West Africa, at the budget level, involves some of the toughest traveling on the planet. Also, in early 1993 the unit of currency, the West African CFA, was tied to the French franc at the rate of 50 to 1. The access to hard currency meant that capital cities had western goods for sale, but the price structure was very expensive for what remains as one of the poorest areas in the world. But the human contact is so appealing that these discomforts were still worth it. I spent some time in Mali, then flew to Senegal and went to the Gambia and into Guinea-Bissau, before heading back to Senegal, back briefly to Bamako, and flying home via Paris.
Colleagues had mentioned to me that Mali was the crown jewel of West Africa. I flew to Bamako, where I met a few other Dutch travelers. After enjoying some time in the markets of the capital city, we headed up to Mopti, pleasant save for some of the most aggressive hustlers in all of Africa. From Mopti, a small group of us made an impromptu hike up into Dogon country, spending several days hiking along the Bandiagara escarpment to Djiguiguibombo (one of my favourite geographic names!) Telli, Bankass, Djenne and eventually to San. From Mali, I flew to Senegal, stayed near the airport in the seaside village of Yoff, then made my way south to the by local transport to the Gambia.
From non-descript Banjul, I headed to Bakau – the tourist hub of the Gambia. Unfortunately, like Mopti, it was virtually impossible to walk in the area without being besieged by aggressive “rasta-style” hustlers. However, as soon as we left the Bakau corridor, the hassles and aggression disappeared. I spent a number of days heading east along the banks of the Gambia river, initially to Tendaba Camp, then on to Georgetown. In Georgetown, I am intrigued by the Wasso Stone circles, another in a series of stone megaliths that have fascinated me since initially seeing them in large numbers in Meghalaya in northeast India in 1978. Later we continued even further to the easternmost town of Basse Sante Sur. I crossed through the Casamance region of Senegal, via Velingala and then down to the border town of Piradu, just into Guinea-Bissau. There were a few old colonial buildings in Piradu, which made the place appear more prosperous and developed than Senegal.
At the border I make acquaintance with Mamadou, who was to become my alter ego for the duration of my stay in Guinea-Bissau. After dark, we arrange with a few other people to go on the back of a truck to Gabu. Once we got going, and despite my fatigue at a long day of travel, the effect was sheer magic. The wind, the sky, the silhouette of African faces, the fires being set at night for “slash and burn” agriculture. Later, suddenly the truck veered off the road and into the bush. People are thrown around hit by tree branches as the truck finally stabilizes and comes to a stop. The driver had fallen asleep at the wheel! We were very fortunate not to have been seriously injured. By then, fortunately, we were only a few kilometers from the town of Gabu. We overnight there at a basic truck stop flophouse run by a Senegalese woman. Mamadou then invites me deep into the interior of Guinea-Bissau to stay with him in his village named “Katchaja”.
Transport in rural Guinea-Bissau was episodic and slow. It took much of the day to travel a distance of under 50 kilometres. At one point, I pay to charter a truck and about 25 other passengers climb in the back for the free ride. We are dropped at a spot about 12 kilometers up a dirt road. We end up walking about 7 kilometres from the road until we reach the very traditional African village, apparently the last village before the frontier with Guinea-Conakry. The pace is slow, friendly and magical. I go for short walks over the next two days, drinking in the atmosphere and reflecting on the trip over the past seven months. It seemed a fitting highlight with which to end the sojourn. In the evening we sit together on the small platform and talk about the stars. In the villages, life continues as always and there is no electricity. The women crush the sorghum with the large mortar and pestle, little kids run around naked, women breast-feed their infants and the men chat in the village square. It is a timeless image of Africa.
I still had a few more days to go, returning to Gabu, then on to Bissau, then to Dakar and Yoff Plage, then to Bamako, and finally back home to Ottawa.
My final impression of Africa was several days later in Bamako when we took an airport bus heading out for the last glimpses of West Africa and the Sahel – the sun gradually fading into a red ball in the dust over the horizon as we crossed the Niger river, little African kids running around, women with baskets on their heads, basic mud and flat brick structures along the side of the road.
I had once again lived my dream.