Overland West Africa (Dakar - Accra)

May 21, 2002 - July 3, 2002

Dave Svilar, Fred Sheffield


Our route through West Africa in red.  It doesn't look impressive for over a month's travel, but remember that Africa is big and the transportation is slow.  The area covered is probably comparable to a road trip from Seattle to Las Vegas to Denver.

West Africa, particularly the Sahel (not quite the Sahara, but almost) is the flattest, hottest, dirtiest, most godforsaken place on Earth.  I was aware that this might be the case before I left on my trip, but planned to go anyway because one of my best buddies had spent the past two years there.  I enjoy going places that are unlike home and that put me out of my comfort zone.  Africa fit the bill and Fred was there, so even though West Africa had little to offer, it had the potential for hidden adventure and time spent with a good friend.  I quit my job in the window-less lab and was on the plane a few days later.

Our overland journey began in Dakar, Senegal and made a loop around a tiny country called the Gambia to Fred's village in the Casamance region of Senegal.  I had confidence in my ability to travel proficiently in third world countries, but if it weren't for Fred I would have turned around and flown home.  Senegal was colonized by the French, so unless you knew some rudimentary French language you weren't going far.  I always assumed that English had become the world's language, but not one person in Senegal understood a word from my mouth.  Therefore until I figured out a "system" for West Africa I had to rely on Fred to get me food, transport and everything else necessary for basic survival.

Before I left I thought I was tough and ready for the dirtiness and discomforts that were to await me.  Over the past two years Fred had done everything possible to become native-like except shed his skin for a blacker variety.  I was amazed to watch my college buddy who was always most comfortable with a bag of Nachos and a remote control work his way through Africa.  He bartered with taxi drivers, blew off street scammers and could stomach anything that resembled food.  Safety brochures and guidebooks suggest eating food that can be cooked or peeled in order to avoid disease and germs that are rampant in Africa.  Instead for our first meal Fred pulled into a fly-infested stall and ordered sandwiches.  The man preparing our food put his hands all over my sandwich.  I had almost convinced myself that this man must be healthy when I looked up and noticed a growth the size of a tennis ball protruding from his head.  Every meal for the first week turned into an experiment.  Could I really eat this stuff and not develop the runs?  My confidence built as each sketchy meal produced no detrimental side effects. 

My biggest fears involved getting in a car.  Anyone who has traveled in the developing world has a story to tell about broken down cars, accidents or just driving in the wrong lane.  Transport in Senegal is accomplished by bartering for a ride in a bucket-of-bolts Peugot 504 station wagon.  Luckily, Fred not only spoke the language, but knew the appropriate price for a ride.  Our packs were strapped to the roof and passengers jammed inside.  Two people squeezed into the front bucket seat next to the driver, four jammed into the middle seats and three more rode in the far backseat between the wheel wells.  I was nervous heading out on my first ride and to make matters worse I was positioned next to a door that wouldn't close.  I badly wanted to sleep (logged around 10 hours sleep in 5 days), but forced myself to stay awake and hold on in order to not be thrown out of the car as my door would swing open with each inevitable jerk of the wheel as we careened down the road.

Fred barters for a ride in this classy Peugot bush taxi.  Our packs are strapped to the roof.  Yes, each person in this photograph including myself jammed into the vehicle.

Most people go on trips to see something.  While we bumped along pot-holed single lane roads I stared out the window and tried to come up with a reason I was traveling through this godforsaken land.  There were no hills.  There was no water.  There was only dust.  This was Africa, but I didn't see any animals.  Even the vultures were dead.  Determined to rationalize quitting my job and spending the money to come to this place I started to sink into a mild depression.  Then the answer came to me - it was right here in this tin can of a car.  I looked straight ahead and there was Fred sharing a seat with a fidgety African.  Next to him was the driver  who drove his car by day and slept in his car by night.  Behind me were three Africans who could only fit in the backseat because they were too poor to eat.  To my right was a door that wouldn't close.  To my left was a fleshy, sweaty African lady who had fallen asleep and was now drooling on my shoulder.  My epiphany revealed that the reason I was in Africa was to experience the "adventure" of living and traveling like an African.  This revelation eased my depression, but didn't keep me from being miserable as you'll see if you can stand to read the rest of this.

Fred squeezes into a "nuf-class" (nine passengers and one driver) Peugot bush taxi.  We found our bodies' response to this discomfort was to fall asleep.  Looks like the upholstery could use some Armor-All. 

