The Rough Guide to West Africa, 3rdby Richard Trillo, Jim Hudgens
The physical and cultural diversity of West Africa would be hard to exaggerate. This is perhaps the world's most complex region - seventeen countries, from the tiny Cape Verde Islands to giant Nigeria - with a total area and population comparable to that of the continental United States. And behind this mosaic of modern territories lies a different,… See more details below
The physical and cultural diversity of West Africa would be hard to exaggerate. This is perhaps the world's most complex region - seventeen countries, from the tiny Cape Verde Islands to giant Nigeria - with a total area and population comparable to that of the continental United States. And behind this mosaic of modern territories lies a different, more organic pattern - the West Africa of old nations built over centuries: the Yoruba city states and Hausa emirates of Nigeria; the Mossi kingdoms of Burkina Faso and Ghana; the Asante empire; the Wolof states of Senegal; the Muslim theocracy of Fouta Djalon in Guinea; the Bamilk chiefdoms of Cameroon; the Mali empire, and many more. From this older perspective, the countries of today are imposters, fixed in place by the colonial powers of Britain, France, Germany and Portugal. Although the national borders are established and nationalism is a part of each country's social fabric, the richness and variety of West Africa only comes into focus with some understanding of its ancient past. One of the aims of this book is to bring that to the fore.
Some of the biggest pleasures of West Africa, however, are the small things. You'll encounter a degree of good humour, vitality and openness which can make the hard insularity of Western cultures seem absurd. Entering a shop or starting a conversation with a stranger without proper greetings and hand-shaking becomes inconceivable. If you stumble in the street, passers-by will tell you "sorry" or some similar expression of condolence for which no adequate translation exists in English. You're never ignored; you say hello a hundred times a day. This intimacy - a sense of barriers coming down - sharpens the most everyday events and eases the more mundane hardships. Travel, without a doubt, is rarely easy. Going by bus, shared taxi or pick-up van, you'll be crushed for hours, subjected to mysterious delays and endless halts at police roadblocks, jolted over potholes, and left in strange towns in the middle of the night. The sheer physicality never lets up. Comfort becomes something you seek, find, leave behind, and then long for again. Cold water, dry skin and clean clothes take on the status of unattainable luxuries.
But the material hardships provide a background against which experiences stand out with clarity. Africa's sensuousness is undeniable: the brilliance of red earth and emerald vegetation in the forest areas; the intricate smells of cooking, wood smoke and damp soil; towering cloud-scaped skies over the savannah at the start of the rains; villages of sun-baked mud houses, smoothed and moulded together like pottery; the singing rhythm of voices speaking tonal languages; the cool half-hour before dawn on the banks of the Niger when the soft clunk of cowbells rises on a haze of dust from the watering herds...
The physical picture
Physically, West Africa is predominantly flat or gently undulating. Although most countries have their "highlands", these are generally rugged hills rather than mountain ranges. The most mountainous parts of the region are Guinea's Fouta Djalon and the highlands of Cameroon and eastern Nigeria (where Mount Cameroon peaks at a respectable 4000 metres and gets a little frost). The big river of West Africa is the Niger, which flows in a huge arc from the border of Sierra Leone, northeast through Guinea, into Mali and to the very fringes of the Sahara (where sand dunes rise on the bank behind snorting hippos) before turning south through Nigeria and into the Atlantic. The Niger is highly seasonal and river traffic depends on the annual rains.
As for the scenic environment, expectations of tropical forest are usually disappointed, at least to begin with. While the natural vegetation across the whole southern coastal belt is rainforest - with a gap in the Ghana-Togo area where grasslands come nearly to the coast - by far the commonest scene in the densely populated parts is of a desolate, bush-stripped landscape where dust and bare earth figure heavily. True rainforest, however, is still present in parts of Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cte d'Ivoire, in southeast Nigeria and Cameroon. Guinea also features beautiful savannah lands, as does Burkina Faso. Along the coast, creeks and mangroves make many parts inaccessible. The best beaches are in Sierra Leone and Cte d'Ivoire, with Ghana, Senegal, The Gambia and Cameroon creditable runners-up. The currents tend to be strong, though, making many shorelines unsuitable for swimming - take care.
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Where to go
If you have the time, by far the most satisfying way of visiting West Africa is overland, traversing the yawning expanse of the Sahara, arriving in the dry northern reaches of the Sahel - these days most likely in Mauritania - to the ravishing shock of an alien culture, and then adapting to a new landscape, a new climate and new ways of behaving.
