Soon: Ouagadougou or Bust - Beggars with Guns & Other Rough Travel Tales in Ex-War Zones, Semi-Failed States & A Few Paradises
Greetings from Bamako, capital of Mali. In a few hours' time, I will be flying to Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso.
After Ghana where I last reported, we travelled across West Africa at a brisk pace. Through a mixture of overpriced flights and exhilarating, dusty and extremely tortuous overland bush-taxi journeys, we have been to Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Senegal, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, The Gambia, Mali and Burkina Faso. This has been the toughest journey I have ever done, not so much for the physical endeavors, but mainly from a painful mixture of discomfort from pathetically poor local transport and tourism infrastructure, the incredible amount of costly, bureaucratic and time-consuming visa arrangements, and the amazingly corrupt local police, customs and consular authorities.
Our pace can only be described as outrageously hectic and I have little time to write as much as I had done in my past journeys. Even then, I have managed to post onto my blog (http://twcnomad.blogspot.com ) numerous photos and short notes and occasional stories almost on a daily basis. Please do visit the site to check out where I have been, what I have been up to, as well as my daily progress.
I have also noted below a number of summarized observations, short notes, assorted stories and links to daily updates on individual countries I have covered so far on this African journey:
Corruption is everywhere in West Africa. This is the most corrupt region of the world I have ever visited. Embassy officials sometimes hinted that we should give them something or buy them "lunch" so that visas can be issued the same day or with minimum fuss. Some told us directly the amount they wanted. Embassy officials are the greediest and they ask for the largest amounts, anything from US$20 to US$50. The Liberian embassy in Accra was the greediest. We had to pay bribes twice and yet made to wait the longest.
In many countries, we often had to keep small change either in USD notes or CFA (the common currency for many French-speaking African countries) as immigration officials and random police (at village checkpoints or even main streets of cities) often ask for money. Sometimes, in the space of one hour at the airport or borders, we had to pay three to four officials. Fortunately, the amount payable this way was often small, ranging from US$0.20 to US$1. Sometimes, we feigned ignorance and just shake their hands, saying "Bonjour" or "Hello, have a good day", then walked away. These officials or police would usually take what you give and even wave you good bye even if you didn't give any money. In a way, they behaved almost like beggars, but of course, the difference was that, these were beggars with guns and the power to arrest you. Sierra Leone and Guinea have the most number of begging police or petty officials. We have never encountered any police or official asking for money in Cote d'Ivoire, The Gambia and Senegal.
West Africa is divided into 17 countries whose official languages include English, French, Portuguese and Arabic, plus a few hundred local languages. Although ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States have existed for a few decades, true economic integration remains far away due to political differences, local protectionism and epidemic corruption especially at borders and ports. Even then, I have observed two bright spots of optimism:
1) Many people across West Africa are bilingual in English and French. I had not encountered significant difficulties in French speaking African countries. Quite often, an English speaker is never far away. I have also met many people in English speaking African countries who spoke French. I suspect this has to do with a lot of local level cross-border commerce (as opposed to big ticket investment and trade) despite the corruption, especially in primary products.
2) Many West Africans live and work across nation borders. Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone and Liberia had been wrecked by civil conflicts for decades and their nationals can be found living across all West African states. I have also met many people with mixed parentage, among them a half Malian-half Guinea-Bissauian living in Monovia, and a Gambian-Sierra Leonese in Banjul. If corruption and protectionism can be eliminated, regional integration is not too far away.
Ghana: Gold Coast & Slave Forts
See my previous posting. English-speaking country popular with tourists. Noted for the slave forts along the coast and the Ashanti civilization in the central part of the country.
See http://twcnomad.blogspot.com/search/label/Ghana for photos and stories.
Cote d'Ivoire: Failed Miracle
French-speaking country. Used to be West Africa's miracle story but have collapsed economically by the 1980s, and wrecked by coups and civil war since 1998. The country is now effectively divided into two although rival sides have recently come together to form a government of national unity. This is also an example of how a country, ruled by a strong man (typical African "Big Man") had grown complacent over prosperity from high commodity prices, wasted resources on a white elephant new capital and other grand projects, failed to develop its human resources and soft skills (- literacy rate is only 47% despite its past glory) and ultimately collapsed with the fall in commodity prices and rise in tribalist politicians.
