Saturday, March 25, 2006

A warm welcome

"You see all these people?" said the man behind the counter. "They are coming and going as they please. There is no hassle. You must tell people that there is no hassle in Cote d'Ivoire."

He was wearing an Ivoirian military uniform, and was parked comfortably behind a table at the boarder crossing from Ghana. The man was clearly bored and probably underpaid, and he had my passport. Early in the conversation he had made it clear that he didn't intend to give it back until I had paid him CFA3,000 for the privilege of a stamp. When I politely refused, he launched into a lengthy lecture on the state of affairs in Cote d'Ivoire, the treachery of the French and the generosity of the Americans.

"Do you see these computers?" He waved proudly toward two Dell flatscreens in the office behind him. "Who do you think gave them to us? Well, who? The Americans!" All things considered, I was glad that my country had scored highly on the computer front, but the man didn't draw the connection between the American passport in his hand and the machines in the office. He carried on for another 15 minutes, waxing nostalgic about the way things used to be, until I asked for directions to a taxi to Abidjan. He knew quite a lot about that as well. After enumerating all my options in terms of routes and modes of transport, he looked down at the passport and, almost as an afterthought, stamped it and waved me on my way. "Have a good day!" he cried after me. "Tell more tourists to come to Cote d'Ivoire!"

On the road from the border to Abidjan I felt for the first time that I was really back in West Africa. Our minibus hit a barrage (roadblock) every 20 minutes or so, and at each one we had to get out -- usually so they could search the car and hassle the Nigerian girl next to me. Sometimes they simply opened the back and called me out because the captain had spotted a white girl and fancied a chat. I don't know what it all accomplished in terms of security, but I'm sure more than a few bribes were extorted.

Ah, but what a beautiful country! Dense forest, banana and palm groves, gleaming piles of watermelons and bright mangoes stacked by the side of the road. Whenever we stopped the women in my car did a bit of regional shopping, and by the time we got to Abidjan the trunk was filled with pineapples, yams and bunches of live freshwater crabs tied together on a string.

The country may be at war, but it's just so much more fun than Ghana!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A land of extremes

(copied from a journal entry made March 21)

We find ourselves today in palm-frond huts perched precariously on a narrow strip of sand sepparating a fresh-water lagoon from the sea. It's a lovely spot, quiet and peaceful, except for the incessant wind that's been blowing since we arrived. It isn't hot, exactly, but the air is heavy and wet. It gives weight to the wind, making it distracting, a presence to be reckoned with.

There is no shelter from it here. The camp of Marantha consists only of ten windowless huts, a shade structure, a reed "bar" and a collection of sun-bleached wooden lounge chairs facing the lagoon. There is a small fishing village nearby and wooden conoes pass all the time, but the effect is nonetheless one of complete isolation. The handfull of Ghanaian staff move slowly, listlessly, and lie about in hammocks strung between the palm trees. No one speaks much, and the sound of the wind makes everything more distant.

We came here on a second-hand tip from someone Mariette (Dutch girl) met. The moment the tro-tro deposited us in the dusty town of Ada Foah, we were set upon by boys wanting to take us somewhere, anywhere, wherever we wanted to go. One had heard of the huts on the sand spit, and offered to provide us with a boat to take us there -- there seems to be no land route. We followed him, and were led into the shiny compound of a private house to wait. The place was called "The Hooker," and proudly displayed its logo of a woman sitting primly on a fishhook.

As it turns out, the Hooker is a fishing business run by two Americans and an Australian. As soon as they heard that three young white girls has arrived, cold beers were produced, a dinner invitation was proffered, and the canoe we were waiting for came and went. The men lent us their little motorboat for the ride over to the huts (a bit aghast that anyone would chose such basic accomodation), and sent it over again to collect us for dinner.

And so we feasted on freshly-caught tuna, ripe avocadoes and chilled white wine. The three men usually have clients to see to -- wealthy Americans over for week-long fishing trips -- but they have none at the moment and seemed glad of the chance to socialize with anyone new and female. The Peace Corps mooch in me couldn't resist. Besides, there is no water or electricity out on our sand bank, and these men have hot showers and South African cable TV . . .

