Africa

Earthly riches in Guinea

Let’s start with some statistics.  Over 25% of the Worlds bauxite reserves, aluminium ore, are in Guinea.  An impressive figure based on the fact that it is the Worlds’ 78th largest country, so not very big at all.  Most foreign visitors I met were hunting for one natural resource or another, including gold.  Being mineral heavy makes Guinea one of the richest countries in Africa, yet adult literacy rate stands at just 41%.IMG_7545

A relatively stable country, but coordinated unlawful barricading of roads combined with targeted attacks on the wealthy occur almost weekly and almost always on a Thursday.  Unsure why a Thursday, but that’s the way it is.  Top tip – on these days it’s best to say in situ and avoid main thoroughfares.

Travelling in Guinea is arduous and time consuming, nor for the faint hearted.  Ancient battered and bruised seven seater cars, are the mode of transport here.  Loading luggage is a skill, as the cars are often doubled in height with various packages.  Often a sofa or motorbike is precariously added to the top, and maybe some more passengers.  Meaning the centre of balance is no longer where it was designed to be.  But this is Africa – no health and safety concerns here!  After having waited up to three hours to sell all nine tickets, the arguments over who sits where now starts.  Remember the car has seven seats, but ten of us need to get in.  The worst seat is the shared passenger seat, squished between the driver and another passenger.  Not only is the seat insufficient for two, there is no leg room due to the gear stick.  Over the eight hour journey every change into fourth gear means a whack in the thigh.guinea

The journey itself is fraught with challenge, namely being no road surface and drivers playing chicken with oncoming traffic to score the best bit of road.  So slaloming at speed on untarmacked roads, in an unbalanced car with a bruised thigh is how I spent a few days of my time in Guinea.            

Despite having travelled extensively this is actually the first country where I was requested, and not particularly kindly, by a senior police official hiding behind sinister sunglasses to pay for my visa (again).  All occupants of the car crossed his palm with silver.  I got stung for US$1.14 in local currency.  And yes the decimal point is in the correct place.

I seem to have painted a most bleak picture of Guinea, which is not my intention.  I enjoyed my time here with beautifully scenic countryside.  Plenty of hikes to waterfalls through the lush greenery, in the central highlands.  Plus extremely friendly people who I become very closely acquainted with during my numerous car journeys.  A challenging destination, particularly with bare bones French.

 

 

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Hello Mr President….Sierra Leone

Mention visiting Sierra Leone to anyone and initial questions after “Is it safe?!” typically cover blood diamonds, civil war and Ebola.  A reaction which reinforces the fact that Sierra Leone is indeed still far from the tourist trail. img_740228229

A lack of information, infrastructure and fellow travellers; teamed with recent storms and mudslides partially destroying some tourist attractions, does make it a hard destination to explore.  However beaches are plentiful, and in the 1980’s one of Sierra Leone’s featured in the Bounty chocolate bar “taste of paradise” advert.  So perhaps one for the bucket list!

On my first day I managed to meet the President when I was caught in a cordoned off area alone with his security entourage.  We stood together and watched him approach the airport terminal from the mainland in his private boat.  Meanwhile a couple of people quickly laid a threadbare red carpet along the deck.  When the president arrived there was myself and several armed soldiers all standing in line to salute and bid him good morning.  Quite surreal…

A definite highlight was the chimpanzee sanctuary.  It rescues orphaned or enslaved apes and educates them through a staged process to be able to live back in the wild.  Sadly due to continued risk of being captured for a household pet, being poached for meat or killed for alleged medicinal purposes; these endangered chimpanzees remain here in the next best thing – an enormous enclosure with minimal human contact.  Signage before you enter the sanctuary reads “beware of the chimpanzees throwing rocks, they have a very good aim”.  How reassuring!  Thankfully the juvenile chimpanzees were too busy chasing each other to work on their target practice.  I loved watching these intriguing intelligent animals, who just sat contentedly and just watched me back.  I wish I could have stayed longer…bounty

Exasperation came with the money situation.  The maximum ATM withdrawal amount was 400k Sierra Leonean Leone’s, which equates to 40 notes and just US$47.  There are two issues with this; the first being that ATMs rarely have any cash in as everyone extracts the maximum 40 notes, and secondly the cost of daily living for tourists exceeds US$47.  You don’t have to be a mathematician to see that this situation is untenable.

So for those interested in the facts, and why Sierra Leone is indeed safe and worth a visit:

– The civil war started in 1991 and spanned 11 years leaving over 50,000 people dead and millions displaced, at a time when the population was approx. 7million.  And yes, it was partly funded by the greed for diamonds though this is rarely spoken about.

