East, south, west, and north by northwest—travel through West Africa

In the course of a couple of months in the spring of 1971, two young Americans traveled from Morocco, across the Algerian desert to the Gold Coast of Ghana, then on to Senegal, and finally back to Morocco by ship, with a brief stop in the Canary Islands, a journey of about 8,000 miles (12,800 km).

The travelers began in Morocco, still sunlit in this image, then went east, then south, more or less following a line that one could draw between the first city lights on the Mediterranean shore to the first bright city lights on the Gulf of Benin. This representation of the western parts of Africa and Europe is not a true photo, but a construct of geophysical data obtained by satellites and other methods. The western half of the image roughly approximates the area where the trip took place. NASA: The Living

I have described the crossing of the Sahara in a previous post. This post is devoted to the trek Anne McLaughlin and myself made through West Africa.

The destination: the Gold Coast and tropical West Africa. El Mina, Ghana.

Tropical West Africa was the destination, a region as unfamiliar to us as Morocco was familiar. We traveled with no guidebooks, just a Michelin road map of Africa, and only the certainties that others had made the trip and that there were Peace Corps hostels where we could stay for no cost once south of the Sahara. And, of course, we had the great confidence of youth, though very little money.

This is the actual map we used. The price is marked in Dirhams, the currency of Morocco, where it was purchased in 1970 0r 1971. The Dirham was worth about $ 0.20 then. Jim Erickson reminds me that 5 DH was enough to buy a decent meal at a restaurant

We had no specific knowledge of hostel locations, apart from those in the capital cities, but we hoped to meet volunteers in the first towns of Niger who might help us. In hindsight, we could have been much better prepared, and I do not seem to have even recorded where we were and when. In writing about the Saharan trip, I needed help from Anne on the chronology and the places where we stopped while crossing the desert. As for the trip through West Africa, I would have been lost without her notes. They contain places and incidents that I’d forgotten entirely. Furthermore, she jotted down her own observations, and I have incorporated them occasionally.

The route is highlighted: Sefrou, Tamanrasset, Agadez, Niamey, Ouagadougou, Accra, Abidjan, Bamako, Dakar, and ship to Casablanca.

As we crossed the Algerian border and entered Niger, we began to leave the desert behind and entered the Sahel, a huge, hot, dry area immediately south of the Sahara, one that virtually stretches across the continent of Africa. The name, according to some, derives from the Arabic word for a plain, a flat land, though others claim its origin is the Arabic word for coast, the coast being the edge of the Sahara, seen metaphorically as a vast, hot and arid sea.

The trip from Tamanrasset to Agadez had been an ordeal for Anne, who rode alone in the cabin of a Libyan truck. She described it like this at the time:

“Lots of stops, overheated engines. 100 km after dinner flat terrain. Sand and gravel. Grass, trees. Baths at pump. Hot food. Terribly hot weather & wind. Doubtful water. Drank it anyway – it was cooler than our halazoned stuff.”

I would not call that stretch of the trip hell, but today, thinking of the Sahel, images do arise from the Old and New Testaments. I see the people of the region ravaged by The Four Horsemen: Death, Famine, War, and Pestilence. In a world wracked by conflict and human suffering, where the people of wealthy nations are comfortable and inured to the immense suffering of others, some countries stand out for the depth and extent of their human misery: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, come to mind immediately.

The Sahel, of course, is a not a country, but a huge region, not only subject to the vicissitudes of numerous armed conflicts, but to ecological devastation, overpopulation, famine and starvation, stifling imperial rule followed by post colonial indifference, locust plagues, great poverty, epidemics of many sorts (and today a pandemic). To me, the figure of Death, ever present, exercises his horse there daily. I can’t help but wonder if life has improved much since I traveled there 50 years ago, and I worry about what the future holds.

In spite of the political turmoil and social unrest that grips the United States, it is so easy sit in peace, in my easy chair, a Guinness to quench my thirst. The trees have leafed out, the sun is far in the northwest setting over Lake Ontario, and the Toronto Maple Leafs and The Montreal Canadiens compete in the first round of the Stanley Coup hockey playoffs, for the first time in 42 years. While the pandemic seems to be coming to an end here, people elsewhere endure unimaginable sufferings.

Anne and I crossed the Niger border at Assamakka, and continued directly south, traveling an older track to the west of the new road that goes through the modern settlement of Arlit, the source of almost all of France’s uranium. We arrived in Agadez at midnight. The mud brick hotel that we found was rudimentary. Anne decided to sleep in the courtyard where the hot air was at least fresh. We rested in Agadez the following day, walking about the town. We had spent two days in the cabins of trucks, with constant noise and motion and heat, and we badly needed a rest. We also needed total bearings for the next leg of the journey.

