What to Expect when Backpacking in West Africa

West Africa isn’t generally the first place on the average British backpacker’s itinerary, but as you know by now I’m not exactly the average backpacker. It’s not a region we in Britain know a lot about; one may think that’s surprising given British colonial history, but remember apart from really big events we’re generally not taught about anything that happened outside Britain; it took until ‘A’-level to get a firm grasp even of anything European.

The Barefoot Backpacker standing on the hill at Fort William overlooking Cape Coast, Ghana
Overlooking Cape Coast, Ghana.

My first real knowledge of the region came at University, when in my first year of an ultimately abortive degree course (I don’t think my mother ever quite forgave me for quitting) in Social & Economic History – ironically one might argue that’s now exactly what my blog genre is – we did a compulsory module in West African cultural studies, including a bit of the history. I don’t remember a lot about it, obviously because it was at university and I barely turned up, but I do recall it concentrated a lot on Nigeria.

[Reader, I have not been to Nigeria. For a British citizen it’s quite a hard country to get a visa for – while not quite demanding you write the application form in blood, it’s certainly amongst the more onerous of visas to get. Paperwork, proof of income, proof of journey, proof that someone in the country can vouch for you … I realise that a lot of countries’ citizens have similar burdens whenever they visit most of the countries in the world, but my privilege as a British citizen is being able to choose not to deal with that.]

Fast forward a couple of decades. I’m now a seasoned traveller and I’m looking for somewhere new to visit. I need somewhere interesting (both culturally and historically), somewhere relatively ‘not cold’, and somewhere where language won’t be too much of a problem. I’m browsing my local bookstore at the travel guides, and pick up one for ‘West Africa’. Within 35 seconds I knew I wanted, nay needed, to see Benin.

The rest of my plans fell naturally into place. Starting in Benin, I’d travel along the coast to Senegal; another country that seemed to fit perfectly with my travel criteria. Ghana, too, felt like a country that I needed to explore the more I read about it, and the recent history of both Sierra Leone and Liberia meant I felt obliged to go there and see places I’d only previously heard negative things about in the news.

Unfortunately I timed my visit at exactly the same time as the Ebola outbreak; this curtailed my plans, not because of Ebola itself, but more that three countries (Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone) closed their borders to most traffic, making an overland trip to Senegal pretty much impossible – the alternative was to travel through Mali and at the time, that wasn’t a country to be in. Quick change of plans and a much smaller routing would see me spend five weeks in a loop from Ghana to Benin via Burkina Faso and Togo.

Going in without expectations made it interesting. My main fear was being a solo introverted traveller; I knew the typical West African was inclusive and overly-friendly so I was worried a bit about being able to have personal space, or time to myself, and not be … smothered? The only other comment was made by a chap I worked with at the time who’s family had emigrated from Sierra Leone some decades previously; he said ‘people will look at you strangely, because of your body hair’. Apparently West Africans are relatively smooth. Who knew?

In total, I spent five weeks exploring the region, and even though several years have passed since my visit, I think it might be interesting to note down my impressions of the region, and what to expect when backpacking in West Africa just in case anyone else is interested to go – though I’m not a role-model and of course you don’t have to travel barefoot like I did much of the way. Obviously if you’re from elsewhere in Africa reading this, note that my impressions are very much directed by the fact I’m a white British male – if you want an African perspective on West Africa I’ll direct you to my South African friend Mukhatshelwa Nazama (aka The Solo Wandera) who did that very thing, and more recently than I did.

The Lord is, very much, My Shepherd

One of the things I’d picked up on my way through life is a vague impression that West Africans are religious. I don’t mean ‘ticking the box on the census’ religious, I mean, evangelical preacher religious. My first confirmation of this was on my very first morning of my adventure; I’d taken a local minibus from my guesthouse in the northwestern suburbs of Accra, the capital of Ghana, it was a Monday so a fairly standard commuting working day. The minibus was pretty full, so when the clean-shaven twenty-something chap in a grey suit came on and stood at the front, I didn’t think anything of it.