– The Ebola outbreak is thought to have been initially contracted by a family in Guinea through their diet of bats in December 2013.  It quickly spread across the border and left 2,536 dead in Guinea and 3,955 in Sierra Leone.  The survival rate after international aid boosted local medical care was 64%.  It was the most widespread Ebola epidemic ever recorded, and was declared eradicated by the World Health Organisation mid-2016.

– In August 2017 heavy rainfall lead to severe mudslides which killed 1,141 people and displaced a further 3,000 people in the capital, Freetown alone.

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*The Place The Sun Sets….Morocco

Unsure if it was the narrow dark twisting alleyways, the traditional cottage industries, or the old men dressed in dark hooded cloaks in the cold misty mornings; but there is definitely a mediaeval feel to Marrakech. img_7100

As the day commences and heat rises, it becomes evident how the modern world has encroached on this ancient city.  Motorbikes tear through the maze of laneways, films crews shoot their next cinema blockbuster, and lost tourists navigate by google maps rather than instinct.  But the resilience of tradition shines through with the tannery area and the manual dying of wool.  Amongst the Moorish architecture rugs hang from balconies and colourful medicinal potions are sold.  Every corner turned reveals a new hidden area of Marrakech to explore.  And whilst it is somewhat of a cliché it truly is an overload of the senses.

Surprisingly for me Yves St Laurent chose this city as his second home.  This is where he lies at peace, in his serene blue garden surrounded by cacti plants and water features.  An entirely different mood from the cacophony of sights, sounds, and ambience of the central medina.

Did I feel like I got under the skin of Morocco?  No.  It’s a tough nut to crack, and Marrakech with its extreme tourist polish was unlikely to reveal its true self over the few days I was there.  Perhaps I will return and explore its other enclaves; when I have more time to do this country justice.  Or perhaps I continue and venture elsewhere…

*the literal translation of Morocco

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Voodoo Central – Benin

One of my reasons for visiting West Africa was to witness voodoo at its height.  Ouidah, Benin, is where the voodoo religion started and it remains hugely popular throughout this region.  National Voodoo Day is when the largest celebratory festival occurs, and is when this small town sees scores of visitors – me being one of them.IMG_2435

The voodoo experience is not complete without a trip to the local market to hunt for the voodoo section.  This is typically tucked away from the main thoroughfare and takes some determination to find.  I eventually found it.  The potent smell should have been a giveaway.  Not for the faint-hearted this area was filled with dead animals in various states of decay, including skeletal.  I won’t go into detail, suffice to say that the variety of animals was vast.  Sadly pangolin, which have recently been identified as an endangered species, were amongst the gory display.  This was the worst element of my trip and whilst I can appreciate the significance of animal remains in different religious practices, I physically baulked at the rarity of some of the species for sale here.

Like other religions, ceremonies and practices occur throughout the year.  But I am presuming it reaches fever pitch close to the designated Voodoo Day, as there was plenty of entertainment going on during my whole time in Benin.  It certainly wasn’t unusual to see religious processions with musical accompaniment, along with people dancing dress in elaborate costumes or adorned with body paint.

I shall say now that I am not exactly clear as to what was happening most of the time; or what certain dances and rituals meant.  But I will try to describe the three which I seemed to have a clearer idea on, I have named them in my own way:IMG_2361

  1. Goat Sacrifice – Again not for the faint-hearted. An important element of the religion is the sacrificing of a goat.  The practice here is to sacrifice the goat by slitting its’ throat and throwing it high into the air.  How the goat lands determines the future.

The throat of the lifeless goat is then placed between someone’s teeth.  The chosen individual then dances by spinning around and around in time to music.  The audience who absolutely loved this ceremony, were also dancing and chanting.  When the goat swinger tired or got dizzy, a new person stepped up for the honour of dancing with the goat.  Interestingly this was gender neutral, with both men and women taking the lead role.

The hashtag for this ritual must surely be #Beninforstrongteeth

  1. The Haystack Spirit – a large conical pyramid made of long grasses, spins continually around clockwise and then anti-clockwise, speeding up and slowing down in time to the drumming and singing. Their assigned trainer has a stick and seems to herd the haystack-like shape ensuring they remain within the circle of spectators.

After displaying the spirits’ agility, strengthen and skill at length they stop the dance routine.  The haystack is immediately laid on its side displaying a hollow empty space underneath.  Where is the person who was surely controlling the spirits’ movements?  Gasps of surprise emanate from the spectators, while the performers grin with delight at showing their voodoo magic.  The shape is placed back the correct way and upended again, this time a small plant is on the ground.  This is done again and ta-dah the plant has grown in size.

