Thursday, May 21, 1998

West African delights

Hi everyone

After two quite interesting e-mails (or so we've been told) we decided to now send out a relatively boring one just to prove to all of you out there that we do have a semblance of normality left in us. We don't want people getting the impression that we are simply rugged adventurers unable to enjoy the other side of life. In fact after four months in the jungle, spending a night in the Hilton Hotel proved just as exciting to us as a night in a pygmy village.

We have since recovered from the shock of that glorious hotel room complete with satellite TV, hot shower and air conditioning being provided to us courtesy of the American Peace Corp. It did take us a while though. After leaving that room two weeks ago we made our way down to Kribi beach on board a minibus shuttle aptly entitled La Kribienne. Kribi certainly is a beach paradise, enhanced by the fact that it represented the final point in our 4 month crossing from the Indian Ocean in the East to the Atlantic Ocean in the West. Of course one can just drive for half an hour in Cape Town and achieve the same thing, but you know us, we've just got to do it the hard way.

The Atlantic Ocean was truly glorious though, complete with waves that one could actually bodysurf. The surrounding little town also had a slightly Southern European ambience to it, with little 50cc motorbikes being the preferred mode of transport. Scooting around the town on the back of one of these we ran into the peace corps contingent again who had moved en masse down to Kribi. We enjoyed a wonderful night with them, bodysurfing in the moonlight, consuming various drinks and discussing the esoteric meaning of life until four o'clock in the morning.

After that night of revelry we lifted ourselves out of bed at 10 o'clock the next morning and walked six kilometers down to the area's famous Chutes de Lobe. This is basically a long row of waterfalls cascading directly into the sea and are fairly impressive to look at. We, however, found the motley assemblage of package tourists there far more interesting, taking various inane photographs and getting ripped off by the local tourist touts for everything.

After sampling the delights of Kribi for three days we decided to head on to a little isolated fishing village called Londji. This picturesque village is off the main road about twenty kilometers North of Kribi. During the weekends it gets a sudden rush of expatriates descending on its shores, as this pristine part of the coastline is also the preferred place for rich whiteys to buy their holiday houses. We arrived at the village on a Sunday and were immediately greeted by the sight of four forty year old women running around the beach completely bare-breasted. On the weekend this beach clearly belonged to them and their peculiar culturally insensitive practices. In the late afternoon, however, they closed up their houses, packed the kids in the car and drove back to their life in African suburbia, once again leaving this part of the world to the locals. It was this quiet solitude that we were after, and so we set about securing ourselves a place to put up our tent.
The view from our tent in Londji, Cameroun

The one rudimentary restaurant in the area was losing its owner to the city for the week, and for a small fee he agreed to us putting up a tent on his grounds about twenty steps away from the ocean. He also left us with the key to his outdoor kitchen, complete with running water and all the firewood we would need to cook ourselves up a variety of interesting dinners. We basically had our own restaurant and "house" on the beach for a week. This was what we were holding out for during those tiring months in the jungle.

The first night offered us up a magnificent welcoming in the form of a truly glorious thunderstorm. Sitting underneath one of our thatched eating areas with the rain pouring down above us, we gently sipped our coffee while watching the sky before us explode in a symphony of light. Vast blankets of cloud would form the backdrop for the ever present pulsating glow of sheet lightning, while those short, sharp powerful bolts would routinely come crashing out of the sky, enveloping the sea around it in a wonderful burst of dazzling light. We sat mesmerised by this scene for about an hour, at which stage the play moved off to tackle some other area of virgin sky.

The following morning we settled into our routine which was to stay the same for the next couple of days. Dave would wake up at six thirty, go for a thirty minute run, and join Lance for a swim as he stumbled out of the tent a half an hour later. After enjoying a breakfast of cornflakes and copious amounts of coffee, Lance would then settle into a full day of writing in an attempt at convincing himself that this book of our hapless adventures could one day be completed. Dave would retire to the shade of the palm tree on our beach and read all about the next section of our trip in the Lonely Planet's West Africa book. In the evenings we would treat ourselves to a sumptuous meal cooked over a roaring fire, followed by cups of tea under our thatched eating area on the beach. All of this activity would take place within the context of the locals going about their daily business of bringing in their catch of fish. It most definitely was a tranquil and relaxing period for us, with those images of large Congolese "Guys with Guns" slowly dissipating from our memories.

After Londji we headed straight on to the mayhem of Douala, a city which is sometimes dubbed "the armpit of Africa". One thing is for sure though, we certainly felt like armpits, with the extreme humidity drawing every ounce of sweat from our bodies. We had to come to this city though, as we needed a visa to Nigeria and the embassy in Yaounde was refusing to issue any. We thought we might have better luck with the consulate in Douala, and so with our fingers crossed we landed up inside their offices pleading for assistance. We finally managed to convince the receptionist to try and push for a transit visa, which unfortunately required us to leave our passports there for a week while we headed up to Western Cameroun.

The first city we stopped at was Bafoussam, which was supposed to be the site of one of the most impressive chefferies (chief's compounds) in all of Africa. Well, we weren't really impressed, but then again it takes a lot to compete against the sights of Ethiopia. Leaving the next day, we arrived in Bamenda and set up our tent in the local Presbyterian mission. By some strange quirk of fate, in other words that mysterious travel energy again, we found ourselves camped in the same place as three Peace Corps people we had left in Kribi a week before. In celebration we decided to go and see a movie, which much to our delight was in English. This area of Cameroun used to actually be an English colony, and most of the population here speaks either English or the rather strange pidgin English.