We visited Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire's largest city which was once a regional hub, and Grand Bassam, a French colonial capital. See http://twcnomad.blogspot.com/search/label/Cote%20dIvoire for photos and stories.
Liberia: Corrupt Officials & Blood Diamond 1
English-speaking country and oldest republic in Africa. This sparsely populated country with 3 million people was witnessed to one of recent decades' most brutal civil wars anywhere, driven largely by the greed for the country's natural and mineral resources. The country was founded by freed slaves but was less idealistic in reality, then ruled by a series of brutal dictators and mad men.
One of these dictators, Samuel Doe, was an illiterate army sergeant who murdered the president over pay issues, ruled brutally and crushed all dissent mercilessly. His deputy who staged a failed coup was dismembered in public and body parts eaten by Doe's tribal kin, both as a warning to all, and also in the belief that eating a great and strong man would make one strong. Rebellions rose throughout the country and Monrovia, the capital, was besieged by rival armies. The country was devastated not only by fighting but also by the merciless massacre and deliberate mutilation of civilians caught in between. Of particular cruelty was Taylor's army, which was largely comprised of child soldiers – kidnapped from their parents - fed with drugs and senseless indoctrination. Doe himself was captured by rebels led by Prince Johnson and had his ears sliced off one by one; one eaten by Johnson and the other forced fed to Doe himself; before been killed a slow death – all this captured on video that became a bestseller across West Africa.
Before long, Taylor's army controlled most of Liberia, including timber concessions and the nation's precious diamond mines. With the unbelievably frank election slogan and song "you kill my ma, you kill my pa, I will vote for you," Taylor won the elections. Ordinary Liberians were tired of war and knew that war would continue unless Taylor won.
But Taylor was greedy. He set up rebel groups to invade Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire, hoping to capture the diamond mines and other resources of these countries for himself. This enraged all his neighbours who immediately supported other groups to overthrow Taylor. As rebel armies once again laid siege to Monrovia, Taylor was forced to resign and flew into exile in Nigeria. From far away Nigeria, however, Taylor continued to pull strings across the region, supporting one rebel group after another. The international community closed in, and Taylor is now on trial for war crimes in Sierra Leone. The warlord extraordinaire now has to face the wrath of justice.
Liberia was also the most corrupt and dangerous country we visited. We had to pay substantial bribes to get our Liberian visas and also had an unpleasant and dangerous encounter when we entered the country. See http://twcnomad.blogspot.com/search/label/Liberia for photos and stories. Here are some of our stories:
Our first introduction to Liberia was hardly pleasant. In Accra, Ghana, we had to go to the Liberian Embassy five times before getting the visa. This embassy, like the country itself, is run by a lady consul and key women staff. I had thought that women were less corrupt but this simply wasn't true. The first visit was a fact-finding visit and during the second, we reached the Embassy too late to submit the visa application.
When we went on the third visit, we were told by an embassy staff, Shelia, that we should buyt her "lunch" for any help in the process. We slipped her US$20 and were told to come back two hours later. When we did, we waited for quite a while as the numerous Liberians also in the consular office burst into loud complaints over corrupt embassy officials who took bribes but did nothing – loud enough for the consul to emerge from her office and threaten to close the embassy.
We were brought into the consul's room when we were interviewed by the consul over our plans in Liberia. Then she asked us to come over at 3pm that day for the visa. As we were leaving the embassy, Shelia rang us to say that we should come with US$50 in an envelope at 3pm for the visa and pass the envelope to a third embassy female staff. We protested at the huge amount demanded, especially after the earlier payment. "Do as I say" said Shelia.
We had already spent US$80 on the visa per se and US$20 as a bribe to Shelia. It would be a waste to abandon the entire effort. At 3pm, we turned up at the embassy for the 5th time, and after slipping the envelope across, got our hard-earned Liberian visa. Now you know how corrupt Liberia is! But that isn't the end of out Liberian miseries.
