Posted by: dumpendebat | 2012/07/14

Situation Updates, A Year Later

I was in Africa from March 2010 through early April 2011. The political and/or security situation has changed in many of the countries I visited. Here are some examples:

EGYPT (obviously) — As it turned out, I was in Egypt during the final days of the Mubarak regime. I was physically present in Tahrir Square for the first demonstration of Egypt’s “Arab Spring” uprising, on 25 January 2011, and I left Egypt, purely by coincidence, three days later. Today, the political situation in Egypt is still not very stable, and the security situation has deteriorated. Terrorism still doesn’t seem to be a problem there, thank God; but, disturbingly, street crime, which was absolutely unheard-of in Egypt until the collapse of the Mubarak regime, has become a problem. I’d still go to Egypt today if the opportunity presented itself, but these days one cannot expect to walk the streets late at night in perfect safety, the way one could in the “old days.”

KENYA — Since I was in Kenya, the nation has gone to war with Al-Shabaab in Somalia. Terrorism is a problem in Kenya today, with IEDs and grenade attacks happening on a regular basis, and there have been a few incidents of tourists being kidnapped and/or killed around the Lamu area. Again, I would not think twice about going back to Kenya, but it’s not quite as safe as it was while I was there.

UGANDA — The situation in Uganda itself hasn’t changed much since I was there, but the M23 rebellion in neighboring DR Congo has found its way right to the Congo-Uganda border. It looks to me like another full-scale war in eastern DR Congo is brewing, which is going (once again) to have repercussions throughout central Africa’s Great Lakes region.

TOGO — There’s a sort of “Arab Spring” popular movement going on in Togo right now, under the auspices of the group Collectif “Sauvons Le Togo.” Of all the eleven countries I visited on my journey, Togo was the one that felt most like an obvious, repressive, out-and-out dictatorship. Togo was the only nation I visited where it was completely normal for one’s taxicab to be stopped multiple times by rifle-toting soldiers, demanding to see the driver’s papers, when driving through the capital city at night. All the Togolese people I met hated their government, and hated it more passionately than anywhere else I went. Today, the Togolese government is quashing these demonstrations with teargas and truncheon blows, and several people have died, but things could get much worse: the government will start killing people, absolutely without scruple, if it feels seriously threatened.

(If you’re interested in the Togo situation, and you can read French, follow the Twitter hashtags #OccupyTogo and #tginfo. To get caught up, you could look at my bundle of Togo news links at Bitly.)

MALI — I really loved Mali, my favorite country in West Africa (with Togo coming in a close second). I enjoyed my time in Bamako, even though I didn’t do much of anything there and didn’t see much of the city at all; my trip to Djenné, Mopti, and Dogon Country was just fantastic, one of the top three highlights of my entire 13-month journey. I dream of going back and spending more time there.

Unfortunately, Mali has completely fallen apart. Here is a very simplified summary:

First, the government was overthrown, in a classic old-school African military coup, in March 2012. Next, a Tuareg independence movement (the MNLA), which had recently been rejuvenated by weapons and soldiers returning from Libya after Qadhafi’s downfall, took over the northern two-thirds of the country and declared it the independent state of Azawad. The MNLA was working together with various Islamist groups (notably Ansar Eddine and MUJAO), but they’ve had a major falling-out: MNLA wants an independent secular state, while the Islamists say they want the entire Republic of Mali to be an Islamic state under a strict interpretation of sharia law.

The Islamists took over, kicked the MNLA out of the cities, and are now in complete control of the northern two-thirds of the country. They have perpetrated various ugly depredations against citizens, and have also recently shocked and appalled the international community by destroying shrines and mausoleums in the city of Timbuktu. The regional group ECOWAS, as well as the AU and the international community, have been talking for months about what to do about the situation in Mali. It appears that an ECOWAS military intervention, backed to some degree by Western powers (notably France), is in the offing. The instability of the situation there is already having repercussions throughout the Sahel, and things are going to get much worse.

I could have gone to Timbuktu while I was in Mali, but I didn’t. While I was involved in the lengthy process of negotiating the price of my trip to Dogon Country, the cost of going all the way up to Timbuktu just seemed astronomical, so I forgot about the idea. Then, while I was in Djenné on the way back to Bamako, I met a French-Canadian couple who wanted to go up to Timbuktu, and they ended up hiring the services of my own tour guide (with my blessings: I did my tour guide a solid, by both recommending him to the couple and telling him I had no problem whatsoever with me taking the bus back to Bamako alone, rather than insisting we stick to the letter of our agreement that he accompany me back to Bamako). I could easily have tagged along with them, saving myself some cash in the process by splitting the cost three ways. But I didn’t. I felt no real sense of urgency, figuring I’d be back in Mali within five to ten years anyway (God willing), and that Timbuktu would still be there, it wasn’t going anywhere, so to speak. Well, that was dumb. The city of Timbuktu will “always be there,” of course, but now it’s in the hands of thuggish barbarians who are practicing corporal punishment in the streets (lashing citizens for “crimes” such as adultery and cigarette-smoking) and destroying priceless UNESCO World Heritage sites with hoes and shovels while shouting “Allahu akbar.” It’s sickening.

Posted by: dumpendebat | 2012/07/03

African Countries: My Wish List

Top ten African nations I haven’t yet visited that I’d really like to visit:

  1. Somaliland
  2. Eritrea
  3. Ivory Coast
  4. DR Congo
  5. Niger
  6. Mauritania
  7. Algeria
  8. Rwanda
  9. Mozambique
  10. Chad
Posted by: dumpendebat | 2011/04/11

Back home!

I got home on Friday, 8 April, readers. I can report that Dakar’s Léopold Sédar Senghor International Airport is nowhere near as bad as I’d heard it was (if you want to see one sorry-ass ghetto-looking airport, try the one in Lomé), and that South African Airways has the most comfortable economy-class seating I’ve ever seen.

I’m really glad to be home. I had feared that I wouldn’t be ready to leave when the time finally came, but that didn’t happen at all. I was absolutely ready to come back home. I was gone for 391 days (one year and 26 days), and that was a little bit too long. It was a fantastic thirteen months (overall), but I had definitely had quite enough by the end of it.

Now it’s time to start sorting through my pictures and putting the best ones up on my Flickr page. I’ll put notices up here whenever I’ve uploaded a new batch. I’ve also got summaries to write, as well as writing a bit more about West Africa, so keep an eye on this blog if you’re interested.

UPDATE — The first two photosets are up:

“Anger Day” in Cairo (the best of the photos I got during the 25 January demonstration)

Mountain Gorillas (the only six usable gorilla photos I managed to get)

If you’re interested, you can keep an eye on my Flickr page to see more photos as they become available for public consumption.

Posted by: dumpendebat | 2011/03/24

Two more weeks…

I’m leaving Mali tomorrow, readers, to spend the last two weeks of my trip in Senegal. I wimped out here: it takes at least 30 hours to get to Dakar from Bamako by bus, and that is just too damn long for me. The roads in western Mali and eastern Senegal are legendarily bad, and it’s hotter than hell in Mali during the day. I am just not up for it. So I bought a plane ticket (as usual, Ethiopian Airlines had the cheapest flight) from Bamako to Dakar; a 90-minute plane ride sounds a lot better than a 30-hour bus ride.

I’ve enjoyed Mali a lot. I took a six-day trip to see the tourist attractions in the east: the towns of Mopti and Djenné, and the legendary Dogon country. A full description will have to wait until later, but I will say that it was both one of the most physically uncomfortable experiences of the past year, and also one of the best. Mali is definitely the best place in West Africa for tourist-type attractions. Dogon country was amazing, and Djenné was pretty cool, too. I didn’t even head up to Timbuktu; that will have to wait for another time.

Mali reminds me of Ethiopia in a lot of ways: bad buses, physical discomfort (outside the capital city; my hotel in Bamako is the nicest and most comfortable place I’ve stayed in Africa), incredible levels of harassment from touts and hustlers on the street, lots of good things to see, lots of dust and dirt (Addis Ababa and Bamako are the dustiest capitals I’ve seen)… there are a lot of parallels. I’d put Mali, as well as Ethiopia, high up on my short list of recommendations for anybody thinking about a visit to Africa.

I hope to try and get halfway caught up here while I’m in Dakar, but that may not happen. If not, I’ll finally get caught up after I get home, which will be (God willing) on Friday, 8 April, two weeks from tomorrow. I will continue to put things up here on this blog until I’m caught up and talked out, and I will also finally be able to start going through all my photographs and putting the best ones up on my Flickr page.

Posted by: dumpendebat | 2011/03/14

Bus travel in West Africa

After Ethiopia, bus travel in the rest of Africa has seemed comparatively easy. The only real exception was Tanzania, where I had the worst bus ride of my life (the infamous slog from Mwanza to Arusha, which was only 15.5 hours but felt like several days). I’ve had my two longest bus trips ever here, in West Africa, but I can’t say in all honesty that either of them was really that bad.

Lomé (Togo) to Cotonou (Benin) was easy — three hours in a “quatre-places” taxi, one passenger in the front seat and three in the back. I learned when I crossed from Uganda into Tanzania that you can fit up to nine passengers in a Toyota Corolla if you really want to, so I was glad they didn’t try it here. Togo is really narrow — the city of Lomé is in the “far west,” right across the border from Ghana, but it only takes like an hour to get all the way across to Benin, on the other side.

Cotonou to Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) was another story, though. I took the best bus available, which is TCV. The bus left Cotonou at 20:00 and arrived in Ouaga at 17:00 the next day; that’s 21 hours. Five of those hours were spent on all the border formalities between Benin and Burkina Faso, though, including three hours where we just sat and waited for the Burkina customs officers to let the bus go.

There was an unexpected hour-long delay in the middle of the night, too, some sort of demonstration blocking the road at one-thirty in the morning. There were a lot of vehicles in front of us, and it was dark, so I couldn’t see anything, but I heard a crowd chanting and hollering ahead in the darkness. One of my fellow passengers said:

C’est les étudiants… ils ont barré la route… c’est la grève.

A student demonstration, it seemed. I wasn’t even interested enough to ask what it was all about.

I had trouble getting out of Benin, thanks to the ineptitude of the Immigration Department. There’s a bit of back-story here:

When I entered Benin, on a Saturday, I was given a 48-hour transit visa, with instructions to go to the Department of Immigration in Cotonou on Monday to get this visa extended. I went there on Monday morning, as instructed, and was told that it would take 72 hours to get a 14-day extension, so I needed to come back on Thursday morning to pick up my passport and visa.

By Thursday morning, I’d already decided that I was going to make tracks for Burkina Faso on Friday night. I went back to the Department of Immigration on Thursday morning and was told my visa wasn’t ready yet, but that it would be ready the next morning, Friday morning. That evening, I bought my bus ticket.

Friday morning, I went back to the Department of Immigration, for the third time, only to be told that if I wanted my visa, I would have to provide them with copies of my hotel bill. What the hell? Nobody had said a word about this at any point. I knew better than to get upset, though, and I calmly explained to the passport lady that I was leaving for Ouaga that very night, and that I needed my passport now so I could go to the Burkina consulate right away, as I needed to get my Burkina visa as well. Was there anything she could do?

I figured she wanted a bribe, but apparently she really couldn’t give me my visa without those stupid hotel bills. So, she decided instead to give me a receipt with an official stamp, showing that I had paid the required visa fees and that I was officially and legally free to leave the Republic of Benin. Vous pouvez voyager avec ça, she assured me. N’y a pas de problème. I wasn’t so sure about that, but what could I do?

Of course, it did turn out to be a problem. When we reached the first border checkpoint (exiting Benin) at dawn, I handed in my passport with the rest of the passengers (the few, that is, who needed to do so — if I understand it correctly, ECOWAS nationals are free to travel within the ECOWAS region with their national ID cards, no visas necessary), but I was quickly called out of the group and brought over to the border-police office, where the police told me there was a problem: I did not have a valid Benin visa.

I explained what had happened, and asked them to examine the receipt I’d been given at the Department of Immigration. They hadn’t bothered to look at it, even though it was paperclipped into my passport on the relevant page. They weren’t interested, though, and told me I had not paid the required visa fee for my visit to Benin, that I had overstayed my 48-hour transit visa. Again I explained that I had indeed paid the fee, as the receipt proved, and told them the story again of how my visa hadn’t been ready by Friday morning even though I’d handed in my passport on Monday. Finally they told me to go sit and wait while they talked it over. I expected again that what they really wanted was a bribe, but they chose to stamp my passport without further discussion. So, I’ve still only had to pay one bribe in Africa, and that was to get myself out of trouble for lighting a cigarette on the Kenya/Uganda border back in August. If you don’t smoke, you’ve got nothing to worry about.

We actually saw a wild elephant, taking a bath in a roadside pond, not long after we crossed into Burkina Faso. West African elephants are a rare sight indeed, and my fellow passengers were every bit as surprised and pleased as I was. The bus actually stopped for a few minutes so everybody could watch the elephant do his thing.

The bus trip from Ouaga to Bamako (Mali) was even easier, except for one scary moment when I got on the wrong bus. There were two buses of the same company, identical buses, same make and model, same livery, at the border at the same time, and one of my fellow passengers and I managed to get on the wrong one. We realized our mistake immediately, but our own bus took off in a cloud of dust before we could get aboard. Both of us were really upset, but the conductor of the wrong bus told us not to worry, just climb aboard his bus again, and we’d catch up with them at the next checkpoint, and that was indeed what happened. Getting left behind by my bus has always been one of my biggest nightmares in Africa, and I am certainly happy it ended well this time.

Ouaga to Bamako is a two-stage trip: overnight from Ouaga to Bobo-Diolassou (23:00 to 05:00), then Bobo to Bamako (06:30 to 18:00). The bus was air-conditioned, so it was tolerable despite the hundred-degree heat. Other than the wrong-bus mishap, not much happened. 19 hours is a long trip, but it was really more boring than it was uncomfortable.

Posted by: dumpendebat | 2011/03/13

One year

As of today, I’ve been in Africa for exactly one year. I’ve got 26 days left; I’ll be flying home from Dakar on Friday, 8 April (God willing). My health is still good, but I’m pretty burned out mentally, and am pretty much looking forward to going home.

I’ve been unable to do much with this blog from West Africa. Even when there’s Internet access, there isn’t always electricity, nor are there always computers with enough RAM to run a web browser at anything like usable speeds.

Thus far, I’ve visited four West African nations: Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, and now Mali. I’ve taken the two longest bus rides of my life: 19 hours from Ouagadougou to Bamako, and 21 hours from Cotonou to Ouagadougou. The level of street harassment in West Africa is even higher, overall, than it is in East Africa, and that’s very annoying; at the same time, though, I’ve made many more African friends here than I ever did in Ethiopia, Kenya, or Uganda. I’ve seen the inside of several West African homes, eaten meals and watched TV in people’s homes, and thus (I think) have gotten a little more of a feel for “real life” here than I did in the East. Being able to speak French has really helped; my French has enabled me to have a very different experience here than I would have had otherwise. I was able to make real friends in Togo and Burkina Faso, and that has been a good thing.

Next week I’ll go on a six-day trip around Mali: Mopti, Dogon country, and Djenné. After that I’ll come back to Bamako for a couple days, and then head off to Senegal for my final two weeks. I’m hoping to take a flight on Air Senegal from Bamako to Dakar; it takes at least 30 hours to get there by bus, and I am less than enthusiastic about that idea.

Posted by: dumpendebat | 2011/02/08


I’ve been in Togo for over a week now. I have visited the voodoo-fetish market here in Lomé, and I just spent the weekend in the inland town of Kpalimé, where I hiked up to Togo’s highest point, Pic d’Agou (986 m). I think I’m off to Benin on Saturday; there isn’t much to do or see here, and things here are surprisingly expensive.

It’s really hot here: 90 degrees Fahrenheit or more, with high humidity. Lomé is the most run-down capital city I’ve ever seen. This is easily the least-developed place I’ve ever been. Most of the roads are unpaved, and they’re not even dirt but soft sand, which makes it difficult for the motorbike taxis to negotiate corners, and I was in a taxicab that got bogged down until the driver managed to enlist the assistance of passers-by to help push us out. Life here seems very quiet and slow.

I have no choice but to speak French from morning to night, as very few people here speak English. That’s going surprisingly well. It’s easier to speak French with francophone Africans than it is with French people, as the Africans don’t wince when you make a mistake. Vocabulary is my biggest issue, and my little Berlitz dictionary is getting a workout. I remember my verb tenses surprisingly well, but I have some dismaying pronominal issues (I’m never quite sure whether to use le or lui, les or leur, etc.). It would be very, very tough to get around here without French, and I’m glad my French is at least good enough to survive in conditions of near-total linguistic immersion.

That’s about all the news, readers. I hope the Internet is better in Benin.

Posted by: dumpendebat | 2011/02/03

I am OK

Readers, I am in the Republic of Togo, where it’s really hot and things are very quiet. The Internet connection here is bad, and I am helpless on this wretched AZERTY keyboard. I got out of Cairo with no problems, and I am safe in this obscure West African republic.

The unfamiliar French-style keyboard layout has reduced me to 10 wpm, literal two-finger hunting and pecking, so I will not write much — I just want everybody to know I am OK. I will write again when I can.

Posted by: dumpendebat | 2011/01/27

Last day in Egypt

Today’s my last day in Egypt, readers. I’ve been here so long (about three and a half months now, just about as much time as I spent in Ethiopia), it doesn’t seem quite real that I’m flying out of here tomorrow.

I’m heading to the airport at noon for a 15:25 flight. I am hoping that there will be no problems getting to the airport — there’s a good chance that tomorrow might be a crazy day here; they think it’s possible that a lot of people who’ve been working all week and were thus not able to participate in any of the protests will join in on Friday after morning prayers. Whatever happens here in Egypt, I hope it happens peacefully.

Currently, downtown Cairo is experiencing normalcy with a veneer of tension: still lots of riot police at the ready, but life on the streets looks otherwise normal. There’s still a lot of tension in the city and the potential for more trouble. No one knows where this thing is going, but it sure isn’t over yet.

Tomorrow I fly first to Casablanca, where I have a two-hour layover, and then switch planes for Lomé, Togo. I’m going to get there at the ungodly hour of 02:05, but that couldn’t be avoided; my flight on Royal Air Maroc was several hundred dollars cheaper than the alternatives.

Just now, I was having tea and sheesha in my favorite cafe while I waited for a chance to get on the Internet. For the second time in Cairo, I was almost hit by a falling object from the upstairs seating section: somebody upstairs dropped a pen, which fell onto my table. Immediately, a brilliant multilingual pun occurred to me, and I announced to everyone:

Al-aqlaam min as-samaa’ (“Pens from Heaven”).

No one was amused or edified, alas.

I have no idea what the Internet situation is going to be like in West Africa. I’ve been spoiled by reliable high-speed connections here in Egypt, and I suspect I’m going back to the world of 56 Kbps dial-up connections. We’ll see, though. I’ll keep updating this blog as much as possible, as soon as possible.

Posted by: dumpendebat | 2011/01/26

Cairo Situation Update

It’s night here now (21:15 local time). Things are feeling a little tense and uneasy downtown. The police are still out, making a show of very visible force, ranks of riot troops with helmets and shields lined up at all the intersections around Tahrir Square. Shops and businesses are mostly open, but there are fewer people out and about than normal, and everyone seems a little anxious. I’m going home after I finish using the Internet here.

I’ve been hearing rumors of sporadic trouble around town today, and the BBC says there have been numerous arrests and clashes, but I haven’t seen anything myself. I actually did some tourism this morning (saw the Dahshur pyramids), and spent a couple hours downtown in the afternoon.

Tomorrow’s my last day in Cairo. I’m kind of glad to be leaving, to be honest; but I’m also a little disappointed that I won’t be here to see how all this turns out.

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