The three peace corps women also knew where the Bamenda Peace Corps house, or "slum" as they call it, was situated, and so we all made our way up there to savour its delights. Meeting more of these strange Americans we had a wonderful time cooking up a delectable meal in their kitchen and enjoying red wine and crackers with cheese. After two days of this living, we all made our way up to Foumban, where low and behold we met up with some more Peace Corps people. Having covered almost every one of America's states in the form of Peace Corps volunteers, we prepared ourselves for another two evenings of slightly non-African fun.

In the day though, we got our dose of African culture in the form of Foumban's royal castle and museum. Now this was an attraction worth seeing, as it housed all the artifacts of the Bamoun culture, including the little black book of the 16th Bamoun king. This King was quite impressive, having formulated an entire alphabet for the Bamoun language and recorded its over 500 year history. His most impressive achievement, however, must certainly be the fact that he managed to have not only a thousand wives, but also a couple of hundred concubines! Some guys have all the luck.

Finally we bid farewell to our Peace Corps friends, with David going off to Douala to pick up our passports, and Lance going off to Yaounde to wait for him. Thankfully the two wanderers weren't apart for too long, meeting up again two days later. We've have since spent the last few days trying to organise our money, speak to parents and deal with internet commitments. This last task has proven particularly difficult, as that very useful palm top computer decided to go and lose all the information stored on it, including the chapters of the book which Lance had battled away with in Londji. Oh well, deep breath, refocus and get the energy up. Don't worry, if we made it through the Congo jungle, we can definitely get this book finished, no matter what the bloody computer might have to say about it.

If you weren't overly impressed with the adventures contained in this e-mail then don't worry, because we will soon be leaving the relative calm of this pseudo Cameroonian democracy and taking on the instability of Nigeria and Niger (yes they are two different two countries). First we will be savouring the delights of arid Northern Cameroun complete with its clifftop villages and lunar landscapes. We thought this would be a nice environment to spend our year's anniversary in. Then its straight into Nigeria to the ancient town of Kano with its grand history and present day dictatorship (more Guys with Guns trying to get money from us: just the way we like it). After that its straight on to Niger, with its famed city of Agadez, once the heart of the trans-Saharan trade. It should be in this desert environment that Lance spends his 25th birthday. If not, then we hear there's lots of peace corps floating around that country who should make excellent company for such an auspicious occasion.

After Niger its straight down to Benin and out of what we envisage to be a month long internet abyss. Try not to miss us too much!!!

Speak to you again in Cotonou.


The African Wanderers

Lance and Dave

1 July 1998

Hi everyone

After a longer than usual break the African Wanderers are back! This e-mail spans five countries and has plenty of Guys with Guns for you to enjoy.

We last wrote from Yaounde, Cameroun. Soon after sending our e-mail to you we caught the overnight train due north to Ngaoundere. While sitting on the train waiting to depart we watched three different people getting beaten up, one of them because he had stolen something from someone. Catching a thief in Cameroun is generally a free for all, where everyone is allowed to have a blow at him before he is handed over to the police. Needless to say, he was quite happy when the police finally took possession of him.

We arrived the next morning in Ngaoundere and immediately caught a minibus further North to the dry, desert town of Maroua. Cameroun, like Nigeria, is a country of climatic contrasts with dense, tropical rain forest in the South and dry, dusty desert in the North. With Christianity being limited to the Southern half of the country we had now entered Islamic territory. We were stopped by the military on the outskirts of town and for the first time in a month the soldiers inspecting our passports spotted that we didn't have visas and we were ordered to report immediately to the immigration office. Fortunately, it was a weekend so the office was closed and we managed to escape the town undetected. On the way to Maroua we met a Peace Corps volunteer, Tara, and were invited to spend the night at the PC house where we spent a pleasant night sleeping outside due to the incredible heat. Yes, if anyone's wondering, the Sahel is damn hot! Over 40 degrees most days.

The next day we caught another minibus to the little town of Mokolo carrying a letter of introduction to another PC volunteer, Rebecca. We hit it off immediately and weren't that inebriated when we concocted a bizarre plan that night to travel the USA together following a band we'd never heard of before called Phish on their summer tour, earning money cooking meals in the parking lots (perhaps even our legendary chicken, mayo and condensed milk stew)! A great way to see the States.

The next day, we did a day trip to a village called Rumsiki, where some of Africa's most bizarre rock formations are to be found. From the relatively flat, brown terrain protrude giant needles of rock pointing at the heavens like giant fingers. Quite breathtaking! After sitting with the chief and chatting for a while it appeared as if we were going to be forced to spend the night there as, even though it was market day, the traffic was basically non-existent. Fortunately however, the chief (who proudly boasted that he now grew a South African strain of maize that had doubled his yield) managed to arrange that we get a lift back to Mokolo with the local military commander.
The lunar landscape of Rumsiki, Cameroun

The next morning after leaving most of the contents of our bags in Rebecca's house we set off on a week's hike into the surrounding semi-desert to visit various tiny villages scattered in the hills that mark the border between Cameroun and Nigeria. The flat lands that represent most of Cameroun are inhabited by the Fulani tribe, legendary cattle herders of the Sahel. The inhospitable mountainous region where we were hiking, on the other hand, was inhabited by the more primitive Kirdi people who had been chased there by slave seeking Fulanis many centuries before.