Sunset over Agadez.

In 1971, Agadez had about 13,000 people, and I don’t remember any hustle or bustle except for the markets.

The market had meat in quantity, but vegetables and grains seemed to be scarce.

There were no paved streets and few modern buildings. Goats and chickens roamed the streets. Mud brick construction was everywhere, often with exterior decoration.

Choosing cuts of meat, Agadez.
Women shopping in Agadez.
Dates are a staple of desert travel, combining non perishability with high energy content. Agadez.
Houses in Agadez often bore painted designs, decorative pinnacles, and rain spouts to carry the rare downpour off the flat, terraced roofs.
Sometimes decorations included raised reliefs. In the background, the minaret of the main mosque.
At 47 meters, this minaret is considered to be the highest mud brick structure in the world. In my post on crossing the desert, note the similarity of the minarets of the Mzabi towns such as Ghardaia.

The minaret of the main mosque, said to be the highest mud brick structure in the world, dominated the city. Agadez was a desert city, a port for caravans, a meeting place for traders, where many ethnic groups met and mingled. What I saw could have been the inspiration for the first Star Wars movie.

In colonial Algeria, the French outlawed dueling. Here in the Agadez market, in Niger, the nobles carried swords.

The French army conquered the region in 1900 while putting together a string of territories in the Sahel that became French West Africa, for no better reason than to claim as much of Africa as possible. There were few apparent resources, and the politicians of metropolitan France largely opposed colonial and imperialist adventures.

Agadez was the seat of the traditional Sultanate of Aïr, and a major center for the Touareg tribesmen. The city had been important as a crossroads since the Middle Ages.

One’s status among the Touareg was manifested by how much of a man’s face was covered. Low caste and slaves wore no facial covering. In conversation, men sometimes adjusted their veil for social purposes. Touareg women did not cover their faces as many Muslim women do.
Friends or relatives greet each other in the Agadez market. While the French occupied Algeria, dueling with swords was outlawed.
This nobleman was literally dressed to kill. The white camels were beautiful beasts. In the past, Touareg tribesmen controlled villages, where slaves often performed agricultural activities.

Today Agadez is listed as a World Heritage Site, but the potential for tourism remains unrealized, due to its remoteness and the warfare that has engulfed Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso.

A closeup of the minaret scaffolding, needed for repair.

Islamist and ethic-centered Touareg rebellions, sometimes combined, serve as reminders of age-old injustices as well as resurrected ambitions. One indication of the current military situation is the construction of a drone base in Agadez by the United States, and the occasional death of French soldiers, actively engaged in the region.

Rich in mineral resources, Niger suffers today from political instability, corruption and government debt, remote location, and warfare. The uranium mining operations at Arlit have grown substantially since 1970. Still, the drying out of the Sahel and encroachment by the Sahara are having serious consequences for Niger, which has one of the fastest growing populations in the world.

A group of young girls in Agadez.

A major industry has been the transport of migrants from West Africa north in hope of reaching Europe through Libya or Morocco. Niger has now outlawed the smuggling of migrants, but it is difficult to control borders where there are virtually none. If you examine how difficult it is for the United States to control its southern borders, you can imagine Niger’s predicament.

A typical trans-Saharan truck, Libyan, like the ones we rode. Livestock and goods were carried inside, passengers on top. Today these trucks carry migrants, despite the Malian ban and the inherent danger. The dynamics of the push-pull migration to Europe are incredible.
Migrants ride atop trucks like this one from Libya. These fellows were just traders and travelers. The great migrations had not begun yet.

After our rest day and reorientation, we boarded an ancient bus to Zinder around noon. The vehicle would have made any Moroccan bus, however rural, look modern.

The bus during one of its frequent mechanical breakdowns. We sat on this side by the last clearly visible open window. Note the sandy track, and the widely spaced trees, very typical of this stage of the journey.

The bus frequently broke down on the unpaved track. It carried a full complement of passengers. A woman, seated two or three rows in front of us, was carsick much of the way, and would vomit every so often through the open window by her seat. All the windows were open, and at 50 miles per hour some of her vomit came flying back through the window of the seat just in front of us. There was a fellow there who kept trying to duck it, but with limited success. His cue was her movement toward the open window, but his constant dodging did not always succeed. His ride must have felt considerably longer than ours. At about 11 p.m., the bus finally stopped for the night in Tanout, and we literally slept in the center of the town in the sand of the main square. I remember pigs roaming the street, a sign that we were leaving the solidly Muslim north for more southerly regions home to Christians and animists as well as Muslims. The only pigs that I had ever seen in Morocco were wild boar.

