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.