambia even tried to form a confederation called ‘Senegambia’, which never quite got off the ground.

We made our way to Gambia, where we were invited by a German woman (Anna) to camp on her compound. She was very hospitable and immediately phoned a mechanic when she heard we needed one. We were able to wash our heaps of dirty clothes and bedding, and got a chance to thoroughly clean the car. The Gambia thus provided us with the facilities we needed to get our affairs in order before we headed up to Mauritania and the unforgiving Sahara Desert. We got our Mauritanian visa in Serrekunda: a transit visa for just three days. For the application we had to pinpoint our exact date of entry. The three-day visa saved us half the price of the regular one (€45 instead of €93), so we picked a safe date on which we would enter the country.

The last day before we left we got a chance to enjoy Gambia in the way that most people do. Gambia is a tourist paradise synonymous with male prostitution, marihuana and endless numbers of bumsters (hustlers). The tourists are mostly lower-class Europeans looking for some fun with the locals. Middle-aged women hire young black men for sex, sometimes even taking them home and marrying them. Female prostitution is less common, but for 500 Dalasi a day (less than €15) you can have your pick of the most beautiful women in West-Africa. In reality, most people are very poor and desperate, and tourists are an excellent, if not the only, source of income.

Poor and forgotten Guinea

Posted from Labe, Labé, Guinea.

Forgotten by the rest of the world, yet proud to be Guineans. Richly endowed with resources, yet among the poorest countries in the world. Upon independence, they said “au revoir” to France while President Ahmed Sékou Touré steered the country in a socialist direction, isolating it from the rest of the world. He ruled until 1984 when a military coupe d’etat put an end to his rule. The isolated state of the country, as well as corruption, has led to a situation where Guinea, although suffering from crippling poverty, has received very little development aid in the past. Recently though, the country has started opening up and the construction of Chinese roads now connect this country that is roughly the size of the United Kingdom. The roads themselves often do not appear on a map, and if they do their paths and surface are completely different. Almost nobody goes there on their own, so why would Michelin or any other carthographer bother? Outside the capital of Conakry, there are very few facilities other than the most basic, and off the main roads people have rarely seen a white man and speak no common language. We mainly stayed with locals on our way through the country, who were always friendly and interested. The geography in Guinea is astonishingly beautiful, with thick forests, impressive mountains and arid savannahs. We saw baboons, bushbabies, leguanas, monkeys and, just before we hit the arid part in the northwest of the country, a chimpanzee that ran across the road with two babies. We left the country puzzled as to how such a beautiful, rich and friendly place could at the same time be so poor and forgotten.

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The perfect French colony: Côte d’Ivoire

Posted from Yamoussoukro, Lacs, Côte d'Ivoire.

We crossed into Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and within hours drove into Abidjan, a Manhattan-style city that arose from poverty and reconstruction after several civil wars. We drove past it completely astonished. The road turned into a European-style two-lane freeway in almost perfect condition, which is unique in West-Africa. Côte d’Ivoire had been a model former French colony under President Houphouët-Boigny, who strongly depended on France for economic support and advice. France managed to do (except with Guinea) what the Brittish utterly failed to: maintain a healthy relationship with its former colonies. Therefore, before the civil wars ravished the country, Côte d’Ivoire was rewarded with infrastructure, a larger French community than during its colonial era and lots of foreign investment.

For the most part, Côte d’Ivoire is an uninteresting country with little to offer tourists, so we drove through it in just a few days. We did stop in Yamoussoukro, which is strangely the capital of the country despite its tiny size compared to Abidjan. President Houphouët-Boigny was born here in 1905 and reigned from 1960 until his death in 1993. He therefore pumped huge amounts of money into what used to be a small, unimportant city. In 1985, he started construction on the project that would define the megalomaniacal mental state of many of the presidents in this part of the world: his “Basilique Notre-Dame de la Paix”. The giant basilique is a copy of the St. Peter’s basilica in Vatican City, although it is slighty higher at 158 metres. The construction is estimated to have cost $300 million, which Houphouët-Boigny supposedly paid for himself. The colourful windows surround the 7000 individually airconditioned seats. In total, the church can hold 18,000 people, and is recognised as the biggest church in the world. Houphouët-Boigny set out to prove that Africans are indeed capable of constructing the same wonders as the Europeans, yet, all of the important functions in the construction went to non-Africans and most of the complex building materials (such as the stained glass windows) came from France. The fact that he could have fed and provided shelter to his entire population for years, many of whom were poor and desperate, does not seem to bother anyone. In Africa, the Big Man decides.

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Still torn apart by ethnic, political and religious divisions between North and South, the UN has created a neutral zone to seperate the two. Somewhat shaken by the impressive UN presence in the area, we drove into Duekoué where there were UN camps, heavily armed trucks and blue helmets all around. We camped in the safety of a compound of a hotel, and the next day left early to cross into Guinea.

The Gold Coast

Posted from Cape Coast, Central, Ghana.

