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Friday, July 31, 2009

Battling malaria in Burkina Faso


The female anopheles mosquito

Plasmodium Falciparum - the most common and deadly malarial parasite

The French philosopher Marcel Proust wisely said, "To kindness and to knowledge we make promises only. Pain we obey". And so it is when malaria comes knocking on your body's entrance gates. You bow to its every command. From the onset of fever, breaking out in cold sweats not knowing whether you are in Iceland or the Sahara, to the nausea and wrenching of vomit from the deepest caverns within. You take out your thermometer and place in your armpit - 37....38.....39....... 39.4 degrees celsius. Well, you may not be in the Sahara, but are definitely in the Sahel region. An icy shower brings 5 minutes of relief. You pop a few paracetemol to bring the temperature down, but you've got a little more sweating to do before they'll kick into action.

The aches of your joints and muscles bring back memories of a day after a brutal session of physical exercise after being idle for years. Sometimes it feels like a professional rugby player has just used you as a prop for scrum practice. Other times like Oscar De La Hoya has used you as punchbag. Either way, this tiny protozoan has completely and utterly knocked you out.

Unable to move a limb without trojan effort, the fact that you have just lifted a spoon of yoghurt to your mouth successfully seems like no mean feat. Your throat is stale, dry and sore from your futile and silly attempts to make yourself puke.
Despite knowing that your appetite is as dead as the dodo and having not consumed a morsel of food in 24 hours that has not already being jettisoned down the toilet bowl, you just can't get your head around the fact that it feels like something needs to come out.

Is it the malaria parasite that is making you feel this crap, or is it the medication? Well, it's both and there ain't anything you can do about it but sit on your butt and wait it out.

You visit the toilet so often you consider whether you should bother ever leaving to go back to your bedroom. Sorry for elaborating here, but your ass, inevitably, begins to get very sore indeed and you begin to make all sorts of promises to Gods you don't even believe in, all in the hope that they may provide a remedy for your ailment. But alas, it's to no avail. Patience is called for in the endurance of any difficulty and the good news is that anti-malarial treatment is widely available and successful if the instructions are adhered to.

When the first feelings of normality begin to trickle back in to your wasted corporal self, sighs of relief the size of cumulonimbus clouds float aloft as you had begun to consider the possibility of having someone renovate the toilet so it can become you permament home. You had, afterall, spent most of your previous 4 days in there.

The boredom of being able to do nothing is set aside as you finally find energy to read and write again, to walk for that matter. Previously, you had been crawling quite a bit. You also see a noticeable difference in your loved one's appearance. They no longer frantically worried. You wonder whether they are going to dump you for being an incessant whine of late, but of course they don't. They're just happy to see you well again.

You have been in Ougadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso for the past 4/5 days. But because you have been so sick and weak neither city nor nation-state matters little
to you. All you have seen is your self swigging down litre after litre of water filled with rehydration salts and lying amazed at how seconds seem like hours, and hours days.

But now that you are better, you take your vengeance out on all anopheles mosquitoes that whizz by. They are many but not very fast so you register an impressive amount of kills in the first few hours. After some time though you begin to realise that you are most definitely going to be bitten again and all you can do is hope you escape lucky.

No amount of creams, nets, socks nor long trousers can deter some of these ambitious bloodsuckers that cause 1 million deaths a year, about 80% of the toll in Africa.

Friday, July 24, 2009

From Niger to Burkina Faso

Our 3 days in Niamey were really great and everybody we met, apart from one asshole guide, were extremely helpful and friendly.

We took the bus journey from Niamey with SNTV/STMB company to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. A 10 hour trip in a relatively comfortable bus with no blaring music, Nigerian movies, nor blasting air conditioning that usually makes me sick when coupled with the heat outside. We had absolutely no problems getting out of Niamey nor getting into Burkina Faso with La Visa Touristique Entente. It has been great value and has saved us an awful lot of hardship on the borders and in visa extension offices, etc.

If you are coming to any of the countries in Franc-Afrique you really ought to have some basic French or you will find it very hard to get accurate information and will end up paying a lot more for everything - gifts, food, transport, etc. Compared to Ghanaians ability in English, we have found that most traders and ordinary folks speak good French, so it's really great to be able to communicate with them when you don't have much time to learn their own native language.

From Ouga we headed direct to Dori in the North-east so we could get to the highly recommended Gorom Gorom market 60kms from Dori. The trip takes about 5 hours to Dori where you can stay cheapest in the basic but sufficiently equipped Auberge Populaire. To get to the Thursday market in Gorm Grom you need to get to the Gare Routiere before 6am as usually only 1 leaves. We didn't believe the guy who cale to our room in the morning as we thought he was just another 'Sand Dune guide seller', but it ended up true information. A better alternative is to get onto the Gorom Gorom road outside Dori and hitchike. Toyota pickups charge only 500 CFA and you'll get their twice as fast, not to me,ntion for 25% of the taxi-brousse price. Be prepared for Gorm Gorm. It is brutally hot and there is little cover, hardly any pure water. Generally I was really disappointed with the market. It seemed far more Chinese than Sahelian.

To be continued........

Monday, July 20, 2009

Niger - safe to visit?




La Grande Mosque, Niamey

It doesn't inspire confidence to visit a country where you've just read that a foreign tourist has been executed. Edwin Dyer, a British citizen, was supposedly captured by Tuareg rebels in January this year near the border with Mali then sold to Algerian members of Al Qaeda in Mali. According to the BBC the group responsible said "it would kill Mr Dyer if the British government refused to release radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada from a UK prison." So if you are British, from the U.S. or another 'coalition' country you may want to think hard before coming. While we were in Benin we weighed up the pros and cons, trying to filter through all the obvious fears one may initially have on hearing such information.

Niger has not been mentioned much in western media recently other than the kidnappings and the upcoming referendum in August which has heated passions against the current president who wants to prolong his stay in power by changing the constitution. Apart from these issues and times when the Tuareg rebels flare up against the government or when the UN releases its Human Development Index (Niger is bottom of the pile out of 177 countries), Niger appears to only be thought of as a spelling mistake ("Aren't you talking about Nigeria, what and where is Niger?") and not a country in and of itself.

After being reassured of the general safety of Niger in our guide book we visited the Niger embassy in Cotonou, Benin, and were told that it is fine to visit at the moment. With the knowledge that a wide variety of aid and voluntary groups are operational in large parts of the country we decided to visit. So after a mammoth journey with various levels of dodgy and crammed vehicles ranging from semidodgy to fairly dodgy, we crossed the border at Malanville/Gaya in the north of Benin. Our Visa (La Visa Touristique Entente) worked a treat and we breezed through the frontier without any problems.

Unfortunately, the journey from Gaya to Niamey has very bad potholes as far as Dosso (best go direct from Cotonou/Bohicon or Parakou in Benin with a coach like SNTV as it costs the same, about 18000 CFA, but is a thousand times less hardship) though the road from Dosso to Niamey is excellent.

Our first impressions of Niamey have been very positive. The people are very friendly and willing to help, though one has to endure the usual hassle around the artisan stalls. The richness and quality of their jewellery and crafts are amazing, the streets are alive and kicking with normal commercial activity but it appears a lot calmer than Accra, Lome or Cotonou. Local food and transport appears generally cheaper than the neighbouring countries.

We are staying in Auberge Dragon (formerly Chez Tatayi, which unlike our 2008 Rough Guide states is no longer to be found near Wadata market)near the Grand Hotel roundabout. Budget accom. seems very hard to find here, but we managed to haggle and reduce the fan room price from 14,000 CFA to 10,000CFA. It's possible to stay in the dorm beds for 6000 per person. It has a great location near the Petit Marche, this internet cafe I am writing from and the museum. It is very clean and the staff are helpful, so if you are coming to Niger I can highly recommend it.

Earlier we met some Japanese volunteers/professionals who are sponsored by their government to work for 2 years in rural communities. JICA have their 25th anniversary at the moment and have a series of events and an excellent exhibition running this week in the French-Niger Cultural Centre. Their work spans from teaching karate and judo, to more sustainable agricultural practices and fighting against contraction of guinea worm by best water hygiene practices.

We will be only staying in Niamey whilst in Niger as we have to move onto Gorom Gorom in Burkina Faso on Wednesday. It certainly seems unsafe and unwise to travel to the Agadez region in north east Niger as does the Niger-Mali border areas, but Niamey gets my thumbs up so far as a friendly, beautiful and safe place to visit in West Africa.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Quelle heure est-il?

Indeed, what time is it? We certainly didn't have a clue about the answer to that question when we arrived to find our bus had already departed from Parakou to Cotonou. Unfortunately, we were not aware of the time change when we entered Benin. I had received no sms alert about it, there are no clocks in any place we visited, and we were too dumb to figure out that it may be a possibility. So this morning we have an extra few hours in the commercial center and transport hub of central Benin, Parakou, before heading off at 1pm.