During another breakdown or rest stop, I took this photo near sunset. We did not arrive in Zinder until the next day, spending the night sleeping on the bare ground in the town square of Tanout. This route has since been replaced by a modern one to the east.

Leaving Tanout at daybreak, we arrived in Zinder about noon, traveling through dry scrubland. Zinder had a Peace Corps hostel, complete with a fridge, and we had our first cold drinks since El Golea. I think it was in Zinder that we figured out that if we filled and froze our plastic water bottles, and wrapped them with our sleeping bags, the water would remain cold even in the hottest weather. Sleeping bags depend on insulation to preserve body heat, so they also excel at keeping out the heat and preserving cold.

From Zinder we traveled on to Maradi. Had we had Nigerian visas, we would have crossed the nearby border, avoiding the seemingly endless unpaved roads, and then traveled on the main paved road directly south through Nigeria. As it was, for political reasons mentioned in my previous post, we had to meander across the Sahel to find a way south, and that journey turned out to be a tough one.

After a rest day in Maradi, we found a truck easily, but waited two hours for it to leave. Once on the road, the truck traveled slowly, with much stopping for repairs. The temperatures were now in the eighties or higher, and thirst became an issue for the first time in the trip. We rode atop the load, in the blazing sun. In the villages where we stopped, children ran out to the truck offering gourds of water. The water was cloudy and sometimes had mosquito larvae in it. We drank it warm, unpleasantly flavored by the iodine or Halzone tablets we took along for purification. I think that they came from the old Peace Corps medical kits, which contained an assortment of medicines and medical material that was intended for volunteers in remote areas. Everyone got one in those days, but little was used. The Moroccan pharmacies were well stocked, water in most of Morocco was purified, and personal health care was easily managed there—for the most part. My Peace Corps buddy Marc Miller contracted meningitis with serious consequences.

Trucks and a rapide. This type of panel van had bench seats, and double doors at the rear where one literally squeezed in. We boarded one somewhere between Birni N’Konni and Niamey, after yet another truck gave out.

We finally arrived in Birni N’Konni where we spent the night. Anne met an American, Ruth Sutton, whose parents she had known at Oregon State. Our truck proved unreliable, and, unwilling to wait on its innumerable repairs, we tried to get our money back. We were hot, had little clean water, and were hungry. We ate in a Vietnamese restaurant, one of French colonialism’s contributions to globalization, then found another truck to take us to Dosso. It left at night to take advantage of the cooler air, but once the sun rose, the driver always seemed to find the hottest, sunniest place to park. After an irreparable flat before Dosso, we abandoned the truck for a Peugeot van, equipped to carry passengers seated on long benches. In West Africa, this type of vehicle was known, in French, as a rapide. The rapide functioned like a grand taxi in Morocco, leaving when a full complement of passengers was found. With the other passengers, we were stuffed into the cramped bench seats that ran the length of the vehicle. We rode for hundreds of miles packed together, bumping over washboard roads, and all while sweltering in the heat. If the van maintained a certain speed, it sometimes cruised over the tops of the bumps in the road for a smoother ride, but I recall a dusty, jarring ride, suffered in stoic fashion by all onboard. The scenery was monotonous, but there was no other option. In 1970, Niger, a huge country, bigger than California and Texas combined, had only twenty miles of paved road, mostly in and around the capital, Niamey. Today most of the route we took has been paved.

The roads we followed connected major towns, and naturally were built through the easiest terrain. Niger has some spectacular scenery, including mountains and vast river deltas harboring exotic wildlife. We only saw endless dry lands with scattered brush and trees.

The U.S.Embassy in Niamey.1971. There is no fence or other barriers. Terrorism was not yet considered a serious threat in 1971, though the American Embassy in Rabat had acquired fences sometime after 1968. There was none when I arrived there, just as there is none here.

We arrived in Niamey, hot, thirsty, and exhausted. Anne was ready to faint. We took a taxi to the US Embassy which was closed and we sought out the local Peace Corps office, hoping to find our way to the PC hostel maintained for traveling volunteers. Peace Corps hostels were common in those days, as many West African countries had little in the way of tourist infrastructure. We had already stayed in more than one. Usually they were a small building or simple compound. Peace Corps volunteers needed few creature comforts and demanded little beyond a roof and a place to throw sleeping gear. At the hostel, we met other volunteers from Niger and elsewhere who provided company and valuable traveling and cultural advice.