We had a dangerous encounter upon arrival in Liberia. I wrote this from my Liberian hotel a few hours after the episode:
We arrived at Roberts International Airport four hours ago, at 8:20pm – this was not the best timing to arrive in one of the most dangerous cities in the world but we had no choice due to the lack of flights. Luggage clearance took more than 1 hour and we were very concerned about not having transport to go to Monrovia city centre, which was 60km away. The hotel we reserved via email had refused to send any pickup and we could not contact any other hotel with vacancy.
Roberts Airport was more a primitive airfield with a one storey terminal building with a few bare rooms. No luggage system. Complete chaos outside terminal. Our arrival in Monrovia was perhaps one of the scariest moments in our many years of travels. The way at which the local taxi gang, as I understood later to be disarmed former child soldiers, trapped us was quite traumatic.
These young men, some of them dressed in dirty, semi-tattered clothing, were quick to realize that unlike other passengers who had people to pick them up at the airport, we were on our own. They told us they were official taxi reps and even before we could decide what to do, quickly surrounded us and maneuvered us into one corner of the airport car park. Rival gangs argued loudly in local language probably on which gang we should belong to. They even shouted loudly to discourage me from trying to return to the airport terminal. Then they quickly got us together with our luggage into a vehicle that came along.
One of them stretched out his arm to ask me for US$10 while another asked for US$20. We were in a state of shock but as a few of them tried to squeeze into the vehicle as well, I realized we had to do something. I pushed them out gently and pondered for a second over two conflicting possibilities: One, they were going to bring us somewhere to rob us; two: we were too paranoid and would lose the chance to get downtown quickly at an already late hour.
At this moment, a lady immigration officer, alerted to the commotion caused at the vehicle, came over and said, "Come out please. Do you know what's happening?" Ignoring the shouts and angry screams of the taxi gang surrounding the vehicle, I told Gordon, "let's get out," and then dragged my heavy luggage out of the vehicle with me. Gordon followed though his bag was briefly trapped in the back compartment of the vehicle. The taxi gang, angry, but couldn't lay a finger on us due to the presence of the officer. She waved her official ID card at everybody. "I am official here. I am official here," she spoke sternly to them. A few of her colleagues came over as well. "I will bring you to Monrovia," she told us.
Together with the helpful immigration officer, we got into a vehicle and drove 1.5 hours to Monrovia, to find most hotels full, including the one we had made reservation and some other obvious slum-holes that cost over US$100. Thanks to George W Bush who is expected to visit Monrovia any day this week (nobody knows exactly which day – state secret), the town is full of journalists. Eventually, we found a basic hotel that cost US$110. No choice. From our car, we could see the ruins of many huge buildings in the city centre. We are indeed in a war torn country.
Once certain that we were in safe hands (the hotel has many armed security guards), the immigration officer bade us farewell. Shame on us that we did not ask her name, but we were in a state of shock from the episode. Just before she left in the vehicle, I thrust into her palm a fridge magnet of Singapore.
Sierra Leone: Blood Diamond 2
English-speaking Commonwealth country. Misruled by greedy leaders and then wrecked by many years of civil war, largely supported by Liberia's Charles Taylor. International peacekeepers came to the rescue and the country is now on the path to recovery. Efforts are being made to encourage tourism, although hampered by atrociously bad roads (so bad that you "dance" in your vehicle without the need for live music), traffic congestion and outrageously expensive hotels. Sierra Leonese are generally friendly people. The officialdom and police are easy-going though corrupt. At every police checkpoint – which exists on the road across every town and village, small bribes have to be paid.
We travelled overland from Liberia's Monrovia to Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital and left for Conakry by bush taxi through very bad dirt tracks. Much of the journey was on very bad dirt track, initially through tropical rain forest and later through semi-dry savannah. LOTS, LOTS of bumps and mud splattered all over the vehicles we travelled in. Culturally, we also moved from Animist-Christian Africa into Islamic Africa. Interestingly, we passed many villages where some of the women went about topless even though the villages looked Islamic to me.
