Journey Across Africa

Below you'll find stories of my two year experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the small West African country of The Gambia. After my service I traveled solo, with only a small backpack, across West Africa; reaching N'Djamena, Chad after two months. Visa problems for Libya and Civil unrest in the Darfur region of Western Sudan made Chad my last stop.

Peace Corps Service: Aug. 2003 - July 2005

Journey Across Africa: July 2005 - Sept. 2005

Location: Boston, MA, United States

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Link to expanded Journal

Thank you for visiting! Please enjoy the journal entries and pictures below that describe my Peace Corps experience in The Gambia. To see the expanded journal you can click here. This includes about 20% more stories and double the number of pictures!

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

End of overland

Well, this is the end of my over-land trip. While I didn't make it to my goal of Cairo, I can claim, correctly, that I travelled across all of West Africa. Since crossing into Chad I'm now technically in Central Africa. How does one make that distinction? It helps if your currency says 'West Africa' or 'Central Africa' on it. The same currency is used in most countries in their respective regions.

While in N'Djamena, Chad I've been told it wasn't safe. You see the American Embassay staff members being chauffered to and from work from the Embassy in durable Landrovers This point was further illustrated when, while walking down the main street I've walked down a half-dozen times before in the few days I've been here, a European man honked his horn at me to come to him. He said this to me in English.

"You don't want to be walking on that side of the street. The guards over there, by the military camp, they will beat you or shoot you."

I was surprised to hear that! Not so much because of the threat but because I did cross that military camp just the other day. The guards neither beat me nor shot at me, but firmly (but politely) told me to cross the street. I thanked the European for his advice and continued walking.

For Peace Corps this is their third time in this country, being evacuated three times before. They served from


And currently only have 31 volunteers with their first group, since coming back, now just finishing their two-year term. Peace Corps wouldn't be here if it wasn't safe at the grass-roots level. When volunteers, in their village, are unsafe as a whole they evacuate the volunteers out of the country.

There are a few levels of safety advice (This is my personal view, but applicable to most countries)


Washington, DC
"Nowhere is safe for an American, except for America and our Allies"

Embassy in the country you are in
"Just stay outside the capital."

Peace Corps Volunteers
"The whole country's safe, except for this neighborhood, or this town, or this region."

"the whole country's safe, except for this neighborhood, or this town, or this region, at this time of day or week"


After a while you begin not to be as afraid of the unknown as Travel Advisory warnings suggest on the government webpage. That isn't to say places aren't safe, but they tend to overexaggerate a bit.

Here everyone carries knives. Why? I even asked that question to a Chadian.

"Why does everyone carry a knife?"
"To protect ourselves from people who carry knives."

I looked up at an akward angle trying to see the contradiction and circularity in that argument. Believe it or not, there is none. The parents WANT their children to carry a knife to school, because if they didn't they would get stabbed if a fight broke out and they DIDN'T have a knife.

Countries even do that principle on a grander scale.

"Why do we have nuclear weapons?"
"To protect ourselves from the countries who have nuclear weapons"

I've walked all over town at all hours of the day, meeting and chatting with the Chadians and looking at their shops and main street. I observed the volunteers rule of not being on that street not at midnight, but in early afternoons of Friday and Saturday. They even get a taxi around town around those times. Friday especially since the street is dead from everyone at the Mosque, and therefore more a potential to get robbed by stragglers (and go unnoticed).

I've been going out to eat with the volunteers, seeing the town, and seeing it's not as dangerous as that one European man said - if you take percautions. (i.e. taxi at night)

What could be a better way of ending your trip in Africa? By almost being arrested! A nice building that I saw, and took a picture of, ended up being the Vice President's second wife's home. People came out of no where and grabbed my camera and bag, yelling for the police. One even ran off to find one to expediate the process. While I tried to talk my way out of it, they held on to my bag until the police would arrived. After five-to-ten minutes of waiting the man who held my camera and bag threw them back at me and with a wave of the hand told me I better run away before the police came. Not wanting anything to make me miss my flight out of here the next day, I took his advise and went back to the Peace Corps Office - and didn't leave until dinner time!

All in all, it was a good trip. I learned a lot, experienced a lot, and am satisfied with what I did accomplished. After spending a few weeks in Athens relaxing I'll be heading home for the first time since leaving for service.



There are different handshakes around the world: You have the high-five young people give in US and elsewhere; the polite handshake when meeting a guest; the Clinton-esque handshake if your running for office; and then there's the handshake I saw in Nguigmi, Niger.

First off a short introduction to African greetings. You greet everyone everyday. There is even a set response, similar to "Fine" you give in the US.

Examples of both cultures meeting on the street:

[Bill and Bob cross paths, they shake hands]
"Hey Bill"
"Hey Bob"
"How's everything?"
"Fine. Yourself?"
"Good. Nice to hear it."
"Say 'hi' to the family for me."
"Will do."
[exit stage left]

[Lamin and Musa cross paths, if they are in a hurry they say this as their passing]
"Peace be with you"
"Peace be with you"
"How is work?"
"In peace"
"How is the family?"
"In peace"
"How is the wife?"
"In peace"
"How is your brother?"
"In peace"

What's unique about these greeting is that they take them seriously for doing them but not seriously for saying them. Each question and response is under the breath, each person hoping the ritual will be over soon. Granted, there are excited greetings; but this is just the basic stranger-meets-stranger greeting.

Once in The Gambia I was told to answer every question with "Jam Tan" which is Pulaar for "In Peace." I held a full five-minute conservation, with correct responses, during an introduction by just repeating two words over and over again! [I fumbled though when he finally asked what my name was. I responded "In peace"...]

It's also funny to see two people do the greetings as they pass on another. They still mumble under their breath the full ritual despite now being out of earshot of the other person, as if some harm would come to them if they end early without the other person twenty feet behind him being left alone saying "In peace" for the next few seconds.

OK, back to Nguigmi.

I needed to transfer money from West African CFA to Centra African CFA. My host drove me to the 'banker' across town on his mo-ped. We arrive at the guys house and the greetings commenced!

As two people greeted they faced each other and shook hands. Now your free [left] hand grabs the right arm, just below the wrist, of the person whom you are shaking. Both of you do this. Those left hands do not move and keep the light grip you have on them. You ask a question, he responds, you shake with your right hand. Your right hands now undo themselves and 'retreat' a half-inch back. Remember, the wrist of your right hand is being held by your partners left-hand. They ask another question, respond, and shake again. They retreat again. The left hands still holding on to the other persons right. Continue.

The first time I saw it I was confused to the arrangements of the hands and arms, so I paid attention to them as oppose to the greetings. However, then I realized they were greeting for a while, repeating this mini-handshakes over and over again.

The first greeting ended, and the second started. I started counting how many questions they ask one another and how many mini-handshakes they gave

"1, 2, 3,..., 15, 16, 17, ..., 26, 27, 28."

Twenty-eight times! I can't think of that many questions to ask a stranger just for the greetings! [You're not suppose to ask what you really want to ask them until the greetings are done.]

"How's the wife?"
"How's the kids?"
"How's the job?"
"How's your second-cousin?"
"How's your third-cousin twice removed?"
"How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?"

Luckily when they came to me it was just a one up-down motion handshake with an arabic greeting I knew the response too.

This is the song that never ends...

During the drive from Niger to Chad we drove mostly eight hours a day. This was split between two hours in the morning, ending around 10am, and then waiting in the shade until 4pm before setting out again for six more hours before calling it good for the day. If you drove during those six hours your engine would surely overheat, as the desert heat can be quite harsh.

The car I was in was lucky, it had a tape player. I was unlucky enough that of the multitude of tapes they could choose from, from about six or so, they chose one and played it continuously. The first time around it was nice and pleasant, the second time it sounded familiar, and by the third time I was thinking "Haven't we heard this before?". By the fifth hour I'm wondering if they're deaf, as surely hearing the same half-dozen sounds again and again for so long would drive any hearing-able man crazy. Nope, they chatted along.

Eight hours, same six songs.

Next day: I see them put in a tape. "Please let it be a different tape" I'm begging in my head. The same tape, again. As I'm passing in and out of napping I could almost tell exactly how long we've been on the road, by which song we were at and how many times previously I had heard it that day. For the next eight hours I tried to block it out.

Third day: This is the final leg of the trip before reaching N'Djamena. Four people, myself including, are scrunched in the back; while two more are up front. Someone suggests a tape to play. They put it in. I could tell it's not the same tape! I'm getting excited! "Finally!" I was thinking. Nope, the tape doesn't work - out comes the default.

