Crossing Borders in West Africa

I made four border crossings in West Africa on my adventureI wrote a specific blog post about one of them, crossing from Benin to Togo when I almost lost my luggage. To be honest, the other three were no less impressive.

Ghana – Burkina Faso; crossing at Hamile/Ouesso.

This was the first border I’d encountered on my adventure, and it was, shall we say, an ‘interesting’ introduction to the world of borders in the region. It remains the only border I’ve ever crossed accidentally.

See, one of the things I learned on my trip in West Africa is that, were life to be a role-playing game, the default alignment of the people would be ‘Chaotic Good’. They make their world work for everyone, and if that means ignoring minor details such as border posts, then so be it.

Imagine the scenario. I’m in the small town of Hamile, in the far north-west of Ghana. There are no maps, and, as I discovered, only one hotel. The border with Burkina Faso lies at the edge of the town to the north (and, as an aside, Cote D’Ivoire is only a couple of miles west). There are no signposts. I need to cross the border, so I do what every woman does, and ask for directions to the border. I’m told ‘just follow the motorbikes; straight on, you can’t miss it.’.

Reader, I missed it.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. I followed the motorbikes – the motos that transfer goods from one country to another – and also a reasonable amount of foot traffic. I passed by shacks and stalls, then the sandy, dusty track opened out onto litter-strewn mounds. Motos passed me from either direction, and, having walked a couple of minutes through wasteland, I came past a small mosque and onto a long straight road with stalls lining either side. I figured this must be the pre-frontier market area, and I clarified with a couple of the locals that the border to Burkina Faso was straight on. Yes, Burkina was that way, they said.

A road between the bus station in Hamile and the border with Burkina Faso.
One of the roads in Hamile that I was advised to take to cross the border.

6km later, having walked through countryside under an unforgiving sun, I reached a small village called Ouessa, where the road ended, not at a frontier post, but at a junction. Confused, I saw a police station and wandered inside. After a short conversation in broken French, it had turned out that I’d missed the frontier completely, those stalls were indeed a pre-frontier market but from the other side, and I’d accidentally managed to cross into Burkina Faso illegally.

I headed back up the road; fortunately a passing moto gave me a lift back to the mosque. My problem now was that I would have to illegally cross the border again, and because I knew that’s what I was doing, it felt somewhat scarier. I took the first tentative strides onto the sandy path to try to retrace my steps.
– “You want Ghana?”

He was a toothless man, probably late forties but looked much older, wearing a Chelsea football shirt, as seems to be fairly ubiquitous in Ghana. Normally I’m loath to get help for such a short distance but this was an unusual situation, so I gladly let him lead me back to Hamile. He pointed out the Ghana border post in the distance – indicated by a huge arch that would be blindingly obvious to anyone taking the correct route.

Apparently, crossing the border ‘illegally’ happens all the time, and the guards don’t seem to worry too much about it, but he was surprised that they wouldn’t have noticed a tall white man with a backpack…

Now, none of this would have been too much a problem, except I was intending to transit Burkina Faso and leave into Benin. Entering illegally was one thing, but I knew I had to leave the country at a different crossing where they might notice no entry stamp. As an aside, Burkina Faso had only just reopened its borders (ha!) after a revolution so I was concerned the guards might be a bit ‘on edge’. Burkina Faso also requires foreigners to purchase a visa-on-arrival so I wanted to make sure I had all the right paperwork.

Here too, Chaotic Good. The Burkinabe visa was only payable in local currency (CFA Franc), rather than Ghana Cedi or hard currency, which meant I’d have to change some. The chap who guided me across the border, along with the hotel owner, while fleecing me with the exchange rate (apparently ‘it’s hard to change third-party currency up here because no-one knows what it is’), did physically go to the border post to confirm the price of the visa – 24,000 CFA (about £30); except that when I got to the border the next morning, I found out that 24,000 CFA would only get you a 3-day transit visa; the full entry visa was 94,000 CFA (over £100). This caused a bit of consternation; fortunately I still had my ‘fixer’ with me from Hamile, and a weird tri-lingual discussion ensued. A transit visa wouldn’t do me any good at all, unless I were going to Mali – not somewhere in the current climate that was on my list – as it would take longer than 3 days to cross the country from here.

In the event I paid for a transit visa and decided to worry about it later; however, on closer examination of the visa while waiting for the minibus to the nearest Burkinabe city of Bobo-Dioulassou, I noticed there was neither an exit date nor a time limit on the stamp in my passport …

Burkina Faso-Benin; crossing on the edge of the Pendjari National Park.