We went to the largest supermarket called Chinatown at Lumley Beach, the suburb popular with expats. Guess what? The owner, who is Mainland Chinese, is a Singapore resident with a daughter who lives in Yishun and studies at a polytechnic. I have to salute these Mainland Chinese. They came to Singapore penniless, tried to make some money, and move on to high risk markets like Africa after they obtain Singapore residency. Some of their children would eventually become Singaporean, and not only contribute to our multifaceted cultural mosaic but inject fresh dosage of entrepreneurship and adventurism into a society getting very comfortable with shopping malls, MTV and spa lifestyle.
See http://twcnomad.blogspot.com/search/label/Sierra%20Leonefor photos and stories.
Guinea-Conakry: An Old Dictator's Bauxite-Mine
French-speaking country rich for its bauxite mines which supplies 30% of the world's needs. The country should be rich but is instead one of the world's poorest – not a surprise in Africa! President Conte, who came to power after a coup in 1984, survived a few attempted coups, mutinies, mini civil wars and massive demonstrations in 2006 – he simply gunned down hundreds of demonstrating students!
There's not much to see in Conakry, capital of Guinea. The old President Palace was bombed out in the soldiers mutiny and failed coup of 1996. The ruins are still standing grand. The National Museum - its largest halls were also in ruins from the old civil war, but three basic halls still stand, with nice tribal masks and costume. The People's Palace, too, was bombed out that year and is being rebuilt by China. Oh yes, I saw Mainland Chinese running restaurants and walking on the streets. They are everywhere in Africa.
Some posters of President Conte here and there, including one which thanked him on behalf of all Guinean people for the victory of the Guinean Football Team – can someone help stupid me understand the logic of this gratitude?
See http://twcnomad.blogspot.com/search/label/Guinea for photos and stories.
Senegal: Tourism Destination Again…
French-speaking country with long-standing political stability. Flew to Dakar, capital of Senegal, from Conakry. While being driven on the way to central Dakar, it was obvious that this is a much more progressive country than many other African nations. The roads were not only better but were being widened to accommodate the fast growing traffic. Sure – there was congestion but something was being done about it. In most African countries, rulers just sit tight and loot. Development is something they leave to the foreign doners. Indeed Senegal is the only West African country not to have experienced a civil war or a coup d'etat, and the first one where the president gave up the post willingly after losing the elections.
Senegal is also one of the most touristy West African nations, in a region that attracts few tourists. I saw them on Dakar streets, and even a few backpackers sleeping under a tree outside the city hall. Many travel agencies as well and a surprising number of people speak English. Only irritating thing are the touts who are quite pushy and persistent – they peddle all sorts of things – this is after all the homeground of most of the black people you find in European cities selling fake leather and other products. Most of these peddlers in Europe are from Senegal and their remittances form a large percentage of the country's foreign exchange earnings.
I often find it weird when peddlers try to sell me electronic items made in Asia. It's like trying to sell ice to the Eskimos.
Senegal is also an Islamic country – 90% of the population is Muslim and the influence of the Mourides Brotherhoods is very strong – they wear long robes and control many of the industries here. The portraits of the Khalifs, or chief of the Brotherhoods are found in many shops. Here in Senegal, people are as likely to greet in "Bonjour" as well as "Salaam aleikum".
We also visited Goree Island, a former French slave station off Dakar, is also an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The island may have a tragic history but is today a pleasant and easy day trip out of Dakar. Many well-restored colonial buildings and picturesque setting with the skyline of Dakar's skyscrapers in the foreground. Glad to be back in tourist country after many days in "difficult" countries such as Cote d'Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
See http://twcnomad.blogspot.com/search/label/Senegal for photos and stories.
Cape Verde: Little Known Paradise
Portuguese-speaking country. Ever heard of Cape Verde Islands? This is a very small country with 400,000 people and 500km off the coast of West Africa. Interestingly, it is named after Cape Verde, a geographical feature not even in the country itself, but in Senegal. Cape Verde was first settled by the Portuguese and became an independent communist state in 1975.
Small and isolated, it also often suffered from droughts. Its history was tragically affected by major droughts where as much as 40% of the population perished in subsequent famines. The latest famine occurred in the 1980s during which the country survived on food aid from Portugal and the USA. By the late 1980s, communism was abandoned and the country began to develop tourism actively. Today, it attracts 500,000 tourists and is the richest West African nation on a per capita basis, and classified as a middle income country by the UN.