On the first day, the stupidity of what we were doing really struck home. Without water for a few hours in over 40 degrees of heat and feeling extremely thirsty we eventually discovered that in order to find water one must dig in the dry river beds about a meter down and wait for water to seep into the hole. But this wasn't our problem (in fact it was quite fun): our problem was that we had to reach the village of Tourou by Thursday to witness its bizarre market day. Tourou, however, was only 35km away and we'd left on a Monday. This meant that we could walk only 10km a day, which would take us about 2 hours, and then we'd have to sit around and do nothing in the baking heat for the rest of the day bored out of our minds. Dave almost went out of his mind that day, lying under a tree, when he realized that we were essentially wandering around the desert trying to waste time! The only thing that consoled us was that it couldn't be more boring than sitting in Tourou for 3 days. Fortunately, bizarre Africa came to our rescue.
Lance eating breakfast drew large crowds, Cameroun

That night we cooked under the stars, camping in a deserted cattle kraal. The next morning, after being woken by inquisitive kids at 5:30am we took things extra slow (that wasting time thing again) and eventually after a late porridge breakfast set off walking. The first day we'd mistakenly walked further than expected and had to our dismay stumbled upon a marker which claimed it was only 15km to Tourou. So this second day we decided to just get it over with and go straight to Tourou. We walked for about 4 hours and reached a large village having its market day. It wasn't Tourou but it was picturesque so we thought, what the hell let's camp here. We set up camp next to the water pump (a real luxury) and then Dave went to go and hang out with the locals in the market getting smashed on their traditional brew while Lance tried to write with an audience of 50 people peering over his shoulder. This audience eventually left us at around 10pm having studied our every move for 6 unbroken hours. Just as the crowd decided to leave we enquired about the distance to Tourou: 18km they replied quickly! We were lost!

Astounded we studied our map which was clearly completely inaccurate wondering how it was possible that in 4 hours walking we'd in fact covered minus 3km!

So off we set the next morning, marching towards Tourou - we hoped - and finally arrived that evening. The Kirdi villages are striking in that they are built on rocky slopes so steep that one wouldn't think it possible to farm or build there. What's more, each hut has the pointiest roof we've ever seen - identical to a witch's hat! What made Tourou extra special though was that on market day some really bizarre people from very remote areas would arrive with their small bags of goods for sale. The next morning, market day, we wandered around the market looking at all the strange products for sale and the even stranger people selling them. The most striking was one group of women who wore brightly painted and polished calabashes on their heads. They looked as though they were wearing cooking pots and, along with the piece of metal that jutted from their right nostril, they had to rate as one of the most peculiar sights we've seen on this trip.
Calabash-hat women on market day, Tourou, Cameroun

That afternoon we set off on a road that gradually disappeared into a rocky footpath in the direction of the town of Koza. We were shown to a shortcut by some friendly mountain dwellers and very soon we were completely lost again. We stumbled upon a beautiful camping spot in a valley along side a river bed where we could dig for water quite easily and decided to stop. After eating dinner and chilling by the fire we climbed into our tent to sleep.

We were woken at around 11pm by a mysterious roaring sound which was coming closer and closer. The next thing our whole world turned upside down as the tent collapsed and we were assaulted by the most violent wind we'd ever known. We managed to get out of the tent and sit on top of it to stop it blowing away as all hell broke loose around us. With mighty crashes lightning bolts would come shooting out of the night sky, briefly illuminating the eerie looking canyon complete with its ominous looking witch's hat huts. In a state of constant paranoia we felt as though we had stumbled into a Carlos Castaneda's book, with Don Juan himself casting evil spells on us.

Then the rain came down and we tried to put up the tent again. All in all it blew down three times, and made sure that we didn't enjoy more than a few moments of uneasy sleep that night.

Witches Hat Huts, towards Koza, Cameroun

The next morning, slightly dazed, we set off again and after being lost for the first while we eventually found the correct path. The problem was no one could tell us how far away Koza was. Whenever we pointed in a direction and said "Koza?" the people would think that we were greeting them in "white language" and reply "Koza" politely. Naturally this became a bit frustrating seeing that it was in fact their language. When we discovered a boy who could speak French we eagerly asked him how far we had to go and were dismayed when he replied 32km (in 2 days walking we'd therefore walked minus 2km) and were slightly more relieved 5 minutes later when the next French speaker told us it was 14km away.

Eventually we did reach Koza and spent two relaxing days (if that's possible in temperatures well over 40 degrees) with Maggie, another PC volunteer, reading, chatting and enjoying the best peanut butter basted beef brochettes in Africa. We returned to Mokolo on Koza's market day by truck where we celebrated our year's anniversary. It was marked by us introducing the famous Chicken, Mayo, condensed milk stew to Cameroun and our own personal rave in Rebecca's large lounge area. In case you wondering Christa, yes we did go OFF!