Until he started taking. Loudly. To the bus passengers. But not in a ranty, too-much-alcohol, way; no, this was confident and self-assured. He spoke in a kind of patois; enough English words for me to get the gist but not enough to understand the content. But it was when the entire bus responded to his words with the occasional ‘hallelujah’ that I understood what was going on.

The bus had its own preacher. And this was considered normal.

Poster advertising a funeral in Accra, Ghana
A poster advertising a funeral, as seen in Accra, Ghana.

Even just wandering around Accra later that day confirmed the rest to me. Everywhere were posters with a religious bent; some advertising church events, some directly preaching The Word. The most interesting, and related, aspect, were the posters with huge images of people on them – the sort you might find at election time, except the only voters for these people had halos; they were advertising funerals. The posters listed all the things that person had done in their life, and invited people to their funeral and get-together – a sort of celebration of life, as it were.

The other thing that’s very apparent across especially Ghana is the religious bent of the shops. This is not a place to find something as simple as ‘Kwame Johnson Electrics’ or ‘Darkuman Reprographics’. Rather you’ll find shops with names like ”Trust In God’ Catering Services” and “‘God Time Is The Best’ Art Shop”. Even if the business is completely secular in scope, it may well have a religious business name.

Shop in Accra, Ghana
Refrigeration Engineering shop in Accra, Ghana – “On The Move For Jesus Ent”.

Shop in Accra, Ghana
Fashion shop in Accra, Ghana – “By His Grace Modern Fashion Designing”.

[As an aside, the other interesting juxtaposition I noticed was that Ghana (and Togo) has a passion for what you might call ‘public information’, especially with regard to health. There’s a phrase in England, ‘cleanliness is next to godliness’. Well, in Ghana it’s literally true.]

Posters in Cape Coast, Ghana, public health next to a religious advert
“Cleanliness Is Next To Godliness” – a public health poster right next to a poster advertising a religious event.

I finished my adventure in the last few days before Christmas. My last couple of days I spent in the Ghanaian town of Ho, in the southwest of the country, in a hotel with a TV in the bedroom. Switching it on, not only did I notice the ticker-feed at the bottom, which in the UK would be ‘breaking news’ but here in Ghana it was more funeral notifications/invites, but also the TV idents/jingles had a Christmassy theme, with all manner of Christmassy TV idents/jingles, complete with snowmen, sledges, and people wrapped up warm. The juxtaposition of this with walking barefoot in a short-sleeved shirt down the streets in high 20s°C was rather odd … Since the country is well within the tropics, and the highest mountain is smaller than that of the UK, I doubt the average Ghanaian has ever seen snow, much less know what to do with it.

I left Ho (and indeed West Africa) on a Sunday. I took a relaxed walk back to the bus station, poking around at the Northern edge of the town, where I passed an outdoor religious service/event – everyone was dressed up in Sunday finery and it looked for all the world like some kind of traditional Garden Party type event, but with preachers.

Religious celebration on the street in Ho, Ghana
Some kind of religious garden party in Ho, Ghana.

Of course Christianity is not the only religion. The further North you go in West Africa, the stronger the influence of Islam. For me it was mostly evident in Burkina Faso and Benin, where you saw mosques built pretty much alongside churches. I’m not saying the people live in peace and harmony together, but certainly at the time of my visit there didn’t feel like any animosity between cultures, nor any indication that there was any kind of religious warfare about to break out. Since I left, I know some extremists have penetrated northern Burkina Faso from neighbouring Mali, but as I’m sure you know, they don’t represent Islam any more than the Westboro Baptist Church represents Christianity.

Mosque in Natitingou, Benin
A mosque in Natitingou, Benin.

Benin itself is an outlier. The joke amongst the Beninois is they’re 50% Christian, 50% Islam, and 100% Voodoo. I’ve written a post about Voodoo (Vodun) specifically, but in a nutshell – it’s the native religion of many in Benin, predominantly the cultures in the South of the country, and given the foreign and colonial influences over the centuries, the people have taken these influences and pretty much ‘merged’ them into their Voodoo. In essence, objects like ‘the crown of thorns’ have become merely another ‘fetish’ object.