Fred's Peace Corps village was based 14 miles from Kolda.  He would make frequent trips back from his village to PC headquarters to enjoy amenities like running water (when it worked), electricity (when it worked), and a cold Giselle (West Africa's cheap beer).  The town wasn't geared for the tourist, but if you knew the "system" you could eat and even buy clothes very cheaply.  Here, as elsewhere in West Africa people would point and yell "too-ob" (white guy) when they saw us pass on the street, as if we were some form of rare wildlife. 

Piece of America.  Fred would return to these luxurious Kolda streets from his village to feel more at home.  If you don't think these streets appear luxurious then imagine what his village must've felt like.

Our trip through West Africa coincided with Senegal's improbable run to the quarterfinals of soccer's World Cup.  We were in Kolda, Senegal for their victory over defending champs and Senegal's colonizers, France.  Senegal's president called off school - kids couldn't be expected to study on a day like this.  People poured into the streets and partied like no collective group I've ever seen.  What was even more fascinating was the end of the party which abruptly occurred an hour after the victory.  The streets went dead quiet just as quickly as they had erupted in euphoria.  According to Muslim laws it was time to pray.

It was common to see 15 or more people gathered around a single television watching the games.  It didn't matter if you were in Senegal, Mali, or the Ivory Coast - everyone was pulling for Senegal like it was their own team.  For a continent so desperate for a source of pride Senegal provided just that.  People in Fred's village who were unaware that man had landed on the moon could name players on Senegal's squad.  Coincidentally the American team made it just as far as Senegal.  The reactions in the two countries couldn't be more different - while Senegal partied in the streets, Americans were too busy watching "American Idol" to even realize there was a soccer tournament.

Fred said final "goodbyes" to his villagers and Peace Corps volunteer friends and we set off for Mali.  Bush taxis or sep/nuf-classes were taken all the way to Kayes, Mali.  The heat continued to be unbearable for my Pacific Northwest blood.  Temperatures in the 110 - 120F were common during the day and there was only little relief at night.  To make matters worse there was no escaping.  All I wanted was a cold drink, but all I got was a mouthful of bleached warm water.  I would force myself to drink 8 liters per day, but still couldn't manage to make my urine turn clear.  The heat was such a force that people would run to cover like it was a rainstorm.  According to unreliable sources this section of our journey took us through 3 of the 5 hottest inhabited places on Earth - I believed it.

Fred crosses the border into Mali and looks back longingly at his beloved Senegal.  The Senegal river rages below.

Crossing the border wasn't a slick operation.  We walked a mile across a bridge over the dried up Senegal River.  Both of us had already purchased Malian visas, but the trick turned out to be finding customs.  There are no signs, and after walking through a few compounds we ended up at customs.  The bush taxi ride to Kayes, Mali felt like three hours of having a hair drier blown in my face.  We reached Kayes, the world's hottest inhabited place, and found the regional Peace Corps center.  Fred was able to stay in Peace Corps facilities because he was a recent volunteer.  For me we made a fake Peace Corps I.D. which along with my three words of French inevitably got me past the guards.  The Peace Corps houses not only saved us money, but were like an oasis.  We met other Americans, cooked our own food and just got away from the madness that surrounded us.

I was melting and wanted out of Kayes ASAP.  The next leg of the journey to Bamako could only be covered by train due to the poor condition of the roads.  Fred almost got squished by a crush of humanity while attempting to buy tickets and the train was 12 hours late, but it turned out to be a favorite leg of the journey.  We had first class tickets, which in Africa just means you might get your own seat.  The old dilapidated train rallied all night stopping every 15 - 30 minutes.  As with every other mode of African travel, there were numerous people that swarmed the train at every stop trying to peddle apples, eggs, bread or whatever else they could get their hands on.  They carried their wares on their head and were always especially excited to see a too-bob who they knew had money.

Dave and Fred getting off the overnight train in the morning to urinate near Bamako, Mali.  There are no toilets, so if you need to go, just do your business with your back to the train.  Fred looks like he's spent several nights on the train.


Girls stay up all night and skip school waiting for the train to come so they can sell a few eggs.

Bamako turned into a pit stop on our way to Mopti where we spent a week trekking through Dogon Country.  We wanted to make the trip to Timbuctu, but it would have either cost too much or taken too long.  After our trek we made sure to save a few days for rest and recuperation in Sickasso, Mali.  There wasn't anything to see in Sickasso, but we had been tipped off that there was a Peace Corps house full of female volunteers that loved to cook.  Sickasso is farther south and therefore closer to the tropics featuring a wetter climate.  It was the beginning of the rainy season, so we endured a couple of day long downpours that knocked out the electricity.  The girls of Sickasso were all there, and lived up to their hype - throwing parties and cooking pizzas which Fred and I happily devoured.

