This is a guest post by Francis Tapon, author of Hike Your Own Hike and The Hidden Europe, which I thoroughly enjoyed when I reviewed it in 2011.
Before March 2013, I had never been to Africa. And yet, when I landed in Morocco, I was embarking on a 4-year trip across all 54 African countries. The first 15 months would be in West Africa. I knew little about the area. Here’s five things I learned.
1. West Africa Is Safe
During my time in West Africa, I picked up over 1,000 hitchhikers. West Africans were often walking on their lonely muddy roads with heavy things on their head. I almost always stopped to offer them a ride. They usually were happy to enter.
Most didn’t know how to open a car door. One guy even tried to enter through my window! They also didn’t know how to get out of the car, so I would have to get out and open the door for them. Clearly, they weren’t used to cars. On the other hand, I picked up plenty of hitchhikers near cities who knew cars well.
The point is that nobody robbed me, car jacked me, or gave me any trouble. A few even left me food as gifts or even insisted on paying me a little money for gas. West Africa is safe.
2. West Africans Are Trustworthy
West Africa is not only safe to walk around in the streets, but also to stay in people’s homes. For example, I stayed with Secks (the family pictured below). All my camera and computer gear was in my room and dozens of people were coming in and out of the house. Anyone could have taken something. (The guy on the far left is holding my camera because we were filming something, he wasn’t about to run away with it!)
I’ve constantly been vulnerable to West Africans, throwing myself at them – trusting them. They don’t let me down. Yes, I’ve been scammed a few times, but that’s standard people preying on tourists. I don’t feel any more scammed than I have been in Europe or the Americas. I’ve even loaned one Senegalese $10,000 and a Ghanian $6,000. Months after I loaned them and when I was no longer in West Africa, they paid me back.
3. West African Food Is Low On Presentation Value But High On Taste
West African food won’t win any culinary awards for presentation value, but it’s delicious to taste! The photo above features a Nigerian dish with plantains, beans, spicy sauce, eggs, and rice. Somehow it all works! And all that for less than $2.
The only place in West Africa where they went overboard with the spices is Liberia. Hotter than a Mexican tamale! Speaking of tamales, I didn’t find any in Tamale, Ghana.
4. Tourists Ignore West Africa
I’m alone watching the eclipse of the sun in Bobo, Burkina Faso in October 2013. Tourists rarely visit West Africa. It’s funny when I was climbing the tallest mountain in Ghana, a guide told me that “many, many foreigners come here.”
I said, “Really? How many per month?”
“At least 20!”
Given that most come in tour groups, it means that you’ll have most of West Africa for yourself. The good news is that people are friendly and outgoing, unlike Parisians who are constantly overwhelmed with tourists and sick of them. So visit West Africa, it’s one of the continents unseen sides. If you want to see much more of Africa’s unseen sides, then please support my Kickstarter project which launched on Africa Day (May 25)! The project is about making the pilot TV episode that explores the sides of Africa that the media rarely shows. Check out the trailer for the show and spread the word!