We said our sad goodbyes the next day (after convincing Rebecca that it probably wasn't a good idea to dump peace corps and to tackle Nigeria with us without a visa) and set off by truck and motorbike along a less travelled road to Mora to avoid the military guy who'd spotted our lack of visa.

After a day in Mora we headed to the border town of Banki and prepared ourselves for the problematic exit of Cameroun ("Visa? What visa?") and equally problematic entry to Nigeria ("Gift? What do you mean 'gift'?").

Fortunately everything went smoothly and we sailed into Nigeria with no hassles. On our way to Maidiguri we got stopped countless times and had money demanded from us but after both Congos these guys were a joke and we quickly sorted them out. From Maidiguri we immediately set off for the 1000 year-old city of Kano, once one of the centres of Trans-Saharan trade and of Islamic learning.

We spent three days in Kano, living in a most bizarre hotel. It was basically populated with prostitutes who quite predictably had nothing to do the whole day but sit around in their underwear painting their nails and braiding their hair. What made this hotel really bizarre though, was the list of rules that they had posted up. Here is an extract:

Penalty! Penalty!

1) Fighting in the room will attract a fine of N1000.00 (One thousand Naira only) and who's ever is at fault will pay an additional sum of N500.00 (Five hundred Naira only)

2) Quarrelling or insult of staff will attract a fine of N500.00(Five Hundred Naira only)

3) Quarrelling, direct or indirect insult and gossiping will attract a fine of N1000.00 (One thousand Naira only)

After reading these rules we hatched a plan whereby we could make millions going around eavesdropping on all the women's conversations. It would be the easiest job in the world finding someone engaging in gossip amongst this large group of prostitutes.

Deciding to devote ourselves to more worthy pursuits though, we visited the museum and the old Emir's palace as well browsing the markets and the ancient dye pits. Unfortunately most of the dye pits are now filled with dirty sewerage water. In the nearby town of Danbatta we also got ourselves each a pointy Hausa straw hat which we now wear everywhere! Looks simply fabulous doll!!

Most of the time, however, was just spent enjoying this incredibly cheap country (how about eight 7Ups for a dollar?!) trying out different restaurants and foods. We especially enjoyed the real Italian ice cream made by none other than a Lebanese guy, naturally!!. We have definitely come to the conclusion that there are more Lebanese in Africa than in Lebanon.

As we sat in the bus station waiting for our bus to leave from Kano to Lagos a guy walked up to us and in a worried voice said "Abacha done die!" Now naturally this posed a small problem for us for although we'd travelled in a country where there wasn't a democratic leader before, we hadn't travelled in a country where there wasn't a leader at all. We all sat crowded round the radio listening intently to the radio for news while, little did we know, at that very moment Abacha was being buried in that very city!

Our bus finally left at around 8pm and the next morning we jumped off at the town of Oyo, about 150km before Lagos. It was here that we discovered for sure that Abacha had in fact died. Most of the newspapers that morning were filled with letters from people stating how God had finally caught up with Abacha's acts. It also covered reports of huge jubilation in cities around Ogoniland, but unfortunately we saw none of that. We just checked ourselves into the nearest hotel and enjoyed a well deserved sleep for most of the day. Feeling fully rejuvenated we left the next day for what must certainly rate as one of the world's craziest cities.

Lagos is a giant city - some say it has 16 million inhabitants - which is spread over three islands linked by massive highways. It's grimy and overcrowded but has a real vibe. We dumped our bags with a friendly stall keeper in the market and wandered around the city for a few hours, successfully avoiding being robbed and soaking up its ridiculously hectic atmosphere. All around us people were crammed into narrow alleyways with their strange assortments of goods. Above them stood what can only be described as a complete mess of electrical wires, all crossing over, under and any other which way you can think of. Besides this activity you also had minibuses and cars all trying to squeeze their way through the mayhem, all accompanied by characteristically loud protestations. The police of course are not really there to keep the peace, rather just to extract money from the poor minibus taxis. On each flyway a rudimentary roadblock has been set up, whereby each taxi is required to simply slow down, surrupticiously slip the guy with a gun twenty Naira, and then move on again without stopping. We watched our minibus driver do that four times within the space of half an hour!

At around 2pm we boarded a Peugeot 504 taxi - Africa's most common car - and headed for the Benin border.

At the border we encountered the most incredible corruption we have ever seen. No sooner had we convinced an immigration official that we weren't going to give him $200 to stamp our passport than the next official confiscated our passport demanding money for its return. All in all ten different officials did this and even once it had the necessary stamps it was still confiscated again and again. Eventually we'd pried loose our passports from the last sleazy official (without paying any bribes) and entered Benin with whoops of joy where we were promptly asked for a gift by the immigration people there!

We arrived in Benin's biggest city, Cotonou, that evening and spent 5 days there with 4 other travellers relaxing in this superb city. One of the travellers, Eric , was doing the exact opposite of our trip, London to Cape Town, and he gave us valuable advice on our route ahead (unfortunately, when we last heard he was stuck at the Nigerian border with little hope of getting through). Other than watching World Cup football that's taken the region by storm, we spent an evening in the most fantastic Jazz Bar being enthralled by a Beninoise Jazz musician who after touring Europe for 10 years to great acclaim had returned to Cotonou to retire. On Sunday, the 14th, it was Lance's birthday which was celebrated with much bingeing in true African Wanderers style.

