On April 3rd 2014 I started on my first ever journey to West Africa. The following is my account on my first experience of West Africa. These are my own opinions and may also be laden with prejudice.
At the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, I ordered a sandwich since I had not had any breakfast that day and the future was not exactly guaranteed. The sandwich from Dorman’s was acceptable but I was mortified that they did not have the house coffee. Apparently that is only available at certain hours of the day when there is traffic. It was 10 a.m. in the morning.
The flight to Kigali was uneventful. May I mention at this point that I am traveling to Accra, Ghana, via Kigali and Lagos. So this is going to be a long journey. I did not find out about the stop at Lagos until when I was boarding my connecting flight at Kigali, but by then I really could not complain to anyone….I was already in transit.
On arrival at Kigali there was some minor confusion, the immigration official was not sure what to check on me. After a glance at my passport and boarding pass I was asked to proceed. I went through the security line without much as a beep. But on the other side I found an interesting situation. The Kigali airport has a very tiny waiting area and very many passengers. In addition, the area is divided into two, the pre-boarding and the waiting areas. Pre-boarding is only for those who have been confirmed to be on a certain flight which is leaving a few minutes. Waiting areas is for everyone else. The pre-boarding area in sparsely populated as most people here are either getting on a bus to board their flight or already walking to their flight. But irrationally, the immigration officers will not let anyone else enter the area, despite the waiting area being full to capacity with several people standing.
It turns out that the bathroom is on the other side of the security line, so I go back out to use the bathroom. On my way back the security personnel take intense interest in me and frisk me and also undo my hand luggage in search of who-knows-what. I feel slightly offended as the fist time I went through they did not care. I proceed to settle down as I await my flight.
When our flight is called for boarding, I notice one thing, there is a man who is carrying a blanket barely rolled into a ball and tied with a flimsy string. He intends to board the craft that way. I am astounded a take a photo….I am amazed at the man’s courage and wonder what his train of thought is. Secondly, a man on complaining endlessly that his Nigerian passport had been scrutinized too closely. May I clarify “too closely” he is Nigerian so he should not be scrutinized, he has been kept in the waiting longer without water or food…I see these as empty protests so I ignore them. The flight leaves on time…I breathe a sigh of relief…too soon perhaps.
In the air, the Nigerian guys in the seats behind me decide to get out their laptop and turn up the music…no earphones on. I look around to see signs of discomfort. No one seems concerns so I plug my ears with my music and ignore them. Later on at the point of landing, I hear them asking the flight attendant why they are supposed to keep the laptop away and they ask the attendant “ Do we have to do what you say”…I think that they are rude, uncouth and uncultured, but I keep it to myself. I breathe a sigh of relief when they disembark at Lagos.
Accra is a typical African city. Dusty, loud, traffic and animated talk among people. My first visit is to a restaurant that cooks like Nandos (Galitos), smells like Nandos and serves like Nandos. But they are not Nandos, I wonder what patent means in Africa. Across from the restaurant is the actual Nandos…sad, as it may seem.
I spend the night a friend’s house. The strange thing is after a shower and getting on the bed (too hot for covers), every time I doze off a sharp “ping” sound awaked me. Like a stone hitting the window. It takes me 2 hours to figure out that this sound is a result of the light bulb being too close to the fan (which is cooling the room). I set the fan at a lower pace and finally I am able to sleep…in overpowering heat. I wake up early…my phone says it is 7:30 am, I will discover later that I am one hour off…I actually woke up at 6:30 am! Breakfast consisted of Koko – a porridge-like meal with groundnuts and pepper dropped in. I ate it with bread and “I can’t believe it’s not butter” on the side. It was really good but also too heavy a breakfast for me. I made it about halfway through the bowl before I gave up.
I lazed around on Friday morning and I actually dozed off at some point. My host went to work; my other host was on his computer. At about 3 p.m. I had the honor of eating my first foo foo meal in a long time. I ordered foo foo, grass cutter meat, beef and mudfish. I did not even know what grass cutter was but after I googled it…. I was pleasantly surprised. It is some kind of mole!!! One thing I can’t get over is how huge the portions of food were. U think Texas have huge portions…. then you haven’t been to Accra, the food I was served was enough for a family of 4…. comfortably…. but it was just for me. The serving bowls are huge…I was at first shocked. But the food was delicious…I savored every bite, every pepper bit that came through. I absolutely love the food, even though I could not eat it all.