Finding the PC office without much trouble, we rushed for the water spigot, but what next ensued was almost unbelievable. The PC country director, whose name I have forgotten, told us that we could certainly stay in the hostel, but only if we joined an ongoing volleyball game. We thought he was joking, and tried to beg off, but he would not relent. There we were in Niamey, even hotter, thirstier, and more exhausted, playing volleyball in the sun. In retrospect, it is hard to say what was worse, the hundreds of miles of washboard road or that “play volleyball for a place to sleep” game. There was no rest until the hostel that night. Mercifully, the nights were comfortable, and some volunteers slept in hammocks in the fresh air of the courtyard, including one snuggled up with his Nigerien girlfriend. That sure wasn’t Morocco.

The Niger River, viewed from Niamey. To the left, upstream, one could travel on small boats to Timbuktu. I wish we had done that.

We spent a day or two in Niamey, washing clothes, talking to other volunteers, and touring the city. I had expected mail at the embassy there. By chance, Bill Garvey, our former Moroccan Peace Corps country director was visiting Niger for business, and we enjoyed meeting him again.

A back street in a residential area of Niamey.
One of the main streets in Niamey. Very few were paved in 1971.

We also visited the zoo, where I found the ethnographic exhibits more interesting than the animals.

A weaving exhibit. Cloth is typically woven into small pieces which are sewn together to make bigger pieces, such as blankets.
A “typical” compound. Niger has many ethic groups, and I am not sure which one this building style represents.
Our former country director, the late Bill Garvey, in Niamey. 1971.

From Niamey we went on by bus to Ouagadougou with some volunteers from Ghana. In Morocco, since travel to Algeria was banned, volunteers traveled mostly in the country or to Spain. In West Africa, volunteers often traveled widely across national borders.

Ouagadougou is the capital of Upper Volta, which has been since renamed Burkina Faso. At the time Upper Volta was one of the poorest countries in Africa, and a major source of emigration to surrounding countries. Today, the citizens of Burkina Faso form just a part of the trans-Saharan migration to North Africa and Europe. In 1969, Alain Barrière, the French pop singer, had a big hit, Viva Ouagadougou, that celebrated that city as well as other former French colonial capitals of former French West Africa.

What I remember most about Ouagadougou were the spiffy French cafes, and the opportunity to buy apples flown in from Normandy.

Expats and rich locals lived well. If drought, corruption, and crushing poverty are not enough, the country today also suffers from warfare by Islamist groups which terrorize the northern areas.

A European cafe in Ouagadougou. Not a local inside.

In Ouagadougou we made boat reservations to return from Dakar to Casablanca. From this point we were on a real schedule, though we had always planned to return to Morocco by summer.

We traveled south to Ghana. In the dry scrub country between Ouagadougou and the Ghanaian border, I saw a troop of baboons. In general, the trip was notable for a lack of wildlife. We saw a few gazelle in the desert, and fruit eating bats (flying foxes) were common once the climate supported tall trees. The Sahara is barren, and the few animals there avoid the well traveled roads with good reason. Some Niger volunteers we met lived in an area in the northeast so remote that they had to use horses to get to their site, and they mentioned their particular joy was watching giraffes drinking at the water holes at dawn.

Our first night in Ghana was in Novrango, where Peace Corps math teacher, Evie Kashnow, put us up in her house. It rained that night. We had not seen rain since Tlemcen in Algeria, and the tropical rain falling on the tin roof of Evie’s house created a din. I carried an umbrella across the desert, but I never used it anywhere on the trip. After Navrongo, it never rained hard or long enough to need it.

The border crossing at Novrango. We have just entered Ghana, and are looking back at the border.
Buses and trucks waiting to board the ferry across Lake Volta.
The Volta reservoir was still filling.

Continuing south through Bolgatonga to Tamale, where we spent the night, we crossed the Volta by car ferry and continued on through Ashanti land toward the major city, Kumasi. The damming of the Volta created an immense reservoir, the largest in surface area in all Africa. The country became steadily greener.

My memory of this part of the journey is fragmentary, but I remember being invited by a Ghanaian gentleman to have a drink of freshly brewed beer. He carried out an old custom of pouring a bit on the ground for the gods, a thanksgiving for a good harvest, and a request that they would look favorably on future harvests. The beer was warm, but it tasted great.