We left Cotonou joined by Stella, a long term British traveller, for the town of Ouidah: the centre of Voodoo for Benin and the world. There we visited museums dedicated both to Voodoo and to the slave trade and we walked down the famous Route d' Esclaves which is the route the millions of slaves that left these shores walked in chains to the waiting boats. They pass two trees: the tree of forgetting which they had to circle 9 times to forget their culture and homeland and the tree of return which they circled 3 times so that their spirits might return to Africa when they died in some far away land. On the beach at the end of this route an arch has been built titled "Port of No Return" and has images engraved which evoke emotions too powerful to write down. Staggering.

In Ouidah we met an African American woman who was studying to be initiated into voodoo under the tutelage of Benin's high priest of voodoo Dagbou Ounou. With her assistance we managed to organise an audience with Dagbou and early one morning we set off with an interpreter and a bottle of Gin each. Gin was the recommended gift of course...

We entered the compound inundated with skulls, statues and other fetishes where we were asked to remove our shoes. We were then lead into a room where, painted on one wall, we could see all Dagbou's predecessors dating back over 500 years. After about 15 minutes something stirred behind the grass mat hanging over the door and a colossal man of about 65 years in age, robed in the finest materials and wearing an ornately decorated top hat appeared. We were directed to approach him, bowing and presenting him with our gifts and after a few words of welcome we were free to ask him anything we liked through the interpreter. Now when one meets the head of voodoo one can't say "so tell me about Voodoo". This would be like meeting the pope and saying "so tell me about Catholicism"! So we asked deep searching questions on the meaning of life and the origins of the universe and Dagbou's answers were so simple they were profound, or evasive. It's difficult to tell which. Anyway he soon tired of our questions and after 45 minutes he made it clear that it was time to leave but not after he'd demanded we have our photo taken with him.
Dagbou Ounou, High Priest of Voodoo, Ouidah, Benin

That afternoon we headed to Grand Popo, a beautiful beach resort where we camped for 3 days, lazing in the sun and getting dumped by giant waves. After this we took up the invitation of a PC volunteer, Tucker, to visit him in his town called Come. There we spent two relaxing days interspersed by a big party night (these Peace Corps know how to party) with Tucker and 5 other volunteers. We also got to meet and chat with Charles Wiwa, Ken Saro Wiwa's nephew who'd just arrived that morning from Chicago.

Soon we were on the road again on our way to Abomey, the centre of the once powerful Dahomey kingdom. The kings here were quite unique in that they had a love of beheading people (criminals usually) during big celebrations and also kept an army of 6000 women - Amazons - who were brave and gallant fighters (and were preferred to men because they were thought less treacherous). King Glele, the most famous king, has his remarkable throne on display which is mounted on four enemy skulls! These kings each built a palace and vowed to leave a kingdom larger and more powerful than they inherited when they died. We also got to visit the tombs where food is brought daily for the spirits of each of the kings to eat.

On leaving we noticed a message left by some American missionaries in the visitor's book. We quote

"Our group had a very interesting visit to the abode of the former kings of Dahomey. It was very interesting and informative. We are grateful for our Christian heritage in America. May God become real to all those who seek him - King or Slave."

Another message criticised the voodoo-based kingdom as being blood thirsty. We thought this all a bit rich coming from a religion that not only brought the World the crusades but also the slavery that raped this country and destroyed the very same kingdom.

We left Benin the next day and entered neighbouring Togo. We soon realized all was not well when after a few kilometers our minibus was surrounded by hundreds of angry protesters marching down the street.

Togo has one of the last remaining long-term dictators. For 31 years Eyadema has ruled the country, and needless to say he is not to keen to give it up. Two days before there had been elections in which everyone had expected the opposition leader Olympio Gilchrist to win. Before the electoral commission had time to announce the results though, the Minister of the Interior came on television and informed everyone that Eyadema had won with 52% of the vote.

This action led to widespread frustration amongst the population culminating in street protests in downtown Lome. As to be expected we inadvertently got trapped in the middle of one. We were calmly eating breakfast at a streetside stall when suddenly we noticed a small cloud of smoke and everyone one around us packing up their goods. We thought it best to be moving on. Our destination for the morning was the American Cultural Centre and so off we went winding our way through the dusty streets. Coming around a corner we noticed a band of people all adorned in red pieces of material tied around their heads and arms. A minute later everyone started running as the police came round the corner and started shooting tear gas. Naturally we joined suit. This whole affair went on for about forty five minutes, us trying to get to the Centre, and the police waiting round different corners shooting off tear gas at protesters. At one stage we were even pulled into a building by a group of women to get us out of the police's line of fire. It was like apartheid South Africa all over again. In fact at one stage we even got the urge to run out and show our solidarity with the protester's by putting on our own red scarves, but then we thought we better wait until we were a little bit more informed on the political situation in Togo before we go and start taking sides.

Eventually we reached the American Cultural Centre only to discover that it was closed today; the reason, because there was a huge protest outside of it asking the American's for international help. All the time that we had been trying to get to the Centre, the police had forcefully been trying to keep people away. And all we wanted was to use the e-mail! We heard on the radio later that day that 31 people were injured in the whole affair. Thankfully we weren't one of them.