In the evening I drove around Accra – I went to Woodin, a cloth store where I got my mother some high-end cloth. I also grabbed some BouBous for my Aunt on the street. Earlier, I needed a 2GB memory card for my battery. I could not find any, when I walked into the Sony store at the Mall; they only had 16GB, which was too big and too expensive. They called a guy who met us on the street and sold me a 4GB memory card. I found it interesting that the guy at Sony knew a side guy- this is Africa! Anything goes. I am happy to report that the memory card behaved well, even though it’s a street version of the Sony card.
Friday night we were to spend at a friend’s place just out of town so that our journey to Kumasi the next morning would be easy. There is a toll booth for all people leaving Accra on the same route and I encountered the horrors of Accra traffic. We were in traffic for 2 hours before reaching the toll booth. It had nothing to do with the distance to the toll booth. I collapsed in bed, and the next morning woke up to a lively household. My host was kind enough to iron my dress and also his wife provided a breakfast of Milo, eggs, oatmeal and bread. She also send us off with Jolof rice and chicken for picnic lunch. I am eternally grateful to this household.
Our road trip began at 8:30 am. We drove along the coast of Ghana stopping here and there. Cape Coast was a treat. We drove to Elmina Castle and took a tour of the Castle. I experienced the horrors of slavery and wondered what drove people to such levels of delusions. The town of Cape Coast is beautiful, I remember thinking that if I was to retire from working life, this would be the place. We then drive off to Kumasi, our final destination.
Kumasi is an interesting mix of modern and traditional. Being in the Ashanti Kingdom they pledge allegiance to the mother Queen. In the evening we have dinner at a friend’s place then drive around town. I notice that every roundabout has some kind of monument to a person, a place or a n event. I also notice with alarm that civilians can actually drive through military places – which is an absolute no-no in Kenya. Military areas are cordoned off from civilians. I do love the city; I wish I had more time here. I note the Military museum and make a note to visit it when I next come to Kumasi. Overall, I deduce that Kumasi is like every other African city. One thing I note is that one can often get a full meal on the street in Ghana even at crazy times of the night. I like this. In Kenya there are late nigh chips and chicken places but the street vendors (often near clubs) just sell snacks. In Accra a full meal of Kenkey and fish or chicken on beef in always available. I am impressed.
I am in Ghana for a friend’s wedding and on Sunday is the wedding day. It is an Islamic wedding. Before the wedding my friends are to take me for a breakfast of snail. When we arrive at the restaurant they inform us that they do not make snail on Sunday so I eat beef and rice. I notice that in Ghana beef is cooked with the skin. I ask whether this is customary and they say it is. I find the skin tough to chew but also not too much to take. Once again I am amazed by the portions of food given. Always too delicious and too much.
This is my first Islamic wedding and I am with the groom party. I cannot help to notice that I am the only female in the tent where the groom is seated and that the men seem uncomfortable around me. For this reason I do not take many pictures. The local Sheikh is present and it is obvious the men do not especially entertain the company of women. I wonder then what it means to be married to a Muslim man, whether there is forever separation in public of men and women.
At the reception the bride and groom sit together and we are served food. However, after a heavy breakfast I can barely eat. I love their vegetable, Ayoyo and I eat it with meat and some starch – Tiki which is a kind of starch. Much as I like is, breakfast was heavy and I barely get through one quarter of it.
Sunday afternoon I hit the market and most shops are closed. The second hand businesses are booming with clothing and gadgets but one cannot get any local cloth or sheaf butter. I but some cloth which I know is not original and then call it a day. I am astounded by how many shops are closed, if this was Kenya, some businessman would take a chance and open on Sunday.
In Accra on Friday I walk the streets of Otsu buying last-minute stuff for my mother and sister. I manage to get some cloth and handbags. I also have a last pizza dinner with my hosts and friends. I feel sad already. Just this evening I am told that the bridegroom’s mother passed away. At the same time I am told that one of my friend’s back home in Kenya passed away. I feel really sad and low but my friends ensure that I have a good time. I am off back to Kenya tomorrow, I can’t imagine what the trip holds.
My trip back is uneventful. Accra-Lagos-Kigali-Nairobi. I do notice that in comparison to Lagos, Kigali is very sparsely populated. From the air Lagos seems full at all ends to the horizon. Kigali on the other hand seems to have huge pockets of free land.
I got to Nairobi at 9:20 p.m. I am happy for my trip and glad I had all these experiences. I can’t wait for my next trip though. I am sure I will have more to do and more to see. Overall…I love West Africa. I should have discovered it sooner.