The ride out is extraordinary, by motorboat or canoe. The lagoon -- a good-size lake, really -- is edged with dense palm forests and dotted with tiny villages of fishermen. The reed huts and palm-frond thatch blend into the trees, and at night all you can see of the shore is the occasional winking of a lantern. On the other side of the sandbar the beach stretches for miles in both directions, and the only electric light visible is the distant glow of a town on the horizon.

(We stayed in Marantha for two nights, and just got back to Accra today)

The devil in the details

It's like meeting an old lover, one for whom you've been pining for years. You find there are certain things you've forgotten -- they way he laughs at inopportune times, his annoying taste in music, his penchant for oggling other women. This is a bit how I feel about returning to Africa.

There are many details about life here that I seem to have filtered out of my memories. City hotels, for example -- I had forgotten the lack of running water, the unflushed toilets, the fact that many of them double as brothels. I had forgetten the restless loneliness of long evenings with no one to call and nowhere to go out. Also the blinding frustration of waiting forever for taxis to fill up -- not the waiting itself, that I remember, but somehow I also remember being more patient about it. Maybe I was.

I had forgetten how exhausting it is to walk around town in the heat. Negotiating the shouting, shoving chaos of a big city market with a handbag you're worried about, sore feet, sweat dripping into your eyes and only a foggy sense of where you're going . . . it leaves you longing to collapse in a cool chair with an icy frapucino. Needless to say, there is no Starbucks on the corner.

I thought I had spent enough long, long weeks in Conakry to remember these things, but it's funny the new memories I've been able to dredge up lately!

Thursday, March 16, 2006

A Walk on the Beach

Among expats working in West Africa, Ghana is a travellers' paradise. People speak English; there are buses, and they work; Ghanians are famously warm and friendly; there are elephants, if you can spot them; the food is, well . . . it could be worse; and of course, the beaches are spectacular.

These beaches have been the subject of many wintery London fantasies for me over the past couple of months, and I headed for the coast as soon as I could possibly get out of Accra.

17 hours after my plane touched down on African soil, I found myself stolling through the gentle surf on the beach at Kokrobite. The light was waning, the air warm and heavy. Few people were about, but I had nonetheless managed to acquire two companions, naked little boys of about 6 and 9. They frolicked up and down the beach like puppies, wriggling on their stomachs in the water and playing with anything that came to hand. After a while the crabs began to run, little translucent darts of motion that scuttled from their sandy holes to the water's edge, and back again. The boys were after them in a flash.

This all seemed very good, innocent fun until a crab was caught, and then the hunt was on in earnest. Isaac, the eldest boy, held his prey out to me as a gift, gamely offereing to rip its claws off for me. I assured him this really wasn't necessary, and suggested that the crab might be happier if he tossed it back in the water. Isaac looked a bit puzzled, then came up with his own sollution -- he tossed it up the beach, where it skidded to a halt in the dry sand. The younger boy shrieked with delight and pounced on the poor crustacean with a wooden plank. That was the last I saw of the creature sacrificed in my honour.

The game of crab torture continued, shells flying everywhere, and the further we moved from the backpacked camp the more rubbish appeared on the beach. After a while I noticed that the black spots among which the boys were hunting were, in fact, human faeces -- like many West African beaches, this one doubled as a public toilet. It makes perfect sense, actually -- every time the tide comes in, the area cleans itself. And this is exactly what began to happen as the three of us turned around. Trying to monitor the boys' kills and dodging lumps of floating poo, I reflected on how Ghana's beaches may be legendary in West Africa . . . but everything is relative.

It's good to be back.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Hello all,

This blog was set up to chronicle my trip through West
and Central Africa. I'm only going for three months
this time, but I hope to spin this reconnaissance trip
into something more permanent. From the comfort and
(chilly) safety of a London flat, I see this as an
opportunity to get a taste of life in conflict zones,
and to talk to people who make a living out of
reporting them. If I can pick up some news agency
work along the way or turn my observations into
stories, all the better.

My planned route includes Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire,
Liberia, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, Cameroon and the DRC,
and a number of countries in between. However, my
first post should be from a lazy beach in Ghana, where
several days of sun and drumming should give me just
enough confidence to take the plunge over the border
into my first real war zone: Cote d'Ivoire, my own
private coup, the mess I missed by just 7 days back in
2002. How touching that it has waited this long for
me . . .