Africa calls to many people. It is where our earliest ancestors were born, after all. That has earned the continent its nickname: Mother Africa. It’s also known as the Dark Continent. There is magic and mystery associated with Africa. We want to tap into it. This explains in some part why a young Canadian, our very own Michael Carter, chose to venture to West Africa back in the last millennium. For our latest interview, we jogged his memory with some questions about his epic trip.
What made you want to visit West Africa?”
Curiosity. Other than a brief visit to Morocco, I had never traveled anywhere in West Africa, much less the rest of the continent. To this day, I have only been to five African nations. There are just 49 left to go.
How much planning went into the trip?”
Virtually none. I had no idea where I was going, but I chose Dakar, Senegal as my starting point. How I decided felt like throwing a dart at a map and seeing where it landed. If I had known where I’d be going, I would likely have made an open-jaw trip by flying into one destination and out of another.
All I knew is that I had about six months to travel, but a budget that would limit my time considerably. The trip in its entirety, which included a handful of days in Paris, France at the end, lasted about four months. My only preparation was booking an open return ticket that took me from Toronto to Paris, and then to Dakar.
What was it like to set foot on African soil?”
Setting foot on soil in West Africa was interesting since I arrived about 11:00-11:30 at night. I had no idea where I might lay my head for the first night. As fate would have it, I had met a German woman at Charles de Gaulle Airport during my Paris layover. She had a place picked out and a driver collecting her at the airport. I tagged along and this kicked off my African adventure.
Dakar is noted for its jazz music clubs. What are your memories of the Senegalese capital’s nightlife scene?”
I didn’t spend long in Dakar. I wouldn’t say I liked it much, to be honest. The exception was taking a boat to Gorée Island. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was the place where slave traders detained many slaves before shipping them off to the ‘new world.’ Although I didn’t visit any nightclubs, I did attend a music festival and fell in love with the rhythmic sounds of West Africa.
Tell us more about the festival.”
Youssou N’Dour was what I remember most about the festival. He was known as a griot, which is a storyteller, poet, and musician. Youssou went on to international acclaim after touring as an opening act for Peter Gabriel.
The Gambia is less than 31 miles wide at its broadest point. Despite being so narrow, how did traveling there open your mind?”
The Gambia is a former British colony, so English is widely used along with Wolof and Fulani. What I remember most about The Gambia is the fun-loving people. However, this is the same for anyone who has travelled to the laid-back Caribbean islands, where people seemingly do nothing because there is nothing to do. I consumed copious quantities of palm wine while lazing away the days.
Guinea-Bissau is noted for its natural beauty and wildlife, such as saltwater hippos. What was the most amazing thing you saw there?”
Well, I was only in Guinea-Bissau for eight or nine days. I met some interesting people in this former Portuguese colony — locals, travellers, and expats alike. The one thing I witnessed that was really intriguing to me was grave robbing.
It was almost twilight, and I was having a conversation, and a few beers, with a Brit whose wife worked at the Angolan Embassy in Guinea-Bissau. He told me that across the road was the main hospital. To the side and behind it was the cemetery. ‘You go in the front entrance and out the back,’ the Brit quipped.
There were groups of people rifling through the gravesites and stealing what they could — mostly clothes and shoes from the corpses. I guess you should be wary of those deals you find at second-hand markets.
Many people don’t realize that Timbuktu is an actual place in Mali. How much did the reality of the city match your preconceptions?”
I had no preconceived idea what the place would be like other than a lot of sand. It did not disappoint. The thrill, if you will, was in getting there. I left the city of Mopti — which is at the confluence of the Bani and Niger rivers — in an overloaded Land Rover. The only other foreigners were a French woman and a young Swiss couple.
There were no roads most of the way. It was truly overland. I was told the trip would take about 24 hours, so I purchased adequate provisions and water for this time frame.
We had mechanical problems, fuel shortages, and various other quirks. We slept under the stars of the surprisingly brisk desert night sky.
By the time we reached the city of Diré, it had been three days of travel and surviving on one day’s worth of snacks and water. Diré is only about three hours — if I remember correctly — by a paved road to Timbuktu. By this time, it was early evening, and only us four foreigners left, including me. The journey halted until the following morning as the driver wanted to pick up more paying customers before continuing to Timbuktu.
I was parched, but at least I could purchase provisions in Diré. Sleeping indoors at a rustic guest house seemed rather luxurious that night. I finally reached my destination and checked my passport with the Commissariat de Police. This was a requirement for foreigners in every Malian city at the time.
Mali’s musicians are some of Africa’s most famous performers. What do you remember listening to there?”
Oumou Sangaré’s songs seemed to be playing endlessly, particularly in the capital, Bamako. She sang with a hauntingly attractive voice. Alas, like all overplayed music, it became like listening to The Eagles Hotel California for the millionth time. If I ever hear her again, it will be too soon.
What was your favorite dish you tried while journeying around West Africa?”
West Africa is no paradise for gourmands. Of the four countries I visited, Senegal had the best food over all. Poulet yassa — which is chicken with a flavourful lime and onion sauce — comes to mind. Mali was pretty much a choice of rice and fish or rice and rubbery chicken. There was one good Lebanese restaurant in Bamako, and I ate there exclusively during my tenure in the capital.
The Gambia was often a ‘meal of the day’ served from a large cauldron. Usually tasty, it’s just that I had no clue what I was eating most of the time. I spent a lot of time based in the village of Latrikunda, and my favourite go-to eatery was a place called ‘No Flies Restaurant.’ Very much a misnomer.
I think my tastiest restaurant meal was in Bissau. Javelli — gazelle in a wine sauce sits high on my list. Guinea-Bissau also provided me with my most interesting food choice not from a restaurant — monkey. It was bush meat as it had been freshly shot by a police officer. What did it taste like? It was extremely rich, tasty, and boney as hell. My insatiable sense of curiosity lured me to try it. It is crossed off of my bucket list permanently.
Michael clearly developed a taste for Africa, monkey notwithstanding. When restrictions are lifted, we hope he can get back to discover some of the other 49 countries on the continent. It will be so interesting to talk to him after he has done that. Michael really is the most engaging of interviewees: well-traveled, educated, and irreverent in equal measure.