Market women were serving up freshly made millet beer.
I’m not clear where this was, but I am guessing that it was Tamale.
The beer was brewed in large cauldrons in the hut seen in the background. We sat with our host under a mango tree.
We drank it from gourds, with the yeast still bubbling, and the beer was tasty. As an American who generally drinks beer very cold, this was a different experience.

Our meals were generally from “chop shops,” small, simply furnished street restaurants or from street vendor stands. There were few true restaurants and we had little money in any case. While in Kumasi we went to a cultural center to watch weavers creating Kente cloth, for which the region is justly famous.

Accra, Ghana’s capital, was an opportunity to pick up mail, replenish our funds, and rest a bit. We decided to go to Togo, a short drive away, and hitchhiked to Lomé, the capital. Our ride was with a chauffeur-driven American who sold vehicles for General Motors, who was on his way to Togo for business. When I asked him what he did, he replied that he worked for the Cadillac division of General Motors. I expressed surprise that luxury cars were in much demand in such poor countries, and he laughed and explained that the product that he sold was armored troop carriers.

In Lomé, where it rained, we visited the large modern market, walked on the beach, and stayed overnight at Edith’s Inn, a hostel run for profit by a former African-American Peace Corps volunteer, before returning to Accra. Togo has had at least one military coup since those days, and Edith and her inn are long gone.

With the bright prints of women’s clothes and colorful fruit and vegetables, the modern market in Lomé exploded in color.
The day was rainy and dark. I used Ektachrome film for a change,because of the higher speed, though almost all my other slides were taken with my favorite, Kodachrome.
Women run the markets in West Africa.

Before leaving Accra and traveling west, we visited one of the slave castles on the Ghanaian Gold Coast.

The slave castle at Elmina.

There were no facilities, though there was a sound and light show at the Elmina slave castle. We slept in sleeping bags on the ramparts of Fort San Jago adjacent to the slave castle. There were nests of swifts and they filled the air with their acrobatic flight.

The town was quiet, and after a couple of days in bustling Accra, I enjoyed the quiet rural beauty. We walked the beach, ate coconuts, and relaxed.

Our sleeping quarters on the ramparts of the fort.

Visiting El Mina was a sobering experience, a reminder of the dark side of European and American history. The basement at El Mina contained a dungeon for holding slaves for transshipment, then empty except for a colony of bats. Originally built by the Portuguese, El Mina has the dubious distinction of being the oldest existing European settlement in sub-Saharan Africa. When we visited, the quiet and peaceful setting of palms and fishermen’s huts contrasted strongly with its violent and vile past. Today it is an important tourist destination for African-Americans exploring their African roots. We returned from El Mina to Accra where we met Dick Netherlin, a former PCV who had served in Ouazzane in northern Morocco, about halfway between Fes and Tetouan. Volunteers certainly got around in those days.

Our stay was on the fort on the hill. The castles were in fact well fortified. The oldest, created by the Portuguese, was conquered by the Dutch, before passing into English hands.
The fort where we slept. The absence of people was real. We were the lonely visitors staying there. World tourism had yet to come into its own. Asia’s wealth was yet to be as China languished under Mao Tse-tung.
Elmina had been a place of misery and horror four centuries earlier, but after all the travel through dry lands it seemed a tranquil tropical paradise.
Mornings were especially beautiful.
Houses filled the places between coconut palms and fruit trees. Swifts darted through and above them.
Local fisherman launched their craft…
…returned with their catches greeted by the ever present swifts…
…or netted fish from shore.
Anne strolled barefoot on the beach with a small army of local children, interested in the foreigners.
But in the background stood a somber reminder that this had not always been a tourist venue.
One could tour the Portuguese fort and examine its building.
It was built in the Age of Exploration. Anne talks with another tourist. I don’t remember meeting any others.
Beneath the sunny courtyard lay slave quarters with high, barred windows…
…now the home of a colony of bats.

We finally left Accra by lorry for Dixcove on our way west. Continuing along the coast, we left Ghana at Half Assini, traveling on a mail delivery van, and entered Ivory Coast by crossing a small river to the town of Frambo.

Crossing from Ghana to Ivory Coast.
Crossing the river on a barge pulled by a cable. My sleeping bag is visible in window of the Ghanaian mail truck in which we were traveling.
On the Ivorian side of the river, we look back at the Ghanaian border. We are now in Frambo in Ivory Coast.