I am unsure what this represents, perhaps the birth of new life?   IMG_1884 (2)

  1. Tag on Speed – This could be the most intense and fun of all the voodoo events. Individuals dressed as spirits parade through the street with musical accompaniment.  Observers get as close to the spirits as they can, whilst keeping a small distance away.  Because those who are in the audience need to get a head start, in what could be the scariest moment of their lives.

At a random time during proceedings the spirits spin around and start to chase the onlookers.  Pandemonium breaks out.  People scatter in all directions, but they don’t go too far as they want to watch what happens.  However they are running for their lives.  For if the spirit touches you, you will die.

How crazy, scary and fun?  The voodoo religion simply has it all!

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Africa for beginners…..

Apparently this is how Ghana has been labelled, and having now spent time there I can understand this sentiment.  English speaking, regular transportation and tourism savviness makes Ghana a good introduction to West Africa.

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Talc coffin

Religion is paramount to life here, and plays an enormous role in everyday existence.  Most shops have wonderfully religious titles such as “Hallelujah Welders”, “Praise Be Hairdressers” and “Peace Be With You Ladies Fashion”.

One night when I was having street food in Accra I was asked by a fellow diner what my religion was, my answer clearly didn’t suffice so he then offered a string of biblical quotations as encouragement.  So ingrained is Christianity* into the lives of Ghanaians that this ability to quote verses from the bible is widespread amongst the population.

I could write several paragraphs about the embracing of religion in Ghana, but I will just mention their view on death.  I visited an interesting carpentry workshop who specialise in building personalised coffins.  In an upbeat way relatives of the deceased select an important factor in their loved ones lives and the carpenters magically create it as a coffin. The examples on display included a spider, a capsicum, a video camera and my personal favourite – a bottle of talcum powder.

On a more sobering topic, sporting 37 forts on a 500km stretch of coast line Ghana was the key departure point for the most significant human migration ever

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Slave fort

recorded – the slave trade.  It is unclear exactly how many millions of men, women and children were shackled together, and led through the door of no return to the waiting ships.  Taken from their homeland, their families and their existence they exited Ghana through this narrow doorway into a life of slavery in the Americas.  A very poignant place to visit.

There are some other interesting and definitely more cheerful things I want to mention about Ghana.  Sounds good I hear you cry.

  • People are often called by the day of the week on which they were born, with different conventions for male and female. The most famous example of this being Kofi (Friday) Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations.
  • A sign of respect is shown through shaking hands – but not your standard handshake. This is a special handshake that upon exiting you click your fingers, it’s quite hard to describe in words.  But this manoeuvre takes skill, and I often felt like my fingers were going to break such was the force on my fingertips.  One to practice for next time I think!

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    Christmas Day drumming

  • I was there a few days after the 2016 General Election, which saw a change in Presidential power. The election passed peacefully and the subsequent Presidential handover went smoothly.  As a nation such pride was taken in this process and billboards across Accra declared the Election as another triumphant success for Ghana.
  • This is a country of typically happy and friendly people. Everyone wants to stop and chat, give you directions or make sure you alight from the bus at the correct location.
  • Almost every second shop is a hairdressers. Women pride themselves on their appearance, and have the most creative large hairstyles.  They are also comfortable, and I think even proud, to be seen in the streets with hair curlers in.

*there are also many Muslims living in Ghana, but Christianity is the religion of the majority.

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Namibia – Taxi anyone? English not essential….

Due to vast distances and a tiny population public transport doesn’t appear to exist.  Making independent backpacker travel impossible!  If you don’t have your own wheels you simply can’t explore the country.  And if you do have your own vehicle you end up with a variety of hitchhikers tagging along – members of a nomadic tribe, villagers needing medical care in the closest town and those who I could only communicate with through a series of facial expressions!

“Think I have some sand in my shoe”

  • Work those calf muscles and ascend sand dune after sand dune at the beautiful Soussusvlei.  More importantly have oodles of fun running down them.
  • On average there are two people per square kilometre.  As I mentioned, it is seriously deserted in Namibia.
  • I saw an anteater!   Total highlight at one of the National Parks, who wants to see the Big 5?  Something unexpected and interesting is much more my cup of tea.
  • Travelling in a Kia Picanto following the wettest wet season for decades is NOT fun. The largely gravel and pothole ridden roads are tricky enough in a small car. Add copious amounts of water and you get mud, rivers across roads and lots of abandoned plans.

