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Why are you Traveling in West Africa?

I don’t want this post to come across as angry or judgmental. I will attempt to be careful with my words.

West Africa is not particularly well traveled so it’s common to get to know other travelers when you do happen to come across them. Most often, you meet overlanders who are either traveling solo or as part of a tour. Every now and then you will run into someone who is visiting a specific country.

People travel to West Africa for different reasons. Most of these reasons are sensible. For example, I have come across many travelers in Mali who are here for the music (partly my motivation as well). This is understandable; Mali has some of the most powerful music on earth.

But recently, I have met several travelers who offer reasons like this:

– I am traveling to West Africa because no one else does
– I am traveling to West Africa because I’m trying to travel everywhere and I haven’t yet crossed it off the list.

Before I go further, let me say that people are free to travel how they want. I can’t say that someone picked a poor reason for traveling somewhere. If the reason suits them, fine.

My frustration comes from the fact that I have now met many travelers who have come to West Africa for the reasons above (or similar) and they end up hating the place without making an effort to get to know it.

When I first arrived in Bamako, I was staying in a hostel (The Sleeping Camel, which I maintain is one of the best hostels in Mali and the region for that matter). At the hostel, an overland truck had been stranded for several weeks waiting for visas from the Nigerian consulate. Their itinerary was London to Cape Town to Istanbul, an awesome trip that will take them through most of Africa.

A few of the people in the group told me they were trying to visit every country in Africa. Others told me they chose this particular trip because West Africa is the road less traveled and they wanted a true adventure. They wanted “fresh” territory.

Everyone who I spoke to was friendly, but more than a few of them were apparently miserable in Mali. During the few days I was there, I noticed some of them didn’t really leave the hostel. Yet there was plenty of Mali bashing to go around.

I’m guessing that they didn’t go to Diplomat on Friday night to hear Toumani Diabate play kora. I’m guessing that they were unaware of the fact that most Malians insult each other as a joke when they meet for the first time. I’m also guessing that they were in the dark about Bambara greetings.

In Bambara, when you tell a woman good morning, she responds Nse (an saay), “my power.” She is literally saying “my power as a female always wins against time.” This is beautiful.

Men are not allowed to say Nse. In fact, if a man tries to say “my power as a male always wins against time,” people will get angry. Instead, when you tell a man good morning, he says Nba, “my mother.” Thanks to my mother I am here to receive your greeting.

This cultural insight is rarely uncovered because many travelers don’t make the effort.

Like I said before, people are free to travel how they want. I certainly can’t claim to have immersed myself in every culture I have visited. I have spent plenty of time lounging around hotel rooms and hostels, drinking and eating, and not doing much else. Sometimes this is exactly what we need!

I don’t have a problem with vegetating at the hostel.

I do have a problem with people saying Malians are unfriendly or “Mali is shit,” when they have hardly made an effort to get to know Malians and Malian culture.

Palais de la Culture

Palais is one of my favorite spots in Bamako. The tree garden is hands down the best place to see a concert in the city. I saw Mamou Sidibe destroy this venue last fall. All the concerts are free. Last weekend, me and Bintou saw a bizarre and hilarious puppet show here. On weekday mornings, you can watch the national ballet (traditional dance from Mali) practice in the auditorium. In the evenings, men play a bocce ball-like game and children take karate lessons on the outdoor stage.

Palais de la Culture is maybe a 5 minute walk from the hostel I was staying at. Despite the proximity and the fact that any member of the bilingual staff would have recommended it as something to see in the neighborhood, no one I talked to at the hostel had been there.

Before you talk shit, you need to understand what you are talking shit about.

Personal Update

Spoiled by my new apartment. I was looking for apartments all day last Sunday. Most were either priced too high or not what I was looking for (no bathroom, too far, etc.). Close to giving up for the day, we stopped at the house of one last property owner. He didn’t have anything for rent, but a man who was there for an appointment with him offered me an apartment in his compound for a price lower than anything else I saw that day. So I took a look at the apartment. Two rooms, a living room, bathroom, a/c, wi-fi, private terrace, and access to the swimming pool. Easy decision.

It is clear to me now that Thiam, the dutigi (head of the family), didn’t need any extra income. It seems that he just wanted another person around. Perhaps someone to entertain the precocious Adam (girl, pronounced Ah dahm), their only child? Yesterday, me and Bintou spent the afternoon swimming with her and we have now been invited to events at her school.

Before the swimming session yesterday, I had an hour long Bambara lesson (thank you Claire! Lamine is awesome). Today I will be interviewing Boukary Konate in town as part of the How to Draw Camels project. He runs a blog (fasokan.wordpress.com) in Bambara and French, does outreach work with villages around Bamako and works on several projects to preserve and promote Bambara as a language. He has also done work for Global Voices, an organization I very much respect. Interview with photos, video and camel drawing should be up next week.