After spending the night at the Frambo customs station, we took a shared taxi to our next stop, Abidjan. The French colonial center, built on landscaped lagoons, was modern and even had a bowling alley and ice rink, but Abidjan had no particular interest for me except as a colonial curiosity.

A park on one of the lagoons in Abidjan from which the modern city center is visible across the water.

Former British and French colonial capitals contrasted strongly. Those of the French were very European, with bizarre amenities catering to the wealthy, typified, for me at least, by the sale of Normandy apples in Ouagadougou, at a time when twenty percent of Burkinabé lived as migrants in other African countries, and ice rinks in Abidjan, where snow never falls.

Accra, by contrast, was congested and glamourless, impoverished after years of single-party rule by Kwame Nkrumah, who went from champion of independence to dictator.

The ice rink in Abidjan. Not many black faces, are there?
Who had the money to bowl here?

Accra lacked glamor of any kind. Ghanaian cities seemed dumpy or stodgy in a British way. I don’t mean to be derogatory, and hope my UK and Ghanaian friends forgive a description that emphasizes style.

A street in Kumasi, Ghana., the capital of Ashanti land.
Another Kumasi streetscape.

The French always carried their style abroad, even if it brought no particular benefit to the locals. Style was part of la mission civilisatrice, just as were the textbooks that taught young Africans that their ancestors were the Gauls. I don’t want to sing the praises of British colonialism, but I think the British may have put more money into roads and schools than the French did. In the end, colonial investments for the benefit of the natives was all relative, of course. The French talked about their mission civilisatrice and the British about “the white man’s burden,” but colonization was always for the benefit of Europeans.

The French West African empire was huge, assembled by the French army which often operated outside the control of the French politicians in metropolitan France. When the French gave their colonies independence in the earlier nineteen sixties, the French continued to maintain considerable influence. When we traveled, every former French colony, except Guinea used a common currency, the West Africa Franc, and the French maintained close economic, political, and military ties with former possessions. Today French soldiers in the Sahel constitute a bulwark against the ongoing insurrections that pose serious threats to the legitimate governments of the region.

This graphic from Le Monde shows fighting from a year ago. Since then, many more civilians and French troops have died, but the conflict is much more widespread than indicated on this map.

We left Abidjan by train to Ferkessedougou, then took a shared taxi to the border of Mali, but the border was closed, and we weren’t able to enter Mali. The customs agent invited us to sleep on the veranda of his home until the border reopened the next day, and his wife fed us a meal, a true act of kindness. Hospitality is one of those things that truly makes us human. I just finished reading George Megan’s The Longest Walk, a twenty thousand plus mile journey on foot from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic Ocean that took seven years. Megan made the trip with little money, and virtually depended on locals to help him. The extent that they did was remarkable, with Quechua women often giving him small sums of money (though not so small when the local standard of living was factored in) and a Sandinista officer literally giving him the proverbial shirt off his back.

The porch was a safe place to pass the night, but Anne was devoured by mosquitoes and claimed 250 mosquito bites from sleeping there. We both had light sleeping bags that worked well crossing the desert where the nights were cold, but were too warm for the tropics. Leaving them unzipped invited the mosquitoes in. A simple sleeping bag liner and maybe a mosquito net would have served us better in West Africa.

In the morning, we took a very slow rapide to Sikasso, making many stops.

Then, after waiting all day in Sikasso for a shared taxi, we finally got one, but numerous police stops delayed our arrival in Bamako until 1:00 a. m., and we splurged on an air-conditioned hotel for the first time in the journey, though the room was hardly anything to brag about, with electric wires hanging off the walls. I dont think that the Peace Corps was in Mali at that time.

A shared taxi in southern Mali. We took it to Bamako from the Ivorian border.

We were back in the Sahel again, the weather was hot, and we were tired. Had we had more time, we might have taken a boat ride down the Niger to Mopti and Timbuktu. Our concern, however, had become an arrival in Dakar, Senegal that gave us a few days to spare before we would catch our steamship back to Morocco.

Boarding the train in Mali.

The next day we boarded the Dakar-Niger train for the 800-mile trip to Dakar, Senegal, yet another long hot ride, but this time a more interesting and comfortable one. We had a compartment with couchettes so we could sleep when night fell. Open windows provided our ventilation.

Today this train line no longer functions, neither Sénégal nor Mali able to meet the costs of maintaining it. You can only make the trip by road now.

On the train was a couple, Steve and RuthAnn, Peace Corps volunteers from Kenya who had ridden all the way from East Africa on a small Honda motorcycle. Now, there was an adventure!

