Diary of my West African Road Trip…..
Traveling across West Africa had been on my mind for a while now. It became intense when I moved to Nigeria in Sept 2012. For one reason or the other, this desire remained just a dream (although I had visited Ghana in 2011 and traveled to Rep. of Benin (several times) and Togo since my move to Nigeria, It still wasn’t the same as road tripping from Lagos, Nigeria to Dakar, Senegal. Anyways, at the end of December, I decided to finally do this road trip. I didn’t make it to Senegal (limited time and money), I covered 4 countries and 8 cities/town in 11 days. This will probably be the longest post I’ve written so go grab a bowl (or 2) of popcorn and a bottle of soft drink.
December 30th: I arrived at the motor park/bus station (Mile 2) at 7.20am, the car to the border left immediately. One hour later, we arrived at the Seme border. I had a smooth, hassle free border crossing at the infamous Seme border (Nigeria – Rep. of Benin). I was in shock at the Aflao border (Togo-Ghana) –this border has about the same (if not more) numbers of hustlers as Seme border, only difference, women hustle at Aflao. “You will be silly not to give me your passport & I’ll get it stamped for you” said one of the hustlers. FYI, you will be making a grave mistake giving your passport to anyone that is not a uniformed immigration or custom official.
At 2pm, I’m in a bus to Abidjan. Now this is when the adventure began. We had the most annoying bus driver ever. He would stop so often and wouldn’t tell us why. During this journey, I was chatting with a friend, below read the conversation – that’s the best way to enjoy the painful 11hrs trip from Aflao border to the Ghana-Ivory Coast border.
Me: Lord, this bus driver is f***ing annoying. He keeps stopping for no reason! Oh sh**! The border is 12hrs away! Can’t believe I didn’t do my research
Friend: So sorry. Tell him you will curse his new year in Yoruba if he doesn’t get his sh** together and drive non-stop.
Me: D Igbo and Ivorian guys already cursing him lol. Imagine we have to donate money to bribe Ivorian military at checkpoint! I’ll have to sleep at the border. I should have just gone to Accra for the night instead. Oh well.
Friend: So sorry mama…Chai!
Me: Our bus driver is officially crazy, dude just stopped to play lottery. We still on the road -met bad a** traffic. I must learn French!
Friend: Lol, I like him. He’s like sc**w these passengers!
Me: We still 3hrs or so away from d border o. And he just stopped to wash his face
Friend: lol, sorry am laughing. 18hrs of travel time
Me: Imagine! and no scenery, just mud houses and overgrown weed. Y do I do this?
Friend: #lanigeriana, #cote’dvoire, #nomad, #ambuiltforthis
Me: hmm. Our driver just asked for chewing gum o!
Friend: Lol, why do I feel like am following a very funny comedy?
Me: D dude is something! One can’t even sleep, not with d way he presses d brake. Passengers have requested loud music. That will keep all of us, including the driver awake. D best part, the driver just asked us which way to he take! WTF!
Friend: Am praying for all of you! This guy don craze, confirm
Me: Imagine driver stopped again. He went to eat bread & egg >:O. It’s past midnight, we in a dead town and he just doesn’t care.
We finally arrived at the border at 1am, off course it was close since 6.30pm. Along with other passengers, we stayed at a canteen (border eatery shack) sipping tea and watching Nollywood (Nigerian movies) until 6.30am when the border reopened. At this point I was dirty, hungry and lacking sleep.
December 31st: The border crossing was the worse so far, as soon as we got to the Ghanaian part, people started running, pushing and acting real immature. Finally it gets to my turn, I show them my passport and vaccination card, everything ok but I had to pay 2 Ghanaian Cedis. Ok, no problem, I can afford to ‘give’ them that. Moved to the Ivorian side, first they search all your luggage/bag – you bring everything out one by one, one of the army guys refuses to let me go for 20mins saying I’ll be his wife. Guess he saw I wasn’t in the mood for BS, he let me go. I reach the vaccination area, guy takes my card aside and sends me to another person. This person goes on to say I don’t have meningitis vaccine card! Really, only yellow fever is required, but for reasons known to only them, they wanted to see the meningitis vaccination as well. Mofos tried unsuccessful to force me take the vaccination. I refused, after 30mins of argument, he let me go. Then on to the immigration section where they had the nerve to inflate normal fee by 500% just because my Nigerian passport was issued in New York. He (the official) told one of the Ivorian guys on my bus I looked rich!! Really guy, if I was rich, trust me I wouldn’t bother with borders, I would fly!! At that point, I was ready to say f*** it, I’m going back. In the end, some Ivorian guy paid a third of the fee they wanted. I’m now extremely pissed & hungry. After 28hrs on bus travel (includes wait time at border), I arrived in Abidjan and fell in love immediately.
Note: at all West African borders I’ve crossed, officials always ask for a fee (usually equivalent of USD$1). No one knows if this fee is legal or not especially for West African citizen (there’s a free movement agreement). Anyways, everyone pays this fee because really $1 is nothing. However, when they start demanding more than that, you insist on the $1….
Abidjan is now my favorite city (after Lagos off course) in West Africa, I wouldn’t mind living here. The food is delicious. The people are awesome and I simply connected with Abidjan. Later in the evening, we went to Assinne, a lake town 2hrs from Abidjan to spend New Year Eve. The lodge we stayed at was amazing, a paradise that I wished I could call home. Now, I know where to go to take solace whenever I feel down or have mid-life crisis. We (my host & I) spent the remaining evening cooking & chatting by the lake. I fell asleep before midnight, missed most of the firework display. I didn’t mind, it was the best New Year eve for me thus far.
Jan 1st: spent a good part of the day at the beach and returned to Abidjan in the evening. We hung out with friends of my host at a bar. Ivoirians love to enjoy life, the vibe was good, people were happy. It was a pleasant evening.
Jan 2nd: attempted to purchase a train ticket to Burkina Faso. It would be my first time taking the train in Africa; I was pretty excited so you can imagine how sad I was when the train people said they had not resumed service for the year. I had to get a bus ticket instead. The rest of the day was spent hanging out with jolly people.
Jan 3rd: I left my host’s house at 6.30am because the bus was leaving at 7am. We get to the bus station, no bus. Bus agent tells us to hold on. 8am, still no bus. At 9.30am, bus was ready to leave. I got a rude shock, it wasn’t a coach/luxurious bus like I assumed, rather a mini bus. I paid 24,000CFA (USD$50) the previous day for a direct bus to Bobo, Burkina Faso. But I saw people paying 5,000 (USD9.30) for the same bus. I was getting confused, couldn’t clarify since I don’t speak French. When we got to a city called Bouake after several hours, everybody (except me) gets down from the bus, and then I was completely confused. I found someone that speaks somewhat English and told him where I’m going to, they take me to another minivan type of bus going to Burkina Faso. Okay, I didn’t have to pay anything but others paid 10,000CFA (USD$20). Basically, I was ripped off in Abidjan because I paid $20 more than the actual cost. We left Bouake at 3.15pm. At Bouake, I became somewhat self-conscious because I barely saw any female without her hair covered. They were also dressed extra conservative, it was very different from mode of life in Abidjan where liberal was the norm.
Another shocker – luggage, sacks of rice, onions, corn, maize were put on the floor of the van in such a way that you would have to put your legs on them instead of the floor – making it pretty uncomfortable. From Abidjan to Bouake, there were several military-police checkpoint, while I was awake; we were stopped by about 10 of them. They all were given ‘tip’ by the bus driver. The military or police officer didn’t move from their stand under the shade, the bus driver would have to park by the side of the road and go give them the money.