By seven o'clock in the evening we're in N'Djamena at the driver's house. We're relaxing on mats out in front, drinking tea, and just watching nightlife pass us by. They brought out a portable tape player from inside and pushed play.

I went to bed as there's no way I was listening to those same songs again!

FINALLY, the next morning Ali's driving me into town and to the Peace Corps Office. He puts in a tape and push play while I got ready to drown it out.

No, woman, no cry;
No, woman, no cry;
No, woman, no cry;
No, woman, no cry.

BOB MARLEY! I was so excited I started signing to the music! Bob Marley never sounded so good in my life. I have a feeling I would have sung to Madonna had he put it in - listening to over 20 hours straight of the same six songs really drives you crazy!

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Beirut, Lebanon

Went out to eat today at a Lebanese restaurant for lunch. When I entered the manager, realizing I was American, spoke perfect English to me and wanted to show me something. We walked to the other side of the restaurant where a picture of Beirut, Lebanon was shown.

“Ah! Beirut. Capital of Lebanon. This picture was taken in 1958. You see the green? The big park stretching the length of the city? Wonderful park! It’s no more. No park today. Over there it’s the American Hospital, over there is the American University, over there is the American School. American, American, American! ALL AMERICAN!”

I didn’t say a word.

He let out a disgruntled sigh, relaxed a bit and then did a complete 180 on emotions. “Please! Sit here! Would you like something to drink? Water, beer, soda?”

Other than the initial shock, it was quite a pleasant lunch!

Deportation means Desert Detour

Days 60 – 64
Sept. 15 – Sept. 19
Trying to get Chad

I’m going to write this the long way, since it’s just one long story. It will be temporarily be broken up by day-to-day statistics.

Thursday morning, (Sept. 15), I went to the garage park in Diffa for a car going through Nigeria to Chad. Using the map they told me I had to buy a ticket to Maiduguri, Nigeria and then another to Ngala, Nigeria to cross through Cameroon and into N’Djamena. I bought the ticket to Maiduguri and got into the car. However, before I did I asked if I could get a visa at the border (it was possible to get into Niger that way). The man in charge knew enough English to understand what I was asking and said: “No problem. Visa. Border. Yes. You get visa, you cross border, you go to Chad. No problem. You be in Chad tonight”

We crossed the exit point for Niger. No problem. Passport was stamped and all information was collected. Got back into the car to cross into Nigeria. Problem.

Luckily Nigeria is an English-speaking country; which helped this scenario out a lot!

The guard looked through my passport: “Where is your Nigeria visa?”
“I was told I could get one at the border.”
“Who told you that?”
“The people at the garage park.”
“In Diffa.”
“No. You can not get a visa here. For them, no problem. For you, problem.”
[Citizens of West Africa can travel in different countries as easily as Americans can travel to different states. They don’t need a visa to enter a bordering country, except if it’s not part of the West African region]

He’s trying to figure out what to do. He calls another guard over; he asks the same questions. They rummage through a stake of papers and find a letter they had written previously granting permission for passage. However, it was quite a few years old. They were debating whether a letter written for me would work. They called in their supervisor. He wasn’t quite as nice.

“No! If you don’t have a visa you can not enter Nigeria! Did you think you could get into Nigeria without a visa?”
“I was told I could get one at the border.”
“I understand that. Did you think you could get into Nigeria without a visa?”
[That’s a hard question to answer. Technically, I could answer ‘yes’ since I WAS in Nigeria without a visa; but I would sound arrogant and who knows what he would do. If I answered ‘no’ I sealed my own case. Back to the standard answer.]
“I was told…”
He interrupted “Yes! I understand! However, DID YOU THINK YOU COULD GET INTO NIGERIA WITHOUT A VISA!”
[No hope] “No.”
“Ok. You go back to Niamey, get Nigeria visa and come back.”
“But I don’t want to go back to Niamey.”
“You want to enter Chad?”
“To enter Chad through Nigeria you need Nigerian visa. To get Nigerian visa you must go back to Niamey. Once you have visa you can come back here and travel through to Chad.”
“What about Nguigmi?” [Nguigmi is a town in eastern Niger, further east and north of Diffa which shows on the map it’s a border post to enter Chad – through the desert]
“Yes. You can enter Chad through Niger through Nguigmi.”
“Ok. That’s what I’ll do.”

This whole process lasted about a half-hour with the rest of the car waiting for me. The border patrol took me back to the car, ordered the driver to give me the bulk of my money back, and took my stuff out of the car. The car continued on to Nigeria without me.

The guard would escort me out of Nigeria, on his motorcycle, if I paid for his fuel. I gave him the $3 and hopped on with my bag on my back. I was being deported from Nigeria. He drove me all the way back to the car park and helped me find the correct region for Nguigmi. [Different towns have different regions within the car park for the cars to wait to fill up] I thanked him for the ride and he went back to his own country.

By noon a car was ready to go to Nguigmi. It had been in the hot sun for over two hours, waiting for the cargo of rice bags to finish being loaded. I had to ride on top of the rice bags, feet dangling over the front cabin. However, to get on top I needed to grab the metal railings to push myself up. Metal in hot sun doesn’t help. My hands were bright red by the time I got up, and was wincing in the pain. Kids realizing I couldn’t handle the heat just grabbed on and were doing monkey aerobics on the railings. I don’t know how they did it, but they had to be use to hot metal since it was HOT!

In the Olympics you have synchronize swimming – in Niger you have synchronize ducking. The road was one of the worst I’ve been on, decaying on both ends so only the middle section remains with potholes splattered among that section. Most of the time we rode along the road, on the dirt trails, next to the trees. Trees have branches. We’re 10 feet up sitting over the front cabin. Tree on your right, everyone swings to the left. Tree on your left, everyone swings to the right. In some cases there wasn’t room at all to swing. The branch was so big that within a two second window we all had to either jump down to the back cabin, on top of the driver’s cabin, or lie down on top. You kept your eyes open!

The ride was suppose to take only three hours. It took us thirteen. The three hour rule was said by the Doctors using 4WD in a private car. That might be true. I was on top of a pickup truck with a dozen other people in the back. Then, two things happened:

Flat tire. We waited on the side of the road for three hours as the driver took the spare, found a motorcycle to borrow, rode back into town, got a new tire and rode back.

Two hours later, another flat tire. Luckily there was a village nearby. The driver walked the 45-minute one-way trip to the village, and walked back. He needed something that he forgot, or didn’t know he needed. An hour-and-half later he’s back again with a new tire.

Those two flat tires cost us a six hour delay. There’s a rule for traveling in third-world countries using public transportation: Assume the road is in perfect condition and you have a private vehicle. Estimate how long it will take to get to your destination. Multiple that by pi. Then multiple again by your favorite number. Take that number, write it down and then crumple the piece of paper up and throw it away. That’s your best guess.

We arrived in Nguigmi at a quarter to one in the morning. Another passenger said I could sleep at his house, and showed me an empty room with a mat on the floor. The room was hot, but because of the ride on top at night it had the feel of a cozy bed after working outside in the winter for a few hours. I fell asleep instantly.

Day 61
Sept. 16

At the car park to N’Djamena the “big boss man” was trying to find a car for me. He tried, unsuccessfully, to get me to pay $100 for a ride. “No problem!” he would say – a big clue you were getting ripped off. I looked at the map, judged the distance, and estimated that $50 was a reasonable price. [Found out later that was a good guess as it was very reasonable price] His actual response to my $50 suggestion:

“Ok. Yes. No problem. 25,000 Franc government price. No lower. No higher. Fixed. You go to N’Djamena for 25,000.”

He found a car to take me for $50 and I got in the front. A minute later the driver turned to me:

“There’s a problem.”
“He wants more money. Maybe give him 10,000 Francs. [$20]. No problem, we go.”
“He told me ‘no higher’!”
“Yes. But you pay 10,000 and we go. No problem.”

I got out of the car. The ‘Big boss man’ found another car. Again I got in the back and minute later another ‘problem’ was raised.

“Problem. You no give money.”
“I gave him money! I gave him 25,000 francs.”
“Yes. That money for ride.”
“Yes, so we go.”
“Problem. You gave money for ride, but no money for him.”
[Aaahh!] “I gave him money.”
“No. Money for ride. We no go unless money for him.”
[Aaahhhh! Aaahhh!] “How much?”
“For breakfast.”
“Yes. How much?”
“You give 2,000 we go no problem.”