As soon as we had acquired our Ghanaian visa we left tumultuous Togo and crossed into Ghana, arriving here in Accra two days ago. Accra is probably the smartest, cleanest and most impressive African capital (after good old Cape Town) we've seen and has certainly been an eye-opener. In a day or two we head down the coast and on to Cote D'ivoire, Burkina Faso, Mali and in about 5 months we should be arriving in London!

We hope you're all well and we'll probably write again in 3 weeks from Abidjan.

Love as always

The African Wanderers Dave and Lance

Quick Language Note:

The two of us are becoming quite well versed in the multitude of languages that exist on this continent. Okay, so we can hardly be called fluent in any of them, but we do know enough French to talk our way out of an interrogation, enough Swahili to organise a dhow trip up the coast, and definitely enough Amharigna to respond to an Ethiopian's insult. with this knowledge we have decided to try and form a Transcontinental African language. What follows is a small list of some the words we feel should be included in it.

  • To describe something as cool or really fine: A number of languages almost got this one, but after much deliberation we finally decided to give it to Fufulde: Their phrase is "Jam-Jam", and we especially like the way it ties in with a famous Bob Marley song.
  • Nigerian English gives us the phrase for "get out". Their term is "Drop Down" and needless to say it caused us much confusion when we were first confronted with it.
  • Finally there is the issue of colours: Pidgin English in Cameroun definitely takes the prize for this. Apparently they only have three colours, Black, White and Red. If you want to say something is green, then you therefore have to say it is "Black like a leaf", blue is "black like the sky." The same goes for all the other colours.

We have many other interesting African languages, but we are afraid that you will just have to wait for further e-mails. Besides we are convinced that only half of you have managed to read this far anyway.

28 July 1998

Hello World

Before we spend the next three hours telling you all about our latest set of misadventures, we just want to take this time to tell you what these monthly e-mails actually mean to us. In this bizarre context of shifting places, weird people, insightful philosophical wanderings and most importantly no deadlines (eat your heart out all you business people), the infamous monthly e-mail represents our only form of structure and reality check. Granted David has also got a spreadsheet running on the palm-top telling us precisely what day our money will run out, but it is only really these e-mails which force us to contemplate everything we go through while we work our way up this map. In many ways it prevents us from becoming overwhelmed by the mass of bizarre stimuli being thrown at us everyday, and your responses confirms the fact that we are still managing to keep it all together. So basically what we are saying is that you can expect your computer screens to continue to be tormented by us for the next four or so months, as we use you wonderful people out there to maintain a tentative hold on our ever fragile sanity during this last stretch up to the top of Africa. Your responses really do go a long way in keeping us slightly normal, and so before you guys rush out to that important business meeting before dropping us a line, consider how bad you will feel when you receive a short e-mail from Mauritania simply stating "The Horror, the Horror".

Anyway, that's enough self indulgence from us so lets get back to the saga. When we last wrote we were in Accra recovering from the political turmoil of Togo and finishing those mundane travel tasks like exchanging traveller's cheques into local currency. This time, however, it proved to be slightly more exciting with us being taken in by a local who claimed he knew where we could get a better rate for our cheques. He was supposed to have been a seaman who had been educated at Oxford and had since visited numerous places around the world. Unfortunately our razor sharp travel instinct deserted us this time, with our suspicions not even being aroused when he claimed to have visited the town of Katanga in South Africa. The bottom line of the story was that David succeeded in being hoodwinked out of a couple of traveller cheques, but unlike our instincts Thomas Cook didn't fail us, replacing them in less than 24 hours.

After finally procuring the required Ghanaian Cedi's at a merchant bank we made our way up to the interesting cultural town of Kumasi on board a crowded Tro-Tro. A Tro-Tro is basically a little bit larger than your average African minibus and it is usually adorned with a variety of religious slogans and typical West African sayings. Of course these sayings do not make any sense to anybody not acquainted with Ghanaian culture, but as is usually the case, by the end of our four weeks in the country, phrases like "Monkey no Fine" and "Feeling Daddy" were somehow no longer seeming that strange to us.

In the town of Kumasi we set about discovering the local Ashanti culture. The Ashanti kingdom came into being about three hundred years ago when the high priest in the area Okomfo Anokye received a message from God to unite all the different clans into one powerful kingdom. To confirm that it was actually God speaking and not someone just pretending to be him, he sent a stool made of solid gold down from the sky, which quite predictably came to represent the power of this new kingdom. Okomfo then placed a sword in the ground at the exact spot on which it descended and claimed that if anyone was able to remove it the entire Ashanti nation would simply disappear. Needless to say, such a challenge certainly brought its fair share of chancers throughout the centuries.

Mohammad Ali tried and failed some years ago but the most infamous attempt was when some mad government official authorised the building of a hospital on that exact area. The folly of his ways soon became apparent though, when as the story goes, the bulldozer failed to budge it one inch from its neat and secure perch in the ground. Not to be put out though the building plans were ever so slightly altered, and amidst the bustle of a modern day hospital one is still able to see the sword buried in its three centuries old resting place. Being the rationalist that David is though, he wasn't prepared to accept any of these fanciful stories at face value and demanded of the attendant to be allowed to make one last attempt on that mystical sword. Unfortunately he was refused, leading to us never really knowing whether it is all true or not. We guess we will just have to wait until the fateful day when they decide to expand the hospital!

Kumasi also boasts an interesting war museum that chronicles both the war in which the Ashanti fought the British in 1900 and the war in which the Ashanti fought for the British in 1939. It contains a large collection of black and white photographs showing how local Ghanaians were sent half way round the world to fight in far flung places like Burma in a conflict which basically revolved around a couple of Europeans being pissed off with some other Europeans. Okay so that's a great simplification of the Second World War, but honestly speaking we are sure that Africans must have found it slightly strange to be taking orders from weird looking whities, in a conflict where they were having to take patches of ground from other different but equally weird looking people. Especially since they were supposed to be fighting oppression while at the same time being oppressed by the people they were fighting for!

Fortunately for us we had a Briton accompanying us through all these museums, who quite predictably served as a perfect sounding board for our newly acquired historical insights. We met Yael or "Sledge" as we prefer to call her, at the local Presbyterian mission in Kumasi which tended to serve as a veritable meeting place for interesting and ever so slightly eccentric travellers. Firstly, there were two German women engaged in a whistle stop tour of Ghana, one of whom worked for a credit card company and the other who played African drums in a band called Dundumba in Germany along with a group of Senegalese musicians. Then there were also the infamous "French Guys", two guys who are travelling around West Africa with a drum and a guitar delighting backpacker's like ourselves with impromptu performances. We spent three nights with this motley bunch of people, sampling the sights and sounds of the Kumasi market, hanging out at the local eateries and watching France carry on its winning run in the world cup.

Having delayed it for as long as we could though, we finally left Kumasi for Ghana's famous coast on the Saturday afternoon. Due to our late departure we ended up arriving at the small fishing village of Busua around 11h00 that night. In darkness we stumbled around the Alaska Beach Resort vainly trying to find the proprietor to show us where we could pitch our tent. Unfortunately we never found him, although we did discover an American by the name of Jordan stumbling naked around the place. He was a fairly strange character who we later found out had a propensity towards taking his clothes off and engaging in shows of naked yoga. Although he had only been in Africa for two months and was due to return to the States in a couple of days, he would still respond to the question of where he was from with the phrase, "originally America".
The Lion and the monkey, Busua beach, Ghana

Thankfully Jordan was not the only traveller at Busua though, as we discovered when we woke up the next morning. Sitting around the beach bar we met two very interesting Swedish guys by the names of Ludwig and Mattias as well as three totally zany American girls called Bren, Avery and Mary-Ann. The whole group of us somehow organised ourselves a boat ride at an extremely inflated price out to the small island which stands about 500 metres from the beach. We then went on an extremely entertaining walk - slightly under the influence - through the surrounding forest where we all proceeded to thoroughly lose it by imitating animal calls and any other random sounds we could think of to a beat set by the person walking in front. Needless to say the few locals that we came across on our forty five minute walk thought we were completely crazy. At the other end of the forest stood the quaint fishing village of Dixcove, complete with its very own slaving fort. The great thing about Ghana is that its coastline is dotted with all these grand forts and castles where one is able to gain a small sense of the dehumanising slave trade that took place here. Not only are you able to go on guided tours of these places, but in many of them one can actually sleep inside for a cost of only two dollars a night!

Party time!, Busua beach, Ghana

Although we didn't sleep in the fort at Dixcove, we did spend the following night at the castle in Prince's Town. We had somehow managed to attract the American girls onto our wave length, and so the five of us set out to explore this little known part of the coast. The castle stands majestically on top of a small hill, and with its own stretch of beautiful beach lying below it, one can't help but feel slightly blessed at being able to spend the night in such regal surrounds. Unfortunately the slaves of centuries past didn't feel the same way though, having being shackled together in the small dingy dungeons below. Fortunately their restless spirits didn't bother us that night as we engaged in abstract painting exercises, with Bren doing two rather bizarre portraits of us.

The following day we all headed back up the coast to the oldest and grandest of the castles in the fishing town of Elmina. It was here that we met up with Yael again and partied the day down in the town. The huge opening of the lagoon festival was taking place on that day, and amidst much revelry we watched as boats battled it out against each other in the lagoon, and various chiefs were carried in on large wooden structures resembling coffins adorned with elaborate gold jewellery. There was a great deal of pomp and ceremony culminating in the main chief throwing a large net into the lagoon to signify the lifting of the ban on fishing. Unfortunately amidst all the mayhem Lance had his pouch taken from him containing all his important travel documentation. Shit happens!

We finally tore ourselves away from the party at seven o clock that evening and headed back to Accra with Avery, Bren and Yael. Avery and Bren were due to meet Mary-Ann later that night at the extremely smart Holiday Hotel. Its the kind of hotel where one night would see six days of our budget being eaten up in one foul swoop. Graciously the three girls offered us the floor of their room, and after having our toenails painted by them (!) we finally drifted off to a peaceful sleep. Their hospitality did not stop there though, as the following day we were treated to hamburgers and pizza's at Southern Fried Chicken. What are we doing right we would like to know!

That night Mary-Ann flew back to the States leaving us with only the three girls of Bren, Avery and Yael to contend with. We managed to handle this tough situation though, with David faring slightly better than Lance. In an effort to show them a good time we took them to the Oldtimers Club, which is one of those great Ghanaian nightclubs that has a dance floor completely open to the night sky. In the light of an almost full moon we danced the night away dressed in our funkiest African clothes collected from various parts of the continent.