Cape Verde is Heaven compared to the rest of West Africa. No touts, harassment or corrupt police. Streets were clean and everything was orderly. No bored young men which are signs of potential trouble. Everything was easy and straight forward. We asked ourselves, what the hell were we doing in West Africa?
I had no expectations about the sights of Cape Verde and was pleasantly surprised by the weather and the pretty sights. Santiago, the island on which Praia (the capital of Cape Verde) was located, was pretty with dramatic mountain landscapes and nice Portuguese architecture. We walked around Praia, and then drove round the island, visited the valleys of the interior, the far north Fascist concentration camps, the pretty coastal fishing villages and the soon-to-be World Heritage Site, Cidade Velha. The islands are supposed to be even nicer. Pity we didn't have enough time to explore the other islands.
See http://twcnomad.blogspot.com/search/label/Cape%20Verde for photos and stories.
Guinea-Bissau: Past Wars In A Forgotten Land
A small country with only 1 million people. Guinea-Bissau was a former Portuguese colony once closely linked to Cape Verde. In fact, both countries shared the same nationalist founder-leader, Amilcar Cabral, who was assassinated by the Portuguese in 1974. Both countries had the same guerrilla army which fought the Portuguese and set up socialist states when independence came. However, regional differences split the party apart and unification talks were called off. Today, both countries were as far apart as the sun and moon. Cape Verde has prospered while Guinea-Bissau had remained a miserably poor country.
We flew TACV (Cabo Verde Airlines) from Praia to Bissau, capital of Republic of Guinea-Bissau. I had expected difficult immigration procedures here in this one of the poorest countries in the world, but everything was surprisingly fast and efficient. The officers were cheerful and easy-going, and certainly quite Latin in many years. Perhaps the legacy of a few centuries of Portuguese rule.
We put up at Hotel Kallipste which is owned by a Frenchman. The hotel, which also has a room full of jackpot machines (- a Mainland Chinese was there when I stepped in), looked like no place you would want to stay from the outside, but the rooms were immaculately clean, modern and well furnished. This, as well as the strong bank vault-like external doors, suggest that the ugly décor outside was perhaps meant to deceive prospective bandits and looters who tend to ransack nice places during any form of rioting or political unrest such countries experience from time to time. Indeed, Guinea Bissau, since independence from
We walked around
With a hectic schedule, we hopped onto a bush taxi heading for the
The Gambia: Mini State With a Medicine-Man As President
We entered Senegal's Casamance region, and then left Senegal to enter The Gambia by late afternoon. Roads in
English-speaking The Gambia, a strangely shaped country 500km long and 50km wide along both sides of the Gambia River, is a popular destination for sun-seekers and female sex-seekers from Britain and Northern Europe. Yes, single women fly here from the
Oh yes, this is also one of few countries that has a "The" in its name. The other is Sudan.
Oh yes, the capital is full of billboards praising the president plus a gigantic arch commemorating his "22 July 1994 Revolution". Strangely, the arch was supposed to contain a museum exhibition on the "Revolution" but we found a cool exhibit on juju (African white and black magic and medicine men) instead. Maybe this is appropriate too.
See photos and stories at http://twcnomad.blogspot.com/search/label/Gambia
Mali: Short Sojourn in Great Sahara Civilization
Perhaps the most interesting West African country. Land of ancient kingdoms and Sahara trade routes. Temperature 40'C or above. We were hit by the heat the moment we walked out of the plane. The predominant colours were reddish-brown - colour of the soil, the light , the mud-brick buildings, etc. The rooftops of many modern buildings here are built in the pseudo-Sahara style of architecture Mali is famous for. Just spent one day in Bamako before heading for Burkina Faso. I will be back here on 7 March to spend a few weeks here, exploring the legendary cities of Timbuktu and Dejenne, and the fascinating Dogon Country.
Ok, that's all for the time being. In a few hours' time, I will be flying to Ouagadougou, the exotic capital of Burkina Faso. I will write again.