Unfortunately I was ready to devour anything - my stomach was bottomless.  If a horse was cooked I'd eat it.  Our last night in Sickasso I put down pizzas, beers, bread, and packets of mayo and cheese Fred had purchased.  The last two items made me sick, which formed a suiting precursor to our bus ride that started at 2 a.m. that night.  It was to be the bus ride from hell.

Fred and I had been warned about traveling through the Ivory Coast, but we ignored them.  My stomach was churning as we sat in the bus station waiting for the bus that showed up at 4 a.m.  Two hours late - not bad for Africa.  We expected all travel to be easier once we were done with the bush taxis of the Sahel.  The bus left the garage and so did my expectation that travel would be easier.

Fred grabs the best seats on the bus.

As soon as the bus started rolling I became nauseated.  Luckily, I was next to a window.  I leaned my head out and puked all over the side of the bus.  I must have partially sprayed the lady behind me because she hastily closed her window.  Quite frankly I didn't care who I hit, I was more consumed with timing my vomits so that there were no cars coming the other way.  The narrow roads made sticking your head out the window into oncoming traffic life threatening.  I barely had the strength to stand up, but the too-bobs (Fred and Dave) were dragged off the bus three times to have our passports checked at the Mali-Ivory Coast border.  In each case they told us we needed visas for the Ivory Coast which we knew we didn't.  They demanded that we pay for a visa, but Fred was prepared.  In French he told the guards that he had just spoken with the U.S. embassy and we did not need visas.  He said it with such authority that they believed him, and each time we passed without having to pay.

Once across the border they dumped us in a bus station for no apparent reason.  I didn't care because I needed to recuperate from my nausea.  I watched a World Cup game from a distance and despite my condition couldn't help but laugh at Fred who was seated next to a man wearing a Bin Laden t-shirt "He not terrorism, he a fighter."  Bin Laden paraphernalia was popular all over Muslim West Africa, so I wasn't worried about Fred becoming a victim of the jihad.  It wasn't uncommon to see an automobile with a Bin Laden sticker on the front and an American flag on the back.  Bin Laden was the popular thing at the moment much like Leonardo DeCrapio and the Titanic were a couple of years before.

We made it an hour down the road before we were dumped at another bus station.  As is common in African transport there was no explanation for our delays.  We stayed at this "station" until mid-afternoon.  During this time I had the privilege of using a dirty bathroom that I hoped I wouldn't I have to use again.  Little did I know I would spend that night sleeping on the floor of the bathroom. 

If you're lucky enough to get a "western style" toilet it's bound to look like this.

By late afternoon everyone was still standing around the bus waiting.  It was impossible to tell who (if anyone) was in charge of the bus.  My nausea had long ago given way to frustration and anger.  Finally they loaded us onto the bus.  Miraculously everyone had their own seat.  That didn't last long, because we drove two minutes down the road and picked up a bunch of kids.  Pretty soon there were two per seat with bags, chickens and people laying in the aisles.  This was more like the Africa I was getting to know. 

The bus ride lasted about two more minutes before it inexplicably stopped and turned around.  Again no explanation, but Fred and I deduced that the kids were traveling illegally from neighboring country Burkina Faso.  A few hours later our bus pulled back into the same bus station where we had spent the entire day.  We were going to stay the night in the dingy station because it was too dangerous to travel at night.  At this point I was laughing at the incompetence of the whole operation - in the U.S. people would be lined up bitching at customer relations - in Africa it's just part of the game.  Fred and I were the honored too-bobs so we were given the choice digs for the night - a piece of floor next to the toilet that I had found almost too gross to pee in earlier in the day.  How ironic.  Now I was sleeping there.  Luckily the breeze was blowing the other way, so instead of breathing the aroma of feces and dried urine, we got fresh scents of the dump blowing in from the other side.

We survived the night and awoke early with expectations that we may never get to Abidjan.  My frustration level hit a level I didn't know I could endure.  I was proud of the fact I had puked on these people's bus.  I was so angry with this bus trip I almost felt like getting sick again so I could vomit on their bus a second time.  The bus pulled out of the lot early in the morning and was finally making progress towards southern Ivory Coast.  Unfortunately this didn't mean this ridiculous trip was going to get easier.

