[Two boys cross a footbridge between houses in Ganvie, Benin]
Notice: This is going to be a long blog entry and it’s also probably going to be the last real entry on this site. For your listening enjoyment, I’ve included an interesting track of traditional music from Benin>.
Approximately two months ago Kristin and I headed out on our biggest adventure yet. Just to give you a little background, Kristin and I have been on many adventures together. We’ve hitched rides across Belgium and Switzerland, followed the Andes from Machu Picchu down to Lake Titicaca, and hiked along a crumbling portion of China‘s great wall. So yeah, Africa = hardcore adventure…..
Kristin was my fourth visitor in-country so we decided that instead of spending most of our time in Niger, we would venture through Benin, Togo, Ghana, and Burkina Faso, making a loop back to Niger. From the first day of our trip, things started to get interesting. On the night following Kristin’s arrival we went to a nearby restaurant for Biere Niger and plantains. A few minutes after our arrival everyone became completely silent as the president of Niger addressed the nation live on TV and radio. He announced that he would be ignoring the 2 term limit imposed by Niger’s constitution and continuing on as president. During the weeks following that statement, he dissolved most of the legislative and judicial bodies and is presently ruling by decree. Our first few days in Niamey, we purchased our combined Visas for Benin, Togo, and Burkina and waited for Kristin’s luggage to show up.
Friday night we got caught in a big dust storm as we headed across town to a restaurant overlooking the Niger River. Rain followed the dust and then stopped just in time for us to enjoy dinner. During our few days in Niamey we really didn’t see many signs of political or social unrest, but the parliament had been dissolved, the grand Marché caught on fire with significant damage and demonstrations were scheduled. As a result, we were instructed to leave the capital no later than Sunday afternoon, regardless of if Kristin’s luggage had arrived or not. Saturday we stopped by a few markets and went to the airport at 4pm Sunday. A few minutes later we were by the road with all her bags waiting for a ride to Dosso. Eventually we caught a ride on a bus with missing windows that stopped a couple times on the way for minor repairs. We made it to my home by sunset!
Sunday night in Dosso, we began going through Kristin’s luggage (she brought a lot of stuff for me), had a nice dinner with my friend Brian, and munched on some of the cheese and chocolate that Kristin brought. Monday we began packing for an afternoon departure. At this point, I had been living in Niger for about 18 months and I had never experienced any form of social unrest and heard of only rare and isolated cases. Less than 24 hours after Kristin’s arrival in Dosso, a government official’s car was burned, people were burning tires across the city and protesting in the streets, and police apparently dished out some tear gas. I was very surprised that we were even allowed to leave, but just before sunset we completed the 5 hour trip to the border with Benin and crossed into Malanville. We walked 30 minutes to the hotel where we knew our bus and driver would be staying for the night. Our room was at the top of a three story building and had very poor ventilation. We did not get much sleep that night, but a special surprise was waiting for for us just outside our room the following morning.
The bus that we took to Cotonou was perhaps the nicest bus in all of Africa. It was new, clean, comfortable and air-conditioned! The 12 hour trip was luxurious compared to any of the dozen other 12 hour bus rides that I had previously endured. We stopped in Paracou for lunch and had a coke with fufu (pounded yam with spicy sauce) at a restaurant run by several Zarma speaking women. They were delighted to have a Zarma speaking white person at their restaurant.
We also treated ourselves to a Fan Milk, a delicious frozen milkshake in a plastic bag, and continued further south. The trip included one more interesting stop at a lively market before we arrived in Cotonou.
We got off the bus after dark and managed to eventually find a real taxi amidst the sea of motorcycle taxis called zemidjans.
We arrived at the Peace Corps office where we were refused a place to sleep. We grabbed a couple motorcycle helmets and headed to a nearby hotel. Motorcycles are virtually the only available means of transport in most of Benin, so volunteers are allowed to ride when wearing a helmet. The hotel’s rooms without air-conditioning were all booked (luckily) so we got a good night sleep following dinner.