I paid the guy the $4 so we could leave. Throughout the ordeal I had four currencies in my wallet. Niger uses West African Francs while Chad uses Central African Francs (1-1 exchange, though); add to that the few dollars I kept from the exchange in Nigeria, and emergency American money.

I was in the back, with Ali the driver and Yahyah as front passenger. Yahyah spoke decent English with Ali less so. If you look on a map, to get to Chad from Nguigmi you have to go through the desert and that’s exactly what we did – as a caravan of cars. I stopped counting the number of times we stopped to push someone out of the sand. It wasn’t sandy as a dune, but more of dry dirt on the edge of a desert. The acrobats the cars did wasn’t made for the cars. The ride was meant for a dune buggy and we were in a regular car doing donuts and jumping hills (once we were on two wheels!). Even the back bumper came off and we had to tie it on the roof. The drivers would take turns trying to pass one another, swerving off the beaten path (you WOULD get lost if you went by yourself!) and speeding through the brush to get ahead of the curve in the road.

I forgot to mention that after we started, at nine in the morning, and crossing into the border, we stopped until four in the afternoon. Those six hours were just spent lying around, the muslims praying, and us having lunch. It would have been hot to travel in the middle of the day.

We stopped that night in a random village near Rig-Rig. I would sleep in the car, in the passenger’s seat, while they slept outside. Ali and Yahyah left while I had my dinner (bread and pineapple) and even shared some bread with the children. The closest kid grabbed the half-loaf and run like a bat out of hell! I pointed to the others that it was for all of them and they soon ran after him.

As I laid down in the car the kids came back. They tapped on the windows, which I ignored, and even made animal sounds that drove me crazy but I ignored. But then a few started spitting on me. I have never had a kid spit on me in Africa before! Any misbehavior on a kids part usually results in a severe beating from the father. No other grown-ups were around so they were just being kids, with no restrictions. I yelled at them, and even opened the car door to get out but they ran off. Before they came back again Yahyah and Ali showed up. I told them what happened and Yahyah went to tell a villager. He came back:

“No problem. We wrote down the list of names of the children. Monday the headmaster at the school will take care of it.”

I wasn’t sure if we was telling the truth or not. So, I bluffed a little bit.

“Tomorrow, no Chad. Chad problem! Tomorrow we go back to Niger. Niger no problem.”

His faced turned to shock: “No! No. Chad no problem. Village here, no white man before. Only village problem. Chad no problem. No problem. Headmaster Monday, no problem.”

“Fine. Tomorrow N’Djamena.”

“Ok. No problem.”

We went to sleep.

Day 62
Sept. 17

An hour after leaving from the village we arrived in Bol, at ten in the morning. I should have guessed how long we would stay here, but didn’t think of it. The customs needed to write down my information, but there was a problem was it was Saturday and they were closed for the weekend.

A teenager was sent to collect me and get my information. We walked to the police station, which was open, but the cabinet for the papers were not. He didn’t know what to ask me, but was ordered to get all my information. We sat on a bench outside while he wrote on a blank piece of paper my information. I’ve been through enough immigration offices to know what information they need. He forgot the visa number, any military experience, number of wives, numbers of children, etc. I had to help him out.

There’s a volunteer stationed in Bol, but since I didn’t know when we would leave I took a nap instead by the car. One nap turned into two. Two was able to turn into three before we were called to go. It was four o’clock.

We drove for an hour, stopped for an hour. Dinner.
We drove for an hour, stopped for an hour. Prayer.

At dinner time they gave me a coke. This was the first Coca-cola I’ve had in a year-and-half. We’re out in the desert, they bought it for me (well, using my money); and it was a kind gesture so I took it. I think having a coke for the first time in a long while is like having your first beer – everything tastes funny! I could taste the sugar, the water, the syrup and even the temperature change of liquids in the middle of the bottle compared to the sides. It just didn’t taste right.

There’s one good thing about paying that $50 for the 3-day ride: you have the option of stopping the entire car when you have to go to the bathroom. I had go, bad. Multiple times. That was worth every penny. We were in the middle of nowhere and no pit latrines available. It was in the bush I went. I even used up all my toilet paper I had and had to resort back to Peace Corps training.

Finally, the town of Massaguet was reached. We were staying at a friends house and they laid out a foam mattresss for me and a mosquito net outside. I went to bed almost immediately.

Day 63
Sept. 18

Why arent’ we going yet? It’s early morning! On the map, we’re only a centimeter away from N’Djamena. We could be there in just a few hours. No. We relax. We wash the car. They killed a ram. This was going to be a long day.

I sat inside the hut for most of the day just reading and trying to stay cool. The day before the plastic containers inside my backpack were starting to melt. Toothpaste already exploded, the water in my Nalgene bottle was close to boiling (or sure felt like it when drinking), and it wasn’t even mid-day yet!

They sliced cucumbers, onions, and grilled the meat of the ram. I don’t know what the occasion was, but twelve of us ate soup, beans, soda, plates of meat, and pineapples for lunch.

The guidebook said this about this part of the trip “as little food is available so prepare to get thin.” I thought about that statement as I’m holding hands full of meat and veggies. Whoever wrote that must not have gotten a good deal on the trip.

At four o’clock we finally left Massaguet for N’Djemana.

Same procedure
We drove for an hour, stopped for an hour. Dinner.
We drove for an hour, stopped for an hour. Prayer.

It took us four hours to go a short distance. We reached N’Djamena at eight at night and the driver let me sleep at his house for the night.

Day 64
Sept. 19

Ali took a detour tour of the city while trying to find the Peace Corps office for me. I saw the ordered chaos of the city, no traffic laws that I could see; motorcycles and mopeds going in and out of traffic, swerving around the round-about. Even saw someone walk his pet-monkey, leash and all!

I had e-mailed the country director earlier asking for the address. His reply:

Now I could see why. It was next to a garbage dump, with litter and mud splattered randomly around the dirt road and huge detours you would have to take if you chose to go down that road any further.

I went out to eat with the Associate Director for lunch. He was shocked I had visited Chad: “Why are you here? There’s nothing here! Nothing! We even encourage our volunteers NOT to come to the Capital. This isn’t a tourist area.”

Thanks for the comfort.

The waitress accidentally tripped on a chair, which by chain-reaction had my lunch and drink splattered on the floor. His response to the scenario: “See, that is how we treat foreigners!” I could tell it was an accident, but his comments were quite negative.

I explained that my first day I was spit on. “Yes. That has happened. One volunteer left her village and went home because of the harassment. Spit. Yes. It can happen. I am even surprised you stayed at your drivers house. It is not safe.”

[I was thinking it was quite safe; they fed me, toured me around the city, and even let me sleep at their house without any charge other then for the ride down]

Back at the office I was pleased to find that the Associate Director invited me to stay at his house for the night since I hadn’t found a place to stay yet. Both the Peace Corps office and his residence (along with the other American residents’) have brick walls enclosing the compound with barbed wire in a helix pattern on top. Guards stand 24/7 at every post and every Tuesday morning each American employee working at the Embassy or Peace Corps must acknowledge a radio call for safety and security reasons.

The next morning we took his kids to school. One of them, named Morgan, was his very first day of school – little backpack and all. The father brought out his digital camera and was taking pictures, to his the confusion of Morgan. When they left he naturally cried. This was at the American International School where the children of American citizens can get an American equivalent education up to grade eight. There are other options for higher grades. The compound had swing sets, slides, merry-go-round, all enclosed in a guarded barbed-wire compound.

So far I’ve only met friendly Chadians – some even offered me rides to certain places, like the Egyptian Embassy to get my visa.

We’ll see when my flight is.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Medecins Sans Frontieres

Day 59
Sept. 14
Diffa, Niger

No volunteers are stationed in Diffa, as it is too far East and the roads are terrible. I was told about the conditions of the roads, and got myself ready for a rough ride, but it was better than any road in The Gambia. To date, which will change in a bit, only one other road compared to the South Bank road in The Gambia and that was the Nioro to Diema road in Mali, which took eight hours to travel 60 miles. All the rest, while very poor in American standards, were a comfortable ride in Gambian standards.

Despite not having any volunteers in Diffa, I did have two contacts. A former volunteer, who never went home after service and moved to Diffa now runs a camel-riding company. I was told to ask for “Camel Steve”. The other, a former Peace Corps driver, the local chief of police would know and could direct me.