The Barefoot Backpacker taking part in a Voodoo ceremony in Abomey, Benin.
Me, taking part in a Voodoo ceremony in Abomey, Benin.

Don’t be fooled by the name, by the way. Voodoo is simply a religion that venerates ancestors and believes in divine spirits. Voodoo priests conduct ceremonies with all manner of objects, but the vast majority of reasons to to seek out a priest fall into two somewhat mundane categories. None of this ‘I want to see my enemies suffer pain’ lark, rather it’s either “I need luck in my upcoming exam” or “See, there’s this girl, and I really fancy her….”. They also believe the best way to protect against the wrath of divine spirits is to imbibe a somewhat different, but no less powerful, type of spirit. All I’m saying is, if that’s ‘the blood of Christ’, he *may* have had a drinking problem …

Hakuna Matata – This is Africa

TIA – “This is Africa” – is a phrase that’s often heard when travelling around the region. The best way to describe it is as a ‘shrug’; a sense of knowing that nothing is ever quite going to work as advertised or planned, but equally that it doesn’t really matter, because there’s always a workaround.

It’s most often seen in regards to transport. Buses are rarely timetabled, but rather leave when the moment feels right (which is often when four more people than designed are in the vehicle). Even those that do have a published itinerary view the times as more like ‘guidelines’ than absolute rules, as was evident when I was in Tamale, in central Ghana – I’d booked a ticket for the daily coach to Mole National Park; one of those rare African beasts which did supposedly run to a set timetable rather than just departing when full, or when the driver or passengers get bored of waiting. However, I was travelling around Tamale with a local moto-taxi driver and while my innate ‘Just in case, let’s be on time, you never know’ clashed with his ‘It’s always late, don’t worry’, I guessed I’d probably be waiting around a while. We were still having lunch at the due departure time (1.30pm), although in a compromise, he did agree to eat it in a café close to the bus station.

In addition, there’s no guarantee that the bus won’t break down en route, but you know that when it does, regardless of where, within a couple of minutes there’s at least four people – usually teenage boys – going at it with spanners and hammers and within a short while it’ll be working again. Who needs a branded garage when you have an adjustable wrench and a cup of tea?!

The minibus (tro-tro) that broke down between Wo and Hamile, in NW Ghana.
A broken-town tro-tro on the road between Wo and Hamile, in NW Ghana.

Even if there are no buses, there’s always something – a share taxi, a chap on a moto-scooter, something. If you need to be in Cotonou by 10pm, you will get to Cotonou by 10pm, regardless how how it looks at 5pm in a small village halfway across the country. The important thing to remember is you will always get to your destination, regardless of what happens. You just have to trust people, which for me is always hard, but you know they have more experience about things than you do.

This attitude also extends to goods, services, and accommodations. If you need a new battery for your phone, there’s a chap at the bus station who can get you one. If you have a disaster crossing borders and end up stuck in a small village, there will always be a hotel, a guesthouse, someone’s house if necessary – I ended up sleeping on a mattress in an apartment with a moto-driver in Tamale as none of the guesthouses we tried had any rooms available and that was what he saw as the perfect solution.

The moto-driver in Tamale, Ghana, together with the Barefoot Backpacker. Who is not barefoot at this point.
The moto-driver in Tamale, Ghana.

Note that this doesn’t apply to administration or corporations; it’s very much an ‘individual’ or ‘community’ feeling. Sometimes there’s almost a resigned acceptance of administration failures. The regular power outages in Accra are seen as ‘something that happens’, and as a result there’s an awful lot of shops selling generators than you might expect in a large city – adapting is better than challenging. Also, my hotel in Ho advertised Wi-Fi but when I got there they told me “it hasn’t done for a while; Vodafone haven’t got round to fixing it”. In this case, fortunately for my apparent Internet Addiction, there was an Internet Café a little walk down the road opposite, probably less than 3 minutes away. With a generator, natch.

Timetables are for the weak

I’ve kind of already covered this with regards to how it feels to travel on local and long-distance buses in West Africa, but transport in general is a very woolly concept – but still contained within the overriding concept that ‘you will always make it there’.