Turned out that the border checkpoints from the day before weren't the only ones.  Within each town of northern Ivory Coast there were roadblocks.  It was no secret to us or the people on the bus that these roadblocks serve only as points where uniformed vagabonds extort money from innocent passengers.  The baffoons at the gendarmes checked passports, unloaded luggage from the bus, and generally caused havoc.  They wore uniforms, Chuck Yeager shades, and menacing glares.  One guard was particularly menacing and when he reached Fred and I in the back of the bus he made a very deliberate pause - everyone on the bus watched in anticipation to see what he would do with us.  Fred and I were trying to eat a concoction we had bought from a guy outside the window of the bus.  At the end of his pause he said with a straight face, "Bon appetite." ("good food" in French)  This guy had obviously watched too many Schwarzenaegger movies.

In one town, we spent over an hour receiving an inspection at a roadblock.  We drove five minutes through town and went through the entire process again at another damn roadblock.  We passed through at least six roadblocks that day and each time Fred and I were told we needed visas and had to give the guards money.  Each time Fred pulled out his line about calling the U.S. embassy and each time it worked.  It was obvious something was wrong in this part of the country, and sure enough a coup broke out a few months after we visited.  Americans were rescued by helicopter in some of the same towns we had passed.  Finally we moved into southern Ivory Coast which tends to me more Christian.

Fred and I had culture shock upon arriving Abidjan.  This city used to be the crown jewel of West Africa, but had slowly deteriorated since African leadership took control in the 1970's.  Still it featured paved roads with painted lines, ice cream, and American style grocery stores with air conditioning.  Abidjan was significantly cooler than the Sahel, but temperatures were still in the upper 80's with high humidity.  I went to the grocery store just to enjoy the cool air.

We visited the village in the far southeast corner of the Ivory Coast of a Peace Corps volunteer we had met in Abidjan.  To get from her village to Ghana involved a short boat ride.  Our battle cry since leaving Senegal had been "let's get to Ghana."  From information we had gathered Ghana was supposed to be the Promised Land.  Warm beaches, English language, and a decent transportation system.  Getting off the boat we both literally got knocked off the dock into the water.  The dock was bustling and was much too small for all the activity.  Welcome to the Promised Land we thought.

Can you spot the too-bob?  Yes, that's Fred on the boat from Ivory Coast to Ghana.


Promised land.  Dave gets ready for ice cream, English, and a logical transportation system.


African for supermarket.  Anything from cookies to toothbrushes could be found on her head.


"Catch me if you can."  Osama challenges George W. in this painting.

The English everyone had told us about was horrible.  Most people didn't know any English, and the ones who could didn't speak very well.  Still it was easy to find rides, and a few hours later we were dropped by a sign with an arrow that said "Axim Beach Resort."  We were too cheap to pay the equivalent of US$1 to get us to the resort, so we made the mistake of walking three plus miles.  Two weary travelers walked up the dirt path to what we hoped would be paradise as night fell.  We crested the bluff and below us spread the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.  The moon glistened off the waves as far as the eye could see.  Cottages of the resort lay out in a neat row on the bluff overlooking the beach below.  All that could be heard was the sound of the waves crashing against the shoreline.  This place made even a dirtball like myself feel romantic.  I badly wanted to turn Fred into a woman, but knew that would be difficult, so settled for his company.  As soon as the too-bobs arrived the restaurant the staff popped in Celine Deion (Celine D. songs seemed to play wherever we went).

Paradise!  Fred downs a Castle on the beach near Anamabu, Ghana.  We slept the night out on these lounge chairs. 

When we awoke in the morning it was like being tricked into thinking a girl is pretty when she is viewed in dim lighting conditions.  The resort was still nice, but the tops of all the palm trees had been chopped off and on my run along the beach I saw a ton of garbage.  Furthermore Ghana was a neat country, but hardly the "promised land" everyone claimed it to be.  The beaches were not nearly as pretty and cheap as we expected, and the English was poor.  We stayed close to the beach and our journey finally ended in Accra.  From there we flew to Nairobi, Kenya.  We didn't realize how hard we had traveled until we got on the plane.  Airplane travel is usually considered to be lousy, but to Fred and I it was the ultimate in luxury.  We had our own seats, the climate was controlled, and the food exquisite.  Neither of us wanted the ride to end.

Much of this portion of the trip was miserable and at best uncomfortable, particularly travels through the Sahel and northern Ivory Coast.  Looking back my fondest memories of my trip to Africa were these difficult sections.  Trips that take you the farthest from your comfort zone are the ones that leave the most memorable impressions. 

-written September 2002

Take Me Home