After an hour or so of asking around I found the Police Station and Chief of Police. I showed him the piece of paper I had with the driver’s name on it, and tried to pronounce. No clue. I tried Peace Corps, Corps de la Paix, American, [I wasn’t about to ask for “Camel Steve” and try to explain that ‘Camel’ was not his first name]. Finally, he announces:

“Ah. American. Medecins Sans Frontieres!”
[What was ‘Medecins Sans Frontieres’??] “Yes! American! Medecines Sans Frontieres.”
[I knew ‘medecines’ was doctor and took a shot at the dark that ‘frontieres’ was border, or upcountry of somesort. Ah! Doctor’s Without Borders!]

The policeman pointed to a local man who showed me the way to the MSF compound. There was a doctor, from Holland (the country), and a nurse (who went to UM) working when I went in. Her first question: “What are YOU doing here?” I was the first traveler they had seen since being in country. I found it intriguing that I first passed through a famine area and now am a tourist in a area where there’s Doctors Without Borders. They were impressed that I made it this far, considering the weight of my bag doesn’t exceed 25 pounds and is just a school backpack and I don't know the language.

It was going to be a busy day for them, as they had to go through all fifty-some contracts with the locals individually in order for them to get paid and know what their benefits and procedures were. Before today they were going on a day-by-day basis. Understandbly he recommended a hotel I could stay at for the night, but was welcome in the evening to hang out. He even got one of the drivers to drive me to the hotel!

After showering, doing laundry (goats were about, so I had to find a higher place for the clothes to dry or else they’d get eaten), and taking a nap I went back to the police station to get my passport exit stamped, as the guidebook said I should. They didn’t understand what I wanted and just stamped it as a visitor. Oh well, I crossed into Mali without an entrance stamp.

I spent a few hours at the Doctor’s compound; there were nine there in all, but I only saw five of them. Two doctors and three nurses. One book they had in their collection which I found fascinating was “Engineering in Emergencies : A Practical Guide for Relief Workers” It shows how to set up a camp to handle 10,000 refugees including water treatment, medical, housing, all from scratch. Also included in the book were Engine mechanics, simple physics (for pulleys, water treatment, and basics on a need-to-know basis [i.e., water treatment had fluid dynamics]. It was an interesting book.

They usually see malnutrition in their cases but a few others not-related. One doctor told of a story that two brothers were playing in the mud when an alligator (or crocodile?) attacked. They screamed and their father ran to help them. The crocodile had grabbed the buttocks of one of the younger kids and it took the father to stab the crocodile with a spear to have him let go. The doctor explained that a whole cheek was missing when he arrived, but eight weeks have gone by and slowly the wound is healing. “Cutest kid I have ever met!” was the doctor’s impression of the wounded boy.

A nurse had another story. A poisonous snake had bit a girl on the leg. While she didn’t die her leg started to deteriorate. When they finally brought her into the hospital only the bone and strands of infected muscle were what was left of her leg. They’d have to amputate. The father declined. The reason: He didn’t want his daughter to be handicapped; no man would want her. The nurse was reposted before she could see what recovery the girl could have gotten.

We talked about Niger, the famine, and news from back-home. They had not heard of Katrina in New Orleans in a while, and didn't know the Chief Justice had died.

Being just 6 kilometers from the Nigerian border, and being a market day the next day in Maiduguri, Nigeria they suggested I go to Chad by that route. I exchanged 20,000 CFA (~$40) from them for Nigerian currency. I'd figured I'd been told three times to go through Nigeria to get to Chad, this being the third, that it must be a good option to take.

I left when they were going to have a full staff meeting, and went back to the hotel; which happened to be the only one in town.

Three beatings in one day.

Day 58
Sept. 13
Start: Zinder, Niger
Middle: Goure, Niger
End: Somewhere between Goudoumaria and Kelakam, Niger

The night before I went to the car park to get a ticket to Diffa. They kept on repeating: “Ceasar.” Which I kept on thinking “Julius?” I figured I better remember that word and ask one of the volunteers. “Ceasar” is actually “six heures” or “six-o’clock” I guess we leave at six.

At seven, while waiting for the car to fill up I heard a commotion by the car. I don’t know what the argument was about, but one man threw a rock about two-fists full size at another hitting him on the head and knocking him down. The man who threw the rock just walked away, while other Nigeriens were yelling at him. He got on his motorcycle and left. Meanwhile, the guy on the ground gets up and is bleeding from a gash in his head. Blood is pouring over his hands as he covered the wound, and is dripping onto the ground making a puddle. He refused all assistance and started walking away, leaving all his stuff behind. He stumbled back and forth across the street for a block before another man picked him on a moped and presumably took him to the local hospital. No police were called.

I noticed this in the Gambia also, but not to this extreme. People are pleasant, helpful; but when they get into a fight all hell breaks loose. The fight happens out of no-where and it could be because of a simple act. What I witness in Zinder was the most extreme case.

I was told to get in front, between the driver and another passenger. The stick-shift was pressed up against my thigh, my head was hitting the scented-tree ornament, and my back up against the edge of the passenger seat. It was going to be a long ride…

We stopped at Goure for lunch. I saw the start of two brothers bickering at each other, which eventually went to shoving and then a full-out hitting match rolling around the ground with other kids cheering their personal favorite. That is until the father came by with an elastic stick and mercilessly whacked each of them across the arms, legs, and rest of their body until they stopped and ran full-speed away in horror and pain – not from the fight but from the father’s stick.

Two minutes later an elder boy tormented a younger handicapped boy by walking away with his crutches (soldered pieces of metal with no cushions). The younger boy, with crippled legs, dragged himself to the new location begging in tears for his crutches back. The older boy walked farther away. I saw the father coming along and I feared for the worse. I expected the worse, but witnessed even worst. The father grabbed the crutches away from the older boy, who ran away, but then while the younger boy was on the ground the father hit him once with his own crutches and then grabbed his arm and dragged him away out-of-sight as his withered legs tried to fight back against the motion. The cries continued, with each new hit producing another shriek in the air.

Others went about their business as usual. No one stopped the fathers in either case. I could understand the first case to a degree, but what did the handicapped boy, about age eight or so, do to deserve being beaten by his own needed-support?

Corporal Punishment does exist in Africa, despite it being illegal (in theory) in some countries. Technically, it’s illegal in The Gambia but we learned about certain punishments during training – not to give out, but to know it when we see it. You will see children carrying buckets of water back and forth in the hot sun; others being beaten; some told to lie on their knees and hold out their arms in which a heavy stone are placed in the palm; and others are told to go home instead to receive an even harsher punishment from their parents for being sent home from school – which the parents pay for them to attend.

That night we slept on the side of the road, to continue the trip the next morning.

Famine Area

Days 55 – 58
Sept. 10 – Sept. 13
Zinder, Niger

Actual newstory:

Malnutrition, deaths on rise in eastern Niger-MSF
Tue Sep 13, 2005 10:07 AM BST

GENEVA (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of children in Niger are not getting enough food and an increasing number are dying of malnutrition, the aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) said on Tuesday.

A survey last month in the eastern region of Zinder showed "alarming conditions" and a worsening situation, with one in five children suffering from malnutrition, MSF said.

Mortality rates in the Zinder region for children under age five have risen to 5.3 deaths per 10,000 -- more than double the internationally recognised emergency threshold of 2 deaths per 10,000, according to an MSF statement.

"Unless children suffering from malnutrition receive massive care, this human disaster will be even more tragic," Christian Captier, general director of MSF Switzerland, was quoted as saying from Zinder.

The situation was even more critical for children less than 30 months old, with nearly one in three malnourished and 5.6 percent severely malnourished, it said.

MSF has accused the United Nations of being too slow to mount an emergency response in Niger, where the world body is now trying to feed 2.5 million people.

MSF has treated more than 30,000 severely malnourished children at emergency nutritional facilities in and around Maradi, Tahoua, Zinder, Diffa and Tilaberi.

Medical teams estimate that they will treat more than 40,000 children for severe malnutrition by year-end, it said.


I’m now traveling through a famine area. The region of Zinder is headed by the city of Zinder itself, which I stayed at and where the Red Cross Center was located. I didn’t know it was a famine area until I talked to the volunteers, and didn’t know the Red Cross was in town until I stumbled across them while walking around.

By the looks of international news it seems that everyone is lying on the streets dying. I saw children at Koran School (where they memorize the Koran) all share a foodbowl, meat being grilled out on the streets, restaurants opened, random Nigeriens inviting me to drink tea with them. I didn’t know what was fact or fiction. It’s hard to explain that you know hardships exists, but to the extent the media portrays it does not.