As noted earlier, the buses/tro-tros don’t run to timetables, and even when they do, they don’t. Rather, they generally depart when full (that my minibus in Togo from Lomé to Kpalimé departed while still half empty surprises me still to this day), or when the driver and his friends decide that it’s time to leave. Regardless of where you’re going, though, there’ll always be at least one bus a day, and the people at the bus station (by no means ‘official’ – you won’t find anyone in a uniform!) will guide you to the right one or make sure you have an alternative option. Trust them; they know what they’re doing.

The minibus that took me from Kpalimé in Togo, to Ho in Ghana. The goat did not come with us.
The minibus that took me from Kpalimé in Togo, to Ho in Ghana. The goat did not come with us.

One of these other options is the share-taxi. Similar to the tro-tro, these are vehicles that plough their way between towns and villages, except that being cars, they’re smaller and thus likely to both be quicker and depart sooner. Similar the tro-tros and buses though, they’re ludicrously over-crowded and over-loaded with luggage – the one I caught across the Burkina-Benin border had seven people in a five-seater car (including two people in the front passenger seat), while one I took down much of the spine of Benin had so much freight on it, including a fridge, that you could almost touch the road with your foot.

A bus in Burkina Faso, plying the Bobo-Ouagadougou route. It had, er, broken down at the time of my taking this pic ...
The bus (coach) between Bobo and Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso. They weren’t all as big as this.

There are some long-distance bus companies with the sort of coaches you’d see on UK roads – for example I caught one from Bobo to Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, and one to Mole National Park in Ghana – but they seem to be very much the exception rather than the rule. The only advantage to these coaches is you do get a bit more room on them; they’re still just as reliable as the tro-tros and operate on the same roads.

Local transport, within a town or to surrounding villages, is often best done on a moto – the motorbike taxi (anyone who’s been to SE Asia, especially Cambodia, will be familiar with these). Cotonou, in Benin, pretty much runs on them – they’re called ‘Zem’ – and the riders there all wear yellow t-shirts which, with the sound of the motorscooters themselves, makes them appear like hordes of wasps or bees when they come riding along the street.

Zem – the moto-scooters in Cotonou, Benin.
A road full of Zem, in Cotonou, Benin.

The advantage of the moto-taxi is of course the state of some of the roads – gravel, worn, full of potholes – means that riding on two wheels is often much more efficient than four.

Plain but functional accommodation

The majority of the accommodation I stayed in could be best described as ‘guesthouses’. In the main they were pretty simple – plain rooms with stone walls in a building surrounding a courtyard. If I was lucky, the rooms would have an en-suite bathroom, if I was very lucky and fancied splurging out on unadulterated luxury, like I did in Bobo-Dioulassou in Burkina Faso, they had air-con.

Inside the guesthouse in Bobo, Burkina Faso
Inside the guesthouse in Bobo, Burkina Faso.

There were very few ‘hostels’, as you’d find in much of the rest of the world. Aside from Mole National Park, my only experience with dormitory accommodation was in Cotonou, in Benin, but even there I had the dorm to myself (and judging by the guestbook the last people in the dorm had been there over a week earlier). This wasn’t out of choice, but simply a lack of hostel options – even the much-lauded backpacker hangout in Kumasi, Ghana, had long-closed by the time I got there.

The cost of accommodation varied, but felt on par with my experiences in Central Asia and parts of Eastern Europe; the cheapest I paid was around £5, whilst my splurges rarely cost more than £15 – obviously these prices were at the time so have probably risen in line with everywhere else.

Outside the guesthouse in Cape Coast, Ghana
Outside the guesthouse in Cape Coast, Ghana.

Unusually for my travel experiences, I did a fair amount of ‘en-spec’ booking rather than booking anywhere in advance. Most of the time this worked pretty well (despite the fact I was using a six-year-old guidebook as a reference); the only time it didn’t was in Tamale, Ghana, where as previously mentioned I ended up on a mattress in an apartment of a moto-taxi driver called Latif.