Wednesday morning we headed to the Ghanaian Embassy to apply for our visa and then headed to the beach. The beach was further than expected but after passing a massive shipping yard, we eventually stumbled upon Obama Beach. We grabbed a few bags of water (see Kristin’s hand) and then made the 30 minute trip outside the city to catch a boat to Ganvie.
Ganvie is probably the largest lake village in Africa with a population of about 20,000. The Tofinu people established the village in Lake Nokoue during the late 16th century to escape the Fon warriors who were forbidden from entering bodies of water. On the way to the docks we stopped by a local market selling a large selection of magical fetish and voodoo supplies made up mostly of dried, dead animal parts. We also stopped by a music store blaring the same track that I posted at the beginning of this blog. I told the owner that I wanted to buy the CD so he tried to sell me nearly every CD in his store except the one playing. It turned out that the CD was just a burned copy of music recorded by a local group from the village of Ganvie.
Eventually he sold it to me for a very reasonable price. We continued on foot to the docks and eventually agreed to pay the fee for a boat and guide. The trip into the village took about 30 minutes. Our guide was young and friendly and he studied at the nearby university. Before touring the village itself, we stopped at our hotel, Chez Raphael, and checked into our room at the far corner of the building.
Next we spent about 30 minutes touring the village, revealing a non-stop maze of colorful, stilted houses. We frequently passed other boats, many of them doubling as storefronts selling simple goods like used clothes or fried snacks.
One of the only patches of land we saw during the tour was being used by local kids for soccer. As the sun was setting we returned to the hotel and prepared for dinner. As we waited, we enjoyed views of the village as small kerosene lamps began dotting the landscape and made plans for the following day.
We had a delicious rice dish for dinner but were disappointed to discover that only beer and coke were available to drink. No water! Luckily we had brought a liter with us. I have got to say that staying at the hotel was cool but, at the same time, eerie. After dinner most of the battery powered lights were turned off and the hotel became very quiet. Candle lit silouettes danced around the rooms of the hotel’s permanent residents. Faint voices filtered in from nearby houses and from boats sometimes passing just beneath our window. The hotel did not have running water so we both took bucket baths and then went to bed early to prepare for a very early wake up time.
Ouidah is the Voodoo capital of Benin. They host a yearly Voodoo festival and provide tours of a sacred forest still used for special rituals. The trip from Cotonou takes less than an hour if the traffic isn’t too bad. We arrived and walked towards the coast and Le Retour de la Diaspora Hotel. The rooms were cheap and a little sketchy, but the owners were very friendly. We decided to forgo the Route des Esclaves and walk around the city. We ended up having a drink on the roof of a hotel from which we could see the entire city until more rain arrived. We ran into an older teacher from the US who enjoyed traveling on his own in Africa. He reminded us a lot of our friend Noah. Eventually we made it back to our hotel where we ate dinner. A strong storm knocked out the power (and our ventilation) several times throughout the night but stopped in time for me to leave by early and catch a ride back to Cotonou.
Within a few minutes a car had found me roaming the streets of Ouidah and we were on our way in a little hatchback with four other passengers. Within 3 hours I had picked up my visa and returned to Ouidah. I paid a little kid to guide me to the sacred forest where I had made plans to meet Kristin. The forest was a little like a miniature rain forest filled with giant millipedes and decorated with a variety of voodoo spirit statues made of cement. I was not too impressed by the statues or our guide’s stories but I did enjoy taking pictures of the insects and trees. After the forest, we grabbed a tasty avocado sandwich and found a car that would take us all the way to Lome, Togo.
The trip to Lome provided some nice views of the ocean and took several hours. We experienced a few delays at the Benin/Lome border crossing since we presented identification as opposed to bribes. A large number of people in Africa do not have any official form of identification and are forced to bribe officials as they cross borders. We arrived in Lome and tried to figure out how to get to our hotel, near the PC office, by foot. No locals would/could provide us with any help but after about 30 minutes we ran into another PC volunteer serving in Togo with his visiting girlfriend. They guided us to a good hotel and led us to the beach with several other volunteers. We hung out on the beach for a while enjoying a few tasty brews from neighboring Ghana before heading into town for the best pizza in west Africa!