This weekend there is a Dogon festival in Bamako. Monday I will begin work with a women’s cooperative in Bamako and with Project Muso, a non-profit that does women’s empowerment work.

Good things to come!

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{ 27 comments… add one }

  • Mzuri May 20, 2011, 10:00 am

    Hi Phil,

    Thought-provoking post. Especially loved the information about greetings of Mali men and women.

    I guess I don’t have any qualms about someone visiting a place because they haven’t been there yet (and it’s on a list) or because no one else goes there. This is no different to me than someone climbing a mountain “because it’s there.” Or families who visited every U.S. state capitol during their kids’ childhoods. Sometimes I’ve gone someplace on the sole basis of its interesting name. Like Peculiar, MO. Or Possum Grape, AR.

    I do agree completely with you about fellow visitors who talk shit about a place without really having experienced it, even just a little. But I have to laugh at myself a little as I write this, because I’m thinking of a major meltdown I had in one city that could have been really only about me and my individual travel stress on that day – or – the city really was shit – or what’s more likely, a little of both.

    Thanks again for your post.

    • phil May 20, 2011, 10:19 am

      Hey Mzuri,
      Thanks for the comment. I also don’t have qualms with the reasons in themselves. Like you, I think traveling spontaneously and adventurously is a good idea. I just found it frustrating that many people wrote off Mali without getting to know it. In their eyes, they had accomplished their mission, which was to set foot in the country and travel around it, but they missed so much. This was very much a personal reaction I had and I totally know what you’re saying in the second half of your comment. Sometimes we’re just not in the right mindset to visit a place and sometimes that place might not be for us. And sometimes the place really is shit..
      B well,

  • melanie - girlwithgumption May 20, 2011, 11:44 am

    Great post Phil! I encountered a similar situation when I was in Mali in January. My trip happened to coincide with the Festival in the Desert and the hostel (Sleeping Camel–those showers are amazing!) was filled with people I nicely think of as “woefully unprepared and uninterested in West Africa.” What a shame it seems to be a pattern.

    Mali is such a friendly and vibrant country. I loved the Bambara vibe in Bamako. Street vendors that don’t make you feel like you are going to battle every time you buy something. Taxi drivers that don’t quadruple the price for “toubakos”. Talented artisans. Delicious street food. A beautiful laid back mix of cultures that embraces instead stifling linguistic and cultural diversity. (Very different than my adopted country’s capital, Dakar). If they could figure out a way to get more air ventilation on those buses I would be back in a heartbeat.

    • phil May 20, 2011, 6:49 pm

      Yes! The attitude I’ve come across is that people are almost resigned to not like it. Really unfortunate because, as you mention, Mali is a special place. I can’t speak on Dakar as I’ve only been there briefly, but after reading your blog I appreciate the comparison given the amount of time you’ve spent there. Yeah the ventilation is pretty much nonexistent on most buses. Sotramas are generally cooler I’ve found ;). Thanks for the comment.
      Take care,

      • Martin May 21, 2011, 12:02 pm

        About Dakar, yeah it kind of is a battle, especially if you go on your own to the city center. When I lived there my strategy for city-center visits was to stay friendly with the first guy who approached me, who then usually would follow me around for hours in hope of selling me something or conning me somehow. As long as I was with a local, vendors and pickpockets would be a lot more restrained. All in all, I think I’ve been the target of over a hundred pick-pocket attempts in Dakar whereof two successful – one by an old man who kept touching the bottom of my jeans, and when I bent down to remove his hand he took a 5,000 CFA bill I had in my shirt pocket.

        Realising I’m starting to sound like one of those ranting tourists, I have to point out that I absolutely love Dakar and would go and live there again for years with no hesitation. I think the aggressive vendors/conmen/pickpockets is the relatively minor flipside to a very socially extrovert culture that has practically done away with loneliness and makes you feel welcome everywhere in Senegal except maybe in the city center.

        Anyhow, I have a question for Phil: I reckon you have stayed in a lot of hostels and cheap hotels in West Africa. I’m kind of planning on building one in Abidjan, but at the moment it’s just an empty plot of land. Do you have any cool suggestions of how a hotel/hostel you would like to stay in should look like and/or be like?

        • phil May 22, 2011, 6:16 am

          Is Sandaga part of the city center? Because that’s about as far as I got. I was staying in a place in sacre coeur III which is a bit away from the city center. I had a good impression from my too short visit though :).

          Sounds like a great idea about the hostel. Abidjan is definitely lacking in that area. Where is it located if you don’t mind me asking? I do have some ideas/observations from other hostels that would be useful. Why don’t you send me an email at phil dot paoletta at gmail dot com πŸ™‚

  • Linda May 20, 2011, 12:48 pm

    Could it be that people are afraid to go too far and that’s why they hang out at the hostel? I haven’t looked recently, but when a friend and I were planning to go to the Festival in Desert a couple of years ago (we didn’t make it, she opted for Asia) there were travel warnings out from both British and US governments for Mali, which is one reason I didn’t go there alone.