Even in the smallest of towns there were always options; the hotel in Hamile at the Ghana-Burkina border wasn’t exactly salubrious – it was a concrete block built around a central courtyard that looked not a little like old stabling, and had no signs save a scrawled phone number on the external wall by the front door. The room was a dark, cell-like place with bare floors and windows that opened only a little, but for 25 cedis (£5), it worked, despite the outside squat toilet overflowing with rubbish, and home to two cockroaches the size of my middle finger.

The main courtyard of my hotel in Hamile, Ghana
The main courtyard of my hotel in Hamile, Ghana.

Most of my accommodation was, however, much better than this – the best I had were in Burkina Faso with some lovely peaceful settings and funky, colourful, room designs, while sat amongst the trees one could sit and eat/drink. Granted the meals in my Bobo guesthouse were (as revealed in the small-print of the menu) actually provided by a local take-away and the guesthouse merely acted as an intermediary, but I’m not holding that against them.

One final note – the small lizards are harmless and mostly helpful. Don’t be scared of them.

Landscape? Orange gravel, as far as the eye can see…

First the bad news. If you want remote sand dunes, snow-covered high mountain passes, great plains full of billowing wildebeest, or large tracts of mostly trail-free rainforest, you’re in the wrong part of Africa. This part of Africa, specifically, is relatively flat and mostly dusty, sand-covered bushland criss-crossed with bright orange gravel roads.

Barefoot on the orange, gravelly, dusty roads of Ghana.
An example of the orange roads that cross West Africa; this is in central Ghana, near Tamale.

However, this is, as with a lot of Africa, a wild and vague generalisation. While it doesn’t have the peaks or extremes of the likes of Morocco, Tanzania, or DR Congo, the scenery here shouldn’t be dismissed as just ‘something to look at for a few seconds while you fiddle with the settings on your music player’.

The borderland of Ghana and Togo is amongst the most varied of the scenery that I encountered on my trip. This is the land of coffee plantations, hills, and waterfalls. On the Ghanaian side I visited Mount Gemi and the waterfalls at Ote, whilst on the Togoloese side (there’s not much distance between them) I went to the waterfalls at Womé, and up Mount Agou.

Overview of Mount Gemi, in Ghana
Overview of Mount Gemi, in Eastern Ghana.

Mount Gemi is one of the highest mountains in Ghana (800m – the highest is nearby Mount Afadja at 885m), although I didn’t climb up much of it as the bus drops you off in the nearby village of Amedzofe, which itself is 677m in altitude, so much of the fun (?) has already been taken out of it! I was alone for the short walk from the village – I was supposed to have had a guide but he was apparently ‘on the mountain already, but don’t worry, you’ll bump into him on the way’. Reader, I did not. So my solitude, plus the hazy grey cloud cover blocking out pretty much most of the view, gave the whole place an eerie, bleak air slightly at odds with the rest of Ghana.

The top of Mount Gemi, in Ghana
The top of Mount Gemi, in Eastern Ghana.

Atop Mount Gemi is a large mysterious cross. This was apparently erected by the local church (a German Evangelical church) to commemorate 50 years of activity in the local area; at the bottom of the cross is an inscription signed by the German Evangelical Missions Institute – the story goes that people began to refer to the mountain as the GEMI mountain rather than its original name (subsequent Internet research suggests the mountain used to be known as ‘Gayito’, which translates as ‘God Defends’ in Ewe).

Ote Waterfalls, in Ghana
The waterfalls at Ote, in Eastern Ghana.

I did have a guide to the Ote waterfalls, in the opposite direction from Amedzofe, as it’s not signposted and hidden away in a cassava plantation; although quite small, in the height of the wet season the flood pool can get quite deep and extensive, though visiting like me during the middle of the dry season means it’s nothing more than a gentle drop. Again (apart from the guide) I was pretty much alone.

A village partway up Mount Agou, in Togo
A village partway up Mount Agou, in Togo.

The Togoloese equivalents are Mount Agou and the cascade of Womé. Mount Agou is the highest point of Togo, at 986m, and is much more of a climb. That said, I didn’t get to the top – the guide I was with said ‘the trail stops here’ at a village a little shy of the summit; I would have questioned this but the view was mostly mist so I’m unconvinced climbing to the top would have been worth the extra hassle. The track up was quite picturesque though, mainly through woodland of coffee trees and small villages.