Saturday was another travel day. We slept in late and headed north with the same couple that guided us through Lome. They lived in a village not far from where we would cross the border into Ghana. The drive was beautiful. As we left Lome the scenery became greener and more mountainous. The trip had taken longer than expected, since the driver stopped every 45 minutes to have long conversations with random people he encountered on the road.
We arrived at the bush taxi station and grabbed some pounded yam before locating our next bush taxi that would take us into Ghana. After a brief wait, the vehicle was ready and we headed into the mountains.
The mountain vistas were breathtaking and the ride through the mountains was ever more so! Just imagine an over-crowded, 30 year-old van flying down the side of a mountain! We arrived at the Benin side of the border and walked into Ghana. As we passed through immigration we immediately noticed a difference. Everything seemed more organized and efficient. We arrived in Golokuati and a few minutes later another vehicle was taking us to the Tafi Atome monkey sanctuary. In less than an hour we had made it to the sanctuary and someone was checking us into our clean, well-lit room. We ate dinner at a small house in the village and then I took some pictures of cool moths, showered, and went to sleep. We had arrived a little after dark, so we weren’t sure what would be waiting for us. We woke up in a lush forest with monkeys literally hanging from the trees. The sanctuary staff woke us up early to go feed the monkeys. After we each feed them a couple bananas and I spent some time walking around in the forest.
We decided to visit the Kente cloth weaving village of Tafi Abuife, which not very active on a Sunday. Although they used only Chinese thread, the cloth they made was beautiful.
Only young men were operating the looms while we were visiting. We bought a few samples and took a car up to the nearby mountain village of Amedzofe from where we could hike to a secluded waterfall.
At 762 meters, the village of Amedzofe is one of the highest inhabited communities in Ghana.
The walk to the falls lasted a few hours and we passed by a variety of local crops including bananas, pineapples, cassava, and cacao. Bananas and cacao seemed to be growing nearly everywhere in the mountainous region of Ghana.
The cacao tree was quite a surprise for me. Fruit grew directly out of the trunk in many cases and the bright green exterior held a surprisingly refreshing sweet/tart white interior. We ate several of the juicy seeds and continued down the mountain. Along the hike we also saw a variety of bizarre insects including brightly colors grasshoppers, beetles, and even a small moth waving streamers behind it. The falls were all that I hoped they would be. The falls were not especially large, but they were remote and appeared to be in pristine condition. The only people we saw on the entire hike were locals making palm wine and the only sounds you could hear were the breeze, insects and an occasional bird.
On our way back a few locals offered us palm wine, which we politely refused. Back in the village we secured transport back down the mountain. It was another death defying trip that I was very thankful to be walking away from.
Next, we headed north to the city of Hohoe to visit the more popular Wii waterfalls. We arrived shortly before sunset and stayed at the Wii Falls Lodge.
All their rooms were full, but we were allowed to camp on the hotel grounds for a reasonable fee. From the lodge we could see the top of the falls and enjoyed dinner beneath a large open gazebo. The next morning we walked a few minutes to the Wii trail head and paid our tourist fees.
As we walked toward the falls the vegetation became more lush with butterflies and damselflies dancing in every corner. I did manage to spot a few larger hornbills but most birds stayed hidden in the tops of massive Ficus trees.
The falls were an easy 30 minute walk down the trail and they were considerably larger than the ones at Amedzofe. The heat of the day had yet to arrive so we took a very brief dip beneath the falls.
Afterwards, I took some time at the falls to photograph a few cool plants and insects before returning. Prior to Ghana, I had never visited a tropical forest. The forest was home to an striking number of diverse forms of life. I would have been content to spend days simply walking around the forest!