Himba tribe

  • Meet a Himba tribe.  Due to the usually arid conditions there is insufficient water to wash; hence the tribal women cover their bodies with a mixture of red mud and herbs.  This leaves them with a most distinctive colouring, which fashionably goes well with their animal hide minimalistic clothing.  And no they didn’t smell………
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Discover the fun of Botswana

I had no preconceptions about Botswana whatsoever, and was unsure exactly what gems it had to offer the visitor.  However it turned out to be one of my favourite places to travel.  It was pure and simple fun from end to end. 

  • The currency is called Pula meaning rain.

    Watch out for hippos….

  • The Okavango Delta is the world’s only inland delta.  It is an idyllic, waterlily covered expanse of river and a haven for wildlife.
  • I got charged at by a family of warthogs. This is not actually funny, the biggest was my size! Three of us were out trekking and looking for wildlife.  After accidently passing too close to a warthogs burrow they charged.  Obi (the guide) ferociously waved a stick at the oncoming beasts, and in the ensuing scramble to “escape” we all ended up in a heap with me at the bottom so I missed most of the action.  Luckily none of us were hurt.  I think they just wanted to scare us – mission accomplished!!

Anyone thirsty?

  • Chobe National Park has no perimeter fences; instead locals have fences around their properties for safety.  In town it’s not unusual to see an elephant outside the post office!
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Will Mozambique live up to the hype?

Sadly no.  It was most disappointing.  I’ve met many a person who’ve raved about this country which boasts swathes of South African coastline.  I personally failed to see what all the excitement was about and the logistics are a total headache. 

  • There is no infrastructure, so I spent days on a bus getting to a beach on a par with Scarborough, Yorkshire.  Now don’t get me wrong I love Scarborough, but I’d never board a bus for two days to get there.
  • A mouse ate my pants. They were a decent pair too, why couldn’t he have chewed through my old ones??  Typical!

Mozambique flag

  • Watch a football match.  I’ve been to some serious matches but the security at this one was intense.  Armed police in bulletproof vests manhandled me through the gated entrance, whilst fierce police dogs pulled at their leashes.  I expected violence, but thankfully none erupted, even though a group of home supporters did a couple of circuits of the stadium carrying a coffin with RIP Zambia on the side.  Outrageous!!  Mozambique played poorly and deserved to lose 2-0.
  • There is a machine gun on their flag.  Random.
  • Ranking right up there with my worst nights sleep ever was staying in a brothel in Tete.  Once again due to a lack of planning and no available accommodation, I had to make the best of a bad situation.  Conditions were horrible, there was no runnning water, no locks on the doors and it was filthy.  Thankfully it was a week night so not much in the way of workers nor clientele, but it remains an experience I don’t wish to revisit.
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So what does Malawi have to offer?

However much I enjoyed my time in Malawi, and believe me I did, there was just nothing to keep me there.  Once you’ve seen the enormous lake sadly it’s game over. 

It’s a pretty big lake…

  • Whatever the genetic make-up that causes someone to be predisposed to albino-ism appears to be abundant in Malawi.  I have never seen so many people with this rare condition.  For them to live here in the harsh unrelenting sun, seems like such a cruel fate.
  • The people of Malawi are genuinely interested in your story, they have so many questions and are a joy to spend time with.  I wish more countries had such a rich human side.        
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It’s a circus in Tanzania!

Fish for tea?

Home to some of the top tourist attractions in Africa, including Mt Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti, ensures that Tanzania has a continual stream of overland trucks.  Cue exhorbitant prices and scams for the naive. 

  • I hate to say it, but out of all the countries I have visited this is my least favourite.  I found the people unfriendly and aggressive, and not just to tourists.  I saw locals punching each other to board buses first.  A woman was hit with force in the head by a bus wing mirror, only to be laughed at by bystanders and the driver himself.
  • It is illegal for buses to drive at night, due to a significant number of accidents.
  • On Zanzibar there’s a strange custom to rip off baby girl’s eyebrows and paint them back on. Combine this with oodles of eye make-up and the hideous resulting effect is a four month old looking like Robert Smith (The Cure).
  • I was “arrested”.  The guy I was travelling with lit a cigarette after disembarking a long distance bus.  Two police proceed to get into our taxi into the city centre, and declared smoking in public illegal.  They demanded US$1,000 or they’d take us to court. After much discussion and waving of hands (plus our insistence on going to the police station) we were released with all our dollars intact.  Phew!!
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