    Do you think Bambara is the most useful language to know if you travel West Africa? I had just one lesson in Wolof a while back and meant to pursue it, but am told it isn’t really spoken outside Senegal. Please can you confirm the pronunciation of Nse? “se” as in seven? Some of my former pupils were from Mali and I frequently bump into them around town. They would be tickled if I greeted them that way!

    • phil May 20, 2011, 6:59 pm

      That may be the case for travelers to the north, but not in Bamako. The owners of Sleeping Camel, as well as the overland tour operators, will be the first people to talk about how safe Bamako (and all of Mali) is. You are right, though, there are still travel warnings. They are excessively heavy handed and are more or less destroying Mali’s tourism. I really don’t think this had an effect on the folks staying at Sleeping Camel though. But I could be wrong.

      The most useful language in west africa is french, just because it will allow you to communicate with the most people, but as far as local languages go, Bambara is primarily spoken in Mali. Wolof is in Senegal and parts of Gambia. The good thing about Bambara though is that it is a Manding language and if you know Bambara you can communicate with people in other languages. For example, people who speak Dioula, a trading language found in Burkina and northern Cote d’Ivoire understand Bambara and vice versa.

      The correct pronunciation of Nse is like “Ansaay” It is not a greeting itself, but rather a response to one. For example i ni sogoma is good morning. If someone said i ni sogoma to you, you would respond Nse (ansaay). If you are a man you would respond “Nba.” You should definitely greet them in Bambara!! I’m sure they will get a kick out of it. Take care, Phil

  • jill- Jack and Jill Travel The World May 20, 2011, 6:27 pm

    That must be really frustrating to hear a country (or region) you love being bashed by those who know nothing about it πŸ™ Sorry to had to go through that.

    • phil May 20, 2011, 7:07 pm

      Hey Jill,
      That’s just it, it almost feels like a personal attack πŸ˜‰ At the same time, I know I need to realize that people are going to have different experiences. I’m sure there have been people that have put in the effort and still didn’t like Mali. C’est la vie.

  • Kirstin May 21, 2011, 1:26 am

    I love that response for women! So powerful. And I feel similarly about some people who decide to come to Kyrgyzstan. It’s an endlessly frustrating country to live in, even for people who love it, and if you don’t find your connection to it (or even make an attempt to) then you just end up miserable. I know a few people who have literally escaped to the airport in the middle of the night (and their teaching contracts!) because they ended up disliking it here so much.

    Although, doesn’t it kinda make you feel just a little bit special for being able to not only survive, but respect and appreciate Mali? It’s a shame that some people get too caught up to see the positive side of Mali, but thank god you’re there at least to tell us all about it!

    • phil May 22, 2011, 6:27 am

      Hey Kirstin,
      I don’t know. I would much prefer the opposite being true. It takes a bit of effort, but I think a lot of people would really enjoy Malian culture. Haven’t heard any stories of people escaping in the night yet, though. Wow. Love the abandoned amusement park photos in your last post πŸ™‚

  • Tami May 21, 2011, 3:14 am

    That’s so cool you get to talk to Boukary Konate – I really love his blog about the Malian villages. It so beautifully explores such a broad swath of contemporary Mali, I think, and gives a great sense of recent history in the context of people’s daily lives rather than just in political terms like so much of the Western writings on the region.

    I’m looking forward to spending time at Palais de la Culture, which I didn’t know about; it sounds marvelous not just for cultural events but for people-watching too!

    • phil May 22, 2011, 6:30 am

      That’s awesome you knew about his blog. He is awesome in person as well πŸ™‚ I also agree with your thoughts on his site. Context of daily life is key to his mission.

      I think you will like Palais. It is indeed excellent for people watching and for cultural events. Even when it’s completely empty, it’s peaceful and a great place for sitting, reading etc.

  • Bing May 21, 2011, 12:20 pm

    Hello! Just wondering…how long do you usually have to stay for it to be worth it to get an apartment as opposed to hostels/cheap hotels?

    I don’t think you’re being too harsh with this post, I think its weird to judge a place based on its convenience to the traveler, any place where people live would by default have its own culture and awesome things that the people there do because that’s what people do.

    • phil May 22, 2011, 6:33 am

      Hey Bing,
      I think that depends on the place. In Mali it is very easy to get short term accommodation. YOu can rent places weekly or monthly. It’s really hard to do the same thing in Ghana, though, and many places will ask for a year’s rent in advance (!!). Cote d’Ivoire I’m not sure about, as I didn’t try to get a place there. I would generally say that if you are staying in a place longer than a month it’s worth it to get an apt or even try to arrange a homestay. Again, depends on the place.