We returned from Wii to Hohoe to catch a taxi to Kyabobo National Park, near Nkwanta, on our way to Tamale and the Mole National Park. So far our stay in Ghana had really impressed me. Vehicles and roads had been reasonably maintained and a basic tourist infrastructure existed in most areas. All that was about to change!
The ancient bush taxi that we took from Hohoe had quite a few problems, especially with the tires. Before we had even left town, the driver picked up one repaired tire and then switched tires out at the edge of town. Just north of town the road became a sea of potholes resulting in a blowout that completely destroyed both the tire and rim. They changed the tire and we were eventually on the road again. During the next 45 minutes the driver and his assistant constant looked at the “new” tire apparently waiting for it to explode. A few minutes later it exploded and this time the vehicle was at a much higher speed. The passengers erupted into a chorus of “please Lord Jesus” which thankfully transitioned to “thank you Lord Jesus”; the vehicle could have easily flipped. At this point, there were no more spare tires and sunset would soon be approaching. The driver took the same rim and tire that had nearly caused an accident to a nearby intersection, Ahamasu Junction, for repair. An hour later there was still no sign of a repaired tire and it would soon be dark. We decided to play it safe and travel to the nearest village to sleep instead of riding the bush taxi at night. For shorter distances motorcycle taxis are the only way to get around so we took them to the Ahamasu guest house. First, however, we had to visit the village chief to request permission to stay. The chief was a very old man who was fond of America and welcomed us, although his customs apparently forbade him from recognizing Kristin (she’s a girl!). Before grabbing dinner, I left Kristin with the chief while I checked out the guest house and dropped off our bags. The room was nice enough and I headed back towards Kristin with my same motorcycle driver. We took the same path back that we had come on, but this time the driver hit a patch of mud and partially lost control. As he regained control, he strayed off the main path and side-swiped a tree, knocking off his mirror and hitting my leg. Neither he nor I had a scratch on our bodies, but the angle and force of the impact on my leg crushed the top of my tibial plateau. I sat on the ground and determined that I could not possibly ride a motorcycle any further and one driver went back to the chief’s house to search for Kristin. From that point, the long process of getting back to the US began. Here’s a quick overview of the time line starting from the time of accident:
+1: Villagers located a car to take us to an area with cell coverage and a hospital
+2: Arrived at a church where Kristin climbed stairs to get cell coverage and contacted PC in Niger
+3: Found hospital and Kristin hiked 10 minutes to find cell coverage and contact PC in Ghana
+11: Paid for Ambulance to take me back to Hohoe
+14: Peace Corps vehicle finally arrives to take me to Accra
+19: X-rays allow precise diagnosis
+24: Leg is finally splinted
+36: Attempt to enter airport but no wheel chair is available to accommodate my 50-lb plastered leg
+37: We rent an ambulance at a nearby hospital to load me onto the plane via tarmac
+38: First class takeoff
+48: Arrive at JFK
+49: Someone figures out how to transport me within the airport
+50: Peace Corps can’t figure out how to get me to Washington DC (the plane is too small for my leg)
+51: Delta comes to the rescue and offers me free ground transport
+52: Stop by the driver’s home so his cousin can program the GPS to get to DC
+55: Stop for coffee because our driver is about to fall asleep at the wheel
+56: We arrive at the airport in DC
+57: I sit on the sidewalk while Kristin finds a wheel chair and a taxi
+58: I arrive at my hotel with my parents waiting
+65: Orthopedist schedules me for surgery the following day
So that was by far the short version of the story. The experience with transportation from accident site to DC was frustrating, but Peace Corps said that the difficulties I experienced were not typical. I can say that I know a lot of volunteers who have received excellent treatment in Niger.
So here’s the part you’ve all been waiting for! My tibial plateau was crushed into at least half a dozen pieces that had to be fixed back into place with a plate and three pins. So here are the before, with the break (which isn’t very easy to see), and the after shots with my new hardware. Pretty cool ey?