The familiar Sahel scenery went by: baobabs and ant hills, residential compounds and granaries, and all separated by miles of dry scrub.

Termite hills and baobabs.
A compound along the route.
A marabout’s tomb, perhaps, which had seen better days.
At station stops, food vendors offered their goods to the hungry and thirsty travelers. The train was packed. Fortunately, we rode in a car with cabins and limited passengers.
Granaries. A common site.
From our train window.
The Dakar-Niger rail line at one of many stops.

At stops, vendors would offer food and drink, and some stations had small sandy areas for the devout to say their prayers. The train was crowded, and stopped from 5:30 to 11:30 at Tambacounda.

Railroad stops provide areas where Muslims could pray, but ablutions were performed with sand. This was something we never saw in Morocco.
A woman and her child seen from the train.

Years later, I watched a Michael Palin TV documentary on the Sahara, in which he travels across Upper Egypt and the Sudan on his way south across the continent, and I thought that his experience mirrored ours on the Dakar-Niger line. We rode another old battered train from the colonial era, but it could have been Palin’s. I don’t know if the train Palin rode still operates, but the Dakar-Niger line that we rode ceased operation in 2010 and still has not been reopened.

The train’s arrival in Dakar at 4:00 a.m. early the next morning woke me slowly and gently. I remember being drowsy, then noticing that the rocking motion of the train had stopped, and that the hot, dry air of the Sahel had been replaced by cool, humid air from the Atlantic. In Dakar, I experienced cold for the first time since northern Algeria.

We stayed on the train till 7:00 am, before setting off to find a place to stay. That turned out to be a small hotel, Le Provençal, which had comfortable and clean rooms. Toilets were down the hall, as were the showers, but the latter had only cold water.

Dakar had over a half a million inhabitants, and reminded me of a small version of Casablanca, with wide avenues and tall colonial buildings. The huge new mosque, built in a Moroccan style, had an elevator in the minaret, and gave a commanding view of the city from above.

The Great Mosque in Dakar. The design is Moroccan and I think Morocco contributed to its construction.
A view from the great mosque toward the center and the ocean. 1971.

Waiting for our ship, we met local volunteers and saw the sights. We were tired and tried to relax a bit. Rather than explore we spent some time with people we met, and visited the markets

A shopping expedition.
Local kids in Dakar.

Dakar had been the French capital of its West African possessions, and looked the part, but we had seen enough French colonial capitals to want to see any more.

We visited the island, Ile de Gourée, another slave transshipment point. Sénégal was a major shipment point for slaves to the New World, but there is considerable controversy about the importance of the Île de Gourée. The small island is, however, conveniently situated to be a major attraction, so Senegal makes the most of it.

A view from Gourée back to the mainland.
The same Gourée cafe. At this point we felt we owed ourselves a bit of luxury.

The small island, about a mile offshore, has hotels, cafés, and a beach as wll as some historical sites. We ignored the latter, favoring the cafes and the beach, which appeared to be frequented mostly by Lebanese citizens of Senegal. The beach excursion turned out to be a bit of an ordeal. There were large waves in the small harbor, and I had trouble swimming back to shore after going out to a raft. Both of us, out of the sun for two months, foolishly stayed in it all day long and got painful sunburns. The cold water showers of the old French hotel did not help sooth our pain, and I remember being surprised to feel so cold in the tropics, despite suffering the sunburn.

The beach on Gourée was almost entirely populated by local Lebanese.

The ship ride back to Morocco was uneventful. Our tickets were one step above steerage. If I remember correctly, there were two classes above our class and one below. Our class entitled us to three course meals, with wine, of course, the ship being French, but we only got about twenty minutes to eat and drink. The sleeping arrangements resembled couchettes in the French railcars of the time. In our class, there wasn’t much to do on the ship, except to watch the ocean or hang out in the bar. I remember seeing flying fish racing alongside and dolphins surfing the bow waves. Anne remembers being seasick.

The Ancerville was christened by President Charles de Gaulle in 1962 and operated by the Compagne de Navigation Paquet. Facing increasing competition from airlines, it was sold to China. First used to ferry Chinese railroad workers to Tanzania, the ship, renamed the Minghua, evacuated ethnic Chinese from Vietnam when the countries were in conflict, then served many years as a cruise vessel, before finally becoming the centerpiece of a commercial complex.

The ship stopped for an afternoon in Las Palmas in the Canary Islands to take on cargo and passengers. We spent the time in a bar, drinking and listening to George Harrison sing My Sweet Lord, over and over, on the place’s radio. The stop was not long enough to do much else.

