Afterthoughts On West Africa

Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
Trip End Jan 05, 2008

Loading Map
Map your own trip!
Map Options
Show trip route
Hide lines

Flag of United States  , New Jersey
Saturday, January 26, 2008

The day before I left Africa to fly back to the U.S., I was watching CNN News in my room.  The results of the Iowa Presidential Caucuses were being reported and analyzed to death by every talking head able to run his mouth.  Iowa and the other concerns of home being reported by CNN all seemed so small and parochial in comparison with what I had seen in the last fifteen weeks. 
Other images on the news were of Africa.  There was extensive coverage of the post-election strife in Kenya with images of murders by machete, burnings cars, and looted storefronts.  There was news from Darfur, Sudan of renewed attacks by the Janjaweed and army on civilian villages and a piece on the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda.  In Port Harcourt, Nigeria a restaurant and two police stations were attacked by a rebel army, the unrest contributing to crude oil prices breaking the $100/barrel mark that day.  Meanwhile, the Dakar Rally which was about to start had just been cancelled at the last minute over safety concerns after a family of French tourists was killed in Mauritania by a group claiming to be affiliated with Al Qaeda
It is based on stories like these reported in the news that most people form their impressions of Africa.  However, in my experience the reality is so very different, one of friendly healthy people, deep religious convictions, peaceful conditions, hard-working poverty, and continuous attempts to reconcile tradition with the ever-modernizing world.
For all our concerns about safety and crime in West Africa, the twenty-plus people in the group traveling there for several months experienced only two minor crime incidents: Blair's pocket was picked in Dakar and Trudy's chain was ripped off in Douala.  Perhaps the extensive precautions we took along the way contributed to this good record, but I'm impressed by how little rather than how much crime there is in countries with some of the world's poorest people.  Meanwhile, we experienced some incidents of official corruption, mostly situations or drivers rather than we as passengers had to deal with, but they were not nearly as blatant or pervasive as I had been led to believe they would be. 
There were many things about West Africa I found to be very surprising.  First of these was that even in some of the official poorest countries in the world I saw rather little true destitution.  Perhaps after having done so much travel in developing countries my view of anything above the level of a refugee camp has become, "It's not that bad," but except for young children there were fewer beggars than in many European or American cities and little evidence of malnutrition.  This is not to suggest that most West African's lives aren't hard or that they do not have to make due with very little materially, but in most countries there were real signs of economic and social progress. 
Second, I was also quite surprised by the quality of the roads in most West African countries.  Although there were a few notable exceptions, the roads linking countries and major cities were paved and mostly in reasonably good shape.  Side roads into the outback may be a different story, but my preconceptions that all roads would be dusty dirt tracks were entirely inaccurate. 
The third area in which I was positively surprised relates to health and insects.  I envisioned West Africa as a place of disease and illness, one where you will get sick if you go there.  However, in a group that averaged around 20 people there were only a few respiratory ailments like colds and sinus infections, some infected insect bites, some sporadic traveler's diarrhea, and a two people experiencing falls.  I didn't see any sign of tropical diseases or serious gastrointestinal conditions among my fellow travelers.  With the sweltery temperatures and tropical conditions and having received extensive warnings about malaria, I also expected most areas to be swarming with mosquitoes.  In reality I encountered rather few, and those insect bites I did experience seemed to be from ants and sand flies. 
So go to Africa - don't be scared!
How should you go when you travel to Africa?  I would definitely recommend a group overland trip to anyone who isn't too wedded to lots of luxury and is interested in seeing a large expanse of the continent and more than just game parks.  More intrepid travelers should definitely give some consideration to going independently.  I have long viewed West Africa as one of those places where group travel is the best way to go because of my perceptions of safety risks, official corruption, and the logistical difficulties of travel and crossing borders.  However, I met numerous travelers along the way doing routes similar to mine independently.  Having seen now seen West Africa I believe my fears were largely unfounded and believe in retrospect that I could have easily traveled independently as well. 
I ended the trip holding some mixed feelings about group travel, though.  The ease, security, and camaraderie of group travel are definite pluses, but the tradeoff is a somewhat sequestered experience of traveling in a cocoon and not meeting as many local people or being as fully immersed in the culture as when traveling independently.  Although independent travel is more work and involves some additional risks, I tend to believe it provides a somewhat richer overall travel experience. 
One of the things I realized at the end of this trip is that in total I have traveled nearly one full year on overland trips with Dragoman.  Although that seems like a lot a glance at the globe or at the maps on which I plot out all the routes I have taken in my travels reveals how little of the world I have yet seen.
Slideshow Report as Spam
  • Your comment has been posted. Click here or reload this page to see it below.

  • Please enter a comment.
  • Please provide your name.
  • Please avoid using symbols in your name.
  • This name is a bit long. Please shorten it, or avoid special characters.
  • Please enter your email address to receive notification
  • Please enter a valid email address


kambrogi on

I have read your TravelPod entries with great interest. I was a Peace Corps volunteer stationed in Mamfe, Cameroon back in the late 70's, and entertained many World Travelers (or WT's, as we called them) during my time there. I remember those terrible rutted roads and the difficulty in traveling over them, and that river you picture -- the Mamfe River, I believe -- was where we used to bathe. I am very interested in the area today. Would you mind answering some detail questions about contemporary West African villages?

modernnomad67 on

I'd be happy to answer your questions about Africa. Keep in mind, though, that I passed through rather quickly and didn't spend an extended period of time in any one place.

kambrogi on

Re: Cameroon
That's great! I'm wondering if things are still as primitive as I remember. In Mamfe, we had no electricity nor running water our first year. During the second year, we might have it an hour or two a day, depending on the season. There was no TV, and phone calls had to be made at the post office's one phone, for a fee. Did you see any villages like that when you were in West Africa?

ivo on

mamfe is develope now with good runing water electricity and phone network

Grace on

I am just reading your blog for the first time and will like to appreciate your fair and balance input about Cameroon. I am from Cameroon living abroad in the U.S.A. Being from West Africa and living in the Western world has expose me to so many people who have no other impression about Africa aside from what has been portrayed by the media. We have been asked questions like do you live on trees, do you live with animals, do you have roads? and i have had someone tell me they could never go to Africa because of all the diseases and of course you can respond to some of the questions but some you just let them think as they have been let to think. It takes people like you to reveal the not so bad aspects of Cameroon.Yes there is more to be done but it is no where near what we see on TV. Some of us Africans saw our first monkeys, lions, elephants , tigers and other animals in the zoos here in America. It may be hard for some to believe. I love to read more positive experiences of Africa.

King on

Am from Cameroon and living in USA for many years. Happy to read ur blog about Africa. Thanks to people like you who have been there and telling the truth about Africa.

Use this image in your site

Copy and paste this html: