My road trip through four West African countries

My road trip through four West African countries

Dr. Watson E. Mills, pictured here at one of the many coastal slave shipping centers in Ghana, writes: “During my 50 years of foreign travel, I have had the opportunity to visit 16 of the 17 countries that constitute ‘West Africa.’ I found travel in this region to be a fascinating and rewarding experience despite the ever-present threat of high risk diseases, such as Malaria, Cholera, Yellow Fever, and a smorgasbord of other tropical diseases. I found the region to be relatively untainted by tourism which, for me, made it more genuine and all the more exciting. In many ways, West Africa is the continent’s most difficult place for travel and yet, at the same time, potentially, it is one of its most rewarding.”

 

With a population that exceeds that of the USA, the 17 countries that are frequently lumped together and referred to as “West Africa” encompass a region of the “dark” continent that covers almost two million square miles. Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Togo, Niger, Sao Tome and Principe, Senegal, and Sierra Leone exhibit a degree of natural beauty and diversity seldom found in such a relatively small section of the world: beautiful coastlines, untouched jungles, massive deserts, winding waterways, and rugged mountainous ridges.
Today I write about my journey through four of these countries utilizing a mode of transportation that is unique to this part of the world. My “bush taxi” overland trip of approximately 400 miles began in Accra, Ghana, and ended in Lagos, Nigeria.
In West African lingo, a “bush taxi” is a shared ride between most of the capitals of the region. There is no departure schedule. A bush taxi departs only when all seats have been sold. In general, these cars, or sometimes vans, are a motley lot, many having logged hundreds of thousands of miles. Usually these vehicles sport tires that are badly worn. Frequently the exteriors and interiors include a patch-work of parts acquired from other vehicles and somehow re-attached. My particular 8-passenger “taxi” had no inside door handles and only one window had a hand-crank. Three of its four doors were each a different color–none of which matched the vehicle’s original paint. I paid for two seats in the middle row: a window seat for me and a center seat for my suitcase and back pack.

Bush taxi

After a short wait we headed out and were soon on the N-1 “motor way.” Understand that this roadway should not be compared or confused with motor ways in the industrialized world; however, it was paved, which in much of West Africa, is definitely an oddity.
First, I crossed a wide stretch of the Savannah, then the road narrowed as it wove its way between the sea and Lake Volta. Next came a glimpse of the biggest salt mining area in Ghana. We stopped briefly for photos and to stretch our legs. Food hawkers offered local fare such as fresh bread and dried fish.
While the 130-mile drive to the border of Togo provided beautiful scenery, I was unable to rid my mind of thoughts about the ugly history of this pristine area. It was from these very beaches that ships were loaded with captured human beings about to be transported to faraway places to live out their lives in captivity. I wondered how many of these enslaved souls had walked along the beaches visible from my window.
After about three hours of hot, cramped, bumpy travel I arrived at Aflao (the border town with Togo). I said goodbye to the driver and walked across the border into the capital city of Togo. After clearing immigration, I was immediately beset by bush taxi drivers offering me a ride to the next-door country of Benin. Instead, I opted for a “regular” taxi to the city center of Lomé where I had lunch before booking into a hotel for the night.
Sitting on the Gulf of Guinea, Togo is a sliver of a country that is well-known for the friendliness of its people and the beauty of its countryside. In the interior of the city there is a series of markets featuring the colorful fabrics for which this tiny nation is known. Lomé has retained its French heritage from colonial days and is sometimes affectionately known as the “Paris of Africa.”
The next morning I walked to the bush taxi depot and again booked two seats in a vehicle bound for Porto-Novo. I had traveled about four hours when I reached the Togo-Benin border. The immigration officer stamped my passport and I bid farewell to Togo. Next, I encountered the officers on the Benin side of the border. I had my passport and a wad of African money at the ready. The payment(s) I was about to make are euphemistically known as a “dash” or bribes and they are paid to the immigration officers so that they will “speed along” your clearance in or out of a particular country. The first official looked at my passport for a long moment and then asked, in broken English, if I had brought any “gifts” for him. Following the advice of my driver, I offered what amounted to about two US dollars. He immediately beamed and stamped my passport.

Rest area

There remained three hours of driving before I reached Porto-Novo where I spent the afternoon wandering around the open-air markets that are filled with traditional, native-made goods of every description. I walked a few blocks to the Royal Palace, the former residence of King Toffa. Today this former, royal residence is a museum that displays photos and relics from the days when he ruled over the region that is now Porto-Novo (1876-1908). I booked into a recently-built, relatively modern hotel and began to think about tomorrow’s final, long leg of my journey into Nigeria and wondering if this unrelenting heat would ever ease!
The next morning I had no trouble finding a bush taxi that would take all the way to the city center of Lagos. The driver even promised, in passable English, to help me at the Nigerian border crossing which is notoriously difficult for westerners.
It only took a little over an hour to reach the border with Nigeria. It was a pleasant drive along the coast. The air was clean and fresh on this bright, sunny morning. All of this revery, however, vanished when I encountered the array of border officials “welcoming” me to Nigeria. There were three inexplicable checkpoints where officials (read “impersonators”) sat at tables replete with cardboard signs lettered with Sharpie pens. Each of the gentlemen wanted a “gift.” One of these crudely-lettered homemade signs read simply: Document check post–whatever that might mean! The amounts I paid to each, however, were small enough to be sure and, given how tired I was, not worth my asserting any resistance. I wanted to resume and complete the additional six hours that would be required to reach Lagos.

Nigerian border crossing

Lagos is noted the world over for its hellish traffic congestion. I had read about the bottlenecks here but nothing could prepare me for the actual experience. Lagos has the highest urban population of any Nigerian state–more than double that of New York or London. As a consequence, Lagosians spend an average of 30 hours in traffic each week compared with drivers in Los Angeles who spend only 128 hours annually! One recent study projected Lagos would become the world’s most populous city by 2100, with approximately 88 million people. I took a taxi from the bush taxi/bus station area to my hotel–a distance of less than four miles. The journey required 75 minutes of driving time.
I had splurged and pre-booked a room at the Lagos Holiday Inn so that I could lounge around in an accommodation that included a hot-water shower, a functioning TV, WiFi and genuine air-conditioning–even a pool. Imagine my frustration when I arrived at the hotel right in the middle of one of their almost daily, afternoon “brownouts,” i.e., no electricity for the next several hours. Still, on balance, this four-day journey across four African countries is a trip I will fondly remember for years to come.