In many ways this was the least notable and ‘easiest’ of the four borders to cross, but my story of crossing this border begins a couple of days earlier, in the Burkinabe capital of Ouagadougou.

See, I could get a visa-on-arrival for both Burkina and Togo, while for Ghana I already had a multi-entry visa from the embassy in the UK. While in theory I could do the same for Benin, it would only have been valid for a couple of days and extendable at a government building in Cotonou. This would be fine had I crossed in from Togo, but I’d be entering at the exact other end of the country and wanted time to explore, so I needed the visa beforehand – valid for three months rather than under three days.

While not the first time I’d applied for a visa at an embassy while travelling (as opposed to doing it in my home country), it’s not something I do on a regular basis; partly because most countries I’ve been to have either been visa-free, or visa-on-arrival, or to countries (like Ghana, actually) where due to government regulation, it would otherwise have been hard to get a visa anywhere but home.

The embassy in Ouagadougou took a little while to find, being hidden away in the far south of city, down a side road, and not at all signposted. It resembled a large townhouse, with a nice ceramic-tiled front yard enclosed by trees and high fences, and free tea while I waited & filled in the form. Aside from a need to provide a photocopy of the details page of my passport (which necessitated a hunt for the local reprographics shop – that there was one at all in the vicinity was a surprise to me, though no doubt it gets regular custom, although again it wasn’t indicated), the actual process ran pretty smoothly and only took about an hour.

Smoothly, at least, for me.
I was not the only person attempting to get to Benin. Not long after I arrived, I was joined by 12 young Pakistani men, who seemed to have had some trouble at the border. They’d apparently been here a few days earlier, but when they reached the border, whatever paperwork they’d had or been given hadn’t satisfied the border guards who’d turned them back to Burkina Faso. They were here to try to understand what was wrong, and to try to fix it – although never aggressive, you could tell they were angry, and a bit ‘direct’ at times.

The main stumbling block was one of language. They didn’t speak French. My French wasn’t really good enough to mediate between them and the friendly diplomat who was trying to remain calm but it was clear she was getting a little frustrated with them; in any case, their English surprisingly wasn’t as good as even some of the people I’d come across so far in Burkina Faso.

We did end up chatting a little, finding initial common ground in cricket, but that line of discussion ended swiftly when we disagreed on the merits of T20 (they loved the quick form of the game, to me it’s the sort of thing you’d play in your garden when you’re eight).
They were still there when I left. For all I know, they’re still there now.

The actual border crossing was relatively painless, if a bit slow. I’d caught a minibus from the town of Fada-N’Gourma in the eastern region of Burkina Faso to the border, and was stamped out without any problem despite the dodgy visa. The journey between there and the Benin border guards, in a share taxi with six other people, felt reasonably long (maybe half an hour, along a remote road through a forest) – certainly not a walkable distance.

The car park and roped-off road at the Burkina Faso border post on the way to Benin.
Looking back into Burkina Faso from the border post, before the journey to Benin.

The only delay occurred entering Benin, and was nothing to do with me. Benin immigration requires inoculation for Yellow Fever; when you get this, the issuing doctor give you a small booklet (yellow!) as proof – only two of us had proof so we had to wait around in the midday heat while the other five were inoculated there and then, in a dodgy-looking shack covered with a dirty white curtain. If ever there’s an advert for ‘making sure you’ve had your jabs before you go’, it would be that.

Togo-Ghana; crossing at Kpadape.

The issue at this border was again nothing to do with me (unlike my entry into Togo in the meantime!), but rather with one of my fellow passengers on the bus, who had a literal stand-up argument with the Ghanaian border guards. It was all another indicator of just how unusual African border crossings can be.

There’s a frequent, if irregular, minibus service between Kpalimé and the Ghanaian town of Ho; I only ended up waiting two hours. It’s funny – when you have a fixed timetable, any delay either side I feel is frustrating and unnecessary, but if I’m waiting for a bus to leave when it’s ready, I’m far more inclined to mill around happily, no matter how long it takes.

By ‘minibus’ I of course mean ‘glorified van’; a 16-seater grubby metal shell with little in the way of suspension, and which consequently hit every bump on the road to the border. I’d taken much of the route the previous day when I went to the waterfalls at Womé, so I was already used to the road and was prepared to be thrown about; it didn’t make it any easier. Obviously it’s slightly different in a minibus to being on the back of a motorbike, but still …

The minibus I took from Togo to Ghana – silvery, bashed up, and full of cargo.
The minibus that took me across the Ghanaian border.