From Bouake onward, military stops/checkpoint increased, after a while the military guys also asked to see passport/travelling document, they delayed but eventually collected money from non-passport holders (only at one checkpoint, they collected money from all passengers). Finally at 11.20pm we arrived at the border :). Border control still opened!!! 🙂 :). My passport was stamped at 11.29pm. At 12.20am, we passed yet another Ivory Coast border control- all passengers had to get down to show stamped passport etc. The border control area was like an open market place – anything, everything was for sale. Vendors and travelers had their touch/flash light, buying & selling. I attached myself to a family; one of them spoke fairly understandable English so he was my quasi translator. At 12.55am, we at the Burkina Faso side, my passport was stamped by 12.57am. WoW!!! The immigration officer was a pleasant old man, far better than all of the Ivorian immigration folks.
We were on the road to Bobo in no time. However, at 3.35am, one of the tires busted :(. It took about 10mins to fix it and we were on the road again. Sadly an hour later, another tire busted – why don’t these bus operators have good spare tires? Well, there was no more spare tire so from 4am to sunrise at 6.30am, we slept in the bus (all 24 passengers) in the middle of nowhere. Man, it was cold (harmattan session) but I was grateful I had my pashmina scarf and sarong with me. At 7am, the bus driver was able to hitch ride to get the tire fixed. In the mist of all these inconveniences, one passenger was blasting Naija (Nigerian) music, everyone including the old men & women were singing along to wizkid, chop my money, limpopo, kukure etc. I guess the music pretty much calmed everyone. Driver is back at 9am and finally we on our way to Bobo. Aah, Bobo is just 40mins away from where the bus stopped! Imagine!!!
Jan 4th: Tried to get a room at a popular guesthouse but none was available :(. I was referred to another one, no hot water for shower and I was the only guest there. Decided to go sightseeing, Bobo is supposed to be the cultural capital of Burkina Faso; however I wasn’t feeling the city at all. I went to the Grand Marche, got a sim card and activated my blackberry phone. Made a sudden decision to leave Bobo so went back to the guesthouse (still the only guest), took a taxi to the bus station and got a ticket for 2pm to Banfora. At the bus station, I met a Polish lady – I was soooo excited to talk to someone in English. On getting to Banfora, my new friend & I decided to spend the night at a nearby lake and I would join her in the morning for a tour. Her tour guide took us to a ‘hut type’ hotel by the lake. I had never slept in a hut house so I was looking forward to the experience. The lake (Lake Tengrela) was peaceful and exactly what I needed to relax. My hut room was bare, simple but comfortable. The toilet at the hut hotel was pit latrine (a hole in the ground kind of). Shower was cold bucket bath. The meal was delicious.
Jan 5th: Next morning, we went to a waterfall – Karfiguela Falls. One word to describe Karfiguela is Astonishing! We also visited Fabedougou Domes, really cool place. I couldn’t do any more sightseeing because I had to catch the 1pm bus to Ouagadougou (Ouaga). I arrived at Ouaga at 8pm. I slept off not too long after I arrived at my host’s place.
Jan 6th: The day was spent exploring Ouaga with my host, trying to find an ATM that worked for Mastercard and chatting with my host’s family. I also bought a bus ticket to Kumasi, Ghana for the next day. What do I think of Ouaga? Well, it’s a lot quiet compared to other capitals in West Africa. It’s not the cleanest city but it’s big on arts & culture. I wished I had more time in Ouaga, if I did, I would attend the elaborate Friday ceremony, visit Thomas Sankara’s grave and explore the artistic hot-spots.