Choosing where to go is no easy task: the region offers so much and Africa repeatedly confounds all expectations and assumptions. In the main section of the guide, the individual country introductions give an idea of what to look forward to. However, at the risk of reinforcing stereotypes, it's possible to make a few generalizations about the feel of the countries.
Of the eleven Francophone, ex-French colonies, the three nations most dominated by French culture and language are Cameroon, Senegal and Cte d'Ivoire; these can also be the more expensive countries to travel in, and their relatively Westernized cities are inclined to be hustly. Senegal is an obvious choice as a base from which to launch travels: facilities are much better than in many parts of the region and the verdant Basse Casamance district has a remarkable network of village-based accommodation (but see the boxed warning, p.xiv). Cte d'Ivoire provides a melange of the traditional and modern, African and French. Cameroon - which is English-speaking in the west - blends magnificent scenery and national parks with an extraordinary richness of culture, running the whole African gamut from "Pygmy" hunting camps to Arabic-speaking trading towns and taking in the colourful kingdoms of the western highlands.
Vast, land-locked Mali is blessed with the great inland delta of the Niger River and, again, striking cultural contrasts - the old Islamic cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Djenn (on, or near the river), and the traditionally non-Muslim Dogon country along the rocky cliff of the Bandiagara escarpment. Other Francophone countries include the narrow strips of Togo and Benin, the latter being especially easy-going and fairly undeveloped as far as tourism is concerned; the laid-back, former revolutionary republic of Burkina Faso; and the remote and dramatic expanses of Mauritania and Niger. Perhaps the most impressive of the pays francophones, however, is the republic of Guinea, with only a thin overlay of European culture and an extraordinary vitality released by the end of dictatorship.
Four of the West African countries are former British colonies, divided from each other by the speed of the French invasion in the nineteenth century. The Gambia is an easy place to set out from, a winter holiday destination that's small and personable enough to feel accessible for the least adventurous visitor. The distinctive personality of Ghana provides flamboyant cultural experiences and its splendid, palm-lined coast, dotted with old European forts, a handful of good wildlife sanctuaries and official encouragements to the tourist industry, make it one of West Africa's most promising countries to travel in. Sierra Leone, at one time hugely likeable, has always been a more demanding destination. It has some of the best beaches in the world - only minutes away from the raffish tumble of Freetown - but the devastating civil strife of recent years rules out any recommendation to visit for the present. Nigeria, despite its new, ostensibly democratic government, seems barely awake to its tourism potential. There are, however, big travel incentives inland - in the fine uplands of the plateau and the old cities of the north, to mention just two areas. It's a hard country to come to terms with, but once you're away from the slightly psychotic manifestation of Lagos, and the hubbub of one or two other big cities, there's no denying the overall ease and even tranquillity which accompany travels here. The same cannot be said for Liberia - a former vassal state of the USA, nominally independent since 1847 - which is struggling to make any recovery after a decade of civil conflict, confusion and economic breakdown.
The former Portuguese colonies are West Africa's least-known destinations. The Cape Verde Islands are immediately beguiling: volcanic outcrops and desert islands in the mid-Atlantic, with a scenery and lifestyle that make them hard to leave. Guinea-Bissau has its own island highlights - the Bijagos - luxuriant green forests in the warm, inshore sea, as different from the Cape Verdes as it's possible to imagine. At the time of writing, however - August 1999 - the army's mutiny, the widescale destruction of Bissau city and the installation of a new government, make it hard to predict travel conditions in the new millennium.
Guidelines for travel
The first recommendation in all this, is to give yourself time. It's tempting to try to cover as much of this fascinating region as possible. But the rewards become thinner the faster you go and, beyond a certain pace, the point of being there is lost in the pursuit of the next goal. While it may be hard to stop completely, or just to limit yourself to a small corner, that is precisely the way to get the most out of your trip - and, incidentally, also how to put the most in. In such a poor region, the idea of some kind of reciprocity is one worth keeping: everything comes back to you in the end. Patience and generosity always pay off; haste and intolerance tend to lead to disaster.
If you're travelling alone - and it's really the best way if you want to get to know West Africa rather than your travelling companion(s) - it may be useful to know about the main travellers' crossroads in the region, where you might team up for a while or swap experiences: Nouadhibou at the edge of the desert, Bamako or Mopti in Mali, Bobo-Dioulasso in Burkina Faso, Cotonou in Benin, and Busua or Accra on the Ghanaian coast.
More than ever, with so many countries undergoing tumultuous change, it's important to keep your ear to the ground before travelling on to the next country on your itinerary.
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