We will go by Intercity bus to Cotonou, de facto capital, a - hour trip costing 6,000CFA or about 9 Euro. For fellow Benin travellers, it is a far better option than being squashed inside a rusty taxi-brousse and similar in price now that the bus services recently reduced their prices. Most English guides advertise Confort buses, but from the black smoke we have seen pumping out of their exhausts and info. we heard from locals, they are unreliable and less comfortable.

Yesterday I spent my 29th birthday squashed in the back seat of a Peugeot 505 station wagon. There are seats for 8 people, but somehow 12 adults and 3 kids were squeezed inside. There are no other options when you come from Togo to Benin at the Ketao crossing near Kara. The border cops gave us no hassle. They seemed more interested in returning to the comatose state we found them in rather than questioning our Visa Touristique Entente. The journey from Kara to Ketao is just 26kms (300 CFA) but you need to get a zemidjan (motorbike taxi - they want about about 1000CFA so haggle) to complete the 5 km trip to the border. You may have to wait an hour to get to the border by taxi-brousse.

Some interesting things that have occured in the past 24 hours.

- I saw a cow tied up in the boot of a Peugot 505, although it looked more comfortable than the passengers inside the car.

- An innovative bootleg petrol seller in Parakou is advertising his small commercial unit as 'Hell' rather than Shell. Same thing really, given Shell's atrocious human rights record.

Next stop Cotonou, then the coastal cities/towns of Porto Novo, Ouidah, Abomey and Grand Popo. We hope to learn more about the old Dan-Homey kingdom and Benin's ties to the the notorious Atlantic slave trade. Being the origin of many Haitin ancestors, I'm also hoping to see if I can connect any dots between the people here and Haiti, their traditional practices in Vodoo, etc.

Any tips on Niger?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Togo - Photo Essay from West Africa


Munching on a corn cob in a pirogue on the lake near the former colonial capital of Aneho, where the Virgin Mary supposedly appeared 24 years ago. In 1985 locals claimed to have seen the Vigin Mary. This inspired Pope John Paul II's visit a few years later. Even though Christianity has been in this area for centuries traditional religious beliefs and belief in fetishes (nothing sexual like adoring black leather boots but rather spiritual worship to give thanks for good harvest or appease the Gods and rid a child of illness, etc.).


Nachtigal, the German explorer-colonist, signed an agreement with Chief Mlapa of the tiny Togoville community in the mid-19th century, which the Germans then used to claim colonial rights over the whole of present day Togo, until they were defeated in World War I and the British and French got their dirty hands on usurped land.



Elias, a fetish priest, poses inside his shop after explaining to us about his natural viagra fetish (a twig from a tree); safe journey telephone fetish (tiny piece of wood with a hole in it and string wrapped around which. You wish yourself a safe journey prior to departure by speaking into the hole, then stick a piece of wood in to close it, put in your pocket and when you arrive sadely take the piece of wood out again - a handy piece of equipment in this part of the world where taxi drivers drive like lunatics); and a safety for your home, mini-statue fetish that blinds the thief who breaks into your house and robs fro, your cookie jar.
Despite my disbelief, the Fetish market in Lome where Elias operates is very famous throughout Africa and animism is widely practised throughout Togo.



Bones of crocodiles, monkeys, buffaloes; horses tails and dog jaws and lots more are available at Lome's fetish market





This unusual advert could be found on the Rue du Commerce in Lome, pasted beside a family supermarket. You may have to zoom a little to believe what it says (Not for kids). It's the only time I have seen such a poster since I arrived in West Africa last October.


Photo will be posted later


The people of Bassamba in Tamberma(meaning 'skilled builders') country, north-eastern Togo, have been building their fortress-style homes like this for centuries. UNESCO recognised the area as a world heritage site in 2004 but unfortunately guilt-tripped tourists seeing naked kids have bred a negative hand-out culture that has impacted on the local people's interactions with all tourists in a rather circus-like way. A little performance is quickly put on as soon as you arrive and you are really pressure to buy not so authentic tourist gimmicks befor you leave. Sustainable tourism education efforts are being made but unless the tourists themselves stop reinforcing this behaviour then it is much to the detriment o the locazl people's cultures. Amazingly, they used to live in the giant, hollow Baobab trees before they built the more siege-proof takienta houses.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

La Visa Touristique Entente - Cheap Travel in West Africa


La visa touristique entente - I've erased my passport number for security reasons

An ex-Peace corps volunteer just emailed an enquiry about the 5 country visa for Ghana, Togo, Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso and Cote d'Ivoire or La Visa Touristique Entente. So for those of you who havez come across this blog seeking upo to date info about travelling in West Africa, I've decided to post what I know so far from my travels.

Your best bet is to get it at any of the Togolese embassies when you get here (maybe to Ghana first). Don't bother wasting your time with enquiries in the US or European countries because it was really easy to do in the Togolese embassy in Accra and in D.C and presumably European capitals they will charge you huge sums for individual country visas. The Togo embassy office in Accra opens at 9am. You have to fill out two identical forms with all the basic info, provide 2 photos and pay 30,000 CFA (1USD is officially about 479 CFA but it seems to fluctuate a lot between 400 and 500 according to local sources. 1 Euro is 656 CFA, it doesn't change. You will be asked to collect the visa the same day at 2pm (you may have to wait an hour or so though).

The 5 country visa is valid for 60 days from the date of issue and you have 1 entry to each of the signed up countries, supposedly. My girlfriend and I have just started our travels and are currently in Togo. We crossed from Ghana at Aflao and there were no problems. It was a painless process.

We expect Benin and Burkina to be the same but Niger will probably be a problem from what I have read on the web. We expect to pay 10,000 CFA on the border. Nevertheless, it's worth getting the La Visa Touristique Entente as you will avoid having to extend a normal border visa (seems you only get 2 days at Burkina border if you arrive without a visa though it's free of charge to extend. Benin charge extra 12,000 CFA to extend from days according to the Rough Guide to West Africa) and the obvious potentially painful bureaucracy involved.

If your arrival point is Ghana you have to get a re-entry visa (10,000 CFA for 1 month or more) for Ghana at whatever country your last stop is at (e.g. Cote d'Ivoire).

You need CFA for all countries except Ghana where 1USD is about 1.43 GHc at the moment. There are no official forex's that I have seen yet in Togo, though plenty of them in Ghana. In the latter country change cash in a Forex, travellers cheques in banks. I have heard there are problems with Amex in most countries. Visa cards are your best bet. Although Mastercard works in Barclays bank in Ghana I've read and heard from others that it doesn't work so much in other countries.

Be conscious of the fact that Niger is not in the best of shape at the moment, the president recently having taken emergency powers to put down dissent over a referendum he wants to push through to allow him serve another term, etc. Furthermore, the north of Cote d'Ivoire is officially still a danger zone according to most western gvts.

I'll try keep you posted on whether we get through sucessfully to the remaining countries. Feel free to pass this info. on wherever you think it may be of help to others. I was also a bit dismayed at the lack of info on the web but it's worked out for us so far. I forgot to mention that when we asked at the Burkina embassy in Accra as to whether they issue the visa, they said no, but that they do respect it at the border. So that bodes well.

Best of luck on your travels.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Travelling in West Africa

Our friends at Immigration never fail to amaze. After all the crap I had to endure getting my visas sorted over the past few months, now it's Dorota's turn to endure their incompetence.

On Tuesday, a worker from her host organisation spent 3 hours waiting for them to check whether her visa was ready. It was due to be stamped and ready for collection on June 20th. She waited, waited and waited but all to no avail. In the end she inquired from another officer, who informed her that the person she was waiting for had gone home and the documents she was waiting for were in a locked room of which nobody present had the key. Yesterday was Republic Day, the 49th anniversary since Ghana gained full independence from the UK, so nobody in State Institutions were working. Today, we hope but do not expect the issue to be resolved.

This all means that we are loitering around Accra waiting for her passport so we can get La Visa Touristique Entente (LVTE) for Togo, Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso and Cote d'Ivoire. It costs 30,000 CFA (90 Cedi or 45 Euro) and in theory at least grants one the right to cross each border of the above mentioned countries, cutting out at least 22,000 CFA and a lot of waiting at various embassies in the process. From what I have heard though, Niger border guards do no respect it, so looks like our net saving will be 12,000 CFA each. All in alkl, it seems well worth waiting for at ther Togolese embassy in Accra which will process the application in the same day if you drop it in at 9am (collect at 2pm). For fellow travellers reading, just bring a long the 30,000 CFA, 1 photo, your passport and fill out 2 forms in the embassy. Et voila!

We inquired at the Burkina Faso embassy whether it's possible to get LVTE there but they informed us that even though they recognise this 5 country visa, they do not issue them.

So we hope to head to the Ghana-Togo border town of Aflao (4 hours from Accra, about 6.50 Cedi by trotro) on Saturday morning and stay a couple of nights in the Togolese capital Lome. Our plan is to take things as they come and focus on visiting interesting social development projects in the regions we come across.

Unfortunately, one of our friends has the connection lead for our camera so I guess I'll be unable to upload photos as we travel. Anyhow, I'll try account for them in descriptive language so you can use your imagination. That is, if we ever get out of Accra.