In fact, after the Togolese border control, the road if anything got worse, and even more rural – as international border crossings go, it wasn’t exactly well-used. The actual border post itself was a small farmer’s gate across the trail, in the middle of a wood – almost as if it was separating two landowners rather than two independent countries.

Before we got there, however, we had to pass through Togolese passport control – a small wooden hut by an opening in the road, reminiscent of the ticket booth for a small country park. I, naturally, headed straight for the hut to be stamped out. The other 15 people on board … didn’t; rather they just milled about by the side of the van, stretching their legs. From the corner of my eye I noticed, just like at the Benin-Togo border, money changing hands. Although the guards were reasonably efficient, I was stuck there for a couple of minutes and thus was the last to re-board.

The Ghanaian post was a little more formal – a small stone building, much more stereotypical inside with three or four smartly-dressed officials (white shirt, natch), bureaucratic paperwork, and a much more administrative ‘vibe’. And, unlike the guards on the Togo side, weren’t prepared for, or accepting of, a ‘casual’ approach to immigration.

While being stamped through, and asked the usual questions of how long I was staying, I heard raised voices coming from my left. A woman, probably in her 50s, was having an argument with two of the other guards. Although heavily accented, and predominantly in a local language (Ewe, I assume), I got the general gist – she didn’t have a passport or any kind of ‘official’ ID, but was still trying to cross the border on the grounds that it was something she’d always done without having any, while the guards were insisting that she needed a passport. After a few minutes of raised voices on either side, she stormed off in a huff.

I had a quick chat with the guards after she left; apparently this was quite a common occurrence – because the border between Ghana and Togo was an arbitrary one drawn in by the colonial powers, it had basically split the local community, thus people ended up having family and friends on both sides of the border. Since the majority of these locals were both quite poor and ‘indifferent’ to national politics, they’d never got passports (coupled also with Togo having been a dictatorship within living memory so passports may have been hard to get hold of anyway); while the guards in Togo (and presumably thus also in Benin) were more flexible in their approach – by choosing to turn a blind eye in return for ‘a small payment’ – the guards in Ghana were proud of being more responsible and less corruptible – their view being that while some people may be genuine Ghana citizens crossing having visited relatives in Togo, others were just ‘chancers’ trying to cross for their own ends. Your Mileage May Vary on which set of guards is morally right.

Regardless, yet again I was the last person to re-board the bus (which notably left the frontier still with its full complement of 16 people); it had parked 100m up a slight incline, and I could tell they were all getting a little restless waiting for me, so ended up jogging barefoot up the last of the gravel. From the border to the Ghanaian town of Ho was about two hours, all on comfortable tarmac roads. It’s relatively clear which side of the border has the more money.

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How to cross borders in West Africa as a foreigner. You don't have to do it barefoot, though I tended to! Pic is taken on the main road between Togo and Ghana, in Lomé.

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4 thoughts on “Crossing Borders in West Africa

  1. I loved reading this! Your gentle acceptance of the way the world works, wherever you are in the world, is an inspiration. If I could have a wish it would be that more people would adopt your laid-back approach to dealing with the stumbling blocks that inevitable come up when travelling – and, indeed, when just living – as it would make the world a far kinder and happier place.

    I also have a really strong desire to visit Africa on foot now just to wander from place to place and experience it. Thank you.

  2. Really interesting read. Yet to visit Africa but I can imagine the border crossings make for some interesting experiences. Glad you didn’t have any real trouble crossing over! Also, have to say I’m siding with the Pakistanis on the T20! Sorry! Haha

  3. Hello BFBP … I spent a few days wandering around southern Burkina Faso a few years ago, at “Christmas” /”New Year” doing a tour of BF (I tried to get a Ghana visa before departing Scotland but the price deterred me). My chums in Ouaga told me “only Africans travel down there…” which of course I ignored not realising it was gentle-speak for “there are hardly any roads and no buses or taxis or spare donkeys.” After a night at the local auberge/comfort inn in Ouessa (“there are no hotels in Ouessa”) populated mainly by young women from Ivory Coast and surrounded by dozens of ginormous trucks stuck in limbo because all the transit/cutoms offices were closed for quite a while, plus quite a lot of interaction with the local gendarmerie (charming and dead keen to get rid of me a.s.a.p.), I headed east on the pillion of a motorbike or two. The lovely people of Burkina Faso can teach a lot of us to slow down, take it as it comes, and if you think you are going round in circles, you probably are and is that so bad? Loved your border stories. Gotta few of my own.

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