      Martin, who commented above, has spent a lot of time in Cote d’Ivoire and has experience with real estate there. He might be able to give you a few tips πŸ™‚

  • Tijmen May 21, 2011, 12:57 pm

    Unfortunalty some people are like that, to lazy to really make an effort to get to understand the culture and see the place. And then they complain its shit because they dont understand it. I never really get those people, always makes me wonder why they came in the first place. Its not like I didnt have these days where I didnt leave the hostels, but I dont complain about the country or locals unless I have a good reason to do so. You don’t really get to have a good reason unless you try to understand it first.

    • phil May 22, 2011, 6:37 am

      Thanks for the comment Tijmen. Exactly my thoughts πŸ™‚ The other reason it is frustrating is that these people will probably go back to their friends and family and talk about how horrible Mali was πŸ™

  • Anthony May 22, 2011, 11:52 am

    Traveling West Africa doesn’t sound like it would be easy. It is an adventure that I would like to go on also and the more information I find about it the better prepared I will be.

    • phil May 23, 2011, 1:49 pm

      Anthony, it’s not the easiest place to travel, but I think if you prepare yourself and come with the right attitude, it is very rewarding.

  • Laura May 23, 2011, 9:28 am

    It’s always tough to hear someone talk negatively about a place you love so much. I have a tough time when people say they hated Kenya (really they mean Nairobi because they never made it out of the city) or that they’d never go back to Laos. Some have valid reasons based on experiences. Others never made it past one city or one bad bus ride. That was it for them. When people ask what places I’ve traveled that I didn’t like, I usually don’t answer. The one or two places I can think of, were places I didn’t spend much time in or I had a single bad experience- hardly a fair way to judge a place.

    Looking forward to reading about your development work in Mali. I would be curious after your first month of living there if you’d be interested in putting up an expenses post- I’d love to see how it stacks up to other places in Africa in terms of cost of living.

    • phil May 23, 2011, 6:33 pm

      Laura, I agree with your approach entirely. One bad experience or too short a stay can really color the entire trip. Best to withhold judgment.

      I’m not really doing development work. My mission is to showcase Malians and West Africans that are taking an innovative approach to solving community problems. I’m very much on the sidelines, which I think is a good thing πŸ™‚ There are so many big NGO’s here and while many of them do effective work, there are too many that are not in tune culturally or they are simply operating more as a business than an NGO. I’m looking for the sustainable solutions that are run by people who live here. And I want as many people to know about them as possible :).

      I will definitely do an expenses post at some point. A lot of people assume that French West Africa is prohibitively expensive, but it’s possible to do it really cheap as well. Maybe in the next week or so I will post something like that. Thanks for reading and commenting, Laura πŸ™‚

  • Sophie May 24, 2011, 1:00 pm

    Been to West Africa, not my favorite but I definitely enjoyed my time their. The fault is actually on the traveler’s side not on the place.

  • Haley June 6, 2011, 3:52 am

    “I am traveling to West Africa because I’m trying to travel everywhere and I haven’t yet crossed it off the list”.This is the reason why I choose West Afirica as the next trip of mine.

  • Susana February 22, 2012, 8:04 am

    Dear Phil,

    I have to say i love your blog. Are you still living in Mali?

    I was there two months ago cycling with a group of people. One of them was a really negative person, always shouting against africa. He couldn’t handle it. Our original plan was to go to Timbuktu, but at the end we didn’t because of the kidnappings there (a pitty), but we did a wonderful loop through Burkina, Benin, Togo and Ghana. Really beautiful.

    But as you say there were people in the group that didn’t like west africa, they were complaining, having problems with themself and with Africa. They were criticizing everything. Complaining about the organization of the tour, etc. It was really sad to see how people were complaining about: that the icecreams are not magnums, that the chocolate is not nutella, that Africans have nothing, that the landscape is shit…. horible to hear those things.

    I think that people tht come to Africa shouldn’t have any expectations. They should take live as simple as it is. The problem is that some people want to see things, take a picture and say “i was in timbuctu” meeting the expectations of the others…. for africa you need to be open and leave all your insights behind and get in touch with the culture and the people.

    I’m glad i come across your website.

    Saludos, Susana
    PD: you can read our african stories at http://www.bike-dreams.com

  • Menbi April 5, 2012, 1:40 am

    I am from Ethiopia but now live in the US. I was in Ethiopia for a 2008 family get together. I was there for a month and hated it. Instead of enjoying the bigger things (like meeting close to 1200 of my 1st, 2nd, 3rd cousins who came for the get together, boat trip on Nile etc), I was complaining about pot holes, unavailability of hot shower etc.
    My brother told me to come back a year later but he said I should come back with a better attitude, which I did. And when I was there in 2009, I had the best time of my life and I am going back either this year, finance permitting or next year for sure.

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