Afterthoughts On West Africa
Trip Start Sep 19, 2007
85Trip End Jan 05, 2008
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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
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 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.