The Barefoot Backpacker standing in front of the waterfalls at Wome, Western Togo
The waterfall at Wome, Togo. If you look carefully you may be able to see #BabyIan 🙂

Conversely, the waterfalls at Womé were probably more spectacular than those at Ote – they were a little larger and in a more secluded setting – surrounded by forest as opposed to just being on the edge of it. The ride there was also more … it felt like it was more remote; so I had the impression of being on more of an adventure to get there.

While the borderland is woody, there is genuine rainforest in this part of West Africa. In the south of Ghana lies Kakum National Park, a small protected area of land where you can wander either through, or on a bridge above, the jungle. It’s certainly not Congo, but it’s considerably easier to get to – worth visiting if you’re in the region certainly, but if you specifically want to experience an African rainforest environment, this is not the place.

The rainforest walk in Kakum National Park, Ghana
The rainforest walk in Kakum National Park, Ghana

Much of the rest of my trip though was through landscape that, while different from what you find in the UK, quickly became quite ‘same same’ – flat open plains with red dust. Remember this is bordering on the Sahel – the bushy borderland region between the fertile South and the Saharan North. It’s certainly a different environment from what I’m used to as a Brit, albeit not necessarily one I’d travel specifically to see.

I hope you like starch!

I live within an hour of several major cities in the UK. I’m not aware of any of them having a specifically West African restaurant. Part of me wants to say the reason for this is because the average Brit wouldn’t ‘appreciate’ the nuances of the cuisine, but this is very much Your Mileage May Vary territory.

Much of what I ate on my travels was bought from street stalls and local cafés/restaurants, and in the main consisted of two different styles, corresponding to largely on how far away from the sea I was.

Fish with Rice; this example from Benin
Typical meal – fish (almost certainly tilapia) and rice.

My early experiences were, of course, with a Ghanaian variant of that West African staple, jollof. This is a dish primarily made with rice and tomatoes, to which other meats and the like are added – for me this seemed to be pretty much exclusively either chicken or fish (specifically tilapia). It’s sold pretty much everywhere and fairly standard.

In the north of Ghana, and much of my time in the Francophone nations, I encountered somewhat different kinds of dishes, using cassava rather than rice as a base. In Ghana the main type is ‘banku’ – imagine a kind of dumpling-like substance made with a combination of corn and cassava dough. Elsewhere in West Africa you find ‘fufu’ – more of the consistency of mashed potato, and made with pounded cassava and plantain (to get a truly authentic texture, the cassava needs to be pounded by hand for upwards of 6 hours – not one for participants on ‘Come Dine With Me’).

Fufu with okra, from a small cafe in Togo
Fufu with okra, as seen in Togo.

Both banku and fufu tend to be served with stews or soups, often again chicken or tilapia; one of the more popular soups with fufu is ‘sauce arachide’ – made with groundnuts. Another popular side is okra, which gives a much more sticky texture. It goes without saying that you eat both with your fingers, the same way westerners might use bread.

Note that I found it very difficult to get anything between about midday and 3pm, especially in the Francophone countries. Presumably due to the oppressive heat in the middle of the day, a lot of shops and restaurants close for a siesta. This often involves the owner sleeping on the seats or benches in front of their business, in the shade of the overhang, which is definitely not something you get in the UK. Be prepared to have an early lunch, or a really late one. Having said which, as 6am is quite busy and a great time to try to catch buses, and since I’m not a person who enjoys or appreciates naps (they give me headaches and make me feel like a badger has gone to the toilet in my mouth), I ended up being quite fond of the early night on my trip.

The Barefoot Backpacker eating Banku in Ghana.
My attempt at eating banku in Ghana. It may have amused the locals.

With regards beer, incidentally: Burkina Faso has its own lager, which is drinkable, while Ghana follows Nigeria and its strange passion for Guinness.

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One thought on “What to Expect when Backpacking in West Africa

  1. Accurate!

    I hope you also tried some Star beer (I think it’s Nigerian) while you were there!

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