In the middle of town, I went to the best restaurant for lunch. For being the best it’s not that fancy (I knew that ahead of time). Plastic chairs and tables (four total), one room. Other, lesser expensive restaurants might be outside. This was on the second floor. While I was eating my bread and soup it occurred that maybe it was a money issue. Those with money get to eat while those don’t. That night I was able to test it.

The volunteers and I went out to eat, in the streets. The food was there, in fact plenty of rice and beans and soda. Nigeriens were crowding the stand to order their food. A bowl of rice for 50 cents, a common price. No mass hysteria or people fighting for other people’s food. Across the street kabobs were being served, at 100 CFA each, or about a quarter. We ate what they ate, at the price they paid, at the location they ate at. We sat and talked, drank tea with the residents of Zinder, and ordered more kabobs to go.

A mile down the road was the Red Cross center passing out free food, and across the street was a small restaurant where food was available to buy.

Bite! Bite!

Days 52 – 55
Sept. 7 to Sept. 10
Birnin-Konni, Niger

I ran into Dave and Dawn the night before, Tuesday. They are a married couple both serving in Niger and were in the capital picking up a friend who was visiting. They took me around, out to eat, and shopping for their trip upcountry. At one point I made a comment about Michigan.

Dave: “You’re from Michigan?”
“What city?”
“Get out! I’m from Holland. What part of town are you from?”
“Did you go to West Ottawa?”

We’re both excited for the next few minutes we talked about Holland, the south-side, north-side, and the high-school rivary. He went to Holland High, but hasn’t been back to Holland for over 15 years. We both invited the other person over whenever the other’s in town.

The ride up to Konni took four hours. You would think a four hour ride would leave comfortably in the afternoon or late morning. Nope. We had to be at the bus station at three thirty in the morning! The bus left at four. The usual time for the trip is five or six hours, but we cut an hour off by the speed we were going. We even felt a bump. We ran over a dog. Both Dawn and Dave were on high-edge since they were on a bus like this that was going this fast when it tipped over. One thing I did miss on the ride, since I was sleeping part of the way: wild giraffes.

A list of typical animals in Africa: Monkeys, Lions, Tigers, Elephants, Rhinos, Giraffes, Hippos, Camels.

I’ve only seen (of those) Monkeys and Camels and I’ve been here for two years. I’m not counting the lions and the sort I saw in the zoo in Mali. The rest are in protected reservations that you can visit.

Two little known facts:
There are penguins in Africa. (the southern tip of South Africa)
Hippos account for more deaths in Africa than any other animal.

However, there is something nice about walking out of a drug-store in a nations capital and having to wait for the camel to cross your path before you can continue.

In Konni, I met the volunteers pet dog (named in the local language ‘to bite’ – just for kicks of yelling at him while he’s running in the street) and saw some of the trainees who had will sworn in as volunteers in a few days time. They had an initiation ceremony for them, and even surprised them by turning off the lights and bringing out a cake with candles to blown out. They blew out the candles, turned on the lights, and got the real surprise. Their cake was just a pot full of sand! The elder volunteers laughed as the trainees sunk back into their seats.

I went with the local driver to other sights upcountry for a few hours. We had to drop off a few items to other volunteers around the area. It was nice to see the different villages that I otherwise wouldn’t have gone too. Just like upcountry The Gambia, these villages were just the same – pumping water, little (if any) electricity, and the occasional NGO helping out a little.

Guide books can be wrong

It seems amazing that anyone comes to Africa if one reads what guide books have to say about it. Take for instance one of the most popular for independent travelers: Lonely Planet.

These are the countries where the staff writers were unable to visit to update the current chapters on that country.

Algeria: Unable to visit
Angola: Government around the world have discouraged tourism to Angola
Burundi: Unable to visit outside capital
Central African Republic: Unable to visit
Congo: Unable to visit
Congo (Zaire): Unable to visit
Guinea-Bissau: Unable to visit
Sierra Leone: Unable to visit
Somalia: Unable to visit

However, even those countries the staff members were able to visit have gloomy appeal:

But with peace seemingly now restored, Chad amply rewards the small number of travelers who make the effort with its many attractions.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s the outside world knew Ethiopia as THE [emphasis original] most persistently famine-prone country. But since the changes of government in 1991, agricultural production is increasing, and tourism-from a near zero base – is set to become a big foreign-exchange earner.

However, many areas remain factionalised and remote, and the country is not yet a place for independent travelers.

Libya must surely suffer from some of the worse excesses of Western paranoia and media spin-doctoring.
[Actually, that sounds like a positive critic]

There’s a very real danger that the nation will burst into widespread chaos and violence at any time.

Large areas of the country are currently off limits to travelers because of its debilitating civil war. But wherever you manage to go, you’ll be struck by the natural charm, dignity and hospitality of the Sudanese, at variance with the fundamentalist excesses of the present government.

And the two that mad me laugh personally:

The Gambia:
Africa for beginners.

If it wasn’t for the Parc National du Banc d’Arguin, one of the world’s great bird-watching areas, we would just about suggest that Mauritania was THE [emphasis original] place to avoid.

So, let me get this straight… there’s a war in Sudan, Liberia “is not yet a place for independent travelers”, Nigeria will “burst into widespread chaos and violence at any time.” and a half-dozen countries you were unable to visit – but the one country they specifically tell you to avoid: Mauritania!

I visited Mauritania for two weeks – without going to that one park! The people who live there, especially the Americans and other expats who Mauritania is their home, can’t fathom why they would write “THE place to avoid.” If you love to experience deserts, Muslim culture, camel rides, and riding on top of iron ore trains – GO to Mauritania! Forget what the guide book says!

Also, The Gambia as “Africa for Beginners”. That is true, for an extent. The country is very small, so you can get around and explore the country in a few days stay. However, most tourist don’t attempt explore the country. For example, we sometimes laugh at the European tourists who visit The Gambia and stay at the tourist resorts for their whole two weeks thinking they're getting the African experience. Yes, they visited Africa; but they stayed in two-mile radius of the comforts of electricity and water. Go five miles out of the tourist area and there's no power, and you have to pump your own water from a well. Go ten miles out and you're living in mud huts. To us, since we live here, THAT's the real Africa. Not the beaches, the tourist shops; but eating at the street shops, taking public transportation, drinking non-bottled water, visiting a mosque and NOT taking pictures, learning a few local language words and trying out the greetings, living without air-conditioned rooms with only a candle and a bucket of water and eating rice for every meal.

Guidebooks can give a lot of helpful advice. I carried around a torn-up copy of The Lonely Planet (only the chapters of the countries I was going to visit) along with my trip. But it’s like reading about the murder rates of New York City and deciding not to visit. It’s a great city, you’re just taking out of perspective: and not everyone is out to kill you! [For that example alone, my friends and I were walking around NYC from 3am-6am once a few years ago and being a ‘tourist’ for those middle-of-the-night three hours. We all made it out alive, limbs intact]

Tuesday, September 06, 2005


Embassies are an interesting sub-culture.

The PC Hostel is right next door to the Canadian Embassy, and the guards share a shack. Whenever I wanted to go back to the PC Hostel I would tell the Taxi Driver to take me to the "Ambassade du Canada". This made an intriguing experience, when, once after exiting the Chadian embassy with a local guide (who saw my American Passport) he was confused when I told him I wanted to go back to the Canadian Embassy. "You mean the American Embassy?" he asked me, thinking I didn't know my own country, and wanted to clarify it for the driver. "No. The Canadian Embassy." I left him on the sidewalk confused as to whether I was an American or Canadian.

Two blocks down the road, away from the center of town, is the Monacan Embassy; not to be confused with Morocco. The former (Monaco) is a small 2 square kilometer country in eastern Spain, the latter a half-million square kilometer country in North-West Africa. Why does Niger have a Monacan Embassy? How many Nigeriens visit a country three times the size of the Washington Mall? I'm interested in seeing what the diplomatic relationship are between these two countries.

[I know of Monaco from Statistics classes, the famous Monte Carlo gave rise to a probabilistic way to determine limiting probabilities. [Flipping a coin a 100 times and counting how many heads to figure out the probability of heads is statistically called the 'Monte Carlo method']

Go a few more blocks down and you reached the ever elusive American Embassy. No cars are allowed to stop within the viscinity of the Embassy and we must walk a block to reach its gate. Armed guards stand by. Across the street is the Ambassador's residence, on the banks of the Niger River. She doesn't have far to go to work! Inside the compound there is a video rental store, baseball field, TV lounge, swimming pool, playground for the kids, and picnic areas. For the kids there are swimming lessons and little-leage baseball games; the adults there are dodge-ball tournaments, baseball games, football games, and language lessons to name a few services.