I’m still in a non-weight-bearing status, which means I can’t put any weight on my right leg. I’m currently going to physical therapy 2 times a week, mostly to work on regaining range of motion in my knee. In about another 4 or 5 weeks I should be able to at least halfway walk.
So what does all this mean for my Peace Corps Service? Well, PC has fairly strict health requirements to serve in Niger. My leg will take more than a year to heal fully so there is little chance that I will be returning to Niger a PC volunteer. Luckily this accident happened towards the end of my service. I experienced 18 incredible months in Niger and West Africa. I worked with some remarkable people, both Nigerien and American. I unfortunately did not get to say goodbye to them in person, but am keeping in touch on a regular basis. I firmly believe that Niger is a beautifully unique country unlike any other in Africa or the world. Niger’s proximity to the Sahara Desert forces its residents to endure extremely harsh conditions. In addition they have very limited access to clean water, education, and health care. Despite these hardships Nigeriens are some of the most friendly, happy, and peaceful people I know. I had the privilege of working with them daily on a variety of projects including computer and technology education, health education programs, and natural resource awareness. I will continue to work with many of my Nigerien friends as they carry on with some of their own, self-initiated projects. Because of my unique role in Niger as both a Natural Resource Management Volunteer and an Information and Communication Technology (radio) volunteer, I had many opportunities to visit other regions of the country as well as special cultural events like Guerewol in Abalak and a Fulani herder festival near Gaya. I hosted many friends during my service, allowing me to share the magic of Africa in person while also visiting some of West Africa’s most incredible and remote landmarks, such as Lake Chad, the Tal Desert of Niger, and Dogon country in Mali. My experience in Niger almost always exceeded my expectations. It was an exceptionally enlightening and fulfilling experience for which I would not trade all the tea in China, the mate in Peru, the wine in France or the millet in Niger!
I hope you have enjoyed this blog and gained some insight about life in Niger and Africa. Peace Corps is really all about cultural exchange. Peace Corps provides volunteers and the millions of other Americans their lives touch with a unique insight to very different cultures and ways of life from the most remote and undeveloped corners of our planet. At the same time, the diverse peoples of world learn more about America by bringing volunteers into their homes and embracing them as part of their community.
If you have any questions about my experiences don’t hesitate to shoot me a comment. I’ll also be happy to share my experiences with groups.
Also, if you are interested in reviewing a copy of my itinerary for this trip minus the medical evacuation, check it out.
Spending a significant amount of time in Niger or just about any other under-developed country has the potential to provoke change in a person. I for one cannot go back to my life as it was before Peace Corps, as an IT engineer. I have had more than a year to think about it and I have decided to return to school. The world seems to have an overwhelming number of serious problems right now. In my opinion, the most pressing of these is the destruction of the environment. If the people of the world don’t unite and respond quickly and forcefully, future generations may not have much to look forward to. Since virtually all natural resources are used by only a few developed nations, and the world’s wealth is held by even fewer, the billions of people living in under-developed nations have little or no say in the future of their planet. I do have a say and want to be sure that I can be heard. I’ve re-enrolled in school and am taking undergraduate biology courses. I should be prepared to continue my studies as a conservation ecology graduate student in 1-2 years. Since I am only just getting my feet wet, I’m not certain what work I hope to ultimately pursue. Regardless of whether I’m conducting research, working for a non-profit or teaching youth, I will hopefully be working towards a better tomorrow.
While I will undoubtedly have less free time as a full time student, I still hope to keep on blogging. Here’s the address of my next virtual home: http://eco9.wordpress.com. End Post from August 13, 2009.
Update October 13, 2010: All is well. My time back at school taking undergraduate-level ecology courses is winding down. In 2011 a new adventure begins in Honduras(research) and at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (graduate studies). My eco9 blog never took off, but visit http://www.brett-bailey.com for my current site.
Peace! Kala Tonton!