Culture Shock Part Two: First Experiences in West Africa
When I went to India, I was a very green traveller. It was my first solo trip, the first time I had travelled alone. When I went to West Africa in 2006, I couldn’t claim the same. I had been to India three times, I had visited Bangladesh twice and been through Pakistan and Iran to get to Europe by land. So, I felt I had the necessary experience to deal with whatever Africa could throw at me.
I was wrong. I arrived in Accra, Ghana, with the plan to make it overland via a number of countries to Senegal. I planned to go through Togo, Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali on the way. But I was to immediately face culture shock in Accra, and the plans would flux and change and revert back to the original whilst I was in West Africa in 2006.
I was immediately struck with culture shock. In fact, on my way to Ghana I had already felt misgivings about going to this part of the world. Strange perhaps, because I had spent years researching and planning and imagining the good and the bad, the challenges and the adventures I would face there. I was, admittedly, worried that my peanut allergy was going to be a big problem, it’s a common ingredient in cooking in West Africa, but I had learnt how to deal with it by then. Or so I thought.
When I arrived at Accra airport, I was a little surprised that despite an extremely long runway, the airport was very small. I was in sub-Saharan Africa for the first time! I flipped from panicky to excited and back again. I took a taxi into town, and with a little time, he found the Date Hotel. This place was a bit of an institution in Accra, there aren’t that many budget options so here was a place for less than 20 bucks and I took a room there.
Whilst the staff were really friendly, and the outdoor bar was nice, the rooms were poor to say the least. I was sharing with mice, the bathrooms barely functioned and the fans were loud. For a night or two it was ok, but I was there for quite a while.
The atmosphere in coastal Ghana is a little oppressive thanks to the humidity. It was well into the 90s (percent) and so very difficult to deal with, and for the first week or two I panicked at pretty much every meal I had worried that there might be peanuts inside. I was not coping well. I couldn’t get a handle on Accra – the way it was laid out, where I was, it seemed to be really big but flat. On top of that the only foreigners at my hotel were aid workers, and they were all too happy to pay for Nigerian hookers who were also staying at the hotel.
And the hookers were nice really, to chat with. And I should have expected something along those lines but well, it was all new to me and combined with quite a bit of poverty in parts, and the madness of the place (despite not being anywhere near as mad as India), and the fact that I felt completely on my own – no other backpackers around that I could see, well this flipped me out somewhat and I spent a couple of days with no-one to talk to much and certain that I was way out of my depth.
I eventually, after four days, moved on to Cape Coast, a quite pretty town down the… coast. I arrived at a cheaper, nicer, far cleaner guesthouse, and met a Canadian who on the spot was happy to see a backpacker and invited me that day to join her and her mother going to some tree houses in the jungle. I was very happy suddenly, I felt things were on the turn. I accepted, only for an hour or less later to be told that the mother had vetoed the idea as she wanted to spend alone time with her daughter. Well, feelings reversed again.
I tried to enjoy my time at Cape Coast, but I couldn’t connect to the other couple of backpackers. I went back to Accra, deciding possibly to skip Benin, Togo and Niger and go to Burkina Faso through to Mali and Senegal, quickly to, and get out to the UK where I was headed next. BUT back in Accra I met an Australian and we hung out for a couple of days. We saw the museum and a few other things around Accra, and like that, suddenly things were not so bad.
He had been to the three countries I was considering cutting from the itinerary and in the end I decided to go there – I had a visa that covered them all anyway. And I moved on to Togo, which was strange, and Benin which was good although I had a bad moment where I lost it. Niger was again confronting with extreme, in your face poverty, but that was balanced by meeting a local with very little that offered me a bed for couple of nights. A warm and generous soul. I never forget these people. I had bought an electric stove because I wanted to cook to get around my peanuts fear, but then never used it. I gave it to this kind man.
Then, Burkina Faso. I had slept a night outside at a bus station in Niger as the buses leave at around 4am for longer distances, and to be honest it was fine if not a sensible thing to do. The bus took me to the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou. At the guesthouse there I met some backpackers and we had a fun day around the town, and when I moved on to Banfora, well, I was feeling finally that I had conquered my misgivings about the place.
So then I caught malaria. Well, probably from a bite I received sleeping outside at the bus station in Niger to be honest. It takes a little time to manifest. Then the doctor gave me Larium, which induced panic attacks. I was suddenly in hell. The initial treatment did not cure the malaria either. I had a guy in Banfora who took me on a tour around to see things who kept turning up at my hotel asking me for money, and eventually I left Banfora, still sick and panicky, to get away from him.
I still remember when the malaria came on. I was hanging with a couple from the Czech Republic. We watched a drum performance which was really cool and I felt very happy about that. I was really digging Burkina Faso. We went out for dinner and I had a really nice steak. Then to an outdoor restaurant/bar and were sitting around a table having a beer and I started coughing. Very quickly I had a temperature and in the space of 30-60 minutes I felt really sick. I went to hospital and was diagnosed with malaria.
The hospital provided its own culture shock. Just a flat bed, not sheets, no nurses, and a doctor who couldn’t find my veins. He used a plastic glove and wrapped it around my arm, and then got the other patient in the room to assist. The toilet was locked at night and I had to drag my drip and myself outside to piss on the wall. To say it was basic is an understatement, but they did have clean needles and the medication which is something, right?
I spiralled from there, still sick I went to Bobo-Dioulosso. I got angry and stressed when suddenly I couldn’t change money at a bank. It can be difficult in some places in West Africa, they ask for receipts and other things. In Ouagadougou again I was taken to another hospital which dealt with westerners thanks to a kind soul I met on the bus, and there I received, finally, proper treatment.
This trip to West Africa ended in ignominy, and I returned home to Australia in my only aborted trip. Was that all ‘culture shock’, no certainly not. Some of it was bad luck, much was in my own mind but I did learn that you have to be in the right mental place to travel, especially if you are going somewhere special. I would returned to the region in 2007 and see Mali and Senegal, I went with a friend this time – a very good idea if you go to Africa. Do it with a friend, it really does help.
For more on my time in West Africa, the third book to the Dhaka to Dakar adventure covers Ghana, Togo, Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal. It’s available on Kindle.
Next Sunday I will talk more in Part Three of ‘Culture Shock’!
May the journey never end!