“Gold Coast.” Even the name conjures up images of unimaginable wealth right there for the taking along with palm-fringed beaches and natives who will bring it all to your feet. The reality, however, is more brutal. The Portuguese arrived in what is now Ghana in 1471 and started building forts around 1590. After that, the British, French, Dutch, Germans and Danish built or conquered forts on the shores of the Gold Coast as well, with the most important ones being in Cape Coast, Accra and Elmina. We visited one of those forts, perhaps the most famous one, in Cape Coast. Its gruesome slave dungeons reminded us of the main export of the colony: slaves meant for Europe and the Americas. Our guide showed us the immense fort and told us about the process the slaves went through, sometimes being locked up for months with hundreds of others in the dungeons before being loaded (with incredible efficiency) onto the ships. We also visited the city of Elmina where, in 1637, the Dutch conquered the impenetrable Fort São Jorge da Mina (then held by the Portuguese) by simply climbing the hill next to it and firing their cannons until they surrendered. Interestingly, because of the long stay (until 1871) of the Dutch in Elmina, many people now have a Dutch surname.

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The Choggu Yapalsi Islamic Primary School

Posted from Tamale, Northern, Ghana.

About seven years ago I (Twan) raised money from friends and family to build a school in Tamale. I was 17 years old and travelled to arid, dusty, Islamic Northern Ghana to make a difference to the lives of the children who live in the Yapalsi-area of Tamale. In 12 weeks I built the Choggu Yapalsi Islamic Primary School with help of community elders, my host Steven and our contractor Hassan.

Now, seven years later, we drove into the city again. It was unrecognisable, like another world. The last time I was there I rode around on a bicycle and it felt like a friendly village. Now it’s a city with shops, cars, supermarkets, internet cafés and development organisations. Indeed, in just seven years Tamale has been transformed from a village into a full-fledged city, the biggest in North-Ghana. I suddenly realised though that these changes meant that it would be very difficult to find the people I was there to meet.

We set out in the Land Rover, first needing to find the right area. We managed to do this quite quickly because the place we were looking for is north of the University. What used to be farmland is now a residential area, and what used to be enclosed huts made of mud are now square houses with corrugated roofs. We asked someone in the street for Steven, and since everyone knows everyone else, after 10 minutes we were in his new house. We were delighted to see each other. Over the past two decades Steven has hosted more than 20 volunteers, but has recently had to stop doing so because his wife has died. A photo of the lovely lady who used to prepare my fufu hangs on the wall enshrined by Ajax-flags. Steven still looked the same, atlhough mentally it is clear that he has aged more.

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Steven provided us with directions to get to the school. We drove through the dusty streets and continued to ask for guidance from different people. A few minutes later we stopped and got out the car – it must be here somewhere. Two local youths walked with us in between houses towards the school and suddenly I saw the building: the same corrugated roof, the stone windows with holes in them and the sign “Choggu Yapalsi Islamic Primary School”. Then, all hell broke loose! Hundreds of children swarmed out of the classrooms at the sight of two white men, and completely lost control when they saw the camera. We then talked to the teachers, and one of them even still remembered my name! People were dispatched to get the local elders, and hands were shaken with men in long gowns and typical Muslim head-dress. It was chaos! After all the formalities, they indicated that they wanted to organise a formal welcome. That was obviously fine by us, so we agreed to return in a couple of days.

We walked back to the car, deafened by all the screaming and in shock at the number of people who were suddenly there. We started looking for Hassan, and found him soon enough in the new guesthouse of KidzActive, the organisation he works with. We were invited to sleep in his house, got delicious food and royally screwed up his planning for the next two days.

The next day we went with Hassan to a shop to buy school materials, filling up a box of stuff for a good price. We then went to the market to get some good souvenirs, and ate at Sparkles – which seven years ago was the place where volunteers gathered. It’s all a lot hipper and more modern now, but still the place to be for volunteers.

It then reached 10 o’clock and time for us to go to the school. We have clearly turned into real Africans so were slightly late. We drove onto school property with the Land Rover and again hordes of children surrounded us. They wanted pens and balloons, but most of all to have their picture taken with their Koran. The parents, teachers, elders and other important guests waited patiently under a shelter. After shaking hands all round, the speeches started, with Hassan translating. The Imam, headmaster and other important guests spoke in Dagbani while Hassan carefully translated their words. Jeffrey kept a low-profile so he could walk around and take photos, sometimes to the annoyance of the parents. After the first round of speeches, Hassan and I got the box from the car and put it on the table. Everything that emerged from the box was called out loud by a stern lady: pens, pencils, chalk, notebooks, erasers etc. Eventually the table was full and applause followed. The children sang a nice song led by their teacher. As a small gift the children got some balls sponsored by De Koning Adviesgroep and some balloons. What we expected almost immediately happened: fights broke out over who would get the balls, and even the teacher completely lost control of her students. Eventually the children settled down, we thanked everybody again, took some more photos and drove off. A very tiring and interesting day, and it wasn’t even noon!

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