Africa on an attitude a day

There are ways of arriving in a new country. You must know exactly where you are going and have your first few nights’ accommodation booked, not to mention a bottomless bank account. This is the way of the well organised and the cash savvy.

I have never been that person. I travelled around West Africa and my only preparation for the trip was booking my ticket to Senegal. It led to an interesting arrival.

I arrived in Dakar at 3.30am, not knowing a soul, speaking very limited French, on a dental-floss budget and with no accommodation in a city notorious for not being cheap. Go ahead and say ‘idiot”. I added stronger words.

Plan A was to spend my first night at a club and crash there. But I was unfamiliar with clubs that would take in revellers with Kilimanjaro-sized backpacks. Plan B kicked in by chance at the airport. I spotted a gentleman with a signboard for a five-star hotel. I straightened my back — to appear confident — and handed him the backpack with a ‘it’s rather heavy” warning.

Thankfully the hotel was fully booked. Damsel, near tears, told her ‘I dream of Africa” story and a call was made to another hotel. It was also out of my budget. The manager made five calls before finding ‘the cheapest and most decent place on your budget”. Safety sorted, I delighted in the warm tropical breeze and a topless cab driver.

My first impression of Dakar was that of a metropolis I could easily call home: skyscrapers and human traffic abound, even on a Monday at 4.30am. Nightclub parking lots were packed with cars, market women balanced giant containers on their heads and a group of homeless people hung around a corner, savouring the last hours of peace before the city woke up and invaded their space, I imagine.

Daybreak marked the beginning of a journey that filled me with an equal mix of excitement and anxiety. I was excited to be there because the trip was a dream come true. I decided that 2008 would be the year I would start travelling around Africa and nothing would deter me.

My anxiety will always be about money. I am technically too broke to be travelling. So much so that, five months later, I have accepted that I am destined to arrive in countries broke.

Senegal was made possible by the sparse savings I still had while waiting for the ever-late freelancing journalist’s pay cheque. Going to Mali by train, on a three-day trip, I was fed by the people with whom I shared the compartment. In Bamako I had no accommodation and not enough money for anything more than a very cheap dormitory.

In Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, I asked the hotel’s management to switch the air conditioner for a fan and a half-price discount. It was done with an ice-melting smile. In Accra, I arrived at the Young Women’s Christian Association — the cheapest place in town — five hours before the start of business. I begged the night watchman to let me sleep on the hall’s porch, a transgression of the rules. I had less than 20 dollars on me.

I told myself that Côte d’Ivoire would be different. It was: I was flat broke with less than a dollar to my name. I called a taxi and introduced myself with this statement: ‘Promise you will help me if I tell you the truth”, knowing that I had absolutely no money to pay him. Honestly, ever heard of a prostitute who gives sex for free?

He smiled and said: ‘Welcome to Abidjan”, and took me to playwright and artist Werewere Liking’s village Ki-yi. It is an establishment for artists and the only place I knew (from reading about it) in Abidjan.

I was welcomed with love and given a room for the night. The only regret was that I had not arrived earlier that morning and had missed a spectacular show.

This journey was filled with many miracles and surprises, the most humbling and faith-inspiring ubuntu in daily action: whether it was being invited into someone’s home when I ran out of money or people who made detours to help me find my way around my new experiences.

Home is where the heart is and, in West Africa, we carry each other in our hearts. And with every beat I remember Senegalese Mustapha’s words: ‘You are our sister, we are family. Don’t worry.”

 

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