Las Palmas. The Ancerville stopped in this Canary Island city on its way north to Casablanca and Marseille. On the route south, the stop was Tenerife.
Our class, third ,only had access to the bow of the ship, from which I watched flying fish skip alongside before the prow.

In retrospect, planning to spend a few days there would have been worthwhile, but we were tired of traveling and more interested in the familiarity of Morocco. After years of Peace Corps living, Morocco was comfortable, like an old item of clothing or shoes, and we had been traveling constantly for two months. We both still had friends there. Returning was much like going home, though as it turned out, I would shortly fly to Tunis and spend the summer there before finally leaving in the autumn.

Anne and I arrived in Casablanca on May 25, 1971. We had been traveling almost continuously for a little over two months, and covered about 8,000 miles together, but now ready to go separate ways. Just previous to the journey, Anne had driven a VW bus across Europe, down the Italian peninsula, and across North Africa so she had covered another couple of thousands of miles before the Africa trip had even started!

Though we got a lesson in geography, a lesson that only thousands of miles of slow and sometimes arduous travel gives, and though we learned some history and culture, we were so busy traveling that we had mostly superficial contact with local people. We spoke the colonial languages, of course, but none of the dozens of major native tongues. I still remembered a few Wolof phrases from the training program where I worked in Quebec, but never used them.

I was fortunate to be able to do it with Anne, an indefatigable companion, who had to put up with me as well as the trials of often arduous travel. By myself I would never have done it. Thank you, Anne.

Anne. 1970. Sefrou.

Looking back at the trip reinforces my feelings about the importance of living in a culture for an extended period and learning to speak the local language. During one trip to Spain, I met two American college students in Barcelona, who were traveling on Eurail pass, and who had planned their itinerary so that they could save on lodging by sleeping nights on the train. They had just arrived from San Sebastián. Their visit to Spain consisted entirely of two of the least Spanish cities in the country, plus a night ride on the train. They would later say that they had visited Spain. I laughed to my younger and smugger self, but in retrospect the African trip was almost the same thing, though writ much larger. I had only lived in a small corner of North Africa and I wanted to see more of the continent. I saw more of the continent, but much was simply in passing. In the desert and the Sahel, though, the distance could be the message, to appropriate an idea from Marshall McCluhan.

In some sense, the trip was a big adventure and a hands on geography lesson. Can that kind of travel ever be much of a true cultural experience? Probably not. Still the journey was something unique, and as things stand today, irreplicable.

Author: Dave

Retired. Formerly school librarian, social studies teacher, and urban planner.

6 thoughts on “East, south, west, and north by northwest—travel through West Africa”

  1. Pour information : le Sahara espagnol indiqué sur la carte a été décolonisé en 1975. Depuis cette date il est sous la seule souveraineté marocaine .

    Envoyé de mon iPhone



    1. Oui, Ali, le Maroc a beaucoup grandi depuis mes années là-bas. La carte reflète la période coloniale, bien sûr. On pourrait y ajouter que la souveraineté du Maroc s’étendait sur la vaste partie occidentale de l’Algérie aussi. La France a effectivement saisi ce territoire
      pour l’annexer à l’Algérie française.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I was impressed by the bright Land Rover, too! The old vehicles certainly date the photos. I can usually identify the American ones that I grew up with, and a few of the British and European ones that made it to the States. At school, my house master had a Rover in the late fifties that had a walnut dash and looked posh for what I took to be something other than a luxury car. No idea why he purchased it as his everyday vehicle.

      My wife and I watch Heartbeat, now rerunning on TV Ontario, and I try to figure out what makes the characters drive. It certainly wasn’t a period of high design, except for the luxury brands and sport cars.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Cars of that era all had two things in common – they rusted like nobody’s business and they regularly wouldn’t start if it was too cold or too hot. My modern box on wheels may lack soul but at least it starts whatever the weather!


      2. Your are certainly right. Here where salt is spread to thaw ice on the roads, rust was a major problem, and still is. Today cars are more reliable, and in some respects need less care. Washing and waxing used to be a ritual, but new finishes hold up very well with little care.

        I just got a new vehicle, a small truck. It has a nine speed automatic gear box and teases out 24 mpg. As an older person, though, the safety features really stand out. The truck always knows where it is and when anything is close. The only thing that has thrown me for a loop is the push button shift. My younger cousin says I will get used to it. I also love the Apple CarPlay and android play that makes both navigation and music especially easy.


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