To have access to all these great things you must 1. Be American; 2. Pay a fee. The fee is waived if you are a student in the American School, which most children are of the Embassy staff. For Peace Corps volunteers it amounts to a dollar for a day pass (cheaper per day for longer passes). Since I was just visiting and not associated with PC or the Embassy my fee was $4 to visit the club for the day. Needless to say the volunteers come here often when they are in town, especially during the weekends when the sports games happen [saturday is baseball, sunday is football]

While watching the game of baseball happening you can order burgers, chips, drinks, ice cream, milkshakes, and pizza along with a long list of other items. The chocolate milkshake I ordered was the best one I've had in Africa!

The Nigerien staff members are discouraged from handling cash. You pay for everything with coupons, although you can buy coupons from the vendors anyway. There are strips of paper, each containing the whole menu on it. You circle what you want, add the total, write down your name, and give them the coupons for the amount. A few minutes later a bell rings and someone yells "Mike!". My lunch was ready.

I would have gone swimming if it wasn't for the doctor's orders!

This was over the weekend. Monday morning I needed to get the Chadian embassy to get my visa. I asked a volunteer where it was. "I don't know. I only know where the white people's embassies are."


Monday morning I eventually arrived (it had moved since the map was published in my guide book). A lone, unarmed, guard stood by the doors and asked what I wanted. A local Nigerien man, who helped me find the place, explained I needed a visa. The guard pointed to a second floor window. We went inside, all empty, not a soul in sight, and went upstairs. There, a lone secretary waited for people to come. His English was understandable. He asked these questions as he's filling out the forms

"What is your final destination?"
"Let me see your passport."
He flipped through each page and eventually put the passport down
"There is no Egyptian visa. I can not give you a transit visa without a destination visa. You have none for Egypt."
[I sat there thinking this was the end of the road for me. I was about the get up and thank him and head out when he looked at my passport again.]
"However, you are not travelling through Chad; right?"
[Huh?] He continued.
"You are visiting as a tourist. Correct? You see, a transit visa is only good for a week and you need a desination visa; but a tourist visa you don't. So I guess you are visiting Chad as a tourist."
[What's happening? Think. What? Oh! He's helping me!] "Yes! I am visiting Chad as a tourist."
"Good. How long are you visiting our country?"
[Give a good answer...] "A month."
"Good! Plenty of time to see our country!"

He helped me fill out the forms, which were written in French. I had no idea what I was writing, he would just say "yes, no, yes, no, no, tourist, [etc.]" and I would write what he said. One question I could make out what it was saying.

"What is your final destination?"

He paused.

Should I put down Egypt, US, or Niger? He looked up.


I looked up "Sudan!"

"Yes. Put down Sudan."
"But I'm not going to Sudan."

I put down Sudan as my final destination.

Ten o'clock Tuesday morning I picked up my Visa for Chad. Good until Oct. 11 with no mention of Sudan.

My seventh week budget was shot. Spent $238 in one week. Had bought two visas, ($40 and $30 respectively), took an unnecessary side-trip to Bobo while in Burkina Faso, had to see a doctor, and pay for the medicine.

Off to the Doctor's!

My first full day in Niamey my ear was bugging me. By later that night I felt my left ear and looked at my hands. "That ain't right!" I said as I saw small amounts blood. It wasn't a lot and there was nothing I could do until the next day anyways so I went to bed.

I was originally suppose to catch the next bus upcountry to visit a volunteer, but this changed the plans a bit. The next morning I went to the Peace Corps Office hoping to talk to the Medical Officer. While he listened to my case he was, by law, not able to help me since I wasn't a volunteer anymore. I knew that going in, but hoped he could help in some other way. He recommended another doctor I go see and wrote down his information.

The Clinic I was told to visit was on the edge of town, near the banks of the Niger River. The taxi driver passed beat-up neighborhoods; corrugated tin houses; military barracks before arriving at the clinic. Any thoughts of how 'third-world' it would be dissappeared when I walked in. The outside wasn't impressive, but the inside told the story of a clean facility with knowledgeable doctors and nurses. The specific doctor the PC doctor told me to see wasn't in yet so I waited. By four o'clock he showed up. We walked to his office and I saw, by his nameplate, that he was the Director of Medicine in the clinic. That's good to know. His English was understandable and he understood mine perfectly.

Ear infection. He tried to explain what it was, but I already knew. One good thing about having ear infections as a kid is that when your twenty-five in Africa and the native French speaking doctor can't remember the English words for 'Cochlea' or 'Eustachian Tube' you're able to help out. He wrote out the prescriptions for the medicines and told they were available at any pharmacy, just show them the Rx - no French required.

The visit cost 11,000 CFA, or about $25. The drugs cost an additional $75. As a kid I cringed at the thought of those ear drops three times daily when an infection occurred. Now, I have to do it to myself!

A few days later, as I was exploring town, I saw the National Hospital. It was more run down then some of the houses! Nigeriens were waiting outside, taxis were pulling in and out of the area and I didn't bother going inside. A little research later found out that the clinic I went to was the best in the country - and I was treated by the Director of Medicine! I felt good about that, just some backpacker travelling through seeing one of the best doctors in the country. Then the thought occured - for a common ear infection! The analogy that came to mind was in the card game of War: You play an Ace, your opponent a two.

While you're a volunteer they pay for everything: doctor visits, medicine, and transportation. They will (and have) fly you to another country for a tooth ache; or fly you back to the United States for a simple operation. However, once you finish your service you're on your own. That $100+ I spent, while a lot less than it could be in the US, hurt a little bit. Could have been a nice side-trip or a few good meals. It was worth it though...

The little things

I forgot to expand on the little differences I’ve seen. While in Burkina Faso I ordered a glass of coffee. What came was a bowl of black soup with a spoon. That was my coffee! They drink their coffee like soup, with spoons and all. It was really confusing the first time I ordered. In Mali that didn’t happened, and neither in Niger – only in Burkina Faso.

Also, on the bus ride to Niger the first stop we had while crossing the border still had the usual vendors coming to the windows trying to sell items, but with an interesting twist. Usually it’s women selling fruits or vegetables, children selling bags of water, or young men selling little trinkets. Nope. None of them. It was all grown men selling animal carcasses! Want a lamb? He held up the skinned carcass to the window for me to ‘inspect’. It was skinned and gutted, with two sticks making a cross to expose the insides to those who want to see the rib cage. You want a full animal or half? Half? No problem, here’s another man carrying two halves on each hand. One customer in the bus only wanted a quarter, so the man went to the table took out a machete and cut the half carcass in half again. He then wrapped it up in old paper and passed it through the window. Good thing I wasn’t sitting by him.

Don’t want any meat? Other men were walking around with liver, heart, lungs, intestines; all for sell on a platter. With all transactions through the bus window.

Truth be told I have seen more meat for sale on street here in Niger then in any country I’ve been to so far. You can get brochettes down any major street in town.

Then there's the taxis. It's both annoying and intriguing what new system of taxi usage each country uses - especially when travelling into that country without knowing. In The Gambia there are set routes, if you want to deviate you buy out the taxi. In Senegal it's just like New York, you buy the whole taxi but at a set rate (sometimes you can barter). In Burkina Faso you tell them where you want to go, barter the price and you get in with the other people all going to different locations. Each person pays a different price.

And now there's Niger. Same scenario but with a twist. The unit price of a taxi seat is 200 Francs. If you're going very far they might ask for two, meaning your paying 400 Francs. Here's the scenario:

You're at Point A, and want to go to point B. You wait. A taxi pulls up, and you say you want to go to point B. The taxi driver thinks to where he is going (point C), where the other passengers are going (points C, D, and E). If your destination isn't too far off the mark he'll tell you to get in, otherwise he'll drive off leaving you standing there (sometimes in the rain). The set-price system, with all passengers going in possibly all different directions, gives getting a taxi an interesting experience. Since everybody pays the same amount, and not all going to the same destination, you have to wait for a driver to accept you.

Another thing I found out was how far out of proportion the news of the Nigerien famine has been. Speaking from the volunteers who live in the same neighborhood as the ‘famine’ victims it’s mostly political. The news agency stresses that they live off of a dollar a day. Well, that’s their normal budget! Think of it this way: A wealthy country, where every citizen is a multi-millionaire, sees a report that the average American family lives off of $X / day. They might think we’re starving if X is significantly less than a few thousand – which is probably their quality of life in that imaginary country.