Jan 7th: I’m up early again because bus leaves at 8.30am. I knew I made a mistake on getting to the bus station and seeing the very old bus I would be departing with. I was advised by one of the bus agents to ‘secure’ my seat. I didn’t understand him but went ahead anyways to put my bag on a seat. I then attempted to buy another ticket with a more fancy bus operator but no seat available. I resigned to my fate of enduring a long uncomfortable smelly bus ride. At 9.50am, the fancy bus is leaving, we are still there. I get on the bus to take my seat, this dude then had the nerve to put his smelly jacket on the bag I put on my seat, saying he got there before me. I moved his jacket and sat down, he started cursing me in his local language, I couldn’t be bothered because I knew nothing would make me vacate the seat for him. At 10.15am, the bus is ready to leave; no less than 20 people are standing because off course, they sold more tickets than available seats. Another 15mins delay at the petrol/gas station because of a disagreement between two passengers. I just knew this was going to be a very longgggggggg journey.
The Fulani dress man sitting beside me insisted on conversing with me even though I don’t understand his local language. I pretend to fall asleep, I wake up from my pretend sleep and he picks up from where he stopped talking. I smile and say ‘oui’ to everything he says.
Piece of advice – whatever you do, don’t take SKV international bus company from Ouaga to Ghana, it is the most uncomfortable cramped bus ever. Instead take Imperial Express (they leave 3 times a week (tue, thur and sun), their bus is comfy, with AC). STC is also another option, it is probably the most comfy, and cost is more than other but worth it. They leave mon, wed & fri. Buy your ticket a day or two in advance.
We crossed the border before 9pm, it was one of the most hassle-free thus far.
Jan 8th: We arrived at Kumasi, Ghana at 5am; I proceeded to get a bus to Cape Coast. We got into Cape coast at about 8.30am. I visited the Cape coast castle – sad history. It was the biggest slave holding place in West Africa. The majority of Africans stolen during the slave trade were shipped off from Cape Coast. Today, it is a sleepy fishing town and houses one of Ghana’s biggest universities. I met a Chinese girl at the castle, we did the tour together and I rode with her to Accra. At the entrance of the castle, you will be harassed by young hustlers to ‘donate’ money to some charity school helping boys stay in school. They are very persistent and would even suggest you give USD$20 to the said charity. Question is, are they legit or just preying on tourists?
I intended on spending the night in Accra and returning to Lagos the next day. I had visited Accra before in 2011; I didn’t like it so this was me trying to give Accra a second time to impress me. Well, I still wasn’t impressed so I took a car to Lome where I would connect to Cotonou. Since it would be my last night on the trip, I wanted to spend it in a very special city and Accra wasn’t it. The car to Lome was the most comfortable transport so far on this trip. We got to Lome and I connected to Cotonou.
I didn’t get to Cotonou until 10pm. Glad my favorite restaurant was still open. I had my first real meal of the day and a glass of white wine to celebrate the end of my road trip. Then proceeded to my favorite guesthouse – Guesthouse Cocotier; since both the guesthouse and the restaurant are just two streets apart in the Haie Vive area of Cotonou, it was safe to walk to the guesthouse from the restaurant – Restaurant Livingstone.
Jan 9th: I visited friends, went to my favorite arts & crafts market and simply enjoyed Cotonou. At 3pm, I took the car to the Seme border. As usual, I crossed in a breeze. Five hours later at 8pm, I arrived to my house. After several hours in uncomfortable buses and sometimes stressful border crossings, it felt great to be back home (I actually did miss it Lagos).
Would I do a road trip again across West Africa? Oh YES, but this time, I would learn French and a few phrases in the dominant local language of each country. It sure helps to speak the language; it opens up doors that would be closed to non-speakers. Was the trip worth the stress? For me, I would say yes. I guess I wouldn’t see it as stress rather as new experiences. I’ll always have a story to tell when you mention Rep. of Benin, Ghana, Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire) and Burkina Faso. 🙂 I’m almost a pro at crossing borders now 🙂
Apart from sleeping in an hut by the lake in Burkina Faso & spending NYE in a lake house (#itwasparadise) in Cote d’Ivoire, other highlight was the love shown to me by the people of these countries just because I’m Nigerian. I was told by many how they love Nigeria and Nigerians and wish to visit some day. Everywhere I went, Nigerian music was the norm……
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