The next day saw Dave and Yael (as we said Dave fared better...!), Avery and Bren heading off to the backpacker's resort of Big Milly's, about an hour out of Accra. Unfortunately Lance was left behind to deal with all those bureaucratic niceties of acquiring not one but two bloody passports. He managed to reunite with them later that afternoon though and for the next four days we all enjoyed good company, excellent food, great music, awesome bodysurfing and other activities which are best not described here.

The beach at Big Milly's, Kokrobite, Ghana

Big Milly's is a great meeting point for travellers making their way round Ghana, and being the sociable kind of people that we are we naturally met all of them. The great thing about backpacker's places is simply the opportunity one gets to meet interesting people from all different parts of the world. Camped around the eating tables we found ourselves sharing thoughts with not only a bunch of forever crazy peace corps volunteers, but also a bunch of Dutch nurses and three women travellers from Austria and Germany. We also found ourselves being reunited with the two French Guys ,Greg and Ghiom from Kumasi, naturally leading to an evening of eclectic musical performances. Then there was John, an extremely chilled retired twenty eight year-old Navy Seals officer currently studying photojournalism. By the end of our time together he was offering to give us his pick-up truck in Missouri to travel round the States with. Man you've got to love travelling!

After our fun in the sun it was back to Accra to see Bren and Avery off on their flight back to the States. This crazy pair have got to rival us and the big-lipped Ethiopian mursi tribe as the most insanely weird and funny individuals ever to set foot on this continent. It was one of those heart-wrenching travel farewells, and rest assured girls if you are reading this you are still very much in our thoughts. Anyway as luck would have it, or should we say Dave's immense charm and good looks, we ended up spending two nights in Yael's father's house in Accra, enjoying great hospitality in the form of sumptuous meals, hot showers and satellite television.

Leaving Lance to sort out the continuing saga of his passports, Yael and Dave left to explore the Volta region of Ghana.

Our (Dave and Yael) first stop was the town of Hoehoe. After a short tro tro journey and an hour's walk through the forest we visited and swam below Ghana's highest waterfalls, the Wli Falls. The next day it was on to Likpe where we had an audience with the Nana or chief. He arranged for us to be taken up the mountain to visit the ancestral caves where a whole community was supposed to have lived in hiding from the marauding Ashantis. After a stiff hour's climb with our eccentric guide, Bonnyface, we reached the fairly unimpressive caves with our guide telling us proudly that he was sure that they were the most beautiful in the world. They just looked like holes in the mountain filled with tons of bat poo to us. Anyway we finally emerged from the caves on top of the mountain with stunning sweeping views of Ghana in front of us and nearby Togo behind.

That night we left Hoehoe and headed to the town of Ho where Yael arranged a free night's accommodation in the finest hotel in town which happened to be owned by her dad's business partner. [If you kiwis have managed to read this far, Dave definitely thought of you guys and about ho's in Ho in this town.]

After a sumptuous breakfast it was on to the small town of Atimpoku which is situated just below the monstrous Akosombo Dam. This dam, built in the late 50's is the biggest in Africa and floods over 7% of Ghana's surface providing hydro-electric power for Ghana, Benin and Togo, except when there's a drought like this year which has resulted in the whole country being rationed to 12 hours of electricity per day. After visiting the massive dam wall, we took a canoe trip on the river below the wall and managed to land on a small island where we found two men making palm wine and the local fire water, Apertechi. After chatting with the guys and tasting the brew, we headed back to the canoe, with Dave staggering ever so slightly (being culturally sensitive he didn't refuse the hospitality offered...) which might explain why he has little memory of the trip back to Accra a few hours later.

In the meantime Lance miraculously managed to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles of acquiring his two passports, and reunited with his identity met up with Yael and David again at Yael's father's house. He had spent most of the past six days camped out at Big Milly's, routinely Tro-Troing into Accra to sort out his stuff. During that time he had met another interesting array of people, including a Dutch and two Spanish medical students. There was also a peace corps volunteer whose father happened to be the Ambassador to Rwanda, leading to him making sweeping statements like "America has the best government in the world." Then there was the Berkeley student who believed that the American government was responsible for every evil perpetrated in the world, and was prone to tell you this every time you made a comment about something. Unfortunately these two people missed each other by a day, denying Lance an opportunity of seeing these two battle it out.

Yael and Lance chilling in Kokrobite, Ghana

After two more nights at Big Milly's, the reunited group of Lance, Dave, Yael and John the retired Navy Seal set off down the coast again for one last night in Princess Town Castle. The next day it was back to the two lowly African Wanderers as after another round of heart-wrenching farewells Yael and John left us and went their separate ways while we headed off for Cote D'Iviore. We are now shacked up in our tents on a camping spot on the beach a couple of kilometers outside of the capital Abidjan. It is a place known as the Paris of West Africa, and in our opinion certainly ranks as the most beautiful African capital city that we have come across in our travels. Tomorrow we say goodbye to it though, and start our Northward journey up to Burkina Faso and then on to the intriguing desert country of Mali. But don't worry we will sure to be keeping you informed of all our activities.

Still Chilling

The African Wanderers

Lance and Dave