Food is available, but it’s less than usual – correct. Las years rainy season wasn’t good and this year they had the locust invasion. Some families have sold their cattle for money to buy more food, but their usual lifestyle is to store food to last the dry season. Usually it’s rice or millet. One volunteer even commented that the ‘famine’ actually helped in some small way. It forces the family to stop eating their millet and rice and go to more nutritious food like their cattle or fruits and vegetables they pick off the trees (they usually sell the fruit to buy rice, now since there’s little rice they eat the fruit).

I’ll see first hand in a few days when I go upcountry. Right now just trying to get over being sick (watching a few movies in the meantime), and then researching how to get to Libya from Chad – or even how to get to Chad.

If you want to see a good movie about troubles in Africa, and the turmoil that could occur – rent “Hotel Rwanda” about the Rwandan Genocide in 1994. This was my second time seeing it and it was just as powerful as the first.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


Day 45
Wed Aug 31
Start: Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
End: Niamey, Niger

The bus left at seven in the morning. I didn't have a visa, either but was told not to worry about it. We arrived at the border at around 2pm and the police officer told me I had to pay 20,000 Francs (~$40) for the visa. I knew that was the correct price but didn't know if he was doing it for himself or if it was the actual visa price. He left the room and came back with actual visa stickers, which he filled out and put on my passport and stamped it. He then asked for my 20,000 francs. Ok, that's a deal.

For the first time since arriving in Africa I crossed a time zone. The one hour time it took to cross the border just took two, it was now four o'clock with out knowing it.

Entering Niamey is one of the best sites upon entering a capital, of those that I have seen. Green fields surround you, a lush marsh wetland, and then your on a bridge crossing the Niger River entering the city - still full of trees such that individual streets are hidden ahead.

At the Peace Corps Office there was some confusion. I arrived after hours and wasn't allowed inside the office. The guard called the Safety and Security Officer who told me I wasn't allowed in until the next morning. No problem. I waited outside for a few minutes until some volunteers exited and they showed me where the hostel was.

Another problem: The guard had radioed ahead to the guard at the hostel saying I wasn't allowed in. I had an e-mail I received from the Safety and Security Officer a few months back saying I could stay at the hostel, but apparantly the rules had been changed; very recently I was told - yesterday.

I wasn't allowed inside the hostel to call the officer and wasn't allowed inside the office to use the computer to show him the email that I was allowed inside the hostel. I can't get into the office after hours without his permission, and can't get a hold of him without calling him. That I can't do since I'm not allowed inside the hostel. Even the volunteers were confused and really didn't understand what was going on.

I left the bag by the gates and went out to eat with the volunteers. Ten of us went to a Japenese restaurant where the sake (sah-ki) flowed freely from the owner and we had our own private room with karaoke machine. In order to leave my bag at the hostel I had to promise the guard I wouldn't sleep there that night. I didn't arrive back to the hostel til around a quarter to midnight, with some of the others staying behind for more drinks and fun.

The volunteers I came back were allowed in. I brought one of the guard chairs over, sat down, and starting reading under the guard light.

"You no find hotel?"
"You no sleep?"
"No. I read. " [I was being stubborn]

He went inside and came back. "Ok, I called the Officer. You can stay the night, but meet him tomorrow morning at the office."

At 12:30, as I'm heading to bed the Officer stopped by the hostel. He wanted to see my passports, IDs, and to clarify the situation. I showed him all of the IDs and explained the e-mail to him, which he remembered.

Result: I have a friendly, safe, and cheap place to stay. I'm allowed to stay at the hostel.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

What I turned down

Day 44
Tues Aug 30
Start: Bobo-Dioulasso
End: Ouagadougou

Despite how the previous day ended I was still up in the air about going further back-tracking to Banfora and seeing the waterfalls. I tried to find the cars, but with only a half-hearted attempt before getting back on the bus to Ouga.

The hospitality of the staff at Peace Corps was only exemplified when I returned and the Safety and Security person for Peace Corps told me exactly how to get a visa at the border to Niger (thanks to another staff member who knew my predicament and left for Niger a few days earlier, but called back on the procedure after asking). I give them my passport at the border, am allowed through with a piece of paper. The next day I go to the police station in Niamey with the piece of paper, pick up my passport, pay $40 and get my visa. Simple.

He then took me directly to the bus station, helped me buy a ticket for the next morning; confirmed a taxi would be picking me up; helped me back to the office and later on tonight will be showing me around the part of town I didn't get to see a few days back. On the way back to the office we passed the Airport. A brief thought occured, then left. I don't know when the best time to quit is, but it's not when your down. I put the bus ticket to Niger in my wallet.

I e-mailed the Country Director directly thanking her for the hospitality of her staff and the volunteers for going above and beyond what I expected.

After what happened yesterday I need a vacation. True, I've been traveling for a six weeks and some might call this a vacation - but I need to just sit in one place for a few weeks. A village maybe, someplace relaxed, where I can re-energize. Just this evening I received an e-mail from my contact in Niger. A new group will be swearing in on the 16th and there's a festival on the 14th which most volunteers go to. I might stay in Niger for two to three weeks just to slow down a bit and relax.

It wasn't until I got back at the office and was able to look up pictures of Banfora and the waterfalls did I truly regret missing that opportunity. It would have been fun and refreshing to sit under waterfalls and just cool off - but I missed it. Turned it down because I had a bad day the day before, when this would have made everything better. Now I know it's time for a vacation! This time, if there's waterfalls in Niger - I'm going!

(That I did NOT go to ... )

[picture not mine]

A bad day

Day 43
Monday Aug 29

Didn't expect that to happen! As I was getting ready for the day I check the guide book on what to do in Bobo. "Bobo-Dioulasso only really comes to life at the weekend; on weekdays, you're likely to be the only clients." I checked my watch: 7:45 am Monday morning. Doh!

Also, before I forget to to do it later I did my accounting. Maybe I should have put off on that for another week since it ruined my mood a little. I spent $124 this past week since cashing that check. While only $17/day, I could have sworn I was saving money while being in the city. Throughout the whole day I had the unjustifiable fear that I was spending money way too fast and that I would run out again. The truth is, I'm actually below my budget and other then a few tourist things (e.g., Dogon Country, Timbuktu, etc.) you can't get much cheaper! I eat street food where I can, travel local transportation, and lodge at the some of the cheapest places I can find (and in some cases in the street!). Yet, it still had me bogged down that money was going fast. To make up for this nonsense I decided to really splurge. I'd find a restaurant tonight and treat myself. I never actually had splurged in this trip yet, always in the under $10 range for a good meal.

In the morning the wind picked up, knocking over signs, blowing dirt in the air, and people running for cover before the rains came. I didn't make it. Toured the market, and down-town in the rain while getting back to the hotel soaking wet. How many times do I have to be caught in the rain, I asked myself?

I wanted to leave. Jake had suggested I tour Banfora, further south, where you can rent a moped for $10/day and explore the green countryside with waterfalls a few kilometers away. There's a "McDonald's" restaurant in town (no relation) which the volunteers rate as not to be missed.

Another thing that bugged me today, as well as being cold, wet, still sick, and worried about money; was that I wasn't going as far as I planned. I have been travelling 43 days and when I looked at the map (especially since backtracking) it didn't seem that far! Doubts of completing the trip, running out of money, making any progress, raced through my mind as I'm laying in bed. I wanted to leave the town, leave the country, leave the continent. I had enough of Africa. The children bothering you in the streets, the sellers who won't take no for an answer, people ripping you off. I've seen the deserts, the markets, the mosques. What does this town have to offer that's different from the hundreds of other towns? I've been here over two years and all the inconveniences of being in Africa I want over with. I've lived in mud huts, not showered for days, been hot, sweaty, hungry, singled out as a tourist or as a white person or rich person (ha!). I want to be anonymous again, another face in the crowd.

I didn't want to go to Banfora, either. It was more of a detour, more money, and it would probably rain - and knowing me I would be caught in it.

I saw the market and it was just like any other market. The bumsters were around the Grand Mosque and wouldn't leave me alone. I just wanted to scream at them or throw whatever they were trying to sell me at them. Why couldn't they just let us tour their city alone, why do they feel obligated to interrupt your casual walk with "Excuse me, excuse me,..." (The first time you hear that, you turn - then you learn). I wanted to scream to the children begging for money, the bumsters trying to sell wood carvings or be my guide, the shop owners signaling me into their shops to "just look". I wanted to scream at them all "Shut up! Let me be!"

I stopped in my tracks and sat down. The guy was still on me like a magnet to a refrigerator. I'd push him away and he come back stronger. Couldn't he see I didn't want anything? If when the pot boils temper explodes he was sure adding heat to the oven. When I thought the first bubble would burst two French tourists turned the corner; more oblivious then I was; and the magnet found a better refrigerator to attract onto. As I watched him take another target I could feel the ice being put in the water, cooling it just enough as that little air bubble creeping up to the surface stops and heads back down. I sighed in relief.

Today wasn't a good day.

By late afternoon I had my thoughts in semi-good order. I am making progress; yes, this is a detour, but look at how far you HAVE gotten. This is your fifth country in six weeks. Despite Burkina Faso being, as a whole, a detour, it is not as much as the possibility of having to make one to Ghana to get to Niger. Look at all you've seen and done: camel rides, train rides, Sahara, Timbuktu, Dogon country. You've been traveling for six weeks, four of which by yourself, in a language you don't know.

One other thing made me think about the money more: I can splurge on any day in Africa and it would be less than spending frugalily any day in Europe.

That helped some. By dinner time I was good to go and ready to splurge!

I stopped by "L'eau Vive" which is a Catholic Missionary who also run a restaurant. The open air gave a sense of eating under the stars (despite being cloudy), and the breeze was cool. Only six other patrons were there, despite having room for close to a hundred. The nun who showed me to my table spoke some English and I struck up a conversation with her. She was from Kenya and is doing her Missionary work here. At any time they can call on her to go live and work any where in the world. Asked if she chose Burkina Faso, she simply said: "God chose for me. I obeyed."

This is one of the finest restaurants in town, and the nuns know how to serve wine properly and make you feel like your at a five-star restaurant. Casual music was played in the background, more upbeat then you would think for a missionary but still calm enough to be enjoyable for the atmosphere.

I ordered steak, medium-rare. With a bottle of water and a glass of orange-juice.

It came with bread! I ate everything they gave me, forgetting it is the African custom not to eat everythign on your plate. If you do, they think you are not full and will give you more. I ate all the bread, they gave me a second helping with butter. I ate all the butter with all the second helpings of bread - they gave me a third helping of bread. I need dessert! Ordered some ice cream (really splurging!); after that an after-dinner tea.

After an hour and half or so I went to pay the $20 bill.

"You are not leaving now are you?"
"Yes. My hotel is far, I have to walk."
"We are about to sing."
"Oh, ok. I will hear you sing."

I sat back down, had more tea and listened to the nuns of the L'eau Vive Missionary serenade me and the rest of the diners in a song of about the Virgin Mary - in french. Beautiful end to a horrible day.

Ouga to Bobo

Day 42
Sunday Aug 28
Start: Ougadougou, Burkina Faso
End: Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso

My only true detour on the trip started out with a bang. Literally. Of cymbals - from a marching band. I needed to cross the highway but was interrupted by two things: the bike race happening on both sides, and the military policemen stopping people from crossing. The military band, along with the officers, were sitting directly across from where I was and right in front of where I needed to go (the bus station). One of the guards realized my predicament and signalled me to cross when it was clear.

The 300-km ride took about five hours in an air conditioned bus. I was 'warned' about this the day earlier from Jake:

"Just take the bus. It's air-conditioned."
"Air conditioned? I don't want a tourist bus, I want the local bus."
"That IS the local bus!"

By 2 o'clock in the afternoon I arrived at "Casa Africa" a small hotel in the outskirts of town where I had room with bed, mosquito net, and fan for $8/night. Toilets and showers were outside. The owner asked if I wanted any food. "Let me take a nap first." I woke up 18 hours later and had my meal I promised; breakfast instead of lunch.


Days 37 - 41
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

According to the UN, Burkina Faso is the 3rd poorest country in the world; and according to volunteers it should fall a rank to number two due to the locust destruction this past year. Despite being #3 you would never have guess it by travelling to the capital. [However, it's usually the people and living conditions outside the capital which makes the influence in the rankings] The streets were paved, the buses left on time, there was no rush, and it was very efficient. This was by far the most efficient running country so far in my travels.

Before Burkina Faso was called Burkina Faso it was called "Upper Volta" . After WWII France really ignored their little colony and instead focused on Cote d'Ivoire. This led to some of the downfall of Burkina Faso. It became independent of France in 1960 and went through military coup after another before the most notable one of 1982 happened. Captain Thomas Sankara seized power in a bloody coup and two years later renamed the country 'Burkina Faso' meaning 'land of the incorruptible', or better translated 'Country of the Honest Men'.

Despite coming into power with blood on his hands, he lifted his country up from decay and economic growth started to take. He even led a two-week marathon that vaccinated 60% of all Burkinabe children against measles, meningitis, and yellow fever - to the great praise of Unicef.

Five years later he was brought outside the capital by another captain and shot. His captor, Captain Blaise Compaore, buried his former leader in a simple grave next to the city dump and took over the country. The grave has become a place of pilgrimages to those who want to pay their respect for their lost leader who did so much for their country.

Compaore was elected president a few years later, as the sole candidate; and afterwards had his major opponent assassinated. He has since won every 'election' to date.

The guidebook had this to say about taking pictures in Burkina Faso:

"The official off-limits list is formidable, and includes airports, bridges, reservoirs, banks, any military installations, police stations or government buildings and post offices, train stations and bus and bush-taxi stations, TV/radio stations, petrol stations, grain warehouses, water twoers, idustrial installations and poor people."

So I can take a picture of the sky, right?

Despite all the hoop-la about taking photos it is quite suprising to find out that Burkina Faso is home to THE film festival of West Africa. Every odd year in February or March Ougadadougou hosts thousands of visitors and tourists to catch a glimpse of whats new in African film. If you want to hear music in Africa head to St. Louis, Senegal during their Jazz Festival; but if you want to see true African cinema head to Ouga where all-day long you sit back and enjoy the show - either the characters on the screen or the characters on the street. If you happen to be in Burkina Faso during an even year - no problem! The town of Bobo-Dioulasso in the South West hosts the festival in the even years.

In Ouagadougou I ran into a few volunteers who took me in as one of their own without any reservation or akwardness (who are you? why are you here?): Mike, Katy, Airy, and Jake. The first night in town they treated me by showing me the recreation room at the American Embassy, where we watched a few movies. The next night we went to a Chinese Restaurant. Katy, especially, was very helpful, as in the midst of a downpour of rain she went with me to the French Embassy to get information on how to get a visa for Niger. When the Embassy wasn't open yet, she showed me around town, still in the rain though not raining as hard. The next day during lunch she tried teaching a few french phrases to get by on. Airy cooked a few meals for the gang, which I was invited too, and I even brought desert one time (watermelons and pineapples). When one was leaving for the airport I went along, despite only meeting the person leaving two days before. It was a genuine welcome!

The first full day in town I tried walking around - took two wrong turns and ended up off the map. Ended up out of town. The taxi on the way back demanded more money, although I was already paying him a good deal (confirmed with volunteers). Two blocks away from the Hostel he refused to move unless I paid him more. "OK". Got out the door and walked away to him screaming. It led to nothing as he turned around and left.

When I did finally get to the explore the city I got lost within, and due to the humidity, the twenty minute walk back took me more than an hour to complete. One unique characteristic of this city is they have seperate lanes for the motorcycles and mopeds, which the bicycles use also. You have the main meridian seperating the two lanes of opposite traffic and then at the end of each a small meridian seperating the lanes for the automobiles for the lanes for the mopeds. The downside? When cars have to make a right-hand turn they must wait for all the motorcycles to finish crossing the street first before they can turn right.

As non-volunteers are not allowed to stay at the hostel I found a way around it. Before it got too late I left the hostel to go the office to 'work'. I made sure to stop 'working' before the office opened and head the two blocks to the hostel to log on as each day's first visitor at 6:30am. I never stayed a night at the hostel, but took an occasional nap or two in the morning. When I told this to the volunteers they asked: "Who taught you that?" thinking it was one of their own. Every country that has an office and transit house has volunteers who 'work' late to save a few bucks. It was nothing new.

My second-to-last night in the city ended up being violently sick. Volunteers love to go into details, but I'll be semi-nice here: explosive D with projectile V, simulatenously. I had a choice, stay on the toilet or not. Split second decision. I stayed. Took two hours to clean up the walls. I finished at sunrise.

I crashed the next day, barely going outside, with that night we headed to the airport and Jake convinced me I should go down to Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso's second largest town.